A good blog is one that makes you stop and think for a few minutes. A great blog is one that causes you to stare off into space for a month or two as you try to sort out what you really think.
I guess that makes Sam Smith’s tri-centennial manifesto a great blog. It was unfortunately dead wrong on any number of levels.
It was wrong because while it sounds good, that’s not really what we want.
Living in a society built around those principles would probably be like spending your life on a cruise ship. Comfortable, but sooner or later you’d notice that everything was a little bland–the artwork, the food, the after dinner musical show. Perfection is boring. The society likely closest to that described in the manifesto is Sweden, and I think it no accident that the high point of two thousand years of Swedish culture is Abba. (Don’t even try to make the case that Abba isn’t crap.)
It is particularly wrong for America. I am sure that if America could read that article, it would break out into a loud chorus of “It ain’t me babe. No no no. It ain’t me.” And America would be right. The article envisions a country that is not, has never been and will never be, ours.
Years ago I wrote an op-ed for the LA Times proposing we think of America as a brand. It was popular for a Warholian minute or two. People didn’t quite know how to take it. Some were annoyed. Many thought I was being sarcastic. I actually got called by the Daily Show and asked if I wanted to go on the show (although they eventually decided I was too boring and it fell by the way side.)
But I was being dead serious. A brand is many things (if you ever want to start a battle royale in a marketing department, try to get to a single, crisp definition of “brand.”) But one of the more popular definitions is that “a brand is a promise in the mind of the consumer.”
America is nothing if not a promise.
And the consumer, in this case, is the immigrant who choose America rather than Canada or Australia or Brazil or another immigrant nation. (By definition, I am referring to those immigrants who had a choice, not slaves.)
We don’t live in a time where countries and states market themselves for immigrants. But they used to, both explicitly and implicitly. After WWII, Australia, greatly worried about being overrun by Asians, actively advertised in Europe to attract white immigrants. There is grainy old black and white footage of the Prime Minister, Menzies, crackling into a microphone, “Come to Australia, the working man’s paradise, where the forty hour week came to be.” And sure enough, Australia attracted people from all over Europe. Unfortunately that brand promise appealed to many of the laziest people of Europe, and Australia today has some of the fiercest unions and lowest productivity of any OECD nation. Maybe a brand promise of an easy life without work isn’t what we in marketing call a winning value proposition.
The tagline for BrandAmerica, though, is very different. The tagline for BrandAmerica is, “the land of opportunity.” Well this was a winner if there ever was one. It allowed us to effectively loot the world for talented, driven people. We got the smartest, hardest working, most talented and passionate people from around the world. We got scientists, engineers, doctors, writers, artists, composers, financiers—you name it, we the very best of it with that pitch.
So what “opportunity” were these buyers of BrandAmerica looking for? I would argue they fell into three buckets.
First, some were poor people looking for the opportunity to get rich. As the old saying goes, Dukes didn’t emigrate. And that opportunity still appeals to billions of people. That’s why the guy who mows your lawn only knows eight words of English.
Second, some were looking for the opportunity to practice their religion as they saw fit. Now that has a good ring to it. But that motivation is not always a pure one. People who feel passionately about religious freedom are often cranks or worse, e.g., Jim Jones. Those people immigrate for the same reason Brigham Young lit out for Utah, because there’s an armed mob chasing them.
Third, people came looking for political freedom, the right to individually define the system of laws under which they live. These were not people who valued stability, or central government for that matter. Many of us think of ourselves as rugged individualists. Most of us aren’t. Like Jack Kerouac in Desolation Angels, if actually left alone by ourselves (in a fire tower in his case) for a few weeks, we’d crack like a windshield on a rocky road. But some people really are individualists, and they wanted to do things their way and no other, without compromise. We got those folks too. You assemble a nation full of folks who each have their own definition of government and it’s called anarchy.
Today our country is composed of the descendents of those immigrants—greedy opportunists, religious cranks, and irascible anti-government anarchists. No, we are not them, but our culture is still defined by the same things they came looking for.
As a society, we are inveterate over-consumers—as I have written before, even the greenest of us consumes and outrageously unfair share of the world’s resources. We worship greed and over-consumption in every single dimension of our culture. We deify the wealthy, like Gates and Buffet, and flock to hear them speak.
We are religious in absurd, aggressive and dangerous ways (evangelical Christians.)
And we have deep seated problems with authority, government and everything and everyone associated with it. In France, government service is considered an elite career. In the U.S., it is considered a repository of losers who couldn’t get a real job.
“True Americans” aren’t like those of us reading this blog, educated, thoughtful people who respect others, care about the future of the planet and are looking for government to play a positive and useful role in organizing our society. True Americans are fat men wearing green facepaint running around the woods in camouflage shooting at imaginary black helicopters.
Now BrandAmerica is not the only brand on the shelves in the supermarket of nations. If an immigrant consumer really doesn’t want to buy a brand that stands for greedy, religious and anti-authoritarian, we do have choices. Canada for example, or Costa Rica or Belize or the Netherlands. (Or Puerto Rico for that matter.) (And can’t afford to is a cop-out. If any of us really felt strongly enough about it, we would go empty handed. Many of our ancestors did.)
But for those of us to live in America to wish we lived in a country that is like the one described by Sam is a little like buying Cocoa Crispies and complaining it’s too chocolate-y and it doesn’t have any raisins. Of course, it’s too chocolate-y and doesn’t have any fucking raisins. You bought Cocoa Crispies! Or your great, great, great, great grandparents did.
Maybe we can add a raisin or two, like getting rid of school prayer and DADT, but it’s still going to be the same gooey chocolate-y mess, at the end of the day. And as I said when I started this, I find this foeey mess not nearly as bad as the bland alternative.
As Mencken said, for every human condition there is a solution that is neat, plausible, and wrong.
Sorry, Sammy, but I’m not with you on this one, brother. It’s neat, it’s plausible, but it’s wrong.