Skittles, Speeches, and Stickers, Oh My!: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From who we are to what we eat, we learned a lot in the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
Skittles lay scattered on a sidewalk after Seattle Seahawks fans watched their team fall to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX on February 1, 2015. (Or maybe they knew something about that candy coating that we're just now discovering....)
A Different Metal at the End of the Rainbow
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but when I have a hankering for sugar at a vending machine, my go-to is always Skittles. So it was with great trepidation that I clicked the Washington Post article “Skittles Lawsuit Claims Candy Is ‘Unfit’ for Human Consumption’.” Gulp. The story, which went viral (how could it not with that headline?), details how a California man is suing candymaker Mars because the dyes used to make Skittles so enticingly colorful and uniformly shiny contain a toxin called titanium dioxide. (Wait, isn’t that the stuff considered to be chemical-free and good when in sunscreen?) It’s apparently a common additive used in dyes, is usually not listed on the ingredients list so you wouldn’t know it, and it has been banned in the European Union. But titanium dioxide is still A-OK in the USA within certain limits, and so Mars says it has done nothing wrong. Research studies that have found the additive (when eaten!) linked to cancer have raised alarm bells, even if some experts have raised questions about methodology and the overall impact of humans consuming moderate amounts.
For normal people, this is all a rainbow of confusion. On one hand, the EU is so alarmed they banned titanium dioxide, but Britain, the US, and Canada have not. Scientists seem to have mixed feelings and can’t seem to agree on how toxic the substance might or might not be and in what amounts. And this isn’t just a Skittles problem. The additive can be found in cupcakes, ice cream, and really any dyed food—and it’s not required to be on the ingredient listing. Going down the rabbit hole of “What’s in a Skittle?” (who knew that would be something I’d ever say?) made me ask more questions about what’s in our food, what’s not, and whether we even really know all of what we’re eating. Mostly, though, it reinforced my dad’s motto on food choices: “Eat everything in moderation, and you’ll be fine.” So no Skittles binging for me. But the occasional bag out of the vending machine is OK. Probably. —Michele McNeil
So, wait... I thought we cared too much about hustle culture. We're lazy too? We're lazy hustlers? Is being a generational punching bag the reason we're so burned out?
I'll never forget when a previous boss told me he was surprised at my work ethic, since people my age don't take work seriously. I wasn't doing anything special, just my normal responsibilities, and to me this claim seemed just like one of the myriad versions of the canard that "millennials are too lazy to work." I'm generally skeptical of such broad generational claims: Is the younger generation really doing everything wrong? Is the older generation really so clueless? Or do we as humans resist change and struggle to see others' perspectives? Andrew Van Dam’s recent article from the Washington Post on millennials' work habits addressed some of these claims without screaming stereotypes. It used an intergenerational analysis to do some myth busting and demonstrate that millennials aren't actually all lazy and ambition-free.
Van Dam highlights data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that show an increase in teen employment in recent years, after a sharp drop off among millennials. Before the rise of Gen Z in the labor force, there were many theories about why millennial teens weren't working: they were too focused on grades or extracurriculars or were simply lazy. Van Dam uses a mixture of qualitative interviews with managers, business owners, and Gen Z workers and analysis of payroll and BLS data to point to another explanation: demand. Over the past year, demand for teen workers has increased exponentially as many older workers have been unwilling or unable to return to their jobs post-pandemic. Several business owners interviewed by Van Dam said they prefer to hire workers who aren't in school, so they don't have to work around class and extracurricular schedules. Now, it's harder for these managers to find people with experience who are willing to work at the salary businesses are offering. Thus, the demand for teen workers has increased. Millennials faced the opposite problem. We entered the labor force in a recession, so there were many more experienced workers, without conflicting class schedules, willing to work at whatever price a business would pay them. The simple logic of supply and demand wasn't surprising to me, but it did leave me satisfied that we can think beyond generational stereotypes. —Hannah Van Drie
"If that giant yellow bird and the rest of the Muppets on Sesame Street think they can hide Dorothy from me, they've got another thing coming! First I'll get back those ruby slippers—then it's off to see Oscar. Fly, broom, fly!!"
I’ll Get You, My Pretty—And Your Snuffleupagus Too!
One of my favorite novels is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. It’s a great medieval mystery, which revolves around Aristotle’s “lost” second book of Poetics, dealing with comedy. That is just one of countless great ancient works which modern society will never see. The regrettable tradition of great culture lost to time isn’t confined to the distant past. Plenty has disappeared in the 20th century, with perhaps the most famous example being 1927 silent film London After Midnight, starring Lon Chaney. (Something like 90% of all silent films are considered “lost.”) Even art created closer to our present, with all of our archival sensibilities, can be precarious. But in the case of episode 847 of Sesame Street, it was a case of its creators making it go “lost.”
That infamous show aired in February 1976 and guest starred Margaret Hamilton as her Wizard of Oz character, the Wicked Witch of the West. The year before, Hamilton appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as herself explaining the witch character to Fred and his viewers without incident. But when she showed up on Sesame Street, Hamilton was the Wicked Witch. As YouTuber All Things Lost notes in his excellent analysis of the airing, “The blowback was unprecedented. The show was flooded with angry letters from parents, children, Christians concerned about the witchcraft, and Wiccans concerned about the stereotyping of witches—all begging that the episode never be aired again, and for Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West to never return.” Show producers Children’s Television Workshop eventually agreed, and the episode fell into legend. Until last month. On June 18, a high-quality video of the episode was mysteriously posted to Reddit by a “burner” account, and quickly copied and spread worldwide for modern folks to see what all the fuss was about. All Things Lost’s snap reaction? “The episode itself is weird. The message is just so mishandled. The moral is to be nice to people, but it really doesn’t work. But the episode has some really great moments.” You can easily find and watch this once-lost episode to judge for yourself. Hopefully that’s the eventual fate of lost works by Aristotle and Lon Chaney. But this is the 21st century—only Reddit knows for sure. —Christian Niedan
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower talks to paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division about to take off for the D-Day landings in France, June 6, 1944. He had prepared a speech in case D-Day went wrong—a speech that was trashed but saved for history by an aide.
Rough Drafts of History
Serious historians tend to roll their eyes at “what if?” scenarios. What if D-Day failed? What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed? What if Nixon clung to power and forced a Constitutional showdown? But people are fascinated with those hinge moments because they suggest just how contingent our world is; how much could have turned out differently. The genius of Undelivered, by former White House speechwriter Jeff Nussbaum, is that it gives primary source insight into alternate realities of critical moments in modern history. The policy address President Kennedy never delivered in Dallas, the victory speech Hillary Clinton never made in 2016, New York City’s narrowly avoided declaration of bankruptcy in 1975—Nussbaum has analyzed them all and uses them to illuminate both alternate universes of American political life and the fraught choices that go into speechmaking. “Sometimes the act of writing a speech is the act of envisioning the many paths history can take and arguing forcefully for—or against—one of them,” Nussbaum writes. “Sometimes it’s the act of responding to the moments beyond our control where history takes a sudden turn…. The speaker and the speechwriter know that people will be listening, needing to be informed, inspired, comforted, and led. And as the world enters a new reality, the words written for the old reality get left behind.”
There’s a lot to be learned from the rhetoric that gets cast aside. One of my favorite chapters is Nussbaum’s look at the violent controversy over school integration and busing in Boston, and how Mayor Kevin White weighed his response. White’s frustration with his own city is on vivid display in a discarded speech draft that would have abandoned much of the integration effort, capitulating to the vitriolic mobs that had rioted to block it in South Boston. But that exhausted and defeated draft never got delivered. In writing and considering it, White clarified his own conviction that integration had to move forward. “There is no odor, save death, worse than that of a public official too frightened and fearful to say, above a whisper, what he honestly believes,” White eventually said in his State of the City address. Sometimes, you have to see the odorous version on paper before you gin up the courage to speak honestly. —Eric Johnson
These "Hamilton"-inspired I VOTED stickers, handed out in Los Angeles, on Election Day 2020, seem to be a bit short on bizarre psychedelic alien crabs. Sorry, LA, ya threw away yer shot.
One Hexapod, One Vote
When I was a kid, going to the polls with my mom, I don’t remember getting an I VOTED sticker. I don’t remember getting one as an adult, either—not until well into the 2010s when they seemed to be everywhere. I’m sure the ability to share one’s doing their civic duty, via a photo of a sticker outside a voting booth, on social media is just coincidence… Whatever the case, this badge of democratic participation has become so entwined with an election that people get miffed if they don’t get one or, worse, the design changes. (While we’re on the subject: New York City’s current sticker stinks; bring back the previous version inspired by the subway map! (The Women’s Suffrage centennial sticker was great, too.)) But in upstate New York’s Ulster County, 110 miles north from where I sit in Brooklyn, election officials have invited the community into the sticker design process. And not just anyone: the county’s students.
This is the second year for the contest, and officials recently unveiled the six finalists, created by artists between the ages of 13-18. I’d be proud to have any of them on my jacket after I voted—but there’s only one that I want as a t-shirt, button, poster, and any other merch you can think up. That’s the tripped-out version created by 14-year-old Hudson Rowan, from Marbletown, a six-legged alien-animal thing topped with a bulbous pink, red, and purple head, bugged out eyes, and grinning, gaping maw. The words “I VOTED” are scrawled in red, magic marker-style, to the right of the creature. It’s utterly unhinged—and absolutely fantastic. The other five sticker designs demonstrate excellent creativity and imagination, but Hudson’s just goes for it. And regardless of the reason why, it has earned 93% of the vote. If it wins—and it seems pretty much a lock—every voter in Ulster County will get one of these stickers after voting in the November 8 general election. (Lucky ducks.) If you’re a cynic, you’ll see this result as some kid undermining the contest, like when students named NYC’s ferry boats Lunchbox, The Ocean Queen Rockstar, and Tooth Ferry. But I’d argue Hudson understood the assignment perfectly. So many of our civic traditions can feel musty and hidebound, which accounts, in part, for why so many young people disengage from our democracy. Why bother when your enthusiasm and creativity are stamped out in the name of “tradition”? Hudson, though—and all the student finalists—were given the chance to be involved in a creative, unique way. And even if the bizarro alien crab wins, every future voter who took part will remember that adults in power took them seriously enough to ask for their opinion, and then acted on it. What an amazing way to ensure the next generation embraces citizenship and the power their voice has in it. I can’t say this contest made me smarter, necessarily, but it did give me a much needed civic boost in this dog-days-of-midterms season. And it kind of made me want to relocate upstate, if only temporarily, to get what’s sure to be the wildest, weirdest, most wonderful I VOTED sticker in America. —Dante A. Ciampaglia