Ebola, the "heart of darkness" and the epidemic of fear

It's a dangerous virus and Africa is suffering. But the American media-political panic is ugly and narcissistic

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 4, 2014 4:00PM (EDT)

Nowa Paye, 9, is taken to an ambulance after showing signs of the Ebola infection in the village of Freeman Reserve, Liberia, Sept. 30, 2014.                  (AP/Jerome Delay)
Nowa Paye, 9, is taken to an ambulance after showing signs of the Ebola infection in the village of Freeman Reserve, Liberia, Sept. 30, 2014. (AP/Jerome Delay)

Ebola, at least from the American perspective, is something like the great white shark. It’s dangerous, all right, but the odds that it’s going to get you are vanishingly small. Fear of large predators and fear of the plague are deeply encoded in human experience and handed down from our ancestors. Maybe an instinctive response is invoked that we can’t resist. But in both cases, the self-refueling cycle of media panic is an epidemic that’s almost certainly more destructive than the original phenomenon itself — and the fear is not really about what we claim it’s about. Our collective freak-out over one Ebola-infected airline passenger, or one fatal shark attack among millions of beachgoers (which is roughly the annual average), reflects the fact that we’re still tribal animals driven by groupthink and primal terror, with little faith in science or logic and no sense of perspective. We believe in monsters, but we almost never look for them in the right place.

Just as you are far more likely to be struck by lightning or electrocuted by a fallen power line than to be eaten by a shark — and immeasurably more likely to die while you’re driving to work — the list of things that will kill you before Ebola does is very long. As Jon Stewart observed a couple of nights ago, roughly 600,000 Americans die every year of heart disease. Nobody can say for sure how many of those deaths are preventable, or how many are directly related to obesity and sloth and the Big Gulp-based American diet. So let’s take an improbably and insultingly low estimate and say 10 percent. That’s 60,000 people every single year dying of Whopper poisoning in this country alone, or almost 20 times the number who have died in the entire West African Ebola outbreak to this point. For some reason, you don’t hear people screaming about that on Fox News.

We could go on. If you want to worry about communicable disease, worry about the 50,000-plus Americans who die of flu and/or pneumonia every year. (Influenza, an airborne virus that endlessly mutates and is notoriously difficult to contain, has far more potential to spawn a global pandemic than Ebola does, at least based on what we know now.) If you want to talk preventable epidemics, consider the escalating suicide rate among American men, now topping 30,000 a year, and its clear link to depression and alcoholism and other forms of treatable mental illness. We could move from there to the affiliated question of all the Americans who die of intentional or accidental gunshots every year, but since we now understand that the Founding Fathers enshrined our right to high-powered weaponry in the Constitution, I won’t bother. Suffice it to say that addressing any of those statistics would require actually doing something about the deficiencies of our own society, while Ebola-panic requires nothing beyond empty bluster about how Obama must seal the borders against the invading hordes of plague-infected black people.

Of course the Ebola-shark parallels break down at a certain point, and I do not want to sound cavalier about a health crisis that has taken thousands of lives in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, or about the urgent humanitarian response that demands. I have no desire to encounter a shark in the ocean, but their species presents no threat to ours and never has; at this point in evolutionary history, our instinctive fear of them is likely to lead to their extinction. It’s not unreasonable, on the other hand, to be concerned about the possibility of a global epidemic in our increasingly interconnected world. The tale of the Dallas airline passenger and the circle of people he may have infected makes for an irresistible news drama, one that’s likely to inspire several medical thrillers and nonfiction bestsellers. But too often we cannot tell the difference between drama and evidence, and so far there is no evidence that Ebola is likely to become a world-shaping disaster.

Indeed, I’d suggest that Ebola-panic (like shark-panic) is shaped and informed by fictional thrillers — in this case, yarns about civilization-destroying plagues and the zombie apocalypse and so forth. It also taps into our cultural narcissism and xenophobia, into the paranoid imperial perception that American civilization is the center of the world and also that it’s precariously balanced, and constantly under attack from dangerous outsiders. All it takes is a handful of African visitors with cardboard suitcases and undiagnosed infections, and next thing you know the cable goes out at Mom’s house and we have to eat the neighbors.

Our reaction to a disease that originates in Africa is also inevitably contaminated by Western culture’s complex of guilt and fear when it contemplates that continent. As Joseph Conrad saw clearly in “Heart of Darkness” more than a century ago, the true savagery of European civilization was never more clearly revealed than in its murderous and exploitative stewardship of a place that Westerners repeatedly insisted was inhabited only by savages. America’s role in African history is far too complicated to sum up here, and it wouldn’t be quite fair to say it’s all negative. But the political hysterics and talking heads who are most worked up about Ebola are exceedingly likely to view African society through outmoded stereotypes, and to understand the Ebola outbreak (consciously or otherwise) as something created by Them but somehow directed at Us.

On the same broadcast where Jon Stewart raised the heart-disease statistics, he drew a brief analogy between Ebola panic and the ill-considered hysteria over ISIS that appears to be drawing the United States inexorably into Iraq War 3.0. This was touching a much deeper nerve than Stewart understood, perhaps. I was going to wonder, half-facetiously, when somebody on the right-wing fringe would suggest that Ebola was actually a terrorist weapon, invented by jihadis to bring America to its knees. But you can never outrun the paranoid imagination: A site called National Report revealed a few days ago that ISIS suicide bombers have infected themselves with Ebola and are planning to “synchronize their self-detonations in the populated areas of American cities,” thereby splattering passers-by with infectious bodily goo. (In other news: You will soon need a passport to use Twitter, and Officer Darren Wilson, the Ferguson shooter, is distantly related to Vlad the Impaler.)

Our media culture is so profoundly dysfunctional, and so driven by fear and superstition, that several “mainstream” news outlets have done half-baked follow-ups to this story. (Even Fox News was forced to admit that weaponized Ebola was not a plausible threat.) Here’s the connection I see between ISIS and Ebola: Both those things represent deadly and daily danger to the people in Africa and the Middle East who actually have to confront them, and both pose complex challenges on a global scale. Trapped in the infantile disorder of American public discourse, our political and media classes can only perceive both problems as primarily if not exclusively American problems. They matter because they pose a threat to the glorious American way of life — and since they pose no such threat, the threat must be invented and the real dangers grossly exaggerated.

Those who argue that we should shut down immigration and visa travel from all African nations to halt the spread of disease are the same people who’d like to do that anyway, for any number of unrelated reasons or just on general xenophobic principle. A disease that has killed thousands of ordinary people in Africa — but is highly unlikely to do so in America, given reasonable precautions — becomes just another cynical, poisoned term in the cynical, poisoned vocabulary of politics. In much the same way, the crimes of ISIS, which we didn’t notice until they started beheading Westerners, become an excuse for undead neocons to restart a war they never wanted to end in the first place. As it happens, there were no fatal shark attacks on America’s beaches this summer, so they couldn’t be blamed on terrorism or immigration or Obama or all three at once. But just you wait: The Ebola-stuffed ISIS sharknado is almost here.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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