A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1774
July 20, 2015

DETERMINING WHAT’S ROT AND WHAT’S NOT

MONTPELIER, VT – Many years ago (Good grief! Was it almost half a century?), during my days as a high school English teacher, the sophomores and I were briefly studying advertising. One morning, quite casually, I mentioned that the school maintenance people were concerned about air circulation in the classrooms. I unscrewed the cap of a small, clear bottle of water and set the bottle on my desk.

“This is a bottle of perfume,” I said. “When the aroma reaches you at your desk, just raise your hand, and I’ll chart the progress of the perfume around the room.”

Almost immediately, hands went up right around my desk. Then steadily toward the rear, until even Lenny, Butch, and Randy in the back row had put up their hands. I thanked them for their cooperation and then asked, “You remember that yesterday we talked about the power of suggestion? I know the two Lindas do, because I saw them write it down. What we’ve just done is illustrate that power of suggestion. There’s nothing in that bottle but tap water.” Some of them were intrigued; others were chagrined and perhaps felt a bit foolish. But I’ll bet they didn’t forget the lesson – well, for a while, at least.

The ballooning use of the Internet has meant a constant bombardment of information and opinion, some of it true, and some not so true. But the need for the ability to distinguish which is which – as well as the need for the discretion to decide whether it matters – is hardly new. Human beings have been absorbing information, opinion, and propaganda since the dawn of consciousness, which elevates perspicacity to the level of necessity. How old, do you suppose, is the aphorism, “A fool and his money are soon parted”? It’s probably sixteenth century. It has such universal commerce that many folks think it must be in the Bible. It’s not. “There’s a sucker born every minute,” usually misattributed to P.T. Barnum, first appeared in print in 1885 in a biography of a famous bunco man. But it’s just as true in the 21st century as it has ever been.

The only thing of lasting value I learned at Oxford was the ability to tell when another person was talking rot. That’s a paraphrase, from former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan. It was used by the then-president of one of my alma maters as he welcomed the class of 1992. But its provenance certainly doesn’t mean as much as the idea itself. What could be more important than that ability in trying to understand our natural, human, and political environment?

Mountebanks, bunco artists, spin doctors, sideshow barkers, Ponzi schemers, snake oil salesmen, lobbyists, and special interests are but a few of the sobriquets used over the years to refer to folks with a vested interest in influencing the opinions and actions of others. I remember marveling, back in the 1950s, at the ads for the Volkswagen Beetle. Remember that at the time there was still a great deal of resentment among many Americans against the Germans; yet here was this cute little car with the unabashedly German name. They couldn’t sell it by the good old American allure of horsepower; my first one had only 32 horses and an top speed of 68 (down a long hill, 80). It wasn’t as roomy as a Chevy Bel Air, and was an absolute bust as a romantic vehicle at a drive-in movie. The heater was only so-so, and in legend is remembered as hopeless. But there it was, black and shiny as a chunk of anthracite, crouched vulnerable as a puppy in the middle of an almost empty white page. It evoked a cuddling and comforting impulse, and made us feel warm and protective about it. Mother and I had several over the years, and loved ‘em all.

On the other hand, there are the television ads for “reverse mortgages,” flacked by former Senator from Tennessee Fred Thompson and actor Henry “The Fonz” Winkler. The ads play during the hours we senior citizens are most likely to be watching (other ads include those for mail-order catheters, medical alert necklaces, and security systems). When you consider it for a moment, you realize they target the most vulnerable old people in our society: people desperate enough to grab at something that seems almost too good to be true. Which, of course, it is.

The next United States presidential election is still about sixteen months away, but already the drums are pounding in the wilderness for a dozen and a half potential candidates. The media, unable to resist the allure of pithy quotes, are sending hyperventilating young reporters out onto the hustings to record the candidates’ positions on matters of great moment: Is John McCain a war hero or not? Should the White House flags be flying at half-staff for the honored dead Marines and sailor of Chattanooga? Is homosexuality a choice? Sorting through all the trivial baloney requires a double dose of the aforementioned ability to tell when someone is speaking rot.

Many of us – I dare say most of us – inform our opinions by reading or arguing those of others. Some of those opinions, I confess, escape my understanding or offend my sense of propriety. But the overriding principle in soliciting them – in, for example, reading the editorial page and political cartoons – is to keep in mind how much easier it is to read the thoughts of those who agree with us and how hard it is to plow through those that disagree; how hard it is to accord intelligence and humanity to the angry folks waving fists and alien flags at demonstrations; how apparently impossible it is for a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee to listen to an unreconstructed accent like Lindsey Graham’s without going instantly on guard, with rot detector fully engaged.

All we can do is hope we and all our fellow citizens are able to winnow out the current chaff and try to make an informed decision when we get to exercise our sacred right of the franchise.

Photo by Willem lange