Politics/Law/Government

America to Dr. Slammy, "It ain't me, babe."

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.

I hope.

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.

12 replies »

  1. hey America,
    Nice piece but there is nothing wrong with having principles (or taking a cruise every once in a while).

    The America brand has been built around a set of principles that are meaningful to ourselves and the rest of the world – economic opportunity, religious freedom and representative democracy.

    The challenge we have is that not all of our citizens currently agree on the meaning of these ideas:
    • Economic opportunity is great as long as the economy is doing well and new immigrants are growing the pie rather than eating my slice
    • Religious freedom is ok as long as it doesn’t threaten me and it’s done behind closed doors (none of that girls wearing headscarves in public schools)
    • Democracy is ok as long as the government doesn’t ask me to do something I don’t want to do (like pay taxes or require me to have health insurance)

    Our challenge going forward is to maintain a meaningful, shared understanding of these principles. We may or may not succeed in doing this. If we are successful, we will likely end up with a somewhat different definition of the principles that the “core” of the society buys in to (e.g. possible compromise on immigration reform). If we are not successful, we will end up in a really unhappy marriage or divorce.

    Call me an optimist but I still believe there is a chance we can pull this off. At least it is worth a shot.

  2. Prog Prag-

    I’d worry about the 1% of the population who control 80+% of the wealth taking your pie before the immigrants get their miniscule sliver.
    What’s so threatening about a girl wearing a headscarve? Would it be less threatening if she were to be wearing a crucifix or if your co-worker wore a yamulka?
    If Democracy didn’t force you to do anything you didn’t want to, we’d have a country full of stuck-up, self-entitled assholes. Oh, and good luck driving anywhere (no infrastructure without taxes), or educating your children (no public schools).

  3. There’s a lot to chew on here. So let me work through and offer whatever intelligent comments I can muster as I go.

    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.

    You’re right about Abba, of course. As for the rest, you may be right there, too. Utopia might be the blandest place on earth for all we know, and I can’t honestly contend that life in my vision of 2076 wouldn’t be less…interesting…than 2011 is. Unfortunately, way too much of what makes the present day exciting emanates from a pandemic of batshit crazy. It’s like an old roommate, what had been in Vietnam, once told me: “I miss it.” WTF? The long and short of things is that after you have survived something that insanely violent and crazy nothing else in life will ever be exciting again. I have another friend, a Russian military vet, who says the same thing.

    So maybe, but I’m willing to take my chances.

    America is nothing if not a promise.

    Here’s where I think you’re wrong. I mean, I don’t dispute that America is a promise – we have been a promise for our entire existence and that promise drew people from around the world and helped make us what we are.

    But at this moment in history I’d argue that what we REALLY are, what we have become, is a failure to meet that promise. Brands are living and breathing. They evolve, as you well know. And sometimes powerful brands evolve into customer perceptions of failure and betrayal.

    We have become a broken promise.

    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.

    Yes, but at this point I have to ask that we gently apply the brakes and acknowledge that a promise, a vision, a hope, a one-in-100 million opportunity is NOT reality. In most cases I think the word we’re looking for isn’t “opportunity,” it’s “lie.”

    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.

    Truest thing you say in your entire post. We inherited their DNA, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. Sadly, that DNA comes with one big honking strand of anti-intellectualism, doesn’t it?

    “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.

    I thought you were supposed to be arguing with me.

    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.

    You make a good point. Only an idiot walks into McDonald’s and bitches that it ain’t the Chop House, although perhaps allowances should be made for those of us who were born in the McDonald’s.

    In the end, I thank you for taking the time to craft a modest counter-proposal for us to chew on…

  4. I think you’re over-mythologizing American immigration, but in doing so you’ve got the brand nailed down pat. The Puritans didn’t come here for religious freedom. They came here because the English got tired of them running the country like the Taliban. They weren’t chased out; they were pissed that they couldn’t be in charge. And they almost starved not because it was such a hostile environment (Europeans had been fishing the banks off of New England for a long time and overwintering too.), but because white people didn’t want to help them…because they were assholes.

    I’m sure that tales of streets paved with gold did, in fact, circulate around Europe during the big waves of American immigration. But the vast majority of those people didn’t come for freedom or opportunity. They came because things were so bad at home that it was worth risking it all (which is easy when you’ve got nothing) on the possibility of something better. And when they got here? Why, most of them were reviled by the established population, crammed into slums and tenements, and worked nearly to death in sweat shops.

    It’s the same with Mexicans coming here today. They aren’t doing it for the brand and opportunity; most of them are doing it because we ravaged the Mexican economy (especially the agricultural sector) for the sake of corporate profits.

    The problem that we Americans face is that we believe our own myths to the point of mistaking the metaphor for the truth which it describes. Those myths do point to American possibilities, no question, but we refuse to ask ourselves how close we come to fulfilling them…and we damned sure won’t answer the question honestly.

    You’re right that Sam’s manifesto will not appeal to the great majority of Americans. They already have one, even if the brand has been hollowed out to the point of being nothing but advertising. Very few Americans are looking towards the future; instead, we hear about the immutable Constitution, the founding fathers, and all our past glories. A nation focused on the past shows symptoms of decadence and decline. If America were really the brand you described (and i wouldn’t mind if it were), we’d be pointed towards the future and establishing new facets of the brand. For example, America is the place to go for the latest in renewable energy technology…not because we’re a bunch of eco-hippies but because we’re forward oriented and those are new areas to explore.

    We still see immigration, but much of it is for higher education and those people are more likely than ever to take their experience and return home (which is easier now and that’s a big part of it). But we’re also seeing companies leaving/shifting employment…not just for low wage workers but for engineering and technology. It’s because our brand doesn’t mean squat in the wider world anymore.

    We’re in need of the kind of CEO who’s skilled at turnarounds, but those never arrive until there’s an admittance that the ship is listing. Sam’s manifesto would fall on deaf ears because it recognizes the problems we have and the majority of his compatriots are listening to the band play “Nearer My God to Thee”.

  5. Lots to think about here. Let me start by referring to two of my favorite books. They’re by a writer named Josef Svorecky, who is a Czech expatriate writer who lives in Toronto. He’s written about lots of things, and many of his books deal with growing up in Prague under, first, the Nazi occupiers, and then under the Soviet system. Lots of people lived this life. But the two books in question are both about America, and what it means to people who aren’t American. The first, Dvorak in Love, is roughly about Dvorak’s one trip to America, how he came to write the New World Symphony, race in turn of the century America, music and more music–what a book! One of my favorites. And it made me want to go to Spillville, Iowa, which I eventually did.

    The second, The Bride of Texas, is about something else entirely. Set around the time of the Civil War, it’s about why a group of Czech immigrants to America, who fled Moravia or wherever it was they fled from and emigrated to America, would choose to enlist in the Union army and fight in the Civil War. The simple answer, of course, is gratitude to a country that offered hope.

    I think we all know that America right now is a very screwed up place, but the people who (in droves) still want to go there may or may not know that, and many or may not care. As screwed up as it is, it’s still better than what they’re leaving, That’s pretty much always been the case. I suspect how concerned we are with how screwed up the place has become is a function of how many generations it’s been since our whatevers immigrated. I’m second generation. My father’s family had this blind commitment to the place, which included rabid support for people like Spiro Agnew and the Viet-Nam war, simply because of that one emotion–gratitude. And I have friends who are my age who have the same feeling–but they’re first generation, mostly folks whose parents managed to get out of Austria or Germany in the 1930s.

    Of course these people feel gratitude. So it’s difficult to have a conversation with them about, say, what’s wrong with the New York Times, or why France was correct to withhold support for the Iraq fiasco. They can’t process that sort of discussion, because they can’t get past the gratitude they deeply feel–because they know what their lives would have been like otherwise. The Svorecky books gave me a better understanding of that sense than anything else that I’ve read.

    So I do buy the notion of America’s promise. And I’m not sure those promises are broken, although it certainly feels that way much of the time. And I don’t even live there any more. But I will always be an American, because it’s that aspect of the country that gave, and still gives, people hope that I can’t shake off. I like that part of it–I love that part of it, in fact, because that’s the thing that makes America different from practically every other country. I can’t believe I’m not being more cynical about this.

    What I would like to see is a proper branding, and I think we’re on the right track here, because everyone is saying stuff that’s true. This is a mosaic, and there won’t be any simple answer. Most of the deep shit we’re in these days politically is because the media has allowed people who want simple answers to dominate the narrative of what America is. I think if we want a simple mantra, opportunity doesn’t cut it. Too commercial. But there is something to be captured there–in the 19th century, one opportunity America offered was the opportunity to not get killed in the army of some prince who wouldn’t let you own the land you were defending, Some opportunity. America did really offer a different kind of opportunity than Europe did. Hope sounds too, I don’t know, airy-fairy. But gratitude. I like that. even though it’s the title of a book written by William F Buckley about why America needs national service. And this is one of the exactly two things I ever agreed with Buckley on (the other being the legalization of marijuana).

    I think Lex is wrong–it’s not the case that the brand doesn’t mean squat. It means lots of things to lots of people, and some of them are contradictory–too many things,in fact. The brand has gotten too amorphous. There’s no one meaning, or one brand. But there’s still that central message of a certain kind of hope–I run into it all the time here, not among the English so much, but particularly among the eastern Europeans and Russians and Southeast Asians who populate London these days.

    But Lex is right in saying that we need to replace the myths that dominate much of the sloppy thinking, if that’s the word, that dominates American thinking about America. I think gratitude might do it. Not for what the place is turning into–but as a corrective to keep it from going to far off the rails. It binds us to the immigrant experience, which all of our forbears had. I don’t know how we do it. But I suspect there is a real emotion out there to be tapped. Otherwise we simply run the risk of letting some other emotion dominate the narrative–and we’ve seen what kinds of results we get when we allow that to happen.

  6. What interesting comments.

    In reverse order, Wufnik makes an elegant point that I wish I’d made. In no way, was my sharp rhetoric intended to diminish the courage and energy of our forefathers who left their homes with nothing but a potato in one pocket and hope in the other. It takes some kind of courage to sail to the end of the earth, and I dont mean to trivialize their motives or them.

    Having said that, I am making three arguments:

    1. That people choose countries for different reasons. For example, people less interested in getting rich (or escaping grinding poverty to use Lex’s articulation,) and more concerned with social equality might have gone to Canada or New Zealand.
    2.That our forefathers came for three reasons: political, economic, and religious. While both Pragmatist and Lex object to my description of those reasons, I think we’re all on the same page up to this point.
    3. Here’s the really controversial conclusion: That the peculiar mix of reasons our forefathers chose here means that we will never approach many of the societal goals that many of us subscribe to.

    Now here’s where I think my argument falls off a cliff, actually. If that is right, what do we do? Give up, buy guns and 700 hp trucks, and throw our trash out the window? If I am right, we can’t win, but does that mean we shouldn’t try? Is it better to try for Slammy’s manifesto knowing that we will fail, than it just to say ‘screw it, pass the remote?”

    That was where I was trying to get to, but as is often the case, I may have confused the argument with references to obscure Kerouac books, Abba, and cosmic insights on Cocoa Crispies. Thanks for wading through all that and parsing it out, and for taking it in entirely different directions, e.g., is it time to refresh the brand (and dump the myths?) I will ponder.

    • Well, to oversimplify, the choices seem to be these:

      1) Accept it.
      2) Fight to change it.
      3) Leave.

      I don’t have a lot of “accept” in me, as it turns out. I’ve tried, and know how the game is played, but I can’t live with myself. I seem to have inherited some stubborn and principled genes.

      I have considered #3 and have not ruled it out. For the moment, though, I’m resolved to fighting and seeing if I might contribute to some meaningful change. No windmill shall go untilted, I suppose.

      But #3 … we may get there yet.

  7. Very true. I have lived in Sierra Leone (2 yrs,) Mexico (1,) and Australia (6) and I was more American there than I am here, if possible. And of course, they drive you crazy with things from the other end of the political spectrum. Still, other countries’ stupidity doesnt bother me as badly as my own. There it makes me shake my head, here it makes me clench my fists.

    But in these days of instantaneous communications, it is much less daunting than it was for our forefathers. When an 18 year old Irishman or Chinese left home in the 1840’s, he was saying good bye to his family and friends forever.

  8. I may have overstated my case. I certainly don’t discount the strong love so many immigrants did (do?) develop for America. At some point most of them did pretty well, certainly much better than they ever would have where they left. However, i wonder how true that is today.

    My anecdotal experience working with African immigrants (teaching ESL) suggests that it’s different. The recent immigrant today is such easy prey for all the horrid financial practices we’re famous for…and if you don’t speak English well enough, you’ll pretty much never untangle yourself. Welcome to America, how would you like thousands in CC debt at 30% interest? Smells like freedom, doesn’t it?

    I don’t think i’ll be leaving again. But i don’t hope and, honestly, i don’t plan on “fighting”*. I see no point in raging into the wind. I’ll keep my head relatively down and continue to cultivate skills and a network premised on survival during/after collapse. I no longer see any way out of it for 21st Century America, and i predict a turn towards totalitarianism. So i’m also mentally preparing for prison camp because i’m just not good at following orders…which will be an odd turn of events given that a fair number of my extra-extended family probably got to enjoy those sort of lodgings half-a-world away.

    *If and when i get the feeling that more than a handful of my fellow Americans are willing to fight, i probably will too. As it stands, i have no intention of sacrificing myself for a bunch of motherfuckers who don’t care and/or are only too happy to the side of totalitarianism.

  9. Things are never as bad as they seem in the bad times, or as good as they seem in the good times. I think that if we were able to get far enough away to get some perspective, we would decide we are actually better off than at any point in history.

    I do find the shadowy righ terrifying–the Koch brothers, the propaganda machine, the deliberate infiltration of the military and Justice Department by religious fanatics; but hopefully we are still a ways from a future of prison camps, et al.

    Having said that, as I often say about the sports I do (scuba, skiing, hiking, road cycling, etc) “when it goes to shit, it can go to shit very quickly,” e.g., Kampuchea, Germany, etc.

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