May 27, 2005

George W. Bush and Sally O'Reilly's ass

The May 26 issue of Nature dramatizes the danger of bird flu, using the medium of a fictional weblog.

The format is backwards, in the sense that its entries run forwards in chronological order. This first-things-first order is the reverse of the blog-standard last-things-first order, presumably to make it easier to follow the story in fictional time. In other ways, though, it's an honest attempt to imitate a bloggy style, including what must be the first use in Nature of the expression "my ass" to communicate skepticism.

The fictional blogger is Sally O'Reilly, "a freelance journalist based in Washington DC", who has "been researching a book on pandemic preparedness" when a pandemic breaks out for real. In fact, the piece was written by Declan Butler, described as "Nature's senior reporter in Paris". I didn't realize that Nature had reporters resident around the world -- I thought it was a scientific publication.

Anyhow, the bird flu story is indeed an important one, well worth dramatizing. See the whole issue, mostly accessible to the public, for more information; or follow the story as it develops on ProMED-mail). But the "ass" comment is really kind of curious. It's presented as a reaction to a statement by U.S. President George Bush:

"At this hour, the World Health Organization has declared a full-scale pandemic influenza alert, with person-to-person spread lasting more than two weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam. During previous influenza pandemics in the United States, large numbers of people were ill, sought medical care, were hospitalized and died. On my orders, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services have today implemented the nation's draft Pandemic Influenza Response and Preparedness Plan. It will serve as our road map, on how we as a nation, and as a member of the global health community, respond to the pandemic. We are ready. Thank you, and may God bless America."

Declan-as-Sally's reaction is "Ready, my ass!"

Two things struck me about this. First, this is another milepost in the process that John McWhorter wrote about in the WaPo a couple of years ago: a "narrowing of the gap between the formal and the informal in public discourse". A few days ago, the New Yorker's film critic used the word "fucking" to emphasize his dislike of a new movie, and now one of the world's top scientific journals expresses its opinion of a U.S. President's remarks by reference to a (fictional) writer's metaphorical butt.

Second, the whole thing here is fictional -- the flu pandemic and the presidential statement as well as the blogger and her informal reaction. It's true enough that a flu pandemic is likely, sooner or later, and that the world is both woefully underprepared and not nearly concerned enough. But why should a Paris-based writer, in a London-based publication, choose George W. Bush for fictional skewering by a Washington-based freelancer? If a flu pandemic breaks out next winter, is Bush's statement likely to be any more contemptible than Blair's -- or Chirac's, or Schroeder's, or Jintao's? Or (EU President Jean-Claude) Juncker's or Kofi Annan's, for that matter?

Well, the answer is clear. Nature's Paris correspondent is using anti-American and anti-Bush prejudice to promote awareness of an international public health issue. I wonder if Nature's editorial board explicitly considered this step. My guess is that they did not -- having decided to dramatize a possible pandemic in blog form, Butler was just doing what comes naturally, these days, to European intellectuals.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 27, 2005 04:25 PM