Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Keep Calm. Carry On. Repeat.

My friend Sean recently directed me to a video that tells the story of a British propaganda poster from the 1940s: "Keep Calm and Carry On." I liked the video so much I downloaded the app, which takes up quite a bit of space on my phone but allows me to revisit the video fairly regularly, as well as to make my own propaganda posters. Watch the video and then read on.

According to Wikipedia the poster, along with its companions "Freedom Is in Peril. Defend It with All Your Might" and "Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory," were intended to enliven the patriotism and civic responsibility of British citizens; an Economist article draws our attention to how it ""taps directly into the country's mythic image of itself: unshowily brave and just a little stiff, brewing tea as the bombs fall," mainly to demonstrate how little of that legendary level-headedness remains in the world today.

I like the video because it takes place in a bookstore--a used bookstore, but a bookstore nonetheless. Apparently the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster, while earning the largest print run of the three (more than three times as many as "Your Courage" were printed), had extremely limited distribution and faded almost immediately from the cultural consciousness until a copy of the poster was found among some boxes of books sixty years later. It's out from under copyright protection now, so the bookstore reprinted it freely for its customers, and word spread, and now it's everywhere. I like that it was a bookstore owner who found it, appreciated it and made it available to her customers. I like that something in a bookstore captured so much imagination in such a short period. Given the whole range of uncertainties associated with book publishing these days, and how bent toward the future an entire industry is, I like how quaint and stubbornly British the spirit of the phrase is, and how something so antiquated can be so reassuring in our own ephemeral age. There's lots to like about this poster and the story behind it.

Still, I wonder, why now and not then? Why did it take six decades for people to embrace this message? At the height of the Blitz on Britain in World War II, as many as 150,000 people a night were taking shelter in the London Underground. That's a captive audience for propaganda, and "Keep Calm and Carry On" is pretty good messaging for citizens who are enduring a relentless air bombing campaign. In fact the result of the Blitz was a kind of collectively stiffened upper lip, a resoluteness that Germany must not win the war, that Britain must endure and overcome. And yet even as England emerged from the war victorious, the rallying cry "Keep Calm and Carry On" didn't survive it. It's almost like they wound up not needing it.

Why didn't they need it? And more to the point, why is it catching on now? By most accounts our upper lips today are nowhere near as stiff as those of our grandparents and great-grandparents, and so such appeals to our inherent ruggedness ought not work. Besides, I for one am not British; I'm American, and we're inspired by much less modest propaganda than what came out of mid-twentieth-century Britain. "Let's roll" is more our speed. We're also, by and large, far too ironic for such an easily mocked rallying cry: "Keep Calm and Carry On" in the face of persistent explosions is as absurd to our postmodern sensibilities as "The beatings will continue until morale improves." Give us plain-spoken propaganda, and we'll fold it into some kind of profane origami and throw it right back in your face.

And yet that's not what's happened. Instead of scorn and mockery, the video and the phrase have engendered, for the most part, wistfulness and even faint traces of hope. I watch this video and sigh with the realization of how wounded so many of us are, how ill-prepared we've been, over the course of the Nuclear Age, for hardship. I read this one poster and realize just how cumulative an effect that arms races and cold wars and atomic clocks and dirty bombs and terror attacks and global warming and economic meltdowns and wars and rumors of wars have had on our hope, how the steady failures of our most longstanding institutions--from governmental betrayals of their citizenry to church scandals and yellow journalism and even celebrity malfeasance--have caused us to assume the worst and to measure our own wisdom by the sophistication of our cynicism. I watch this video and realize how helpful, now and then, a plain-spoken, unself-conscious directive can be. "Keep calm," some faceless, nameless typesetter fits to a poster, "and carry on." And somehow I'm emboldened, empowered and even encouraged to do so.

I recently read J. C. Ryle's A Call to Prayer, another gift from another friend that hearkens back to another time and place. Ryle was the first bishop of Liverpool, an earthy blue-collar town that would give birth, some sixty years after Ryle and fifteen years after the war, to so definitively postmodern and endearingly cynical a troupe as the Beatles. In his day Ryle didn't sell prayer to his readers; he compelled it of them. He writes as much (if not more) of our responsibility to pray as he does of the privilege and benefits of prayer. And whereas people of my generation and nationality express our opinions in personal, tentative language of feeling--"I feel that people don't pray much"--Ryle uses creedal language to assert his convictions: "I believe there are tens of thousands whose prayers are nothing but a mere form." It's brash, it's arresting, it's anachronistic, it's . . . somehow reassuring.

I'm coming to believe that what the world needs now--or at least every now and then--is a little less feeling and a little more believing. There's something oddly fresh about plain-spokenness, directness. It's odd because it's anachronistic, or maybe it's odd because we've forgotten how empowering a stiff upper lip can be.

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