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Resist Being Branded

By       Message Sandra Lindberg     Permalink
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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H4 7/30/13

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Green River Drift - A History of the Upper Green River Cattle Association by V. H. Hammer

In 2012 debate raged about how U.S. cattle were going to be identified. Traditionalists who wanted a permanent mark on their cattle insisted that only by branding a beast's flesh could ownership of an animal be safely maintained. A California rancher puts it this way, "I don't brand my cattle to just brand them for fun," he said. "I'm not doing it just to burn an animal. I'm doing it because it's a permanent mark of identification. It's scarred into the hide, and it's there forever." The U.S. Department of Agriculture and those who manufacture the tags, argued that ear tags were a more efficient and less painful way to identify an animal's rancher. An owner of a California livestock market summed up the usefulness of ear-tags as, "I raised this animal, it came from my place and I identified it, so if there is a problem you can trace it back to me and I stand behind it." . Cattle are raised for profit. Establishing who owns the animal is integral to reaping that profit.

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Wouldn't it be great if branding remained a tool used only to identify animals?

This preamble is, perhaps, a weird way to begin an essay that attempts to decide what political point of view best fits with my beliefs and values. Scrolling through my email and surveying my notes on a variety of articles, though, I realized that groups 'out there' were very invested in determining what brand I was going to wear. What social cause was I going to most passionately fight for? With what political party would I identify myself? What is my favorite store, shoe, or town, for that matter? To what church do I 'belong'? Am I a Marxist, socialist, capitalist, or a democrat, with a small [d]? And once an entity 'out there' became convinced that it knew me, what strategy would it pursue to guarantee that I would spend some of my money in its name. Yes, folks, affiliating with 'brands' like these is very much about the bottom line.

Check your closet. What objects do you own with brands on them, logos visible when you wear, carry, or drive the product? What sports team do you support? Do you have one of its caps, or water bottles, or tote bags? What whiskey do you drink? Do you have a little warm-up jacket with the manufacturer's logo on the front? What school does your son or daughter attend? Do you have the window or bumper sticker? If you own and display these objects, you've been branded just as sure as a rancher's steer. And you've been branded, in part, to improve an entity's economic advantage in the marketplace.

But, see, with the last sentence above it would seem that someone could brand me as anti-capitalist. And, yes, much of what I write on this blog falls within that mindset. I'm not much enamored with business as so often practiced today. But to accept the label of anti-capitalist would mean other aspects of how I think and believe would be excluded. For example, I relish creativity and personal initiative. I would not want to be stuck within a system that sacrificed those human qualities to someone's idea of the greater social good. And yet I don't want the greater social good to be sacrificed to the great god of profit either.

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So who am I? What am I? Can I celebrate and further clarify the complexity of what I believe even as I resist the incredible number of groups, businesses, organizations, political parties--I need not go on here--that would like to stick me in a slot and count on my yearly contribution?

Here's an example to be more specific about all of this. For years, I was a supporter of public radio. But then I started looking carefully at the list of corporate sponsors to my local radio station. As that list grew, it seemed to me that the hard-hitting questions of its local reporters began to get a little less hard, if you get my meaning. When a story was written not long ago about a little demonstration held at the local chamber of commerce it seemed to me the public-radio reporter was a bit biased in his coverage of the story. So now I support that radio station a little less, and my opinion of that radio station has become somewhat qualified.

Here's another example. My parents became members of the Democratic Party after immigrating to this country. I, in turn, embraced the Democratic Party when I became old enough to vote. But this year, because of the lackluster performance of elected Democrats for some years now and because our Democratic President Obama seems to have become adept at saying what I want to hear while doing the opposite of what I hope he will do, I am no longer a Democrat--and have told the party so. So what 'am I' now? I know for damn sure that I'm not a Republican. Whew! At least I know that, though I can imagine voting for a Republican who voiced and stood by ideas that I thought were important. But I'm not ready to become a card-carrying socialist either. Reading Vaclav Havel, I understand better how industrialized socialism is something that would wither my soul. All of these political labels come with historical baggage and an approach to today's problems that seems determined to ignore large chunks of reality in order to prove that the party's 'way' is the one and only approach to take. We need to decide on courses of action with our eyes wide open and all possible information being considered.

I'm just not buying the whole political-party thing anymore. I'll have to carefully look at each candidate who runs, but blanket support of a political party is no longer part of my repertoire. I am rejecting all of those brands. And, honestly, if the candidates all keep sliding into the mediocre middle I may just stop voting because to vote would be to prop up a sham system. I can imagine a situation when many of us organizing not to vote and making a lot of noise about that might become more important than showing up at the polls.

So what is important to me? What do I think would be useful for the problems our town, or state/country/world faces? I think I can sum it up this way.

When I play poker, I get very annoyed if I find out that someone is holding secret cards that s/he's slipping into a hand in order to win. I hate that. I think life, like a card game, is somewhat at the mercy of chance. One of the ways to lessen that nasty aspect of reality is to make sure that everyone at a table plays by the same rules, that everyone at the table at least starts the game with the same number of cards, that everybody sitting in the chairs must play by the same rules. So I guess I'm in favor of finding ways to level the playing field for a whole lot of people. Right now we have a few people who regularly slip good cards into their hands, and that stinks.

Another thing I really dislike is when people treat words like the stuff kids call Playdough. When I taught English and theatre classes, I emphasized how 'plastic' words were. I encouraged my students to read entire entries in the Oxford English Dictionary so they could appreciate how many nuances of meaning there are for a word like "love", and how human understanding of the word has developed over time. I encouraged them to understand the very personal images conjured up in their minds when they heard a word like "war" or "mother" or "sky," images from their own experience that completely personalized aspects of those words. But somewhere around that time scholars started arguing that there was no intrinsic or root connection between the sound of a word or its letters and what it meant--around that time politicians and advertising executives got wind of that idea and they ran with it big time. 

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Today, words aren't just plastic. They are able to suggest one meaning but are so stretchable that the word's opposite meaning is also part of the (hidden) message. They are simply bytes of 010101 that can be used to project an image even as the speaker's actions demonstrate the exact opposite point of view. And here I'm speaking of, sadly, President Obama, who recently announced with great pride and energy new emission standards for vehicles even though he must have known that the new standards to be announced were going to be weaker than EPA standards announced (and withdrawn due to industry pressure) about three months earlier. And I'm speaking of, yes I know I'm going to use the word again, some corporations that pay ungodly amounts to develop glossy brochures touting their environmental responsibility even as they dump toxic messes into the air, land, or water. I believe it would help us all if people were a lot more 'conservative' with their use of language, and if they would say what they mean and stand by what they say, or admit to making a mistake and take steps to remedy the situation.

You know, before we had so much paper, people made contracts with their words and shook hands (before witnesses) to seal the deal. To go back on one's word meant a person was soon out of business. Our world could use a little more of that attitude.

A few years back when I started my blog Work the Problem [] my hope was to encourage anyone out there who was reading it to explore what s/he believed, to take action based on those beliefs, and to fearlessly admit when an idea turned out to be completely unworkable and to start down a new path. I remain convinced that we need every idea on the table right now, and that it is absolute foolishness to assume a group or individual--that by hook or by crook, or through an advantage of birth, experience, intelligence, or sheer luck--has risen to the top of the current social heap has the answer to all our problems. "Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!" is all I can say to that sort of willingness to trust. "Question everything" is a far preferable motto. I hope you preserve, foster, and grow your sense of personal power and self-esteem.

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Sandra holds a B.S. in theatre, and an M.A. in theatre criticism from Illinois State University. Her M.F.A. is from the Professional Actor Training Program at the Old Globe Theatre--University of San Diego. She also recently completed a Paralegal (more...)

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