Thursday, May 14, 2009

Influenza as Metaphor

Two examples, one from the right and one from the left:

Jay Severin of WTKK-FM in Boston is typical of the class of overheated right-wing nativists that populate talk radio. During the height of the H1N1 panic a few weeks ago, Severin used his radio platform to describe Mexicans as, among other things, "primitives," "leeches," and a personal favorite, "exporters of women with mustaches and VD, [...and] swine flu." Severin was suspended for his remarks, which as the saying goes, is saying something. Severin was hardly the only right-winger that waxed disgustic on the nativist theme, using the virus as a shorthand to talk about how "pure," "real" America is being polluted by its southern neighbor. He was simply the most outrageous, which again is saying something.

A different take on the flu epidemic can be found here (the animal-rights organization PETA), or here (a columnist of an English-language newspaper in Pakistan), or here (generic blog entry) where the theme of "Mother Nature's Revenge" was sketched out. Of these three, columnist Irfan Husain has the most lucid observations:

"In a sense, this latest epidemic is an example of nature striking back. As in avian flu and mad cow disease, the close proximity of animals and birds due to industrial farming, as well as the feeding and breeding of these unfortunates creatures, is causing diseases to mutate very rapidly. As soon as one antidote is discovered, the virus mutates. Rats in Britain are now resistant to virtually every kind of poison used to reduce their numbers, and there is a growing concern that they might cause a plague."

But both these political "readings" of the flu are inherently flawed. The virus is not an immigration problem, nor is it a symbol of an immigration problem. American press coverage of lethal viruses have a tendency to emphasize the foreign-ness of certain viruses (e.g. Ebola and Marburg) while de-emphasizing the fact that we harbor such viruses or bacteria within our own borders (Sin Nombre, plague). The notion that scary and dangerous threats to our civilization come from the outside, and at that typically from third-world countries, is easily understood. If you don't believe me, watch the Dustin Hoffman movie Outbreak again.

Nor is this influenza episode an example of "nature's revenge." It may yet prove true that some of the industrialized agricultural conditions (see here for a good outline of the problem) might have laid the groundwork for a fast-moving and potentially dangerous pandemic; but that is not mother nature trying to "teach" us a lesson. Nature is neither something for which we are specially-appointed caretakers, nor is it (like the metaphor of God) a parental figure there to bring us sustenance or punishment depending on our behavior. Nature is complicated, messy, fascinating, teeming. But it is not moral.

I don't mean to imply that this right/left misreading of the outbreak has an equivalent impact on political dialogue. While both ways of interpreting the recent events may have their problems, it is the right-wing (at least in this country) that has the power of many mass media outlets behind it. That a maniac like Jay Severin has the ability to have a show on a major commerical radio--keeping in mind that Severin is just a small cog in this media machine, small fry compared to the likes of Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly--while the voices of the far-left are by-and-large confined to certain corners of the internet and some very local AM radio, says a lot about the disproportionate influence of far-right thinking on national political dialogue. Just because they both be wrong don't mean they's the same.

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