The Skeptic Tank
Dean Grennell was one of the most active fans of the 1950's. His humorous touch led Harry Warner to call him "the closest that the universe came to creating a new Bob Tucker". In this contribution to William M. Danner's Stefantasy, he takes on the notion that the simple luxuries of the well-off cause the misery of the poor.
Do you read Letters-to-the-Editor in magazines? I always do, even if I don’t read the rest of the magazine. It helps keep my nose cleared out for one thing, and it suffuses me with a sense of rock-bound normalcy that is difficult to achieve through any other method.
Take, as a case in point, the letter on page four of the Saturday Evening Post (which, as a matter of sober record, usually reaches us about 11:00 AM Wednesday) issue for February 1, 1958. Leading off is a letter from Eleanor L. Raleigh (you remember Eleanor, don’t you? sure you do) from Buzzards Bay, Mass. There really is a place called Buzzards Bay, or at least there was when I drove through it in 1949, just as there really is an Oshkosh and perhaps even a Dennerdell.
Eleanor has a grotch and I am not surprised. I didn’t know it would be she, but I had a small wager with myself it would be somebody when the article in question first appeared.
This was in the issue for December 18, 1957, and it dealt with Pete Martin’s visit to Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams. The caption under one of the pictures announced that Ernie “averages eighteen cigars a day”, and the caption added, “At that rate, he spends more than $13,000 a year on $2 stogies.”
Well, the way I cipher it out, that comes to $13,140.00 with an extra $36 in leap years. But $176 is a mere bagatelle, and we will forgive the caption writer for Thinking Big and rounding it off. Let us put aside, for the purposes of this discussion, the Semantic quibble that the caption didn’t say in so many words that he actually spent that much. Disregard the possibility that he may get a quantity discount on them, and don’t bother standing appalled at the thought of how much he has to earn before taxes in order to have thirteen gees left for cigars, let alone his other expenses, and don’t stop to speculate on how many pounds of tars and resins would be deposited inside a man’s lungs by 6,510 cigars a year.
Eleanor L. Raleigh (of Buzzards Bay) is not concerned with any of these things. She accepts the Semantic skip from he-does to at-that-rate, and she is sorrowed passing sore. Listen to her:
“In one part of the article, there was mention of how much Mr. Kovacs spends annually on his cigars ($13,000). . . Perhaps it is because in this area there has been a lot of hard work on the part of various organizations to get just a few dollars to help some people have a happy Christmas; perhaps I can’t forget the call for $4 for a boy who had no shoes and could not go outdoors, for $6 for a family who had no bed covers, but used coats to keep warm, and many, many other cases. . . .”
The three-dot and four-dot breaks are by the Post so there’s no way of telling what she may have said in the interstices between the quoted parts. However, her general contention seems to be that as long as there are shoeless and coverless people in Buzzards Bay, people in New York shouldn’t ought to spend that much for cigars.
The Post has been developing quite a brawny Social Conscience of late, particularly in the region of the “Letters” department. The issue for January 25, 1958, carried a letter from Mrs. O. L. Golson, Jr., of Melville, La., who took the Post to task for having printed a picture in their December 21 issue which showed a group of men about to start eating on an oversized loaf of bread. Her beef was that the men were “well-fed” and that it “would seem far from amusing to the millions of people in our world who are underfed; to children who have never known what it is to be free from hunger.”
Well, it was a trite and miserable sort of gag photo, and condemnation on grounds of artistic/aesthetic merit would seem fairly well justified. It makes one wonder if it might have escaped Mrs. Golson’s heavy-caliber ire if the men had been more patently malnourished; also precisely what degree of responsibility rests upon the Post or any other magazine to be amusing (or, more precisely, to refrain from being far from amusing) to every single unit of the earth’s two-billion-plus human beings.
Another notable bit of advanced thinking turned up recently in the Post’s cartoons. It showed, as nearly as I can recall, a disgruntled-looking man commenting to a woman (presumably his wife) about another man who was emerging from a furrier’s in company of a woman wearing what was probably a new fur coat. Man in foreground captioned, “There goes my boss, his wife and my raise.”
Well, there you are. You can’t probe very deeply into the rights and the wrongs of any of these things without getting into the very heart of philosophical consideration of whether any organism has the right to wreak its will upon any other organism or upon any unit of inorganic matter. I hold a few opinions on these points, and there are areas where I haven’t firmly made up my mind. It is improbable that my views would be in all cases congruent with your own and equally so that I might be able to swing you around to my opinion. It strikes me as an endeavor with small hopes of profit, so I shall content myself with posing a few more hypothetical cases in advanced ethics, asking you to assign values of right and wrong to them.
I should note here that you will not find the official answers in the rear of the magazine complete with a table which puts the testee into one of several categories. No, whatever answer you give, be assured that it is the right answer, for you are the sole judge. My sole contention is that somewhere there is a breaking point between the situation so self-obviously laudable that its description in the Post would not elicit one single word of protest in the letters to the editor, even though it were brought to the attention of every single sentient being presently based upon this planet. . . and a situation which would evoke one single word. . . here, surely, lies a most delicate balance.
Case #1 The money spent by Eleanor L. Raleigh (of Buzzards Bay, Mass.) in writing to the Post - five cents for a stamp and envelope plus a trifle for the sheet of paper and ink - could have purchased a pair of shoelaces to keep the $4 pair of shoes on the feet of the boy aforesaid. Has she the right to make this poor lad shuffle about without laces in order that she can gratify her ego by having her name appear in the pages of a nationally distributed magazine?
Case #2 The boy with the $4 shoes. . . a pair could have been found in a size not too far from his in some second-hand store for $2 or even perhaps a bit less. With the $2 thus saved, he could have purchased a fine all-Havana cigar to send to Ernie Kovacs, and through all his days on earth he could have been saturated with a feeling of indescribable smugness. Have the “various organizations” of Buzzards Bay the right to squander the whole $4 on one pair of shoes and to deny this boy his moment of supreme satisfaction? And Ernie his cigar?
Case #3 If a “plain cloth coat” is good enough for Pat Nixon, has any employer in the country the right to allow his wife to own a fur coat? Would you feel that an employer was justified in buying his wife a coat, second-hand but serviceable, with modest but neat collar and cuffs of ranch-bred rat-pelts provided the wife and/or paramour of every single one of his employees had, within the past six months, been provided with a mutation-chinchilla stole or, at their option, $40,000 in cash, tax-free? Would you favor incorporating a provision of this sort into the Constitution to prevent future shocking abuses like the one in the cartoon? What’s the matter, bub, self-employed?
Case #4 Since the eating of bread in public might fail to amuse a starving person, do you feel that it would suffice to merely outlaw bread by international treaty, or should the entire production, possession and consumption of food be legislated against on the highly plausible grounds that, while we would starve, we would all starve as equals?
Case #5 While there are people eking out a pretty miserable existence aboard junks and sampans along the Chinese coast, other people, nasty, fat, rich, stinking, well-fed people are sailing around in the Caribbean at this very moment, in posh, luxurious cruise shops which even boast swimming pools (for crying right out loud)! Now the question here is, should we scuttle the cruise ships, or will our consciences be adequately salved if we deed over the ships to the coolies (you’re aware, of course, that they’ll just use the swimming pools to put coal in)? Let the bloated swine swim in the sea - getting aboard a boat to go swimming - indeed!
Case #6 Has the writer of this column the right to utilize an estimated 25 pounds of metal in a portable typewriter solely to pound out pseudo-erudite screeds such as this (which, of course, could be written by hand providing you concede that he is justified in spending the time at it when the could be knitting wool socks to keep a penguin’s feet warm on the Antarctic ice). . . when that 25 pounds of metal, smelted down into harpoon blades, could keep a whole village of Oogaluk Eskimos well-supplied with walrus blubber for two years?
Case #7 Can an Oogaluk Eskimo be justified in eating walrus blubber when it could be used to ease the sting of sunburn on the raw back of an albino Hottentot?
Case #8 On the morning of April 8th, 1922, one Timothy Grogan, aged 8 years, 3 months and 11 days, did, in the city of East Liverpool, Ohio, eat one pint of ice cream (tutti-frutti flavor) in the space of one minute and 27 seconds. At that rate, figuring ice cream at 15 cents the pint, by now he would have eaten about two and one half million dollars worth - more than enough money to build a new high school in North Platte, Nebraska. So you think that boy had the right to deny the children of North Platte an adequate education? Do you think all that ice cream is good for a growing boy? Have you stopped to think that if you keep him from eating that ice cream, certain children of dairy farmers may have to go without bicycles? What right has a kid to have a bicycle when the same steel could be used to make a plowshare to till the rocky soil of Pakistan? What right has a Pakistani farmer to hope to own a steel plow when steel is needed to make fishhooks for the Trobriand islanders?
What right has anybody got to do anything?
P.S. What makes you so damn sure the soil of Pakistan is rocky?