To think we are nearing a precipice with regards to the media, Ebola, and public perception about the threat here in the States is mis-guided: the truth is, we are always on a precipice with the media, with panic down one side and apathy on the other.
Recent media handling of the epidemic prompted me to go back to Don DeLillo’s seminal novel White Noise, from 1985, and a section of the book where he describes a chemical spill that’s released a mysterious black cloud and toxin, prompting paranoia and widespread reaction, shaped by the media.
The Airborne Toxic Event changes names throughout the story, as the media and politicians change their position on how they want the public to perceive it. It’s a reminder of why words and names are important; they govern our actions. They confine us to a paradigm associated with a word. “Define” broken down means “to bring to an end,” which is what happens when you define something. By saying what it is you’re simultaneously saying everything it is not. And this is important in a world where ideas spread fast and go ‘viral.’ Which is why we’re on a precipice, of what’s being said and what we know.
Missing Parrot Returns But Doesn’t Speak English Anymore
On NPR yesterday, they ran a story about an English-speaking parrot that disappeared for four years and returned, speaking Spanish. No one knows what happened to the parrot, the reporter said. The story came out of the radio and I laughed, and thought how ridiculous, but no one else in my vanpool seemed to hear the same thing or even notice. The parrot had an English accent and came back speaking Spanish.
Since The War I Smile More
Like many others who were over-exposed to media coverage of 911 right after the event, we think my grandfather suffered physical stress, ultimately leading to a stroke and his later demise.
I wrote a poem Since The War I Smile More as a play on words, about how we can offset violence and hate by practicing acts of daily kindness with strangers and passersby: through smiles and good will, I thought we could blow away the mysterious dark cloud that appeared, that day.
Perhaps it started for us then, the awareness that we are more porous than we thought, that there are whole cultures and plots and peoples actively planning to destroy us. That there’s a different world and way of life, outside of America. And further, that we may actually be responsible for galvanizing them to act against us, that we could be culpable somehow, that we in part created them, that we are inter-related.
We have Ebola
As Seth Godin wrote recently, ‘We Have Ebola’ is a much different story than They Have Ebola. And this is the crux, as our world is changing (perhaps faster than we are): there are no theys. “They” is how we distance ourselves from what we fear or don’t like, but our world is getting smaller as Global becomes more Local. The ‘They’ mindset is the same thinking that is starting to topple with LGBT rights here, and marriage equality. Because we’re not as different as we think we are, or want to believe.
Come As You Are
I was lucky to get to Morocco before 911, before we had kids, because fear may keep me from returning for a long time. Our first night there, my French friend found some local Moroccan teenagers to buy hash, and we spoke in broken English and French while we waited for one of them to get it. They wore traditional robes and slippers, and I wore a caftan I got from J. Peterman. I was trying to grow a beard but couldn’t yet, and they teased and called me Ali Baba.
While we waited, Laurent told them I was American and they asked if I knew the band Nirvana. I nodded, and they begged, “Chantez, chantez! Chantez, chantez s’il vous plait!” Laurent laughed and said, ‘zay want you to sing.’ And so I did, and they closed their eyes and smiled, imagining they could hear the music too. I can see their faces smiling now and think we’re really no different at all.
Blog post title source from Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise.