Spring cleaning this year engendered a trip back in time, as I sifted through stacks of obituaries, old articles, papers, letters and photos. Nowadays when something in the media strikes my imagination or ignites my ire, I simply whip off a blog entry. But for years I would cut out the article, jot down some notes and let it molder in a file cabinet.
While mostly tossing out drawers full of yellowed newsprint the other day, I saved a few items that I thought were indicative of trends that I write about today. Consider it this week’s Show and Tell.
Let’s start with an example of corporate misspeak from what was likely the late ‘70s. (I don’t have the exact date because sloppy scholar that I was, I often forgot to date the cut-outs. But it comes from the San Francisco Chronicle and I lived in the Bay Area from 1977-1983, plus the topics on the other side of the page cry out “late 70s.”)
The speaker was James Mack, who at the time was a spokesperson for the National Candy Wholesalers Association. The venue was a hearing about junk food vending machines in public schools held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
At the hearing, Mack claimed that a candy vending machine in schools provides children “with an island of pleasure that is similar to athletics and keeps children from other evils such as alcohol.”
Mack went on to say that banning candy sales in schools could lead to drug abuse and drinking.
Now that’s a man with no shame.
In case you thought that the USDA had more of a spine in those days than it does today, consider that the hearing concerned whether it had the authority to restrict sales of candy, soda pop and chewing gum in schools that receive federally financed lunch programs. Anyone who spent time in public schools in the ‘80s, ‘90s and well into the 21st century knows the candymen, sodapopmeisters and other processed food manufacturers won that one.
Now to a 1978 SF Chronicle article on “The Circle of Gold,” a chain letter infused with spirituality and love, and often distributed at parties attended by as many as 700 people in which the discussion centered on “feeling the energy.” Here’s the catch. With the “Circle of Gold” letter to the person at the top of the list, people were attaching $100 (which today would have the purchasing power of $250), with the hope that by spreading the energy, love, vibes and spiritual feel-goodies, hundreds of thousands of dollars would eventually come back in other circle of Gold letters.
Here is what I wrote in a note about this illegal Ponzi-like scheme in 1978: “The ‘Chain of Gold’ demonstrates that all our values—spiritual, social, moral—are reduced to money in this society.” I was only half right at the time. In fact, only objects and actions (AKA products and services) are reduced to money. Our values, relationships and other spiritual and emotional components of existence are reduced to commercial transactions, i.e., the exchange of money for goods and services. In this sense, the Circle of Gold is a late ‘70s reduction of the ideology of consumerism to its bare essentials—the purchase and exchange involved neither product nor service; nothing but the love and spirituality inherent in cold cash.
Finally, let’s fast forward to the late ‘90s for a great example of making an ideological message without using words: It’s a Parade Magazine photo of Hillary Clinton, then first lady, with her arms around two children, a white boy and an African-American girl.
The white boy stands erectly at attention with a grimly proud expression and is staring intensely at an American flag, as is Hillary. He reaches all the way up to Hillary’s shoulder.
The African-American girl, pig-tailed and in a cute dress, huddles close to Hillary, nestled just below the first lady’s protecting bosom. The girl is looking half at the flag and half at the first lady. The girl’s expression is one of relief, as if she had just been rescued from something bad.
The racist and sexist symbolism of the photo is both obvious and appalling: the white looks to protect the flag, the African-American looks to a government representative for protection. Furthermore, the protector is a male, the protected a female.
The caption is descriptively dispassionate: “Hillary Rodham Clinton takes Brianna Randall, 6, and Aaron Daugherty, 10, through the Blue Room on a tour of the White House. During the peak tourist seasons, about 30,000 visitors a week walk through the main floor.”
Yes, the caption is harmless enough, but the picture tells a thousand words, all lies and myths. When Hillary approved this photo from the ones the photographer presented her, it was not her finest moment.