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We the Paranoid

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

We Americans like to think of ourselves as strong, rugged and supremely confident -- a nation of Marlboro Men and Marlboro Women, minus the cigarettes and the lung cancer. So why do we increasingly find ourselves hunkered behind walls, popping pills by the handful to stave off diseases we might never contract and eyeing the rest of the world with an us-or-them suspicion that borders on the pathological?

Last week, I heard some of the nation's leading cultural anthropologists try to explain these and other phenomena. I came away convinced that we, as a nation, definitely should seek professional help.

The American Anthropological Association held its annual meeting here in Washington, and I was invited to an afternoon-long panel discussion titled "The Insecure American." I decided to overlook the fact that my hosts, Hugh Gusterson of George Mason University and Catherine Besteman of Colby College, had recently co-edited a book called "Why America's Top Pundits Are Wrong."

"The Insecure American" turned out to be a revelation -- by turns alarming, depressing and laugh-out-loud amusing -- as scholar after scholar presented research showing just how unnerved this society is.

Setha Low, who teaches at the City University of New York, has spent years studying the advent and increase of gated communities. People decide to sequester their families behind walls because they are afraid of crime, they feel isolated from their neighbors, and they're nostalgic for a kind of idealized Norman Rockwell past, Low reported. Nothing terribly irrational about that.

But after extensive interviews with residents of gated communities in San Antonio and on Long Island, Low discovered that there isn't really less crime behind the walls, people don't really feel more secure, and there was no greater sense of small-town closeness among neighbors. Despite the gates and guard huts, people still felt they needed to set their alarm systems.

Joseph Dumit of the University of California at Davis presented his work arguing that health care has been redefined into a statistical exercise in risk reduction. The average American fills nearly 13 prescriptions a year, Dumit said, and many of the drugs are not to make the patient well but to reduce the statistical risk that the person will become ill. People who are otherwise healthy are prescribed statins to lower their cholesterol, for example, or beta blockers for high blood pressure.

Dumit pointed out that this risk-driven approach assumes that every one of us is "inherently ill." It also drives health-care costs by pushing doctors and drug companies to spend whatever it takes to incrementally reduce a patient's risk of getting sick -- even though some of those patients never would have gotten sick, anyway.

Susan F. Hirsch, a professor at George Mason University, gave a riveting presentation on how terrorism feeds insecurity. Hirsch's husband, Abdulrahman Abdullah, was killed in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. When some of the alleged perpetrators faced justice in a New York courtroom in 2001, Hirsch began attending the trial as a victim. She ended up studying it as an anthropologist, concluding that the legal system, while imperfect, was the best way to deal with terrorists.

Catherine Lutz of Brown University reported on her studies of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex." She noted that the immense resources this country devotes to war-making are based on assumptions that anthropologists might not accept as given -- that war is embedded in human nature, for example, and therefore can never be consigned to our barbarian past, as was done with slavery.

Lee Baker of Duke University, Brett Williams of American University and other presenters described their research on economic insecurity, driven by forces such as globalization, immigration and gentrification.

And Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, had me wincing as she talked about her investigations of what she called "vulture capitalism" -- the global trade in body parts for transplant. The fastest-growing segment of kidney transplant recipients, Scheper-Hughes said, consists of patients over 70; when they can't get a needed organ from the transplant registry, she said, they often ask a healthy child or grandchild to donate.

To recap: We're afraid of one another, we're afraid of the rest of the world, we're afraid of getting sick, we're afraid of dying. Maybe if we study our insecurities and confront them, we'll learn to keep them in check. Before we turn the whole nation into one big, paranoid gated community, maybe we'll learn that life isn't really any better behind the walls.

The writer will answer questions at 1 p.m. today athttp://www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address iseugenerobinson@washpost.com.


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