America as cognitive dissonance

As Dang Ray (<- my favourite typo of the past 2 years … I can see this one running and running) and I gear up for the release of about 4 new 55-Minute Guides, I was struck by a comment one of the authors made on a suggested illustration in one of the volumes.

I was born an raised in the Rocky Mountains, deep in Colorado.  I was a Boy Scout and missed Eagle Scout through not completing my final project thanks to the discovery of the fairer sex. I was president of the graduating class of 1986 at Cheyenne Mountain High School. I went to United States Marine Corps Offices Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, Virginia (although I never went into active duty which is another story).  So one might well think I am a raging “Born in the U.S.A.” type.  Far from it.  I’m also a dual Irish citizen and have lived in Australia, Sweden and have been in London more than 12 years and travel for pleasure and business quite a bit (I actually had to replace my passport once since it was stamped full).  Anyone who knows me knows I am as far from a flag-waving “Yer with us or aginst us” type as they come.

The comment was about an illustration of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in the background there is an American flag. 

The comment was “I suppose we have to use what’s available but I hate the American flag in this.” 

I am acquainted with the author, who is an open-minded, darn fine human being,  and I must  agree with the sentiment in terms of not using a symbol that evokes many negative emotions for a host of reasons (almost all of which I agree with – repression of indigenous people, the death penalty, the whole Bush legacy, the blind-to-the-rest-of-the-world-wo-long-as-I-get-an-SUV-and-my-Cheerios perspective, the institutionalised racism, political correctness, failure to recognise the end of hegemony, spending more on the Iraq war than would have built schools for, fed and educated every man, woman and child in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, culturally imbued insincerity – the list could go on)…

And yet … at the same time, I think it’s something like the British must feel about The Beatles when they watch Beatles stuff on TV, is the best example I can think of.  Billions of fans around the world really feel they have a “proprietary” relationship with John, Paul, George and Ringo – such is the emotion their music invoked and the myth they created.  Yet it’s only after living in the UK that I started to “get” The Beatles in many ways (despite knowing the bass part of virtually every song they recorded).  But there is no denying: like it or not, The Beatles are British, not American.  Not Indian.  Not Canadian.

That’s sort of the emotion I felt when I read the comment, and I’ve felt it before.   Speaking to an Australian woman at a party in Melbourne years ago and graciously enduring a dressing down of pretty much everything America is all about – in her Levi’s, Tommy Hilfiger hoodie, GAP baseball cap and Nike trainers and going on to discuss the latest episode of Friends.  Or having a German gentleman lecture me on the emotional impact the Kennedy assassination had on American culture, when my father was there on that day attending SMU law school.

It’s the difference between America and what I call “Brand America.”  It’s the appropriation of elements of American society that are genuinely inspirational and remarkable, but then wanting to somehow deconstruct it and separate out the bits people don’t like and brushing them under the carpet, glossing them over, ignoring them, or for that matter over-emphasising them.  Like American Beatles fans who know every fact about the Fab Four but are simply not culturally capable (without the opportunity of cultural immersion) of connecting some of the deep British cultural references blithely flowing through lyrics and tracks.  Thirty years after learning those songs by heart, I’ll hear something and slap my forehead and say, “I never got that little reference there about _____ in British culture.”

So while there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that I would agree with every reason why we should probably hate the American flag in that illustration, my observation is this: How could you possibly take it out?  Martin Luther King, Jr., was an American and stood as a shining, inspirational example of the very best that America can be and has to offer.  Talk about Vision and Values being reflected in Leadership, Communication –  and there it is, in an image, flag and all.  The semiotics of it are actually staggering.  A person who has a deep and immutable belief in a Vision – The American Way, its Declaration of Independence, its Constitution and  yes values – standing up, leading by example, using stirring communication and storytelling to galvanise a nation, overcome obstacles, and try to contribute to achieving a Vision established 200 years before. In a way, taking the man out of that context misses the point entirely.

The corollary to corporation in 2010 could not be more clear or incisive than in that image, with the American flag, at this moment in political, social and economic history.


2 thoughts on “America as cognitive dissonance

  1. Have you seen the front page of this morning’s Indy? Their report on the latest tranche of embarrassing Wikileaks casts a rather interesting light on your post, no?

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