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Spinach Escapes the Fear Machine:

In his 1999 book Culture of Fear sociologist Barry Glassner posited that frightened American citizens made better consumers and more easily swayed voters. He wrote at length about American “fears” of the time, such as “road rage” or suburban heroin use, and then debunked their threat levels with the facts. Glassner was on to something, although he may have never imagined that a few years later the nation’s most powerful men would inculcate a culture of fear by lying about Weapons of Mass Destruction and connectivity to terrorism.

Which doesn’t exactly get us to spinach, but… I think something important happened in the course of the spinach scare, and we owe to ourselves to note it. I suppose it takes the form of things that didn’t happen during the concern about spinach.

First of all, to my knowledge, there were no events of falsified or invented facts involved in the spinach scare. Not once did I hear KNBC’s Paul Moyer (who channels Rod Serling and P.T. Barnum in service to local news) intone something hyperbolic and melodramatic such as, “Some say this is the end of fresh vegetables as we know them.”

Then, although there’s bound to be criticism of some kind later on, it appears that the FDA and other agencies acted swiftly, efficiently and professionally in responding to what happened. Information was channeled to the public in a manner that alerted citizens rather than causing them to flee some kind of Spinach Monster generated by the theatrical and financial demands of the media. Put another way, it wasn’t bird flu.

We need to recognize that things go right at least as often as they go wrong, especially at a time when charlatans occupy the White House and freely use terms like “evildoer” in speeches. Despite Bush’s brilliant reorganization of government under Homeland Security, the FDA still appears to be able to act effectively when our food supply is threatened. Put another way, it wasn’t FEMA.

I sometimes feel an enormous ache over the fact that so many good people get up every day and do their jobs right, yet at this time in history we are better organized to complain and point fingers than to acknowledge that some systems are “go”; some systems are working. Death and sickness occurred, E. coli on spinach came to light and professional people acted responsibly to protect the public. Pulling produce off shelves isn’t dramatic and it’s not Flight 93, but it’s still people helping people.

I’d love to think that we are slowly learning that fear and threats can be managed in their proper proportions. Will the legacy of our terribly painful errors in Iraq somehow take the form of wisdom in responding to that which scares us? The recent anniversary of 9/11 reminded all of the way we were rocked to our souls that day. But it also gave us an opportunity to assay the way we’ve been played like pianos by men who would exploit our fright for their gains. You might say, “Me thinks he doth make too much of foul spinach.” But I’m asking you, does it feel as though some kind of rational perspective is finally settling in after 9/11? Look at the new emphasis on finding Bin Laden. We simply let Bush off the hook on that, and now even he is having an “oh, yeah, that” moment on Bin Laden. Although if Bin Laden appears before the elections, it will prove once and for all that Karl Rove is a bigger producer than Jerry Bruckheimer.

Many feel that our sense of security is a day-to-day proposition based on last night’s newscast. One day flying feels fine, the next we’re hearing about gel bombs. Fear can be mitigated by many things, not the least of which is the knowledge that many systems do work properly when they are manned by the right people. When I review the last six years, I don’t think about changing or replacing any systems or machinery. But I am reminded of the impact of better personnel; good people in the right places.

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