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April 27, 2009


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It's an irony of sorts that Americans lived through Cold War with its nuclear anxiety while simultaneously enjoying good times and growing prosperity. It's as if the fear was so tangible that it served as a counterweight to the zany pop culture that increasingly enfolded our lives. Unbanished darkness, as it were, allowed the light a fuller spectrum.

The difference today is that we lack a cosmic enemy. Without darkness, light itself is compromised. Paranoia is rampant because there are no identifable markers for free-floating fear. Reading right-wing media, it's evident that the need is to find the Enemy here at home. The hysteria and furor about Obama is the evidence of their choice.

When the Cold War ended, the warrior class was unmanned, so to speak. A Timothy McVeigh left the military and decided the Enemy was the American government. His rage could be seen as necessary transference. Absent a global external threat, the enemy within - paranoia - takes over.

There are real problems demanding real work. But for the doomers and nihilists, the real problem is finding a solution to a hallucination. The old world of tribal bonds and nationalist policy has died. In its place is a globalized marketplace and culture. Who do we hate? What do we fear? Islamo-facsism? Global warming? Mexicans?

We can't answer coherently because the darkness we all harbor is immune to rational explication. We'll figure out ad-hoc solutions to real-world problems but we can't solve our existential dread because there's no common agreement about what it is.

I'm no expert, but that 20 million figure for Spanish Influenza deaths is apparently way too low. According to Wikipedia (citing mainstream medical sources) "older estimates" of worldwide deaths from it are in the range of 40-50 million; "current estimates" are 50-100 million.

The Spanish Flu had some unusual characteristics. One was its high mortality rate (an estimated 2.5 to 5 percent of those infected), as opposed to an average flu epidemic mortality rate of 0.1; another unusual feature was the way it killed so many healthy adults in the prime of their lives, as opposed to more vulnerable groups like the very young and the very old: more than half of the deaths were in adults aged 20-40.

The bad news is that the current outbreak of "swine flu" is the same subtype, H1N1. That, however, doesn't necessarily indicate similar virulence.


Here's a popular jingle from the WW I era:

"Obey the laws
And wear the gauze.
Protect your jaws
From septic paws."

Last night, after reading Mr. Talton's essay, I dreamt about a nightly news broadcast on flu deaths; suddenly, Michael Palin (in a Cardinal Richelieu outfit) jumped into camera frame, shouting "Nobody expects the Spanish Influenza!"

Then I dreamt I was the Charlton Heston character in The Omega Man, and that Mr. Talton was the leader of The Family (as played by Anthony Zerbe). Mr. Talton, apparently in the early stages of the mutant infection, had a nationally syndicated column in which he blamed the disease on poor urban planning, and predicted that the world would only be cleansed when Amtrack was properly subsidized. Then he REALLY went off the rails.


Hee-hee. OK, I admit it: I made up both dreams.

As long as we're speaking of influenza and terrorism in the same breath (pun?), don't forget that at the time of the Spanish Flu, commercial aviation was only (just barely) beginning.

What would happen in the jet age if (say) a doomsday cult deliberately infected its members with some virulent airborn virus and went on a world tour?

Or maybe Al-Qaida decides that the best way to level the playing field is to decimate the West, even if their own countries are also affected? Presumably their own societies would be so weakened that any surviving extremists would have a better chance of getting control -- not to mention a possible psychological advantage if they can convince the survivors (again, in their own country) that the plague was punishment from God for straying from (Wahabiist) orthodoxy? Meanwhile, the West would scarcely be in a position to wage imperialist (or counter-insurgency) wars; a state of affairs that might continue for decades.

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