Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
When some people read “I want you”, what they think of is that Elvis Costello song. Me? The first thing that comes to my mind is that guy in the red, white and blue outfit, the one wearing a star-spangled top hat and pointing straight at you. The one who wants you to kill, or die, or both, for your country. Good times!
What exactly is Uncle Sam supposed to be? A fatherly figure? A politician? He’s a personification of patriotic emotion, specifically for the United States of America – but this particular incarnation of patriotism has always reminded me of Samuel Johnson’s definition that it is “the last refuge of the scoundrel.” To me, Uncle Sam looks like something between an ultra-capitalist and a bully (this is where some might mouth the words, “They’re the same picture”), someone who’ll try to sell you something that you don’t want to buy, and who isn’t above using rather distasteful tactics to make this happen. It’s no wonder that the figure of Uncle Sam has gone out of style – you don’t want your visual metaphors to be too transparent, the subtext too easily figured out -, but at the same time, aren’t we surrounded by such bully salesmen poking their index fingers in our chest until we buy whatever they’re peddling?
Cut to something only seemingly unrelated: in 2012, we went to the Edinburgh Fringe, and one of the shows we saw was a student production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, a musical about a group of historical figures who had one thing in common: they tried to assassinate Presidents of the United States – and in some cases they succeeded. John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, Emma Goldman, Lee Harvey Oswald and many more: Sondheim suggests that these are quintessentially American characters (including the immigrant ones), because, as the first song proclaims, “Everybody’s got the right to be happy.” And what is more likely to bring about happiness than a warm gun?
The character who sings this first song is called the Proprietor. He is a carnival huckster who sells the kind of happiness that you can use to put a bullet in another person. It’s a constitutional right, isn’t it? And in the production we saw in Edinburgh, Sondheim’s suggestions about America, patriotism, salesmanship and murder, the Proprietor looked oddly familiar. Sure, he looked like the carnival huckster he was, but he also looked like someone else. Long, thin legs, white beard, top hat, stars-and-stripesy outfit. Where had I seen this guy before?
These days, the distribution of roles – salesman-bully, assassin, president – doesn’t have to be quite so distinct. These days, carnival hucksters can end up in the White House, they can be the ones talking about murder and happiness, they can be instrumental in the death of millions, even if the smoking gun may not be a Smith & Wesson. Though, let’s be clear, it’s not just the ones that proudly wear their huckster outfits for all to see that we should be looking at. So many of the earnest-sounding (mostly, but not exclusively) men in presidential suits are hucksters – and you can’t sell an omelette without shooting some eggs.
And hey, if Uncle Sam can use you as his gun, point you at whoever needs to be blasted out of the picture, and promises you happiness in the process? “I want you.” And it’s good to be wanted, isn’t it?