Pamela Haag: Death by Treacle

Pamela Haag Death by Treacle1.jpg

Haag reflects on our shrinking private intimacies amidst an increasing need for public sentiment @ The American Scholar. When I was a child, I knew national flags by the color and design alone; today I could know diseases the same way. This occurs to me on my morning commute as I note the abundance of magnetic awareness ribbons adhering to cars. A ribbon inventory on the Internet turns up 84 solid colors, color combinations, and color patterns, although there are certainly more. The most popular colors must multitask to raise awareness of several afflictions and disasters at once. Blue is a particularly hard-working color, the new black of misfortunes; 43 things jockey to be the thing that the blue ribbon makes us aware of. Awareness-raising and fundraising 5K races augment the work of the ribbons. Maryland, where I live, had 28 5K races in one recent two-month period. I think it might be possible to chart a transcontinental route cobbled together entirely by annual 5K charity and awareness runs. Some memorialize a deceased loved one or raise funds for an affliction in the family (“Miles for Megan,” for example, or “Bita’s Run for Wellness”); others raise awareness of problems ranging from world health to Haiti to brain injury. A friend of mine who works in fundraising and development once observed, and lamented, that some medical problems were more popular than others and easier to solicit money for. Conditions with sentimental clout elicit more research donations, and cute endangered animals such as the giant panda, the World Wildlife Fund’s mascot, lure more donations than noncuddly ones.

On some days you’ll see makeshift shrines for victims of car accidents or violence by the side of the road, placed next to a mangled guardrail or wrapped around a lamppost. As more people hear of the tragedy, teddy bears, flowers, and notes accumulate. Princess Diana’s was the biggest of such shrines, a mountain of hundreds of thousands of plastic-sheathed bouquets outside her residence. Queen Elizabeth resisted the presumptuous momentum of all the grief but finally relented and went to inspect the flower shrine and its handwritten messages, a concession to sentiment depicted in the movie The Queen. Maybe I was the only one in the theater who thought the Queen was right; I rooted for her propriety over Tony Blair’s dubious advice that she drag the monarchy into the modern age by publicly displaying a sentiment she probably didn’t feel. The mourners didn’t even know Diana, the queen reasoned by an obsolete logic of restrained stoicism, and the palace flag didn’t fly at half-mast even for more illustrious figures. But she caved in the end. We most always do.

Sentiment surfaces fast and runs hot in public life, and it compels our attention. On good days I dimly register this makeshift iconography of people’s sorrows, losses, and challenges. Some of them have been my own, too, but I don’t have ribbons. On my dark days I believe that pink ribbons and 5K runs and temporary shrines and teddy bears and emails exclamation-pointed into a frenzy—the sentimental public culture—is malicious to civil society and impedes in one elegant motion our capacities for deliberation in public life and intimacy in private life. On the days I’m feeling melodramatic I suspect that we are in the grips of death by treacle.

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