I really don’t understand the appeal of “Keep Calm and Carry On,” a phrase now decorating posters, mugs, and mousepads. I suppose it’s better than “I bought you this of crap for your office because you work for me, I don’t really know you, and every detail of your personal life depresses me.” But not much.
Why has this phrase become so popular? Isn’t America calm enough already? We live in a time where it’s ok for non-burnout non-surfers to use the word “chillax.” Because we’re so laid back and calm, we can’t even muster the energy to say “chill out” and “relax.” When else in history could you buy hoodie footie pajamas that you can wear under your Snuggie while sitting in a reclining chair with a built in cooler, for the love of God.
We’re so calm that we don’t even get excited about things we should get excited about. The economy tanks, the people who caused it get huge bonuses, and everyone loses their house and what do a bunch of kids do to protest? They go camping in a little park near Wall Street for a while, until it gets too cold for shouting at each other and they go home. They kept calm and *didn’t* carry on. You know who didn’t keep calm? The Tunisians. the Libyans, the Egyptians,and the Turks. They got fed up, got angry and then they carried on past getting shot at, tear gassed, assaulted and worse. What’s the worst thing that happened to the Occupiers? They missed a semester at Cooper-Union, lost their voice, and their iPhones got scratched?
There’s another group who didn’t keep calm and carry on: actual British people during WWII. The “Keep Calm” posters only came to light recently because they were overshadowed by much less chillaxed turns of phrase, like Winston Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech. Here’s what he said that speech:
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
That doesn’t sound one single bit like a country or government that’s going to keep calm and carry on. That sounds like Britain, under the leadership of a man who looked like an angry infant, is going to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and they’re all out of bubblegum. That’s the most interesting thing about “keep calm” – it was a dud in its own time. The British thought it was condescending and stupid. Who could’ve guessed condescending and stupid would one day be in vogue? Aside from the geniuses at MTV, BET, FOX, MSNBC, CNN…
Well, there’s the problem. These inane posters are part of the hundred bazillion dollar Inspiration Industrial Complex. It starts with touching stories of people helping each other out following a natural disaster, and descends via Oprah’s Empire of Evil to ABC News having an entire site that’s basically “Disabled People: They’re Just Like You!”
The nadir of the inspiration industrial complex is the inspirational quotes racket. I hope the Gandhi family rakes in killer royalties from the “Be the change you wish to see in the world” t-shirts. In spite of the fact – or especially because – he never actually said it. On t-shirts and bumper stickers, Gandhi has become a one dimensional cartoon character with a tag line. The only difference between Charlie Brown and Gandhi is that Charlie Brown is the bald one with the shirt and no glasses. Also, he tries to kick a football and Gandhi tried to something something Britain India. Who knows? I just think it’s weird how much Gandhi looks like the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Che Guevara has it even worse – he doesn’t even get a tag line, he’s just a face with no voice. I guess that makes him Woodstock. This is for the better, since Che said some crazy stuff probably best represented by a bunch of exclamation points.
I can’t see being inspired by a single quote taken out of context from a famous person that I don’t know much about. And I get all my history from Republican presidential campaign speeches, so I don’t know crap. Still, using quotes like this seems exploitive, essentializing. Like it debases the person and their accomplishments. It’s not exactly using Martin Luther King Jr. to sell Chevy trucks, Apple computers, or to hype a telecoms company, but is using his letter from Birmingham jail to motivate you to lose twenty pounds all that much better? Cellulite anywhere is a threat to fitness everywhere! Let calories roll down like waters and pounds like an everflowing stream!
I should probably just keep calm and carry on myself. Or maybe I could get in on the inspiration racket by hawking books full of inspirational stories and quotes. Hell, it worked for King James and those unscrupulous millionaires the Gideons. I’m feeling inspired. As Margaret Barnum Meade once said, “never doubt that that fooling a small group of people some of the time can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”