Vol. 9 No. 8 (September 1999) pp. 372-376.

by Joel Best. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
342 pp. Paper $17.95.

Reviewed by Martin D. Schwartz, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ohio University.

The thesis of this book is interesting and provocative. Best argues that a fixation on "random violence" both distorts our understanding of crime and makes it harder for us to address crime problems. Particularly in North America, but more and more in other countries exposed to American television, people are seeing violence as crimes committed by weird and crazed people. It can happen to anyone at any time. Why would a criminal just pick out someone at random and commit violent
acts? The answer is, " Well, you know, that is just the way that these people are."

This attitude allows the public to instantly give credence to such inherently unbelievable stories as one that has been sweeping the U.S. for a decade: gang members have an initiation rite that requires them to drive at night with their lights off, and then to hunt down and kill anyone who signals them about it. The fact that there has never been a single documented attack of this sort has not stopped people, including a wide variety of law enforcement personnel, from believing it. After all, crime
is out of control, it is random, it can strike anyone at any time.

As a good sociologist, Best argues that behavior is not at all random, but patterned. North Americans particularly have begun to associate crime with strangers who attack for no good reason. Yet, for the great bulk of crime, criminologists can easily plot which groups in society are more likely to be victimized and which have a relatively small chance of suffering from direct violent crime. As Best shows, to believe in random violence requires one to ignore thousands of scientific studies in favor of personal fears.

Senseless violence as a motif has very broad appeal, to the point where it has become a central theme in contemporary culture. There have been a number of studies of moral panics and specific fears, such as those over serial killers, crack cocaine, freeway killings, and gang initiation killings. Best himself has pioneered the field, with an excellent study of the wildly exaggerated fear in the 1980s of stranger kidnapped children. Yet, his argument now is that these studies are too narrow, because they miss the various patterns that tie them together. What is needed is a theory of moral panics and random violence.

Best attempts to provide many of the elements of such a theory. Essentially, he argues that our crime scares have common elements and go through very similar stages. Some end up institutionalized as part of our common culture, and some die out fairly quickly. What they have in common is melodrama, as the media and the public both appreciate the titillation of a melodramatic story. This starts with a totally innocent victim who suffers badly in a sudden stranger attack that has no
understandable reason.

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There is no pattern, so all similar persons could become victims themselves. There was no point to the crime, and things are getting worse - respectable people used to be immune from these things.

Needless to say, the media is part of the problem. The local TV news in big cities does not report mundane daily violence as much as the spectacular, the extraordinary, the shocking or the outrageous. The problem is that these literally extra-ordinary events are transformed into representative or typical examples
of modern violence. Of course, this has advantages in that people are more likely to mobilize into action over shocking crimes than for more mundane violence. Best, however, argues that this focus serves a number of other functions, such as ignoring the problems of race and class, both of which are awkward topics in the U.S. Liberals can avoid facing the problems of race, while conservatives can avoid discussing class. Both can decry random escalating violence.

Sometimes these scares are obviously media scares and wear out fairly quickly. The freeway killings in Los Angeles scare, and the explosion of "wilding" stories after the attack on the joggerin New York's Central Park both elicited extensive nationalnews attention with claims of massive escalating violence, fear, and a deterioration of society. However, since there were few episodes of either, the media ran out of things to write about and the attention died out. The media has the power to raise concern about an issue, but rarely the stamina to keep that concern going for long. To keep that concern going, someone else must step in and "take ownership."

Best's main example here is stalking, which was a word barely in the vocabulary a decade ago, but is now against the law in virtually every jurisdiction in the U.S. Extensive feminist lobbying convinced many legislators to take on this problem. After all, attacking criminals is good political business. There may be many victims' rights defenders' votes to be had, but few lobbying groups for sick criminals' rights seem to exist. With the proliferation of laws requiring law enforcement to keep track of stalking incidents, the problem has become institutionalized and is now unlikely to die out. In fact, there is room to expand interest, as domestic violence groups found that some male behaviors that they were having trouble getting law enforcement to take seriously could be redefined as examples of stalking, and therefore given more attention.

An essential point to his theory is that there are a group of cultural resources to be drawn upon in any claims. Americans have always been interested in conspiracy theories, for example, and we merely need to get some new facts to create an identical new theory with some new faces and demons.

The more difficult aspect of this book is that it is really split into two parts, based somewhat on earlier published articles and book chapters. The second half of the book takes an abruptly different tone than the first half, and is obviously more recent work, as seen just by the citations in the text. Here Best takes on an equally important topic of dealing with the newer claims for victimization by a broad variety of people in the 1990s. Much as in the first half, he argues that victims' groups tap into a broad array of cultural resources to portray a new group as victims deserving of society's concern. Generally, these are not claims that the victimization just
started, but rather that people have ignored these victims for

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many years. There is no lack of possible examples of these claims: co-dependency, post-traumatic stress disorder, sex addiction, date rape, playground bullying, UFO abduction, eating disorders and many more.

Best claims to have identified a contemporary ideology of victimization. This ideology follows similar patterns (draws upon similar cultural resources) to include the argument that each form of victimization is widespread, which requires claiming very large numbers of victims. In these claims, victims are totally innocent and are never self-serving. Although in fairly neutral language, he attacks advocates for their lack of patience with skepticism of their claims. Although there is no question that he correctly characterizes victims' advocates, the argument that advocates reject skepticism manages to avoid a reasonable characterization of the nature of many counterclaims. For example, one of his primary sources for these arguments is Neil Gilbert, who can hardly be characterized as a "skeptic." Rather, he is a vigorous and forceful opponent at the most basic level of feminist claims. Throughout this section of the book Best treats backlash proponents as "skeptics," which is a weak term given the strong attacks, mudslinging and name calling that characterizes much of this field. For example, the morning that I am writing this the
Australian national newspaper, THE AUSTRALIAN, cites a survey of magistrates where evidently some express concern that violence personal attacks by men are caused by wives who "bitch" and complain too much. One can call this skepticism being expressed that victim claims are inflated, but this might not accurately
reflect the level of dispute over these claims.

This becomes particularly difficult with the chapter on "The Victim Industry," where Best retreats into a neutral language to try to set up a simple descriptive overview of the process. Yet, the end result is setting up the overwhelming juggernaut of the proponents of the "ideology of victimization" against a few hopeless critics who encounter "harsh, discrediting reactions." Those who study victims flourish, then, "within sequestered pockets of academia, sheltered from skepticism and criticism."
Interestingly, these claims are mainly bolstered with citations and references to well-known and highly published strenuous critics of feminism and the ideology of victimization.

This is where the book is weakest. There does not seem to be any research to support these claims. Of course, the notion that feminist students of victimization are immune from criticism and skepticism ignores the rather violent and bitter debates inside the field itself. Further, it would be hard to imagine an important figure in victimization studies that did not feel constantly under attack for his or her work. It isn't so much that Best is wrong. Certainly there are academics that just blindly accept, for example, "current wisdom" about how many domestic violence victims exist. Of course, this is true about thousands of other "current wisdom" views of the world.

Interestingly, what seems to bother me the most about the second half of this book is that Best seems to retreat from the contextual social constructionism he made famous himself, whereby the author has the ability and right to make some assessment of the validity of truth claims. He seems to be operating more in the camp of the earlier strict social constructionism, whereby the author simply describes the actions of the activists, taking no sides on truth claims. Thus, after arguing that the media treats claims sympathetically because organized

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opposition has been silenced, he simply concludes that "social arrangements have changed in many ways that support the ideology of victimization." In context, this sounds over and over like the perpetrators of some feminist conspiracy have been sneaking in and winning a battle because no one has been looking. It is hard to believe that this is what Best wanted to say, but it is easy to read this into his tone. After all, one can be very unsympathetic to the claims of many new victims
while at the same time recognizing that the "ideology of victimization," as he has called it, has meant the extensive provision of services. These include help for rape and incest victims, and steps taken to reduce adolescent sexual abuse in a variety of arenas from Canadian junior hockey to the college campus.

This becomes particularly problematic when Best attacks "the victim industry" for rolling over all opposition to win their goal of labeling new victims. While he constantly decries "critics" who are silenced, he never does name one or give a single example of such a critic. Interestingly, in many of the areas he discusses, such as eating disorders, there is a large feminist literature providing skepticism and opposition to such labeling. One might get the impression from this book that new
victimization is completely a product of feminist lobbying, although that is not explicitly stated.

Actually, this is the problem with the second half of the book. Best takes on a number of activists and social movements, categorizing their situation in many ways, such as the suggestion that "the ideology of victimization provides few internal restraints on labeling victims." He argues that it is important to activists to avoid defining their problem, finding it easier to operate within a loose definition. Few examples are given. The primary mechanism of description is to use declarative sentences about the powers and faults of the movements with few reference points to specific people, events, times or movements.

Interestingly, one of the primary conclusions Best reaches about the new victimization movement is not only that it shares much in common with medieval European witch-hunting (surely an exaggerated example given the hundreds of thousands of women and men killed by authorities there), but that it serves an important purpose by allowing us to identify modern ills and demons. Our attention is then focused on a specific set of problems as the main ones affecting society. One would think,
if modern ills were so easily identified, we might not have the highest incarceration rate in the world and in our history.

Some of the material in the book is excellent, although perhaps a bit tangential to the stated purpose of the book. For example, Best has a chapter on declaring war on social problems. His main argument is that this is a poor metaphor, since Americans are used to either winning wars quickly, or at least (like Vietnam) getting out when we get tired. Social problems, on the other hand, require boring long-term solutions. People thus get disillusioned quickly, and call for the end to the war
on poverty, drugs, or whatever. Although this is a good chapter, it struggles to fit in with the rest of the book. Further, there is a very good and valuable appendix on new methods of studying media coverage of social problems, based on the new technologies that allow one to locate sources much more easily than ever before. Unfortunately, at no point does he relate this appendix to this book, such as how he might have

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used such materials or sources in writing the book.

Overall, there is much to like in this book. I will no doubt be citing it and using some of his arguments in various lectures. It ties together much of Best's earlier work, and makes a number of sound arguments about America's fixations that prevent sound policies on crime control. The complaints above generally are that the tone taken in the second half makes the book very easy to read as a broadside against a number of movements, which is no doubt not what the author intended.