This Week: 25th Birthday Edition Vol. 2 : 1998-2003

The Nygaard Notes Mission Statement

More recent Nygaard Notes subscribers may not even know that I have a mission statement. I do. Here it is:

Nygaard Notes is an independent periodic newsletter written and published by Jeff Nygaard.

Nygaard Notes is concerned with a broad range of issues and ideas, using humor and plain language to reach out to anyone who believes in the values of solidarity, justice, compassion, and democracy.

Nygaard Notes is intended to educate, inform, and entertain readers. Nygaard Notes is also intended to challenge its readers, inspiring them to move away from passive ways of thinking and toward more active, creative ways of thinking that lead to positive action.

Volume 2 of this 25-year retrospective gives a hint of how such a mission translates into the things I choose to publish. We start with a 2001 piece, published just after the fateful attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It still amazes me to think about how few people were ever aware of this evidence of the powerful worldwide rejection of the whole idea of a Global War on Terror. Nygaard Notes was one of the very few publications that ever reported this important news.

In the early days of Nygaard Notes I was all over the map, publishing song lyrics, poems, and humor. All of that is important—I want Nygaard Notes to be engaging and entertaining, in addition to action-oriented. And humor… Ah, yes! Humor.

A Terrified Nation Turns to War

In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11 2001 I implored readers to sign what I called “The Best Petition” regarding the U.S. response to the event. The petition, signed by hundreds of thousands of people, included these words: “We implore the powers that be to use, wherever possible, international judicial institutions and international human rights law to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks, rather than the instruments of war, violence or destruction.”

Perhaps the most tragic error made by any president in my lifetime was the decision made by George W. Bush to reject the law-enforcement approach and instead categorize the terror attacks as an act of war rather than a crime against humanity. And thus was launched the brutal and illogical Global War on Terror.

Among the thousands of words I published on this subject, I am most proud of the following essay, published in NN Number 132, published on November 16, 2001, a few weeks after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.

Act of War? Or Crime Against Humanity? The World Weighs In

Last week’s Nygaard Notes “Quote” of the Week was the lead headline from the New York Times (“All the News That’s Fit to Print”) of November 6, 2001, which read: “U.S. Tries to Sway Worldwide Opinion in Favor of War.” Although I think it stands alone as a rather remarkable quotation, there is another story lurking just behind the headline that is worth looking at.

The lead paragraph of that story asserted that the Bush administration is “worried that public opinion abroad has turned against the American military campaign in Afghanistan.” Furthermore, the Times tells us, “reports that civilians have been bombed have led to a measurable drop in European support for the American-led campaign.

This was supposed to explain why the administration “is making a major effort to take its case to the foreign—and especially Islamic—news media.”

Leave aside for the moment the remarkable phenomenon of the government of one country openly trying to propagandize through the news media around the world. That’s hardly news, although its worth thinking about how and why our government might be going about such a task.

When we read about “public opinion abroad” that is now “turning against the military campaign” (similar statements can be found in various reports from early November), the implication is clear: that the people of the world have, up until recently, been in support of the U.S. war stance. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Propaganda (a.k.a. British Prime Minister) Tony Blair stated the official line quite plainly upon arriving in the U.S. on the day the bombing began, asserting that “international support for the campaign is undiminished,” according to press reports in the Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!). While there was and likely remains worldwide support for a strong response of some sort to the terrorist attacks (“We have to do something!”), there has not been and does not appear to be much support at all for a military response, despite the “spin” that the Bush-Blair alliance has attempted to place on it.

The Secret Survey

Unbeknownst to most Americans, not having been reported in any of the daily newspapers of this great nation, the Gallup Organization actually did a survey of the citizens of 37 countries around the world at the end of September, asking the following straightforward question:

“In your opinion, once the identity of the terrorists is known, should the American government launch a military attack on the country or countries where the terrorists are based or should the American government seek to extradite the terrorists to stand trial?”

This extensive survey—the only significant attempt to gauge “public opinion abroad” that I know of—revealed that an overwhelming majority of the world’s citizens rejected the idea of a military response to the crimes of September 11th, preferring instead a judicial response. Remember, this survey was done at the end of September (survey results were released on September 25th), just days after the President had indicated that the United States was planning a military response.

The Gallup survey showed, for example, that 64 percent of the citizens of the Czech Republic were opposed to a military response to terror. And that was as good as it got for the Bush administration in Europe. The citizens of every other European country were opposed even more strongly to the favored U.S. strategy, by margins ranging from 67 percent in NATO ally France to 87 percent in Switzerland and 88 percent in Greece.

The overwhelming majority of the surveyed population outside of Europe also rejected the military response to terror, by percentages along the lines of 94 percent in Mexico, 85 percent in Colombia, 75 percent in South Africa, and 84 percent in Zimbabwe.

In only two of the 37 countries did a strong majority of the citizens surveyed support a military response. One was India, with complex geopolitical realities in the region to consider. The other was Israel, the leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world and with its own long history of responding militarily to terror attacks. The third and final country in which a majority supported the U.S. government’s plans to go to war—and this by a small majority of 54 percent—was the United States itself.

In summary, then, just two weeks before the United States launched its ill-fated military attack on perhaps the weakest country in the world [Afghanistan], somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the world’s population, as near as we can figure, opposed that attack. And now we read in the papers that the U.S. administration’s main concern is to maintain “international support” for its war. This is a major propaganda victory, and if it takes Nygaard Notes to tell you this, then consider how powerful that propaganda system must be.

Addendum: I said near the beginning of this essay that the results of this survey had not been reported in any of the daily newspapers in America. Not technically true. There was one exception, that being the Omaha World-Herald. True, their 166-word brief completely misrepresented the findings, claiming that the poll “indicates a heartening degree of support for the United States,” but at least they reported something. No other U.S. paper said a word, according to my search of the Lexis-Nexis database for the period.

A Song

In the early days I used to publish just about anything. As an example, I attempted to mock the racist, punitive, and counterproductive “War on Drugs” in Nygaard Notes #14 of December 7, 1998 by publishing “Two drug war songs for everyone!”

Here’s one of the songs:

Downtown (sung to the tune of the 1964 pop song “Downtown”, by Petula Clark)

When you’re alone, just getting quietly stoned
That’s when you might get hauled
The cops in a hurry, crossing lines that are blurry
Want to take us all

In torrents, with their warrants,
They will come and break your door down
You may have rights, but not tonight
Your legal rights were worn down
What do you plead?

The victims are hard to find
But don’t you try to talk sense
You know that justice is blind. Just go
(Down to the city hall)
(Who cares if your crime was small?)
(Although there’s no victim at all)

These seemingly-lighthearted lyrics prompted my first angry subscription cancellation. That didn’t take long, did it?

A Poem

In Nygaard Notes Number 115 of April 20, 2001 I published an original poem. Here it is:


The Father of Public Relations is dead.
Did you know him?
He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud.
Before his death at age one hundred and three
Edward L. Bernays could look back
and see a long career.

Longer than I’ve been alive.

When you worked for Proctor and Gamble, Edward L. Bernays, did you know that every day they were dumping poison into the Fenholloway River in Florida?

He started out in World War I
doing war propaganda.
(They called it “propaganda” then.)
After the war he realized that,
as he put it,
“If this can be used for war,
it  can be used for peace.”

That’s what he said.

When you worked for General Electric, Edward L. Bernays,
did you think that their nuclear weapons would help to bring peace?

So he translated his selling of war
into the business of selling anything,
anything at all. But mostly he
sold people the idea of buying.
And people bought the idea of buying

from the Father of Public Relations.

When you worked for General Motors, Edward L. Bernays
did you help them to destroy the country’s street car lines
so they could sell more buses?

As the price tags spread out into the world,
this child of his went to work, turning cities
into markets, and citizens into consumers.
Edward L. Bernays believed that ideas could be
disguised as commodities, and emotions as things.
Nothing has been the same since.

He never questioned his right to do this.

When you worked for United Fruit, Edward L. Bernays
did you ponder how to sell people the idea of a “banana republic?”

During his long career, which was
longer than I’ve been alive,
the Father of Public Relations worked
for many different corporations.
Now the Father of Public Relations is dead.

How will we live with his child?

Finding Humor, and Mystery, in the News

In Nygaard Notes #18 of January 5, 1999 I published a piece that I still think is funny, and also thought-provoking. And those are hallmarks of Nygaard Notes, in my opinion. See if you agree. It was headlined “More Like Us Than We Are”, and it went like this:

I have commented on the phenomenon of the “mystery headline,” in which the headline of an article in the Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!) seems unrelated to the content of the article. Well, to quote Ronald Reagan, “There they go again.” Actually, what I noticed in the Sunday Strib of January 3rd was a different, but related oddity. In the midst of a big article about what to expect from our new state legislature, the Strib devoted a whole page to the issue of representation. The headline: “They represent you, but do they represent you? In lifestyle and personal background, legislators are a lot like the rest of us—and then some.”

Accompanying the article was a large chart comparing our state legislators to the rest of Minnesota’s adults on a range of factors—“lifestyles” as they said. Here are a few of the things the chart shows us: 54% of Minnesotans consider themselves to be political “Moderates;” for legislators the number is 15%. 48% of Minnesotans have gone to college; 92% of legislators have. In terms of religion, 35% of Minnesotans identify as something other than Christian (including, to my surprise, 17% with “no preference”); 85% of legislators are Christian. 21% of Minnesota’s adults earn less than $20,000 per year. Exactly ZERO legislators do, probably because they get paid $31,140 for being legislators. Still, only 23% of legislators make less than $50,000; 59% of Minnesotans fall short of that number. And on it goes.

As I looked at this chart, the legislature didn’t seem to me to represent Minnesota very well at all in terms of “lifestyle and personal background.” What is notable about the headline of this article is that it is lifted almost exactly from the text. Despite the facts I just mentioned, the author, Robert Whereatt, makes the statement that our legislators “are like us, and then some.”

“And then some?” For the life of me, I can’t figure out what this means. Does it mean that they are so “like us” that they are more like us than we are? Are they like us in the sense that they are how we would be if we were more like ourselves? Or are we too much like them, so they have to compensate by acting like we should be acting? What is a “lifestyle,” anyway? And, who was that masked man?

I have to start thinking of names for these phenomena. “Mystery headline” seems to work for the misleading or oxymoronic headline. But what to call a journalistic interpretation that does not follow from the very facts being reported, as in the current example? “New horizons in objectivity?” “Cognitive dissonance in print?” “You, too, can be a reporter?” I’ll keep working on this; it could be a regular feature. Your ideas welcome.

I have been told on numerous occasions that I “think too much,” and this has always struck me as an curious sort of criticism. But I admit that I have been thinking about Mr. Whereatt’s interpretation of the lifestyles of our legislators, and I always end up laughing. Do I laugh because I think too much? If so, what’s wrong with that?

I often end up laughing when I read the Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!) Maybe that’s why I love it so. Ha Ha Ha.

Am I thinking too much? I don’t know; I’ll have to think about it.

Inside Joke

Back on February 8th, 2000 I told readers:

Conscientious reader Aaron (he used the word “persnickety”) wrote last week to inform me that “quote” is a verb and “quotation” is the related noun. His point was that Nygaard Notes should have a “Quotation of the Week” rather than a “Quote of the Week.” Since I quite enjoy the sound of “Quote,” much more so than the word “quotation,” I suddenly had to choose between pleasing myself or being grammatically correct. Fortunately, many years ago I was able to purchase a really good 2,129-page dictionary for $19.95 (Webster’s New Universal Unabridged). In that dictionary they say there is a “colloquial” form of the word “quote” which means “a quotation,” or “a quotation mark.” Since Nygaard Notes is nothing if not colloquial, I decided to stick with “Quote of the Week,” thus making myself happy. As an inside joke for regular readers, I will put the word “Quote” in quotes from now on. So there.

[2023 update: It’s still “Quote” of the Week!]