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Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2001 / 9 Teves, 5761

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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Consumer Reports

Faux Commotion -- HERE in weenie nation, we suffered through a terrible, frightening, awful, dangerous, very nearly deadly event last week: It snowed. Yes! Snowed! White stuff came down from the sky! Inches of it! It got all over everything! It was cold and wet and a person could slip and fall and hit his head and be knocked unconscious, and if his mouth fell open, as might very easily happen, it could fill up with snow and suffocate him before anyone noticed a thing! Flee! Flee!

And flee we did, to the grocery store for milk and bread and batteries and candles and toilet paper and diapers and family-size packages of potato chips and doughnuts; to the hardware store for rock salt and shovels, fire logs and more batteries; to the pharmacy for ibuprofen and cough syrup and a few final extra batteries.

Then we locked the doors, pulled shut the curtains and arranged ourselves under several layers of comforters, set our salt and sugar supplies close at hand, secreted our batteries in strategic caches throughout the house and watched the Weather Channel for three days straight. Miraculously, we did not die. We survived to flee again from whatever the next horror proves to be -- rain, sleet, an unseasonably mild day with a breeze from the southeast.

We act as if weather was war. The boys and girls of the Weather Channel kept referring to the storm as "the Blitz," as in the Blitz of London, when the objects falling from the sky were incendiary bombs, not snowflakes. In New York, Mayor Rudy Giuliani hunkered down in what the Weather Channel people breathlessly called "The Bunker," as if he were Winston Churchill directing the desperate fight against the Nazis from his underground headquarters.

As a Washingtonian, I used to assume that weather hysteria was a peculiarity to the nation's capital, the result of living in a city overpopulated by people in the professional business of hysterical overreaction -- politicians, tort lawyers, pundits, James Carville. But last year I moved to New England, and this winter I have been amazed to discover that the local response to snowfall here is the same as in Washington -- flight, hoarding and barricading. The local newscasts are filled with the same lunacy -- the urgent bulletins from the Storm Center, the live interviews with bread-and-shovel buyers, the grim warnings: "The best advice we can give at this time is to stay in your homes. Don't go outside unless you absolutely have to."

Not to be rude about it, but why do we do this? When did we decide that the appropriate response to routine seasonal events of weather was sheer gibbering panic?

I guess the answer is that we decided to panic when panic became affordable. For most people, and for most of history, weather really was scary. If you lived in an uninsulated house heated only by a wood fire, and if you depended on your feet for transportation or, at best, on a horse and cart, and if what you had to eat was whatever was at hand, then a serious winter storm deserved your considerable respect. We live now with weather forecasting systems that are far more accurate than ever before, with central heat, with an SUV in every garage and nachos in every freezer. In this world, a storm is the occasion for a bit of shared faux excitement, as if we are all watching the same slasher flick, or the Super Bowl. It's not crisis that Storm Center 5 is showing, but the enjoyable shared ritual of pretend-crisis.

Our other national weather, our politics, is also increasingly informed by the shared fun of pretend-crisis. We are the fattest, safest people in the world. All of the aircraft supercarrier groups on earth belong to us. We have so much money that we are able to support a national chain of stores that sells coffee at prices approaching $5 per cup.

So we can afford the luxury of our crises: the Crisis of Our Schools, the Social Security Crisis, the Health Care Crisis, the Crisis of Our Children Smoking Cigarettes, the Crisis of Urban Sprawl. We especially enjoy a nice Constitutional Crisis; the past two years gave us two whoppers in that line -- the impeachment of a president, and the closest thing to a breakdown in the orderly transfer of presidential power that has been seen in this century. We quite liked them both. It's nice to have crises when you don't really have them. Gives us something to talk about besides the weather.

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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