Four months ago I thought I dispensed with the Values.com website, a hodgepodge of feel-good slogans and stories, funded by billionaire Phillip Anschutz through The Foundation for a Better Life.
At that time I wrote about the following about the 88 values touted on Values.com:
These values can apply to anything. A dictatorship or state ruled by one party would be just as likely to list all these values as a representative democracy would. Virtually all these values (with the exception of “true beauty”) would come in handy in training an elite force to torture and engage in illegal assassinations. Many of these values would make a perfect substitute for “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which means “work makes you free” in German and was hung as a sign over the entrance of several Nazi concentration camps. Those in favor of a woman’s reproductive rights are equally able to find solace in contemplating these values as those who wish to restrict these rights.
The amorphous quality of these values…make the campaign for “values”…mere shills for maintaining the status quo, which as people are discovering is a fixed game in favor of those who already have money and power, a game which 95% of the population is currently losing badly.
At that time, I assumed that the Values.com advertising campaign would soon end.
But months later, Anschutz persists.
Strolling along Manhattan’s Upper West Side the other day I saw a billboard on the side of a bus shelter that consisted of a color photo (or drawing) of Kermit the Frog.
Here is the text, all very large:
Dates a Pig
LIVE YOUR DREAMS (in a box)
Pass It On
…followed by the Values.com website address.
When you go to the website, you can not only find the billboard, but an inspiring story. The story is not of how Kermit’s creator, Jim Henson, lived his dream. No, it’s about how the imaginary character, Kermit the Frog, has lived his dream, written in the inspirational style that has characterized American business fiction since the original Horatio Alger stories—not a hint of irony.
Here is the “values” lesson presented at theValues.com website about the Kermit story: “After all if a Frog can accomplish so much, we can do something, too.”
Where do we start?
Most obviously, anyone can accomplish anything in fiction. A frog doesn’t have to go to college, and if it does, it will surely graduate whatever its level of effort, prior experience or natural capabilities, unless it’s a secondary character. But it’s Kermit so he’ll pass and probably give the graduation speech, because it’s a fiction and he’s a hero. Just as everyone is a hero/heroine of his/her own dream.
But how does comparing what you’ve been doing to what an imaginary animal does to succeed going to help you? You could point to lots of people—Jackie Robinson, Lyndon Johnson, Joe Biden, Lucille Clifton, Beverly Sills, Steve Jobs and Howie Long all come to mind—as people about whom one could say, if they could do it, you can too. But an imaginary frog?
More subtle is the subtext behind the “values” message to “live your dream.” What does “live your dream” mean? Get what you want.
What kind of a value is “get what you want?” Seek the power, money, possessions, friends and whatever else defines your dream—whatever it is.
That sounds like the politics of selfishness, to me. I thought a “value” was supposed to link people to something beyond themselves, to their families, communities, nation, world, philosophies and political beliefs.
Most subtle, are the details that define “living the dream” in the Kermit billboard: He’s a Hollywood star, a celebrity. Not a scientist, not a president of a major university, not a business titan, not even an athlete: a celebrity. Once again, when given the opportunity to promote an ideal to which to aspire, an American thought influencer resorts to the celebrity.
In one billboard, then, Values.com uses a conflation or false analogy to propose selfish pursuit as a positive value and defines that pursuit in terms of a primary symbol of consumerism (the celebrity). The overall impact of the Values.com website is to sell the current status quo, while the particulars of the advertising campaign built around “live your dream” provides key details of what the controllers of the website want our values and dreams to be.