Friday, April 6, 2012

The Die-Off Cover Story

I wrote this more than a year ago at the height of the die-off phenomenon. I tried half-heartedly to get it published, but had little luck. It's no longer newsworthy, but I stand by the points made herein.

Around the time Saudi Arabian officials nabbed a Griffon vulture as a Zionist spy, thousands of red-winged blackbirds spilled like inky rain from the dark skies above Beebe, Arkansas.

“Millions, millions every night. You look up in the sky and it’s just black,” said resident Stephen Bryant. “I seen a bird drop.”

“It was horrible,” another shocked witness reported. “You could not even get down the road without running over hundreds.”

The next day, workers in white hazmat suits fanned across Beebe to collect the corpses. Residents did their part, collecting by the bucketful the dead birds.

Theories of the die-off proliferated, including “everything from the sign of biblical end times to chemical conspiracies, shifts in the Earth’s magnetic core, and even proof of UFOs.” Others blamed “[e]lectromagnetic scalar weapons” or other top-secret developments of the military-industrial complex. Soon enough, the authorities coalesced around an unlikely cover story.

Exploding fireworks, they claimed, had frightened the skittish blackbirds; in a panic, the birds took flight and their precious palpitating hearts couldn’t weather the shock. Broken-hearted and terror-filled, the birds slammed into buildings, trees, and each other, dying of “blunt-force trauma.” The cover story diverted blame for this particular ecological catastrophe from the cascading bad decisions and unsustainable behaviors encouraged by constant growth and anti-nature policies.

Even if true, this cover story could not explain the gathering storm clouds.

After all, bird deaths in Beebe were not an isolated incident. Scaly corpses of as many as 100,000 drum fish lapped up on the shores of the Arkansas River, left for the raccoons to eat. Forty thousand Devil crab cadavers littered cold British beaches, as bookmakers predicted that the UK would face the next bird die-off. Turtle doves dangled from leafless branches in Faenza, Italy.  Ten thousand bovines bit the bullet in Viet Nam. Direct-to-video apocalyptic movie star and former Growing Pains cast member Kirk Cameron was summoned to CNN to calm tensions by claiming that “birds falling from the sky. . . has more to do with Pagan mythology” than with Christian revelation. Earth appeared locked in a collapsing environmental end game.

In this atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust, those in power needed a cover story to take the heat off themselves. Consider Greg Palast’s take on another environmental catastrophe, the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Palast shows how the cover story, the "Fable of the Drunken Skipper," blamed a drunken captain, who in fact was sleeping off a bender and not at the helm. The true cause of the oil spill, according to Palast, was cost-cutting measures that led Exxon to shut down a radar that would have prevented the ship from running ashore on the Alaskan coastline. Exxon effectively pinned the blame on the bad choices and questionable character of a single person. The cover story fit the corporatist ethos of the rugged individual who alone should win the glory or suffer the defeat. One man’s weakness, and not systemic corporate malfeasance, took the blame. The public was none the wiser.

In the face of global mass die-offs, how might a similar cover story explaining the dead birds in Beebe serve the agendas of those in power? To answer that question, one need only look at what hornets’ nests might be stirred up by other theories.

The Tea Party rabble suspected that a secret Obamunist weapon was responsible for the bird die-off. Homeland Security types feared a terrorist plot. Those still coughing into their shoulders to prevent the spread of swine flu believed a disease had mutated or had been released by the CDC. At its most innocent, the die-off indicated that the government could not keep us safe. At its most extreme, it shoveled ammonium-nitrate and fuel oil into a U-Haul truck driven by a paranoid patriot.

For Christian Armageddonists, the bird die-off added to the expanding number of apocalyptic signs. As souls anticipated getting hoovered up to heaven, and a righteously angry Jesus prepared to reclaim his kingdom, true believers began turning their backs on politics. Thus a verifiable End Times scenario threatened the tenuous coalition of Christian Dominionists and corporatist Republicans that drives American conservatism.

The bird die-off also fed left-wing alarm. Suburban environmentalists suspected a pollutant had killed the blackbirds. DeLilleans feared an “Airborne Toxic Event.” Deep ecologists pointed to an irreparable rupture in nature. For these environmentalists, corporate greed and irresponsibility accounted for the bird deaths. These explanations heaped compost on the rhizomic theories of corporate-sponsored ecological distress.

In other words, theories regarding the mass die-offs threatened to fracture the fault lines of power. From the right, the theories fueled anti-government hysteria while driving a wedge between the religious and moneyed interests that cemented Republican power in the Age of Reagan. From the left, the die-offs further justified action against corporations dead set on devouring every ounce of the Earth’s bounty before shitting out the toxic leftovers in the form of pollution.

Now consider the function of the story of some poor schlub who set off the fireworks that ended up killing the birds. He was a good ol’ boy blowing off steam in the worst economy since the 1930s. He didn’t intend to hurt the poor red-winged blackbirds. In fact, the deaths were an entirely unforeseeable catastrophe. The cover story implied that the deranged conspiracy nuts, kooky Christians, and redwood-hugging hippies were twisting a one-time, innocent accident to suit their own crooked agendas. Despite their zany explanations, these birds were killed by natural and explicable, albeit uncommon means. If doubt could be cast on one die-off, blame for the others might also be deflected.

And that’s how the truth became a cover story.

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