David Brooks writes that Ebola is more than a physical adversary—it “exploits the weakness in the fabric of our culture,” by pulling at our isolation and fear of authority:
… We’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.
That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. … It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further.
All of this disconnect, Brooks believes, has given rise to conspiracy theorists and government-wary cynics—people like the anti-vaccine parents, and like the people wearing homemade hazmat suits for fear of Ebola.
It’s true that there are conspiracy theorists out there who don’t trust medical professionals, and think their own remedies or friends’ recommendations are better. But I don’t think “segmented society” is the root of the fear Americans are expressing. It seems more likely that they feel the government has deceived or disappointed them in the past, will likely do so again, and might be doing so even now. As Rod Dreher pointed out, “We are being asked to trust the government’s planning — remember Katrina? remember FEMA? remember “heck of a job, Brownie”? — and to trust in the competence of hospital administrators (which, in the case of Texas Presbyterian Hospital, has been a mistake).”
What Brooks is identifying is not necessarily a fear bred from isolation, but rather a fear of the state and its practiced deception. People who have relationships with local communities, civic centers, and local doctors are still likely to be frightened by an epidemic of this proportion—perhaps especially because it is still far-off, a fearsome specter in the distance, not something they can tackle on a personal or communal level.
Brooks also blames Ebola fear on a “bone-deep” suspicion of globalization—he calls Ebola “the perfect biological embodiment of what many fear about globalization”, “a dark insidious force from a mysterious place far away.” But the suspicion that Brooks identifies hasn’t stopped any Americans from buying internationally-made foods, home products, cars, or clothing. It hasn’t stopped them from subscribing to Facebook and Twitter in multitudinous numbers. It hasn’t stopped them from taking millions of trips outside the U.S. every year. If Americans are afraid of globalization, they haven’t yet expressed that fear very eloquently. Arguments against international travel don’t necessarily seem anti-globalist; rather, they look practically at the implications of a dangerous virus, spreading from place-to-place without checks, and respond accordingly—with caution, with care, and with a proper sense of alarm.
Brooks is right to say modern media is a huge driver of Ebola hysteria. Modern news “goes viral” in much the way an actual virus does, carrying the same sort of heady absorption and loss of context along with it. It’s very hard to keep a sense of context in the midst of the viral news age. And there are enough unreliable reports mixed in with the good ones to keep issues like this incredibly muddy and frightening for the average news browser.
Brooks also rightly notes that our collective fear of death is part of the problem. We live in an age where modern medicine has made incredible advances. We live incredibly long lives, mostly pain-free. Many Americans work at desks all day, do minimal outdoor or indoor labor, take their immunizations, and suffer from little worse than the common cold and or the flu. They are wrapped in a cocoon of safety, seemingly immune to death before their time.
And then Ebola comes along. Even if there’s only a slight chance one might catch it, it still tears apart the cocoon, leaving many feeling vulnerable and frightened. The media only serves to further perpetuate these feelings of fear.
Brooks’ article seems to suggest that the antidote to this widespread fear is greater trust in authority and the government—as he says at the end, “In these circumstances, skepticism about authority turns into corrosive cynicism. People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid. Fear, of course, breeds fear.”
But blind faith in political authority seems very unlikely to soothe people’s misgivings. Their ability to confront the panic associated with such a deadly virus cannot stem from more trust in national government. That’s the very sort of statism that does make people more isolated.
Instead, we need to give people a sense of context, a cohesive and straightforward news coverage that stays away from sensationalism and presents the simple facts. Journalists ought to be more careful in the way they discuss Ebola: there needs to be honest analysis, and a greater sense of compassion—both for the suffering, and for the fearful.
We also need to give people a solution to the fear beyond the hysteria—the fear of death that rests at the core of every person. People, even those comfortably wrapped in their cocoons of safety, must confront the reality of mortality and come to grips with it. They must understand that death isn’t just some fearful virus hovering in the distance: it’s also a car crash, a cancer diagnosis, a gun going off accidentally. Until we realize that death is all around us, we won’t be able to confront the fears associated with a specific sort of death. And once we have diagnosed these fears, we will slowly be able to deal with them—and hopefully conquer them.
Update: Brian Brown wrote a thoughtful response to David Brooks and myself over at Humane Pursuits. Here’s an excerpt:
The best thing David said, which I don’t think Gracy quite gave enough credit, boils down to this problem, a problem that I think is one of the most fundamental in today’s America—and to which nonprofits, politicians, and other leaders ought to devote a great deal of thought and attention: “We live in a world where we can affect less and less of what we see, and where we can see more and more.”
…The opportunity before today’s leaders at every level in every sector is this: to find ways to push day-to-day life and its priorities back to a human scale; geographically, politically, and otherwise—to allow people’s minds to open up again to a human-scaled life that’s socially acceptable to structure around the things that make us human. … People need it today more than they ever have.