Ramblings

Big Tobacco

2 December 1998

It’s been a bit hard to determine which dragon a solitary St. George should take on, when there seem to be dragons everywhere. –Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword

How true, how true. I feel this could turn into a litany of woes longer than “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” or the part of the Declaration of Independence that nobody reads, or the Book of Job (which, actually, I’ve never read, but I hear it’s pretty substantial). But we haven’t world enough or time to go into them all, so, plunging my hand into the hat of possibilities this evening, I come up with the subject of the big tobacco settlement and its relation to free speech and the apocalypse and stuff like that.

As I understand it, the tobacco companies are now going to have to shell out a lot of dough to all the states who signed on to this thing, who are, in turn, going to use it to offset the costs of the public health threat which cigarette-smoking has created, and that, furthermore, they’re going to raise the price of cigarettes some more and use that money to fund more anti-smoking education programs. And, last but not least, yet more forms of cigarette advertising are being banned. There are already so many things that give me pause here that I think I’d better stop to point out a few.

I’m not an advocate of smoking, particularly–it’s obviously not very good for anybody, so I suppose it’s nice that that’s getting some more attention. But last I checked, we were all perfectly well aware of the dangers and risks. Stating them more times doesn’t make them any more true, so I doubt that more education will do any good. As for the bans on advertising–well, this is where I start to get upset. The idea, I gather, is that they want to eradicate all images of smoking being cool from the minds of youth so that they won’t start. They’ve gotten rid of Joe Camel, but I don’t see any of these people saying we ought to get rid of James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and, for that matter, Leonardo di Caprio, who seems to have a penchant for choosing roles in which he gets to smoke.

Smoking as a cool activity is much more culturally entrenched than a two-dimensional cartoon character–and the advertising people over at Camel obviously know this. Have you checked out their ads recently? I think they’re hilarious, actually. They sneer so obviously. My favorites are the ones which feature a bunch of teenagers/twentysomethings in loud clothes, jumping around a house. In the bottom corner is a bubble just like the ones TV shows have these days, warning us that this situation involves sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, unsavory characters, disregard for authority, etc. You have to admire any advertisement that can mock Joe Camel opponents (by featuring pictures which look almost cartoonish), the Surgeon General’s Warning [with no disrespect meant to C. Everett Koop, who got the warnings enlarged in the first place, and of whom I am a huge fan] and TV-ratings systems all in one fell swoop. What lies underneath the humor, and what keeps the debates about TV-ratings and V-chips and porn on the internet vibrant, though, is an anxiety about the limits of free speech. At the considerably risk of sounding like a right-winger, I’m going to go ahead and say that free speech is more important than keeping images of tobacco icons out of the minds of the young and impressionable. I suppose when Voltaire said he’d fight to the death for your right to say something he disagreed with he wasn’t really expecting the explosion of advertising which various -isms have thrust upon us. It’s hard to defend the free-speech rights of a company as sleazy as Phillip Morris–but it’s necessary.

As for the apocalypse–no, I don’t really think the world is ending, but it does frequently appear to be going to hell in a handbasket. It’s a little hard for me not to be skeptical–not to mention cynical–about things when the first President of the U.S. I can remember started out as a B-movie actor. Actually, I find it quite appropriate that Reagan was President, for it seems like the perfect post for an actor to hold: the greatest role he’ll ever have (or she–but since not even Hollywood, who put Morgan Freeman in the job this past summer, has managed to make a woman president yet, I’m not holding my breath on that one). And it’s that cynicism, I suppose, which makes me wonder if not a few of the lawyers and politicians who won this big tobacco deal are going to spend a few bucks on some celebratory cigars. When they emerge from their smoke-filled rooms, I hope they take a look at the smoke which surrounds us all these days and consider a class-action suit against car manufacturers and oil companies. Cigarette smoke may contain carbon monoxide, but it takes a lifetime of it to kill you. A garage full of car exhaust can do you in in an afternoon.

The Decline and Fall of the Infinitive

To plainly put it. . .

So they’ve decided to abjectly give up, to like throw up their hands, to meekly toss in the towel, and whatever else one does to humbly signal the barbarians that they’ve won. After trying to desperately hold the line for centuries, the Oxford Dictionary people decided to realistically accept split infinitives.

Well, why not? What good is it to anachronistically maintain a semblance of proper English in a society that long ago decided to casually ditch any academic discipline? The baby-boon generation already directs math teachers to enthusiastically accept a “sincere effort” in place of a correct answer; why should English teachers be allowed to like endanger a kid’s self-esteem by, you know, imposing icky old rules?

We defy the grammatical grumps to honestly and with the sincere conviction of their calling point out a single instance where to with the lowest of bows to the Renaissance masters split an infinitive did anything to even the slightest or just barely noticeable degree detract from clarity.

–Reprinted without any permission whatsoever from the Editorial Board of the Des Moines Register, “The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon” (10/30/98). Despite unfortunate circumstance of its motto ending in a preposition, I think it may become the newspaper on which we all depend. I have seen no clearer example of the evils of poor grammar than the preceding editorial. As the world goes to hell in a handbasket, so goes our ability to describe the experience–but fear not, a real issue of The New Rambler will be reaching you soon in an attempt to help put that to rights.

Origins

Election Day 1998

The wizard, to tell the truth, never minded explaining his cleverness more than once. –J.R.R. Tolkien

When I was younger, I had a theory that books never really got going until chapter three–the first two chapters were solely to introduce setting and characters and so forth. Well, I’ve since discovered that that isn’t always the case, and it certainly hasn’t been for The New Rambler. Having jumped right in to the picture in the first two issues, I shall now draw back briefly to give everyone a clearer view of the background, in the hopes that this will seem a bit less like blobs of paint and a bit more like a Monet (hey, if I don’t set my sights high, who will?)

Some of you are new to The New Rambler with this issue, for various reasons (I had misplaced, misspelled, or otherwise misplaced your e-mail address), and some of you don’t even know me, but little birds, or something told me you might be interested; the back issues which you’ve missed will follow shortly.

I started The New Rambler to save my breath. I feel like I spend every day of my life expounding to people about the things I’m angry about (and there are a lot of them), and that can get tiring. I thought maybe if I just wrote it all down and sent it out, that would help. The epigraph for today’s issue is my family’s favorite line from The Hobbit, and it’s true that I share (and possibly epitomize) our tendency to tell people about how clever, or how right, we are, and to make sure they all know it. In that light, The New Rambler is no better than a soapbox (a soapbyte? soaplink? soapsite?), but I’ve gotten enough positive feedback on it to gather that people don’t feel it’s a terrible soapbox, or a terrible idea. But beyond a simple desire to keep from going hoarse, what inspired The New Rambler was remembering several things from a course I took on the Enlightenment. At that time, prior to the whole of the Model T, the whole of the 19th century, the French Revolution, and all that rot, Denis Diderot and some other folks spending too much time in too many Parisian cafes and salons, drinking way too much coffee (kinda like college students, come to think of it), decided to write an encyclopedia, an encyclopedia whose purpose was, in their words, “to change the general way of thinking.” I can’t claim that The New Rambler is an encyclopedia, or that it will change a whole lot–but as I’ve always said, if you’re gonna dream, dream big. In that light, also, I chose the oh-so-original name of this periodical in honor of another fine 18th century gentleman (and my great hero), Samuel Johnson, who for a number of years published his Rambler essays to make some money and expound a bit on his views. I can only hope he isn’t turning in his grave.

Thanks for reading.

Television

So, I just got back from a movie called Clockwatchers. In my case, it also could quite accurately have been named How I Spent My Summer Vacation–basically, it’s a month or two in the life of four female temp workers, and it depicts a lot of the stuff which the first issue was about quite vividly. I’m not going to draw out that topic any more at present, but fear not, I shall return to it.

In deference to the requests of several subscribers, this issue will include some more paragraphs for easier reading.

Television is the subject at hand. As some of you know, I am totally fascinated by TV. In fact, as I write, I am taping ER so that I can watch it later and fast-forward through the commercials (although I love commercials, too–but that’s another story). What brings me to this is a conversation I had in a car trip the other day. The idea was put forth that perhaps the reason students today have such a hard time composing structured, complete, balanced arguments (or sentences, for that matter) is that the story-telling they have grown up with is that of TV, which is, by its nature, a kind of story-telling in which the tale is never complete. It has to be a story capable of endless regeneration, sort of like a repeating decimal. Soap operas are the best at this–I mean, soap operas have been going for 20, 25 years, some of them, with the same characters (only now they’re played by different actors–which actually makes soaps more like theatre, where many different actors can play the same role, whereas in a sitcom, only Seinfeld can play Seinfeld).

I had been arguing that sitcoms and dramas are the closest thing to 19th century serialized novels (such as those of Dickens and Thackeray) which exist. And before you jump on me to point out that Beverly Hills 90210 is no Bleak House (though actually, I have neither seen the former nor read the latter, so I can’t really tell you), please remember that there were many many schlocky serial novels written in Victorian England which nobody except PhD candidates reads anymore because they’re not as good as Dickens. Most TV shows will also be forgotten in a century, but I expect that a few will survive. (No, I’m not going to make any predictions on which ones–we’ve all been a little too inundated with 100-best lists for the turn of the millennium lately). But it’s also true what my opponent said–those novels did end, though perhaps their authors weren’t orignally sure when or how that would happen when they started. But they were still in control of their characters–Thackeray didn’t figure himself as the Puppet Master at the beginning of Vanity Fair for nothing. TV shows, on the other hand, don’t really have that luxury. There is rarely one author of the whole thing (though I do get the sense that Chris Carter keeps a pretty tight rein on The X-Files). Actors come and go, producers come and go, shows change location, ratings rise and fall. So eventually (in nine years, if you’re Seinfeld, or nineteen episodes, if you’re My So-Called Life) this story which has been working so hard to expand and regenerate and keep itself going has to end, quite abruptly.

The audience, of course, wants the story to end (Aristotle trained us well, I guess) nicely. Everybody whined about the last episode of Seinfeld–and it was overly showy, grandiose, self-absorbed, and some other stuff. But I did like the very end, which ended with a conversation from the very first episode, and Jerry said, “Wait, haven’t we had this conversation?” It was kinda like Waiting for Godot. (My So-Called Life, on the other hand, didn’t even know it was going to end; it just serendipitously called what turned out to be its last episode “In Dreams Begin Responsiblities” (which, it turns out, is the title of a short story by Delmore Schwartz), which strikes me as pretty apt for a show which a lot of idealistic-types liked which got cancelled ’cause because the world is stupid, to put it briefly).

I still haven’t gotten to my point, which is maybe proving the point I started out with, that our young minds have been poisoned by endless TV plots and we can no longer think in coherent units. But I’m not so sure that’s true, because a lot of sitcoms end up okay each week–I mean, the Simpsons frequently manage to save the world in half an hour (minus time for commercials!) When a movie called Reality Bites (which is basically a music video about some college grads and some slackers and their impoverished full lives) first came out, the bit which the Time magazine review quoted was, “Why can’t everything go back to normal at the end of the half hour like The Brady Bunch?” The reply was, “Well, because Mr. Brady died of AIDS.” At the time (1994), I thought that was a pretty dumb thing to quote, but today it seems quite accurate. I mean, life is pretty much an endless, pointless, often repetitive plot (sometimes its a good plot, luckily). Why should art, or writing, be so different? Even Shakespeare acknowledged that–examples will be provided on request, but this thing is way too long already.

Working Class Heroes

Welcome. You have just received the first issue of The New Rambler, an occasional journal of thought about action to promote action about thought. “Occasional” simply means that it will only be published as often as my anger about the state of the world coincides with time and initiative sufficient to get something written. My father, I am told, was fond of saying that the only man with freedom of the press was he who owned his own press. These days, there’s so much press in the world that I’ve hesitated for a long time about putting my own out. But the hell with it–I may not say anything new, but no one else is going to say precisely what I shall. So here it is. I should mention, I suppose, that this first issue is about work, which has been on my mind a good bit since I joined the masses. If you want to hear more about my job at Table to Table, I’ll tell you, but this journal is in no way related to the organization; I just use our e-mail address ’cause I’m cheap. I’m prefaced out: dig in.

This may sound strange, but I’m really glad that I’ve only been hired for this Table to Table job for 9 months (to start, at any rate). While I enjoy it and even think I’m pretty good at it, I also can’t picture doing it with no sort of conclusion in sight. I think the scariest thing about leaving school is that for the first time, you’re not in a set pattern of steps. I mean, you know that after grade school comes jr. high, after that high school, after that college. . . but then what? I know that I wanted that kind of freedom from limits, and that’s why I didn’t go do a 1-year teach in Japan thing or Peace Corps or what have you–I thought I ought to do something outside the realm of academia for once, and even though technically none of those programs are school, they are mostly populated by current and recent students. I thought I should leave the womb for a bit. But of course the world out here isn’t limitless–it actually has a lot more limits, I think; they’re just of a different sort. I don’t see the working world as a rat race, but rather as a gerbil on a wheel. Race implies some object in mind. I don’t feel that many people are racing anywhere; we’re all just treading water and trying to stay afloat. I’m extremely lucky, and extremely blind, in that for over twenty years it never occurred to me really that work was a grind, that it was something people just had to get up and do every day whether they liked it or not, all to just keep the world moving. I just thought high school was like that. But of course the world doesn’t work without that work–I mean, people have to go to work everyday just so that we can have running water in the morning. I know you know all this, but bear with me–I think I may be getting to a minor revelation here. The problem is that most of us in the US take running water so forgranted. If we woke up one morning and it wasn’t there, we’d be pretty displeased, we’d call up the city (or whoever it is you call up when there’s no water) and some of us would bitch and moan about how now we couldn’t take a shower and we had a job interview or a big court case or whatever today. The problem lies in our sense of entitlement, for entitlement involves an inherent power structure, where those who feel entitled also feeling superior to those who provide, and those who provide being made to feel obligated to provide without due compensation. Oh sure, we pay the water-suppliers and the garbage-collectors and the factory-workers, but we don’t pay them much–and we only pay them in money, not in respect. I frequently point out that in the working world, money is the key to commanding attention, recognition, and respect. But that’s not quite accurate–apparently you have to be paid a certain amount before that sort of thing kicks in. But I don’t think that a minimum-wage salary is enough compensation for living like a worker ant. Volunteers, after all, command more respect than prostitutes.

Thanks for reading.