Friday, January 28, 2005


Auschwitz and the English

Despite my Scottish surname, my ethnic heritage is mainly English. Generally I'm not one to make much of a fuss about race and nationality and other such divisions, but if I'm perfectly honest with myself I have to admit to a certain sly pride in the old country, even a mild Anglophilia. From time to time I wonder if the Revolution was really such a good idea after all, and I fancy that if I were to move to Great Britain, I'd make a pretty fair Englishman. I like gloomy weather, and I wonder if that's in my genes.

I'm not above the odd twinge of ethnocentrism, either. As I understand it, the largest ethnicities in the Thirteen Colonies were English, Irish, German, and African-American, in that order; and now America is German, Irish, and English, in that order, with African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans more or less tied for fourth. The thought sometimes does cross my mind that maybe we'd be better off here if we were a bit more English, as we were in the old days. It's not that the English are any smarter, or that they pick better governments. It's just that they're...nicer. They seem so civilized. I don't mean to pick at a sore if you happen to be German, but as I watched the recent Auschwitz memorials on the television, a strange thought popped into my brain: can you imagine the English setting up Death Camps?

Oh, I know the English have never been kind to the Irish, and their soccer (a.k.a. football) fans should all be sent to sea in wooden ships. But an English Death camp would probably have doilies and alarming floral print wallpapering in all the cells, and little gardens out back. Camp guards would grimly force inmates to plant petunias. Instead of walls, there'd be hedges.

And of course no one would actually be killed, because such a thing would be just too dreadful. They'd never keep the project mum, either. As word got out, a woman's organization would spring up to defend inmates' rights, and complain should they be made to labor out in the damp. In the House of Commons, raucous debaters would point out how splendidly Australia turned out, and that perhaps if these lot in the camps were just left on an island someplace, in a few generations they'd be perfectly lovely people too. In no time, everyone would be playing croquet and having tea together.

Of course, I can't actually blame America's recent fascist bent on Germany, either. I live near Milwaukee, where German was the official language of the public schools until 1922. The best restaurants here all have German names. We have a radio station just for polkas. I know many people of German heritage who are utterly wonderful. I'm reminded of the old joke that Germans make the best Americans and the worst Germans; which might even be funny, except that many Americans these days aren't making very good Americans, either.

And if I did move to England, I'd probably get myself killed. Not on purpose, mind you, and not due to any kind of malice. I'm so absentminded I'm quite sure I would come to a curb deep in thought one day, look to the left, and step out directly in the path of a lorry.

And although I'm generally pretty good with English English, I can never remember what dogsbody means.

I guess I wouldn't make a very good Englishman after all.

Monday, January 24, 2005


Sacajewea's Second Journey

I got the following email through the "family grapevine" yesterday from my step-brother Stephen Thomas, and got such a laugh out of it I thought I'd better post it. If you send it along to anyone, please credit Stephen.

Dear family:

Another great adventure in the annals of child-rearing has begun.

Well, we all know, or should know, how the great Indian woman Sacajewea helped guide Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition. She endured much hardship and deprivation on her epic journey. And many of us have seen the commemorative Sacajewea dollar which came out several years back--a gold-colored dollar coin slightly bigger than a quarter.

The Sacajewea coin has been a subject of great fascination to Sofia recently, and when she opened up her piggy bank to get pennies for a school project yesterday morning, she saw a Sacajewea dollar and insisted on carrying it with her, in her pocket, all day. As you all know, Sofia can be a little stubborn about certain items.

Sofia was still playing with the Sacajewea around dinner time. I was making tacos for dinner, Mommy was at work, and all three kids were watching a movie. All of a sudden I heard a gulp, a gasp, and a coughing sound, and then... Sofi's startled voice.

"Where's Sacajewea? Where's Sacajewea? Sacajewea?"

Oh, please, no! I thought.

I ran over, and once I found that Sofia was breathing fine (but holding her stomach and looking horrified), I immediately began searching for Sacajewea. I found nothing on floor. No sign of the Sacajewea coin anywhere.

"Sofia, what happened?" I asked, angry at myself for not taking it away from her earlier, when I had the chance.

"I was trying to do a magic trick. I wanted to make Sacajewea disappear!"

Well, Sacajewea had definitely disappeared.

Sacajewea appeared again on an x-ray, high in Sofia's stomach. She was poised to navigate the dark and perilous, twisting and turning journey through the intestinal tract. That journey is expected to be three days long. Fortunately, no surgery is necessary. The doctor was not worried once he determined that Sacajewea was not obstructing anything, and had not gone into the lungs. Apparently, the doctor had seen much bigger things make this three-day journey, including entire matchbox cars, which came out the other side of the "tunnel" without any problem. He sent Sofia and Chris back home--with a pile of surgical gloves, which I get to use when I look for signs of Sacajewea in the great porcelain river valley that marks the end of her dark journey.

Sofia is fine and in no danger now, although she was quite upset. She was heard loudly praying in the dark last night for God to forgive her for her mistake, and please help Sacajewea come out in her poopoo.

Others have now joined in our effort to bring Sacajewea's journey to a speedy and satisfactory resolution. Today, Sofia's kinder-plus teacher strapped on surgical gloves and joined the search, although the Shoshone maiden remained elusive. Later Arthur called and suggested a potent potion of milk, cinammon, and mineral oil, to help lubricate Sacajewea's river passage. Sofia drank. She was running to the bathroom within minutes, but alas, there was no tell-tale clink in the toilet bowl, and after another gloved search, I came up empty. Well, actually, I didn't really come up empty... but let's just say I didn't find what I was looking for.

We have faith that we will see Sacajewea soon. In the mean time, hope and pray for a happy conclusion to Sacajewea's second, and most unexpected journey.


Stephen and Chris

(Stephen Thomas)

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Friday, January 21, 2005


Even Hitler had a Convertible

Executive Summary: Politicians should write their own danged speeches. At least a couple of the major ones.

I hadn't known there was an official ranking, but I read in William Safire's column in The New York Times today that Bush's Inaugural Address was among the "top 5" of the nation's 20 second-inaugural speeches.

It was a close thing, though, because his inaugural speechwriter had a heart attack halfway through the writing process. (Can't say I blame the guy. I'd have a heart attack too, if I had to write speeches for George Bush.) George called him in the hospital and was magnanimous enough, Safire reports, to inquire after his health. If the fellow had died, would George have had to write his own speech? Maybe he was concerned about that, too.

Safire portentously nicknames the speech "the Freedom speech" and notes, apparently approvingly, that Bush (or the stricken speechwriter?) mentioned the words "freedom, free, liberty" 49 times. Which I have to admit is very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very good.

(That was 49 "verys." Well, it was meant to be, anyway. I was too bored to check.)

Safire concedes that Lincoln's second inaugural address (which was actually written by Lincoln) was "incomparable," but ranks Bush's Top-5 speech higher than Thomas Jefferson's "mean-spirited pouting" during his second inaugural. Well, naturally. I think we'd all be shocked if George W. Bush were ever to be as mean-spirited as Thomas Jefferson! Although Old Tom wrote his own speech, too, so perhaps we should give him a break.

I wonder if the speech would have been even better if Bush had mentioned "free, freedom, liberty" 51 times. Maybe if he had mentioned those words 80 times, or 240 times, or 564 times, the speech would have ranked #1 among all second-inaugural speeches? Or #2 to the incomparable Lincoln? I confess my ignorance of the ranking system.

Meanwhile, Bush made his way down Pennsylvania Avenue in a new Presidential limosine, surrounded by an army of security that even hyper-conservative magpie George Will said made the U.S. look like "a banana republic." ("Baby Doc" Bush? Hmm; I like it.) The front window of the spiffy limosine was flat, and looked to be about half a foot thick. I wonder what kind of round it was built to withstand?

Exactly how dangerous is D.C., anyway? Even Hitler had a convertible.

So is it just me, or does anyone else think we should make Presidents write their own speeches? Maybe they're too busy. So maybe we could require that they do it once, twice, or three times per term?

In Bush's case, such a requirement might be a little problematic. Consider his recent ponfitication on his Social Security "reform," in the Wall Street Journal interview (I'm quoting from The New Yorker):

That’s part of—that’s part of the advice my new National Economic Council head will be giving me as to whether or not we need to—here is the plan, or here is an idea for a plan, or why don’t you just fix it. I suspect given my nature, I’ll want to be—the White House will be very much involved with—I have an obligation to lead on this issue—I think this will be an administrative-driven idea—to take it on. And therefore, that that be the case, I have the responsibility to provide the political cover necessary for members, I have the responsibility to make the case if there is a problem, and I have the responsibility to lay out potential solutions. Now, to the specificity of which, we’ll find out—you’ll find out with time.

It's not news, but this is not a man who has a Lincolnian way with words. Actually, passages like the one above alarm me anew each time I come across one. They seem to be evidence of badly confused thinking. If I had a student who spoke that way, I'd probably recommend him for testing. But maybe not. Who knows?--But wouldn't it be interesting to know how the guy talks when he gets to clarify his thoughts beforehand by writing down what he wants to say? And put it in his own words, I mean. "In your own words, please address the Nation...."

Bush is not the first President to rely wholly on speechwriters, and I feel no less critical of his predecessors than I do of him in this regard.

But clearly, if he had to write his own speech, he wouldn't be anywhere near the Top 5. In fact, he probably wouldn't make the hit parade at all.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Drugs are Good

Hi. My name is Mike, and I'm an alcoholic.

With just over 13 years clean and sober to my credit, I've said those words hundreds if not thousands of times over the past 13+ years. I know what addicition to drugs and alcohol is like from direct experience, unfortunately.

Now I have a young son, Zander, who is eleven going on seventeen. Although he is not quite twelve, he's got the beginnings of a peach-fuzz mustache, and two days ago he got his first-ever call from a girl (an older woman of twelve and a half; that's my boy). So for at least the past few years I've had to begin thinking of drugs and addiction from a new perspective--that of a parent.

There's a lot that worries me about it, naturally. When I was a kid, I wanted to be like my Dad. My Dad had quit smoking cold turkey. Eventually, I also quit smoking cold turkey, and I've always wondered if I wasn't at least partly emulating him--not only by quitting, but by starting to smoke in the first place. So I never make a big deal of my alcoholism to Zander. I try not to glorify myself for quitting drinking. I don't want him to think that is one of the things men do.

For this reason, it annoys me that celebrities in recent years have treated addiction-and-recovery cycles almost as rites of passage. Yes, we know celebrities are self-absorbed; why else would they seek out--and think they deserve to receive--so much attention? And yes, we know that they don't have a lot of serious difficulties to overcome in their real lives, so that feuds with producers, breakups with agents, and divorces or even separations from the celebrity spouse take on the status of grandiose life-trials. Perhaps, in lives with limited real troubles, addiction is one of the toughest challenges they'll ever face. So when some sitcom geek or pop star or someone similar finally gives up on his cocaine binge, we have to listen to them endlessly rehearsing their titanic struggles on television chat shows. They write a book, and break their arms patting themselves on the back.

Well, I've got a message for them: shut up, get over yourself. We don't care. Please stop celebrating your glorious, heroic recovery in such a public fashion, as if you want our children to admire you for it. It's not a badge of honor. It's no big trick to get addicted to something, and you're not the only ones ever to quit. I've sat in rooms for thirteen years now with many others who've done the same thing--some of them, believe it or not, without the support of piles of cash, thousands of adoring fans, or the Betty Ford Clinic.

Another thing that bugs me is the prestige hierarchy of drugs. Only some ten percent of people who drink heavily get addicted to alcohol, so it's a very low-prestige addiction. Seventy percent of repeat heroin users get addicited, so it's considerably more dangerous, and hence, imparts higher status. All repeat users of crack cocaine get addicted, so it's dangerous--and prestigious--indeed.

I hate that. An addiction is an addiction. Rush Limbaugh's legion of brainless fans have evidently forgiven him for his narcotic addiction, apparently because he was only addicted to medicine, not something evil like morphine or heroin like some hippie would get hooked on. What crap--smack is smack is smack! It's all the same, not that they'd know. Valium addiction is one of the toughest withdrawals of all, and guess what the most addictive substance known to man is? Nicotine. That's right. The only reason people can stop smoking at all is because smokers ingest such minute quantities of nicotine (if you took all the nicotine contained in just one cigarette and mainlined it into your bloodstream with a needle and a syringe, it would probably kill you). And nothing people routinely get addicted to is as destructive to the body as alcohol. There's no hierarchy of addictions: An addiction is bad if you're addicted.

But there are two areas in which we really err when we try to teach our kids about drugs. The first is that we insist on telling them that drugs are really, really bad. Which is true, but it isn't the problem--the problem is that drugs are really, really good. That's why people get hooked. They like being drunk or high or stoned. They try it and think, whoo, this is fantastic. I like this. I'm coming back for more, for sure.

This is what we need to warn our kids about, it seems to me. Not only how bad drugs are, but how good they seem--how good they can make you feel at first and hence, how insidiously seductive they can be. They need to be prepared, just in case they do try something they like some day. If your kid, being reckless and experimental as young 'uns will be, smokes a rock some day, you don't want her thinking, "Gee, I've been hearing for years how bad this stuff is, but strangely enough, I like it!" You want them to think instead, "So this is why people get hooked on this stuff. No wonder. I've got to be really careful and not get fooled."

Another thing we need to prepare them for is that they're going to think they can handle it, because everybody does--and yet nobody can. There has never in the history of the world been a single addict who has said, "Well, I knew from the start I was going to end up losing my job and my money and my wife and my kids and getting AIDS from a dirty needle and sleeping in shelters and being filthy all the time, but I went ahead anyway." No. What they say is, "Other people can't handle this because they're weak. I'm strong. I can handle it."

Newbie drug users have something in common with drunk drivers. I don't know what you'd call it, although somebody smarter than me has probably given it a name already. I'll call it the "So Far" Fallacy. The crux of the So Far Fallacy is, "I've gotten away with it so far, therefore I'll continue to get away with it." When I was a carpenter, in another life, I worked with a bunch of older guys, some of whom were heavy drinkers. These guys would actually brag on their drunk-driving exploits. One guy told a story of driving home from a bar so drunk that when he got home, he couldn't get himself out of his car. He opened the door, fell halfway to the pavement, passed out, and stayed that way till morning. They all laughed at this.

Even though I was a punk kid at the time, I knew enough to call them on this kind of crap. Accidents waiting to happen, statistically inevitable, menace to society, etc.--I made a pain in the butt of myself, I'm sure. But they'd jump all over me for it. "Man, I've driven home drunk hundreds of times and I've never gotten in an accident." "Maybe other people can't handle a car when they're drunk, but I can." You know. Just the sorts of attitudes that kill innocent people every day.

The So Far Fallacy always gets to beginning druggies, too. They all think they can handle it. They've used five times and they still don't absolutely have to use again. Therefore they're immune from addiction.

Yeah, right.

Balanced against the So Far Fallacy is the Inevitability Absolute: Sooner or later it's gonna gitcha. Play with fire, and you're gonna get burned. Because the trouble with drugs, of course, is that by the time it begins to dawn on you that you might--just might--have a problem, you will already have had a problem for a long, long time. By the time you think you might be going, you're already gone.

Kids need to be warned about this. They need to know that they can't "handle it" simply because nobody can, and that everybody thinks they can in the beginning; and they need to know that even though drugs are bad, they can feel good, so they shouldn't be fooled.

I talk to Zander about drugs. A lot. I hope it helps, but I know it doesn't make him immune. So to me and all the other parents out there, and to all our kids, good luck.

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Monday, January 17, 2005


Notice of Revocation of Independence

by Basil Fawlty
Fawlty Towers, Torquay, Devon

To the citizens of the United States of America:

In the light of your failure to elect a competent President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective today. Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories. Except Utah, which she does not fancy.

Your new prime minister (The Right Honourable Tony Blair, MP for the 97.85% of you who have until now been unaware that there is a world outside your borders) will appoint a minister for America without the need for further elections. Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire will be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid in the transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

1. You should look up “revocation” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Then look up “aluminium". Check the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you have been pronouncing it. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as “favour” and “neighbour", skipping the letter ‘U’ is nothing more than laziness on your part.

Likewise, you will learn to spell “doughnut” without skipping half the letters. You will end your love affair with the letter ‘Z’ (pronounced ‘zed’ not ‘zee’) and the suffix “-ize” will be replaced by the suffix “-ise". You will learn that the suffix “burgh” is pronounced “burra” e.g. Edinburgh. You are welcome to respell Pittsburgh as “Pittsberg” if you can’t cope with correct pronunciation. Generally, you should raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. Look up “vocabulary". Using the same twenty-seven words interspersed with filler noises such as “like” and “you know” is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. Look up “interspersed".

There will be no more ‘bleeps’ in the Jerry Springer show. If you’re not old enough to cope with bad language then you shouldn’t have chat shows. When you learn to develop your vocabulary then you won’t have to use bad language as often.

2. There is no such thing as “US English". We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take account of the reinstated letter ‘U’ and the elimination of “-ize".

3. You should learn to distinguish the English and Australian accents. It really isn’t that hard. English accents are not limited to cockney, upper-class twit or Mancunian (Daphne in Frasier). You will also have to learn how to understand regional accents--Scottish dramas such as “Taggart” will no longer be broadcast with subtitles.

While we’re talking about regions, you must learn that there is no such place as Devonshire in England. The name of the county is “Devon". If you persist in calling it Devonshire, all American States will become “shires” e.g. Texasshire, Floridashire, Louisianashire.

4. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as the good guys. Hollywood will be required to cast English actors to play English characters. British sit-coms such as “Men Behaving Badly” or “Red Dwarf” will not be re-cast and watered down for a wishy-washy American audience who can’t cope with the humour of occasional political incorrectness.

5. You should relearn your original national anthem, “God Save The Queen", but only after fully carrying out task 1. We would not want you to get confused and give up halfway through.

6. You should stop playing “American football". There is only one kind of football. What you refer to as “American football” is not a very good game. The 2.15% of you who are aware that there is a world outside your borders may have noticed that no one else plays “American football". You will no longer be allowed to play it, and should instead play proper football. Initially, it would be best if you played with the girls. It is a difficult game.

Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby, which is similar to “American football", but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like nancies. We are hoping to get together at least a US Rugby sevens side by 2005.

You should stop playing baseball. It is not reasonable to host an event called the “World Series” for a game which is not played outside of America. Since only 2.15% of you are aware that there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable. Instead of baseball, you will be allowed to play a girls’ game called “rounders” which is baseball without fancy team strip, oversized gloves, collector cards or hotdogs.

7. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry guns. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous in public than a vegetable peeler. Because we don’t believe you are sensible enough to handle potentially dangerous items, you will require a permit if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.

8. July 4th is no longer a public holiday. November 2nd will be a new national holiday, but only in England. It will be called “Indecisive Day".

9. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and it is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean. All road intersections will be replaced with roundabouts. You will start driving on the left with immediate effect. At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion tables. Roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.

10. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call french fries are not real chips. Fries aren't even French, they are Belgian, though 97.85% of you (including the guy who discovered fries while in Europe) are not aware of a country called Belgium. Those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called “crisps". Real chips are thick cut and fried in animal fat.

The traditional accompaniment to chips is beer which should be served warm and flat.

Waitresses will be trained to be more aggressive with customers.

11. As a sign of penance 5 grams of sea salt per cup will be added to all tea made within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this quantity to be doubled for tea made within the city of Boston itself.

12. The cold tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all, it is lager. From November 1st only proper British Bitter will be referred to as “beer", and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as “lager". The substances formerly known as “American Beer” will henceforth be referred to as “Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine", with the exception of the product of the American Budweiser company whose product will be referred to as “Weak Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine". This will allow true Budweiser (as manufactured for the last 1000 years in Pilsen, Czech Republic) to be sold without risk of confusion.

13. From November 10th the UK will harmonise petrol (or “gasoline” as you will be permitted to keep calling it until April 1st 2005) prices with the former USA. The UK will harmonise its prices to those of the former USA and the former USA will, in return, adopt UK petrol prices (roughly $6US/gallon--get used to it).

14. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using guns, lawyers or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you’re not adult enough to be independent. Guns should only be handled by adults. If you’re not adult enough to sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist then you’re not grown up enough to handle a gun.

15. Please tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us crazy.

16. Tax collectors from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all revenues due (backdated to 1776).

Last but not the least, and for heaven’s sake… it’s pronounced “nu-kleer” as in “clear” NOT “nuk-u-lar".

Thank you for your co-operation and have a great day.

(John Cleese)

Friday, January 14, 2005


Here in Wisconsin

Here in Wisconsin, we're feeling rather cheated that the rest of the country is getting all the good weather. Until today, it's been unseasonably warm, but finally it's nice and crisp outside. Here's how we look at temperature here in good old 'Sconsin:

+90F: Dangerously hot. Check on elderly neighbors, bring the pets indoors. Hospitals inundated with heatstroke victims.

+80F: Very hot! Thank the dear Lord for air conditioning, eh?

+70F: Hot.

+60F: Balmy. Nice day--not too hot.

+50F: In early Autumn, cause for anticipation. In early Spring, considered hot.

+40F: Brisk. Fewer kids seen playing outdoors in T-shirts.

+30F: Bring in the garden hoses! Kids need sweatshits.

+20F: Deer hunting weather, eh? Be sure to get outdoors and enjoy the nice day.

+10F: Cold. Time to break out the winter coats!

0F: Put off washing the car. No more barbeque on the Weber. Leave furnace on all day.

-10F: Winter. Wear your mittens. Close windows in kids' rooms at night.

-20F: In summer you make fun of us, but this is why we're fat: it's darn good insulation. No sledding for small children, if it's windy.

-30F: Two words: heated dipstick! Pampered housepets sleep inside. Outdoorsmen know what separates the men from the boys: who has a good hat.

-40F: Cold makes the news. Wisconsites greet each other by saying, "Cold enough for you?"

-50F: Schools close. Holes for ice fishing hard to keep open without turning on the Coleman in the fishing shed.

-60F: SUVs won't start. Better put off Wal-Mart trip till tomorrow.

Sure, it's cold today, but when summer gets here and we're suffering in the ninety-degree heat, we'll miss this!

Monday, January 10, 2005


Have You Heard of the Purple Pill?

It should be obvious to anyone who reads my meanderings that I don't find the ideas of the far right very convincing. But the one I find the most asinine, to the extent that it qualifies as a pet peeve, is the notion that "the market is a perfect engine."

You've heard the idea a hundred times, probably. Producers (the "supply side") compete to provide products that fulfill needs, and then "the demand side" collectively indicates which products it likes best, by buying them. The Neoconservative mantra is that government must leave this ideal process alone, because only in its pure form can it work properly.

This is so stupid I just can't believe anyone believes it, although I know a lot of people do. There are many, many problems with the concept, perhaps the most obvious being that it assumes that buyers are informed and always act in their own best interests by choosing the products which are right for them. This ultimate act of the consumer plunking down his or her bucks for something is almost sacrosanct among Neocon philosophizers. Unfortunately, there's an enormous industry--one of the world's largest--that completely puts the lie to this entire notion. The advertising industry, of course.

If you watch the evening news or major sporting events, you've probably seen, many times over, ads for "The Purple Pill," an anti-heartburn nostrum called Nexium. In the ads, a serious and authoritative-looking gray-haired guy strolls around a giant purple Nexium capsule extolling its virtues as the very best solution for the problem it's expected to fix. It's part of an enormous advertising campaign from the drug's maker, AstraZeneca.

The ads aren't really lies. Nexium works wonderfully well. What the ads don't tell you but what you might want to know about, however, is a little about the history of Nexium. Years ago, drug-maker AstraZeneca came up with a heartburn medication called Prilosec. It worked very well, especially for people who didn't respond well to lesser medications. It became a huge seller, people paid dearly for it, and it earned the drug company $26 billion over its proprietary lifetime. (As my brother likes to say, "that's 'illion' with a 'b'.")

Then the patent for Prilosec expired in 2001. That's just how it's supposed to work, of course: the company gets a period of time to capitalize on its successful products, but then the rules say enough's enough, other companies are allowed to market copycat products, and consumers get to stop paying the premium prices they had to pay during the period of (government-enforced!) monopoly. But AstraZeneca was loathe to lose its cash cow. So the company put on its thinking cap, changed the molecule slightly, and came up with a nearly identical medicine that could legally be patented anew: Nexium, the name presumably a play on the word "next."

The "clinical studies" touted on TV that "prove" that Nexium is better give it a tiny edge over its predecessor in one aspect of its performance--an edge which is barely more than the statistical margin of error. Prilosec and Nexium are functionally identical products. The big difference--and there is indeed a big difference--is that Prilosec is now available without prescription as "Prilosec O.T.C." (O.T.C. stands for "over the counter") for one-fifth the cost of Nexium. That's right, Nexium costs five times as much as Prilosec O.T.C., while offering virtually nothing that Prilosec doesn't. And lest you argue that the drug company has a "right" to profit from its invention, remember that it had already earned twenty-six billion dollars for Prilosec. That's a lot of money for anybody, with the possible exception of Donald Rumsfeld.

Of course, then the company had another problem: why would anyone buy Nexium when generic Prilosec was just as good and much cheaper?

Enter advertising.

The sole purpose of that half-billion-dollar advertising campaign--all those television commercials and magazine ads--is, of course, to influence people to buy Nexium, even though it's clearly not their best choice. So where's that perfect engine the Neocons are always gassing on about? According to free market theory, Nexium should drop like a lead boulder, because everybody would buy the same medicine for a fraction of the cost. But of course they don't, because they've been force-fed misleading information. Yes indeedy, an advertising campaign that spends half of a billion dollars in a single year actually does work: Nexium ("from the makers of Prilosec!") sells like gangbusters.

The idea of the free market originally came from classical liberalism. But what people conveniently forget is that an essential aspect of the idea of the free market was Christian morality. Balanced against the freedom to act without constraining regulations was the expectation that the participants would be good.

Somehow, I think that part gets short shrift these days.

(Incidentally, the story of Nexium and Prilosec was first broken by the bleeding-heart liberal Wall Street Journal.)

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Saturday, January 08, 2005


This Fine Man, This Weak Leader, This Affable Dimbulb

We learned yesterday that the Bush administration paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayer's money to buy a journalist. The Education Department paid "conservative commentator" Armstrong Williams $240,000 to back the Bush administration's agendas in print and on TV while posing as an independent journalist. This is no real surprise to traditional Americans, who are losing their capacity to be shocked, even though it's the kind of immoral villainy that might have brought down entire administrations if it had happened in the past. If nothing else, Bush has greatly furthered the transition of America to what I call "SSA"--Soviet Style Americanism--perhaps most prominently in its remorseless, conscienceless utilization of all kinds of propaganda.

This makes me think back to what happened after Ronald Reagan died. Watching the corporate media, anyone would have thought that there was a huge, spontaneous outpouring of public grief and adulation at the time. Actually, there wasn't. Past the normal respect and decency we would accord to any President at his passing, only a small minority participated in staging the illusion of the kind of public response that legitimately accompanied the deaths of public figures like Princess Diana and Franklin Roosevelt.

An even smaller minority have been tirelessly working ever since then to transmogrify Reagan into a saint. I fear for younger Americans who weren't alive at the time to form their own opinions (especially conservative ones). Reagan was an assured, good-looking, and poised performer; and why wouldn't he be? He was an actor! He was also, by all accounts, an upright, affable, and personable human being. He mouthed a lot of the same platitudes we've been hearing ever since, evidently perfectly sincerely.

He was also a rotten president, if one looks any deeper than the celebrity-style adulation that he inspired in hardcore Neocons. He instigated the loony "Star Wars" pork barrel, which has continued to drain the U.S. Treasury of huge sums of money perfectly uselessly ever since. He saddled the economy with unprecedented additions to the national debt, greatly adding to the dangers posed by the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower so presciently warned us against. He bequeathed to the nation his daffy, delusional "Reaganomics," by which he managed to bamboozle the people into believing that everyone would get richer if only we gave a lot more money to the very rich (if you look at a pie chart of the percentage of the population controlling half the nation's wealth, it's a thin sliver that gradually becomes bigger and bigger throughout the 20th century--until Reagan, when it abruptly narrowed to a thin sliver again). He expanded the scope and reach of government more than any other President outside of Calvin Coolidge and FDR (although Bush II is outdoing all of them). He reversed the long tradition of the Federal Government's stewardship of the land, air, and water, castrating Federal oversight agencies and aligning government with industry and polluters.

And his biggest "accomplishments" were phantom ones: he had little to do with the "end of the Cold War,"which was an historical circumstance occasioned far more by the USSR's failing economy, Mikhail Gorbachev, and thousands of geuinely courageous Polish workers, than by him; and his economic expansion after 1982 can be explained by the perfect funk the economy was in during the preceding two years. The economy can, after all, go further when it has further to go. Finally, and perhaps fatally, he demonstrated to America's ruling powers the bright idea that all they needed was an appealing figurehead as a leader manqué and they could do whatever they pleased behind the scenes. This was shocking in Reagan's case, but only at the time; no longer, because George Bush II is a so much more blatant and cynical embodiment of the same principle at work.

Yet we have to endure the apotheosizing of this fine man, this weak leader, this affable dimbulb, with all his missteps and bad precedents, because he made people feel good with a singleminded, simple vision and highflown Patriotic language.

For his part, Armstrong Williams says he will not return his ill-gotten gains, because he "worked hard for it." Which is like a jewel thief saying he won't return the jewels because he worked hard to steal them, but so it goes these days.

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Friday, January 07, 2005


A Thank-You to Senators Boxer and Reid

Remember in Fahrenheit 911, when no senator would object to the certification of the Florida vote? Not this year. On Thursday, Sen. Barbara Boxer joined the objection to voting irregularities in Ohio, and the new Democratic Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada stood with her. This forced the House and Senate to hold two hours of debate on the integrity of voting in our country--hopefully beginning some real reform.

Thousands of people are sending thank you letters to Senators Boxer and Reid. Join me in signing the thank you letter at:

Dear Senator Boxer and Senator Reid:

Thank you for speaking out about the voting problems in the 2004 election in Ohio and across America. I will not forget your political courage. A sound democracy depends on elections that everyone, winners and losers, can agree were held fairly and honestly. America doesn't have that now, and it's got to change. The debate we had after the objection to the Ohio vote certification is just the start. Congress must investigate voting problems and swiftly implement remedies that protect the right to vote and encourage confidence in voting.

It appalls me that we are now so partisan that we cannot even agree on the need for fair elections. America, it seems to me, is like an adolescent--we think our system and our freedoms are immortal and invincible, and we're cocky and arrogant and we take scary risks. We think we cannot fall! This is so wrong. Even the Roman Republic, with far more political unanimity and much stricter safeguards in place, didn't last forever. The idea of the descent of America into tyranny or dictatorship or worse really frightens me. Thank you for your courage.

(The first part is a standard email circulating around the country. The second part is the boilerplate from moveonpac's thank-you note. The third part is my addendum. Jim Holt sent me the email. —MJ)


If You Have to be Stupid...

A friend took me to task last night for the dyspeptic tone of yesterday's screed. I was aware as I was writing it that it was too negative. Naturally, I also made lifelong friendships at Dartmouth, happily pored through all the books the art library, and even had the best place to work I've ever had, a "carrel" (it was really a complete private room) in a locked corridor in the back of the stacks of Baker library. People couldn't even get in to knock on the door. And the windows had three layers of glass and were utterly soundproof. Lovely.

I can't say I'm guiltless of anti-intellectualism, either. I lived on the top floor of an old dorm next to a storage attic, where there were abandoned student footlockers and belongings from the 1940s onwards. One night we put on an "anti-intellectual keg." For our "theme decor" we tore the pages out of hundreds of old textbooks, covering the entire hall in old crumpled-up textbook pages to about shin depth. I'm sure the janitors hated our guts. (The fire marshall probably would have too, if he'd known.)

That was, incidentally, the night of one of my near-death experiences. At about three in the morning it fell to me to empty the rest of the last quarter-keg so that we could return it the next day. It was still nearly full (the assembled multitudes had gone through three or four prior to that one). As I watched the beer drain into the sink, I had a sudden stroke of (drunken) genius--instead of wasting all that beer, I thought, I'd drink it! Well, that just struck me at the time as a fine exercise in efficient thinking.

I woke up the next morning at eight-thirty or so sleeping peacefully but very uncomfortably on the bathroom floor--directly under the still-mostly-full keg, which was balanced on the edge of the sink so precariously that when I gave it a light two-finger tap, it crashed to the floor with a tremendous clang--right on the spot where my head had just been.

If you have to be stupid, it's best to be lucky. (And if that's not an old saying, it should be.)

Thursday, January 06, 2005


Pencil-Necked Geek

I yam what I yam.

At Dartmouth College, circa 1975, when I matriculated, a "pencil-necked geek" was the most common term for someone who studied too much or took academics too seriously.

Dartmouth was one of a class of experiences in my life which, taken altogether, have convinced me that Humankind is significantly brainwashed by its own ideas. We share all sorts of nearly Universal notions which nearly everybody uncritically accepts even though it is reasonably obvious that they aren't true.

I believe in this because there have been a number of times in my life when it has taken me an amazingly long time to see past the bullshit. One of these was when it finally dawned on me that Dartmouth is, or was in my day, basically an anti-intellectual place. It just seemed hard to believe at first, because it was a famous school, cost a lot, and was well-regarded; it seemed a foregone conclusion that intellectual pursuits would be paramount at such a place. But as soon as I pried my eyes open I realized that the evidence of anti-intellectualism was everywhere--in the attitudes of the kids, in the nature of the curricula, in the pedagogic styles of the professors, in the structure of the requirements--everywhere. I eventually came to believe that Dartmouth's primary institutional function was to help prevent the downward mobility of upper-class and upper-middle-class kids. Which didn't work in my case, but never mind about that. Anyway, it was made quite clear by the prevailing social norms that you were not supposed to study too much, reading was for PNG's, everybody was expected to participate whenever there was a party going on, and--especially--people were not supposed to actually enjoy things like Shakespeare. Try to talk about some academic subject like that at a keg party, and people would boo you, and, eventually, if you didn't stop, pour beer on you; although it wasn't so enthusiastically expressed, the same proscriptions more or less held true for every place and all times except when you were in class.

Of course, being basically a sheep, I went along with all this, until I realized that my rough untutored moral clay was slowly being molded into the shape of a reactionary greedhead asshole. Then, it finally began to become clear to me that this wasn't who I really was. Yes, deep down inside of me there was a pencil-necked, politically progessive, arty, hippie geek struggling to get out. (What can I say? See Popeye quote.)

I've fantasized from time to time about what would have become of me if I had actually gone to a college in which the opposite values were in force, that is if such a place exists. I mean a college where studying is encouraged, partying is frowned upon, students actually do discuss ideas, and real academic achievement is valued above things such as, say, punching out windowpanes, dragging couches into the street and setting them on fire, or chugging beer until you forget your name. I probably would have gone along with that, too, and I wonder where I would have ended up then.

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