A byline counts. So, before heading into this new untouched year, let me clarify: I am not on LinkedIn. Not on Instagram or Facebook. When you run into my name there, know that it ain’t me.
Google Alerts keeps alerting me to local news stories that appear under the byline Maureen Mullarkey. But I did not write them. By virtue of the diaspora out of County Mayo, the name gets around. It looks like mine, but no. Sometimes it is not. You have to guess which is which.
When my online doppelgänger first came into view she was a grad student at Columbia School of Journalism. Am guessing that she is the reason that I get an occasional email receipt for purchases I never made. They are always from a New York City seller using Square billing services. (She and I share a name, a Gmail address, and the same credit card company.) Receipts have come from Two Dude Outpost in Rockaway for a hot dog and coffee, a session at a Chelsea biking spa, and an unspecified venture asking me to rate my “experience with Jared.”
My double has graduated now. Google notifies me of news clips from Maureen Mullarkey, an honest-to-goodness staff writer for Patch. The subjects are the kind scoured from police blotters, press releases, realtors, and any place else that uses online press distribution services. Headlines spill from Daniel Boorstin’s “flood of pseudo-events.” It is not that these things have not happened. Yes, this man got into a fight and was shot. For sure, that house brought a great price. What matters is that so little of what Patch—among other media clutter-uppers—sends us as “news” has anything to do with what we need to know.
Pseudo-events have been with us for a while.
Benjamin Harris, a British book publisher and journalist, published Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick in 1690. He promised readers he would stay abreast of the “Glut of Occurrences” that wash over us every day. Anxiety to record the glut is driven by the newsman’s—or the dancing bears of today’s media conglomerate’s—24/7 need for product. Staff writers invite us to wander in a thicket of items like these:
[Nov. 1] UPDATE: Missing Brentwood Woman Found
[Nov. 4] Copiague Teenager Reported Missing: PD, Lindenhurst
This last contains hints of pathos. The scant copy is a tease of unexplored implication. But with no substantial information, how is it news? A boy left his Long Island home on a mountain bike to see his father in New Bedford, MA. The unspoken story is deeper, more complicated than a cursory notice that sees only a missing kid. Gone missing is the motive that set the boy on an improbable bike trip. As is, the copy is the bloodless skeleton of a human interest story that is nowhere to be found.
I do not share the cultural appetite for human interest pieces. If the genre counts as news at all, it is soft news—a synthetic commodity intended to stir emotion for its own sake. With no larger aim than a spasm of voyeuristic sympathy, human interest stories are cousins to soap opera.
Speaking of doubles, look for yours on a museum wall.
In October, the Daily Art Magazine ran an amusing piece: “Famous People and Their Doppelgängers in Art.” Some are surprisingly on the button. Enjoy.
How our Minister of Defense faces an enemy.
Out of the sea of images brought to us in 2021, the one below tops the list of those most painful to see. It ought to have been circulated widely when it appeared. But no, it was too telling. Our establishment commentariat took one look and shut its eyes. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star general, struts behind a visor covering a surgical mask as dual protection against National Enemy Number One. An advisor to the president on matters of national security, he barricades himself from a virus.
Does he look to you like a cabinet member or a tin-pot dictator?
An eerily prophetic photo, it was taken at Camp Aguinaldo military camp in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines on July 30, 2021. This was just two weeks before the surrender of Kabul to the Taliban. A scant six months later, on January 2, 2022, our triple-vaxxed and shrouded Defense Minister tested positive for COVID.
Forgive me for thinking that schadenfreude is a much-undervalued emotion.
It helps to remember that COVID is not smallpox.
Smallpox was an ancient and horrific scourge. A deadly epidemic raged during eight years of the American Revolutionary War. Endemic in Europe by the eighteenth century, the mortality rate ranged up to 60%. Most survivors suffered disfiguring scars; a third of them went blind. In Europe it claimed children at an even higher rate than adults: close to 80% in London and 98% in Berlin into the late 1800s. Historians agree that General Washington lost more men to disease than to combat. (Some estimate the percentage to be as high as ten to one.)
Two brief popular introductions to the epidemic and George Washington’s handling of it are here and here. As you read, keep in mind that the smallpox inoculations used on the Continental Army followed procedures developed by Edward Jenner. Like all vaccines since the 1790s, these were crucially different from the newly pioneered mRNA gene therapy technology offered now as a vaccine against COVID. [The National Geographic article, while useful, tends to blur the distinction.]
For deeper reading, there is Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by historian Elizabeth Fenn. Also, “Edward Jenner and the history of small pox and vaccination” is a richly detailed article by Stefan Reidel in the Journal of the Baylor University Medical Center.
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As historical memory desiccates and shrinks, we become defenseless against lethal cultural pathogens. Look again at Austin behind his vulgar sheathing—a fortnight before American collapse abroad—and see where forgetfulness leads.