By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A couple of days after television turned into one vast Anthrax Channel (which didn’t make me feel any better about my head cold), my wife and I retreated into old-fashioned escapism. We watched Peyton Place, the 1957 potboiler about a small New England town bursting with teen pregnancy, rape and incest. Ah, the good old days! At one point, the narrator, Allison MacKenzie, convinces her sexually uptight mother, played by Lana Turner, to let her hold a birthday party at home just like a normal teenager. Mom agrees, but when she comes home to find high school seniors necking, she humiliates her daughter by throwing everybody out. “Now that,” I told my wife, “is bad parenting.”
It all reminded me of the Bush administration, whose behavior in the last week was apparently intended to drive the citizenry schizo. Even as the president ordered us to live normally, the FBI was warning us that something terrible was likely to happen in the next few days, though they had no idea what it might be. As a result, no matter what you did, you always felt either cowardly or at risk, and often both. The warnings unleashed a dread that only grew deeper because it suggested that our leaders, even mad puppeteer Cheney, knew enough to be spooked but not enough to protect us. Indeed, the only Bushistas who seemed completely unfazed were the staffers at The Wall Street Journal, who treated each new threat as an occasion to lead a chorus of that unifying national battle cry: More corporate tax cuts!
Last weekend, America’s fear became explicitly linked to anthrax, and in a sense, this could hardly be more apt. Fear finds an ideal metaphor in the deadly bacteria, which can enter and lay you low without you ever knowing it happened. In a society based on luminous ideas of rationality and control, the notion of a dark contagion striking the body may be even more terrifying than the thought of planes striking high rises. You can refuse to fly, but how can you stop opening mail or breathing the air? Such contagion is the incarnation of our unconscious fears, and the recent run-amok paranoia about bio-chemical weapons has erupted into our lives the way unbearable fantasies once invaded the psyches of Freud’s repressed patients a century ago. With anthrax as with Osama (as he’s known to Muslims worldwide), we’re now confronted with the frightening shadow of the New World Order. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 134 freeway through Glendale was eerily deserted on Sunday afternoon.
Of course, the media’s obsession with anthrax was predictable, especially when it appeared that pooh-bahs like Tom Brokaw (and not just tabloid flying monkeys) had become a prime target. Although you can learn all you need to know about the disease in 10 minutes, the wall-to-wall coverage was based on the apparent assumption that you can ward off evil spirits by talking about them incessantly.
I don’t blame the talking heads for obsessing. Like the rest of us, they’re reeling from the antics of the cabinet’s version of Homer Simpson, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, who fails to grasp that his clumsy lies are not reassuring. Right after the first terrorist attacks, Thompson raced around blustering that our emergency health system could handle any crisis — a view scoffed at by all the experts. When the American Media employee Robert Stevens died of anthrax in Florida, Thompson ä17 rushed to declare that there was no terrorist link and issued the zany claim that the victim had been drinking funny Carolina spring water. Small wonder that a recent episode of Nightline thumped him, in absentia, like one of those bin Laden piñatas you can buy downtown.
Shortly after September 11, Susan Sontag wrote a much-reviled New Yorker piece about how the government-media elite was trying to infantilize the public by refusing to acknowledge, among other things, that the attacks were motivated by things more complicated than the fact the U.S. is good and the terrorists evil. She was correct then, and in the five weeks since, things haven’t gotten much better.
One assumed that Bush and Co. would try to manage the news — this is what governments do. But the media’s also fallen right into line. The networks quickly agreed to censor tapes from al Qaeda (though today’s dish-savvy terrorist surely prefers Al Jazeera to The Capital Gang), and both American print and TV have been slack about covering the Afghanistan war: I first learned that the bombing had flattened a civilian village, possibly killing 100, from The Observer in London — nearly a day before the news hit American television.
On Politically Incorrect, a black conservative named Darlene Kennedy suggested that it bordered on “anti-Americanism” for collegiate peace marchers to hug each other and sing John Lennon songs. (To his credit, host Bill Maher rebuked her for trying to define what’s American.) Over at Newsweek, the once-sharp Jonathan Alter (did losing all that weight shrink his brain?) launched an assault on the left, as if this impotent minority were somehow frog-marching the country toward capitulation rather than following its time-honored practice of devouring each other like spiders in a jar. But lest there be any confusion: The woman sitting at Bush’s side in all those photographs is Condoleezza Rice, not Alice Walker.