May 01

History Wednesday: Taxed, Tanked and Ticked Off

It’s May Day. That means this week’s History Wednesday is effectively obligated to focus on the old Soviet Union, which always made May Day a big deal. You know, parades, speeches, public appearances of Politburo members, and plenty of red flags to go around. It was a good old time.

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Wasn’t it, Товарищ Эасто́я?

Ah, but plenty has been written about May Day already. As for Leonid Brezhnev, he’s about as exciting as a bowl of plastic fruit in a windowless, concrete room. That’s not what I’m going for here.

But what about Russians and vodka? Now there’s a target-rich environment. Let’s do it! Right, so here we go:

When Brezhnev died in 1982 the Soviet economy was basically dead in the water, committed to an arms race it increasingly couldn’t afford and a massive bureaucracy run by dour old men. Brezhnev’s successor as Communist Party general secretary (and therefore as the country’s de facto leader), was one of these old, dour men, Yuri Andropov. The highlight of Andropov’s rule was that he disappeared from public view for months until the Soviets announced his death in 1984.

Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was even less interesting than that.

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*insert static-filled elevator music here*

Chernenko kicked the bucket after only 13 months at the helm. He was followed by someone I bet you’ve heard of: Mikhail Gorbachev. Unlike Andropov and Chernenko, Gorbachev was willing to do something about the ever-growing clusterfuck that was the Soviet economy. He did so by attempting to address the shortcomings of his notoriously boozy culture and increase revenue at the same time. To wit, shortly after taking power he raised the price of vodka and other alcoholic drinks.

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“Дерьмо!”
Image credit: ProhibitOnions

Now in statecraft there are several things you simply don’t do. You don’t barf on the Japanese prime minister. You don’t piss off the King of Spain. And you definitely don’t screw with a Russian’s vodka. The policy had a minimal effect on alcoholism statistics and at the same time cost the government billions of rubles in lost revenue.

It may be tempting to dismiss this as a rookie mistake on Gorbachev’s part, but he really should have known better. Lenin attempted to ban vodka altogether, but that proved to be a miserable failure. It took Uncle Joe Stalin, a guy not exactly known for his commitment to civil liberties, to reverse this policy. As for Gorbachev, he quietly lightened up on his policy a couple years later.

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“Naturally, we will opt for vodka.”

In the grand scheme of things an abortive effort to regulate alcohol nearly 30 years ago may not seem like much, but it was. It’s been theorized that this policy started a chain reaction of unintended consequences which ultimately led to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In that context, it’s a big freakin’ deal.

It’s important to remember that toppling communism is not what Gorbachev had in mind. What’s more, despite continued international acclaim Gorbachev remains deeply unpopular in Russia. Despite that, attempts to raise vodka prices continue in Russia today.

If you’re so inclined, have a shot of Stoli this May Day. But keep in mind this silly little drink may very well have changed the world.

Apr 28

A Vast Wasteland

I find few things more irritating than the arguments of traditionalist scolds, especially the tired old tropes of “what about the children?” and “the good old days.” Generally speaking, with a bit of guidance children are quite capable of making their own decisions. Also, “the good old days” is often code for “nostalgia for an imagined past.”

I’ve been told Beachy sometimes watches television too mature for her. While I agree at her age she certainly shouldn’t be exposed to such things as graphic sex and violence, I assure you what she watches is much, much better than what I grew up with.

Seriously, would any children’s channel today air programming depicting this? (Click the image caps for video)

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This isn’t Porky Pig! Shocking!

Or this?

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No Curly? Outrageous!

Or this?

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No Sgt. Slaughter? Disgu … nah, this is still pretty hot.

Guess what? I watched all of the above and more during my formative years. Repeatedly. I didn’t even have to sneak in any Cinemax to do it.

Growing up in the 2T in the early 80s, where locally-produced kids’ programming was little more than a foreign legend, on a typical weekday morning you essentially had two options: soap operas or game shows. Guess which one I took? Yeah, there’s nothing like beginning an unexpected day off than with an hour with Bob Barker.

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“Cutting school again, eh Lane? Well, don’t forget to have your pets spayed or neutered.”

And that’s the high water mark. I was born in 1973, so for the sake of argument let’s say my prime years for children’s programming were between 1980 and 1985. Fine. Here’s what the world was like back then:

Children’s programming was limited to certain hours (usually school hours) on weekdays. You had Saturday morning cartoons which ended by 1 pm, and on Sunday you were flat out SOL. The golden age of animation was dead and buried by the mid-70s. There was no Cartoon Network or DreamWorks Studios. In short, no one was catering to kids very well. Even the pre-Pixar Disney spent about a decade dropping turds on theaters every couple years before they finally realized they should stick with fairy tales.

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And Martha Raye’s Polident ads were more entertaining than the early Disney Channel.

With few exceptions, children’s programming of the day fell into one of three categories:

-Prime time reruns and old short films not necessarily intended for children in the first place, including I Love Lucy, The Addams Family, The Munsters, The Flintstones, The Little Rascals (or Our Gang, whatever), The Three Stooges and Looney Tunes. Throw in Leave it to Beaver and The Beverly Hillbillies too. What the hell.

-Reboots of old cartoons and TV shows, including The All-New Popeye Hour, The Flintstone Comedy Show, The Tom and Jerry Comedy Show, Laverne & Shirley in the Army, The Real Ghostbusters, the (apparently fake) Ghostbusters and various incarnations of the Scooby-Doo franchise.

-Shows which amounted to little more than hard-sell commercials, including G.I. Joe, The Smurfs, Saturday Supercade, M.A.S.K., Challenge of the GoBots, and anything involving Care Bears, Shirt Tales, Teddy Ruxpin, Cabbage Patch Kids, Popples, He-Man, She-Ra, the ThunderCats or Lazer Tag. It’s a wonder some nitwit TV executive didn’t greenlight a show about a fad puzzle game.

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Oh wait, they totally did.

So in addition to the torture, alcohol abuse and risque content noted above, what else did these shows depict to kids of the day? How about misogyny, gender and racial stereotypes, juvenile delinquency, frequent armed conflict, gratuitous violence, dangerous stunts, glorification of war, animal cruelty, terrorism, elder abuse, unrealistic life expectations, attempted genocide, reward for misbehavior and/or incompetence, borderline plagiarism, and commercialism so crass and over the top it would make even Vince Offer wince?

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Yeah, plagiarism. The Flintstones blatantly ripped off The Honeymooners.

I and millions of others suffered through long years of this drivel. Watching this stuff again just makes it worse, as one notices the shoddy production values one disregarded as a kid. Bright spots were few and far between. Off the top of my head I can only think of one animated series from the era that was contemporary, genuinely funny and not a 30-minute commercial for a piece of plastic.

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Even if he did drive on the wrong side of the road.

So there you have it. Programming on today’s children’s cable networks isn’t anywhere near as bad as it was 30 years ago. What’s more, I turned out just fine, and today’s world isn’t an amoral, dystopian void after all.

Indeed, I’m glad I wasn’t sheltered and allowed to watch only “wholesome” crap like Superbook and The Flying House. I probably would have shot up a Taco Bell by now.

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“More like, ‘Live No Más’ bitches! HA HA HA!”
Image credit: Coolcaesar