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Saturday, February 07, 2004


“But though the nation be exempt from real evils, it is not more happy on this account than others. The people are afflicted, it is true, with neither famine nor pestilence; but there is a disorder peculiar to the country, which every season makes strange ravages among them; it spreads with pestilential rapidity, and infects almost every rank of people; what is still more strange, the natives have no name for this peculiar malady, though well known to foreign physicians by the appellation of Epidemic Terror.”

According to the sociologists, Stanley Cohen coined the phrase “moral panic” to talk about the sweeping fears that will suddenly go through all levels of a society. Cohen studied Mods and Rockers to find out, among other things, why sensational stories about Mod violence and deviance became, briefly, a staple of the British media. Cohen examined the mechanism of this sensation, from incident to report to response. In a sense, what he was doing, with a different vocabulary, was what Oliver Goldsmith had done two hundred years before, in his essay on Mad Dogs. Since I don’t believe Goldsmith’s essay has ever been referred to by those who have written about the history of moral panic, I thought I’d compare Goldsmith’s Epidemic Terror with Cohen’s moral panic – and in particular, the way in which Goldsmith used the epidemic image to medicalize an older image of rumor.

First, though, let’s talk a bit about Cohen’s terms. A good paper applying Cohen and Hall’s work to panics about language is on this site:

I get this quote from the site. Here’s how Cohen defines his term:

“Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A
condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a
threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and
stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by
editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited
experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or
(more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten,
except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.(1972:9)

The Epidemic Terror of Goldsmith’s essay is exactly of Cohen’s type-of thing-that-suddenly-becomes-visible, even though it has been in existence a long time: mad dogs.

Goldsmith, of course, is writing in a tradition about rumor and ignorance that goes back to Virgil's goddess of Rumor, who perches on the walls of the city. What is interesting about his essay is the direction he takes. It would be easy to employ the old routines that targeted ignorance and the mob. The term “mob” came into existence in the 18th century – it was a shortened form of mobile vulgarum, common people in movement. And Goldsmith, as well as any 18th century intellectual, wasn’t averse to tossing around a little abuse of the mob. However, he is more interested in mechanism than typology – he is after the dynamic of his “epidemic terror”. And to understand that, you have to pose some non-traditional questions that concern the about-ness of ignorance – questions that latter led Freud and Canetti to their (different) conclusions about crowd behavior.

Goldsmith begins with examples to show that epidemic terrors are both chronic and structurally similar:

“One year it issues from a baker’s shop in the form of a sixpenny loaf; the next, it takes the appearance of a comet with a fiery tail; the third, it threatens like a flatbottomed boat; and the fourth, it carries consternation in the bite of a mad dog.”

In all of the cases, the risk is disproportionate to the terror it spreads. However, the element I want to underline is that Goldsmith isn't showing that the disproportion is irrational -- he is trying to show how it is rationalized. Hence, my reference to Freud. The essay was probably penned sometime in the 1750s or 1760s. Supposedly England was swept with various epidemics of what surgeon John Hunter, who wrote about it in the 1780s, called canine madness. Goldsmith intentionally parallels two forms of madness – one is spread by a mad dog’s bite, while the other’s lines of infection are at first, mysterious. In both cases, though, the contagion model applies. The individual madness of the hyrophobe is paralleled by the collective madness of the crowd.

Goldsmith, as a good doctor, describes the outward symptoms of the ‘disease” of fearing mad dogs – people “sally from their houses with that circumspection which is prudent in such as expect a mad dog at every turning;” “a few of unusual bravery arm themselves with boots and buff gloves, in order to face the enemy…” In short, a city operates as though it were suddenly under imminent threat.

And what of that threat? Goldsmith observes how the discovery of whether a dog is mad or not resembles the old trial of dunking witches – if she floats, she’s a witch, if she drowns, she is innocent. Since the symptoms of being a mad dog are biting, or running away, crowds gather around dogs, jab or stone them, and then are either attacked – proof that the dog is mad – or escaped from – proof, again, that the dog is mad. Out comes the halter and the dog is hung.

“When epidemic terror is once excited, every morning comes loaded with some new disaster.” Goldsmith anticipates Cohen once again. In Cohen’s model, the menace has to be repeated over and over. In the age of the copy machine, tv, and radio (Cohen’s book dealt with the pre-Net age), the vector of transmission runs through these vast news machines. In Goldsmith’s day, the vector of transmission was still as much oral as it was print. What is interesting is that there will suddenly be a wave of information about the menace that runs through oral space – much like today’s “watercooler talk.” ‘As in stories of ghosts, each loves to hear the account, though it only serves to make him uneasy.” Goldsmith imagines a story beginning in some outlying area, where a woman is frightened by a dog. As the story is retold – and as it spreads towards more densely populated areas – the story’s characteristics change, until they assume the shape of the usual terror: a mad dog, a sudden attack, a highly placed woman who is suddenly transformed into a foaming hydrophobic on all fours.

Goldsmith’s epidemic terror includes all three elements of Cohen’s moral panic: exaggeration, the prediction that such things are inevitable, and symbolization. In Cohen’s case, the symbolization congealed around the image of the “Mod;” in Goldsmith’s case, around the image of the dog. The dog isn’t simply diseased, but mad – a disturbance of the rational faculties, a lowering of the censure between the Id and the ego – to use an anachronistic way to describe it.

We especially like the end of Goldsmith’s essay, because he goes to the heart of the terror – to the dog itself – and makes a little plaidoyer for the dog: “in him alone, fawning is not flattery.” “How unkind then to torture this animal that has left the forest to claim the protection of man! How ungrateful a return to the trusty animal for all its services!”

We could find many contemporary applications, n’est-ce pas?

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