Fear Factor

by Shawn Presley

I'm poised at the end of a salad bar. I see germs. There are lines of tongs, handled by the masses, propped on little stainless steel containers of peppers, olives, and croutons. Germs. Right there. I read it about somewhere. There was some study about how many germs live on those tongs. Do I need a sanitizing wipe? Wait, there was an entire segment on the news about how to avoid salad bar germs. What did it say?

Scenarios like this play in my head every day. I order lemon with my water in a restaurant. My friend tells me about a segment on the Today show revealing that lemons tested in multiple restaurants were home to more than twenty-five different types of bacteria as well as fecal matter. Great. So the salad bar is off limits, and so is the tea, now that it's been tainted by the lemon. Should I just settle for a glass of water? Well, there have been seemingly endless reports on the dangers of drinking water.

This issue of the Bulletin features "Which Is Worse?," in which we ponder choices between such unappealing options as "bankruptcy or foreclosure" and "ignorance or arrogance." Reading the story, I found myself thinking about the movie Bowling for Columbine. Filmmaker Michael Moore nailed what he called our "culture of fear." Not only are Americans bombarded with news of natural disasters, war, and murders, but each day brings another study about some of life's more mundane dangers. The news pumps us full. A perky, big-haired anchor reports, "Something in your refrigerator could kill you! We'll tell you what it is at 6:00."

Should I watch the 6:00 news? No.

Why? Because I'm over it.

I'm over the germs at the salad bar. My fridge is now lethal? Who cares. There's dookie on my lemon slice? Bring it.

Among other things, my mom taught me not to worry about this stuff. She's a gracious host and cook who for years left the Sunday lunch on the counter as a sort of afternoon buffet. It was a gesture of hospitality, an invitation to graze freely. I once scolded her for breaking the rules of proper food storage and refrigeration. Her response: she'd done it this way for fifty years and no one had gotten sick.

Good point.

Some surmise that fear mongering is a way to make people buy things. Economist Barry Glassner, who appeared in Bowling for Columbine, notes in his book The Culture of Fear that Americans who are afraid make good consumers. He even quotes Richard Nixon, who once said, "People react to fear, not love. They don't teach that in Sunday school, but it's true."

So I'm pumped full of fear in order to encourage me to buy hand sanitizer for use after I visit the salad bar? Knowing why the fear factor has permeated America is one reason I ignore the messages. Each day we're told something new, something different, something that may even contradict what we heard the day before.

I'm not buying into the culture of fear, and neither should you. As you ponder "which is worse," none of the choices should scare you. Unless, of course, you're still using a sponge to clean your kitchen. Even then, that's not so much scary as gross.

Shawn Presley is the editor of the Bulletin. Even though a study shows most computer keyboards contain more harmful bacteria than a toilet seat, he doesn't keep sanitizing wipes at his desk.

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