So this is it. We’re all going to die.
You know what’s funny about that phrase? It’s always true. Oh sure, some of us hope to putz around for a few more years before returning to dust. Even if that happens, though, death is still just around the corner. The march towards the grave is relentless, and no matter how low your cholesterol levels, you’re always just one fallen tree or funnel cloud away from the Big Goodbye.
It’s also true that, in some sense, everyone dies alone, no matter how many loved ones sit by our deathbeds. No one else can take that step with you, into the Great Beyond.
This is a truth we all know, and desperately want to forget. Perhaps that’s why we’re such suckers for public panic.
It’s Always Something
Swine flu. Rape vans. Black-market kidney thieves who leave you in ice-filled bathtubs. One day the planet is freezing its way into the next ice age; five minutes later we’re careening into a literal global meltdown. (Perhaps we’ll next be told that the climate isn’t changing enough, so we need to stop eating chocolate to fight Climate Stagnation.) One way or another, the general public is perpetually persuaded that they’re hanging from a precipice.
I can understand why collective panic is so popular. Unlike actual, personal death (which is lonely and 100 percent certain to happen), public panics can be sociable. Even in the midst of the hyperventilating, some part of the brain may know it’s probably all a hoax. Like a horror film, public fear substitutes synthetic fear for the real, rational kind, ultimately giving us a strange sense of well-being.
It’s also true, of course, that the world is full of actual dangers, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the real ones from the fakes. The next time you joke about “something in the water,” think of the citizens of Flint. I thought the anti-carb movement sounded like a hilarious hoax, until my husband lost 35 pounds on the South Beach diet. And it’s not just an urban myth that a Michigan oncologist put healthy people into chemotherapy as part of an insurance scam. That actually happened.
Crazy things do happen all the time in our world, so how can you be sure? Also, since everything is interconnected now, we constantly rely on people, systems, and agencies we know next to nothing about. Who really knows what goes into your corn flakes? How can you be sure your dentist isn’t implanting tracking chips in your teeth? Modern life is a natural breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
Dead conspiracy theories are too numerous to count, but let’s review a few of the fun ones.
When I was a kid, a staple of each October was the in-class tutorial in surviving trick-or-treating. Our parents would get handouts from the school advising them to inspect our candy for razor blades or signs of poisoning. The razor blade concept always confused me. Wouldn’t you notice before you started eating? Regardless, it was a harrowing concept. My neighbors are out to kill me! With candy, of all things!
Have kids ever been poisoned by their neighbors on Halloween? No, unless you’re worrying about the slow (e.g. Type 2 diabetes) sort of poisoning. Somebody must have watched too many horror flicks. I wonder how many kids were cruelly denied the fun of trick-or-treating because their parents were terrified of the hidden razor blades.
Environmental ethics are another fun memory from my school days. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was taught how CFCs from our hairspray cans were wrecking the ozone layer, so our children would never get to enjoy outdoor playgrounds or splash at the beach. (I’m watching mine throw snowballs in the back yard right now. Obviously that whole crispy-critter ozone-depletion scenario was somewhat off-target.)
We also learned how the rainforest was fragile and precious and would probably all be gone within the next ten or fifteen years. (Thirty years later, I took my kids an IMAX at the science museum with exactly this same message. Isn’t the damn rainforest supposed to be gone by now?)
Remember the Y2K virus? Supposedly technology across the world was going to crash at the advent of the new millennium, because the computers couldn’t handle all those zeroes. Or something. Enjoy your comforts while you can, people, because Mr. Coffee’s days may be numbered.
Don’t Build Your Life Around a Fad
Some public panics are amusing. Remember when people protested car radios, thinking they would distract drivers and cause massive death? Or that whole silly thing about the Super Bowl being “domestic abuse day”?
Many, though, are tragic. Dystopian Malthusian nightmares precipitated cruel population controls across the world, most notably in China. Millions of lives were snuffed out in utero on the basis of what was basically a crackpot theory. Naturally, I can remember my schoolteachers perpetuating that one, too, and my poor mother was harassed multiple times for “overpopulating the planet” with her five children. (People sing a different tune nowadays, as she posts innumerable pictures of her adorable grandchildren.)
Whole volumes could be written on the many dietary fads that have dominated people’s lives throughout the modern era. As a good example of what not to do, I recommend Nina Planck’s “Real Food,” in which she relates how she grew up on a farm eating healthy food, then fell prey to a host of dietary fads that had her building her whole life around unsatisfying, un-yummy not-so-delectables.
One day, she stopped and asked herself why she, a health-food nut, was constantly sick, while her full-dairy-and-saturated-fat-loving parents were always so healthy and hale. My advice? Eat like a human, not a lab rat.
From the perspective of a social critic, it’s interesting to consider some of the reasons why a particular issue turns into a public panic. Dystopian environmental scares are a kind of flip side of the liberal tendency to immanentize the eschaton; even godless people can’t shake the pervasive sense that all is passing away, so they channel their angst into worries about a dying planet.
Other public panics (the rape vans and Halloween razor blades) reflect our general unease at the breakdown of community relations. There generally are reasons why people are receptive to these ideas, but that doesn’t mean they’re reasonable.
Get Some Perspective
Which of today’s public panics will turn out to be crackpot theories? It’s always hard to say. Is the Islamic world really going to kill us? How real is this talk about unprecedented antibiotic resistance? And oh! By the way, is the Republican Party about to blow up?
Managing public panic is simply one of the challenges of modern life. There’s no single trick to it, but a few tips may help.
First, go hug your kids. Or your mom. Hug someone. That’s an investment of ten seconds that people almost never regret.
Second, keep in mind that if you’re an American with food in your pantry, it could almost certainly be worse. We’ve all got to go sometime. You have opportunities for fulfillment that have been available to only very few in the history of the world. Contrast the doomsday scenarios with the abundance that almost all Americans presently enjoy, and laugh at yourself.
Third, take public panic with a grain of salt. We should recognize that the public has a need for panic. It will always be something. So try to remember that we are, in fact, all going to die. When that happens, you’ll probably be sad if you spent your life obsessing over a rainforest thousands of miles away. Remember, too, that it’s always a good time to repent. Just in case the end is near.