November 22, 2002


Who Wants to Know?

Understanding in two syllables may not be enough

By Rodolfo F. Acuña

My first experience with a presidential campaign was as a volunteer for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Just out of high school, I was certain that Stevenson would win. However, a political pro busted my bubble, telling me that the American people would never elect Stevenson because he was an egghead and Americans wanted presidents like themselves that kept it in two syllables.

The election of George W. Bush — who is not the sharpest knife in the box — seems to prove this point.

However, for as much as I dislike Bush, I cannot blame him for the obsession of Americans with mediocrity. As a historian, I am always looking for a context to explain historical events. For example, the other afternoon I tuned on CNN wanting to avoid the sophomoric babble of the Fox Channel. Much to my surprise correspondent Wolf Blitzer was interviewing Dr. Helen Caldicott, the founder of “Physicians for Social Responsibility,” and a favorite of mine.

Caldicott recently wrote a book about U.S. war crimes during Desert Storm, in which she alleges that the U.S. used nuclear ammunition whose aftereffects will last for the next 4.5 million years. According to Caldicott, the United States deployed antitank shells made of depleted uranium 238 that contaminates the food chain and water.

Allegedly 650,000 Iraqi children have died because of the war. Besides the innocent children, uranium 238 infected U.S. veterans exposed to it.

Given the seriousness of the charges, I expected Blitzer to challenge the doctor’s sources. Instead, Blitzer was insistent that Caldicott “admit” that the deaths were Saddam’s fault and accused her of “defending” Saddam. The irony is that Wolf Blitzer is from a cable channel which prides itself on objectivity.

That evening my wife and I wanted to escape and set out to see “Frida.” But, by the time we arrived at the theater, only the first six rows were available. So we went to see Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” which explores the legacy of violence and the love affair of Americans with weapons.

The film contrasts the American experience with countries like Germany and Britain that have histories equally as violent, and Canada where gun-ownership is proportionately as high as the U.S. yet have low death rates.

For an explanation, Moore delves into the American culture of violence which is sanctioned by police actions, military operations, and spawned by media-generated paranoia.

At the crux of this paranoia is racism and the media’s obsession with disasters, from gang warfare to “Africanized” bees and, may I add, the war on drugs. Moore castigates American cultural angst, and welfare policies that force poor single mothers into minimum-wage jobs that separate them from their kids.

“Bowling for Columbine” exposes the rumor-panics and other scare-mongering propaganda that foster American fear, often with tragic consequences. The documentary ends with an interview with National Rifle Association President and film actor Charlton Heston in his Beverly Hills home.

Before this interview I had credited Heston with at least being mendacious; however, it was worse. He did not understand anything beyond two syllables. Heston was an older George W.

The tragedy is that Americans today have 250 million guns in their homes at a time when there has been a huge decrease in crime. In the U.S. the frequency of gun-related deaths runs far ahead of other nations. In 1996, for instance, handguns killed thirty people in Great Britain, in Japan, 15, in Canada 106 and in Germany 211 while 9,390 died in this way in the United States. Five years later the number had jumped by 2,000 in the U.S. while these sort of deaths remained low in the latter countries.

Unfortunately, most Americans prefer to listen to the explanations of Heston and Bush. They understand them, they feel secure in their logic or lack of it. It reassures them that everything will be alright through the grace of God and their American-made gun. Thinking has consequences, and often gives a person a sense responsibility, which is what most Americans don’t want. So, it is easier to stay with two syllable explanations.

Reprinted from “LatinoLA” at Published 11/13/2002

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