Sea monkeys are unattractive creatures who became a part of American iconography, thanks to the aggressive marketing campaign of a man who—like many 20th century crooks—understood that if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes a truth, and also that if you’re going to lie, you should go big or go home.
Harold von Brauhunt developed products other than Sea Monkeys, including x-ray vision glasses and an invisible fish that lived in a fishbowl and was guaranteed never to make itself visible. Harold always lied on a grand scale and, except for one New York prosecutor who tried to put a stop to his career as a con artist in the 1970s, he and his thriving businesses faced hardly any obstacles. What was his most successful strategy? To buy millions of pages in comic books, to spread his lies to a population too young to have developed cultural defense mechanisms against swindlers.
Recent studies seem to indicate that the head protection used by boxers for training or competing in the Olympic Games might actually increase the possibility of serious injury. There are two hypotheses that attempt to explain this fact: One is that the boxers’ vision is limited by the protective gear, and it makes it harder for them to defend themselves from the blows; and the other is that, because they feel more secure, the boxers don’t try as hard to defend themselves.
Many years after my visit to Camp Manison, while bedridden with influenza and in a semi-conscious feverish state following the polemic surrounding Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States, I recalled so clearly the day that I came back home from the US and emptied the contents of my Sea Monkey package into a fishbowl of water.
I was not astonished by a miracle of life emerging before my eyes in the cloudy water: The magnitude of the scam and deception precluded any possibility of amazement. My mother had a hard time convincing me that this wasn’t a big deal. “This kind of rip-off happens all the time.” But how? “How?” I asked myself, watching the sad little shrimp swimming in the murky water. “How can someone lie so blatantly and so many people do nothing?”
As an adult, it’s tough to pull the wool over my eyes. I have what the more mystically inclined might call a sixth sense for sniffing out a scam. Was my encounter with those Sea Monkeys necessary as a kind of hazing ritual to understand this world we live in?
Now that I live in Slovenia, secure in the seatbelt of the European Union, many of my defense mechanisms have fallen into a vegetative state, and I often ask myself if I miss the vitality, intensity and rough edges of the less-protected world I used to live in, both in Mexico and the United States.
Must we then accept deception and lies as useful tools to hone our children’s fraud detection mechanisms? I don’t think so. But I do believe that the experience with Harold von Braunhunt’s machinations did make me aware, from a very young age, of the incontrovertible truth that everyone should learn before reaching adulthood: There are people who do not stop for a moment to consider the public good, while in pursuit of their own personal gains. By extension, I learned that by not intervening or preventing this kind of interaction amongst citizens, the governing institutions and politicians showed their true colors: Their goal was to perpetuate their own existence, not to serve the public good. Until then, I had thought of political leaders—aside from some of the monsters we learned about in history books at school—as people dedicated to public welfare, just like our parents, but on a bigger scale. Somehow the Sea Monkeys helped me understand that governments are more like large groups of gorillas that adapt their discourse to the ideology of the moment, in order to establish a powerful elite whose only logic is survival. Not a bad lesson for a kid to learn from some tiny crustaceans.
A few weeks ago, while paying for admission to the Leopold Museum in Vienna, the ticket-taker, upon finding out I was Mexican, asked me how I was taking the whole Trump thing. We discussed it a little and then he said, “Well to be honest, we do have something to thank Mr. Trump for. Since he took office, there are no more boring mornings. You wake up excited to learn what new idiotic blunder he’s made while you were sleeping.”
Adversity wakes us up, comfort lets us doze off. Since moving to Slovenia, this question niggles at me: How can we create a system of universal social welfare without, at the same time, producing a generation of credulous, asinine citizens? How do we offer security for the future of our children without stifling their need to take risks and make discoveries?
While it’s true that allowing an unscrupulous businessman to lie shamelessly to children through popular media is wrong, it is also true that overprotecting these young citizens may also make them less resistant, more prone to harm.
In part, the Trump phenomenon is a product of a system where the lines between truth and falsehood have become harder to distinguish. But also it was made possible thanks to a large part of the US population infuriated by the excesses of the progressive sector, one that has become as insensitive to those who don’t conform to their beliefs as their opponents. The Byzantine postures of political correctness in US media and academe have allowed a babbling, bullying imbecile to become a man who “says what he thinks.”
The Sea Monkey scam forced me to reevaluate my perspective on the adult world at a young age, just as I would hope the appearance of Trump in the international political panorama would make progressives reevaluate their aspirations and their methods.
It was not pleasant to find myself in that cabin in Texas for a hellish summer, but I am still glad that my grandfather didn’t fly up to there to rescue me.