The madness of man

(This post began as a response to this comment by Julian Bond, in response to this post about Mad Men. When it got too long I decided to move it here.)

Smoking and drinking were standard back then. “Widespread” doesn’t cover it. They were nearly universal.

It’s easy to forget that Industry won WWII, and that the military-industrial complex crossed the whole society. All young men served in the military, either voluntarily or via the draft. Industry and its companion, Science, ruled. And — to an unhealthy degree — the former drove the latter.

Tobacco was an leading agricultural product, and cigarette manufacture was a leading industry that drove consumption through advertising so thick and ubiquitous — on TV and radio, in magazines, newspapers and on billboards — that for most people the only choice was which brand to smoke.

I remember thinking, as a child, that lighting sticks on fire and breathing the smoke was absurd and unhealthy on its face — and later being the only one of my high school friends who didn’t smoke. But I was weird. Common sense then was pro-smoking.

Drinking and driving was only a little harder to rationalize. I remember statistics that said one in twenty-five drivers at night in the U.S. were drunk.

Industry and Science also together decided, among other things, that —

  • Breast feeding was bad for babies, and “formula” was better. Thank you, Nestle.
  • Children at birth should be taken from their mothers and stored in nurseries.
  • All boys should all be circumcised at birth. So much for the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”
  • Tonsilitis” was a disease, and every severely sore throat should be treated surgically, involving removal of adenoids from the nose as well.
  • Intestinal infections were likely to be appendicitis, so the appendix had to go too.
  • Education is a manufacturing process, the purpose of which is to fill the empty vessels of childrens’ heads with curricula approved by the State.
  • Childrens’ intelligence — their most unique and human quality — was a fixed quantity (a “quotient”) that could be measured, as if by a dipstick,  with IQ tests, so herds of students  could be sorted into bell curves to better manage their progress through systems that regarded them — with the acquiescence of themselves and their parents — as “products” of their education.

I could go on. For what it’s worth, I have my appendix, but lack tonsils, adenoids, spleen and foreskin, all of which were considered “vestigial” or otherwise bad by the medical fashions at the times of their removal. My known IQ scores have a range of 80 points. If my parents hadn’t believed in me, my low IQ and standardized test scores in the 8th grade would have shunted me to a “vocational-technical” high school to learn wood shop, auto mechanics or some other “trade”. I shall always be grateful for that.

Mad Men is close to home for me in another way: I was long in the advertising business too, though a generation after Mad Men’s time, well after the “creative” revolution of the mid- to late 60s. It was one of the great periods in my life, but I’ve moved on. Similarly, I had a hard time watching the Sopranos, because I grew up in New Jersey, knew people like those, and was not entertained.

I think drugs and self-abuse are rituals of youth rationalized in their time by a sense of exemption from the due invoice we call aging. How long before fewer people are being tatooed than those having tattoos removed? I’m giving it 20 years.

8 responses to “The madness of man”

  1. Doc … my dad WAS the main Mad Man Don Draper … a Madison Avenue adman who smoked 3 packs a day (had a family of 5 kids — who ended up being 2 smokers, 3 (including me) agressive NON-smokers). Only good part of his 60’s schtick was that he didn’t drink. Two of his big ad accounts were Revlon and Smirinoff Vodka, we got tons of free samples of each, which sat in the garage in unopened cartons, because my mom wore no makeup (and was a hottie without it, believe me) and neither of them drank, thank god.
    Sadly both smoked and both died of it.

  2. Hello, Halley, we’ve missed your voice here in the limitless void known as the blogosphere.

    Doc’s right, “Smoking and drinking were standard back then. “Widespread” doesn’t cover it. They were nearly universal.”

    I came of age in the 1950s, before Doc, and for many years had a fond association with the smell of cigarette smoke because it reminded me of my gentle and loving father. But I fortunately never became addicted to tobacco because my now husband, who became the major force in my life 55 years ago, hated the nastiness of stale ashtrays, etc., that permeated his home as he grew up. He never smoked a single cigarette in a time when everybody did, and his influence saved me. Both his parents died of smoking related illnesses, as did my father. There is a history of debilitating alcoholism in both my own and my husband’s family that caused us to avoid drinking in our youth and partake moderately since.

  3. I went out last night and had a wonderful time, danced vigorously for nearly two hours straight while getting more than tipsy. My life expectancy might’ve been shortened by a few seconds by all the cigarette smoke in the bar, and you know what? I feel good.

    I wonder where I can get a tattoo this time of the morning?

  4. By the way, I LOVE how wonderful pubs are in the UK without all the smoke. MUCH better.

  5. I agree with Doc. A night out is much more enjoyable without smoke. However, I also think that smokers, mountain climbers, snowmobilers, and yes, bicyclists have a right to pursue their hobby even though damage to their body may end up being paid-for collectively.

    Separately, I notice that we’ve mostly gotten rid of all the bullet-ed idiocies except the last two. Who in their right mind ever thought it would be a good idea to trust our children’s education to the government?

  6. My first job was for J Walter Thompson in New York in 1963. I was an Ivy League cum laude graduate, and guess what I did? I typed! On a manual typewriter for an account executive. Everyone smoked to the point where the office was a nicotine cloud.

    My accounts were Chase and Sanborn coffee, Preparation H and Singer Sewing Machine, and my account exec actually WAS a woman, who was given those accounts because she was female and they were the worst accounts in the office.. She had yellow fingers from nicotine stains and had to wear gloves to meetings because of her nervous excsema.

    I quit that job on the day Kennedy was assassinated, when I found myself at the top of 30 Rock delivering a package (yes, I was also a messenger) to a Singer Sewing Machine exec.

    I knew that something was wrong with the entire structure on that day.

  7. Thanks, Halley and lurker.

    And amen on the education issue, Russ. We may part ways on a few issues, but not that one.

    Francine, great story. What did you do next?

  8. My tonsils and adenoids were removed in 1956, when I was two. They grew back.

    I remember the ads, the hard sell. I remember my father, so addicted to nicotine he kept smoking after having a lung removed. I remember the hard sell and shilling by the actors in a show; product placement today has nothing on Fred and Wilma touting cigarettes.

    The people bitching about loss of rights because we dump on cigarettes? Most of them can’t believe cigarette smoke is that dangerous, the rest hate the fact they were stupid enough to believe the tobacco companies.

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