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La rhétorique – Rhetoricity

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Jean-Paul Regis

The Fifth Freedom is Freedom of choice: "America" as a Rhetorical Tool

Rob Kroes

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1In his State of the Union Address to Congress, in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave succinct expression to the motives that should be guiding America's action on the global stage. They have become known as the Four Freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from from fear. America was not yet involved in the war, but Roosevelt had long since seen the plot thickening. Politically, he was not able yet to declare war and to join the battle against the Axis powers. Yet his address had the force of a rallying cry, of a moral call to intervene in world politics, in the great Wilsonian tradition. Wilson, in the Great War, had seen fit to cast war aims in terms of peace, explaining to his fellow Americans that America had joined the battle "to make the world safe for democracy". In a similar vein, Roosevelt called upon his compatriots to fulfill such a moral mission once again. His freedoms were redolent of the spirit of the classic democratic liberties, yet the wording had been adapted to fit contemporary needs. The last freedom in particular — the freedom from fear — called forth a world that showed the ugly face of the wars in Europe and Asia. Roosevelt envisioned a new world where people would be safe from fear by "a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor "anywhere in the world". His words breathed an optimism that was typical of Roosevelt, if not of America as a whole. Yet in other respects they were typically American: in their sense of a moral mission as much as in their universalist, global reach. The words "anywhere in the world" gained in urgency through rhetorical reiteration. Each of the four freedoms that the World War threatened to curtail was in need of active protection. Three times Roosevelt had referred to this need as existing "everywhere in the world"; the fourth and final time — as if he wanted to leave no doubt — he used the words "anywhere in the world". Anywhere, wherever it might be. The words would preserve their inspirational potency until after the war when, in fact, America would be a manifest force to be felt "everywhere in the world".

2Taken by itself, Roosevelt's address was a beautiful specimen of America's political culture. The oratorical art as an instrument of political inspiration has a long tradition there. One could write a political history of the United States purely on the basis of a series of famous public addresses. They tend to strike many a European as a trifle oldfashioned. In many contemporary political cultures in Europe, there is a tendency to shun the classical tools of the public orator: the pounding reiteration, the striking metaphor, the rising vocal pitch, the potent gesture. Many in Europe tend to lower their oratorical profile. As a consequence, Europe's political history has no abundance of famous words comparable to America's. America in that respect still stands unabashedly in a long tradition of republicanism, in the literal sense of a Res Publica with all it entails in the sense of a sphere of public debate, free discussion, a style of public discourse.

3For all that, the rhetorical techniques of democratic politics are not necessarily of a loftier sort than the sales techniques of a market vendor. Quite appropriately, the metaphor of the market place has long been used to apply to politics. Like a vendor crying in praise of his merchandise, the politician too tries to soar above the hue and cry of the public agora. At times he succeeds without apparent effort; then his one single voice manages to subdue the roar of other voices. Abraham Lincoln was a pastmaster of this art. His language could bring the market to a hushed silence. It could inspire in his audience a sense of rising above themselves in an experience of transcendent unity and atonement. His words have grown wings; they have become a living part of the American political tradition, a usable past of inspired sayings.

4In the very year that Roosevelt gave his rhetorical best to the proclamation of the Four Freedoms, the American composer Aaron Copland, in his Lincoln Portrait, put words of Lincoln to music. In much the same way that Roosevelt, with ever more resounding echo, called his compatriots to the defense of freedoms "everywhere in the world", Lincoln's urgent peroration to his Gettysburg Address soars above the music: "that we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." There is an unforgettable television recording of a performance of the Lincoln Portrait with the composer as vocal soloist, and his former student Leonard Bernstein conducting. Copland is no Abraham Lincoln: timid, small, unassuming, he does not look the part of an orator. But even so he manages to rise above himself when, with his thin voice, he takes the text to its climax. He pays tribute to Lincoln, but above all he sings the praises of the high ideals of democracy. The market harkens in silence.

5Winged words are the most elevated form of the slogan. Above, when I referred to Roosevelt's address, I used the word "rallying cry". I purposely avoided the word slogan. It might have been too reminiscent there of the world of commerce and its sales pitches. Yet the two expressions are more closely linked than may appear at first sight. The word slogan goes back to an old Gaelic word that means "battle cry". But more than etymology links the words together. Like the market vendor, the politician must be able to sell his goods, to draw a crowd and get their votes. He must, in other words, be able "to sell himself well". And like the commercial message the language of the politician will search for the catching phrase, the lasting slogan. The politician must find words that will go on to lead their own lives, as newspaper headlines, as sound bites, as the name for an era. Thus Roosevelt was the man of the "New Deal" in the years of the Great Depression; he became the man of the "Four Freedoms" at the time when America had to reconsider its role in the world.

6A slogan is only successful once it has become common coinage, when it has penetrated into everyday language and pops up in a great many different settings of mass communication. Generally, for this to happen the ideas caught in a slogan must already, in some indistinct form, be "in the air". In the case of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, we can still trace that connection. He did not invent them all by himself although, undeniably, the verbal form in which he cast his four freedoms was his. During a press conference of July 5th, 1940, half a year prior to his "State of the Union" address, improvisation led Roosevelt to come up with a first recorded version of the four freedoms ("information", "religion", "expression", and the "freedom from fear"). He concluded his impromptu response asking: "Does that cover it pretty well?" The interviewing journalist was not quite satisfied: "Well, I had a fifth in mind which you might describe as 'freedom from want' — free trade, opening up trade?" "Yes," replied Roosevelt, "that is true. I had that in mind but forgot it.... That is the fifth, very definitely." For a moment it looked as if Roosevelt was stuck with five freedoms, but a little reshuffling eventually reduced the number again to four.

7Why that magic number? A likely explanation is that the "Four Freedoms" — not unlike pop music groups in our day — had already acquired a relatively wide currency at the time of the New York World's Fair of 1939/40. There, alongside the main concourse that led up to an imposing statue of George Washington, four huge allegorical figures had stood which together became known as "the Four Freedoms". The work had been a government commission to the sculptor Leo Friedlander. The 1939 World's Fair motto had been "The World of Tomorrow". Its purpose was to give its many visitors a view of the world that would have the many achievements of the New Deal as one of its central features. The focus then was still on the domestic achievements: the increased role for the government, and the welfare state features of its legislative programs. But by 1940 attention had shifted to the outside world. The Fair's motto then read: "For Peace and Freedom". The official poster showed the statue of Washington; behind him, like the wings of an angel of peace, a plethora of many nations' flags unfurling. Roosevelt had paid an official visit to the Fair and like the many millions of visitors must have become aware of the symbolic potency of the "Four Freedoms".

8The group of statues on the fair ground was meant to give expression to more than just "freedom" in a general sense. They were not simply the fourfold replica of the one Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. It had been Friedlander's assignment to give each of the four statues a distinct allegorical meaning and to make them the separate representations of the freedom of the press, of religion, of expression and of assembly. Roosevelt, one might say, picked up his ideas in the public domain; he then gave his own individual twist to them, producing a version that again entered into the public domain.

9This was due not only to Roosevelt's mastery of public communication. In popularizing Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, once again an artist — not a sculptor this time, but a painter and master draftsman — played a leading role: Norman Rockwell. He was already widely popular among the general public as the artist designing covers for the Saturday Evening Post. There he had put his artistry in the service of the nostalgic representation of an America as many were wont to remember it, an America of small town life, of secure and happy families, with their little dramas, tragedies, and joys. He was the right man to render Roosevelt's rallying call in a toned-down, slightly more re-assuring version.

10Roosevelt's own advisers had already balked at the global implications of Roosevelt's call. When, in his office at the White House, he had dictated a version of the "Four Freedoms" that differed in detail only from the final version, his adviser Harry Hopkins had this immediate reaction: "That covers an awful lot of territory, Mr. President. I don't know how interested Americans are going to be in the people of Java." Yet in this one particular version, Roosevelt had only referred to "Freedom everywhere in the world" in the case of the first two freedoms. It is typical of his willfulness that in his final version he decided to have this universalist ring repeated four times over.

11Rockwell, however, chose to ignore these wider echoes. In four oil paintings, based on carefully arranged group photographs — a technique that he developed in the 1930s — he reduced the four freedoms to the familiar scale of small town America, with its civic and democratic virtues. We recognize the same unbending America of the "Common Man" that had been caught in the documentary photography of the Depression Era, that had been celebrated in Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man", and that had given its populist inspiration to Frank Capra movies, like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A similar populist sentiment pervades Rockwell's rendering of the four freedoms.

12In the first painting, Freedom of Speech, we look down from an oblique angle upon a small group of people. They are clearly a segment only of a larger gathering. On simple wooden benches, in row upon row, citizens have assembled for a political meeting. Their faces are raised attentively, not as one might expect towards "tonight's invited speaker" but towards one of their own. Some have half turned on their bench to have a better look. From their midst, a man has stood up, his hands firmly planted on the back of the bench in front of him. He wears simple working man's clothes. He has the rugged 'good looks' of the populist heroes in Frank Capra's films, of a Gary Cooper, a Gregory Peck, a James Stewart. He has stood up to vent his opinion, to use his freedom of speech.

13In the second painting, Freedom of Worship, Rockwell has used the photographic technique of the close-up, once again looking down, "zooming in" from a position above his subjects. We see the faces and hands of people immersed in prayer. "Each according to the dictates of his own conscience", as the heading to the painting reminds us. The picture gives poignant expression to America's traditional freedom of religion. No American will have trouble reading this message.

14The third painting illustrates the "freedom from want". According to Roosevelt, this meant, "translated into world terms, [...] economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world." Rockwell translates this back into the more familiar terms of a traditional thanksgiving dinner, enjoyed at home in one's domestic circle. We see several generations gathered around the table, whose rectangular shape is projected across the canvas starting from the lower left- and right-hand corners. To the left and right we see people whose faces are caught in the middle of an ongoing jocular exchange. At the head of the table stands an elderly, rotund man, merrily watching his aproned and equally rotund wife bend over forward to put down on the table the evening's pièce de résistance, a beautiful, shiny turkey. That was the way in which Americans may have wished to picture Roosevelt's world, free from want to be sure, but first of all familiar, homely, cosy and secure.

15Even in his fourth painting, Rockwell manages to keep Roosevelt's evil outside, the world of war and wanton destruction, at arm's length. Almost literally so, as we shall see. Erect along the entire central axis of the painting stands a father, in shirtsleeves and suspenders. His left side is turned toward us. To his right his wife lovingly bends over forward to tuck in their two children. They are already asleep. Their playing for the day is done; a doll lies, face up, on the floor, a little orphaned. That, one would say, is freedom from fear: having your parents watch over you when you are asleep. There is only one faint echo of the threatening outside world. In his left hand, "at arm's length", the father holds a newspaper. We can make out part of the headlines: "Bombings ki..." and "Horror Hit…". Rockwell has translated Roosevelt's concern about the wider world into the concern of parents about the future of their children.

16Rockwell's representations of Roosevelt's ideas gained wide currency. Of the four paintings, millions of reproductions were made that, under government and private auspices, were distributed across the world. The American Department of Finance sent the four original oil paintings on a tour of sixteen cities in the United States where they drew a total number of visitors of 1,222,000. They contributed to the successful sale of $132,999,537 worth of war bonds to sustain the war effort. With the help of Rockwell's images, Americans could conceive of America's interests in an Allied victory in World War II.

17Rockwell himself had found his mission in life. For the entire duration of the war he would put his pictorial talents in the service of the war effort; he produced narrative illustrations of troop transports, food rationing, the homecoming of soldiers. "G.I. Joe" — the common soldier, the simple American boy that had to do a job — assumed under Rockwell's hands a face in which people could recognise the familiar features of their beloved, their sons, relatives, boys from the neighborhood. Seven different covers of the Saturday Evening Post would show Rockwell's impressions of the return of G.I. Joe to the family fold. On calendars, posters, in advertisements, Rockwell would continue to show the world in its impact on the homefront. Before the war, he had been mostly a commercial artist, drawing advertisements and magazine covers; during the war he used his popular appeal for the common interest, for the res publica in a time of distress. It was his particular talent to render such abstract matter as the point and purpose of a world war in pictures that could appeal to the many. He translated America's abstract and ideal battle cries into the picture language of a mass culture. He had pasted over America's political market place with his posters as if it were a commercial market to be addressed via billboards. His art, during the war or for that matter before or after the war, was never "high art". As the talented craftsman that he was, he produced "middle-brow art" at best and he probably did not aim for more. Yet, at the same time, what he did during the war and shortly after, in his feverish documentary production, certainly ranks high along that other scale of distinction in the United States: it was a true specimen of democratic art in the great Whitmanesque vein.

18For Rockwell, it was only a small step from commercial art to art that was politically committed. His iconography remained the same even though the portent of his messages had changed. This, as I pointed out before, was not unusual: the cultures of the political and the economic markets smoothly shade into one another. That would appear most clearly in an advertisement by the Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Company in a 1944 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. It was an illustrated ad in the style of Norman Rockwell. We recognise the setting, the faces are familiar. An old woman, a middle-aged man, and a young girl — "people from the neighborhood". They look upward towards a beam of light; providence, if not the good provider, is smiling upon them. In their arms they hold an abundance of packages, all of them gift-wrapped. This is Norman Rockwell country. With a difference, though: Rockwell's mythical small-town people, carriers of democratic virtue, now appear in the guise of Americans as consumers. Three years after Roosevelt decided that there were four, not five, freedoms, the Hoover advertisement reminded Americans that "the Fifth Freedom is Freedom of Choice". If America had joined the struggle to safeguard democratic values, this implied safeguarding the freedom of choice. By a simple semantic sleight of hand, the (con)text of the advertisement shifted the meaning of freedom of choice: the "signified" was no longer the realm of politics, but the freedom of choice of the citizen in his role as consumer. Once again, spheres of freedom smoothly shaded into one another. The commercial art that Rockwell had put in the service of politics now reclaimed its rights. Political freedom and economic freedom were indissolubly linked together.

19Many European theorists of democracy, from John Stuart Mill to Karl Schumpeter, had argued this all along. According to Schumpeter, one could analytically distinguish the separate spheres of politics and economics, but he could think of no historical case where freedom in the political realm had coexisted with a centrally controlled economy. A conservative thinker like Friedrich van Hayek had turned this insight into his central polemical proposition. Every attempt at centrally coordinating and planning a national economy could not but usher in political serfdom. American followers like Milton Friedman would eagerly adopt this conclusion.

20But the average American did not really need such theoretical underpinning. They had always lived by the practical tenet that "freedom" evidently implied the freedom of enterprise, of production, of advertising and consumption. The dream eventually to be able "to set up shop on your own" had always turned them away from socialism and class consciousness. The German "catheder socialist" Werner Sombart, in his famous 1904 treatise on "Why there is no socialism in the United States", had already argued this much. Admittedly, the scale on which, during the 1920s, the culture of consumption broke through in the United States was unprecedented. Never before, in the Puritanism of a production-oriented society, had America condoned the principle of installment buying. But from the 1920s on, a consumptive urge got hold of American culture, spurred on by advertising; from then on, the country blithely ran up its consumptive debts. It was a clear break with a cultural tradition that had emphasized austerity and thrift. Yet it was no break with established cultural norms regarding "freedom of choice" as applying equally to the political and the economic market.

21If both markets do indeed follow a similar logic, it need not surprise us then when marketing techniques move freely from one market to the other. In 1944, as we saw, the "Freedom of Choice", hailed as the fifth freedom, changed from a political to an economic pitch. It is only one example of a sales technique that had come into its own in the 1920s. At that time already, advertisers had begun to use a variety of narrative ploys to sell their products. One of those was the parable of the "Democracy of Goods". Pleasures of consumption that until recently had been the sole privilege of the moneyed classes H, were now within everybody's reach, if people simply bought product X or Y. Even if the service of a maid was beyond people's means, young housewives could still keep their hands soft by using Ivory Soap.

22Not only did this democratizing logic apply to pleasures, ailments fell equally within its sway. One 1920s advertisement shows a gentleman aboard his yacht, in relaxed conversation with a beautiful young lady. The text reminds us: "You'd like to be in this man's shoes... yet he has 'ATHLETE'S FOOT'." Rich and poor were equally visited by the same ailments, by athlete's foot, body odors, bad breath, but both could equally avail themselves of the same cheap remedies. The average American had access to a life of luxury and ease which not even the kings-of-old had dreamt of. "The best things in life" may not have been entirely free, yet at a slight fee had come within everyone's reach. Thus, within the realm of consumption, the same promise of equality had taken hold that had reigned supreme in America's political creed.

23Yet ideas could also move the other way, from the world of advertising and commercial promotion towards the realm of politics. For American consumers already a new world had opened up in which tangible goods, ranging from soft soap to motor cars, engaged in ever changing relationships with free-floating signifiers, in a round robin of dream and reality directed by the wizards of advertising. Every single piece of commerce could be turned into a dream, every dream could be commodified and merchandized. There was no compelling reason why this commercial logic would stop at the borderline separating the economic and the political markets. Whether it was a matter of persons or programs, of candidates for public office of political parties, they were no different than merchandise in that they too had to be sold to a larger public. Like passive merchandise, they could be connected at the will and whim of marketing wizards with any range of signifiers; like wax, they could be moulded into any public image. The era of blithe amateurism had long gone in which the market vendor sold his marvel concoctions to a gullible crowd and the politician engaged in whistle-stop campaigns to address the electorate. With the advent of modern media of mass communication, the techniques of public representation, either of commercial or of political merchandise, had changed drastically. Selling had become a science. Or rather the world of advertising had arrogated the aura of the doctor's white coat and the status of a professional guild that went with it. Yet the wary observer could never help feeling that behind the pompous display of depth psychology and research techniques he could detect the cynical features of W.C. Fields as the quintessential traveling quack, the impersonation of the great American confidence man.

24Ever since the 1920s, the professionalization of advertising had proceeded apace. It was a trend that would culminate with the advent of television and its potential of deep market penetration. Only then could a modern, if not post-modern, America fully come into its own as the veritable hall of mirrors in which it could endlessly duplicate into virtual images of itself, spawning the manifold simulacra that so fascinate contemporary, and mostly European, semioticians. Only then could a rule of cultural transformation fully assert itself that always may have been at the heart of the American way with culture, but which now was given free rein. It is a transformation that ruthlessly eats away all established cultural boundaries, between high and low, between genres, cutting up narrative flow and organic cohesion, and leaving a mere array of disjointed elements, reduced to the homogeneity of blocks of broadcasting time, for sale to any bidder and any purpose. Newsflash and commercial message, reporting and entertainment, information and propaganda, all were equally modules of broadcasting time, reassembled at will into a wild jumble.

25The commercial rationale was only one factor of this development. It turned broadcasting time into a commodity; it transformed the television audience into so many consumers. The "ratings" became the single quantitative measure of a television program's success. Compared to the role of cultural guardian that many European governments assumed in granting broadcasting licences, the American government opted for utter restraint. Commerce was given free range. We cannot begin to understand this unless we consider that in this area too there was an underlying belief in a "freedom of choice", a belief in the abundance that only the free market could deliver if left to itself. As a consequence, television in the United States mushroomed when in Europe with its regulated broadcasting systems people had to put up with only one or two programs that were aired from seven to eleven in the evening.

26In yet other ways America's cultural habits tended to facilitate the modularizing effect of American television. Americans had already developed forms of team sports, like baseball and football, that were characterized by fragmentation rather than flow. They were an assemblage of self-contained "plays" that could easily be interspersed with different elements, such as commercial breaks. Similarly, the narrative structure of television drama, soap operas and situation comedies shows up this reduction to self-contained scenes, towards the fragmentation into an intrinsic serial installment logic. It is meant to leave the viewers sufficiently spellbound so as not to lose them during the commercial breaks. The use of such narrative techniques predates the television era and goes back to the cliffhanger effects of pre-war, movie-going days.

27Whatever the specific instance, they are all equally illustrative of an underlying modularization, of a freedom of re-assembling disjunct elements. We recognize this modularizing logic not only in the splicing of simultaneous acts of communication, such as newscasting, entertainment, and advertising. It is also at work within each of the constituent elements. Thus, for instance, on the single level of a commercial message we recognise techniques that go back to the days of the printed poster. Imaginary worlds are conjured up in which tangible consumption goods engage in intricate connections with a world of dreams, desires and fantasies. The conceptual realm created by the commercial message consists of the imaginative re-arrangement of associative elements. No matter how illusory the result, its suggestion of reality could only be enhanced by a medium like television with its claim to being a mere window on the world. It is one of the many ironies of this medium. On the one hand it is the modern version of the spy-glass, extending our view without being seen ourselves; it holds the promise of an unprecedented visual quantum leap. In fact, what it resembles more closely is the kind of mirror that we know from Alice in Wonderland: slouched in front of our tv set, we in fact go through the looking glass, entering a world that no longer listens to the conventions and logic of our familiar, everyday world. Whether it is newsflashes from the Gulf War that look more like Star Wars fabrications, or the presentation of the "new and improved" Chevrolet, what we see are images, cut and arranged according to the logic of television presentation. It is a logic far removed from any full and complex reality. Thus, our heads fill up with mere morsels of the world, leaving an illusion that we have been witnessing reality.

28This potential of television was not long in drawing the attention of those pastmasters of illusion: the advertising experts. Effortlessly, they could move beyond the confines of the strictly commercial message and offer their services to the actors on the stage of American politics. Again, television might seem the ideal new medium, in the age of mass democracy, for reviving a democratic process as small-town America had known it. Rather than candidates shaking your hands on the sidewalk, they could now come right into your living room. Once again, candidates could hope, through television, to address individual citizens in a contemporary version of face-to-face contact. The vast, anonymous, democratic public — once ominously represented by Washington Irving as a "headless ghost" — could now be approached by an army of "talking heads" on television, alternating with video clips and commercials, inviting the audience to join them in a new symbiosis. Yet, many sobering lessons were to be learned. Under the relentless scrutiny of the cold eye of the television camera, politicians became painfully aware of their many unguarded moments, of facial tics and nervous perspiration, which more than anything they actually said determined the way in which the public perceived them. Thus, Richard Nixon, looking wan and unshaven, in his famous television confrontation with his opponent, John F. Kennedy, could come across as a shady character. The impression was merely visual, mediated through television; radio listeners were left with an entirely different view of the way in which the debate had gone.

29Shortly before, during the 1950s, a widespread concern had become manifest in the United States regarding the reduction of democratic politics to a mere matter of presentation and manipulation. In learned symposia on mass culture and the mass media, intellectuals were alarmed at such corruption of democratic politics. In one of the classic books from this era — The Lonely Crowd — the sociologist David Riesman discussed the problems of a viable public opinion in a society that, like America's, found itself under a constant barrage of messages and calls to action. No single individual was able any more on his own to make sense of all this. People anxiously took their cues from others in endless games of bluff and one-upmanship. In yet another book, the historian Daniel Boorstin gave a name to what many had come to see as the central problem of their age: he entitled his book The Image, thus introducing a catchword for contemporary problems that was instantly taken up by other languages in other national cultures. As he put it: "Now the language of images is everywhere. Everywhere it has displaced the language of ideals. If the right 'image' will elect a President or sell an automobile, a religion, a cigarette, or a suit of clothes, why can it not make America herself — or the American Way of Life — a saleable commodity all over the earth?"

30Boorstin's book came out in 1961. A few years earlier, in 1957, in a less intellectual vein, another author had reached a mass audience with a book that, if anything, was even more alarmist in tone: Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders became an instant bestseller in America as well as abroad. In the grand manner of bestsellers, the book offers everything that the author claims to denounce. It promises sensation and disclosure: the tone is one of urgent alarm, yet at the same time it promises to answer the pressing concerns of the day. The dust jacket of my pocket edition reads like a veritable sales pitch. "What makes us buy, believe — and even vote — the way we do?" "Do you know WHY automobiles get longer and longer? WHY men think of a mistress when they see a convertible in a show window?" And so on, in hammering bold-face WHYs. "This book gives the startling answers to these and hundreds of other eye-opening questions and facts that show how today's advertising men are using our hidden urges and frustrations to sell everything from gasoline to politicians." Slick as the book may be, it still is a must for all those interested in problems of politics and mass marketing techniques.

31To a certain extent, the very success of Packard's book contradicts his central argument that citizens, in their roles of either voters or consumers, had been reduced to mere puppets on a string. Clearly, the puppets took a vital interest in a diagnosis of their common condition. They cast off their strings and chose to read a book of their own free will. They forgot about television for a while and pondered their own situation. Their behavior was the precise opposite of all those bleak and caricatured views of the "state of the Union" and of its doubtful democratic stature.

32Such somber self-reflection by Americans upon their own collective condition was not unprecedented. Their critique of mass culture and the mass media in the 1950s was one episode in a longer line of critical observation. From the early days of the Republic, there had been a lurking fear of the unsophisticated mass — of Irving's "headless Ghost" — seen as forever incapable of full democratic citizenship in the classical terms of free discussion and the exchange of mature views. Even before the advent of the modern media of mass communication such as radio and television, Walter Lippmann, in his classic observations concerning Public Opinion, had reflected upon the lacking state of information among the larger public. People tended to gear their political action towards rough and ready stereotypes, toward the kind of second-hand, fragmented "pictures in their heads" of the world around them. In keeping with the spirit of the age, Lippmann vested his hope in an educated elite who alone would be able to transcend such limited vision and to assume the role of natural leaders in a modern mass democracy. Lippmann thus conjures up a deus ex machina to help him escape from an impasse of his own making. Yet reality is never cast as starkly in black-and-white terms as he, or others like him, would have us believe.

33Whoever founds his critique upon a caricatured view of passive couch potatoes who blithely swallow their television fare along with chips and beer is forgetful of all those aspects that would still testify to America's being a democratic market place of ideas in the classical sense. Once we open our eyes to the flood of opinions, commentary, information, and reportage in any area of public debate that is divulged daily, weekly, monthly, in print and, yes, on television as well, need not be unduly worried about the viability of a public opinion in the contemporary American Republic. Public opinion has always been a many-headed thing, a Hydra rather than a headless ghost. It has always been a matter more of plurality, of many publics and many opinions, free and open to all. Whoever, at one time or another, takes an interest in the res publica can join the debate. As to those who would rather wash their cars while dreaming of their mistress, more power to them.

The American Dream and the five freedoms

34The American Dream is one of those potent slogans that for many Americans concisely render a wide range of ideals and expectations. It catches the repertoire of promises that have always defined America. And not only for Americans, we should add. The American Dream has appealed to people anywhere in the world (to paraphrase Roosevelt). Immigrants, adventurers, refugees, and exiles alike have come in their millions to America as the land of promise. And they still come. The main immigration streams may have different wellsprings today, originating in Europe no longer so much as in other parts of the world, yet immigration numbers have far from decreased. The dream is still very much alive.

35Like any successful slogan, the American Dream ranges across a wide array of associations, from freedom, autonomy, and self-fulfilment to material abundance and social success. In that sense, the American Dream effortlessly encompasses the realm of political ideals-let us say of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms-and that of the more earthly desires of a cornucopia as envisioned by the Hoover Company's advertisement of the Fifth Freedom, the Freedom of Choice. America has long lent itself to the projection of such dreams. Yet, surprisingly, the tonic slogan of the American Dream is of relatively recent coinage.

36The earliest version that I have been able to find is in a piece of rhapsodic writing by Katherine L. Bates, her hymn America the Beautiful, published on the Fourth of July, 1895. The tone of rapture and praise that characterizes the piece was not uncommon for the genre of Fourth of July rhetoric. The American Dream, as the author evokes it in her hymn, is "a patriot dream that sees beyond the years", a lasting inspiration that flows from the political ideals of the American Republic. This clearly political version of the American Dream has never lost its appeal since. In the Kennedy years — an era that was not averse from the larger rhetorical gestures — the poet Archibald MacLeish put it thus: "There are those who think that liberty and human rights is but a dream. They are right. It is the American dream."

37But it was not long before the alternative, more earthly version showed up. In 1931, in his The Epic of Ameria, the American historian James T. Adams had this to say about the American Dream:"... that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement." At about the same time, another historian, Matthew Josephson, in his biography of Thomas Alva Edison, linked Edison's life to the American Dream, again seen as the classic success story, "from rags to riches". The timing of both Adams and Josephson may have seemed a little "off", though. Their version of the American Dream as a promise of success and abundance was rudely shattered in the decade of the Great Depression. At the time, most references to the American Dream were in a tone of disabusement, if not cynicism. A poignant illustration of this is a product from the one industry that was relatively unaffected by the depression: the entertainment industry, the one remaining factory of dreams. It was a theater production, with all its attendant glitter, dance, music and girls. Its title was The Great American Dream. On one of the show's posters we see a group of show girls — The Great American Dream Dancers — dressed mostly in plumes. They are gracefully arranged atop a huge roulette wheel. The message could hardly have been more cynical: the American Dream in the 1930s had become a mere game of chance. The commonweal had turned into a wheel of fortune. Quite tellingly, the thirties saw the rise to popularity of a great many games of chance, of lotteries, of board games. At their bare kitchen tables, people could play Monopoly and imitate the mad dash for profit that had turned so many people into real losers at the end of the preceding decade.

38The Great Crash brought to an end a decade in which, ironically, the American Dream had assumed its guise of a Freedom of Choice, of a Democracy of Goods, promising affluence for all. Roosevelt may have been a pastmaster in preserving the American Dream in its political version as a rhetorical tool that helped him keep political hopes and idealism alive, yet the dream of a cornucopia seemed broken forever.

39But did this mean that the American Dream, in its sense of an imaginary dream world which one could enter at will through acts of consumption, was gone as well? The answer must be no. During the 1920s, in addition to dreams of affluence, dreams of freedom had become associated with consumption. It was one of the feats of magic that the advertising masterminds of the culture of consumption had performed. As they had found out, any range of free-floating signifiers could be associatively connected to the most pedestrian of consumer goods. As they had intimated all along, the freedom of choice always implied a seductive choice of freedom, a promise of freedom in any form, of freedom from constraints, of liberation, of leisure, and of cultural rebellion. This latter conjunction in particular — of freedom and consumption — survived the 1930s. For a token fee, almost anyone could gain entry into the imaginary world of the silver screen and feel relieved, at least for a couple of hours, from the pressing concerns of everyday life. In this highly symbolic and imaginary way, the American Dream could last through the Depression.

40Yet it would not be until the return of prosperity, during and after the war, that the American Dream would be restored in its full range as a dream of freedom and affluence. In these contours, the postwar world would come to conceive of "America", in its imaginary guise of a dreamland, as a realm of freedom and abundance.

41Even today, these are still the two aspects that centrally define the appeal of "America" as a cultural symbol. Perhaps even stronger than before, "America" now lends itself as a concise, symbolic code that sets the semiotic reading of forms of behavior, of products and messages, in terms of such abstract values as freedom and affluence. The intrinsic appeal of so many forms of American mass culture, from soap operas to blue jeans and Coca-Cola, always derives from their imaginary connection to these two dimensions of the American Dream. Hardly ever can we meaningfully speak of Americanization; the term is usually much too imprecise and lends itself to any kind of sweeping statement concerning the dismal impact of America upon other national cultures. Yet, at this point in our discussion, we are indeed able to conceive of Americanization in a rather more precise sense. It is unmistakeably the case that "America", in the sense of an American Dream as described here, has been added to the symbolic repertoire of many non-Americans. Not only do they vicariously enjoy the beguiling force of the American Dream in their consumption of American products, they have also, when advertising their own domestic consumption goods, begun to draw upon the repertoire of "America" as a symbolic code. The code has become international.

42There are many examples of European advertising that draw upon this repertoire. In tv spots, on posters, in newspaper ads, we "get the message" when all we see are images of the American West, or a Harley Davidson, or the Statue of Liberty. But in addition to this, there are the more interesting cases where the message is not as visually explicit, yet equally defined by the use of "America" as an internationally recognised semantic code. A beautiful example is the first of a series of tv commercials for Seven Up in which we see a cartoon character, Fido Dido. Although an American creation, most viewers abroad will not be aware of his national origin. The first tv spot where he appeared is a gem of concise story-telling. Fido Dido, the unkempt, free-and-easy, early adolescent little brat that he is, enters the picture, his Yo-Yo in one hand, a can of Seven Up in the other. Then he meets the hand of his maker. Briefly, it may seem like a lighter, cartoon version of the scene in the Sistine Chapel where a drowsy Adam, touching fingers with God, is brought to life. But Fido Dido's meeting is of a different kind. His confrontation is with parental authority, with the commanding hand of social propriety. The hand of the maker, "in living color", holds a pencil and gets ready to retouch Fido Dido. First his unkempt hair gets neatly combed and partitioned. Fido Dido indignantly shakes his hair back into its previous state. The pencil continues the attack and dresses Fido Dido in jacket and tie. It goes on to the object in Fido Dido's right hand, again in full color, as real as the hand and pencil: the can of Seven Up. The pencil tries to erase it, yet the can is beyond such manipulative mingling. Fido Dido meanwhile has moved towards full rebellion. Jacket and tie have already been taken off; a well-aimed kick of his left foot hits the instrument of parental guidance. As a symbolic parallel to parental impotence, its point breaks and hangs limply. Victoriously, Fido Dido walks off the screen. In final retaliation, his Yo-Yo now hits the pencil. The broken point falls off. The price of his victory is a taste of the elixir of freedom: cool, fizzing Seven Up. The semiotics all merge into one message: a simple soft drink has been turned into a symbol of freedom. Much as the product or the commercial or the cartoon character may be American, the message is understood internationally.

43This technique of semiotic merging is as old as the salesmanship of the wizards of American advertising. Abstract entities like freedom are wedded to material consumption goods. Political ideals like freedom and equality are being commercialized and commodified. Ideals are turned into illusions, illusions are turned into merchandise. Such was the critical gist of an earlier critique of the culture of consumption, from oldfashioned liberals as much as from neo-Marxians in a Marcusian vein. Yet the Fifth Freedom does not solely stand in the world of commerce and consumption. In keeping with more recent writings in Cultural Studies and cultural history, I would argue that it is precisely the political echoes of both "freedom of choice" and the "choice of freedom" that have bestowed upon so many products from America their semiotic load of subversiveness and cultural rebellion. Those same echoes have made the reverberation of the American Dream worldwide.

Auteur

University of Amsterdam

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1993

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540

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