Sunday, March 22, 2020

So Much Noise

Daily in this election year the personal and political portions of life have become difficult to separate. President Trump dominates the airwaves and the dialogue, as his Tweets are disseminated further on every newscast.

Political news is everywhere we look—in restaurants, doctors’ offices, my phone’s notification stream. A conversation with friends too quickly slips into one that betrays what one thinks about the man, negative or positive. Friends are lost.

We are being slowly herded into personal silence.

Historically, silence has been a tool of dictators and autocrats. In other countries we have seen repressions, arrests of political opponents, executions—literal silencings.

Now that social media can be manipulated toward political ends, however, we have an alternative, the silencing that results from overkill. From political noise.

We Americans are not used to a constant political bleat, at least not in between election campaigns.

This orchestrated noise affects our health as well as our sense of well-being. We react to the shock of daily news—melting ice caps, the novel coronavirus, Australia burning, earthquakes, floods, as well as the usual death and destruction in the Middle East. Politicians threaten Medicare, a literal lifeline for older citizens, and the news is hidden in the noise, if not twisted.

Small wonder that studies along with anecdote confirm a rise in popular anxiety following the election of 2016. Blood pressures—easy to measure—rose. Medical complaints referring to anxiety increased, as did prescriptions for anti-depressants.

Opting out of Facebook and Twitter is one way people cope, but that complies with the goal of political noise—to silence coherent discussion and the ability to communicate freely.

The excuse for leaving social media is the stridency of argument and personal attack it allows. Both sides—Left and Right—engage in this.

Republicans, however, have displayed greater skill at the strategic use of new technology. Their supporters are better at amplifying a targeted message from the coordinated set of megaphones they have positioned throughout the public sphere.

It has required many years—decades—of Movement Conservatism, lavishly funded, to create this network, the right-wing messaging universe: Talk radio, FOX News, numerous internet-linked interest groups, message boards, along with bot banks that spread false information. (“Political Bots and the Right-Wing Hijacking Of Social Media,” WBUR, May 18, 2017)

The manipulation of text and videos by technology has made it even harder to isolate even a manifest truth. This is another aspect of the engineered political noise intended to silence us.

We hear a lot of commentary on underrepresented voices, silenced voices. Often this refers to segments of society overlooked by the nattering cohort of coastal pundits, mainstream and right-wing.

But what about self-silencing?

That’s what we do when we pull out of social media. Or when we avoid discussion and the opportunity of listening to our neighbors.

It’s also what we do by slicing the views of candidates and issues too finely, then defending our slice as though it were home territory.

We see the result of that reaction in the Democratic debates where, except for longtime socialist independent Bernie Sanders, so many presidential candidates vary so little in basic convictions. Democratic heads don’t wear white or black hats. They wear hues of gray, pink, purple—well, a rainbow of nuanced positions.

The election to date, however, shows how those nuances can add up to fragmentation. The Democratic Party is divided into rough-edged parts. Although those parts interpenetrate, they do not blend into one mass, moving in unison behind one candidate. At least, not yet.

And it becomes harder for them to find that unifying catalyst in the presence of so much noise.

Is it...Cedar Fever?

Every year about this time we start to sneeze and cough. We probably includes you. 

This year in our household I went first, two days after book club met. I had the classic symptoms of a flu-like illness. Raw throat, headache, mild body aches, fever--101, 102, unusual for me, but not truly high. We did have our flu shots, of course, for whatever benefit that provides. 

This process is not unfamiliar to us. Year before last, I spent four months with bronchitis, passing it back and forth to my husband, at that time 96 years old. 

This year, too, he caught my bug. After one good week of blowing, hawking, mild fatigue--all the delightful attributes of cold season--he was well. 

I, however, still had it, phase 2. Deep bronchial cough, fatigue. Ick. Four weeks of it, now, at this writing.

Is that what’s going on? Or…I can hear what you’re thinking.

Cedar fever. 

A popular term this year, which has apparently been a humdinger for such allergies. 

Maybe that would be preferable in some ways, despite the weeks of misery. 

If I had cedar fever and not a nasty bronchitis or RSV or rhinovirus, then I could go out in public and sneeze and cough to my heart’s content without the fear that I would be exposing the universe to these weeks of discomfort. 

That’s what most of us do, isn’t it? Most of us whomp down a decongestant or antihistamine and carry on with our business. We’re all so busy, now.

If we’re wrong, though--if it isn’t an allergy--we are shedding virus for days at a time. Infecting everyone we come near, especially older people or children. 

At least, in the grip of flu, most of us feel rotten enough to stay home.  

But in the early days of a cold or other respiratory bug, we can’t tell what we have. We work off probabilities. 

Allergy-prone folks assume it’s an allergy until it proves otherwise. Non-allergy-prone people assume it’s a virus. 

Then what? 

Some of us cannot take decongestants or antihistamines because of medical conditions, including high blood pressure. My husband is one of these. 

Also, he is a cancer survivor twice and 98 years old. When you cough on him in public, or onto his food, you may be signing a death warrant. 

I do think about things like that. It’s one reason I am an obsessive hand-washer. 

Like him, I’m unable to use those symptom relievers, not even codeine to help the cough. For me, public exposure means the loss of at least a month of healthy, productive life, if not more. It is a cost I’d like to avoid. 

But how? What can I do to avoid it? What can you do?  

Wash your hands; use alcohol-based hand sanitizers; cough into your elbow; be mindful of symptoms and stay home through the shedding period when you have a virus. Use video or conference call technology to attend that important meeting.

 (Suggest to your boss that his bottom line will improve if one sick employee is not obliged to spread her virus to all the other employees. A sick person isn’t doing high quality work, anyway.) 

No solution is perfect, though. In the case of a cold-type illness, we shed virus for two days before symptoms begin. And the early symptoms are so confusing we can’t really be sure, can we? 

So the best we can do is to care. Pay attention. Check symptoms with your doctor or on the internet (WebMD, Mayo Clinic are good sites). Check for fever. (Usually cedar fever doesn’t elevate temperature, at least at first.) 

And be mindful in public. All over the world we see people wearing masks to protect themselves and others from airborne toxins. It isn't such a bad idea, is it?

(Note: A version of this appeared in the Fayette County Record in late January, 2020.)