Minnesota experienced thundersnow. Our east coast correspondents are reporting temperatures in the 80s. The dead are rising from their graves in Alabama. There’s a persistent 42 Hz hum and compasses no longer work in Churn Creek Bottom, California. And Alex Trebek has signed on to play Colonel Kurtz in a Michael Bay-helmed Apocalypse Now reboot. Spring is springing, it’s time for the roundup.
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1. One of America’s lesser-known founding fathers is Benjamin Rush. The man is hard to quantify: he was an abolitionist long before it was a hot-button issue; he wrote one of America’s first chemistry textbooks, and he’s considered the founder of American psychiatry. He was also a surgeon-general level public doctor who believed dark skin was a curable disease and whose primary treatment for anything was bloodletting, which was at least a century out of vogue by that time. In treating the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, he said “I consider intrepidity in the use of the lancet, at present, to be necessary, as it is in the use of mercury and jalap, in this insidious and ferocious disease.”
His contributions to medicine are of particular utility to historians of a non-medical stripe. Rush supplied the medical kit for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. The kit included opium (for nervousness), wine, and 500 count of Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills, a mercury-based laxative that was also used to treat syphilis. It turns out that the Corps’ use of laxatives allows historians to track their route through mercury deposits in the soil—for real! His list of advice for the group is interesting reading; he makes special note for them to check whether Indians use “artificial discharges of blood” (that is, bloodletting).
Weirdly, Rush’s beliefs about mental health are forward-thinking. He identified alcoholism as a disease rather than a moral weakness, advocated for more humane treatment in mental wards, and advocated for the use of occupational therapy. Then again he thought that mental illness was the result of overstimulation or circulation problems—the latter of which could be cured by putting people in a chair and spinning them around. What a bizarre collection.
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2. Even lesser-known of the founding fathers: Button Gwinnett. His early death (in 1777, thanks to a lost duel) and low profile make his signature one of the most valued in history. Also, probably, that his name is Button Gwinnett.
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3. The history of man, a social animal, consistently features a unique form of torture: public humiliation. Shunning and ostracism, of course, but don’t stop there. Consider forced public nudity, or depilation—the CIA tried to poison Castro so his beard would fall out, presumably ending the cold war. The man who invented the stocks was, supposedly, also the first to be confined to them, for the crime of price gouging his buyers. Creativity abounds! Take the FLUTE OF SHAME, for example, locked around the neck of incompetent musicians:
There’s also the chair of shame, the pole of shame, and the rosary of shame (giant oversized rosaries for those late to church); the dunce cap, the scarlet letter, Internet sensation pet shaming, and the Stonecutters. But my personal favorite: the schopstoel, a scaffolding off which the to-be-humiliated are kicked, landing in the mud while jeered at by onlookers. That last one is perfection, like the entire concept of public humiliation stripped of artifice and extraneous bits—just the elemental components of shame and moral superiority.
Wikipedia’s description of public humiliation astutely notes that “Public humiliation is still practised a lot in the present time, not as a legal punishment, but more informally by the press and media.” Somehow that clunker of a sentence articulates almost as incisive a critique of modern media as two hours of cynicism and mocking in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. Actually, I recommend (re)watching Network; it’s still real good. Here are my top five lines:
- “All I know is that this violates every canon of respectable broadcasting.”
- “You can blow the seminal prisoner class infrastructure out your ass.”
- “…that painful, decaying love is the only thing between you and the shrieking nothingness you live the rest of the day.
- “The Mao-Tse Tung Hour”
- “Why does a woman always think that the most savage thing she can say to a man is to impugn his cocksmanship?” (this might be the best line in anything)
If nothing else, carve out five minutes for this deliriously good and eerily prescient sequence with Ned Beatty as the voice of god:
4. Howard Beale was concerned about the increasing corporate sphere of influence in modern society. Privacy invasion, pollution, monopolistic practices, “disruption,” sweatshops: all tremble before the titanic corporate hegemony of the Dutch East India trading company.
Prior to the 1600s, a “company” was often a short-lived entity, in which investors went in on a project—like “establish a colony in Jamestown” or “sail to Hispaniola and return with spices and gold”—that disbanded when the project completed. The Dutch East India company, in contrast, was granted a 21-year monopoly on the Dutch spice trade. They were also granted legal authority to wage war, imprison and execute convicts via a paramilitary police squad, coin their own money, negotiate treaties, and establish colonies. It’s considered the world’s first true multinational corporation, and certainly the first whose stocks were publicly traded. Unsurprisingly, a government-sanctioned monopoly and carte blanche in the use of violence to enforce it was wildly profitable and reprehensibly deadly. The Dutch East India corporation eventually became the single largest company in known history, topping out at an 2013 inflation-adjusted value of $7.4 trillion.
That peak came at the height of the Dutch tulip fever, in which people were supposedly trading entire plots of land for single tulip bulbs, often cited as the first known example of an economic bubble (most current research holds that the “craze” has been largely overstated). The tulip market crashed when no buyers came to an auction. Now, the “greater fool” theory of economic bubbles holds that people invest on the assumption that someone—the greater fool—will later buy the commodity at an inflated price. The cycle continues upwards until some poor sap—the greatest fool—is left holding the bag with no fool to sell to. Had the tulip investors simply realized the futility of the tulip investment craze and backed off? Maybe. Or, possibly, no one came to the auction because of the ongoing black plague epidemic. I’m not sure classical economic models account for the role of plague epidemics in decision-making.
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6. Back to TV for a second: I want to talk about Airwolf. I have fond childhood memories of Ernest Borgnine as Dominic Santini, chopper pilot. Airwolf was a craven attempt to cash in on the lucrative Knight Rider market: yet another show starring a super-intelligent, super-fast, government-created-but-subsequently-lost-to-a-private-citizen super vehicle. Instead of a car, it’s a supersonic black helicopter; instead of the voice of Mr. Feeny and the hair of David Hasselhoff, it’s Jan Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine.
Actually, wait! Maybe Knight Rider isn’t the origin! In 1983 the movie Blue Thunder was released, starring Roy Scheider and experimental police attack helicopter. Here’s the trailer, with an all-time great pun:
Capitalizing on the $42-million success of Blue Thunder, TV networks rushed to bring helicopters to the small screen. The next year, Airwolf debuted head-to-head against the TV version of Blue Thunder, which starred the confounding triumvirate of Bubba Smith (of Police Academy fame), Dick Butkus (of Chicago Bears fame), and Dana Carvey (of church lady fame; his character’s name was CLINTON WONDERLOVE). And so, for one brief shining moment of transcendent beauty, we had competing shows about advanced attack helicopters on network TV. Blue Thunder lasted only 11 episodes, Airwolf made it four seasons.
Now to the wikipedia plot description of Airwolf. I once read that Allen Ginsberg picked up the scattered pages of Naked Lunch off William Burroughs’s floor, attempting to reassemble them into a coherent narrative. I am here to argue that Airwolf is the result of Michael Bay picking up scattered notes off the bathroom floor of a TV exec in the middle of a 12-day coke binge whose house is also being fumigated for a hallucinogenic toad infestation. Here is just a sampling:
- The main character’s name is Stringfellow Hawke. STRINGFELLOW. HAWKE.
- He lives in a remote mountain cabin and serenades eagles with his priceless Stradivarius.
- His brother’s name is St. John, inexplicably pronounced sin-jin. No, I don’t know either.
- The quasi-villain is the leader of an off-the-books faction of the CIA named Michael Coldsmith Briggs III. He wears an eyepatch. AN EYEPATCH. He is codenamed Archangel.
- Archangel’s assistant has doctorates in aeronautical engineering, electrical engineering, psychology, microbiology, and french literature. She’s working on her MD and is in her early thirties despite having five PhDs.
- Ernest Borgnine as Dominic Santini.