Michael Savage is a syndicated talk show host & author. He is famous for his signature creed “Borders, Language, Culture”, and infamous for being banned in Britain as a fomenter of hate. If you knew only those two things about him you might think he’s cut from the same cloth as other conservative media personalities such as Rush Limbaugh. But you would be wrong.
Savage is his own man. He earned a Ph.D. in Ethnobotany from UC-Berkeley and published numerous books on herbal medicine in the 1970s and 1980s. Like an increasing number of people today, he started life as a liberal but developed conservative views based on education, observation and life experience. In addition to four New York Times bestsellers on political topics, Savage has also published several books of short stories and three major novels.
Savage is inherently a balanced thinker. That’s because he follows intuition & logic to conclusions that have the ring of truth to them. He is as likely to irk conservatives on topics such as abortion, gun control, or foreign regime change, as he is to irk liberals on topics such as illegal immigration or affirmative action. Savage is a living instantiation of the old adage that if you’re ticking off both sides, you must be doing something right. He also possesses a wicked sense of humor and a remarkable gift for story telling. Whether you are liberal, conservative, or moderate, time spent with Savage is time well spent.
So, what is “Stop Mass Hysteria” about?
In Savage’s own words, “It’s a political book; it’s a history book.” Savage sees the current cultural climate as dangerously polarized, and in need of more open & rational discussion between the warring factions. In a recent interview he stated “The Battle lines are drawn. We’re waiting for another Fort Sumter.” To avert this catastrophe, he wants to “Give people pieces of history that they can use as sound bites to get a rational discussion going among family & friends. A little history goes a long way” and sometimes you’ll find that agreement “is instantaneous, without rancor or anger.”
Why a book about “Hysteria?” It’s a word increasingly on everyone’s minds. In a recent informal survey I conducted near Stanford University, I asked respondents if they thought we’re living in hysterical times. To a person, every respondent answered “yes”. And according to internet data collected by projects.fivethirtyeight.com, internet use of the word “hysteria” has increased by 70% since the election of Donald Trump in late 2016.
The format of the book is broadly chronological, running from the arrival of the Pilgrims in the late 1600s, right up to the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president and his first 1.5 years in office. It is wide ranging, covering topics from The Stamp Act of 1765 to the Cabbage Patch Kids of 1983. You will not be bored, reading this book.
About the Pilgrims Savage says: “There is an interesting subtlety here … Contrary to popular belief the Pilgrims did not leave England because they sought religious freedom. They came to the new world to establish an order under their own terms, one in which anyone who didn’t fit in, who defied their Calvinstic mores and morality, could be cast out or worse.” Already Savage is encouraging us to think outside the enclosures we learned in high school history classes.
In this chapter, one of my favorites, we learn that the witch hysteria began with charging undesirable people with far-fetched crimes then ostrasizing, imprisoning, or killing the suspected offender. In one such case a man was accused of fathering a deformed piglet. Another outside-the-enclosure point: It wasn’t just women who were targeted.
Savage points out that accusations like this have two main benefits for the accusers: 1) ridding the community of people who are undesirable in some way; and 2) VIRTUE SIGNALING. In the sexually repressive society of the pilgrims, ganging up on someone for doing a bad sexual thing allowed community members to solidify their own sense of honor and adherence to the rules. If pursued fervently enough, everyone would know you were on the correct side of things.
We see a lot of virtue signaling these days. Savage comments on one outlandish example. With characteristic common sense & humor, Savage writes: “ When ESPN decided that announcer Robert Lee should miss a broadcast because he had the same name as Civil War general Robert E. Lee” (a man whose statues had suddenly become toxic reminders of racism in the old South) “they really weren’t concerned about rioting if he did a play-by-play. No living human would ever have mistaken that young man for someone who has been dead since 1870. What the network was doing, by this act, was virtue signaling.”
Another point Savage makes about the witch trials, and mass hysterias in general, is that they often form during times of economic or sociopolitical turmoil. In the 1600s “life was a constant misery since you and your family were frequently ill, not only with minor maladies but with diphtheria, dysentery, yellow fever, smallpox, and polio. The ‘King William War’ in upstate New York, Nova Scotia, and Quebec sent countless refugees south, many of them to Salem Village. The needs of these outsiders were many and their resources were few, and they exacerbated preexisting tensions. Two of the first accused witches were lower-class women amongst this ‘troubled’ class.”
Do we have sociopolitical turmoil today? Most Americans would say “yes”. A recent survey from Rasmussen Reports found that 31 percent of respondents believe “it’s likely that the United States will experience a second civil war sometime in the next five years.”
Now for some details of Savage’s historical chapters. He spends several chapters talking about the founding of The United States, in which lawlessness of both hysterical & non-hysterical types occurred. The “patriots” of those early days committed many lawless acts, from dumping tea in a harbor to hanging & burning effigies, to tarring-and-feathering British loyalists long after independence was won. These chapters are richly detailed and fascinating. You’ll learn many things that your high school American History teacher missed. Savage makes an important distinction here, between mass actions that are hysterical, and those that are not:
A non-hysterical mass action:
* is directed to achieving a rational outcome or change
* is organized around that goal
* identifies appropriate targets and limits its actions to them
* knows when to stop
A hysterical mass action:
* is an emotional response not knowing what it wants to accomplish
* is disorganized, chaotic
* directs its actions against a variety of targets, in undiscriminating ways
* is not capable of deciding when to stop.
Savage’s chapters on the Civil War likewise are eloquent, written with historical detail, insight, and a great deal of sensitivity. It’s not easy talking about those times in today’s current climate, with so much pain and so much guilt on both sides of the historical divide. But Savage’s unflinching love of the truth allows him to write clearly and forthrightly about the events that led to various forms of hysteria during those cataclysmic times.
Spinning the hands of time forward, Savage covers many many more interesting topics, far more than I can cover or even enumerate. They include but are not limited to: Gold Fever, Anti-Irish sentiment in the 1800s, the Know-Nothing Party, Women’s Suffrage, Anti-German hysteria during WWI, Japanese internment, prohibition, the popularity of marijuana in the 1920s (who knew?), a terror bombing (with actual dynamite) also in the 1920s, McCarthyism, comic books as subversive, the assassination of JFK, the Beatles, the Vietnam War, the OPEC foil embargo & resulting gas shortages in the 1970s, the truth about hashish assassins, toy hysterias (Cabbage Patch dolls), pedophilia scares (the McMartin preschool case), and recurring financial panics that began in 1785 and haven’t stopped yet. Next to last would be climate change (where skeptics feel that alarmists are hysterical and concerned citizens feel that deniers are hysterical). And last, but not least: the election of Donald Trump!
Savage also identifies major events where hysteria *might* have developed but did not. The assassination of JFK and the 911 terror attacks provoked more sober reflection and heroism, than they did hysteria. It’s almost as though when things are very very bad, we rise to the occasion and listen to our better angels. A hopeful note to sound in “hysterical times”.
I’ll end on an example that is classic Savage, being one of the more humorously informative chapters of the book. With his background in herbal medicine & nutrition, he’s definitely the right person to talk about dietary hysterias. Following are some direct quotes:
Gluten - “Despite millennia of tradition, despite having been a dietary staple of the human race for some thirty thousand years, society has suddenly done an about-face on bread. The word “gluten” is from the Latin word which unappetizingly means “glue,” and it’s a protein complex that accounts for most of the protein found in wheat used to make bread.”
“[Gluten sensitivity] affects only about 1 in 133 Americans. So how did one syndrome, which at its most extreme can cause diarrhea and malabsorption, turn gluten into public food enemy number one? How did it go from being an unknown protein to a word everyone tosses around (even if they don’t really know what it is or does)?”
“While the public became hysterical about the possible health impact of this terrible condition, the food industry went into overdrive creating a new market: gluten-free foods. Hysteria doesn’t respond to reason and you aren’t about to get reason from the food industry. The gluten-free market is now a $4 billion business in the United States.”
“Milk & Honey - The Jews freed by Moses were headed to a land flowing with milk and honey, which was supposed to be a good thing. Milk maybe not, at least not for adults, … and while there are antioxidants in honey that strengthen our cells, it is also an ideal medium for botulism bacteria. I can just imagine the overly health–sensitive in the wandering tribes trying to point that out, along with discussing trichinosis in pork.”
“A phrase popularized by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr in a 1923 Bridgeport Telegraph article said it best: ‘Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.’ We also are what we do not eat … Hysterical consumers assume, in what is commonly and tritely referred to as ‘an abundance of caution,’ to simply avoid any undiagnosed risks by avoiding gluten. Or lactose. Or beef. Or chicken. Or beer.”
“It used to be you could go to a restaurant or friend’s house and just eat what was served. Now people want vegan or gluten-free or lactose-free or organic-only. They want substitutes like ‘mock duck’—which, ironically, contains gluten. Social stress is not a good thing for anyone.”
Buy the book here: