Downtown View: Mass. Hysteria

The hysterics are back.

This time it’s the mural on the Greenway that two Brazilian brothers painted on a ventilation building. To hear the moral outrage folks, it’s not just questionable art, it’s anti-American, terrorist-derived, anti-Christian, you name it, but name it only in extremes.

Get over it. It’s a painting.

But hysteria is now a way of life in America. And it’s not confined to women’s sexual frustration, as the Victorians believed.

Remember when W’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, not only covered up naked statues—come on, John, it’s just the human body in stone—but also issued farcical threat warnings in yellow, orange, red, after 9/11? Now 9/11 was something to get worked up about, but afterward? It was like closing the barn door after the horse got out. The threat levels finally went away along with the overexcited Ashcroft.

Some people then got all incensed over how someone was making it impossible for Christians to celebrate Christmas. The guy who fanned those fires was Rush Limbaugh. Never mind that most Christians were happily celebrating Christmas, along with atheists, Jews and even Muslims. And we were wishing our non-Christian friends “Happy Holidays” because it seemed respectful. Limbaugh’s hysteria usually attributed the anti-Christmas attitudes to “secularists,” but it sounded pretty anti-Semitic to me.

Next came the brou-ha-ha over the pat-down at the airport. Those possessing the hysteria gene went ballistic over what they decided were intrusive sexual maneuvers on the part of the security officials. The complainers sounded like they hadn’t had sex recently if they couldn’t tell the difference between a pat-down and a caress. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking on their part that they needed to sublimate.

Scott Brown is now behaving as if he has acquired the hysteria gene. The shrillness could be a problem for him if he wants to sound dignified, as we want our senators to be. He is all up in arms because Massachusetts is trying to sign welfare recipients up to vote. Brown has sometimes seemed reasonable, a refreshing attitude from a member of the Republican party, but here he is in explosive mode. It’s all quite disappointing when one just wants to hear a reasoned complaint in a dignified voice, although maybe you can sound only like a crackpot if you’re complaining about encouraging citizens to vote.

So why do the hysteria practitioners seem to be multiplying, and why do people with the status of senators think it’s okay to descend into hysteria?

I asked my experts in human behavior, local psychotherapist Dr. Shari Thurer, and psychiatrist Dr. Malcolm P. Rogers, who used to write a column for The Beacon Hill Times called “Mindfields.”

Dr. Thurer concentrated on anxiety. She said the airport pat-down phobics may be trying to “thwart anxiety deriving from a fear of exposure caused by underlying shame.”

As to the mural, she found it curious that it produced such a hue and cry. “If the figure signals a terrorist,” she said, “he is one who has no voice (his mouth is covered) and he’s childlike and relaxed.”

Dr. Rogers concentrated on anxiety and anger. “Those who are already angry or threatened by something like to have that anger stoked because it strengthens their affiliation with a group or it makes them feel smarter than the other side,” he said.

He also mentioned that hysteria becomes contagious, “best demonstrated in schools, when fear of bad air, or exposure to something making people sick can quickly lead to the experience of the sickness that only confirms the underlying fear.” Then there is the fantasy that “they” are taking away something that used to be “mine”—jobs, freedom, religion, prosperity, safety, some idealized view of the past, or traditional ideas of marriage.

Hysteria has become more frequent because of the undisciplined habits of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and company, and such instantly gratifying (read “without thinking”) mechanisms as Twitter. Abrasive and extreme behaviors have become familiar and society’s traditional constraints are thrown off.

It is also entertaining. A whole contingent is bored with their lives. Getting in a lather about some abstract matter makes such individuals feel purposeful and alive. Dr. Rogers mentions that horror movies are part of that thrill of heightened emotion that feels cathartic to some people.

But let’s get back to brou-ha-ha, which my dictionary says comes through the French language from a mispronunciation of the Hebrew “barukh habba,” the beginning of the phrase “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Hebrew characters are not on my computer, so this spelling is approximate) A friend who speaks Hebrew questions the etymology, but says the two words are now commonly used as “welcome” without conscious reference to the Lord just as “goodbye” has lost connection to God. He also said “barukh,” meaning “blessed,” shares the root with Arabic and accounts for the president’s first name as well as Mubarak. He can’t explain “Mitt,” however.

The synonyms for hysteria and its aftereffects are some of the best sounds in the English language. I’ve been able to use only 13, so I’m presenting four more here for your enjoyment: hullabaloo, clamor, tumult, and hubbub.


Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at