The irony, paradox and power of ancient symbols finds contemporary
expression in America.
Paradox, because America was founded at the intersection
of the symbolic
dualities of equality and freedom, two cyclic truths, which
are both true
but cannot be true (or the dominant symbol) at any one particular
in time. They have traded dominance back and forth under the
guise of the Democratic Party of social equality and Republican
Party of economic freedom, between the equality of American
mass culture in the first half of the 20th century and the
freedom of a segmented, pluralistic culture in the last half
of the 20th century.
Irony, because America is as much a prisoner of its own symbols
as the rest of the world. After all, symbols first persuaded
America to worship capitalism, market populism and economic
democracy. Only later were these symbols exported overseas.
A culture itself locked into the subliminal trance of the
power of symbols now finds itself the target of much of the
world for exporting this power, a power it has never really
Power because at no time in history have symbols (and the
modern Pandora's Box they escape from called America) had
such a ubiquitous effect on molding a global psyche.
* * *
In light of the paradox and irony of American symbols, one
of the key questions of modern times (and certainly Samuel
Huntington's hypothesized clash between western and eastern
civilizations) is whether the power of symbols can be put
into battle for all of America rather than just Hollywood
or Madison Avenue.
Given the close symbiotic relationship of American symbols
with Hollywood entertainment, Madison Avenue advertising and
the economy in general it is doubtful this will happen. In
the weeks after the atrocities of September 11th many American
leaders have been adamant about Americans returning lock step
to that trance of American symbolism under the rhetorical
umbrella of getting the economy moving again.
Strangely, it is almost as if the events of September 11th
distracted America from its "bowling alone" type
of social isolation and its overindulgence for a moment in
time, the pouring of more and more money into an economy mainly
created through the clever, subtle use of symbols.
Columnist Maureen Dowd states the problem well in her article
"All That Glistens" from the October 3, 2001 issue
of The New York Times. Reflecting on the arrival of
her new shiny red and silver Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue
"It makes you a little sick and a little wistful. Even
though it was printed only a month ago, it now seems as detached
from the moment as cave drawings, a document of an extinct
culture that reveled without apology in the trivial and gaudy,
pushing luxury to absurd heights. A simple hanger could not
suffice when there was a $65 mink hanger 'too beautiful to
tuck away in a closet.' A simple jean jacket could not suffice
when there was a $2,785 jean jacket with rabbit collar and
cuffs. A simple baby carriage could not suffice when there
was a $4,250 Burberry pram with matching $375 diaper bag."
The catalogue arrives in the midst of the growing economic
downturn and the cheerleading efforts of leaders to get things
back on track. She catches the irony of the moment when she
notes "America has developed an aversion to consumer
overindulgence at the very moment our leaders tell us the
only way to prevail against the terrorists and prop up our
economy is through consumer overindulgence."
But thanks to one of the offshoots of modern symbolsthe
creation of shorter attention spans a continuation of
this aversion to consumerism is unlikely to carry forward
for this possibly long war. Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence
officer, questions America's attention span in his article
"Will Our Resolve Last?" from the September 14 issue
of The Wall Street Journal. "Perhaps our greatest
national weakness," Peters observes," is our short
attention span, and I fear that in a surprisingly short time,
we will forget our just anger." His points seem reinforced
in the few days immediately after the atrocities by the sudden
fall in Neilsen TV ratings from an audience of 60 million
on September 11th to 43 million on September 12th.
* * *
Yet, if America is somehow able to rise above the paradox
and irony of its modern incantation of symbol's ancient power,
a formidable new ally might be recruited in the war against
the enemies of America and worldwide freedom. In fact, using
the power of symbols in this new way may be a large part of
the ultimate destiny of America, a nation whose origin and
history is so closely tied to symbols.
(The above is part of a longer work in progress titled "The
Battle of Symbols" by John Fraim)
Copyright © 2001 John Fraim. All Rights
John Fraim is a California based writer