November 18, 2005

Flu, v. 1918

I finished The Great Influenza, and it's a great read. It's also terrifying and instructive. Some of us are outraged at the current media's shortcomings in reporting the Administration's failings and prevarications, but today's omissions look mild compared to what happened in 1918. My opinion of Woodrow Wilson has changed drastically after reading this book. Here's a quote from a speech he made even before the U.S. entered the war:

There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, . . .who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life. . . .Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.

To do that, he pushed the Espionage Act through Congress. It gave the Postmaster General the right to refuse to deliver any periodical he deemed unpatriotic or disloyal to the Administration. (Remember, this was before TV and radio, so virtually all political discourse went through the mail.) The Attorney General asked for and got a law which allowed him to punish statements made "from good motives or. . .[if] traitorous motives weren't provable." This law, the Sedition Act, could get you twenty years if you were to "utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the government of the United States."

To arouse the country in favor of the war, something called the Committee on Public Information was created. It generated thousands of press releases, and the media ran them unedited (or fact-checked). Moreover, the press practiced self-censorship (probably partly in fear of the Sedition Act). This self-censorship meant that reports of illness at military camps (where the disease originated) were unreported or watered down, thus creating a false sense of safety in the population. After a while, the public caught on through its own observations of sickness and death in its neighbors and its families, and after that it stopped believing anything the press published. Because of that, precautions to avoid flu weren't taken and people refused to help their fellow citizens, raising the death toll.

It's an amazing book. It's got an afterword which was written as the avian flu began to appear in Asia, and that in itself is enough to make the book worth reading.

Posted by Linkmeister at November 18, 2005 02:35 PM | TrackBack

I honestly thought this sort of thing was common knowledge... that there was even less freedom in the past...
Something similar to how sexism was more prevalent in the past, of course... but it's still alive today, of course. Not as bad - but it's not like we've been 'cured' as a society, of the dog eat dog mentality... of these ridiculous tendencies left over from caveman days - when people only knew how to deal in clubs. Indeed, plenty of people still see that as a valid perception of reality, and a sensible way to live!

Yeah, so, my point being, I've long been pretty sure it's rarely a good idea to cite "tradition" as a good argument for fairness & justice.
I think overall, our society (I mean human society, globally), has more or less been progressing forward, away from The Way of the Club (or "The Arena"), with, of course, periods of stagnation now & then, and plenty of steps backwards here & there. (And usually the steps backwards seem to be precipitated by those favouring the past as a good model.)
And I've long noticed that politicians have an easier time appealing to humans' primal urges more than they have luck appealing to human intellect.

When it comes to infectious diseases... I think it's much like anything else, in that humans often find it 'easier' (more comforting?) to labour under the delusion "It will never happen to me". Add to that the fact that people, in general, who are not in the profession and have not studied or even read much about medical things, and particularly diseases, are often misinformed or just plain ignorant. I think this would've been especially true in 1918, when even the professionals weren't as knowledgeable about infectious disease as many non-professionals today. This probably included people in power, as no human is immune to ignorance if they've not taken the time to learn something.

I think of me & the OJ Simpson case - until watching the Frontline episode a few weeks ago, I had no clue what was important in the case, what had occurred in the court case, and I had an inaccurate perception of the general public's opinions & attitudes about the case, and the source of their opinions & attitudes. The reason I was pretty off-base on a few points, about what went on with that? From the day of the car chase, I made a decision to completely ignore the case, and did so quite successfully - except I couldn't help knowing something... and made my decisions based on that small portion of information that did get through to me.
What's even stranger, is that despite having learned a lot from that episode of Frontline, I still find myself wanting to cling to my old perceptions.

One of my favourite quotes:

"When you learn something, it feels at first as if you have lost something."

But I now see that said in different ways, and I have no clue who wrote it first, because in a web search to find out who did, I see it's being credited to both George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells, depending on the web page. haha. And I honestly don't remember where I first heard/read that saying.

I also watched some programme on PBS about Isaac Newton late last night. Considering I've never had any emotional attachments or ideas about Isaac Newton, as a person... nothing that's come out in recent years about him disturbs me. But in this show, they said that it does seem to disturb quite a few people.

I think that's the case whenever you have a certain idea about some historical figure, perhaps attached to a nostalgic or sentimental issue... and then you learn something that didn't fit that idea.

Heck that happens all the time in people's personal lives with people they actually know personally. In fact, author Patricia Evans claims in one of her books, ("Controlling People"), that it's one of the human pyschological phenomenons that leads to spousal abuse. (That a person might start abusing a spouse because they have a perceived idea about what their spouse should be (she calls it "Teddy"), and then any time that spouse behaves in a way that doesn't conform to that idea, they become angry about it, and verbal & physical abuse may follow that anger - which, to anyone outside, would seem irrational.)

Anyway... I've gone & done it again... Flew off right into distant Tangentville. haha!!

Posted by: Chloe at November 20, 2005 03:29 AM

Interesting. I'll have to pick up this book. Thanks for the suggestion.

Posted by: Seth Anderson at November 20, 2005 11:05 AM