Romney will do a good job at implementing whatever plan his masters give him

Mitt Romney comes to the American people with business acumen as his best selling point.

No doubt about it: Mitt Romney has demonstrated that he is a highly successful business executive. He made hundreds of millions for his company when he headed Bain, and then did a competent job as the leader of the business called the Olympics. As governor of Massachusetts, he had no great ideas, but he competently administered and implemented the ideas of others—including the healthcare reform system that was the model for Obamacare (see Paul Starr’s Remedy and Reaction for details).

But while admiring Romney’s success in business, we should also remain aware of the drawbacks and baggage that expertise brings.

First and foremost, business executives are amoral and emotional—they’re taught to be that way in business school and business seminars.  As Michael Corleone, the fictional leader of the mythic American family business once put it, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.”   Business executives who don’t cultivate this attitude can’t lay off people, deny someone a raise, take a sneaky loophole out of a contract, shut down manufacturing facilities in one-plant towns, hotly pursue the business of despicable individuals, steal accounts from competitors, or play hardball with unions.

That’s why it’s so easy for a successful business executive such as Lou Gerstner to go from one industry to another and keep achieving business success.

What that means is that Mitt Romney will do a competent job implementing the program of whoever is pulling his strings.  Kind of like Albert Speer, Hitler’s talented Nazi architect and executive.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not conflating Romney with the Nazis. That would be like labeling as a Socialist a Democrat slightly to the right of Dwight Eisenhower—say, Barack Obama.

Although it is true that Romney’s current masters want to end a woman’s right to have an abortion severely limit her access to birth control, turn back the clock on gay rights and end the teaching of science in the schools. The Nazis did believe in most if not all of these ideas,

Another thing to remember about the business executive is that the definition of success is nothing more nor less than return of maximum value to the investors. A company may pollute, create unsafe conditions for employees, pay its workers low wages and create social problems wherever it establishes operations, e.g. Walmart, and still be considered successful because the investors all get rich.

Romney is used to defining success as creating wealth for the few, and that’s exactly what you want in a business leader, even if you are enlightened enough to include the employees among the happy few. Mitt’s admitted economic program suggests that he will continue to follow that basic strategy as president.

But the objective of a country is to protect and provide opportunities for all its citizens.  This idea is inherent in our important early documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And one can read the history of the United States as a great struggle to extend rights, protection and opportunities to more and more of our people.

Sometimes the issue in an election is competence. That was certainly the case in 1960 between Nixon and Kennedy, when both sides shared exactly the same foreign policy and were coalescing around the same set of ideas to address domestic challenges. The same can be said about the election of 1976 between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

But in 2012 the issue is ideology, which is a bit ironic, since one of the candidates has demonstrated that he has none.  All he wants to do is do the best job he possibly can for whoever is paying the bill.  In the case of Romney, it’s the extreme social and economic right, which wants to send the country back to medieval times.

“We built it” doesn’t mean much when the “it” depends on so many things built by society

The people carrying the “We built it” signs on the floor of the Republican Convention are not referring to the same “thing” to which President Obama referred when he rhetorically said “You didn’t build that” to business owners in a speech weeks ago.

The “We build it” standard bearers are talking about their businesses and wealth.

What Obama means are the roads and airports that transport goods and services to and from the businesses; the electrical grids delivering electrical power to run the lights; the public education system that trained most of the employees; the police force and army that protect the business from civil disturbances; the system of laws and business customs that ensure marketplace consistency and a stable economic environment. He also meant that some businesses depend on special grants of government property such as land and airwaves; others depend on advantageous tax codes and tariff laws.

As I have written before, building on philosopher Daniel N. Robinson’s Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application, the people who built their “its” don’t even deserve that much credit for their work, whether the “it” is Apple or a mom-and-pop provider of IT services.  A lot, and maybe most, of their success stems more from luck than anything else.

Here’ some of what that luck comprises:

  • Mental or physical talent with which one is born. If you have it, you will be able to do something naturally that most others have to struggle to learn. Even if you work hard to hone that talent, remember that someone with less talent could work just as hard and not accomplish as much. Wouldn’t he or she be just as deserving of reward?
  • Social-economic standing of your family: Over the 200+ year history of the United States there has been very little social mobility—which means people moving up or down from the class in which they were born—and recent studies show that we have less mobility today than ever before. As a brief look at Mitt Romney and his family substantiates, rich families can pay for lessons, send kids to specialty camps, pay for private tutors and educational consultants, contribute sums to prestigious schools, call friends of friends of friends to introduce children to influential people in their chosen careers and finance business or artistic ventures. Middle class families can do some of these things and poor families very few, if any.
  • Family’s emotional situation: The individual has no say in whether she or he ends up in a loving, stable family or in a family of drug addicts.
  • Secular conditions, referring to the social and economic conditions of the era: My favorite example of the impact of social conditions on individual success is Willie Mays, on everyone’s short list of the greatest baseball player of all time, who would have been a field slave if born 100 years earlier.
  • The value society puts on your talent: Bankers, attorneys, neurosurgeons, professional athletes, business owners—all these people get paid more than high school teachers, players in classical symphony orchestras and plumbers, who may work as hard and be just as talented in their field. A plumber could work just as hard as an investment banker does and make far less money. Does that make the plumber less praiseworthy than the banker?
  • Just plain old “luck” luck, such as the luck to be in an intersection 10 seconds before or after an accident or for your professor to bring you onto his long-term research team.

The argument behind “You didn’t build that” answers the Republican claim that we shouldn’t tax so-called wealth creators because it shows how little their efforts really contributed to creating the wealth that they are enjoying.

Another way to look at the issue is to consider the value of protection and stability that government provides to each individual.  If your house is worth $150,000, you are getting protection and stability (and water, sewer service and other utilities) to support $150,000.  If your house is worth $500,000, the protection and security is worth more and so you should be paying higher taxes.

The “We built it” crowd likes to confuse the issue by falsely saying we have a high tax rate (we don’t—it’s historically low) and then blaming that rate and our deficit on programs for the undeserving.  This argument confuses two distinct issues:

  1. What constitutes the minimum standard of living, education and healthcare that every person deserves by virtue of being a human being in an advanced civilization?
  2. Who will pay for the goods and services that government provides?

No matter where one stands on the first issue, keep in mind that the major plank in the economic program of Mitt Romney and the Republicans is to make the poor and middle class pay even more for government than they already do, while the wealthy pay even less. 

Romney’s energy plan: it’s déjà vu again for regressive energy policies

I was expecting to read that Cassandra Peterson, AKA Elvira Mistress of the Night, helped Mitt Romney with his many props as he explained his energy plan yesterday, because it was, as Cassandra in her low-cut, high thigh-slit gown, used to say, déjà vu again…and again…and again.

Romney’s plan is the same plan proposed by John McCain and the same plan pursued by Bush II-Cheney. It was Dole’s plan and it was Daddy Bush’s plan. And it was Ronald Reagan’s plan as well: promote and support non-renewable and typically polluting energy sources and withdraw support and promotion from renewable energy sources.

These policies help the behemoth energy companies that are major political donors, and they inconvenience the American public the least over the short term—except for the gradually rising price of energy and average temperatures, and the imperceptible rise in the number of cases of asthma, COPD and other breathing ailments.

There is a hidden method in their madness: once the price of fossil fuels gets high enough, it will eventually become economically feasible for businesses to develop alternative energy without government interference.

Unless of course society breaks down first, as it has so many times in the past, in ancient Crete, Rome, China on several occasions, Cahokia and the Easter Islands, for example. This time, however, social breakdown will likely be assisted by an increase in weather disasters caused by global warming and pandemics breaking out as the diseases of southern climes creep north.

I prefer for the human race to take its fate into its own hands, which, when it comes to energy policy, means focusing on developing and subsidizing solar, wind and viable biofuel energy sources while driving up the cost of fossil fuels by increasing environmental regulations and taxing carbon emissions, all of which will help to slow climate change.


I continue to get a comment or two a day in response to my column stating that the definition of legitimate rape was when a woman says “no.” The commentators rightly pointed out that sometimes a woman can’t say “no” to a rape: passed out, too afraid, a child with a parent; and what of the “yes” of a 12-year-old to the proposition of a 25-year-old, called statutory rape?  Of course these are rapes, too, and no one has any trouble seeing them as rapes except a handful of some very sick people.

My remarks responded to the obnoxious concept of “legitimate rape,” which clearly reflects a condemnation of the freedom of contemporary women by conjuring the “illegitimate” rapes theoretically brought on by women wearing certain clothes, teasing, engaging in promiscuous behavior (whatever that is) and other bugaboos.  In no way did I mean to imply that rape required the victim to utter the word, “no,” and I am sorry a few people inferred that meaning.

Those wanting more individual freedom and economic equity must vote for Obama this November

As it turns out, when you put the voters leaning one way or another in the respective columns of President Obama and Mitt Romney (I am reluctant to call him governor, sine he has repudiated everything he did as a Governor of Massachusetts), there are only 3-5% of likely voters who are undecided.  Thus, all the hundreds of millions that the candidates are spending have the goal to capture the votes of very few people, plus, of course, to rally the loyal troops to actually step into a voting booth and push the appropriate buttons.

This relatively small number of people still undecided underscores how polarized our politics and our country have become.  What’s most interesting is how the polarization tends to play out consistently. On social issues Republicans want to control private life, while Democrats don’t want to intrude; whereas on economic issues, it’s the exact opposite, with Democrats wanting to intrude on marketplace relationships and interactions, with Republicans wanting a laissez faire approach.

The polarization takes place along a wide range of issues, as the following handy-dandy chart encapsulates:

Social Issue




Intrude on private lives

Don’t intrude

Gay marriage

Intrude on private lives

Don’t intrude

Birth control for women

Intrude on private lives

Don’t intrude

Promotion of one religion

Intrude on private lives

Don’t intrude

Rewriting science & history

Intrude on truth

Don’t intrude

Economic Issue



Environmental regulations

Don’t intrude

Intrude on marketplace

Labor and employment regulations

Don’t intrude

Intrude on marketplace

Minimum wage

Don’t intrude

Intrude on marketplace

Support of emerging industries, e.g., solar and wind power, nanotechnology and space research

Don’t intrude

Intrude on marketplace

Support for schools, healthcare and the poor

Don’t intrude

Intrude on marketplace

Privatization of government functions

Don’t intrude on free market

Intrude: Let government do it

The only ways in which the polarization is not consistent with this pattern are the two big money issues: 1) Who will pay for the services and benefits that government does provide its citizens, or in the privatization scheme of things, finance? 2) In paying for our debt, how will the money flow, from the poor and middle class as it has for the past 30 years I dyspeptically call the Reagan Era, or from the wealthy to the poor and middle class until we return to the mix of wealth we had in from about 1945-1975?

The really strange thing about the deep political division in the country is that most of the people who believe fervently in the Republican positions on key social issues suffer from the Republican position on economic issues, and are among the biggest losers if the Republican positions on taxation and government spending prevail.

Why would these Republican for social issues put up with policies that lead to their own economic decline?  If they just tended to their own communities and families instead of trying to impose their religious views on others, then everyone could do what they wanted. They could then vote Democratic for economic issues and have more money to live their own lives or give to their church.

The economic-issue Republicans such as Romney and Ryan cynically support the efforts of the social-issue Republicans in a kind of grand bargain with the devil, or should I say angel.

We know the economic-issue Republicans have to make the bargain, because if they didn’t, they would be severely outvoted in every election. Even with voter suppression tactics, it’s pretty hard for 1% to beat 99% at the polls.

But why do the social-issue Republicans make the bargain?

I think it’s for one reason and one reason alone: racism. The social right wing believes that all the social and government investment programs primarily help minorities, whom many still hate or fear, even if they currently tend to mask these emotions with the kind of code language proliferated by the new sophisticated breed of race-baiters such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. They tend to like the benefits they receive, such as social security and Medicare, but demonize other government benefits such as food stamps by incorrectly putting a black or immigrant face on them.

The economic right wing has been spewing its laissez faire economics and economic Darwinism since the Gilded Age of the middle of the 19th century. But uneducated urban and rural whites began to listen to and agree with the economic far right only when government benefits were opened to African-Americans (and women) in the 1960’s. Goldwater was considered a dangerous extremist figure. A mere 16 years later, years of civil rights strides, Ronald Reagan defeated an incumbent president with the support of the angry white working class and the then incipient evangelical movement.

Is it worth it to social conservatives to allow their allies to perpetrate a financial rape on 99% of the population of the country? Do they think of it as a purifying scourge of extreme poverty and hardship, as the wealthy continue to collect and hoard money thanks to low taxes, little government wealth redistribution, privatization and wage policies that suppress the income of most?  Instead of dragging heavy chains, wearing scratching barbed clothing and carrying heavy crosses as in late medieval times, maybe the Christian right wants our society and most of the people in it to just gradually get poorer and poorer, while the plutocrats bid up the prices of fine art and baseball cards.

The real definition of legitimate rape: if a woman says “no”

I’m not sure what Missouri Republican candidate to the U.S. Senate Todd Akin and other social conservatives mean by the term “legitimate rape.”

When considering new terms or idiomatic expressions, the Urban Dictionary is sometimes useful. It just came out with a definition of legitimate rape: “Rape between one man and one woman who are not married or even acquainted; the only rape sanctioned by the Republican Party.” Since the Urban Dictionary uses crowd sourcing, that may not be the precise definition or exactly what social conservatives mean.

According to Katie J. M. Baker, who traces the history of this obnoxious concept on, social conservatives have believed for many years what Akin recently declared: that it’s almost impossible for a woman to get pregnant from a “legitimate rape,” because the body produces secretions that suppress pregnancy when a woman is so violated.  This absurd theory of course enables them to oppose abortion in all cases, since, by implication, if a woman gets pregnant it couldn’t be “legitimate rape.”

Abortion politics and false science aside, I have my own definition of legitimate rape that I hope becomes widely used.

Legitimate rape is when a woman says “no.” One time.

If she has said “yes” 50 times before during the evening, but says “no” one time, it’s a legitimate rape (unless the people involved have explicitly agreed to some kinky role-playing).

If the man—husband, fiancé or whatever—who wants to penetrate her has done so a thousand in the past and she says “no,” it’s legitimate rape.

If a woman of her own free will and not under the influence of foreign substances has decided to have sex with 8 men in a row, with the other males watching while she is engaged with each man (what is crudely called a “gang bang” or “pulling the chain”) and she has completed her business with 7 of the men and the 8th is about to take his turn and she changes her mind and says “no” and he continues, it’s legitimate rape.

Marital status doesn’t matter. A prior or ongoing relationship doesn’t matter. The fact that the woman in question has had many lovers doesn’t matter. The fact that the woman has engaged in heavy erotic teasing with the perpetrator doesn’t matter.

The only thing that matters is if a woman indicates that she does not want to engage in intercourse.  If she says “no,” it’s rape.

If you want to add the word “legitimate,” fine.

But “no” means “no.”

That police departments, prosecutors, judges, juries, frat boys and social conservatives don’t always see it that way is a continuing travesty of justice and makes a mockery of our concepts of freedom and free will.

Why would a science writer go on a campaign to belittle education and celebrate ignorance?

Tooling around the Internet, I found two Forbes articles by a science writer named David DiSalvo that denigrate education and knowledge. Both are lists, one of do’s and the other of don’ts. But instead of just titling the articles, “Some stuff, I’ve learned along the way,” DiSalvo prefers to take pot shots at those with degrees and smarts.

The names of the two articles say it all:

The aphorisms on the two lists mostly come down to ways to get along with people: “Don’t talk down to others” and “You can learn something useful from everyone,” although the specific pearls of advice do take occasional snide sideswipes at learning, such as “Learning is good; doing is better” (which turned out not to be true in the case of the atom bomb). Basically, it’s Horatio Alger-Dale Carnegie kind of advice.

So why did DiSalvo tie both lists together with insults to the educated? It is possible that he learned the positive lessons he lists from people who didn’t go to college, just as it’s possible that he saw people he considers brilliant do the dumb things he lists. But that’s his anecdotal experience. Most of the stuff on DeSalvo’s do-this list I learned from people who went to college. His don’t-do list seems to apply equally to people of all intelligence and educational levels in my experience. Those are my anecdotes.

As a science writer, DiSalvo should know that anecdotes don’t prove a thing. If he wants to show some trait that we usually admire, such as brilliance or the discipline to complete college, may be tied to something unadmirable or dangerous, he should cite a study. That’s what a science writer usually does, even when sharing something personal. For example, a recent series of studies gave strong evidence that wealthy people behave less ethically. Of course, no Forbes writer would ever allude to these particular studies, since the Forbes ideology glorifies the wealthy as deserving masters of the universe.

Thus DiSalvo uses a very unscientific approach to make assertions that undercut his profession, since both doing and writing about science require education and a certain modicum of intelligence.

In all of these attacks on intellectualism in the American mass media is a certain smugness, as if to say, we don’t have to read and we don’t have to study. I can understand climate change deniers or those who don’t want to teach evolution in the classroom having such an attitude. But someone who writes about science? You’d think DiSalvo would find another way to unify his lists of disparate homilies. For example, he could have just as easily written, “Ten Smart Things You Don’t Have to Go to College to Learn,” which is less confrontational and not overtly anti-intellectual.

I would be hard pressed to limit to 10 or even 25 the important things that I learned at college and graduate school—important principles of my profession of writing, ways to deal with people especially in big bureaucracies, success strategies for the real world, the scientific method and other ways of thinking. I’m just listing the topic areas, not the lessons.

And don’t get me started about the things I have learned from the many brilliant people among my relatives, professors, clients, colleagues and friends.

I bet DiSalvo’s list of things he learned from brilliant people and things he learned in college would be as long as mine.

Of course, no one would pay him to write an article about a list that praises science, at least not in the current mass marketplace of ideas, which prefers to celebrate ignorance.

NBC hides conservatives message in the photos it shows to hype news website

Because I clicked on the magnificent basketball game between the United States and Spain a minute early yesterday, I got to see NBC perpetrate a classic example of hiding the message in the photographs. 

This deceptive propaganda trick came in a 15-second commercial for the website of “Meet the Press,” called “Press Pass.”

The guts of the ad has the narrator telling us the subjects covered at “Press Pass,” and in each case, one sole photograph exemplifies each topic. Here they are; the capital letters are the words spoken by the narrator:

POLITICS: a photo of Condoleezza Rice

CULTURE: a photo of George Clooney

WHAT’S MOVING WASHINGTON: a photo of South Carolina’s arch-conservative Governor Nikki Haley.

The photographs more than list to the conservative side. We have two conservatives and one liberal. Moreover, the liberal is an actor, which implies he’s a lightweight with no real standing in political circles or in the national marketplace of ideas.

Consider, as well, that the producer and editor of the spot had to go through some weird decision-making to come up with Condi and Nikki: You would think that if they wanted to represent politics with a female Secretary of State they might have thought of the current one instead of scrounging into the last administration, you know, the one for which so much of its foreign policy has been discredited.

And in what way does Nikki Haley move Washington? She’s governor of the state with the 24th largest population and has never served in Washington in any capacity whatsoever.  While she espouses a number of ideas that are part of the central discussion in Washington, she originated none of them, nor is her name attached to any as the major force or sponsor such as Paul Ryan’s name is attached to ending Medicare. Nor is her combination of beliefs unique, since she shares them with Ryan, Jindal, “Macaca” Allen, Cantor, Bachmann, Daniels, and virtually every other Republican of note.

What Nikki’s face does give NBC is the ability to have two women in the ad and make them both conservative, which is another distortion, since women tend to vote liberal and for Democrats (and in particular single women such as Condi.)

Thus without saying a word, NBC uses photographs to present a version of the world of ideas that is dominated by conservative thinking and in which women are the major standard bearers of conservative ideas. It’s an imaginary world they want us to believe exists.

It’s quite a neat trick that takes about 5 or 6 seconds buried in the hype for what is supposed to be an unbiased website extension of an unbiased news show.  It doesn’t have the brute force of a Leni Riefenstahl documentary extolling Nazism. The effect is more subliminal, almost like those half-second signs saying “Drink Coke” that used to flash in front of our unseeing but perceiving brains at drive-in theatres in the 50’s.

Romney’s Ryan play to the core will only work if the Republicans can suppress enough votes

For those who have trouble telling Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor apart, Ryan is the thin one with the angular jaw, full head of hair and arrogant demeanor.

I guess that didn’t help much.

All kidding aside, Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan as his running mate is, to state the obvious, another play to the right. It’s now clear that those who thought that Romney would “reset” and move to the “kinder, gentler” center once he won the nomination were wrong. Whatever Romney’s stands were in the past, he now represents the rightwing that has become the Republican Party’s core constituency.

The question of course is why would Romney still be playing to the rightwing instead of trying to snap up independent voters by tacking to the center with another VP selection? Why would he select as his vice president the poster child for the calls to end Medicare?

The common thought is that Romney is still trying to win over the extreme right that still distrusts him because of his previous more moderate stand on key issues. But I’ve come to believe that from the start, Romney and the Republican Party have had a two-prong strategy. One prong is to energize the rightwing base to vote and the other is to suppress the votes of those outside the base by passing and enforcing laws at the state level that make it harder to vote.  Plenty has been written about each strategy by itself but no one seems to have noted that the two strategies work hand in glove and could synergize to yield a Republican victory.

On the national level, the math seems as wrong as the immoral imperative to subvert democracy by preventing people from voting: common sense would suggest that there are many more independent voters that Romney is turning off with his bows to the rights than there are poor, minority and student voters shut out of voting by new rules and de facto poll taxes in Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Ohio and elsewhere. But the math might very well work in a handful of swing states, and that’s where the election will be decided.

Might work, but I don’t think it will, and Paul Ryan is the reason why. He wants to gut Medicare, taking $750 billion in federal funding from the program and turning it into a voucher system. After the Democrats hammer the airwaves with Ryan’s Medicare plan, Romney’s standing is bound to drop among independents. Ryan also gives core Democrats, many of whom are a bit disappointed in Obama, another reason to vote. Republican lies about death panels and government takeovers may have made many Americans distrust the Affordable Care Act. But study after study shows that Americans love Medicare just the way it is.

The combination of supporting lower taxes for the wealthy while gutting Medicare will prove deadly to the Republicans.  There are just not enough Democrats whom they can keep from voting to offset the independents who will be turned off by Ryan’s Medicare stand.

Changing the subject: I’ve been meaning to mention that Professors Richard l. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff recently updated their seminal essay on diversity among chief executive officers. Zweigenhaft and Domhoff find that while there is greater racial and sexual diversity among the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, the overwhelming majority of them still come from an upper middle class or wealthy background (except among African-American CEOs). The implication of the article is that while we may have a more diverse society, there is still little social mobility (movement between economic classes). It’s a fascinating article!


Romney’s welfare lies meant to energize the Tea Party crowd

The question for the day is why a public figure lies when it’s so easy to refute the lie?

This question develops naturally from the latest Romney fiasco—his accusation that President Obama has loosened the work requirement for welfare. This accusation is such a blatant lie that virtually every mainstream media outlet has covered it, with each story explicitly stating that Romney is not telling the truth. Romney comes out looking bad in stories in The New York Times, National Public Radio, News & Observer, and CBS News, for example.

Make no mistake about it: Romney did not commit another spontaneous faux pas, similar to offering to bet $10,000 or making a snide, offhand remark about Olympic security. The campaign actually thought this one out and made a conscious decision to go after the President because his administration proposed giving individual states the flexibility to change welfare work rules if they could come up with systems that got people off of welfare quicker. As with the health care law, the idea of giving states flexibility on welfare requirements was a central core tenet of the Republican Party for decades that Romney and Republicans now conveniently ignore for political reasons. Instead, Romney avers that Obama wants to end the work requirement for welfare, the lie that the mainstream media jumped right on.

Romney continues to repeat the accusation in the face of the bad publicity, and with good reason. The same people who believe the birther myth and the lie that African-Americans get a disproportionate share of welfare and food stamp benefits will believe that Obama has gutted the welfare work requirements. Romney is feeding the fires of ignorance to make sure that these supporters—now part of the Republican core—come to the polls in November.

But even as Romney plays to this core group he weakens his case with independent voters. While many independents would be incensed by a welfare system that didn’t have a work requirement, they are irritated when one candidate tells a bald-faced lie. In Romney’s case, the welfare lie not only helps to build the case for Romney’s mendacity; it also builds the case for his campaign’s lack of direction and maybe to the idea that Romney is a bit out of touch.

Anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death gets more coverage than dropping of Hiroshima atom bomb

Perhaps because 67 is not a round number and has no magic attached to it, I should have expected the news media to pay little attention to the anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, the first of only two times that a weapon of mass destruction was used to purposely kill people, in both cases, primarily civilians.

I wonder, too, whether the continuing story of the Fukushima nuclear disaster may have diminished media coverage of Hiroshima Day 67. After all, not a week goes by when we don’t have a story about the aftermath of Fukushima—another report about the extent of the damage, technical incompetence or government-industry cronyism; a new message from apologists for nuclear-generated electricity; or a new protest by those vehemently opposed to recommencing nuclear generation of electricity in Japan. It would be easy to believe that a Hiroshima commemoration was merely this week’s Japan nuclear disaster story, relegated to under the fold on page eight.

All caveats aside, though, what does it say about our mass culture when the anniversary of the most horrific day in human history—a day we commemorate so as to not repeat—gets so much less publicity than the 50 year anniversary of the death of a celebrity.

First the facts: I googled the following terms in Google News and here are the results, presented as pairs:

  • Hiroshima anniversary 17,700; Marilyn Monroe death 91,700
  • Hiroshima 109,000; Marilyn Monroe 4.6 million

By comparing the first pair of searches, there were just over five times as many mentions of the anniversary of Marilyn’s death as about the anniversary of the dropping of the bomb. Use the second comparison, and it’s 50 times as many. In the normal course of daily reading, I personally encountered 3 stories about Hiroshima and 14 about Marilyn’s death, which is in line with the first pair of searches.

I’ve always felt that the remembrance of Marilyn Monroe was a shameful stain on American culture.  Let’s not debate her merits as an actress (I propose that others like Carole Lombard, Judy Holiday and Carole Channing played the dumb blonde better) or as a great beauty (as the most beautiful woman of the 50’s, I might go for Ava Gardner, Lee Remick, Janet Leigh or Audrey Hepburn). Let’s take a look at what her type is and why she is famous.

It’s hard to decide if I’m more bored or disgusted by the type Monroe played: stupid and/or naïve, uneducated, childish and childlike, interested primarily in material possessions, unsubtle about her sexuality, a cheap flirt, a drug addict, emotionally fragile.  A vision of ideal womanhood only to those who want to control a woman or treat her as a pet.

I parenthetically mentioned women I liked more as comediennes or beauties. Of course none of these rivals bagged as many powerful and talented men as Monroe did, including, among others, one of greatest athletes of the era, one of the greatest playwrights in 20th century American theatre and a President of the United States.

And that’s the point: she was known as an American courtesan, which Merriam-Webster defines as a prostitute or kept woman often with a clientele drawn from a court or from the wealthy or the upper class. The public is attracted to a courtesan because of her life, not her accomplishments. The public wants to know who she does, not what she does. The courtesan, in other words, is a celebrity.

Without the frequent and prominent sexual partners, the drug abuse and the death at an early age, Monroe would reduce to a footnote list of mid-century dizzy blondes like Mamie van Doren and Carole Wayne (Johnny Carson’s “Matinee Lady”). Unlike Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, John Lennon and others in the highest pantheon of dead celebrities, Monroe was just a celebrity.

But just a celebrity means quite a bit to the mass media, which instead of reporting real news, would rather describe a celebration of Marilyn impersonators, the latest theory about her death, birth and/or early life, the way the police would investigate her death in the 21st century, previously unpublished photos, the release of five of her movies on Blue Ray—the ways to squeeze another few paragraphs or minutes out of Monroe’s death seem endless.

And so are the ways to cover the anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima: people who lived through it who are still around, the various protests around the world, comparisons to Fukushima, how children are celebrating throughout the world, a comparison of nuclear technologies then and now…

The news media chose to ignore the many opportunities for spin-off stories in covering Hiroshima Day, but jumped right into the pool of clever angles for Marilyn.

In trying to understand mass culture, we should always keep in mind that mass culture is consumer culture and consumer culture is always about consuming—about buying things as a way to manifest every celebration, emotion and motive. What compels us to buy more: Thinking of Marilyn Monroe or thinking of Hiroshima?

Do we focus on the products like DVDs and downloads?  Or do we think of the branding opportunities—the tee-shirts, mugs, photo books, dolls, statuettes, posters and key chains?

Or perhaps we should consider how much consumerism is part of the experience of Marilyn Monroe and Hiroshima. In “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “How to Marry a Millionaire,” “Bus Stop’ and many other movies, Monroe often starred as a gold digger who reduces all things to how much they cost and who only wants the most expensive.  Where does Hiroshima stand on the “does it make you want to spend money” scale?

Perhaps the public does clamor for more information and speculation about Marilyn Monroe than Hiroshima. Perhaps not. But there’s no disputing that advertisers interested in putting consumers in a buying mood would rather see stories about dead celebrities who had a lot of sex than masses of dead and mutilated people lying motionless among senseless piles of ruble.