Tony the Tiger and the Delusion of Greatness

Tony the Tiger posing with Groucho Marx
Tony the Tiger posing with Groucho Marx, host of “You Bet Your Life.”

Tony the Tiger was born in 1952, just a year after I was. We grew up together. Who in my generation can’t immediately conjure his iconic stripes and hear him announce “Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes: They’re grrrreat!”?

Tony and I grew up in the new and exciting era of television and—more important—the era of marketing to that new and massive (and ever aging) consumer cohort known as the Baby Boom.

The whole point of marketing is to appeal to people’s emotions. In other words, sell to their desires instead of their needs. Before the Age of Consumerism, people of modest means could buy only what they needed. Today, thanks to a great product called “credit,” most of us can buy just about anything we want.

But let’s get back to Tony the Tiger and what he was selling for his employer, the Kellogg Co. of Battle Creek, Michigan. Did know that John Harvey Kellogg, MD, invented the corn flake to serve as a nutritious and wholesome breakfast to the residents of the sanitarium he owned and administered? He was a pioneer and proponent of plant-based nutrition. John’s brother, Will Keith, who worked as J.H.’s assistant, was the entrepreneur in the Kellogg family. After the brothers had a falling-out, W.K. added sugar to the unpalatable corn flake and forged on to make Kellogg’s a household name and himself a wealthy man.*

Neither of the Kellogg brothers lived to see Tony’s birth. J.H. died in 1943 and W.K. in 1951. By the time Tony came along, Kellogg’s had added a coating of sugar to the moderately sweetened corn flake.

Tony’s job was to convince children’s parents that ultra-sweetened corn flakes were better than plain ones. Sugar Frosted Flakes tasted great, maybe, but they definitely weren’t nutritionally good for you. In Tony’s case, as in so many others, better nutrition wasn’t the goal. Profit was the goal.

“Sugar coating” applies to more things than food. The tobacco industry used it for years with such slogans as “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” and for Pall Malls, “Outstanding…and they are Mild!” Unlike Kellogg’s, though, the tobacco industry didn’t sugar coat something already only marginally unwholesome. It sugar-coated something lethal.

This brings me to Donald Trump (you knew this was coming, right?) and his magnificent marketing slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Although it sounds reasonable, especially to many in our beleaguered working class, Trump’s misleading slogan sugar-coats a sociopolitical diet of slow-working toxins.

Beneath the slogan are policies that harm people, physically and psychologically. There are policies that harm the country, physically and socially. There are policies that threaten both stable and tenuous international relationships. There are policies that threaten our constitutional democracy and republic to its core. There are policies that have potential to lead us into more unnecessary and ever more destructive wars. And behind all the great-making is a great deal of profit-taking.

Donald Trump is the master deceiver. His ability to deceive made his election possible. Assisting him in the subterfuge is his Minister of Propaganda, Steve Bannon, along with a number of other sugar-coating surrogates.

Since the election, I’ve taken a renewed interest in social media as a force for sociopolitical change, a necessity I can no longer ignore. I realize so much found in the ether is angry and vulgar nonsense, but there is value and substance too. Occasionally, I’m compelled to add my own two bits of snark and sarcasm by conflating the slogans of the two cultural icons featured in this article. For example:

Excess sugar is nutritionally dangerous. The Trump/GOP agenda is socially dangerous. That they are otherwise is a delusion. Neither of them is grrrreat! Believe me.


*Here’s a documentary about those fascinating Kellogg brothers of Battle Creek, Michigan, and how they created Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

On Our (Not So) Great Racial Divide

”The two platforms” From a series of racist posters attacking Radical Republican exponents of black suffrage, issued during the 1866 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race. Democratic candidate Hiester Clymer’s platform as “for the White Man,” represented here by the idealized head of a young man. (Clymer ran on a white-supremacy platform.) In contrast a stereotyped black head represents Clymer’s opponent James White Geary’s platform, “for the Negro.”*

Pious White America created a racist environment—with its ongoing consequences—at the nation’s inception, and it has steadfastly maintained it since. Barack Obama, as the first black president, could do nothing to change those two facts. Nor will Donald Trump, as the first authoritarian president, be able to do so—should he even care.

In the country’s early days, the small ruling class had three big forces of opposition: natives, poor whites, and blacks (free and slave). The threat of overthrow was a constant worry. If any two of these groups banded together in opposition, the party was over. The prevailing strategy of control was to keep the three groups at odds with one another.**

Genocide, over time, took care of the Native Americans, rendering those who survived toothless. But the black-white problem persists through its deliberate nurturing. Trump’s promise of “law and order” will not solve anything other than maintaining the violent tension and keeping private prisons profitable.

If the racial divide never existed, ours would be a much different country. If you tell me it would be worse, then you have reason to support the divide with all its negative consequences. If you say it would be better, then what part will you play in breaking down the barriers?

*Image and description of poster from Wikimedia Commons.
** See The People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.

The Sources of Good and Evil

There are these two kinds of people in this world:

• Those who use their abilities for good

• Those who use their abilities for evil

An evil one’s strategy is to convince others that good is evil and evil is good.

It’s impossible for it to be the other way around.

Roots of Division – Part 2: Roe v. Wade

Demonstrators voice opposing views on abortion.

In Part 1 of this series I suggested that the Senate Watergate hearings of 1973—which along with the encompassing investigation, led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation—was such an embarrassment to the Republican Party that ever since it has tried to live it down by beating down and demonizing the Democratic Party.

Aiding and abetting the effort, Rush Limbaugh and many like him, took to the air and Internet, ranting about the evils of Liberalism and everyone connected with it. These constant right-wing drum beats helped rally the faithful to one side of the field and outfit them in the jerseys of TeamRed. The goal? Overthrowing America’s (perceived) enemy of all that is good and true: TeamBlue.

A major affront to the Conservative notion of good came on January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, the ruling that gave women in all states the right to seek abortion. (Before then, it was already legal in five states.)

Roe v. Wade and Watergate were gigavolt jolts to the Conservative psyche, one right after the other. The festering wounds they caused continue to poison the sociopolitical atmosphere of the United States.

One of the many powers of the president is to appoint justices to the Supreme Court in the case of a vacancy. That’s always a consideration during a presidential race. Voters expect Liberal candidates to appoint liberal judges who would vote favorably on cases that came before them. The same expectation holds for Conservative voters.

Ever since Roe v. Wade became law, Republicans have fought to control who sits on the Supreme Court and, therefore, the opportunity to overturn the ruling.

During his January 11, 2017, press conference, President Trump said:

"But on the Supreme Court, I'll be making that decision, and it will be a decision which I very strongly believe in. I think it's one of the reasons I got elected. I think the people of this country did not want to see what was happening with the Supreme Court, so I think it was a very, very big decision as to why I was elected."

Trump did not have to utter the words “Roe v. Wade.” The whole country knew what he meant. The Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration showed his widely perceived intention.

Why is abortion so divisive? For Conservatives, it’s strictly a moral issue. Abortion, at any stage and under any circumstances, is murder. For liberals, it is not so black-and-white. And it’s less of a moral issue than it is a social and personal one.

In his majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun wrote:

"The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation."

This runs counter to a Conservative worldview built on the absolute conviction of right-wrong morality governed by strictly moral authority. There is no gray area and no sympathy for those who live within it.

Legal or not, like it or not, abortion has always been part of human activity and with social ramifications. Making it illegal will not make it go away:

  • Women with resources and who are intent on abortion will have one.
  • Pregnant women who are intent on birth may be forced into abortion by others—with or without the resources for a safe procedure—to make it happen.
  • Poor women without resources and who seek abortion will put their lives in jeopardy.

With or without adequate resources, women who feel compelled to give birth to an unwanted child, as suggested by Judge Blackmun, are likely to suffer mental and financial problems they may be unable to manage. And an unwanted child is at a great disadvantage from birth and more likely to be a lifelong drain on society.*

The personal and societal effects of illegal abortion lean toward the negative.

A not-so-subtle hypocrisy exists within the pro-life movement.

If abortion is strictly a moral issue, then we must talk also of guns and other weapons of war, war itself (which always entails murder of innocents), extreme Capitalism, systemic racism, political corruption, voter suppression, social and political injustice, etc. Aren’t all these immoral? In particular, we must talk of forcing an unwanted child—especially a poor one—into a world where he or she has little chance of wholesome or real survival. Thanks to a sociopolitical mindset that is dead set against programs designed to help them, for many, it’s a life of poverty, crime, and prison. Isn’t this akin to murder?

Roe v. Wade is law. Whether it is upheld by future courts or struck down, the division it has created will endure.

Part 3: The Vietnam War coming soon. For Part 1: Watergate, go here.

*For an in-depth analysis of the relationship between abortion and crime, read Chapter 4 of Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

Roots of Division – Part 1: Watergate

Richard Nixon and Rush Limbaugh
Richard Nixon and Rush Limbaugh

This is first in a series of essays exploring how we got to this, our Great Divide.

Division, like coming together, is part of human nature. It’s part the history of any people or nation, including “we the people” of the United States. American history is replete with divisive events, but for this series I focus on four because they occurred during my lifetime so are part of my history. Each of them was divisive in its time, yet their repercussions merge today, leading to what could be among the most divisive moment in our history.

Two of those events, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, coincided over the two decades of 1955–1975. Two singular and separate events occurred in 1973: the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade and the Senate Watergate hearings. I begin with the latter.

On May 17, 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee began hearing testimony in its investigation of the 1972 GOP break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

President Richard Nixon was running for reelection at the time of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and office complex. Much of the questioning during the hearing focused on what Nixon knew about it and, more important, when he knew about it and if he had participated in a coverup.

On May 9, 1974, impeachment hearings began before he House Judiciary Committee. On August 9, Nixon resigned from office, his impeachment imminent. The Supreme Court had ruled that Nixon must release all his tapes of secretly recorded conversations he’d had with members of his administration. These tapes, especially the last one discovered, showed the world Richard Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up. Nixon became a major embarrassment to Conservatives and the Republican Party, a condition they’ve worked hard to overcome.

Since the Watergate scandal, Republicans have been steadfast in their effort to portray Democrats as evil and in all ways worse than Republicans.

During Jimmy Carter’s third year in office, on November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students overtook the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking 66 Americans hostage. Over time, the militants released 14 hostages, but 52 remained captive 444 days, until minutes after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on January 20, 1981. Carter had failed to negotiate a release of the hostages. A military rescue attempt ended in disaster—with eight Americans killed—because of mechanical failure. Republicans held Carter personally responsible. Republican scorn handed Carter a humiliating defeat by Ronald Reagan after one term

Compare the Iran hostage situation with the Iran-Contra scandal. Members of Reagan’s administration secretly traded weapons with Iran and used the proceeds to support Nicaraguan “contras” during that country’s civil war. Nothing came of this scandal for reasons that had more to do with concealing evidence and with pardons than with innocence.

Conservatives’ balanced their hatred for Carter (despite his many accomplishments) by their adoration of Ronald Reagan as the exemplar of the Republican ideology and character.

Republicans hounded Bill Clinton with investigations of one manufactured scandal after another—not to say there wasn’t one or two real scandals during his time in office. The Republican House did impeach Clinton for  his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but the Senate acquitted him.

Yet Republicans had nothing to say about George W. Bush’s devastating invasion of Iraq justified by lies about weapons of mass destruction.

Republicans spent eight years obstructing Barack Obama, earning the epithet “the Party of No.” Among other things, they tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act some 60 times, even though it was based on a plan developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Upon Obama’s election Republicans insisted he would be a failure. They worked against him to make sure he failed. In the end they insisted he was a failure. They could not bring themselves to acknowledge any of Obama’s accomplishments or his character.

On September 11, 2012, members of Ansar al-Sharia attacked the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans, including the US Ambassador to Libya. The Republican-led Congress heaped blame on then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Seven investigations, including one 11-hour stint of questioning of Clinton produced no evidence of misconduct on her part or President Obama’s. Strong suggestions emerged from Washington that the investigators’ intention was to discredit Clinton and hurt her chances of a possible run for president.

One of the most blatant examples of elevating Republicans by disparaging Democrats is Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion in 2013 that the attack on Benghazi was “one of the worst incidents, frankly, that I can recall in my career.”

This is the same Vice President Cheney who was in office on September 11, 2001, serving under President George W. Bush. The Bush administration disregarded several warnings in the spring of that year of a likely attack by Al Qaeda on American soil.

In 1987 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did away with the Fairness Doctrine, which compelled television and radio broadcasters to give equal time to controversial viewpoints. This newfound freedom opened the way for daily broadcasts by Rush Limbaugh to go unchallenged. Over the past 30 years, Limbaugh has directed his diatribes against everything Liberal. Dozens of vitriolic voices have since amplified the message of hatred for the Left and a mistrust of all media other than those which reenforce the Party line.

Today, the larger sociopolitical environment is so toxic the misinformed shout down reasonable rebuttals as lies and “fake news.” The Right considers Liberal thought cancerous, a disease with eradication the only solution. The Right lays claim as the sole possessor of patriotism, morality, and as the true heir of the American Experiment. Their “values” are the only ones that count. Hatred is now one of those “values.” Republicans use outright lying and trafficking in conspiracy theories and false equivalencies as valued tactics.

This unchallengeable rhetoric and impenetrable mindset, built over the past 44 years, have enabled Donald Trump’s ascension to power. His supporters believe he will upset the world as he puts “America First.” But it’s a world created, to a large extent, by the very people who boosted him into power.

For Part 2: Roe v. Wade go here.

Divided, We Are Falling

WW II poster. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We now have three major political parties in the United States: the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and The Party. The Party has amassed considerable power and control, using the Republican Party as a catapult into the White House. Once in, the Great Leader and his enablers are fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises without regard for the Constitution, the rule of law, or concern about any consequences.

The Republican Party has a crucial decision to make. As the majority, it can hold steady its course of division, thereby increasing the power of The Party. Or it can work with Democrats to make sure the Trumpian oligarchy crumbles in disgrace—even at the cost of some of it’s most cherished policies. Democrats have an obligation to work with their legislative partners. Devolving to dictatorship is to great a price to pay.

Now is the time for both legitimate parties to put aside their decades’ long animosity toward one other and find a common ground of civility and concern for the health and wellbeing of all citizens of this country and the country’s spirit too. We cannot endure much longer the vindictiveness, hatred, and divisiveness that has created alternating cycles of euphoria for one side and despondency for the other. Without congressional compromise and cooperation, the mutual despondency both sides is coming.

Good people everywhere—and there are more good people than not in this country, I’m sure—must make an effort to relearn what it means to respect one another, to compromise, to value the commonweal. We must relearn what truth is and seek it regardless of its consequences to our well-defended egos.

We need to come together to work together. Together we must find solutions to our many social, economical, political, and environmental problems for the good of all, now and into the future. We must realize that the short-term gains of the profiteers are against the best interests of the people.

We, together, must stand up to The Party—now, while we still can. Otherwise, if the The Party succeeds, the other two parties, if they continue to exist, will have no purpose. Then, our division will be complete and irreparable. When that happens, The Party will force the people to unite under the banner of Fascism.

Perception, Deception, and Wandering to the Woods

My mother sewed a lot, until into her 50’s when arthritis in her hands made it difficult for her to cut fabric. She’d tried electric sheers, but they were unsatisfactory.

In my early childhood, before I started school, I remember her sitting at her Kenmore machine, giving the flywheel a start with the palm of her right hand and keeping it humming along with her right knee pressed against the lever protruding below the cabinet.

We had a Crosley portable radio with two big dials: an alarm clock on the left and the radio dial on the right. A knob beneath each dial controlled the volume and the tuner. It was blue. Usually it was in the kitchen, but my mom would place the radio on the floor beneath the drop-leaf surface of the sewing machine while she worked. Sometimes I’d lay on the floor, propped on my elbows, staring with curiosity as the rhythmic chchchch of the machine accompanied whatever was playing on the radio. The only thing I can remember coming from that radio, though, was Arthur Godfrey saying, “How wah ya, how wah ya, how wah ya?”

Once, while I was playing in another part of the house, I heard my mother cry out in pain. I ran to where she sat at her machine and saw the little mound of blood well up from the center of her fingernail. I don’t remember what happened next, nor do I know how far, if not all the way through, the needle went. All I can retrieve from my memory is that little spot of blood.

It was 1955, and I was four years old. Near our house was what I thought of as “the woods.” For all I know, it could have been just a small patch of scrawny trees.

One day as I passed by the sewing room, my mother hunched over her project, I called out, telling her I was going to go to the woods. Over the chunk of the sewing machine she called back, “Okay.” So off I went. Sometime later (whether two minutes or 20), satisfied with my adventure, I strolled back to the house where my frantic mother, both relieved and angry, shouted, “How dare you leave this house without telling me where you’re going! I’ve been calling and calling for you!”

“But you told me I could play in the woods,” I said.

“I most certainly did not.”

“But I heard you. You said it was okay.”

She was unmoved. “Don’t you lie to me, Paul Edward!”

I was crushed and confused. Could I have been wrong? After all, her back was to me. Had she not heard me over the machine? Had she thought I’d said something else? Did I imagine she said it was okay only because I wanted her to? Did I not really call out as loudly as I’d thought, knowing if she were to hear me she certainly would have said no? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

I do know this: I have heard my mother’s voice, deep in my mind, dozens of times throughout my life. Each time she calls just my name, just once: “Paul.” It’s not an angry or frantic cry, as it must have been when she discovered me missing. Rather, it’s as though she were calling me into the kitchen for a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Her voice, clear and crisp.

My father would describe this sort of thing as “your mind playing tricks on you.” I heard that phrase a lot growing up. Maybe it was about a sinister shadow in the corner or the creaks of the house settling in for the night sounding as though someone were creeping right outside my bedroom door.

These little tricks keep me busy all day long as I spontaneously navigate through millions of perceptions—what I hear, see, touch, smell, taste, and think—each day, every day. What a challenge. Without perception neither I nor you could function. Most perceptions are correct and accurate enough interpretations of our surroundings to guide along without difficulty. Some perceptions are inaccurate and, I suspect, most misperceptions go unnoticed because they have no immediate impact. Sometimes, though, misperceptions will lead to bad decisions, petty arguments, embarrassing moments, collisions, missed appointments, unhappy marriages, disastrous political consequences, and war.

Errors in perception have great potential for disaster because with every perception comes the potential for deception. Every one of them. My wandering away from home one day in 1955—based on a simple misperception in my oh-so-young mind—could have ended differently.