“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, February 07, 2004


“But though the nation be exempt from real evils, it is not more happy on this account than others. The people are afflicted, it is true, with neither famine nor pestilence; but there is a disorder peculiar to the country, which every season makes strange ravages among them; it spreads with pestilential rapidity, and infects almost every rank of people; what is still more strange, the natives have no name for this peculiar malady, though well known to foreign physicians by the appellation of Epidemic Terror.”

According to the sociologists, Stanley Cohen coined the phrase “moral panic” to talk about the sweeping fears that will suddenly go through all levels of a society. Cohen studied Mods and Rockers to find out, among other things, why sensational stories about Mod violence and deviance became, briefly, a staple of the British media. Cohen examined the mechanism of this sensation, from incident to report to response. In a sense, what he was doing, with a different vocabulary, was what Oliver Goldsmith had done two hundred years before, in his essay on Mad Dogs. Since I don’t believe Goldsmith’s essay has ever been referred to by those who have written about the history of moral panic, I thought I’d compare Goldsmith’s Epidemic Terror with Cohen’s moral panic – and in particular, the way in which Goldsmith used the epidemic image to medicalize an older image of rumor.

First, though, let’s talk a bit about Cohen’s terms. A good paper applying Cohen and Hall’s work to panics about language is on this site:

I get this quote from the site. Here’s how Cohen defines his term:

“Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A
condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a
threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and
stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by
editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited
experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or
(more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten,
except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.(1972:9)

The Epidemic Terror of Goldsmith’s essay is exactly of Cohen’s type-of thing-that-suddenly-becomes-visible, even though it has been in existence a long time: mad dogs.

Goldsmith, of course, is writing in a tradition about rumor and ignorance that goes back to Virgil's goddess of Rumor, who perches on the walls of the city. What is interesting about his essay is the direction he takes. It would be easy to employ the old routines that targeted ignorance and the mob. The term “mob” came into existence in the 18th century – it was a shortened form of mobile vulgarum, common people in movement. And Goldsmith, as well as any 18th century intellectual, wasn’t averse to tossing around a little abuse of the mob. However, he is more interested in mechanism than typology – he is after the dynamic of his “epidemic terror”. And to understand that, you have to pose some non-traditional questions that concern the about-ness of ignorance – questions that latter led Freud and Canetti to their (different) conclusions about crowd behavior.

Goldsmith begins with examples to show that epidemic terrors are both chronic and structurally similar:

“One year it issues from a baker’s shop in the form of a sixpenny loaf; the next, it takes the appearance of a comet with a fiery tail; the third, it threatens like a flatbottomed boat; and the fourth, it carries consternation in the bite of a mad dog.”

In all of the cases, the risk is disproportionate to the terror it spreads. However, the element I want to underline is that Goldsmith isn't showing that the disproportion is irrational -- he is trying to show how it is rationalized. Hence, my reference to Freud. The essay was probably penned sometime in the 1750s or 1760s. Supposedly England was swept with various epidemics of what surgeon John Hunter, who wrote about it in the 1780s, called canine madness. Goldsmith intentionally parallels two forms of madness – one is spread by a mad dog’s bite, while the other’s lines of infection are at first, mysterious. In both cases, though, the contagion model applies. The individual madness of the hyrophobe is paralleled by the collective madness of the crowd.

Goldsmith, as a good doctor, describes the outward symptoms of the ‘disease” of fearing mad dogs – people “sally from their houses with that circumspection which is prudent in such as expect a mad dog at every turning;” “a few of unusual bravery arm themselves with boots and buff gloves, in order to face the enemy…” In short, a city operates as though it were suddenly under imminent threat.

And what of that threat? Goldsmith observes how the discovery of whether a dog is mad or not resembles the old trial of dunking witches – if she floats, she’s a witch, if she drowns, she is innocent. Since the symptoms of being a mad dog are biting, or running away, crowds gather around dogs, jab or stone them, and then are either attacked – proof that the dog is mad – or escaped from – proof, again, that the dog is mad. Out comes the halter and the dog is hung.

“When epidemic terror is once excited, every morning comes loaded with some new disaster.” Goldsmith anticipates Cohen once again. In Cohen’s model, the menace has to be repeated over and over. In the age of the copy machine, tv, and radio (Cohen’s book dealt with the pre-Net age), the vector of transmission runs through these vast news machines. In Goldsmith’s day, the vector of transmission was still as much oral as it was print. What is interesting is that there will suddenly be a wave of information about the menace that runs through oral space – much like today’s “watercooler talk.” ‘As in stories of ghosts, each loves to hear the account, though it only serves to make him uneasy.” Goldsmith imagines a story beginning in some outlying area, where a woman is frightened by a dog. As the story is retold – and as it spreads towards more densely populated areas – the story’s characteristics change, until they assume the shape of the usual terror: a mad dog, a sudden attack, a highly placed woman who is suddenly transformed into a foaming hydrophobic on all fours.

Goldsmith’s epidemic terror includes all three elements of Cohen’s moral panic: exaggeration, the prediction that such things are inevitable, and symbolization. In Cohen’s case, the symbolization congealed around the image of the “Mod;” in Goldsmith’s case, around the image of the dog. The dog isn’t simply diseased, but mad – a disturbance of the rational faculties, a lowering of the censure between the Id and the ego – to use an anachronistic way to describe it.

We especially like the end of Goldsmith’s essay, because he goes to the heart of the terror – to the dog itself – and makes a little plaidoyer for the dog: “in him alone, fawning is not flattery.” “How unkind then to torture this animal that has left the forest to claim the protection of man! How ungrateful a return to the trusty animal for all its services!”

We could find many contemporary applications, n’est-ce pas?

Thursday, February 05, 2004


One of the most illuminating and melancholic comments we’ve read in the NYT about our system was buried in this story about the potential Bush strategy in a camaign against Kerry. That strategy is utterly predictable (begin on a rabid note, accelerate from there): what attracted us was this ominous quote from the Kerry side:

“Another Kerry adviser was more blunt. "This is not the Dukakis campaign," the adviser said. "We're not going to take it. And if they're going to come at us with stuff, whatever that stuff may be, if it goes to a place where the '88 campaign did, then everything is on the table. Everything."

Everything that is wrong with the Democrats is in that quotation. “Everything,” presumably, won’t be on the table if the Republicans play nice. Which leads to the question: why? The Democratic party is heading for extinction when, demagraphically, it should be heading for hegemony. That's because it still thinks of itself as the establishment. Establishments have to keep “everything” from being purveyed to the mob, which won’t understand it, or the necessity for it: the million little deals that keep the class composition of this country a predetermined harmony, a chorus of money wending its way upward. So you have the DC. Covenant – we won’t speak of Bush’s military record; we won’t oppose Bush’s rush to war, or question the evidence for it; we won’t attack the obvious whitewashes in the press of everything from the joke of a budget to the joke of our alliance with Pakistan, the one country that not only bristles with the infamous Weapons of Mass Destruction but has made selling them part of its economy; we won’t question what happened that made 9/11 happen, etc., etc. This isn’t because the Democrats fear the Republicans – the Republicans will attack the Dems with vim and vigor regardless of how meak and mild they are. It is because the instinctive, protective gesture of the Dem establishment, which is white, male, and millionairish, is to keep the status quo alive – to preserve those conditions in which the white, male, and millionairish can continue to be comfortable.

This is why we are afraid of Dean getting out of the race. Dean being in the race did send some 50,000 volts through the somnolence of the Senatorial candidates. Kerry is looking better against Bush every day. But that aide’s comment bodes ill for this campaign. If Kerry thinks that he can keep anything off of the proverbial table, he will inevitably lose. Dukakis, contrary to media popular legend, didn’t lose because he was a cold fish, or a small chump of change in a tank, but because he swept aside the chief issue of the day, the nationwide looting of the S&Ls. Why? Because he was for the changes that made that looting possible. He and his opponent tacitly talked agreed to talk about anything except the main thing that was happening in America -- the creaking and squeaking in the financial system, due to the gross mal-distribution of money from the financial sector to the LBOs and third world dictators and real estate in New Jersey that was all falling down. Where there's a crisis, there are profiteers -- but if Dukakis had brought that up, it would threaten Democrats as well as Republicans. To look into that would be to look into systematic corruption, and beyond that to the real changes that were taking place in our country, the changes that were systematically sucking money out of the inner city (where it was replaced with the money that came from the market in drugs) and from the working class. Remember, of the Senators who were tarred with leaning on regulators to give obvious fraudulent S & Ls a clean bill of health, most of them were Dems.

That Kerry’s aide could ‘threaten” to put everything on the table is an insult to every citizen and a light cast on the dark, petrified ruin of our system. We shouldn’t have a party system that props up a corrupt compact of little deals about what is and what is not “proper” to put on the table. At least the Republicans, in their relentless attacks, are willing to put everything on the table – everything, that is, that they hate about the Dems. This is what they should be doing.

Let’s hope that Kerry’s campaign seriously considers how arrogant, ignorant and symptomatic it is to menace us with doing what they should be doing in the first place. The Democrats disenfranchise their best hope -- the people who don't vote -- when they compromise in order to retain their little domains of political power The everything that isn't on the table makes the non-voting majority suspect, rightly, that elections are a charade. If Kerry is going to run a campaign against Bush while simultaneously protecting the embedded privileges that Bush and his party represents, he'll lose.

Go after Bush's military record, go after his stewardship pre 9/11, fight him on the shores and fight him on the mountains. Elections aren't about the pols running in them -- they are about us, the poor voters. Everything is on the table for us, every day.

So fire that goon-ish aide, and run like a man, not a patrician mouse.

Monday, February 02, 2004


I talked to D., my best friend, yesterday, and he bitched about the end of this blog. So I told him that I have to spend my time finishing my novel, and he said that he’d been hearing that excuse for 20 years.

Well, score one for D.

However, I didn’t tell D. that the other reason I ended this blog was that it was slowly and surely driving me crazy. Reading the newspapers closely every day is a sure recipe for a quick trip to the rubber room, if you ask me. And not having to read them in order to comment on … well, anything, has made yours truly feel much lighter.

However, there can’t be too much harm in writing a much less concentrated blog. So instead of pulling this thing down, we will do our jumping jacks here occasionally. It can’t do any harm.

Today, we read Christopher Hitchens column in Slate about the missing WMD. It made us wonder how long they are going to continue to put up with Hitchens. It is one thing to be a contrarian; it is quite another to start writing like William Safire’s senile uncle. The contrast between Fred Kaplan’s shrewd piece and the Hitchens bit of administration puffery was startling. The percentage of bluster, in Hitchens’ writing, has always been high, but the percentage of shrewdness has been high enough to compensate for it. Lately, however, it has been almost completely bluster. Among the highlights of this latest glimpse of mental devastation was Hitchens’ complex put down of Maureen Dowd. According to Hitchens, the anti-war left is carrying water for the CIA. As an instance of this, he triumphantly spots Dowd associating the CIA with Ahmed Chalabi, Hitchens’ Mussolini-lite bud, and bundling these two incompatibles together as the source for the inflation of Saddam the H.’s threat. In his usual new style, Hitchens rushes for the debating point at the expense of the argument. Chalabi supplied intelligence to a wholly other group than the CIA, Hitchens tells us – correctly. Of course, he has to put it another way – that Chalabi was smeared by the CIA. Smearing, apparently, means asking for an accounting of monies received when Chalabi not only failed to deliver an overthrow, in the nineties, but seemed to be using Intelligence money to support his own jet set life style. That, for Hitchens, is a smear. It is like accusing the head of Enron of doing something fishy -- how dare they!

Anyway, score one for Hitchens in the match vs. Dowd. Alas, he makes his point by running down the field the wrong way, towards the wrong goal. His point, of course, is one that the water-carrying CIA lovin’ lefties have been making repeatedly – that the Pentagon took intelligence that it wanted to believe in from Chalabi, while scrutinizing with extreme prejudice any CIA intelligence that went against the A.C. narrative.

Since Hitchens has, in the past, abundantly credited Chalabi and his group with supplying intelligence on Iraq, surely he should, if he has any honesty left, ask his buddy about that. Was the intelligence as misleading as the accounting of various of Chalabi's businesses in the past? Maybe it is time for Hitchens to ask how a known financial crook became the Pentagon's golden boy.

On to the budget. Surely, the Dems have enough ammo, now, to run a McCarthyite campaign against Bush. The only logical explanation for Bush’s twin achievements – the destruction of the Atlantic alliance, and the subversion of the American economy – is that he is the Manchurian candidate. Barbara Bush must have been flashing those big playing cards at him a lot, recently. How else can one account for an administration that sorta misses one hundred thirty billion dollars in its estimation of its Medicare “reform” package; one that proposes raising Defense expenditures massively, making tax cuts on the wealthiest permanent, and projects halving the budget deficit by… what’s the year? 2009, by... growing the economy!

Surely the man is a plant. That's why the beady eyes are so cloudy, the voice is so hesitant. It must be the cards every morning. And, as he destroys one thing after another, the press is always there to try to make the evident irrationality seem normal. It is getting harder and harder to make that case.