#494: Rebranding: An American Love Story

June 24th, 2015

The following is a work of satire, in the vein of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” As with Swift’s masterwork, in which Robert Redford pays Woody Harrelson $1 million for a night with Demi Moore, the following work should not be taken at face value. All rights reserved. Member FDIC.

Ever since the day we traded peace-loving Miss Columbia for army-recruitin’, you-wantin’ Uncle Sam, or when we developed the continental chutzpah to call native internment camps “reservations,” there has been no more American an activity than the rebrand.

True, the rebrand is a worldwide pastime, what the mental gymnastics required to recast deities pretty straightforward on the “Thou shalt not kill” thing into blood-hungry God-things demanding centuries of war, Crusades and Holocausts.

But the flower of the rebrand came to its fullest bloom in America, the land of “In God We Trust” (©1956, replacing 1782’s “E Pluribus Unum”). Here, we know reality is anything we want it to be.

The key to the rebrand is changing the terms of the debate. If the rebrand were a magic act, this is the feather-clad showgirl distracting the audience while a man in a top hat strangles a pigeon.

Take, for example, the recent horrific shooting in Charleston. It was the 133rd American mass shooting since 2000, where the next-highest country — Germany — had six.

Based on those facts, and the stated motive of the gunman, the narrative could go like this:

“Gun, racism, gun, gun, racism, racism, gunny gun gun, racism, racism, a couple flags, gun, gun.”

But there are a few problems with that:

  • Guns give Americans boners.
  • We would have to do some book learnin’ to understand why the shooter had Rhodesian and Apartheid-era South African flags.
  • Our own nation’s institutionalized racism is too big and scary to Facebook post about.

So, we rebrand the debate into something less demanding.

First, we change the terms of the debate by ignoring the scary/icky/hard stuff, focusing on what’s left: The shooter took pictures with a Confederate flag. South Carolina, where the shooting took place, flies the Confederate flag at its statehouse. *

Now, difficult but long-overdue conversations about racism and gun control can find form as a simple and ignorable yes/no click poll about the decorations at the least exciting field trip destination for Myrtle Beach eighth graders.

Whew. Dodged a discussion about bullets on that one.

Or we can look at the case of the white person who lived in blackface for a decade, which somehow became a debate about transgender rights.

For this, the shuffle was even simpler. Lady Jolson referred to herself as “transracial” on the Today Show. Transracial sounds like transgender, which was in our minds lately because of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner’s recent male-to-female transition.

Transracial bad, transgender good? Boom. Instant think piece. 14.1 million Google hits and counting for “dolezal jenner” as of Tuesday. SEO dynamite here.

Where rebranding the Charleston debate into something easy and palatable was a matter of ignoring terms we didn’t like, here we have to actually fiddle with the definitions.

First, we have to ignore the fact that “transracial” is a real term that means children adopted into families of another race. OK. Done.

Now, we have to blur the definitions past the point where they have any meaning.

To pick my favorite example, this piece defines both transgender and Dolezalracial as a “claim to an identity at odds with culturally constructed understandings of the identity appropriate to one’s biology.”

It’s the best kind of convincing: It’s true. Both race and gender are “culturally constructed understandings of the identity appropriate to one’s biology,” so any claim to the otherwise is the same thing, right?

After this slight of hand, the piece even starts referring to both as the same “Dolezal/Jenner issue.” A is B and B is a con artist in blackface, so A is also offensive bullshit.

This would work, except you know what else are culturally constructed understandings of the identity appropriate to one’s biology? Attractive. Fat. Old.

So now, I’m not a slightly chubby prematurely graying fella. I’m trans-hot. I identify as sexy, although culture and biology might not agree.

I’m not saying you have to like/support/approve of Caitlyn Jenner, but base your opinion on understanding of gender. Gender is not race, even though they both can be defined with the same words if you go broad enough. If you don’t believe me, buy your kid a tarantula instead of a puppy because she asked for “Something furry that just wants to be near me.”

Freaked myself out a little on that one.

My last example of rebranding ourselves out of difficult discussions comes from right here in Chicago: Spike Lee’s film on Chicago’s gun violence, “Chiraq.”

Here, instead of ignoring terms we find scary, or fiddling with definitions to the point where they become meaningless, we focus on the term but not the meaning.

We’re pissed off some guy said “Chiraq,” which is a nice distraction from the institutionalized poverty, inequality and fetishistic gun culture that led to the nickname in the first place. It’s watching a building burn down and saying, “I really don’t like the term ‘house fire.’”

And this, in a nutshell, is America.

Accepting the obvious means growth, culpability, action, all of which sound super-boring and hard. I want, I demand, reality to come to me, rather than deal with my role in the difficult discussions ahead.

I want to say climate change isn’t happening because it’s scary. I want to claim the Bible says marriage is between one man and one woman when it really says marriage is between one man and one or more women, including your dead brother’s widow. It’s not Adam and Steve, it’s Lot and his daughters!

In summation, Your Honor, the issue is not my pantslessness, who was or was not 18, or where we got the python.

The issue is America, and my God-given right to look at the world around me, and call it as I want to see it.

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* I originally wrote that the South Carolina state flag incorporated the Confederate flag, but it turns out I was thinking of Mississippi and the state flag of South Carolina is some weird blue thing with a palm tree and a googly eye looking left.

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