The Commanding Heights

The enemy increaseth every day; 
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
Julius Caesar. Act IV, Scene 3.


“It’s Toasted”: the two words that began the television series Mad Men. The television show’s protagonist, Don Draper, comes up with them in a flash of inspiration during a meeting with the head of Draper’s advertising firm’s chief client, cigarette brand Lucky Strikes: like all cigarette companies, Luckies have to come up with a new campaign in the wake of a warning from the Surgeon General regarding the health risks of smoking. Don’s solution is elegant: by simply describing the manufacturing process of making Luckies—a process that is essentially the same as all other cigarettes—the brand does not have to make any kind of claim about smokers’ health at all, and thusly can bypass any consideration of scientific evidence. It’s a great way to introduce a show about the advertising business, as well as one of the great conflicts of that business: the opposition between reality, as represented by the Surgeon General’s report, and rhetoric, as represented by Draper’s inspirational flash. It’s also what makes Mad Men a work of historical fiction: in the first place, as documented by Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, there really was, during the 1950s and 60s, a conflict in the advertising industry between those who trusted in a “scientific” approach to advertising and those who, in Frank’s words, “deplored conformity, distrusted routine, and encouraged resistance to established power.” But that conflict also enveloped more than the advertising field: in those years many rebelled against a “scientism” that was thought confining—a rebellion that in many ways is with us still. Yet, though that rebellion may have been liberating in some senses, it may also have had certain measurable costs to the United States. Among those costs, it seems, might be height.

Height, or a person’s stature, of course is a thing that most people regard as something that is akin to the color of the sky or the fact of gravity: a baseline foundation to the world incapable of change. In the past, such results that lead one person to tower over others—or look up to them in turn—might have been ascribed to God; today some might view height as the inescapable result of genetics. In one sense, this is true: as Burkhard Bilger says in the New Yorker story that inspired my writing here, the work of historians, demographers and dietitians have shown that with regard to height, “variations within a population are largely genetic.” But while height differences within a population are, in effect, a matter of genetic chance, that is not so when it comes to comparing different populations to each other.

“Height,” says Bilger, “is a kind of biological shorthand: a composite code for all the factors that make up a society’s well-being.” In other words, while you might be a certain height, and your neighbor down the street might be taller or shorter, both of you will tend to be taller or shorter than people from a different country—and the degree of shortness or tallness can be predicted by what sort of country you live in. That doesn’t mean that height is independent of genetics, to be sure: all human bodies are genetically fixed to grow at only three different stages in our lives—infancy, between the ages of six and eight, and as adolescents. But as Bilger notes, “take away any one of forty-five or fifty essential nutrients”—at any of these stages—“and the body stops growing.” (Like iodine, which can also have an effect on mental development.) What that means is that when large enough populations are examined, it can be seen whether a population as a whole is getting access to those nutrients—which in turn means it’s possible to get a sense of whether a given society is distributing resources widely … or not.

One story Bilger tells, about Guatemala’s two main ethnic groups, illustrates the point: one of them, the Ladinos, who claim descent from the Spanish colonizers of Central America, were averagely tall. But the other group, the Maya, who are descended from indigenous people, “were so short that some scholars called them the pygmies of Central America: the men averaged only five feet two, the women four feet eight.” Since the two groups shared the same (small) country, with essentially the same climate and natural resources, researchers initially assumed that the difference between them was genetic. But that assumption turned out to be false: when anthropologist Barry Bogin measured Mayans who had emigrated to the United States, he found that they were “about as tall as Guatemalan Ladinos.” The difference between the two ethnicities was not genetic: “The Ladinos,” Bilger writes, “who controlled the government, had systematically forced the Maya into poverty”—and poverty, because it can limit access to the nutrients essential during growth spurts, is systemically related to height.

It’s in that sense that height can literally be a measurement of the degree of freedom a given society enjoys: historically, Guatemala has been a hugely stratified country, with a small number of landowners presiding over a great number of peasants. (Throughout the twentieth century, in fact, the political class was engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the United Fruit Company, an American company that possessed large-scale banana plantations in the country—hence the term “banana republic.”) Short people are, for the most part, oppressed people; tall people, conversely, are mostly free people: it’s not an accident that as citizens of one of the freest countries in the world, the Netherlands, Dutch people are also the tallest.

Americans, at one time, were the tallest people in the world: in the eighteenth century, Bilger reports, Americans were “a full three inches taller than the average European.” Even so late as the First World War, he also says, “the average American soldier was still two inches taller than the average German.” Yet, a little more than a generation later, that relation began to change: “sometime around 1955 the situation began to reverse.” Since then all Europeans have been growing, as have Asians: today “even the Japanese—once the shortest industrialized people on earth—have nearly caught up with us, and Northern Europeans are three inches taller and rising.” Meanwhile, American men are “less than an inch taller than the average soldier during the Revolutionary War.” And that difference, it seems, is not due to the obvious source: immigration.

The people that work in this area are obviously aware that, because the United States is a nation of immigrants, that might skew the height data: clearly, if someone grows up in, say, Guatemala and then moves to the United States, that could conceivably warp the results. But the researchers Bilger consulted have considered the point: one only includes native-born, English-speaking Americans in his studies, for example, while another says that, because of the changes to immigration law during the twentieth century, the United States now takes in far too few immigrants to bias the figures. But if not immigration, then what?

For my own part, I find the coincidence of 1955 too much to ignore: it’s around the mid-1950s that Americans began to question a previous view of the sciences that had grown up a few generations previously. In 1898, for example, the American philosopher John Dewey could reject “the idea of a dualism between the cosmic and the ethical,” and suggested that “the spiritual life … [gets] its surest and most ample guarantees when it is learned that the laws and conditions of righteousness are implicated in the working processes of the universe.” Even so late as 1941, intellectual magazine The New Republic could publish an obituary of the famed novelist James Joyce—author of what many people feel is the finest novel in the history of the English language, Ulysses—that proclaimed Joyce “the great research scientist of letters, handling words with the same freedom and originality that Einstein handles mathematical symbols.” “Literature as pure art,” the magazine then said, “approaches the nature of pure science”—suggesting, as Dewey said, that reality and its study did not need to be opposed to some other force, whether that be considered to be religion and morality or art and beauty. But just a few years later, elite opinion began to change.

In 1949, for instance, the novelist James Baldwin would insist, against the idea of The New Republic’s obituary, that “literature and sociology are not the same,” while a few years later, in 1958, the philosopher and political scientist Leo Strauss would urge that the “indispensable condition of ‘scientific’ analysis is then moral obtuseness”—an obtuseness that, Strauss would go on to say, “is not identical with depravity, but […] is bound to strengthen the forces of depravity.” “By the middle of the 1950s,” as Thomas Frank says, “talk of conformity, of consumerism, and of the banality of mass-produced culture were routine elements of middle-class American life”—so that “the failings of capitalism were not so much exploitation and deprivation as they were materialism, wastefulness, and soul-deadening conformity”: a sense that Frank argues provided fuel for the cultural fires of the 1960s that were to come, and that the television show Mad Men documents. In other words, during the 1950s and afterwards, Americans abandoned a scientific outlook, and meanwhile, Americans also have grown shorter—at least relative to the rest of the world. Correlation, as any scientist will tell you, does not imply causation, but it does imply that Lucky Strikes might not be unique any more—though as any ad man would tell you, “America: It’s Toast!” is not a winning slogan.


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