Friday afternoon I was being my normal obnoxious self around the office, pretending to be a stoned philosopher.
"Dude, like are you aware the earth is just a rock hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour....we're all just passengers on this ship we call a planet," I said, doing a terrible Jeff Spicoli impression, for a reason I can’t remember.
But as I finished, a coworker looked at me from her desk, fretful, saying "I don't like hearing that. It gives me a panic attack."
She wasn’t kidding. I saw it in her eyes.
After all, there are certain things that, if you think about them super hard, can create anxiety to the point of inducing panic.
Panic is like a gravitational attraction. That's its power. When my coworker said that she wasn't feeling right, I understood what she meant: my pseudo-observation that we are moving, despite feeling as though we are standing still, creates a disorientation that undermines your being. You begin to get a little lightheaded. Try it, just sitting here now – think about the fact that you’re actually moving thousands of miles an hour without a seat belt. I don’t like it. At all.
I bring this up only to point out the frailty of the human mind when up against the persuasive power of panic. For the past few months, during that idle hour in the green room before the Five, some of us have talked about that eerie medical story from Cuba, in which several dozen people working for the U.S. embassy in Cuba fell ill - experiencing dizziness, nausea, headaches. Some reported losing their hearing. These symptoms were, as Slate reports in an excellent piece by Frank Bures, medically confirmed - with abnormalities found in the victim’s white matter in their brains. These illnesses were called evidence of "health attacks," and some blamed a sonic device, since a few diplomats reported high-pitched noises where they lived.
A few of us debated doing the story on the show, but decided not to, because conjecture over a mysterious ailment can lead to trouble. My gut told me it was a psychological phenomenon driven by a contagious persuasive complaint. A game of illness tag. Mass hysteria?
Maybe. You do see this in classrooms - when a student falls ill, others around him do too. If someone smells something odd in a plane cabin and reports feeling dizzy - it tends to spread up and down the rows. I can throw up, depending on the suggestion (“you should read Paul Krugman” works amazingly fast).
But even though my gut sends this diagnosis to my brain, I didn't want to say that out loud, because I could be wrong. And I didn't want to dismiss illnesses that were truly impacting a person's life. Slate's Bures wrote, "mass psychogenic illness is likely the best explanation for these illnesses." But - noted in the subhead: “the symptoms so many Americans experienced were probably not caused by a secret weapon…that doesn't mean they're not real."
My rough translation: maybe it’s in their heads, but you can’t say that.
Persuasion is scary. One of my coworkers showed up with a rash, and instantly I start scratching my arms. When I smell coffee, I feel the urge to hit the rest room. I mute drug commercials, because when they rattle off side effects, I think I’m getting them. If I smell bubble gum, I’m instantly brought back to riding the dugout bench during interminable seasons of Little League.
Oddly, that brings me to a fairly recent tweet by retired four-star Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who called President Trump a "serious threat to U.S. national security," because of his perceived inaction regarding Russia's meddling in our lives.
That to me, should be a big story. I listen to four-star generals. They aren't lightweights. So this worries me. But…but…I also find all of this a little weird. Am I seeing something that's real - or is it something else? Could there be a better explanation why people like McCaffrey, Comey, and John Brennan go off the deep end with Trump? There’s no question that they think Trump is a bad guy. They hate him, because they think he's harmful. Is there a legitimate reason for this, or, is this like those noises created by secret weapons - a bogeyman likely existing only in their heads?
There are people now, who would have leaped for joy over John Bolton becoming NatSec Advisor, but who are now condemning such a choice, because Trump did it. Suddenly it’s another sign that we’re heading for war. What’s going on here?
For those in the media and political circles, there is a panic. And it seems entirely real. It’s in their heads, because everybody they know is in a panic. And everybody they cover — the Democrats — is also in a panic. So everybody agrees! And it makes sense! Here you have a group of people (the media) who absolutely believe something terribly wrong is happening. Worse, they are reassured that it's the end of the world by people who feel exactly the same way (Democrats). Or, you could look at it in reverse: here you have a group of people (Democrats) who absolutely believe something terribly wrong is happening, reinforced by people who feel exactly the same way (the media). Nobody stops to ask John Kelly why he isn't in a panic. Or why Mad Dog isn't in a panic.
Trump's presidency is a self-perpetuating panic attack: the more you hear people expressing panic about Trump, the more panic about Trump there is.
Chaos is now the new collusion. CNN screams “panic!” Brian Stelter starts breathing into a paper sack. And click-hungry blogs like Mediaite fall in line reporting junk to the power of panic. CNN anchors then read Mediaite to each other, and feel compelled to add a new layer. They're in a panic because of the panic they've been reporting!
My own panic response is always to run—against panic. I worked in health journalism for a while, so my “Spidey-sense” for illogical overreaction is keen. I’ve resisted panics over additives, recovered memories, apples, bacon, climate apocalypses, pseudo-epidemics. One thing I learned for sure: Paranoia is bad for your health. Seeking it out and nurturing it and spreading it is a real public health issue.
A side note about other recent panics: we aren’t getting more violent. We’re getting less violent. The press needs to justify its panic so it seizes on every violent incident, more than ever. A local incident goes national, on cable. If there’s a shot fired outside a 7-11, cable news will break in. It used to take months before one side of the country heard about some bad but minor thing occurring on the other side. A thousand people could die in the Bahamas from a hurricane, and the news would take weeks to reach Iowa. The world has actually gotten way safer – but that doesn't really support the appetite for panic in the press.
Panics all share the same characteristics. They are cheap drama, they are caused by nefarious "enemies" (like Trump), and they are very emotional. In a way, they even feel good. And, the strategy most often advocated in the media goes like this: "Somebody should do something." Panic may not be much, but it is something. But is it real? Is it justified? If you want to know whether something is a truly horrible problem, or a crazy panic, read up on the world’s worst calamities: Nazism and Communism. Trace them back to their causes. You’ll notice a lack of a panic among Nazi and Communist leaders. Those guys were just calmly doing evil.
The truth is, evil people calmly committing evil deeds pray for panic. It's what they want. The Holocaust was the work of a crazy German dictator who calmly decided to exterminate Jews after he engineered a panic by blaming them for his country's social and financial collapse. Communists created a panic about “exploitation.” Their solution? The murder of millions to create a system of non-exploitive "equality" with everyone stuck at zero, starving to death, toiling in fields to achieve one singular, hideous outcome — bones resting together in a charred heap.
How did those panics happen? Were people too busy, panicking about other things? I don’t know. But maybe worrying about climate change in an era of Islamic terror could be like worrying about the dangers of the phonograph during the Hitler era.
The reason a lot of this panicky stuff is happening is because it's what the media and the left want. They need to be right. They need to be hysterically correct. As Kevin Williamson writes, we humans are suckers for drama. “It may end up being the case that, a generation hence, historians look back on our era the way my friend does: safe and boring. “
Stormy! Tariffs! DACA! Collusion! Climate change! As the British like to say, "Remain calm and carry on." If you have an appetite for panic, don't fall for media hype. Just call the IRS and ask them if you owe them anything. Then panic.