Monday, September 25, 2023 Sep 25, 2023
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The seductive slogan-a chant for all reasons
By Chris Tucker |

An aggrieved soul writes from Nor-cross, Georgia, to solicit aid in his struggle against a major national insurance company that either did or didn’t do something they might or might not have promised him, or may be did it too soon or too early. (His letter is not exactly a lucid beam of logic, so I’m staying neutral.) You have to admire the guy’s chutzpah. After raising our Hackles against callous Big Business arrogantly crushing the Little Guy, the Little Guy tries to sell us something-a packet of cards bearing all sorts of alleged wit and wisdom.

There’s something for everyone: hokey lines that would-be pickup artists can slip to potential pickypees, the sort of thing that was never funny even before AIDS. Baffling maxims like ’Never buy a saddle until you have met the horse” (huh?). And of course, bumper-sticker kvetching about those easiest of targets, politicians. (Definition of a welfare state: a place where the politicians get “well” and you pay the “fare”) Eat your heart out, Robin Williams.

One of these pithy gems, however, seemed too good to toss. Picture this one, in all its dunderheaded glory, on a bumper sticker in the traffic: “You can never have freedom AND government-guaranteed security.”

I love it. Here’s a slogan that just resonates with that quintessential quality that gives our era its unique character: utter confusion. We have mastered the art of using language to obscure more than it reveals. These nine little words are a microcosm.

Maybe it’s fudging to claim this philosophical boggle for the Eighties. For decades the disciples of Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead) have stalked college campuses with such slogans on their lips. All brands of git-the-gummint-off-mah-back groups, from segregationists to anti-fluori-dians, from tax protesters to libertarians, have embraced this seductive, simple doctrine. I used to browse in the John Birch Society bookstore on Travis, and the many volumes and [pamphlets crowding its shelves were nothing) but a multitude of different orchestras booming, shrilling, and piping variations on this simple theme.

Still, even when they seem dead wrong, slogans can be a source of pleasure for so many reasons. For one, they are so blasted cheeky and confident. Even when you think they’re stupid, it’s hard to avoid a tinge of envy for anyone who’s got such a simple little belief that it will fit on the bumper of a Ford, while the rest of us go stumbling, data-dazed, through the age of information overload. Each week’s news magazines bring another expert’s cure for the economy, to be stacked atop last week’s grim assertion that there is no possible cure for the economy. Here come five meaty articles about the number of times Richard Gephardt has mutated on the issues. Pile them over with the stories about how people don’t really care how many times Gephardt has changed as long as he changes in ways likely to put money in their pockets. A magazine called The Humanist declares that our entire legal system is collapsing because it is adversarial; a write in The Wall Street Journal warns that our entire government is collapsing because it’s not enough like the British parliamentary system. In other news, Harper’s announces that something called the Defense Logistics Agency purchased 2,400,000 pairs of green socks in 1987, and that Joe Franklin, whoever he is, has had 138,000 guests on his TV show.

For escape I flee to Inside Sports, but there is no rest for the fact-crammed. Dale Murphy baseball cards are now the best investment in the universe, having soared in value at an annual rate of 22,843 percent. More facts, figures, unabsorbable stats. The Elias/Bill James school of baseball analysis now threatens to make an ignoramus out of anyone lacking a degree in calculus. A chart rating big-league pitchers bristles with strange categories like HPN (hits allowed per nine innings) and SO/W ( strikeouts to walk ratio).

In this kind of world, slogans have a powerful allure. We feel bloated with facts and factoids (a friend threatens to start publishing The Review of Media Reviewers). But the sloganeer has his blissfully simple absolutes: you can never have freedom AND government-guaranteed security. Faster than you can say “Choose Life,’1 he conjures up two perfect, Platonic worlds that never really existed: on the one hand, the anarchistic world of untrammeled freedom; on the other, the stifling cradle-to-grave security of the welfare state. The slogan-monger sets up what the debaters call a false dichotomy, wielding an either-or scalpel that slices us into devils or angels. Of course there is no freedom without some measure of security, which, too often, government alone can provide. If the absence of security means freedom, Beirut must be the freest city on earth.

The freedom-or-security people also get it wrong on the flip side of the equation when they imply that security can only be bought by giving up freedom. You’d have a hard time convincing a retired invalid that he or she would have so much more freedom without that meddling government mailing that Social Security check each month. To the extent that the check frees the elderly person from worrying about meals and electric bills, it conveys more freedom, not less.

So many slogans serve as a wall behind which believers can hide from an infuriat-ingly complex world. They function like blinders on a horse, cutting down the number of stimuli and distracting alternatives. In the Sixties, the gauntlet was flung down with “America-love it or leave it,” which always translated, “Be patriotic and obedient in exactly the ways I approve, or admit that you’re traitorous scum and get out.” Ignored was any middle ground, the possibility that critics and demonstrators might be loyal to their country while engaging it in a lovers’ quarrel. The same thing could happen locally with the “Back the Blue” slogan. If the phrase serves to choke off legitimate criticism of public servants, the net result will be a step backward for Dallas.

Of course it would be wrong to condemn all slogans as dangerous oversimplifications. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nothing to fear? That seems pretty sweeping. But surely our consciousness of “fear itself” makes any pressure situation harder to handle. Perhaps fear is not the only thing to fear, but overcoming it may be the first step toward dealing with the concrete problems that we face.

And let us not forget the neatness, the aesthetic pleasure of a good slogan. “Ask not what your country can do for you…” John F. Kennedy said, and we can all fill in the rest because of the pleasing symmetry of the line. It comes down to this: slogans are of ap peal to so many people because of the slogan’s twin ability to cloud and to clarify. In fact, they’re so valuable that should some govern ment of linguistic purists try to ban them, people would probably disobey the law and spout them anyway. In other words-wait, I’ve got it: that when slogans are outlawed, only outlaws will use slogans.

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