Everyday Semiotics

Friday, February 25, 2005

Observations on the new, multinational American nationalism

Part 2. The dogtag incident

By now there's been plenty of banter about the hug shared by bereaved military mother Janet Norwood and Iraqi voter Safia al-Souhail during Pres. Bush's latest state of the union address. So far this banter has been confined to a sort of aesthetic, moral discourse. Either you think it was beautiful and spontaneous or disgusting and fake.

I listened to the speech on the radio, muttering cynical comments throughout. As the radio commentator described Norwood's dogtags getting caught on al-Souhail's button, almost automatically I said, "Now there's a well-staged human moment." In the next instant it struck me as peculiar that it was the dogtags getting entangled in the Iraqi’s clothing, and not the hug itself, that seemed the more scripted of the two actions.

But the question of whether either action (or both of them) was staged is somewhat irrelevant, since the deed is done and the message has been sent. It is now a matter of what information was conveyed by the actions and how that information is interpreted. Suppositions about the origin and intent of the message are secondary.

So what is the message? Quite simply, it is what it is: the demonstration that at least one Iraqi is grateful for the American presence in her country and that at least one mother of a fallen soldier believes that, at the very least, her son’s death was not in vein. Say anything more about the occurrence and we would risk interpreting it rather than simply observing it.

Supposing the hug and/or the dogtag entanglement were staged, however, enables us to treat them both a symbolism. Indeed, the metaphoric details are undeniable: we have al-Suhail’s still-purple finger clutching at her garment, trying to untangle the dogtags of a soldier who helped to ensure the election she just recently took part in by his own death; the heartfelt show of gratitude (on the part of al-Souhail) and selflessness (on Norwood’s part) giving way to comic fumbling. The reader approaching this imagined text as one advancing a leftwing, anti-imperialist message would interpret the entanglement as a portent. Typified in the hug is a sense of optimism, of hope for a better Iraqi future forged by America’s altruistic campaign of regime change. But the dogtags getting caught ruins this moment, foreshadowing, perhaps, the Iraqis people’s inability to shrug off American influence in their politics. And of course the scene doesn’t want for artistic ambiguity: is it the insurgents who guarantee the military’s continued presence, or is it American interests that forces our troops to overstay their welcome even more? That will depend on how “liberal” the reader takes the text’s author to be.

But if either element of the scene were scripted and did have an author, then that author must have been a “conservative” one, or at least someone whose job was to cast the war in Iraq, the war on terror, and the “march of freedom” in a favorable light. The author was not, of course, President Bush, any more than President Bush was the author of the state of the union address. Like the speech, the hug and/or entanglement would have to have been devised by committee that weighed word and, perhaps, every gesture before directing Bush how to execute them.

It is easy to imagine this committee devising the hug; and why shouldn’t they have? Provided Norwood and al-Souhail were willing participants, that they /wanted/ to hug each other, then how can anyone say the action’s scriptedness makes it objectionable? Who knows -- perhaps they themselves were the authors of the scene, contributing writers, as it were, to the larger text of the president’s address.

It is harder to imagine the committee devising the entanglement. Not to mention the amount of rehearsal that would have been necessary to make it look accidental. It is because of this unlikelihood, perhaps, that I assumed it must have been scripted. The more far-fetched something is, the more eager we are to believe it.

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Friday, February 11, 2005

Observations on the new, multinational American nationalism

Part One: "Hey Jude, go wave a flag..."

Super Bowl XXXIX was an undeniably exciting event. The boneheaded fumbling of both teams throughout the first half ensured that the game itself would not want for entertainment value. But the spectacle, of course, can no longer be contained by the sport. Before kickoff, and during halftime, we witnessed as we have always at Super Bowls, but especially at XXXVI, the first Big Game after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (perhaps you’ve heard of them?), a demonstration of lighthearted, good natured patriotism. This year, Super Bowl coverage began with the combined choirs of several military academies singing an overly dramatic National Anthem. After this performance, one radio commentator, noting the litany of military and political figures in attendance, said something to the effect of, “Anybody who’s patriotic ought to be watching this.” And so began the rehersal of patriotism that has become the mainstay of any American sporting event.

But most striking about it all this year was the metamorphosis of two time-honored rock n roll songs, one overtly political, one not, into something quite other than what they had been before kickoff.

First was U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” a song obviously enough by the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” massacre of unarmed Irishfolk by British troops. Now, suddenly, the song had nothing to do with British imperialism and everything to do with American football. It was used to signal the transition between the aggressive (bloody?) Sunday Super Bowl and a commercial break.

At halftime, Paul McCartney gave his second Super Bowl performance (the first being at XXXVI). The final song was “Hey Jude,” a song until then about John Lennon’s son Jules. Suddenly, though, it was a patriotic hymn. By the climax of the song, jumbo screens around McCartney’s band displayed the Statue of Liberty in all her majesty. Rather than, as he did at XXXVI, write a song specifically supported by an unspecified manner of fighting for a nebulous concept of freedom, he combines the tone of “Hey Jude” – reassuring, uplifting – with the imagery of immigration. It is, by its elements, a much less jingoistic performance than that of three years before; but it is not. The elements are transformed by their combination and context.But also take into account the person making the utterance – /Sir/ Paul McCartney, a Briton. It is interesting that, the singer of this suddenly patriotic hymn is an Englishman, one whose nation we won our independence from, and more recently have allied with in our efforts to propagate the same nebulous concept of freedom supposed by the Super Bowl XXXVI performance around the world.

It is more interesting still that the symbol used in this pageant is the Statue of Liberty, on whose pedestal is inscribed, “Bring us your poor, your weak, your downtrodden.” In summary, we have the old ideal of independence won by traveling here from any comparatively harsher environment. Now the symbolic range of Lady Liberty has changed. After 9/11 she was closed to tourists, and she has long been inactive as a immigrant processing station. Now, but not for long, she is what New Yorkers see where they once saw the World Trade towers – she is in the same line of sight, a coincidence most useful and almost too perfect to believe in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Fortuitously, the she now signals the survival of American freedom in the face of extremist hatred and international criticism.But to backtrack for a moment: remember that the monument was given us by the French, who lately have opposed our government’s “march of freedom” as it progressed from Afghanistan to Iraq.

But these are only just impressions. The larger conclusion to be drawn from so many semiotic rearrangements is harder to pin down. Is it true that now national anthems must be recycled, commodified cultural imports? Is it true that the tone of “Hey Jude” can subsume any meaning its lyrics may hold and, paired with the imagery of the Statue of Liberty, becoming a chant of Anglo-American solidarity – if not on the basis of fighting the good fight (war on terror, freedom on the march), then at least the enjoyment of American football and rock n roll music sung frequently enough this side of the Atlantic to have lost its British accent?

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