Commentary: Bad Idea Day | KERA News

Commentary: Bad Idea Day

Dallas, TX –

May 18th is a very bad day. Why, you ask? Well, because it's the birthday of one Thomas Midgley, Jr.. Who the heck is Thomas Midgley, Jr.,you ask? Good question. But because I have a couple of minutes left to fill, I'm not going to answer it right away.

Instead, I want to propose the observance of May 18th as Bad Idea Day. We are a culture that values optimism, and as such we tend to keep our holidays focused on positive things. But bad ideas have shaped our culture every bit as much as good ones, and I think it's important to keep that in mind, lest we repeat our mistakes.

Bad ideas go way back. Nero appointing his horse to a government office, for instance. Napoleon invading Russia. Hitler invading Russia. Just leave Russia alone, for Pete's sake, it's bad news. Speaking of Hitler, while he had the spectacularly bad Russian invasion idea himself, he also had the ability to spot other bad ideas, like the Maginot Line in France. As anyone who owns a determined dog can tell you, building a fence only works if you make it go all the way around, and not stop at Belgium. And we may not even have had a Hitler without the bad idea known as the Treaty of Versailles.

Bad ideas can hang on for a long time. Powdered wigs may have seemed like a harmless fashion accessory in Georgian times, but tell that to the barristers who still have to wear them in English courts today.

America has had its share of bad ideas. Though we ditched the powdered wigs, our Constitution is riddled with ideas that have since been chucked into the bin. Slavery and Prohibition for a start, and we still haven't gotten rid of that pesky Electoral College.

Some bad ideas don't have their origins solely in government. Sexism, for example. Telling one half of the human race to hush up and make a sandwich is a bad idea of colossal proportions.

However, when it comes to bad ideas, there is no better standard bearer than the aforementioned Thomas Midgley, Jr. Midgley, you see, not only invented leaded gasoline, the contaminating influence of which can still be measured even up in Greenland, but went one further and invented chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC's, those lovely vapors that chomp on our ozone layer like Cookie Monster at a Pepperidge Farm display. Seldom have two such spectacularly bad ideas come from one mind, and for that reason, I believe that Midgley's birthday is the perfect time to stop and reflect on our bad ideas and where they have brought us.

Bad ideas can occur on a small or large scale, and can be cumulative. Watergate, you might say, was a bad idea with far-reaching consequences. However, if enough people down a bag of Krispy Kremes rather than a banana for breakfast, you have a collective bad idea with incredible effects on everything from the economy to the medical profession and beyond.

As history both recent and ancient has shown, bad ideas are here to stay. And as long as they're not going anywhere, we might as well have a party for them. So this May 18th, raise a hairspray blowtorch to Thomas Midgley, Jr., patron saint of bad ideas, and drink some wine from a lead cup in his honor. It's a bad idea, but really, we've heard worse.

Matthew Broyles is a writer and musician living in Dallas.

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