Flavin's Corner
10-15-99

Rumor Junkies

"...Who's plooking the green monkeys?"
Frank Zappa on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, 9-19-85, discussing
"Isolation of T-lymphotropic retrovirus related to HTLV-III/LAV from wild
caught African green monkeys," by Kanki P. J., Alroy J., and Essex M., in
Science 230: 951-954, 1985.

     The New Yorker magazine's suggestion of bioterrorism for the introduction
of the West Nile-like virus in America was quickly ridiculed and dismissed by
various security and scientific agencies.  Much like Pierre Salinger and his proof
that a US Navy missile accidentally brought down TWA Flight 800, it makes for
good table-talk, but little else.  Recent claims that the death of Princess Di was
part of a conspiracy and JFK Jr., his wife, and sister-in-law were murdered,
indicates ...there are some genuinely disturbed people out there and, as rumor
junkies, we can't seem to get enough of them!  We're vapid, gossiping corvids
preying on the misfortunes of others, and I've a sinking feeling this situation
won't be changing anytime soon.

     I was first exposed to gossip by my mother.  Mom bought trash magazines
like I bought comic-books, i.e., several or more per week.  The family would
constantly tease her about the latest celebrity gossip, as she had the habit of
beginning every juicy tidbit with: "They said...," and we'd all laugh out loud and
demand who "They" were!  For many years we made fun of her rumoring that
Jim Nabors and Rock Hudson were gay.  The family was in total shock when
Rock passed from AIDS and, to Mom's credit, she never screamed out "I told
you so!"  And, as these things go, the current word is that after Gomer Pyle left
the USMC, he changed his motto to Sempre Hilaris...

     The one-time New Yorker writer, Ogden Nash, discussed the nature of
gossip in his poem, "I Have It On Good Authority," suggesting:

There are two kinds of people who blow through life like a breeze,
And one kind is gossipers, and the other kind is gossipees,
And they certainly annoy each other,
But they certainly enjoy each other,
Yes, they pretend to flout each other,
But they couldn't do without each other...
published in I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1938.

While gossip and gossiping may be commonplace and not unusual in the least,
certainly an attribute of society, I believe it's also about power (both real and
imagined), and as such is seldom harmless and usually damaging.  It always
comes back to power.

     Our word "gossip" reflects this through its etymology: gossip from the late
Old English godsibbe, godparent or god-kin.  Apart from the application of
"godparent" as a sponsor in the faith of a child, it's not difficult to imagine the
possibility of damage resulting from whispered rumors by family members or
neighbors.  Perhaps Europe and the Americas no longer whip or dunk, put an
offender in stocks, or perform some variation of The Scarlet Letter, however in
many parts of the world ...these and much more severe punishments exist.  The
recent report from Amnesty International which remarked on the deaths of over
1600 Pakistani women since 1990 from kitchen fires is a sad example of this.
Gossip is an exercise of power.

     In ancient society it was often believed if one knew the "secret name" of an
enemy's god one would have power over that god, e.g., the Egyptian myth of
Isis acquiring the "secret name" of Ra, and the curious tradition among the
Hebrews that they so revered the "secret name" of their god, pronouncing it less
and less as the years went by, finally allowing the utterance of the Ineffable
Name only once a year by the High Priest during Yom Kippur, and, at some
point between the beginning of the Common Era and the destruction of
Jerusalem by the Romans, actually "forgetting" (or losing) the correct
pronunciation.  Such ancient extortion is similar to our modern gossiping about
celebrities.  We believe because we "know" something about the private life of a
famous person, ...we have power over them.  Such silliness!

     It may not be PC to discuss the sexual orientation of someone, make an
offhand or off-color remark regarding religion or race, speculate as to whether
or not a particular sports legend murdered his ex-wife, or if a certain rich,
married couple knows the identity of the killer of their six year old daughter, but
many of us engage in this sort of behavior on a regular basis.  Others, in a
pompous trajectory from pulpit to talk-show, are professionals when it comes to
gossip.  It must be remembered that gossip doesn't manifest from thin air, but
originates through human invention.  The rumor begins with one person seeking
power...

     Yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater will often lead to a charge of attempting
to incite a riot, but Rev. Jerry Falwell continues to lash out at homosexuals
without fear of redress.  Telling a female coworker she has "a nice rack" is today
deemed sexual harassment, but nary a Howard Stern show is broadcast without
some (usually many) degrading comments about women.  Oh, and consistently
calling the FBI a bunch of "jack-booted thugs" may be an exercise of the First
Amendment, but guess who gets called to save the day when a kidnapping
involves crossing state lines?  Right...  The usual answer to the above is "If you
don't want to hear it, don't listen to it!"   And what about those who do listen
and trample others as they run out of the theater?  Gee, I forgot; it's the survival
of the meanest...

     I find it most unfortunate that the New Yorker magazine spreads gossip and
attempts to create hysteria with allegations of bioterrorism.  The West Nile-like
virus is well known in other parts of the world, there have been many recent,
scientifically investigated outbreaks in Africa and Eurasia, and the virus is now
believed to have been almost certainly introduced to this country via birds, but
whether by migratory or imported birds remains undetermined.

     In 1995 the microbiologist and neo-Nazi, Larry Wayne Harris, forged a
letter-head and bought some bubonic bacteria through the mail.  He received an
inactive sample, was busted, and later given probation ...because of the forgery,
and not for attempting to buy The Plague!  Again, amazingly enough, in 1998
Harris purchased some samples of anthrax.  Thank Scully, the anthrax was also
inactive...  I find this much more chilling than any fantastic tales of Saddam
Hussain infecting birds in the Bronx.  Bioterrorism is a way real threat and the
New Yorker magazine, in my opinion, must be trying to steal readership from
the New York Post!  I'd be open to other interpretations...

gossiping nevermore,
Rick

Ps, overheard in Boston: the Yankees wear nylons under their uniforms...

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