The Moment of Truth — February 28, 2009

A Simple Gesture That Blows The Mind

I remember once, when I was a young boy, my father calling me over to show me something very interesting. He had a workshop in our basement with all his tools, crazy old fashioned tools like the “brace-and-bit,” which is the kind of hand-powered drill you see in old Warner Bros. cartoons, and new-fangled tools like the Dremel grinder and standing jigsaw. Well, maybe not new-fangled, but electric at any rate.

Dad stored all his small hardware—screws, washers, finishing nails, brads—in empty baby food jars. He was never one to waste an empty bottle or jar. He had a gizmo called a “bottle cutter,” which he used to turn empty wine bottles into drinking glasses.

In addition to all the carpentry tools and hardware, there were his drafting tools, an enlarger for a darkroom we didn’t have, old beer steins filled with semi-useful objects, a sword, and a 35-pound bow with a quiver of arrows. There was also a hand-grenade box, or some kind of military box, my uncle had brought home from the Korean War. Inside was another drill. This was a gray steel power drill with big vents to keep the motor cool, and what was great was that the motor threw out sparks, like the sparks that come out of the mouths of the wind-up nuns and Godzillas of today, except accompanied by a lot more noise. And if you pulled the trigger only halfway the motor would whine and smoke would eventually come out.

But the thing Dad wanted to show me on this particular occasion was not a tool or a gizmo or an archaic weapon. From a hidden place he brought out a baby food jar containing about a half-inch of mercury. He explained to me that mercury was a metal that was liquid at room temperature. That blew my mind. It made the states of matter a lot more mysterious and interesting. The jar was a lot heavier than I expected. He showed me on a pane of glass the weird way mercury moved, and how it broke into drops and came together again. He showed me that a nickel would float on top of it like a plastic checker on water, because mercury was heavier than whatever it was they were making nickels out of back then. Nickel, maybe?

Dad’s father-in-law, my maternal grandfather, Papa, was a dentist—one of the last Jewish dentists to still have an office in Detroit after the 1960s. He made silver-amalgam fillings, for which he used mercury, and somehow Dad had talked Papa into giving him enough mercury to fill a baby food jar a half inch. I don’t know when Dad got the mercury, or if when he asked for it he had it in mind to show the kids he would eventually have how cool it was.

But as cool as mercury was, Dad made sure to warn me that it was a deadly poison. Just a little bit could kill you, and you could go mad as a hatter if you even held it in your hand for too long, which was a drag because it was really fun to play with. Everything really cool was dangerous, it turned out. Pulling the trigger on the steel power drill halfway so smoke would come out was bad for the motor. Drinking rainwater was unsafe. Handling field mice was frowned on. You couldn’t even look at a solar eclipse.

Later I found out you can look at a total solar eclipse once the moon has entirely occulted the disk of the sun. That was a nice surprise. I haven’t done it yet, but just knowing it’s possible is like the repeal of some awful prohibition.

The long and short of it is, that half inch of mercury in that baby food jar could easily have killed me. As for my amalgam fillings, there are studies showing I inhale a minute amount of mercury every time a chew something or brush my teeth. There are people who insist amalgams are perfectly safe, as once mercury has bonded with the other metals in the amalgam it stops behaving like mercury, much as hydrogen and oxygen stop being combustible when they bond to become water. Then again, it is possible to get oxygen from water. Fish do it all the time. So there’s no reason to believe mercury cannot possibly become unbound from amalgam and slowly poison me.

Unfortunately, I just don’t care. It’s unlikely I’m slowly being killed or driven mad by the mercury in my fillings, but if I am that’s something I’m prepared to live with. To live and go mad and die with.

What I don’t want is mercury in its unalloyed form in my food, water and air. I prefer my air to be mostly nitrogen and oxygen. That’s just my preference. I prefer my tuna to be one hundred percent tuna and zero percent metal that is liquid at room temperature. It just happens to be the way I like my air and my tuna.

But I am out of luck. My luck was improving during the Clinton administration, when mercury emissions were cut nearly in half thanks to industry regulation. But George W. Bush effectively killed my luck by rolling back those regulations and refusing to participate in international treaties to reduce the amount of mercury in the environment.

How much mercury gets released into the water and air from industrial sources, which Bush specifically targeted for weaker regulation? About two and a half tons annually. The mercury in my Dad’s jar was about four ounces at most. Two and a half tons is a ridiculous amount, and that gets dumped into the environment every year. Of course it’s not dumped all at once. It’s not like they pick one day a year to dump two and a half tons of mercury into the ocean. But they might as well.

How many years has this been going on? I don’t know. Coal has been burned for centuries, but it probably wasn’t until the 20th century that coal-burning came close to its present-day global polluting level.

There are many many other pollutants we have to worry about, of course. Carbon emissions, that’s the big one we want to curtail if we’d like glacial melting to stop accelerating to the point where the world is drowned. And Bush was certainly against doing much of anything to decrease those emissions either. He seemed to want to increase the amount of poison people consumed. One of his first acts in office was to try to allow more arsenic into our drinking water, if you’ll remember.

What principles does a man live by who wants to increase the amount of poison in our food and water? Free market principles? Because if those are free market principles, then fuck the free market. You don’t have to be a socialist to not want your kids eating mercury. My dad wasn’t even close to being a socialist, and he didn’t want his kids to eat mercury. He didn’t even want them to play with it.

There was a conference on mercury pollution in Nairobi recently, an international conference. I don’t know why they even bother to hold these conferences. The biggest producers of mercury pollution, China, India and the United States, always refuse to sign on, when they even bother to show up. But they held one recently. And the guy Obama appointed to go to this conference said something to the effect of, “The US has changed its position. We are now in favor of international negotiations to curb mercury pollution.” And lo and behold, India and China started making the same noises.

That’s all it took. All we needed to do was kick out the asshole who kept trying to poison us, put in the guy with a brain, a heart and courage, and voila! People start making commitments to discuss slowing down their poisoning of everybody. Suddenly it’s hard to believe that a man and his political party were so petty as to obstruct international negotiations to curb poisoning of our food. It’s hard to believe until you realize that same party would go back to poisoning us if they got the White House again.

It’s really such a small thing. Please don’t poison us. Why was it so hard to say “okay” to that? Even just once. But there wasn’t a single pollutant George W. Bush was willing to negotiate internationally to reduce. At least not until his poll numbers really started to slide, and even then it was the most token kind of nodding about greenhouse gases with the tacit promise that nothing significant would be done, especially not anything scientifically recommended.

I mean, aside from the torture, the lying to drum up support for invading Iraq, the spying on Americans, the harassing of photographers, protestors and journalists, the kidnapping and extraordinary rendition, the suspension of due process, the operation of secret torture sites, the destruction of the US economy, the determined ignoring of warnings before 9-11 that al Qaeda was going to attack the US, the concealing the cost of the war, the dumping of unaccounted for millions of dollars into the pockets of crony corporations for goods and services never supplied to the military or to the Iraqi people, the complete negligence of duty to provide even remotely competent disaster relief to citizens—aside from all those ghastly anti-achievements, why would you also want to poison children with mercury?

It is simply unfathomable that we ever put up with a government run according to a set of principles that could dictate actions like those. It’s unbelievable that we came to think of such principles and actions as normal. When the simple action of not being a fucking prick actually stuns the world at a conference in Nairobi, stuns them—read the foreign press, the world is dumbfounded. They can’t believe their senses. The United States said it would agree to talk about negotiating with other countries to figure out how to decrease mercury pollution? We haven’t even done anything substantive yet. All we did was say we’d talk about it. And the whole world is like, WHA? Are we in inside-out land? This is impossible. How could this ever happen?

The world forgot that the United States wasn’t always run by assholes who refused to consider helping anyone but themselves. I mean, WE, the people, even forgot! And just think, a few dozen electoral college votes and we would still be assholes.

Obama might not deliver on a single promise (although he already has, in my opinion). At least to a few international representatives who came to a conference in Nairobi expecting to watch the United States refuse to participate in any constructive dialogue, an unexpectedly nice thing has happened. It is just sad that our expectations of our government’s behavior have sunk so low that this small act of civility seems like a minor miracle.

It’s like we’ve been dealing with an unreasonable roommate who just refuses to do anything nice for anyone, who reacts to the smallest request with utter outrage that a request even dare be made, and then one day you say, “I suppose it would be too much to ask that you not leave an open jar of horseradish in the clothes dryer today,” and the unreasonable crazy person says, “Oh, I’m sorry, sure, I won’t do that.”

Again, it’s a sad state of affairs when someone agrees not to put an open jar of horseradish in the dryer and I think, boy, even if the only thing that changes is the horseradish in the dryer problem, I’ve been given a great gift. I have my hope back. It’s a small thing, but like the repeal of some awful prohibition, it gives me satisfaction far beyond its practical significance.

Or maybe that’s just my fillings talking.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!