What America's Ebola obsession says about us
Acclaimed medical expert Donald Trump recently went on a Twitter rant about the Ebola outbreak, dropping unassailable wisdom like this:
Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days - now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2014
Trump was hardly alone in stoking anxiety. Around the same time, a headline on the influential Drudge Report blared: "Dozens From Ebola-Struck Countries Caught Sneaking Into USA."
The panic surrounding the Ebola epidemic seems tailor-made for the times we live in, reinforcing the fears and paranoia driving America's quasi-apocalyptic political mood. Our leaders seem adrift, our media a cabal of fear-mongers, and our lives digitized and isolated. Is it any wonder we panic so easily?
This is not to say that the Ebola concerns are trivial; they are most certainly not. According to the World Health Organization, the death toll is approaching 1,000, as West Africa deals with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. And the fact that two Americans afflicted with the disease are now being treated on U.S. soil makes this a national story, raising questions about whether or not bringing them here was prudent.
And yet... doesn't the whole narrative seem to fit cozily in with the fear and worry and anxiety so many of us are feeling these days?
We are not a content country. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll out Wednesday shows that "Americans are registering record levels of anxiety about the opportunities available to younger generations and are pessimistic about the nation's long-term prospects." Is it any wonder that when we hear reports of Ebola, we get so worried?
Really, ever since Watergate, trust in America's institutions has declined rapidly. And President Obama has done little to reassure Americans about the government's transparency or competence. As Jim Geraghty writes at National Review, statements from the government about the Ebola epidemic
would be more reassuring if our government hadn't already gotten into the habit of assuring us "all is well" when it clearly wasn't — i.e., former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano assuring us "the system worked" in the case of the underwear bomber, the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest recently speaking of the administration "substantially improving" the "tranquility of the global community," Obama's May boast that "our ability to mobilize international opinion rapidly has changed the balance and the equation in Ukraine" or his 2012 declaration that the private sector is "doing fine." The problem with multiple years of implausible spin and happy talk is that when you tell the truth on an important matter, you can't dispel the doubts. [National Review]
When Richard J. Hofstadter wrote about "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" in 1964, he could never have imagined what 2014 might look like. We live in a time when polls are assumed skewed, elections rigged, and electronic communication snooped upon. And that's just the stuff we probably shouldn't bother obsessing over. If demagogues can convince us to be paranoid about the things that are anodyne, is it any surprise a real live outbreak like Ebola might set us off the deep end?
A year ago, during the government shutdown, I observed the following events:
On September 25, a man with "the delusional belief that he was being controlled or influenced by extremely low frequency electromagnetic waves" went on a killing spree at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC.
One week later, on Thursday, October 3 (three days after the government shutdown began) a woman was shot and killed after she attempted to ram through a White House barricade.
Five days later, on October 8, a man would set himself on fire on the National Mall.
Fast forward to [the night before I wrote this], when shortly before the House voted to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, a House stenographer appeared to lose it. "It is deception here," the woman reportedly yelled. "This is not, one nation under God. It never was. Had it been, it would not have been… It would not have been, the Constitution would not have been written by Free Masons. They go against God. You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve two masters. Praise be to God, Lord Jesus Christ."
It's hard to prove that these things are connected, but the number of incidents feels unusual. And aside from this taking place in Washington, DC, the common thread seems to be mental illness. Is this just a coincidence?
During a recent episode of "The Adam and Dr. Drew Show" podcast, Dr. Drew Pinsky said "[T]his dysfunction — this lack of leadership — is affecting people."
"I think the reason mentally ill people are driving their cars into the White House and getting shot and stuff is because they're freaked out," he continued. "It's like having parents fighting, and of course, the most sensitive among us act out." [Daily Caller]
Is it possible the news is getting to us? Today, we are more likely than ever to have our fears stoked by a national media that wants clicks and ratings. There is an incentive to overplay rumors, sickness, death, and the dark side of humanity. If it bleeds, it leads.
In our atomized society — where people who are disconnected from friends and family and institutions (church attendance, belonging to a club, etc.), and instead have "virtual" friends and experiences and consume copious amounts of media without the check of walking outside and seeing that nothing much has changed in their own small town, we are more likely to go further and further down the rabbit hole.
Things have changed so much in the last 20 years that the recent movie World War Z, about the zombie apocalypse (originally misidentified in the book and movie as rabies), felt scarier — seemed more like real life — than the 1995 film Outbreak did at the time. It might seem extraordinary that a movie about zombies is easier to identify with than a film about a real-life virus. But am I wrong? The country has changed — and not in a good way. We are more prone to fear today than we were then. And our political and media leaders aren't exactly easing our worries — they're stoking them.