Propaganda, Pure as Poetry

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Despite pop culture's reliance on ironic detachment, existential angst - the awareness that we are born, suffer and die alone - is a cornerstone of Western philosophy, psychology and literature. But Americans developed the parallel, stripped-down belief system of rugged individualism. This theme of one man standing against a hostile universe works beautifully, no matter how indiscriminately applied - against Indians, animals, the weather, your 10th grade shop teacher, or tort lawyers.

Baby Boomers were brainwashed with this every-man-for-himself lecture. My father's wisdom consisted of (1) Life is unfair, and (2) Count only on yourself. Gestalt therapists, Budweiser and Smith & Wesson profited handsomely from this. The new $150 million U.S. Army campaign, created by that most all-American of agencies, Leo Burnett, appropriates the one-man-alone theme with this idea: "The might of the U.S. Army doesn't lie in numbers. It lies in me." The tag: "I am an army of one."

Here is propaganda as pure as poetry, celebrating the power of one man as an instrument of destructive power, as an intelligent cog in the great machine of liberty, and as master of his own epic journey. I bristle at the dishonesty and expediency of this message at face value. But I marvel at its structural brilliance and its daring, subversive unveiling of a higher universal truth: We are a selfish people. Apart from the thrilling attack on the cigarette industry produced by the American Legacy Foundation, it's rare to see an American institution broadcast an uncomfortable cultural truth.

To call Americans selfish is hardly an indictment. I am extremely selfish - just ask my wife - and write this column not out of my abiding love for advertising, but because I hope the exposure will attract assignments from The New York Times Magazine, the perfect launching pad for my long-overdue PBS talk show. As Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko might have said, selfishness is good. Selfishness built California, PCs, cable TV, the suburbs, muscle cars, all-you-can-eat buffets and stadium seating. Faith, Hope and Charity? These are the names of strippers.

Americans have a natural jones for more of everything - crack, donuts, Mission furniture, bandwidth, babies - which the world misinterprets as an ugly character flaw. The world wants what we have, our wanting as much as our having. Advertising makes our desires more articulate, even when we ourselves are the objects.

When Rocky opened in 1976, "Gonna Fly" became my theme song. The music and montage of Sylvester Stallone training for the fight of his life pushed me through my own workouts and pulled me from the depths of my teenage despair. Even into my late 20s, in my darkest hours I imagined myself running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, arms raised high, a symbol of defiance and perseverance so resonant it survived my own mockery. Rocky was the first music video, that malevolent distillation of raw emotion and advertising. A few years later, MTV made content meaningless by selling us the pure fever dream of ourselves. The Army's single image spot employs reductive Rocky iconography: a soldier running alone in the brutal Mojave desert. The movie running in our heads shows a lonely, embattled warrior, fighting an unjust world. Gladiator is just Rocky without the referees.

The Army is selling its Army of One not primarily on TV but on the internet (www.goarmy.com), that ultimate tool for self-invention, self-promotion and instant gratification. My image of Army life is Bill Murray running away from his immaturity in Stripes, a common city-boy misjudgment. The new Army of One shows a soldier running in the opposite direction: Toward himself, his manhood, his destiny.

"Be All That You Can Be" was another vaguely-worded transition away from the blunt patriotism of our mythical, Good-War past. The Yahoo-age Army must balance balder misdirection with more barbaric truths. The Army of One understands us - we misunderstood geniuses, we misdiagnosed misfits, we persecuted prophets, we underestimated innovators, we underappreciated, unfairly-labeled sinners, screw-ups, snipers, saviors. We are alone, we few, we band of brothers.

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