Of Slogans and Mottos

By Don Rollins

What with another patriotic holiday just around the corner, I’d like to pause a moment to recognize the Great American Slogan and Motto. We love ’em. Over time, this country has amassed more hook lines than a Carolina catfish contest. We just love ’em.

Advertisers use ’em. (Will there ever be a snarkier beer come-on than Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World”?) Churches use ’em. (My current favorite pitch from the pinky-ringed crowd is, “Church: You Should Try It; It’s Not as Bad as You Think!”) And God knows, politicians use ’em. (That “Maverick” and “Rogue” crap veritably pales in comparison to Kinky Friedman’s epic, cheeky ramp-up for Governor of the Lone Star State: “Kinky Friedman for Governor – Why the Hell Not?”)

On a more serious note, history is reflected in the weightier “hooks” we adopt; I’m no advocate for Jungian archetypes, but I submit that the slogans and mottos that stick to the wall of the ad agencies and think tanks say a little something about who we are. I know that serious historians out there might disagree (hey, what are you doing reading me, anyway?) but I think that one of the best ways to understand this wacky Manifest Destiny of a country is to consider some of our more famous catch phrases:

No Taxation without Representation

In God We Trust

Remember the Alamo

A Chicken in Every Pot

What If They Threw a War, and Nobody Came

Read My Lips: No New Taxes

Just Say No

Mission Accomplished

Yes, We Can

Yep, that’s us being us: rebellion; faith; revenge; optimism; protest; deceit; superficiality; resolve. Pithy, catchy, timely slogans and mottos that just seem to snap up the zeitgeist of a time or event, and preserve it in our collective unconscious. Just a few more:

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death

Loose Lips Sink Ships

The Buck Stops Here

Better Dead than Red

I Am Not a Crook

Make Love, Not War

Keep Hope Alive

Define “Is”

God Hates Fags

This time, it’s: courage; caution; responsibility; fear; more deceit; dreams; hope; yet more deceit; hatred. Man, there we are, described in our own rhetorically conflicted splendor!

Mottos and slogans sometimes attest to the best in us, but they also have a way of revealing the shadow side of our national nature — commercial, religious and political hooks that go viral in absolutely toxic ways. For my money, the still-reigning king of Us/Them, uranium-grade political sloganeering is the venerable, “America: Love It or Leave It.” That mantra of the Hard Right has served well its mostly Republican faithful. It is the smooth stone for when the facts start mucking up the party line. It is the ultimate insult for one who dares hold this country accountable for being what it is despite what it could be.

One of the distinguishing features of classic liberalism, be it political, social or religious, is the moral imperative to critique what passes for truth before declaring it as such. To use a theological term, at its best, the progressive way is to name and resist idolatry. Done well, liberalism is a lover’s quarrel with one’s own tribe in the form of a nation. It is patriotism divorced from bald and dysfunctional inertia. It is the polar opposite of love or leave.

So, as we gear up for another Memorial Day trashing of legitimate and sorely lacking dissention, the more dismissive of our right-leaning fellow citizens will just have to cut us some slack if we don’t don Stars-N-Stripes ties or tear up as fighters streak over the ballpark; we need not apologize for wanting to make this a better country. It is our birthright to question and probe and hold our nation to higher standards, loving but not always liking what we discover.

Which leads me to a venerable old motto from Sinclair Lewis: “I Love America, But I Don’t Like It.” We’re a nation fairly smitten with slogans and mottos. Some of them even make sense.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2010


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