I’d Like to Hear Some Funky Dixieland, Pretty Mama Come and — Oh No, Ebola!

Attack of the Culture Bug

Well, that which we had most feared has finally come to pass. The global threat now posed by the marauding Ebola virus is such that it is possible today to imagine someone beginning to sing the chorus of an old Doobie Brothers song, then being quickly brought to heel by remembering we’re all dying of Ebola. We who remember the old Doobie Brothers may ruefully recall that Michael McDonald’s sudden appearance likewise had the devastating effect of an attacking microbe on that band, the bearded pathogen punching through the Doobies’ cell wall, charging into the mitochondrial matrix and ruthlessly reprogramming the group until it lost its Hell’s Angels double helix and finally collapsed under the weight of all those swirly perfumed Michael McDonald ladies who wear heels to concerts and dance with their eyes closed and their arms in the air while saying ‘woo-hooo’. We will not be spared.

Ebola. Three little words that strike cold fear into the heart. These are the scourge-times, what with easy air travel, the splashy fecal dispensaries of your average African village, and an Information Age news cycle with as greedy a maw as that cone-shaped planet-killer that so tormented William Windom. While All Hope is not lost, it is almost certainly in that closet under the stairs about whose contents we routinely say ‘it’s not lost, but we’ll never see it again’.

Ebola is on everyone’s lips these days; if not Ebola itself then a comment or opinion about Ebola. And in our haste to welcome a human-race concluding, ratings-boosting doomsday, we have already brushed past the forgotten earliest victims of Ebola – the Democratic Republic of Congo Realtors whose previously prized holdings along the river Ebola, after which the virus is named, are now not worth the spraying diarrheac output being attributed to the unfortunate river’s namesake. Best to pull up stakes and reinvest someplace untouched by the tragedy. A large purchase of land around the lushly forested Lake Penile Palsy will surely reverse the sliding fortunes of these innocent speculators whose only crime was snapping up acreage along the banks of a river whose name is now synonymous with blood gushing like hose water out every hole in the body. It’s been reported that Disney was offered the riverfront properties as a possible spot for a Sub-Saharan theme park, but passed when their hastily convened focus group turned up their noses at the proposed new slogan; “The Hemorrhage Place On Earth”.

This Ebola bug (like most annihilating microbes, a cheery bit of yarn when glimpsed with a scanning electron microscope) has drawn up some wild survival plans over the lazy eons. We could take a page from the Ebola Self-Defense book. The skin of the Ebola virus wears a glycoprotein with which it binds itself to and then pierces the hapless living cell, leaps unhindered through the ripped outer membrane, runs in like an overexcited thug and, for reasons known only to the fragrant mysteries of Intelligent Design, irreparably smashes the cellular furniture. Then, as the Keystone Antibodies perk up at these loud indications of cellular slaughter and rush in to help, the Ebola virus exits the wrecked cell and manages to push another glycoprotein out the other side, an actual decoy with which the pleased and thoroughly duped antibodies busy themselves while the real culprit slinks off in search of more cellular mayhem to wreak. No kidding. It’s amazing and grotesque and inexplicably mind-like; nature in a nutshell. Medical illustrators like the marvelous Bernie K. are at pains to explicate such minutiae as comprise the brick and mortar of our bewildering Existence, and the colorful, mechanistic renderings lay out the cogs and gears of these things in thrilling and horrifying detail, reminding us anew how wonderful and nauseatingly incomprehensible Life is in the details. Again; if this is all a machine, what is it doing? Whether this killer yarn is Intelligently Designed by an increasingly puzzling “I Promise This Is All Part Of The Perfect Plan” God, or came by it’s exactingly tailored design through the numbing mathematical exigencies of Trying This Then That Then Another Variation of This over the course of many trillions of days and nights of a very very slowly stirring biosphere, the Ebola virus looks to be, at the moment, in the ascendant. Or to address the issue in more scientific terms, our world is under attack by blank-faced nano sex robots.

Luckily this ancient and canny bug is not – repeat is NOT – conveyed by the furiously sneezing crazy guy in the back of the bus I’m riding as I type this; one of those guys whose sneezes escape him like prisoners angrily breaking out of confinement, and whose greatest threat to my well-being is the likelihood I’ll minutely wet myself every time he screams. The Scream Sneezer blasts his atomized snot-cloud into the air without preamble, and sounds like he’s being grazed with a blowtorch when he lets loose. “sghnAAAAAAGGH!! sghnAAAAAAGGH!!!!!

Yes, if you ride the city bus to work every day you feel the growing panic, even though this plague is, as they continue to say with strangely declarative authority, not an airborne pathogen. But we’ve seen this movie; a miscast Emma Thompson, playing this time a Shakespearean virologist, assures an uneasy world the situation will soon be under control, and in fact the screenwritten danger is comfortably distant. In the first reel an innocuous case of the sniffles appears across an array of urban and rural settings portrayed in typical Hollywood shorthand – brusque and unlikable grey-suited derivatives trader in NYC sneezes demurely into a Pierre Cardin kerchief, portly Heartland corn farmer in an ill-researched straw hat and overalls blows his nose on the wife’s gingham apron to her chuckling delight, Los Angeles yoga instructor in gold lame briefs and ponytail raises a ringed hand to his pierced nose and emits a ladylike nasal hiccup. Each cinema-sneeze is followed by an Industrial Light and Magic sequence of wildly painted flagellants rocketing through the room, up into nostrils made cavernous by our Need to Know, and straight down into the protean basement where sympathetically portrayed cells are swarmed and violated by anthropomorphized Ebola gangs, whip-like arms a-waving to a thumping minor-key tragedy theme composed and conducted by James Newton Howard. By reel 2 we’ve got staring, shuffling armies of tax attorneys with their arms outstretched, some of them zombies.  Yes, life may be about to imitate art, hopefully not the art of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, though. Life imitating that art could be worse than Ebola.

Village Lagos
Start spreadin’ the whatever, I’m leavin’ today. Flyblown village Lagos, Nigeria is the perfect Ebola vector.

But this slow-motion plague is conveyed exclusively by exposure to body fluids, we’re told by Ms. Thompson’s real-life counterparts. Though many of the deaths in Africa are happening in Lagos, a variegated, skyscrapered congestion of modern metal and glass, we’re told even heavily urbanized Africa lacks the West’s feces-disposing acumen and that the poor souls are victims of their culture’s childlike propensity to splash body fluids with inept abandon. Meaning the several thousand persons in Africa who have been infected and largely killed by the virus were more likely vomited on than sneezed around, more likely to have tripped into an open sewer or embraced the dissolving corpse of a loved one than to have been virally attacked in a more bespoke westernized fashion. There is in the comfort-bestowing comparisons of Them to Us the usual patronizing posture. Of course it’s rampant in Africa, just look at them! Oh, and someone in a hazmat suit in Texas caught Ebola by removing her gloves wrong. So there is some assurance that, barring a Mr. Creosote-like vomiting frenzy or the less than completely thoughtful removal of specially constructed anti-Ebola gloves, we’ll all be okay.

I’m not in a panic about Ebola, but I marvel at how we are already being polarized by the comfortably small-seeming outbreak. Of course the disabled do-nothings in our nation’s nerve center are taking the usual productive tack of setting absolutely everything else aside to politicize and blame, the possible pandemic brought unsurprisingly to bear on the always top-of-mind issue of getting rehired to do nothing some more.  So hopefully they can be used as guinea pigs in the search for a reproducible cure. Maybe they can do some good after all, if against their will.

Several friends have taken me mildly to task for flattering the dimwit media’s feverish 24/7 coverage with any attention at all. Yeah, I know Ebola is curable, but not often. If/when it gets to a truly crowded place like India, it doesn’t seem naive or pessimistic or fabulist to believe the sheer numbers will be uncontainable. It’s just boring old math that says so. For now the quality of mercy is being strained and there are public cries to close the borders, deny entry to the feverish, and otherwise Look Out for Number One. The headline-grabbing Ebola virus may just be the latest McNews to occupy a bored and sated West, but the dust-up usefully points out that we are not Creatures of Light or spirit beings, and that dumb replicating germs continue to occupy the head of a pin in greater numbers than angels.