Sunday, September 13, 2009

Whipping up the Masses

This week we ponder whether Brits or Americans are better at Mass Hysteria.


When it comes to mass hysteria, no one beats the Americans. Only this past week we have had two text book examples.

First we had parents and schools, primarily in the South, denouncing the President’s speech to returning school children as everything from “indoctrination” to “divisive”. Never mind that Presidents before him have kicked off the school year with such speeches, or that few had actually heard the speech when the fuss all started. Oh no, they weren’t having their children tainted by the words of someone they didn’t vote for– whatever the words might be. Apparently it’s up to parents what their kids hear in schools, even if they go to a state school. Given that Obama encouraged school children to stay in school, I’m hoping the more hysterical of the protestors are all feeling a tad shamefaced right now and perhaps reflecting on the message they ended up sending their offspring. Somehow I doubt it.

Next we had the President’s address to Congress on Wednesday evening. The speech was to highlight his proposals for badly-needed improvements to the nation’s health care system. Cue the Tea Party Express; a group of people who apparently don’t know how to read or listen for themselves and get all their information from Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, - the Right Wing Bigot Triumvirate. The Tea Party Express has been touring the country calling Obama’s proposals everything from “fascist” to “Afro-Leninism”, (both of which I heard with my own ears on TV). The name refers to the Boston Tea Party, which, back in 1773, embodied the “No taxation without representation” cause. Rather bafflingly, the current Tea Party go-ers largely appear to be senior citizens and thus, presumably claiming their Medicare benefits – from the government. Paid for through taxation. Not that I mind paying taxes to help other people, but I’m confused as to why no one else should be assisted in the same way. Indeed, they’re in a real tizzy about it.

Interestingly, the much-anticipated Swine Flu hysteria has yet to reach its zenith. That could be because much of the country is still basking in fairly pleasant temperatures and therefore it’s not quite on the radar. No doubt as soon as the barometer dips below 55 Fahrenheit across most of the country there’ll be the usual pulpit-style, frenzied cries of how and why the government isn’t doing enough.

And let’s not forget that the next American Idol season starts in January. Lord help us!


I have to admit that the Brits don’t do Mass Hysteria as well as the Americans. The last really good mass hysteria they had in Britain was at Diana’s funeral. And I wasn’t even here for it so I can’t tell you about it. Since then they have had concerns, frights, momentary panics even, but nothing you could truly equate to mass hysteria on an American scale.

Whipping the populace into an uncontrollable frenzy just isn’t on. About the best they can do is convince waiting rooms to do away with shared magazines, newspapers and baby toys in order to keep us all from dying of Swine Flu. The media have also been good to the makers of antiseptic hand jell; last year I didn’t even know it exists, but now it’s everywhere. But people aren’t really hysterical over it, and they aren’t massing about it, either.

Besides, there’s little point in trying; they’d never top the Americans. Mass Hysteria is as deeply rooted in American culture as our love of firearms; it’s something we took to early and still take to readily. Remember Cotton Mather? Joe McCarthy?

Twenty people dead, an unknown number of lives ruined, and all because Americans are willing to be duped into believing that something imaginary is real and to react accordingly.

“Witches are out to steal your souls!” So we kill innocent people. “Communists are out to destroy the American way of life!” So we black list them and destroy their lives.

I also recall a sort of mass belief—though not hysteria—in angels. For a while, angles were everywhere and it seemed as if everyone believed in them, which seemed to make them real and convince more people to believe in them. Granted, this did not culminate in any unpleasantness but it might have if, at the height of this belief, a group of people were accused of trying to kill the angles.

It proves the saying, “When a myth is shared by large numbers of people, it becomes a reality.”

I’m not saying the British aren’t capable of doing something similar, I’m just saying they don’t seem inclined to.

It’s just not on.

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to us or just pop it into the comment box.


  1. I was there for Diana's funeral and in my 43 years I have never seen anything like it. There truly was mass hysteria on a scale Britain may never see again.

    However Mike, if we reach the World Cup Quarter Finals or better next year, you may see British mass hysteria for yourself!!

    BTW I would like to add on the President's Speech last week. I work for a mid-west school and half our students parents opted their kids out of watching it. I thought it was ridiculous and what's more the kids that missed it included some that came from exactly the dire straits the President was trying to tell them they could escape from through education!

  2. I agree Americans certainly do it better, but... what about football (soccer)? That's mass hysteria at its best!

  3. MM - that's something else entirely. Even worse!

  4. On the subject of angels, Carl Sagan wrote about and linked this to alien abduction in his book, The Demon Haunted World.

    His argument was that people in Christian cultures had been reporting visitations by angels or the Virgin Mary for hundreds of years. In the 20th Century when the idea of visiting extra-terrestrials gained currency, suddenly the proportion of Mary sightings dropped off as alien sightings increased.

    You can trace the advance of science/science fiction in a Christian society by plotting and comparing these sightings.

    Oh and the Diana thing? So many of us were shocked and stunned. Not by a woman without a seatbelt dying when her car hit a concrete pillar, but by the number of hysterical mourners who wailed, rent clothing and gnashed teeth for weeks.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. "However Mike, if we reach the World Cup Quarter Finals or better next year, you may see British mass hysteria for yourself!!"

    C'mon England!

    Sorry, but I think a lot of our mass hysteria comes from not paying full attention. What I mean by that is people don't put effort into getting education and researching the facts before they jump to rash conclusions. They just listen to 30 second ad spots or see a quick news story and jump to conclusions without asking questions. Our attention spans have gotten way too short or we have our priorities wrong, don't know which, but it leads to the type of displays we have seen in the last four or five months. It's easier to be one of the flock, like the blind leading the blind, than to stand out on your own, ask questions and become educated.

  7. I was reading Mary Beard's blog today and the words "mass hysteria" actually occurred, so I had to come back here and post the link... this is about the new list everyone has to sign up for if they work with children or vulnerable adults... or drive the car pool or ... etc.

  8. I wrote a post about the president's speech, and the ridiculous accusations about its content, the other day. I can't understand why we (Americans) can't sit back and quietly listen to another's opinion on a subject. Why not take the time to reflect on what they actually have to say before we just react to what we think they MAY be saying???

  9. It's a bit of a lost cause here I'm afraid. They showed some statistics on the news yesterday about the percentages of Obama voters in southern states. The highest percentage in the deep south was about 18%, and that's where a lot of the hysterical oppostition is coming from. They have pre-conceived ideas (communism, socialism, etc) and just refuse to actually listen to anything. They keep banging on about "turning into Russia". Don't they realise what's been happening in Russia recently? It's enough to make me weep.

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