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Flu in the Face

Anyone who spends time in enclosed public spaces is barraged with images from television news, most often broadcast from the default network, CNN. We glimpse these images, with the sound down, for only seconds at a time as they bounce, germ-like, from corner to corner, chasing us on our way. Fleeting news stories, green-screened behind us as we hustle from place to place, barely register as they seep into our subconscious.

Why are all these TV screens still lurking and hanging around now that our gaze is buried in our phones? They are there to make sure we see advertising right after we find out about the latest disaster that just happened—an explosion, a leak, a crash, then Geico, it’s what you do (the most pulverizing, untrue slogan since America runs on Dunkin’). Between these commercials that destroy meaning, news networks glue one news story to another, attaching them together in symptomatic montages that reveal new meanings. 

In the days leading up to the Iowa caucus, two kinds of hysterical coverage merged into one. The Zika virus, or the news media’s obsession with it, infected the 24-hour political speculation, creating a monster subtext to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the primaries. Once again, a virus linked to American fears of foreign contagion whipped the news media into a spasm of disease-based Othering, this time just as the 2016 presidential race officially began.

With our cable reporting-cum-business model, it’s astonishing that hand sanitizer companies are not making up the lion’s share of prime-time cable ad buys.

The ethics of cross-cutting between scenes of shouting Republican candidates in Iowa who are opposed to immigration, one of whom wants to build a wall to stop it, and images of brown babies afflicted with microcephaly in Central and South America, did not seem to concern cable news networks. In practical, visual terms, however, the shocking juxtaposition was propagandistic in a classic sense; you didn’t have to be Sergei Eisenstein to recognize it. From the standpoint of cable news producers, these were just two separate news stories that happened to coincide. The news networks couldn’t help it if the World Health Organization declared Zika a pandemic the same day Iowans went to the polls. 

At least no one was calling it Spanish flu. When that flu epidemic struck in 1918, during World War I, it was named for the Spanish, America’s defeated enemy, because wartime censorship protocols prevented reporting on the flu’s scourge on the front. The U. S. government did not want people thinking our boys were unheroically dying of the flu or bringing it home with them. The fact that Spain was a neutral country in the Great War left Spanish papers alone in reporting the deaths, making Spain seem especially sick (and weak).

Since then, there has been a reversal of sorts. The names of flus and viruses, linked to their presumed places of origin, have overlapped with places on the globe that America fears. That has been true even, or maybe especially, if the pandemics prove to be busts on American soil. The Asian flu of 1957, for instance, came during the Cold War, along with the Red Scare and stories of communist brainwashing. The American public was told that particular flu descended from the Russian flu at the same time that Soviet communism was infecting the Chinese and threatened to spread around the world: the pandemic was ideological as well as viral.

As things turned out, defeating the actual virus was easier than defeating the ideological one. But both kept Americans on their toes, and encouraged them to keep their hands clean.

Few Americans today remember that flu epidemic now because it wasn’t very deadly here, just as subsequent epidemics, right up to last summer’s “camel flu,” which supposedly originated in Saudi Arabia, have come and gone without wiping out the domestic population. The news media blows each one up nonetheless, depending on the short memory of the 24-hour news cycle to wash the previous virus away. So it has been for every alleged pandemic to emerge in recent years, from SARS (Chinese) to Ebola (West African)—all busts that the cable news networks nevertheless deftly exploited to frighten viewers out of their wits, and all imminent epidemics originating in places we were supposed to fear.

With this as the cable reporting-cum-business model, it’s rather astonishing that hand sanitizer companies are not making up the lion’s share of prime-time cable ad buys. And it’s just as surprising that the institutional memories of our cable broadcast companies are so short. Each time they whip up a new flu scare, it’s as if the previous one never happened. How does Wolf Blitzer bring himself to read the same lines about these viruses again and again, over footage of people in different countries? (Maybe Blitzer’s prior D.C. apprenticeship with AIPAC helped put him at ease with repetitive propaganda.)

Viruses that first affect minority populations in the U.S., such as HIV/AIDS are minimized and mocked by the media, and their victims are left to fend for themselves.

Regardless of where these flus ultimately hail from, they always lend themselves to enterprising jingoistic use. To take just one especially dramatic example, recall the killer bee epidemic, which reached North America in the mid-eighties, which probably fixed much of our contemporary template for contagion. The killer bees, like the Zika virus today, crossed our border from the south. Moreover, the killer bees were a strain of “Africanized” honeybees that had cross-bred with more benign, untainted honeybees. The specter of this mongrelized bee race—either Latinized African or Africanized Latino—posed a dire threat to the U.S.A., and drove no end of sensationalized news coverage. The killer-bee myth was punctured in the mid-seventies, when the rogue insects in question were portrayed on Saturday Night Live as comical Mexican banditos barging into apartments. Despite the joking, the threat of killer-bee invasion was kept alive through the 1980s, especially in border areas. Then it dissipated from public consciousness, vaguely remembered from bad 1970s movies, a bit of trivia like the swine flu vaccinations of the Gerald R. Ford years.  

Unfortunately, the Anglo-American fear of actual Latinos and African Americans has lasted longer than the killer bee scare. These populations are the principal victims in another sort of viral epidemic: the xenophobic compulsion to distance the American polity from menacing Others. This mass sickness strikes with greater violence, and with much more enduring and ruinous side effects than what we experience during a typical flu season.

Viruses that first affect minority populations in the U.S., such as HIV/AIDS, are not dealt with this way in the media when they first appear. They are minimized and mocked, and their victims are left to fend for themselves. So as we watch cable news stories about Zika, we do well to remember that the first pandemics to hit North America in the seventeenth century went on for over two hundred years and wiped out a large percentage of the domestic population. Curiously, however, these deadly outbreaks were never called the English flu.