The United States of Hysteria
When President Obama declared the swine-flu outbreak a national emergency, he tapped into America’s time-honored tendency to freak out.
Get a grippe. Well, hopefully, you won’t. But if you do, most likely you have nothing to worry about. Despite the president’s declaration of H1N1 as a national emergency this week, despite the long lines of people waiting to be vaccinated, despite the startling shortage in vaccinations, which is almost as startling as the speed at which they’re being made—in spite of all this climate of crisis, now certified by presidential decree, swine flu is not the Spanish flu that killed tens of millions of people in 1918.
Rather, the media has distorted the reporting of it. The government has bungled its handling of it. We are all wildly overreacting to it. Yet given the nature of our democracy, the response to the Great H1N1 Scare of 2009 is exactly what it should have been: hysterical.
Routine panics are the hallmark of an open society. The more democratic and open we are—historically speaking—the more vulnerable we are going to feel.
Dictatorships are a hysteria from above; democracy is a hysteria from below. Tyrants see and fear plots all over, so they keep their populations in the dark about everything, including threats to general health. Yet the more secretive they make society, the more their paranoia grows. In 2003, China’s communist government forbade its press and even its people to utter a word about SARS, even as the lethal respiratory illness was traveling from China to the rest of the world. Scientists say that if the Chinese had alerted them to the disease earlier, its spread could have been stopped.
Routine panics, on the other hand, are the hallmark of an open society. The more democratic and open we are—historically speaking—the more vulnerable we are going to feel.
• Kent Sepkowitz: Behind the Swine Flu Emergency • 8 Diseases Scarier Than Swine Flu • Why You Love Being Scared of Swine Flu That might explain our utterly strange addiction to disaster movies that present the spectacle of American civilization flooded, burned, bombed, vaporized, quaked and lava-scorched out of existence. No society in the history of humankind has ever been diverted by portrayals of its violent extinction. But our openness as a society is just as unprecedented. So perhaps these movies are like cathartic allegories for openness catastrophically transformed into vulnerability. They calm our inexplicable democratic anxiety by explaining just what the root of that anxiety is.
In a society as blessedly open as ours is to “strangers” and “outsiders,” the specter of a virus threatening our health and the health of our families is especially powerful. So it's hardly a surprise that over the past decade or so, we have embraced a whole new image of the virus. Rather than being an invisible infiltrator spreading sickness and death, it is now a bouncy little entrepreneur whose visitation will make you rich—a good, American virus. Ever since Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2000 book The Tipping Point, made “going viral” synonymous with profitable popularity, we have, in our sunny American fashion, turned the literal cause of disease into a pretty concept signifying happiness and wealth.
No wonder that when the virus becomes the real thing once again, our sunny state of denial is shattered and we revert to the elemental democratic emotion of hysteria.
You can blame a foundering media for pumping up the perils of H1N1, and that’s just what they’ve been doing, but they were also locked into the American idiom of reflexive democratic alarm. There was no other way they could report on swine flu but to suppress facts that mitigated or even contradicted presentation of the disease as rapid, agonizing, and fatal. They were as scared as the rest of us.
And suppress the facts they did. From the time swine flu was first reported in this country last April, the media made an analogy between H1N1 and the catastrophic Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. But from those initial reports even up until now, only a handful of prominent outlets—and then not for weeks, if not months—bothered to add that the differences between 1918 and now were vast. Few, if any, commentators mentioned that in 1918, antibiotics were not available, antivirals had yet to be discovered, and—perhaps most important of all—World War I was still raging, meaning that vast numbers of men were crowded together in unsanitary conditions, thus hastening the spread of the flu. Demobilization at the end of the war, that fall, made matters even worse.
Instead of the media dispensing such remedial, time-consuming information, which would have calmed even the most apprehensive people, they drummed the apocalyptic menace of a second Spanish flu into the minds of viewers, listeners, and readers over and over again.
Reporting on the career of the disease in Mexico, where it is said to have originated, was no better. We heard all about the deaths, constantly, but nothing about who died or how they died. After a few weeks, we learned that most, if not all, of the fatalities were due to pneumonia, a complication of the flu that can be prevented with the timely administering of antibiotics and antivirals. Even then, though, we never heard—and still haven’t—about the underlying medical conditons of the people who died.
And there was nothing about the social position of the people who died—nothing about whether they were rich or poor. This would have been essential information, since our southern neighbor, for all its cultural riches and physical beauty, is a heartless oligarchy that allows its poor to exist in vast slums where access to medical care is often nonexistent and access to good medical care almost impossible to find. Then, too, the people who died, if they were poor, might have ignored their condition in order to keep working for fear of not paying their bills or losing their jobs—whereas a more economically comfortable person would have sought medical care right away.
Yet you will look in vain for more than a handful—if that—of news reports about the swine flu in Mexico that explore any detail of the larger social context.
But the worst omission, which amounts to a dangerous distortion, is the lack of information about which people killed by swine flu had underlying or vulnerable medical conditions. We read—again, over and over—about the 1,000 people dead in the United States at this point from H1N1, but so far as I know, there has not been a single statistical breakdown of these deaths into healthy people and people who were already sick. We are told what the high-risk conditions are—diabetes, morbid obesity, pregnancy, etc.—but we are never informed of how many of the people felled by this disease had them. And when, so we are told, unexciting old “seasonal” flu kills 36,000 people in this country a year, over a period of four-six months, why is it that 1,000 fatalities from April to now—even given the lull in contagion induced by warm weather—is considered anywhere near a health emergency?
Perhaps the fear is that there will be less fear, and therefore less of a mandate for the government to take radical action. For all our frustration over the way the misinformation orchestrates our hysteria like a chaotic symphony, we need to remember a core principle of our open, vulnerable democracy. Social policy is set by the most inadequate prevailing condition, not—as in a totalitarian society—by the belief that life remains static.
The impetus behind health-care reform is the reality of being uninsured, not the lucky exception of getting insurance. The motive for education reform is the idea that no child will be left behind, not that the most advanced students should advance even further. The sentiment underlying the right to bear arms—if this is your issue; it isn’t mine—is the historically justified idea of a government gone berserk, not the certainty that the citizen will always be safe from authority.
The lifeblood of democracy is the worst-case scenario. Which means that we’ll keep going to disaster movies, keep getting hysterical over every scandal, threat, and reported peril, and keep demanding that the H1N1 vaccination get to us as soon as possible—even as we feel manipulated by the alarmist media, and worry that there might be a danger in rushing the vaccination out too soon. Panic’s just another name for freedom too precious to lose.
Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently,Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.