Tuesday, November 20, 2007

preacher mather

The sun is shining and the birds are winging as my Mazda purrs down Capital Boulevard. Suddenly, the candy-colored music on the radio stops. An ominous voice intones:
"In 1918, thousands of North Carolinians died as pandemic flu swept the world. There is no pandemic flu today, but experts say it is just a matter of time. That's why the North Carolina Division of Public Health is working to help you and your family prepare."

Talk about your mood breaker.

In the history of health catastrophes, the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic ranks right up there with the Black Death. This virulent bug killed 40 million to 100 million people, dwarfing the death toll from World War I.

Imagine how the dinosaurs felt when that asteroid crashed to Earth -- kaboom! That's your mind-set when pandemic flu strikes. And it is just a matter of time.

After conjuring this dire scenario, the public service announcement offered some pretty tame advice: Cover your mouth when you cough and your nose when you sneeze, wash your hands often. Stay home when you're sick. The most apocalyptic suggestion was that you "stock your pantry with food that has a long shelf life and does not need to be cooked." (Beans again!)

The spot seemed more than a tad alarmist, an attempt to scare up interest in familiar tips as cold and flu season approaches. Yes, scientists believe that pandemic flu will strike again, but its severity and timing (one, 10, 25 years or more?) are uncertain.

More to the point, seasonal flu is scary enough. About 36,000 Americans will die from it this year. So why the end-of-times radio spot?

"It's marketing," explained Debbie Crane, public affairs director for the state Department of Health and Human Services. "You've got to grab people's attention."

Translation: People accept the seasonal flu as a fact of life, and to persuade them to protect themselves against it, you have to frighten them with images of pandemic pandemonium.

The campaign may seem high pitched, but it reflects a basic fact of life: If you're aiming for America's ear, forget the head and shoot straight for the gut. If you want to cut through the mass media cacophony, let cataclysm be your carnival barker.

The airwaves are full of blow-dried Chicken Littles.

Cable news channels beam constant reports of "extreme weather," school lockdowns and highway car chases. Genuine challenges turn into visions of Armageddon: "Terrorist plots! Terminator infections! Nuclear threats!"

The message: "Be afraid. Be very afraid!"

Catastrophe, however, is like a drug. The more you get, the more you need. News outlets and political leaders must relentlessly ramp up their warnings to grab our attention.

Consider the Nobel Peace Prize shared last month by Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The New York Times, in a story headlined "2 Winners, and 2 Approaches to Spreading the Word on Climate," contrasted the IPCC's measured voice of peer-reviewed research with Gore's "brimstone-laden warnings of an unfolding 'planetary emergency.'" The article quoted scientists who were "queasy" about Gore's more alarmist claims, but they also applauded him for focusing public attention on a crucial issue.

Gore's approach raises age-old questions about whether it is proper to twist facts in the name of a higher truth. It is also part of an American tradition -- stretching back at least to the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather -- whereby leaders have used doomsday images to get people to change their ways.

Because the fear factor is not new, we shouldn't pine for a nonexistent golden age when people looked at life head-on. Its long pedigree, however, shouldn't make us accept it with a shrug


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