Book Review: Sasha Abramsky’s ‘Jumping At Shadows’ is important but covers little new ground

Reggie Watts’ 2012 TED Talk had many unique observations, but one has always stuck with me as particularly insightful.

“As we face fear in these times—and fear is all around us—we also have anti-fear. The background radiation is simply too static to be able to be seen under the normal spectral analysis.”

That line of satirical pseudo-babble was part of an improvised comedy/musical performance but has achieved a surprising resonance in years since, and it’s as concise a summary of journalist Sasha Abramsky’s latest book Jumping At Shadows as the one it gives itself.

“In this day and age, perhaps the thing that binds Americans together most strongly is the fact that we’re afraid. But are we afraid of the right things?”

In fact, Abramsky makes a convincing case that we’re clearly not worried enough about what’s actually commonly dangerous and preventable compared with things that are rare, unavoidable, or outright false. A prominent example he gives is the widespread panic in response to the U.S. portion of an Ebola outbreak that killed one person and infected four total in 2014, meanwhile 12,000 to 56,000 Americans have died from seasonal influenza each year since 2010.

Now, how interesting that is to you, in both novelty and timeliness, is the best guide for whether you ought to read this book or would find it interesting. Each topic is supported with data and sound reasoning; each is important to the health and welfare of the nation going forward.

But that also means the topics are so important, you’re sure to have heard about them before, including the precise examples Abramsky looks at, from Doomsday Preppers to the Texas boy who made a clock authorities assumed to be a bomb because he was a Muslim.

You probably already know Abramsky’s motivating thesis, despite him presenting it as something revelatory:

“I believe that too often we calculate risk not by the probability of an event occurring but by the number of news items or talk radio minutes or Facebook postings or movie screens devoted to a topic.”

This is a good excuse to blame Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and InfoWars. Our inherited rodent brain does tend to make us literally “jump at shadows”, and we’re neurologically primed to skitter at possible warnings like cats noticing vaguely serpentine cucumbers.

You know airplanes are safer than driving, but your heart still races during turbulence more than pulling through an intersection. Knowledge and change-based-on-knowledge are very far apart.

Abramsky admits as much while interviewing parents who agree, intellectually, that American society is actually safer for children now than 30 years ago, that firearms in the home are more likely to be used against someone in the household than defending it from any strangers. But those parents still cling to ever-more guns and still fear their children walking alone, even to gated schools, even if wearing bulletproof backpacks.

The book promises “a playbook for how to conquer…the most frightening aspects of modern life,” but if you’re feeling irrational fears, that playbook sounds like something out of a Bob Newhart sketch on “Saturday Night Live”: Just stop it. If that’s the best advice possible, it’s the same one that Abramsky criticizes regarding Doomsday Preppers—a non-programmatic, non-policy suggestion. Other than feeling a sense of superiority over bigots, guns nuts, anti-vaxxers, and the like, what good does the reader get out of any of it?

And that’s all taking Abramsky’s argument at face-value. It gets worse if you start to interrogate it.

The subtitle is The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream. Abramsky is arguing fear, pushed by current technology, is what makes individuals afraid of Muslim, immigrant, and black Americans. Fear, pushed by current technology, is what elected Donald Trump as president in 2016.

Yet for all the deep and valid criticisms of Clinton, rhetorical demagoguery playing on fear is not often counted as one of them. And somehow she got three million more votes than her opponent. This is a much better result than we’ve had previous times in our history that people pronounced the American Dream dead; Hunter S. Thompson had more reason to fear and loathe in ’72, considering that election’s margins. Did nativism, religious intolerance, and racism motivate us less in the past than now?

Relatedly, it seems like a cheap rhetorical criticism for me to make, but Abramsky is aware enough of the history of racism to reference lynchings and yet somehow so unaware or tone-deaf as to title one of his chapters after an otherwise serviceable purple passage.

‘[S]lashed water bottles lying ragged like strange fruit, under the mesquite trees, fragments of dreams…’

I kept waiting as I read it for some acknowledging ‘strange fruit’s’ provenance specifically referencing murderous Southern hangings of black Americans as originally sung by Billie Holiday and more recently sampled by Kanye West. But such acknowledgment never happened.

Border patrol officers and other freelance bigots cutting open water bottles do result in many deaths of those migrants making their way through hot, dry deserts on foot, and perhaps there is some careful analogy to be made between historical, direct murders and our own contemporary homicides caused at a distance. But as is, it invokes a phrase for black bodies to describe fragments of plastic, and to name an entire chapter after it elevates this mistake from a mere oversight to something much worse.

There’s one more flaw in the book that really damns it, and that’s a structural one. The introduction is all about the author’s trip to South America where he’s poisoned by ciguatoxin, apparently from bad fish in Chile. The symptoms are similar to a heart attack but impossible to definitively diagnose. It saps his physical strength but also his confidence, his willingness to take risks, everything, and all of it irrationally. Abramsky makes the connection from his body to the body politic. Then, after the intro, that personal experience never factors in again.

Which is a shame because the obvious lesson from his personal anecdote is also the solution the problems the book is describing.

You don’t push aside your fear of flying purely because of statistics but because some places you can’t get to quickly enough, or at all, except by plane. You travel, you try new food, you let your children play and explore, because life is hardly worth living otherwise.

Every attempt at eliminating risk also involves eliminating value. We have to live our lives balancing these things against each other, counter-stacking worries to achieve healthy equilibrium. That’s a worthwhile and effective message to combat fear-mongering.

Because fear is all around us. But, there is also anti-fear.

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