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What We're Reading: Dread

Okay, college students, here's a simple way to freak out all of your classmates:

1. Buy a label-maker
2. Print out a bunch of labels that say "GERMS"
3. Stick them on every door handle on campus

I don't suggest you actually try this (unless, say, you own stock in antibacterial soap), and I can't take credit for the idea, either: I was actually a victim of this stunt back in my Bright College Years. I don't think I've ever washed my hands so many times in a 24-hour period.
Until last week, that is, when swine flu put its germy paws on every newspaper, Twitter feed, and Facebook page in the land. I washed my hands before getting to work and on the way out the door; after touching the elevator buttons and after picking up the telephone. I started wondering, hey, aren't there germs on the water cooler spigots and the mini-fridge door? And what about the communal sponge in the communal sink? And why is everyone around me suddenly coughing and sneezing? Is that a tickle in my throat? Are my eyes looking a little red? How long has it been since I last washed my hands?

Now that H1N2 seems to be milder than we thought, it all seems a little silly, but Gaia's earlier post is a reminder that I wasn't the only one in the throes of swine-flu freak-out. In his new book Dread, Philip Alcabes says this kind of panic is totally normal--and totally irrational. Epidemics (a class now so broadly defined that it includes everything from obesity to "affluenza") resonate with deep human fears about everything from sex to strangers. Fears of death and illness are just convenient covers for our more nebulous nightmares, Alcabes argues, and that fact has been exploited by those who aim to fuel intolerance (of the poor, of immigrants, of Jews, of Muslims) for their own political gain.

Is that reading too much into my fixation with sudsing? Was the label-maker guy making a statement about the political uses of fear? I'll have to think about it. But first, maybe I should go wash up.

User Comments:

Great blog. Congratulations on your academic credentials. How about a Ph.D.?

You are embarking on what appears to be a great career. Good luck always.
Cousin Norman

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