In which I coin the term panicfic

This post is brainstorming, not research. Clearly.

I’m fascinated by these little stories we create in the middle of a moral panic. I was going to coin the term panic-dote but it’s used for something else according to the Urban Dictionary (though, in an extenuating circumstances there is a way this established definition could fit).

Perhaps panicfic is a better phrase.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s, so a lot of the panicfics I’m aware of are racist, homophobic, and misogynistic, but others I’ve heard recently seem to fit the bill and are a little softer, though that is relative to the teller and listener.

They’re not urban legends. They’re smaller than that. They’re shorter than that. These stories are these clipped, little anecdotes that allow people to express their outrage. They’re often a way of putting yourself within a group, testing people to make sure they think the same way you do. There’s never really a basis in fact. It’s always something that you heard from your cousin’s neighbor’s dog‘s husband‘s best roommate.

One of my favorites from recent times is the “My friend said Merry Christmas to a woman, and she yelled at him, saying ‘I’m an atheist and that offends me’ and she was very upset,” and of course the story isn’t true. If it’s close to true, the lady was fucking with you and your satire gland is shriveled and useless. Atheists can love Christmas, too. We love cookies. We love materialism. Just like Jesus!

Building upon an idea I threw out there in my last post, these panicfics are fanfiction, a genre of wish fulfillment where people tell comforting stories to themselves. Some of these are offshoots of overplayed media outrage, but most start as juvenile play. I often think about my own school days, centuries before Livejournal, tumblr, and AO3, where my friends and I had to pass notes back and forth, always describing a “dream” we had involving some band, or athletes. It was never a dream, friends, it was fanfic and it was great.

But this is darker, this is destructive and viral and dehumanizing. Panicfics always show more about the person telling the story (let’s face it, the person making up the story) than the story itself. As as for the people they are trying to target, they say nothing. No one creating these stories has ever interacted with the people they hate.

It’s really difficult to extract panicfics from urban legends as they have a similar vector of spread, especially now in the Internet age, but it is their reinforcement of insecurities that make them so powerful. The two that come to mind for me are awful. In an early draft of this essay I wrote them out in full, but that’s what the panicfics want, they want to spread.

I’ll be vague: [edit]on second thought, I’ll be vaguer: [edit 2]fuck it: one was misogynistic and homophobic, the other racist and classist. You figure out which I mean.

If you’re my age, you probably have heard them both. If you’re younger and have an inkling, I am very sorry. We have failed you.

If you’re younger and haven’t heard them, but have a cesspool of hate and misinformation coming at you every day when you’re just trying to post your dance videos – WOW we have all failed you and your strength is an inspiration. Please save us.

If I searched through news databases or Google to trace some origin to these panicfics, I’m sure I will find the story somewhere. I’m sure I will find them presented as funny or amusing or, in some cases, presented as “this actually happened.”

It didn’t happen. It’s made up. It’s a fiction. It’s a desire to show the listener that the teller has “heard a thing or two” and “knows the way of the world.” It’s the gossip of the idiot, too scared to crawl out of their own backyard and talk to a person that doesn’t look like them. Even if, digging deep, down into the bowels of public discourse, there appears to be a shred of an inkling of a microscopic point that seems parallel to one element of these panicfics, they’re still not true. They only truth they hold is in their power to inflict pain and death.

I started out fascinated by panicfics to the point I made a name for them. Now I’m just mad.

That guy that told me the Atheist-Christmas story? I was so shocked at the blatant bullshittiness of the thing, I didn’t know what to say. I said “sorry? People are weird.” I wish I’d had a better comeback, but stupid stuns.

A Medical Story

I had a conversation with the clerk at my pharmacy the other day. I was picking up a prescription for a family member and he said “You know it costs $XXX?”

“Yes, and I still don’t know why you ask me. It’s not like we don’t need the script.”

“Well, we let people know because when they hear the price, sometimes they don’t want it.”

I paused. “No. It’s not that they don’t want it, they can’t afford it. There’s a difference.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“Words matter. They change how you think.”

This is as close to quoting as I can remember and nothing like the political fan-fic you usually read online about “let me tell you what happened when I told this person a thing-or-two.” It wasn’t a confrontational conversation and it happened pretty sporadically and I didn’t feel particularly proud afterwards. We so often think of storytelling as reading to children, instead of how the choice of words we use to describe our experience then inscribes that experience onto our conscious. I left frustrated.

There are a lot of nuances to the Humana-Medicare fraud story that came across the news-feeds a few days ago. I saved it with the intention on writing about the piece, not because I am someone who regularly comments on the health insurance industry, but because it is complementary to some of my research and what I think about all the time. This story and its $200 million dollar headline is not how we’ve been trained to think about insurance fraud, and that’s the point.

We have seen those local news investigations of the person on disability payments for back issues, somehow able to build a deck in the behind their house, or the person who, in conjunction with their doctor, fudges the severity of their symptoms to get more coverage for medical supplies that they would not normally be entitled to. These are the stories about fraud that we’re used to: the individual scammers, the advantage-takers, but where does the overpayment to Humana enter into this narrative. For the wider audience, it doesn’t.

Humana has a huge presence on daytime cable television, along with other Medicare supplemental programs promising to put more money in your social security check every month by switching to their insurance. None of these commercials (easily) disclose that you’re forgoing part of Medicare (hence the refund) only to pay that money to the separate insurance company. It’s a boon for the corporations and seems like a no-brainer to the hapless person wanting an extra $100 in their Medicare check every month.
Yet, still, that is a story told about individuals, the lonely seniors unable to see through the smoke and mirrors of television advertisements. The “boomer” generation taught to trust the evening news and the sales pitches in the commercial breaks never unlearned that trust. Even after Watergate, they turned to television to get the information they needed. The channel hardly mattered, and, when it comes to insurance advertising, still doesn’t. There are a lot of generational generalizations in those previous sentences, but there are sparks of truth within. We still think of Medicare (or any health insurance) fraud as an individual problem. We tell the stories of individual people scamming the system, which allows us to shake our heads and feel better about how we aren’t the scammers and maybe the system is the problem.

I don’t believe in universal truths (aside from the lack of universal truths) but something I find to be a consistent occurrence is that any system created by humans can be exploited by humans. The Humana-Medicare story suggests that the largest exploiters of the system are at the corporate level. Yet we never tell the story like that. We always focus on the man building the deck, or the woman with too many diabetic supplies. We focus our attention and our scorn on targets that are the same size as us: individuals that can be outed and shamed. We understand the individual scam because we perpetuate them ourselves in any number of ways: we drive a little fast, we needle our way out of jury duty, we find advantages to pay less in tax, etc. Perhaps we get upset not at the scam, but at the scammer being caught. It tightens the rein on all of us.

Or at least that’s the impression. The watchdogs will start scrutinizing individual actions more closely, because that’s where the story takes us, if not the data. The story is the reality and if multiple people committing $100 a month in Medicare fraud is the scourge presented, then where does the $200 million assessment against Humana fit into that story. Honestly, it doesn’t. We won’t cancel our individual Humana plans because by purchasing them in the first place, we’ve agreed ith the idea that the corporation is a better adjudicator of our health care than government-funded Medicare. We have already sided with the individual over the communal in our story – the individual as the mighty sovereign of liberty and the individual as the mighty sinner in violation of justice and fair play.

Justice, sovereignty, fair play, are all stories. We tell ourselves these stories day in and day out in order to feed and reinforce the world view of our communities. And that community is a story of people telling the same stories in the same way. Humana is a corporation that told a number of small stories in distorted ways that entitled them to receive more money than they were owed. The federal audit is telling that same story from a different point of view.

NPR only uses the word “fraud” in two places: one, while describing what extrapolation is to the readers, and two, in one of the story tags: “medicare fraud.”

None are named “All of You”

Note: I apologize to my classmates for missing last week’s discussion. My time management skills apparently had not yet returned from break. I have since forcibly extracted them from the void and, battered as they are, am working diligently to get them ship-shape. Considering the time-stamp on this post, they are still a little…disgruntled.

The turtleLanguage is like clay. The one you are born into benefits from years of kneading, handling, molding, and is soft and pliable. If you are lucky, you spend your life creating different shapes with the clay, using examples of sculptures that came before you, refining your process. Then one day, another language beckons you, and you answer the call. A new, hard lump of clay is placed before you and the slow, arduous kneading process begins. It is frustrating, tiring, and, all the while you are kneading this new language you realize that you may never achieve the same malleability of your own language, but, at the same time, that even an approximation of that malleability will be ultimately rewarding. The two essays I chose to abstract for this week discuss the sculpture that Achebe creates with language and his ability to form a recognizable story with foreign–and often diminished–clay.

James Snead opens “European Pedigrees/African Contagions: Nationality, Narrative, and Communality in Tutuola, Achebe, and Reed” with a quote from Samuel Johnson: “Languages are the pedigrees of nations” (264). He spends a great deal of time deconstructing that statement and as well as our definition of nation. He questions our notion that nations are naturally formed geological separations between people, created independently and having a shared culture and history. But this definition neglects the naturally porous nature of all societies, the unnatural creation of borders by colonization, and the diverse populations that entertain ideas of national “purity.” He also argues that the larger an empire spreads its control, the more diverse it becomes and, therefore, the more insistent its “original” members become when it comes to a “pure” race. Rethinking the concept of “nation” and, by extension, the idea of a “national language” and a “people” also forces us to see nations as populations living within an imaginary boundary and consenting–or being forced–to exist under a single law. After the nation is created, the language established, then, Snead argues, literature takes hold as the signifying voice of that nation. We continue to see remnants of that process in our own course listings today. Snead also argues that as certain texts and literatures are elevated, they become synonymous with a sense of “universality” and as other texts are produced outside that national culture, the critic’s first instinct is to search for the universality of the piece. Yet, that instinct is entirely Eurocentric, and therefore, has difficulty recognizing the universality of a story without the common features of the national literature that came before. In a sense, this is where Achebe, as well as others, have succeeded–and in some cases, confounded–to the critics demands. By molding the English language into approximating the oral tradition of the Ibo, Achebe forms the language into an African sculpture–though the notion that any author can speak for all of Africa is an Eurocentric view as well. Snead suggests that, for Achebe’s novels, “their most interesting aspect is the almost casual manner in which they present African norms to primarily non-African readers” (278). Achebe uses the language most accessible to the European audience to render a story initially unrecognizable to them, yet one that slowly reveals its universal theme throughout the rhythm of the narrative.

That rhythm is discussed in detail in the next essay, “Rhythm and Narrative Method in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart,” by B. Eugene McCarthy. At times McCarthy delves into the analytical of scanning lines and marking repetitions, but they are all pointers to a larger pattern in Achebe’s book. He quotes Walter Ong’s definition of the oral tradition, citing that “thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balances patterns, in repetitions and antithesis, in alliterations and assonance, in epithetic and other formulary expressions” (428). The repetition, or “backlooping” is an integral part of the oral narrative–folklore, fairy tales, myths are replete with these patterns–but not necessarily a staple of the Eurocentric novel tradition. There may be cycles in theme or symbols, but, McCarthy argues, Achebe creates these cycles with the language itself, allowing the larger theme to be not only symbolically cyclical, but literally. As he progresses through his close reading, McCarthy shows how Okonkwo is bound by the cycles of the village and of nature, but ultimately rejects them. He is so absorbed into projecting his own masculinity, he rejects the natural cycles embodied in the feminine. While the masculine moves forward unrelentingly, the feminine recognizes seasonality. Ultimately Okonkwa’s inflexible push forward meets head on with another inflexible force, the white man, resulting in his committing the arguably unmasculine act of suicide. Achebe, in his use of the English language, showcases not only the cyclical nature of oral storytelling, but the cyclical nature of the life in which Okonkwa is bound. There is a danger of dismissal when likening written prose with oral narrative, as the Western tradition elevates the former over the latter, but McCarthy’s essay shows the beauty of this rhythmic storytelling in Achebe’s novel and the effectiveness of this long-diminished strategy.