The old Dudley Do-Right cartoon show featured a character named Snidely Whiplash. That’s right, he was the bad guy. He had a black top hat, a long black coat and a handlebar moustache. I can’t prove it, but it’s my observation that roughly 22 percent of the comedy bits on Late Night with Conan O’Brien are inspired by either the Bar Sinister character or at least his moustache.
Whiplash was an amalgamation of old silent movie bad guys who were usually some kind of “baron” – cattle, land, gold – attempting to force decent people off their land for purposes of grazing more cows or building a money-making railroad. These stereotypes would conveniently smoke cigars and rest their hands inside the tiny pockets of a silk vest so that there was no chance of missing that they were low down and no good. And that they would be foiled, arrested or dead by the last reel.
Today we’re not lucky enough to have these obvious signals when the bad guys enter the room. Dick Cheney is helpful with those lazy corners in his mouth and his unwillingness to smile, even when he hears that Halliburton made another billion off the Iraq war… in the last five minutes. But Cheney doesn’t utilize any of the old-school bad guy markers. The often disturbingly provocative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, is diminutive and wears a gas station attendant’s jacket. Then he makes insane statements that amount to a promise of genocide. Rupert Murdoch draws almost no attention to himself except by way of his business actions, which appear aimed at controlling all information in every democratic country on earth. (NOTE: Mr. Murdoch, you are very handsome, your young wife is very beautiful, and I would love to keep working after you’ve fully acquired North America.)
Even harder to pin down by way of visual cues is Robert E. Murray, the coal “baron” (NY Times word choice, not mine) who owns the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah where six men were trapped and three died attempting to rescue them. Blustery and often cloddishly inarticulate in a way that history may ultimately label “Bush Style,” Murray has an avuncular appearance and the “Bite me” disposition that might be expected from a self-made man who’s stock-in-trade is harvesting air-fouling fossil fuel from deep within the earth using humans as machines.
Murray testified in March at a hearing on clean energy that federal lands should be “prudently developed” to create jobs and that climate change and the debate on “so-called global warming” had been one-sided. Personally, I think citing the number of times Murray’s mines have been fined for health and safety violations is not so much unfair as confusing at a time when American toy makers are fobbing off their responsibilities to offshore labor sources. There’s also a horrifying story of a miner that died in one of Murray’s mines when he bled to death after his arm was torn off by a coal conveyor belt. But if we highlight that, must we then name the last responsible parties that inspected that bridge in Minneapolis?
As more information about Crandall Canyon becomes available, however, we get a picture that begins to beg for a handlebar moustache. Murray adopted a new and risky mining plan when his company took over the mine, one that included mining coal barriers – the pillars that hold up the mountain and ensure the safety of the deeper mine tunnels below. A spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America feels that Murray should have never emerged as the alpha personality addressing the nation about the disaster, but Murray’s ego took over.
Back to those distinguishing features of a baddie. A few weeks ago, Leona Helmsley checked out of the big hotel. Whatever else might have been true about the “queen of mean,” her plastic surgery-altered physiognomy didn’t help things. A mask is for hiding, even when the mask is built out of human skin. Helmsley might have saved her face and instead employed a stick-on handlebar moustache whenever she was dealing with “the little people” as she affectionately called them.
Appearances ultimately tell us nothing for certain. Walking among the beautiful people of Los Angeles at this very moment are the producers of “Kid Nation,” a reality show where several children have been injured and a continuing investigation may reveal violations of child labor laws and regulations governing the welfare of children. If more comes to light, the producers may take to disguising themselves in public. May we suggest a long black coat, a tall hat and of course…