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The New World Disorder

The much-heralded individualist spirit of American society relies on nurturing a fear of other people.

Kevin Carollo

Issue #64, September 2003

To be at home in the world we need to keep it inhospitable.
— Adam Phillips
The panic attacks in panic disorders are usually just the tip of the iceberg.
Website about panic disorder

Panic is our national pastime. In February 2003, Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon gave a lecture about how childhood adventuring has been radically curtailed by the lack of "wilderness" to explore. People feel uncomfortable leaving their children alone to explore their surroundings. Chabon spoke of his daughter learning to ride a bicycle, followed by his realization that there's no place he feels comfortable having her ride it. In the course of one generation, the wilderness of childhood has been planned, mapped, and regulated by the fears of adults. Paul Feig's memoir, Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence, describes how high school in America is defined by the possibility of panic attacks lurking around every corner. Much of life centers on making sure we avoid being attacked. The collective dimensions of panic disorder, an illness generally treated on an individual basis, is the subject of this essay. Americans are strangely united by their isolation from one another.

The much-heralded individualist spirit of American society relies on nurturing a fear of other people. Fear of public spaces — where anyone can hang out — in turn supports the proliferation of private property and restricted access locations. Fear of public transportation means more and more privately owned cars on the road. The rhetorical necessity of slogans such as "United We Stand" are countered by the ongoing national zeitgeist of "Leave Me and My Family Alone." The implication embodied in "United We Stand" is that we have some (un-American) Other to be united against. A suggestive correlation between the isolation of mental illness and political isolationism can be found in the rhetoric of "going it alone." The individualization of panic disorder corresponds to the media-savvy militarization of American politics. Panic inspires pre-emptive attacks on whatever violates the sanctity of private life.

As we regulate childhood, so we map out the appropriate parameters of adulthood. Television often plays on the prevalent anxieties of adolescence, treating its viewers like children in need of constant rules and warnings. Local Fox News promises the viewer "Stories that Affect You," but the news itself offers such in-depth detritus as exposés on the dangers of car airbags and "that Duluth prostitution ring we've been keeping you informed about." I'm not suggesting that danger doesn't exist, but local television news has largely become a venue that creates a catalogue of fears for citizens everywhere. In addition, local formats adhere to a national formula for what constitutes newsworthiness, and what should affect local populations.

We locate panic at the extreme end of the anxiety spectrum, as the awful truth of a phobia, the end result of what psychiatrist Robert L. DuPont refers to as the "what if?" of horrific possibility. The possibility of panic, however, covers a much broader band of the spectrum. The news media may not want panic attacks to actually occur, but they like us to routinely consider the possibility that something awful might happen if we do not maintain a healthy level of anxiety — and keep watching the news for updates. Witness coverage of the scare of African killer bees a few years ago, recently featured in Bowling for Columbine. Be alert. Get scared. This anxiety constitutes a sort of pre-emptive strike, if you will, on the panic state. Awful things often do happen. A smoking gun does not need to be fired; the suggestion of a gun's potential is enough. The very possibility of weapons of mass destruction, for example, can inspire a state of panic. The weapons don't need to be there.

Panic has dominion over the future. The past may inspire panic attacks, but only as the harbinger of what may perhaps come again. As we get further away from cataclysmic events, their ability to inspire terror becomes attenuated. This means government, the entertainment industry, or news media need to regularly create new things to fear. Whether the hand that rocks the cradle is the government wishing to sell a new military solution to the world's problems, or an entertainment industry that wants us to believe that "a nation lost its innocence" after Pearl HarborTM, we find ourselves in the business of selling and consuming panic of one sort or another.

Though post-9/11 panic no longer governs America in the same way it did in late 2001, the government still uses the Trade Center bombings as a way to gain support for future military initiatives. Hence the pandemic of global terrorism, a phenomenon that sees 9/11 as a significant event in a never-ending continuum of potential danger. Just as we ritually lose our innocence, so we must honor our worst fears. The current government encourages us to believe that no historical precursors exist to muddy the squeaky-clean innocence of America, but it also must instill in us the sense that America's illusory innocence could be our undoing. If we don't act now, then our worst fears may well be realized.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III) first distinguished "panic disorder" from anxiety neurosis in 1980, although anxiety has been treated since the late nineteenth century. The process of naming illness is a curious one: though the goal is distinction and specificity, it also creates a potential reservoir for future pandemics. Naming panic disorder in order to cure it stands as a necessary paradox of the field.

Curiously, the medical recognition of "panic disorder" as a distinct anxiety state occurred at the same time the array of independent media sources in America were drastically reduced. Of course, the corporatization of media does not necessarily require the distinction of panic disorder, but it can certainly utilize it. What is the crude end result of big, format-driven media? Fear of the local. This fear may not completely succeed in getting the masses to consume only "mass" products, but in the last 20 years we have seen a new generation of people educated to mistrust products that lack a brand signature or commercial support.

To be sure, this is not an entirely new phenomenon — except in terms of degree. Today's education begins with the trappings of corporate consumption, and youth must work hard to find real, local alternatives. Chabon's local neighborhood becomes a site of panic, and people fear that which is not immediately recognizable. The isolation of illnesses such as panic disorder signifies an increasingly isolated public — a locale where people do not know each other.

Panic GraphicIn this way, the rise of panic disorder signifies a new world order, just as deregulation creates a new form of mass regulation. Media deregulation in the 1990s has enabled the rise of media giants like Clear Channel, who promote formulaic, non-local radio programming as they sponsor pro-war rallies. To be sure, the "local" functions like a brand name, or like slogans such as "United We Stand"; they are necessary rhetorical strategies that further conceal a less united, more corporate reality. Witness the YA novel by M.T. Anderson, Feed, which cogently depicts a future in which corporations have so promoted the fetish of individual-as-consumer that adolescent education is geared to create "individualized" corporate identity. Youth are identified according to their consumer profiles, their brand-name wants and needs. Of course, the future is now when talking about the local and individual as fetish. Like Fox News' stories that affect you, a Clear Channel billboard in my neighborhood boasts: "Giving Local Heroes A Voice." Proclaiming local affinity is necessary to further non-local standardization.

The standardization of anxiety disorders refers to a historical relationship between military and psychological ways of describing the world. Anxiety has, according to H. Michael Zal, "taken on a bewildering number of diagnostic labels which seem to be related to, and to change following each major war." He gives the following list:

Cardiac neurosis
Effort syndrome (World War I)
Soldier's heart
Neurocirculatory asthenia (World War I)
Nervous exhaustion
Vasomotor neurosis
Aviator's syndrome
Anxiety state (World War II)

Reading through this list, one has the impression that reaching the "Anxiety state" of WWII has been a chronological endeavor requiring ever more advanced troops and machinery to establish dominion over an ever-shifting enemy populace. The conflation of fighting illness and enemies seems to move forward through time, in line with the perceived evolutionary progress of science and civilization. These labels also inspire the type of futurism praised by F.T. Marinetti and the Italian futurists. They reveled in a combination of aggression and adrenaline, and were among the founders of the Fascist movement. Soldiers, velocity, machines, and war: for the Marinetti of the first half of the twentieth century, Zal's list contains the future, and it is beautiful.

As the above list suggests, major events in world history redefine the parameters of the world's illnesses. World conflict directs the definition of such illnesses as post-traumatic stress disorder and Gulf War Syndrome, and we can easily understand panic as an immediate response to the horrors of war. But panic doesn't stop there. A worldview predicated on various cataclysms — terrorism, nuclear holocaust, killer bees, SARS — encourages panic to become part of the ordinary citizen's reservoir of emotion, the potential endpoint of daily fear.

One cannot underestimate the power of military ideology to redefine a citizenry. To see the world as a never-ending series of conflicts with other nations and peoples is very narrow-minded — but it's how we teach American history, and how the current government defines the agenda for American foreign policy. It also defines how we view the future of security in general. As we develop greater means by which to treat illness and vanquish terrorists, the future should seem brighter — but it can't seem too bright. With the promulgation of Patriot Acts and Total Information Awareness, the distinction between military and psychological notions of panic is becoming scant indeed. The sensation that someone is always watching, that our worst fears are always on the verge of being realized, and that somehow our private lives are being infiltrated by Big Brother — this may be the Orwellian reality of the future, but it sounds like today's domestic policy to me. Keep in mind that 1984 was taught in American high schools during the Cold War as a warning against the dangers of communism. True patriots like myself, however, tended to read texts like Brave New World and To Kill A Mockingbird as commentaries on the problems of American society as well. I became anxious watching films about the possibilities of World War III. From watching Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe to the 80s TV-movie The Day After, I did not grow up immune to the idea that we could be our own worst enemy. "At least we were talking about it in class," I remember thinking at the time.

Of course, talking doesn't seem like sufficient treatment for anxiety or depression in today's "Prozac nation." The early practitioner of psychopharmacology, Donald Klein, experimented and treated anxiety patients with imipramine in the late 1950s and 60s. But before the 1980 DSM-III established the definition of panic disorder, treatment had a Freudian, psychoanalytic bias to it — people talked out their panic attacks, preferably on sofas. The isolation of panic disorder from anxiety neurosis corresponded to the development of anti-anxiety medications. Having effective drugs to treat mental illness means a revolution in terms of how illness is perceived, treated, and manipulated. Peter Kramer states in Listening to Prozac: "With a convenient, effective drug available [Xanax], doctors saw panic anxiety everywhere. Patients told one another about the drug, and the mass media spread the news. Panic anxiety and panic attack became bywords." Psychopharmacology has become the preferred means of attacking panic attacks — individualized drug therapy for the masses. Like terrorists, panic is everywhere, preparing to attack. Kramer notes: "Panic anxiety has been shown in surveys to be among the most prevalent of psychiatric disorders."

Panic Graphic

Don't get me wrong. Along with psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison and countless others, I have experimented with and benefited from the wonders of drug therapy. But it gives me the panic to find myself discussing medication within ten minutes of meeting a therapist for the first time. Undoubtedly, expediency is a consideration in these matters, as many people are panicky and depressed — and psychologists are overbooked. The turn to expedient solutions, however, corresponds to the hasty, undemocratic way in which American politics currently operate. Rather than acknowledge the collective dimensions of panic inspired by threats of war, economic downturns, environmental holocaust, general greed and corruption, and so on, psychopharmacology aims to find the appropriate pill for an individualized illness. Like the "one person, one vote" approach to democracy, psychopharmacology may have good effects, but it is not geared to make the world a hospitable place. It won't bring back the sense of neighborhoods earlier generations enjoyed as children, for that requires a trust in one's neighbors. Treating the symptoms of illness allows us to more or less dismiss its larger social causes. If panic is treated primarily as something located within individual psyches, then the world doesn't have a problem. The advice of W. after 9/11 — business as usual, go out and spend — is offered as a sort of panacea for panicked America. To those who already felt insecure and panicky .  .  . well, just watch your TV screens. We've got a new reality show on CNN we're sure you're going to love. Behind the scenes, however, the safety measures introduced by current regime have more to do with the erosion of civil rights than with the protection of innocent civilians.

As a consequence, I find the rhetoric of national security quite frightening. Perhaps the greatest irony of the American obsession with weapons of mass destruction is that our government seems to need them in order to eliminate them — a similar paradox to that of naming illness. The DSM defined panic disorder at the beginning of the Reagan years — coincidence? If it didn't already exist, it would have had to be invented. The conflation of military-industrial ideology and entertainment media has resulted in a perennial crisis of global proportions — and a TV audience primed to watch it. Disarmament is a one-way street, an imperative not practiced by example. This should inspire panic. When aforementioned films like The Day After functioned as the collective Afterschool Special of American consciousness, the necessary road for security involved actually getting rid of our weapons of mass destruction. Now that is beginning to seem more and more like a radical proposition. Go figure.

In turn, news media have to simultaneously focus on one area of terror (let's say Iraq) while nurturing the multifarious sense of potential panic (i.e. Iraq stands as but one of the many regimes that envy our freedom). The obsession with ratings inspires sensationalist coverage to a certain degree, but it doesn't completely explain why coverage is so in line with various military initiatives and the rhetoric of fear. People can also get excited about critiquing the lust for war, as popular media satires like The Daily Show and The Onion illustrate. Perpetual war for perpetual peace, to borrow Gore Vidal's phrase, requires a reservoir of panic catalysts, and the results are often absurdly comic. Again, news media do not create panic as much as create a buffet table of panic for individuals to sample from. This, in turn, enables the national palate for paranoia. As individual paranoia involves the "irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others," so too does news media thrive on the next big terror. But it doesn't have to be like that. Does it?

What is left when panic is taken out of the American equation? To be honest, I'm not sure. I have tried to intimate a number of connections between growing up in America, visual and print media, the military-industrial complex, and the current treatment of panic disorder. Ideally, being able to explain the roots of illness helps one to overcome it. But we're not there yet. At best, there may exist a sort of solidarity in panic, a starting point for redescribing the world. Certainly, panic can cripple the potential for activism. But with the recognition of panic itself as a pandemic comes the necessity of believing in a better world. This better world is not necessarily a panic-free world. If, as psychotherapist Adam Phillips suggests, "the art of psychoanalysis is to produce interesting redescriptions," then panic can show how the threat of nuclear holocaust is made more real by the unilateral attack aspirations of Bush & Co. Panic can be redirected.

Psychoanalyst Thorkil Vanggaard once told a patient: "From a therapeutic point of view it is a good sign that your reaction was one of panic, as this shows the presence of important conflict matter." Because Panic American Style has come into its medical, military, and media fullness, it cannot be dismissed as simply the result of an overactive imagination. If panic is here to stay, then I would like to believe in a generalized anxiety disorder that compels us all to re-evaluate the contemporary moment. Perhaps this disorder could suggest the following: only when we recognize each other's ultimate fears may we treat one another like human beings. The recognition of panic unites us more than we know, for it forces us to imagine a better world than the inhospitable one we're stuck with now.

Kevin Carollo is an assistant professor of English, who teaches World Literature at University of Minnesota, Moorhead.

Credit: New World Order drawing Copyright ©2003 Mike Mosher.
Invasion image Copyright ©1941 PM Magazine.

Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Carollo. All rights reserved.