Every day I wake up in the happy expectation that some cosmic threat will anihilate our species. I’m never disappointed. On TV, in the news, in government pronouncements and presidential speeches, in the movies, everywhere I turn — catastrophes of epic magnitude rain down on me, disasters of biblical proportion, and in the background of these catastrophes-disasters — catasters? disastrophes? — I hear loud authoritative voices shouting “Step aside, you useless gnat, we’re in control here” — and my day is made.
I need a giant crisis every day. People tell me it’s an addiction, but what do they know? I could quit if I wanted to. Any time.
But that would be irresponsible. There can be no drama without an audience, and that’s my job. Without me, global crises would fizzle. If a disastrophe befalls in the forest and nobody notices, it’s as if it never was.
That, I say, is the road to a pointless, self-centered existence. Without my fix of crises, what on earth would I worry about — rail about — opine and pontificate about? My friends? My family? Too horrible to contemplate.
The American way of life has been established so that such a dearth of catasters will never torment the citizens of this great country. I’m man enough to confess I get misty-eyed thinking about it. When it comes to the industrial production of doomsday scenarios, we are Number One. If you crave a cosmic crisis every day, this land is your land. The rest of the world believes you can’t flog a dead horse, but in America we ride tall in that dead horse’s saddle.
Multiple institutions work hard to satisfy my need to believe something horrible is around the corner. Newspapers may be losing their readers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t scream a recession into a Worst Ever, Back-to-the-Stone-Ages, Greatest of the Great Depressions. The President may regret being thrust into the limelight and forced to give yet another round of speeches, but he will do his duty. “Sure, I have thrown trillions at this Black Hole of an economy,” he will say, “but believe me, everything will get worse anyhow.”
At this point, multiple banks, corporations, labor unions, and the usual hangers-on will, out of respect for Old Glory and our Founding Fathers, begin to rend their garments and gnash their artificially whitened teeth. “Hey, we need some of those trillions,” they will moan in front of TV cameras, journalists, politicians, and anyone else willing to listen. “Face it, we have pretty much piddled away quadrillions making stuff nobody wants, so now you owe us.”
Otherwise, no Chrysler. No Lehman Brothers. The collapse of civilization, as I understand it. The triumph of the post-vehicular, non-hedge fund creatures of the night.
For months, the recession provided many happy occasions to panic, with an abandon the likes of which I have never seen before and scarcely dream to see again. On this issue, the Obama administration has rejected the false counsels of hope and change. Whereas his predecessor was deliciously alarmist about our economic future, President Obama unleashed a veritable Rocky Horror Show of doomsday visions, which no doubt explains his popularity. During his brief tenure, he has met President Bush’s Bailout and doubled it with his own Stimulus, while reassuring the American people, like a good Keynesian, that in the long term we’re all dead.
Such a bounty of horrors could not last forever — politicians and journalists, after all, are mostly human, and their imagination, while fertile, isn’t inexhaustible. In recent weeks, the thunderclouds of gloom have attenuated to a mere fog of discomfort, and I have heard sinister voices express confusion and even good cheer. The stock market has enjoyed a healthy rebound. (One may wonder why the President hasn’t intervened to reverse this non-alarming trend.) The housing market may even be on the mend.
The last blow came from Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, who now foresees an end to this Worst-of-All-Possible-Depressions. In 2009. What’s he thinking? Once we think the future might be better, how on earth can we project (and enjoy) the End of Days onto the present?
None of this backsliding about the recession bothered me much, though, because I had moved on to a new cosmic cataclysm: the swine flu pandemic.
Everything about the disease positively shimmered with hideous possibilities. It had the word “swine” in it. (One imagines the infected, like the inhabitants of Circe’s island, using their snouts to root for truffles in the forest.) It started in a country where people go to get diarrhea. It’s spread by aliens and globalization, our most beloved villains — and though the Pentagon wasn’t initially implicated, how long could it be before someone made the connection?
The news media jumped on the story with its usual elephantine grace. This, they saw, went far beyond mere economic meltdown. This was existential. “Is this 1976, when we had a small, contained outbreak, or is this 1918, when 20 million people died world wide?” A purely rhetorical device. We knew the answer.
At a presidential news conference, the first question wasn’t about Afghanistan or North Korea. It was about swine flu. The President was ready, and declared his “deep concern.” In fact, all the authorities were ready. They were in control. No doubt they hesitated to tell us everything, because they realized it would lead to mass panic. On the other hand, they could then yell, “Stay home and wear a mask, you coughing, sneezing dweebs. The big boys are taking over” — and that was too much fun to resist.
Besides, panic was the whole point of the exercise.
The World Health Organization issued a level 5 pandemic alert. Level 5 — it sounded bad, very bad, much worse than, say, four other levels. Everyone with an officious-sounding title held press conferences to show they were in charge: the mayor of New York, the governor of California, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, and — this was bad, really bad — the secretary of Homeland Defense. The country, I suspected, was facing extinction.
The Vice President spoke. I don’t recall his words exactly, but I think he said something along these lines: “Listen, this is worse than the bubonic plague. Much, much worse. But don’t panic! We can probably save a third of the population — and with the proper breeding techniques, and a ratio of, say, ten females to each male, we can work our way back to the present gross national product within 20 years . . .”
Naturally, panic struck. Schools shut down, on the principle that ignorance was preferable to swinishness. The school system of Fairfax County, where I live, sent the parents a daily dose of panicky reassurances. They said they faced a “rapidly evolving situation.” They planned to evolve right with it. Every confirmed swine flu case in the state of Virginia, they said, had been tracked down and written up, and they were sending us this grim statistic as often as we needed a reminder of our mortal flesh.
That’s when things began to unravel. The total number of swine flu cases in Virginia, according to Fairfax County Schools, was zero. How could this be? Trembling with trepidation, I did some research. The total number of deaths in the U.S. from this devastating plague, so far, is two. The total number of cases in the world is 2,000. The average number of deaths from boring old non-porcine influenza in this country is 20,000 every year.
Suddenly, the mood turned. The CDC downgraded the horribleness of the swine flu strain. For all his concern, President Obama allocated $1.5 billion to the prevention of the disease — not even chump change in Washington. Faced with a savage onslaught of encouraging news, the media deserted the pulpit of the gospel of doom, and began criticizing itself.
Game over. Due to a combination of failed leadership and bad luck, the country appeared to be muddling through.
This should not be tolerated. I am declaring an official crisis crisis. How can we survive, without a credible apocalypse looming in the near distance? This has nothing to do with me — I happen to be one of those privileged people who experience cosmic failures every day by rooting for the Washington Nationals. But what of Red Sox fans? And where will we turn, when baseball season is over?
There must be a meteor about to hit our planet, or a lizard 100 feet tall gazing hungrily on Manhattan, or a rain of frogs predicted for the metropolitan area, or plague, or famine, or something. Find it. I appeal to the President, the media, and all the institutions of this great country to restore our Constitutional right to a terrifying future.