From time to time, writes Andrew Burt, "America's sense of self-identity routinely comes under pressure, with the result that certain groups confront a loss in status." In American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States, Burt looks at several episodes in American history of "hysteria," which he describes as "the way America's 'doomed classes' confront their loss of prestige." Covering the anti-Illuminati movement, the anti-Masons, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and the anti-Sharia law movement, he demonstrates how a seed of facts, watered by exaggerations, half-truths, and sometimes lies, can grow a flowering plant of full-blown hysteria.
The key to the movements described in American Hysteria is that they are not based on fiction, like Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" scare, but are grounded in reality (with the possible exception of the anti-Illuminati movement, in which an excitable preacher took every word of one European writer as gospel). There really were Masons at many levels of power, some of whom got carried away with themselves. There really were Communists infiltrating the labor movement, and, later, at many levels of government. I am surprised how little time Burt, an accomplished journalist, spent on recent revelations that McCarthy was right, in spite of himself. He was a showman, very undiplomatic, and made lots of poorly substantiated accusations. The fact is, however, files have been opened in recent years showing that there were Communists in the state department after all. Maybe McCarthy wasn't so hysterical after all. . . .
Similarly, Burt focuses his post 9/11 chapter on the anti-Sharia law movement. He's never really clear about the basis for the accusations. It's a stretch to say that Sharia law is taking precedent over U.S. law, but is it really a stretch to object to the increasing influence of Islam in U.S. culture? Is it unreasonable to evaluate ways in which the values of Islam might contradict the American way of life? Do the growing threat and explicit goals of ISIS not have any relevance? Burt gives examples of overblown reactions, but I'm not ready to call it hysteria.
Burt has some good insights on the movements covered in American Hysteria. His left-leaning views probably colored his choice of movements to cover, however. Surely he could have found some historical examples of the left having an overblown reaction to a real state of affairs. The example that comes to mind is one he could treat in his next book: the police War on Blacks. After Ferguson, we are assailed with reports of white cops killing blacks. It's a crisis, a new hysteria! We can all watch and wait to see if reason finally reigns, if facts and hard statistics trump emotions and anecdotes. With a press and politicians willing to fan the flames, however, I'm not counting on it. It will be up to the next generation of journalists to look with an historical eye.
Well-written, thoroughly documented, readable and interesting, American Hysteria is worth your time.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!