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From Planes to Mail

Battle of Symbols

From Planes To Mail

"We’re selling more Cipro in a day than we used to in a month. It’s more popular than Viagra."

Alex Orergel, Pharmacist
Tijuana, Mexico

"However ardently we stare at the blurry night-vision photographs from Kabul, the battlefield is here, in the American mind. The anthrax incidents, in bringing to the surface a latent hysteria, are more important skirmishes in this new war than anything that happens in the Afghan mountains."

Mark Danner
The New York Times (10/16/2001)

"Militant extremist terrorism is the anthrax of civilization."

Benjamin Netanyahu
Former Israeli Prime Minister
MSNBC’s Hardball on 10/17/2001

In October the symbolism of the grand spectacle of commercial airliners crashing into buildings moved to the realm of the microscopic with the first reported death from the anthrax virus in Florida. Other incidents of anthrax would spread quickly around America but the fear of the virus spread far more than the virus itself.

The enemy was utilizing a dual headed assault of symbols combining macroscopic spectacular visual images on September 11th with microscopic, invisible images in the October anthrax attacks. In many ways, the invisible was more frightening to a nation that understood big things a lot more than it understood small things.

The first threat of terrorists on airliners was associated with a public symbol and travel. It was horrifying to be sure. But it was also something that might be protected against by less travel, by more security. The threat of microscopic terrorists coming through the mail suggested both a public symbol associated with one’s work and office but more importantly it also suggested an association with that ultimate private symbol of the home.

Microscopic terrorists might come to the home and not through invasions of evil men and trucks spraying chemicals throughout the neighborhoods but rather through, perhaps, that letter informing us we had won a million dollars from Publishers Clearing House. Or, even a letter from mother. The terrorist senders were smart. The letter containing anthrax addressed to newsman Tom Brokaw had a return address scrawled out in a child’s handwriting saying it came from a 4th grade class.

The symbolism of anthrax shows the enemy (whoever the heck this really is … but who cares?) knows how to enlist the modern American phobia about virus, a symbol much more powerful to Americans than crashing airplanes, even if they do crash into America’s greatest building on the 90th floor.

Anthrax is related so much to this virus symbolism that defines our age in cancer, Elaine Showalters Hystories thesis, books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point in the area of social life or Seth Godin’s Idea Virus in the area of business. The virus over the Internet, that can electronically slip into our house from all over the world. This fear of microscopic invisible is paramount right now in the visual oriented culture of our west. A grand symbol of fear in an American culture of tiny hope symbols.

In a sense, this virus that the enemy now puts against America is the symbolic vestiges of the postmodern pluralistic culture and segmentation in the America of the 90s. It was the time when information did seem to multiply (as did wealth) like a grand type of virus.

For many Americans, there was that idealistic thought that virus might be identified with a positive symbol rather than continue its association with negative symbols. The switch could be incredible if a collective paranoia of the American psyche could be focused outward into positive directions instead of always inward at the body and the individual.

Little wonder that American’s were said to be "bowling alone" in the 90s by Harvard’s Robert Putnam. Is it any wonder that sociology reflected the psychology and philosophy of this pluralism of symbols … and politics?

America reaches an end of a century long cycle that moved from the monism of the mass culture and the social equality of the symbol of the Democratic party through the height of mass culture, the communist enemy and a symbolism based around the dualism to the destruction of equality and rise of freedom in the 80s and 90s and the postmodern pluralism and relativity.

This was one reason that gave Clinton so much of his magic quality to many in that nation. What was this quality in him? The collective psychology of the nation at the time? There of course will be interpretations.

From a symbolic perspective, it might have been related to this idea of virus. He was that Democratic symbol of equality in a world which was really dominated by that Republican symbol of freedom. Like a mis-matched film genre (Poltergeist, a horror film in the suburbs during the daytime) that was so out of traditional place but in a totally new place that others thought they could see a new way out of moving culture at the very end of a cycle. You couldn’t assuredly cast him as a cowboy but on the other hand he didn’t come on as an eastern establishment politician. So, somewhere those old ideas of Democrats and Republicans he located some new camp.

It was a difficult and counterintuitive task. The virus outbreak of the information revolution had a very close relationship to the "E-Economy and the dot.com phenomena. But the failure of the dot.coms represented in a lot of ways the realization that there might be too much information and that nothing good could come of all of this information. More than lead to wisdom and understand, it was leading more into greater and greater confusion. Rather than opening windows, it seemed more of a "data smog" hanging over the cultural landscape in the form of French Structuralists and postmodernists in universities and a President says that it all depends on what is is.

The anthrax situation was serious. But Americans’ fear of the grand virus symbolism was much more serious than even the real threats and outbreaks of the disease. America dreamed nostalgically at this time in her history of returning to those old grand symbols from a period of equality. It dreamed of killing the overproduction of things. Of viruses.

But America’s enemies wouldn’t let her return to the big picture with their attacks of the invisible invades. Once she feared it in the form of diseases and cancers. Then she welcomed it in the form of information. Now, even before the attacks of September 11th, the cycle was already swinging back to equality and absolutes once again and a relative world quickly fading into the past.

But her enemies kept making her look inward, at invisible things. Was a lot of this something strategic and greatly symbolic on their part? Using this grand paradoxical symbol of America in virus and a biologic spread to keep Americans focused inward when they were trying to escape for the first time from their isolated culture into a new perception of their place in the world.And America fought in October of 2001 to move out into this global world and many years of hibernation. The anthrax symbol offered such an important challenge to the nation. Was it going to continue to worry about that postmodern invisibility of increasingly small, invisible things? Or, was America going to turn away from this smallness and truly set to work on establishing grand symbols once again?

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim