Round 'Em Up and Brand 'Em

Washington, D.C.

One of the first bits of political history I ever learned was, God made the potato shortage but the English made the Famine. I got this directly from my mother, whose ancestors had left Ireland between 1860 and 1890. Her tribal memory had not been diminished by little things like time and distance.

The blight that killed off the potato (itself a transplant from South America in the 17th century) might have been an act of God, but the failure of the English political system towards its Irish colony was not. The genocide resulting from that failure was an act of will on the collective part of liberal and conservative English politicians both.

Recent narratives by political historians have tended to implicate English statesmen in criminal neglect rather than active malevolence. There was, however, plenty of 19th century country-house anti-Irish rhetoric to fuel belief in the latter. Ill will coupled with ignorance led to the political classes, languid as ever, washing their hands of Irish blood.

Environmental historians have long concentrated on the role of crop monoculture in the Irish debacle. Crop arrangements are as much a part of cultural history as eating, clothing, warfare or politics. And it has well been noticed, even outside the well-informed pages of The Progressive Populist and the Irish Times, that planting vast acreage in genetically similar crops is an open invitation to several kinds of disaster.

Monoculture killed off the potato as much as the blight did. The blight organism could not have spread without adjacent fields of similarly vulnerable plants. But in the subsequent century and a half the problem hasn't disappeared. In the whole boondoggle world of anti-terrorism, one of the chief money-wasters is the attempt to find a way of protecting Iowa corn and Kansas wheat from enemy-launched biological warfare.

That is a vain hope to all save the defense contractors paid to conduct studies of possibilities they themselves invent. More probable than Libyan spores are natural predators that have become pesticide-resistant. The only possible excuse for genetic manipulation of crop stocks is to try to diminish disease and predator susceptibility, and even that is likely to fail as badly as has inbreeding.

One of the alleged triumphs of American multinational corporations is the erection of vast sales empires based on brand name consciousness. The squalid prop of this empty consciousness is, of course, the advertising industry. Perverting the beauty of word and image to lewdly unimaginative commercial purposes, advertisements support brand names with maniacal repetition employing all the subtlety of a schoolyard shooting.

I haven't the heart to look up how much of the gross domestic product of America and Europe is absorbed by branded products and their ad cancer. It is, regrettably, substantial. But events of the summer of 1999 have brought a smidgen of hope for a long-overdue correction in the role of multinationally distributed advertising and its ancillary products.

Most heartening was the poll-measured dip in Microsoft's standing as the federal antitrust case against it grew toward a close. The American people have had no trouble with the proposition, "If Microsoft isn't a monopoly, who is?"

Bill Gates, like John D. Rockefeller Sr. a century before, happened to be standing in a certain corner of the marketplace at exactly the time when a commodity shift occurred. Both managed to cobble together a company to exploit the labor and creativity of millions, and each regarded himself as a business genius instead of an extremely lucky man. Now Bill has given $1 billion to charity. There's only one possible response. Bill, it's not enough!

Then there was the scare across the Francophone corner of the European Union about Coca-Cola being unsuitable for human consumption. (Some have argued that it never was.) Belgians were shown dumping carloads of Coke into rubbish bins, and Coke's third-quarter earnings took a severe enough hit for the stock market to notice, and disapprove.

MCI-WorldCom had a catastrophic failure in the network connectivity it sold to, among others, the Chicago Board of Trade. The reputations of both institutions, or brand names, suffered accordingly. Sears Automotive Centers and Prudential Life Insurance both continued to wrestle with the aftershocks of years-long fraud cases. The gun manufacturing industry is joining the tobacco companies in the public consciousness as examples of willful killers in blind pursuit of sales and profit at the cost of human life.

And several outbreaks of the bacterium e coli shut down various Midwestern slaughterhouses and packing plants. But that goes on all the time now so it almost seems normal.

What links these occurrences is a sudden ju-jitsu flip in consumer consciousness about the affected brands. What once was a flagship suddenly becomes a wreck. And all the publicity that went into identifying the brand immediately becomes an echo chamber in which the products bad news reverberates.

Naturally the companies spend millions on public relations efforts. But their success is smaller and smaller as citizens grow more skeptical. Exxon's reputation has yet to recover from the Alaska oil spill. Valu-Jet went broke and changed its name. And other cautionary examples may be found, with a leading case being Monsanto's blackened reputation as a result of the crop genetic manipulation that is a scandal in the rest of the world, if not in America.

Thus the intellectual monoculture of brand names may be showing a new propensity toward blight. Once afflictions were isolated in backwaters like Ireland and limited to single crops. Now catastrophes are flitting like wildfire along the paths of consciousness laid by brand names. There is no reason to think that the advancing complexity of manufacturing and distributing products will lead to fewer, rather than more, brand name scandals.

When there are empty buildings in Atlanta that Coca-Cola once tenanted, we will know the abandoned homesteads of the Irish countryside were a precursor, not an accident.

Vermin Report

Pat Buchanan whines that the Republican Party has deserted him so he's going to the Reform Party. This is the first recorded case of the sinking ship leaving the rat.

James McCarty Yeager lives near the Little Falls of the Potomac, which still needs a third passing hurricane to renew its water flow after the late drought.

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