The Silly Superpower

America certainly engages in a fair amount of behavior that most enlightened people would find stupid, but then most voters and almost all American politicians are not enlightened. This is a pity because when America does stupid stuff, like invading Iraq or providing totally unqualified support to Israel, it often involves death and destruction. Unfortunately, the most serious stupid behavior generally falls under the purview of national security, which means it will be well supported, certainly by all politicians, who do not want to look weak on defense, even if the behavior is harmful to our national interests. There are, however, some practices that are so silly that one suspects even many, perhaps most Americans would question them. Here are my favorites.
It now costs two cents to produce a penny, which means counting mint overhead the government wasted about $58,000,000 producing pennies in 2012. That may be a drop in the bucket compared to the federal budget, but for the average American it is a hell of a lot of money and in any case it was just thrown away. The cost in lost time for businesses in transactions involving pennies is much harder to estimate, but it is almost certainly exceeds the money wasted producing them. The penny is simply a coin whose monetary value has become too low for it to be practical. And the market value of the zinc and copper in the penny makes it almost profitable to melt them down. In fact, the market value of the zinc and nickel in the nickel, which costs ten cents to produce, does make it profitable to melt them down, compelling the government to pass stronger laws prohibiting such.
So, why do we still have pennies? Tradition has something to do with it, of course; politicians are always reluctant to change a national practice that has been going on for a century or more. The sole argument for keeping them is that prices would go up if the penny disappeared. Well, in most cases that would be by one cent. The real reason for retaining this useless coin: the zinc lobby. Whenever you see any stupid measure supported by the government, look for the lobby.
Liquor Ads
Liquor ads were banned from network TV presumably because there is as belief that showing the product will cause people to buy it. This is presumably true or business would not be spending billions on television advertising, but that marketing is intended to sway the consumer to buy a specific brand. It is not clear to me how the absence of liquor ads will cut down drinking. Will people forget that booze exists? Or conversely, are there people who upon seeing an ad for whiskey will rush out and buy a bottle? Yes, cigarette consumption has declined, but I suspect that has far more to do with price, the absence of any place to light up and better awareness of the health risks.
The ban seems to be one of those ineffective feel-good, look-we’re-dealing-with the-problem measures, but grant for the moment that it works. Why then are beer and wine exempted? Because it takes longer to get drunk with a fermented beverage? In fact, beer and wine play a much bigger role in drunkenness and drunk driving, especially for young people. Real reason? The powerful beer and broadcasting lobbies, which can play upon the popular illusion that fermented drinks are somehow safer.
And how about this for extreme silliness? You can show people with beer in any situation and suggest that all normal people drink at parties and especially sporting events, but you cannot show anybody actually drinking the stuff. I suppose the idea is that some extremely stupid persons will have no idea that you actually put the stuff in your mouth.
And what about those don’t drink and drive signs on highways? Are there actually people who are not aware of the problems associated with drunk driving? Or are the signs a reminder: Oh, that’s right! I forgot!

Drinking Age
Presumably the motivation for the federal government to impose upon the states a legal drinking age of 21 was to cut down on drunk driving and teenage drinking. If so, it has been a complete failure. Three countries, including Canada, have the limit at 19, five at 20 and eight, including the US, at 21 (it varies from 18-21 in the Indian states). In every other country on the planet the age is 18 or less (if allowed at all). And consider the other countries that require one to be 21: Tajikistan, Pakistan, Oman, Qatar, Kazakhstan, the UAE and Sri Lanka. See a pattern? Most of the civilized world except America says you can drink at 18.
It is silly enough to do this inasmuch as nothing has been changed by raising the age to 21, but the utter silliness becomes apparent when you consider what you can do at (or by) 18: vote, hold most political offices, serve in the military, buy any kind of firearm except handguns, own and drive a car and marry. The message is clear and seriously stupid: at 18 you are wise enough to vote, to kill and be killed for your country, to carry firearms and generally do everything associated with adulthood, but you are not smart enough to drink for another three years. I guess Europe and most of the rest of the world produce more clever citizens than we do.
Why the hell do we vote on Tuesdays? It is hard enough to get Americans to vote – understandable given the quality of the candidates – and we make it even harder by doing it on a workday. Whose idea was that? Do it on a Saturday or Sunday and entire families can make an occasion of it. Oh, that’s right – more lower income voters would show up. Well, economics should impact this outmoded tradition since snail mail and electronic voting are immensely cheaper. The electoral college is of course another obsolete tradition, but changing that would require messing with the Constitution and no thinking person wants the bozos in Congress and state legislatures to get anywhere near that document.
Censorship is repellent and pernicious, but most censorship on television is also silly. When it comes to the human body, America is perhaps the most uptight country outside the Muslim world, and probably not much can be done about that since it is so ingrained in this society that some parts of the body must always be hidden. Yet sex sells and is consequently everywhere, leading to as fair amount of silliness. On network television you can show all the sex you want in all its varieties so long as you never show a breast or genitals. OK, you can show the breasts of women in primitive tribes. A woman nursing a baby is apparently offensive and disgusting but little animations depicting the use of feminine hygiene products are not.
The height of censorship silliness: pixilating the finger of anyone flipping a bird on film. Everyone above the age of five knows exactly what is being done, yet somehow an extended middle finger is acceptable if it is pixilated. This is akin to bleeping expletives. Everyone, including most children, knows what is being said and automatically thinks of the censored word. So what is the point?
All of this underscores the proposition that in politics appearance is far more important than reality.

Stuff from Way Back #7: Flip the Avis

(NOTE: These posts are not appearing as frequently as I would like because of time spent on my book and because they occassionally – as with this post – take a lot of time in research.)

(This piece was prompted by bird flippage observed in the Super Bowl halftime show.)

Extending the middle finger as an insulting gesture – “giving the finger,” “flipping the bird” – seems as American as apple pie, but in fact it has a long history, stretching at least as far back as the Greeks.  This is hardly surprising since all humans have hands with five digits and half of them have a penis, and it seems likely the obvious phallic symbolism of sticking up the middle digit would occur to any culture.

Conquer this, Caesar!

             In Aristophanes’ (c.455-386 BC) comedy Clouds (l. 1023) Right Logic refers to someone as filled with καταπυγοσύνης  – “unnatural lust” in polite academic language, more accurately “desire for anal sex.”  In his Onomasticon (2.184) Iulius Pollus (2nd cent. AD) says that in Attic Greek καταπύγονα, another form of the word, specifically meant a gesture with the middle finger, which dovetails nicely with the use in Aristophanes.  Elsewhere in Clouds (ll. 649-654) Aristophanes puns on the word δάκτυλος, which can mean both “dactylic,” a Greek poetic rhythm, and “finger,” and while it is not explicit, the joke only makes sense if Strepsiades is referring to his johnson when he says “this,” which suggests that his earlier finger reference is to the middle finger.  In Peace (l. 549) Aristophanes uses the verb σκιμαλίζω – “jeer at,” “flout” – but the scholiast on this line adds “to hold up the middle finger.”

And on to the Romans.  In Latin the expression is quite clear: digitus impudicus or digitus infamis may stand in for digitus medius.  One of Martial’s (AD c.40-c.101) epigrams (6.70.5) sports the line: Ostendet digitum, sed impudicum, which is pretty much Latin for “flip the bird.”  In his Life of the Divine Augustus (45.4) Suetonius (AD c.70-c.130) relates that the emperor banished from Italy the actor Pylades because demonstrasset digito at a spectator who was hissing him.  Since simply pointing at a member of the audience was hardly a crime, the digitus used could only have been the infamis – the middle finger.  Also frequently cited is Suetonius’ Life of Caligula (56.2), where the emperor insults a member of the Praetorian guard by offering his hand to kiss, formatam commotamque in obscaenum modum, but this means “formed and moved in an obscene fashion,” which could indicated all sorts of things.

And you thought classics was boring!  Well, it certainly used to be a lot more stuffy, and early translations of Aristophanes, whose plays are filled with stuff modern society considers obscene, featured a great deal of mistranslation in the quest to keep the classics pristine and edifying.  Earlier editions of the Loeb Classical Library, a favorite with students because they feature Latin or Greek on one page and the translation on the facing page, often had a sequence of pages with no translation at all, an indicator that these were indeed the good parts.  In fact the Romans and especially the Greeks were nowhere near as prudish as we with our No Fun God and found human sexuality and bodily functions a huge source of humor.

So, the next time you flip somebody off remember that you are continuing a proud tradition that goes back more than two millennia.