Articles

Monday, August 29, 2011

Panic Nation

As I sit here in the sunken ruins of New York City, breathing oxygen through a two mile straw, and shopping by dispatching orders through a helpful school of fish-- I can't help but think that I should have listened to the media when they told me to panic, run to the stores and pay 40 dollars for batteries, and then listen to every weather update while waiting for the end to come.

But of course none of that actually happened. There are places where hurricanes are dangerous, but the city I live in is not one of them. Aside from a few downed trees, some power loss and a little flooding near the river, the same things that happen every few years, there was nothing to speak of. Nothing except a vast media driven overreaction.

Hurricane Irene is just another entry in the non-stop shriek of media driven panic. The news cycle is fed by three main types of stories, salacious gossip, horrible tragedies and panic stories. All three are culturally destructive, but the third is the most insidious because it contains a germ of truth that is inflated to spread panic. Hurricanes are dangerous, so are child molesters and the swine flu-- but they are also elements in a news cycle that is intended to induce a state of permanent panic.

Permanent panic is another word for 'helplessness'. Consume enough panic stories and you begin to feel like your life is out of control. And that is the intended or unintended consequence of the media. People who feel helpless are eager to listen to anyone who promises to help and willing to accept any solution.

Media driven panics agitate the public and encourage politicians to cluelessly leap on the bandwagon with bad policies. Then when the policies fail, the media blasts the politicians, feeding a backlash to a mess that it created. And when the politicians go back to ignoring the problem, they run alarmist stories and the cycle repeats itself.

The common denominators in the media driven panics are reports that assume the worst case scenario with only shallow reporting on the nature of the problem leading to general overreactions, rather than intelligent problem solving.

That's how we decided to strip search everyone getting on a plane, rather than profile likely terrorists, or treat any stranger as a potential child molester. Or why a city where weather kills less people than panhandlers, had to shut down over a hurricane. These overreactions create a siege mentality which shuts down critical thinking and leads people to accept otherwise unacceptable solutions without asking questions.

The media often likes to pretend that it is the voice of reason, investigating and asking the questions that the public doesn't know enough to ask. In reality its chief function is to stop people from asking questions and accept its narrative. Panicked people are less likely to ask questions and more likely to do what they're told.

Questions narrow down a problem and its solution-- which is the opposite of the media's presentation that maximizes the possible danger to everyone by keeping the details as vague as possible. Whether it's bird flu or terrorism-- the two questions that most need to be asked,where is the problem coming from and what is the actual risk go unanswered.

Panic is created when people are told that their survival and the welfare of their families is on the line, but are given little information about the real risk to them or how to deal with the threat. Media driven panic saturates the airwaves, the print media and the internet with empty reporting that emphasizes the scale of the threat, but provides little useful risk assessment information. These gaps are filled in with the usual gimmicks, on the spot reporting, man on the street interviews, which are usually pitched to make the state of panic seem universal.

"It's happening in Denver, it's happening in Atlanta, everything is worried and doesn't know what to do."

The media's own political slant keeps it away from the subject of Islamic terrorism, but even without that it is in its interest to keep the nature of the terrorist threat as vague as possible. White people are a larger and less avoidable threat constellation than Muslims. The media works hard to dissuade us from fearing outsiders-- but it works twice as hard to teach us to fear each other.

The media is a vertical top down messaging apparatus and its vertical dominance is almost unchallenged. The greatest threat to it comes from horizontal messaging, peer to peer, and community to community. The internet has made horizontal communications much easier and more competitive which has badly rocked the media's boat. And it has compensated for it with more panic. And when the media panics, everyone else is supposed to panic.

Creating public mistrust within a community or a nation disrupts horizontal communications which helps those who control vertical communications. The less people trust each other, the more they are forced to trust the media. It's why Free floating paranoia is the media's drug of choice. And every broadcast injects into their listeners' ears and eyeballs over and over again.

Even when we aren't being taught to fear each other-- we are being taught to perceive other people as incompetent. Hurricane weather inevitably brings a rash of stories that emphasize how unprepared people are. How weak and stupid-- in contrast to those smart people who listen to the media. It isn't really about the hurricane, it's about modeling behavior by teaching viewers that smart means doing what you're told-- and stupid means refusing to listen to the media. This affects much more than hurricane preparation, it's meant to model a response to any and all events.

Citizen incompetence is one of the media's main narratives which teaches us that most people around us are dumb and barely able to cross the street. Again horizontal communications are being torn down to make way for top down messaging. If other people are stupid, then why listen to them? Much better to listen to the wiser heads in the media instead.

This sense of personal incompetence and group incompetence only strengthens the sense of isolation leaving only one voice in the room. The voice of the radio. The voice of the television. The voice of the press.

So a vast nation is whittled down, isolated and shunted off into the highways of conventional wisdom that everyone is supposed to obey. And always kept on the edge, uncertain of what will come the next day and the day after that. There are always a bewildering array of new threats. The oceans will rise if you don't recycle. Planes will explode if you carry baby milk along. It becomes easier to obey than to resist.

A permanent state of panic strains the nervous system to the breaking point, and pushes people into fight or flight responses, a state that makes lateral thinking difficult. False choices are given. If we don't bail out the banks then the economy will be destroyed. Either we raise the debt ceiling or the economy is destroyed. Either we follow the leader or absolute disaster follows.

It becomes easier to frighten people with a threat, than to have a conversation about our options. But the louder the alarm bells ring, the more the demands for action grow. We must raise the debt ceiling because the consequences are unthinkable. But how can they be unthinkable when the public is never given the chance to think about them-- when any debate or discussion is immediately squashed.

The failure to act immediately is branded as irresponsible. Debate becomes obstruction. Asking questions is a felony. Responsible leaders are told, do things immediately. They don't negotiate or debate. They just leap in. Or else everything is lost.

Obama's rule by executive order is an extension of the same media driven state of emergency, if urgent decisions have to be made right away, there's no time to discuss them. And even when we discuss them, all that we discuss is how terrible it would be if we don't make them. If is only the consequences of not making them that are discussed- never the consequences of not making them. "We have to pass the bill to find out what's in the bill."

Panic bridges the values gap between the media and the public. Panic blinds the people to the growth of incremental change that is drastically altering their way of life. A thousand mini-crises are used as weapons of mass distraction to prevent people from seeing how prices have gone up, morals have gone down and the very idea of what the nation used to be is being destroyed all around them.

Enough distractions and the voters with their antiquated notions of personal freedom and values can be kept at bay, while the country is torn down and rebuilt into a perverted mockery of itself. Enough panic and they will go along with it and even cheer the saviors that are presented to them. The men who will save them from themselves.

A permanent state of panic leads people to welcome anyone who will give them a sense of security no matter how baseless it might be. That was FDR's secret, the New Deal was a disaster, but it promised security. As did Obama's confident smirk-- the confident smirk, voters assumed of a man who knows what he's doing. They found out a little too late that he didn't, but there will be more confident smirkers coming along. And more panics for them to smirk through.

The important questions will go on being unasked, because to ask them would topple the empire of panic and the messiah of the confident smirk. If people began asking and answering those questions for themselves, they would no longer need the media to panic them or the smirkers to give them a sense of security. They would own their birthright again.

In other news, a satanic cult of industrialists is melting the ice floes using incandescent lightbulbs and saturated fats.

24 comments:

Larry Talbot said...

The media can be a force for great good, and occasionally I see it being used this way. Subtly. And far too infrequently. For some unique insights on media, I recommend the reading of "Propaganda", by Jacques Ellul.

Mary said...

Out of the park...again!

HermitLion said...

I loved the manufactured swine flu crisis. It never really made it to Israel, except on the wings of television, which tried really hard to get everyone to get a vaccine.

The more they pushed it, without a shred of evidence, the clearer it became that the 'terrible plague' existed mostly on the airwaves, and if one would just hit the 'off' button, then all shall be well again.

Anonymous said...

You are wrong. New York is at extremely great risk for devastating hurricane damage. Fortunately such monster storms are infrequent. You should be thankful and thank whatever gods you believe in that this time your home was spared.

Panic is created when people are not prepared for what tribulations life throws their way. Period.

New York is in a hurricane path. One of these days it will be hit. Residents should prepare accordingly.

mindRider said...

The law of large numbers makes the system inert to catastrophe. It might be terrible for the individuals that suffers from whatever plight visited upon them but humanity shall prevail. Even with the much smaller people numbers of the middle-ages humanity survived the black death which perished half the population of Europe. If a similar catastrophe would hit the planet now 3.5 billion humans would survive, a larger number than inhabited the earth in 1900. So to quote Mad magazine "What me worry?"

fsy said...

You meant "The internet has made horizontal communications much easier "

Keliata said...

Cuomo declaring a state of emergency in New York (AOL News didn't specify if it was for the entire state or just NYC) was certainly alarming. Other reports indicated that NYC, including Wall Street could be "under water."

Not minor flash flooding but 13-foot waves.

none said...

Love the blog. I am addicted to it.

I am a citizen of Louisiana. Way down South. We all watched with amusement all the news of the irene event.
We survived Hurricane Katrina. We had it a thousand times worse. We watched the nes work this event up into a lather. But mostly, we watched the dramatcis of how the Democrat city of new York was in impending perril and was going to be wiped off of the map. The projections seemed to model a cheap ScyFy made movie with the model showing huge waves and walls of water wiping out potential Obammy voters off of the voting map.

Oh what a tragedy.

We drank.

We ate.

Mostly we just laughed.


In the end. it worked out.

Now, the president has to figure how this hurricane will make him look good. George Bush had help here in a few days.

fsy said...


But mostly, we watched the dramatcis of how the Democrat city of new York was in impending perril and was going to be wiped off of the map.


This is a bit too much. NY may be full of fools who vote Dem and are destroying the country, but even they are people, and besides there must be millions of good decent people there as well (in particular my daughter, son-in-law, son and grandchildren). Let's remain calm and not let our feelings make us say or write things that we could easily regret forever.

Lemon said...

How nice for you "None" as you "watched with amusement" as 9 people died and some of us are still bailing out. Some will be hard pressed to recoup their losses.
Must be nice to sit on your throne and mock others. How fine for you and other like you to sit back and judge others.
Big hero.
Jerk.

Paul said...

"The media is a vertical top down messaging apparatus and its vertical dominance is almost unchallenged. The greatest threat to it comes from horizontal messaging, peer to peer, and community to community. The internet has made horizontal communications much easier and more competitive which has badly rocked the media's boat. And it has compensated for it with more panic. And when the media panics, everyone else is supposed to panic."

Notice also how we are obliged to discount the opinions shared with us on the internet. But of course part of the fun of having an opinion on the internet is discounting the opinions of others. And also, of course, the "media" is terrified of offering the same opportunity for the internet to judge its own opinions. Check any major "media" outlet on the internet and try to find a comments section or a forum of some kind. Most people give up looking, I know I did. I used to write letters to the editor. I wouldn't waste my time like that any more.

"The failure to act immediately is branded as irresponsible. Debate becomes obstruction. Asking questions is a felony. Responsible leaders are told, do things immediately. They don't negotiate or debate. They just leap in. Or else everything is lost."

And its not just panic, its any reaction. They don't just want you to panic, they just want your attention and they'll get it any way they can. Loud noises, for example. Anything that keeps you awake when you need to relax. It's not just the media, its the ambience of the street. Reaction to panic is good, but they're not going to get that if they don't have your attention and they don't want to see you paying attention to anything else if they haven't got it.

"The right to be left alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom"

William O. Douglas

Keliata said...

People should just be aware of what type of natural disasters their their region of the country is most prone to.

It would make no sense for me to prepare for hurricaine, mudslide, forest fires or tornado.

Severe thunderstorms and blizzards? Absolutely. After the Great Blizzard of '77 (White Death) we learned--and learned a lot. We know what to do now.

This might be unique to Buffalo but most of know that if the clouds are a weird greenish color and especially a snowstorm associated with thunder and lightning the snowstorm is going to be bad.

The eerie green sky and thunder and lightning during the winter is something you never forget.

You can't afford to panic in natural disaster.

Anonymous said...

I find your article cynical! It benefits no one.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

It benefits reason

2sloe said...

Lemon, I love you.

Lemon said...

Ammendment:
46 dead and counting.

Keliata said...

Right Daniel, it does benefit reason.

Lemon--I ditto what 2sloe wrote:)

Anonymous said...

The sad thing, the dangerous thing, is that the media does not inform the public about what it, in fact, truly dangerous and lapping at our shores. The public is distracted by a lot of pointless garbage without the benefit of being informed about that which may truly kill them. Islam is at war with the west. Iran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. THAT is not about panic. It is about the truth. And the truth of the matter is we are in grave danger.

Anonymous said...

Another very perceptive gem of an article, Daniel - keep 'em coming! I especially enjoyed this phrase: Panic bridges the values gap between the media and the public.
Although I don't think it's only "Panic Nation," the media - worldwide - seems to work in this way.
Lemon, I don't believe that "none" was being facetious or a jerk. He/she was just expressing the feeling of "much ado about nothing" that the MEDIA [after all, this was the subject of Sultan's post] was blowing up into a...storm. In contrast to the 1800+ deaths of Katrina, and $100+ billion of damage, the effects of Irene on the NYC were amusing, especially in light of the media panic attack. NO ONE belittles the fact that Irene did indeed leave behind 50+ dead, and some $10 billion in damage. That indeed is tragic!
And finally, I have to agree with the last Anonymous comment - the threat of radical Islam, and nuclear Iran, worldwide, is probably the most serious problem we face today, yet the media constantly squashes it.

--Yitz from Jerusalem

peacemaker said...

Choosing a cartoon by Latuff, however relevant, is not appropriate considering the majority of his political cartoons are blatantly anti-semitic

http://blog.thecst.org.uk/?p=2850

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

I know who he is, didn't notice the signature

Ex-Dissident said...

Another great post. As a fellow New Yorker, I also wondered why there was this atmosphere of panic created when it was known one day ahead that Irene would only be a tropical storm by the time it would hit New York City. My take on the grandstanding and apparent over-reaction was that the mayor and his minions were trying to compensate over their failure to clear the snow during the past Winter. I don't know if I buy this idea that our political class is consciously using the media to generate lots of fear and hype as part of a scheme to make us thoughtless lemmings. On the other hand, the nanny state rules and regulations do treat us as thoughtless and helpless, and certainly the media expects this to characterize the average Joe on the street. Maybe this is more of along the lines of an subconscious where the politicians want to view us as thoughtless cattle and pass laws appropriate for such, and the elite journolistas continue to support the same narative. In their world, it is a wish fulfilling prophecy. In any case, great and very insightful post.

Keli Ata said...

Ex--I wondered about that myself. Why all the panic over a category 2hurricaine?

Though I undersood the logic behind cutting off power. As the mayor said, electricity and salt water don't go together well.

But I think I would have been upset at not being able to use an elevator or anything. I'd feel trapped.

It's one thing when people decide on their own to just stay home and ride out the storm.

I'm not sure why so many politicians would put people into a panic.

In a couple of interviews online authorities in NYC mentioned that the storm preparedness reflected just how well the city would respond to a large scale terrorist attack.

I can't help but wonder if what the city does was really a drill.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

also cutting power takes out water in many buildings, which leaves people without drinking water or working toilets unless they prepped beforehand

I think it was partly a drill, a lot of agencies trying to show how much they had learned

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