Maybe the dumbing down of America should not be blamed on whatever we're blaming it on this week. (It's too much testing in the schools, right? Or is it working moms? FOX TV? It's hard to keep track.)
In any event, it is quite possible that people are getting dumber than Drano for the simple reason that that is how they are being treated by the world in which they shop.
"Standard, full-size hanger holds everything from wash and wear to outwear!" proudly proclaims a standard, full-size hanger at K-Mart.
Yes, that complex and daunting device dangling there in home furnishings can be used with every confidence to hang your clothes. And not just certain, very specific clothes. It can hold virtually any garment which is big news, because we all know that wash and wear and outerwear usually demand such very different hardware.
But of course, it's not just hangers out there hitting you over the head.
It's food: "Croissant swirls … ideal for snacking!" (They are? Could that be why they're sold in the grocery store?)
And clothing: "Choose your favorites!" suggests the sign at Children's Place. (Gee, may I?)
Even once-reticent office supplies can't shut up. This ballpoint pen, says a Pentel package, is "for notes and general writing." RoseArt assures us that its erasers are fully ready to "erase and erase and erase." Paper Mate boasts of a pencil: "Ideal for school work and general writing."
And less ideal for broiling with lime and garlic, I'm guessing? Not to be used as a giant toothpick? Cannot serve, in a pinch, as a very narrow snowshoe?
"I'm looking at a package of Crayola crayons right now," said Richard Laermer, author of "Punk Marketing" and a student of the advertising absurd. "It says, 'Good for children.'"
By the time the folks at Crayola are telling you that the quintessential childhood item is the quintessential childhood item, something's wrong.
The problem can be partly traced back to that most American of fears, the fear of litigation. This has, admittedly, lead to some great moments in labeling. Not just the ol' "Contents may be hot because it's a CUP OF COFFEE!" but more baroque missives, such as the one I found on the box of a little electric heater.
Among its 17 instructions (including instruction No. 1: "Read all instructions") was the advice: "To disconnect, turn to 'off,' then grip plug and pull from wall outlet." That way, when you happen to assume the best way to disconnect the heater is actually to turn it to "high," submerge it in the tub and lower your naked body and your cat in next to it, you cannot blame the company for any discomfort you (or your cat) may feel.
But fear of lawsuits alone cannot explain the painfully obvious explanations on painfully obvious objects. When a duster says, "For removing dust" and one I saw does it's not because the company is worried someone may mistakenly use it to remove a kidney. It's because we are becoming a nation of idiots and dummies, just like the book series suggest. We have come to expect everything to be spelled out for us.
So next time you see an umbrella that, according to its manufacturer, "Opens full size" or you find a set of Dixie cups "for all occasions," and not just, say, for wakes; or you learn from the package of Halls cough drops that you are supposed to "dissolve one drop slowly in the mouth" and not use them as suppositories, be grateful for one thing: You can go home and hang pretty much any darn thing you want on your standard, all-purpose hanger. (Except the person who wrote the hanger instructions.)