America is the great cultural appropriator.
What used to be taboo is now commonplace. The once incendiary is mainstream.
Back in the 1930s it was a national language controversy when Vivien Leigh, in a scene from Gone with the Wind, asked Clark Gable, “Where shall I go? What shall I do?” and he replied, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Damn is, after all, a four-letter word.
Eighty years later, the media is faced with the need to explicate Donald Trump’s barnyard epithets and Tucker Carlson’s hatefully misogynist comments about Martha Stewart’s daughter.
To accurately report what these awful men have said, the media has to quote words that many of us would be embarrassed to say even in the confines of a men’s locker room. And so those previously verboten terms move one step closer to the mainstream.
Some of the other appropriations are political. Take, for example, the stamp recently issued by the United State Postal Service that honors John Lennon.
The stamp features a post-Beatles 1974 photo of Lennon complete with round glasses and rat’s nest hair. One side of the stamp sheet resembles a 45 rpm record sleeve (a graphic allusion that will surely go over the heads of most Americans under 50.) The photo on the reverse side of the sheet was used to promote Lennon’s landmark LP, Imagine. The postal service reports that Lennon’s music “continues to speak for truth and peace.”
All of which is rich with irony if you lived through Lennon’s career and were paying attention.
The hubbub began with the early Beatles’ hairdos. Many older folks in the early Sixties thought the moptops signaled the decline of Western civilization.
Nearly a decade later it was Lennon who dared us to:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Our country now rightly lauds the work of the man who said we’d be better off without countries.
The deeper irony is that the U.S. government spent years trying to deport Lennon. Under the Nixon Administration, J. Edward Hoover’s FBI investigated Lennon for five years due to his political activism. The Immigration and Naturalization Service sent him a steady stream of deportation notices.
Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, responded both through his attorney and in wonderfully satirical fashion.
They staged a press conference on April Fool’s Day, where they declared they had formed a “conceptual country” called Nutopia. This nation was said to have “no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people.” To become a citizen — and thereby gain diplomatic immunity from deportation — they stated only that one had to declare “your awareness to Nutopia.”
Nixon and Hoover did their best to yank Lennon’s green card and kick him out of the country. They were ultimately overruled by the New York State Supreme Court.
Today they must be spinning in their graves over that postage stamp.