Some Notes on Presidents’ Day

Posted: February 15, 2010 in Braak, crotchety ranting, poetics
Tags: , , ,

Today was Presidents’ Day, which is a day primarily notable for the astonishing number of sales that occur.  Mattresses, cars, furniture; all kinds of weird shit is on sale on Presidents’ Day.  I think this is fascinating; the other day I was in the furniture store, waiting for Jeanine to come back from the scarf shop, and the salespeople who lurk there (there were five salespeople, all sitting on or behind furniture directly inside the front door; when a customer came in, by some unspoken signal the sales people would choose one of their number to leap out and accost him) gave me a circular, featuring actors dressed as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln suggesting that I purchase a leather sofa.

This is extremely interesting to me.  Consider:  when he advertises Honest Ahmed’s Audi Auction, Ahmed himself appears in his commercial (this is a fictional business, named as such for the alliterative value).  Why?  Because he wants to appear to put his reputation on the line regarding the worth of his product.  He has made himself personally available, and therefore personally vulnerable, to us, his client, so that we will trust him to guide us through the purchase of a new automobile.  It is not just the assertion of honesty, but the willingness to be held personally liable for dishonesty that makes the commercial work — if Ahmed had hired an actor to play himself, we’d be unable to trust him; after all, how honest could Ahmed be, if he can’t even honestly tell us that he’s honest?

But here are George “I cannot tell a lie” Washington and Abraham “Honest Abe” Lincoln, on the strength of whose reputations I am meant to judge reclining sofas.  “I cannot tell a lie,” George Washington says, “This leather reclining sofa with cupholders in the arms is a great bargain!”

Of course, it isn’t really George Washington at all, is it?  It’s an actor pretending to be George Washington — a noticeably inauthentic depiction of honesty, which is meant by some contagion to make me buy a couch.  And that’s not all!  We have no reason to believe, for example, that George Washington would have ever advocated for the purchase of any sort of leather reclining sofa, much less one of these particular sofas.  George Washington’s honest image has been appropriated for the purpose of giving us MISINFORMATION about Washington’s own opinion about the quality and value of certain items of furniture.

And that ISN’T EVEN ALL!  Washington’s reputation as honest to a fault finds its source in the story that he refers to in his quote there:  he chopped down a cherry tree (the reasons are lost; perhaps an unspoken grudge against cherries?) and when his father asked him who did it, he admitted his guilt.   There’s probably a point to be made that in America, the highest act of personal, ethical heroism one can attain is admitting that you did what you, in fact, actually did — but we’ll leave that for another time.  What concerns me now is that the story is apocryphal; that is, the story is itself a lie.

A man is trying to sell me a leather couch by lying about his identity and pretending to be someone else; lying about what that persona may or may not think; all to exploit a reputation for honesty that is also inauthentic.  It is only the vaguest appearance of honesty that’s required for salesmanship, it seems — a lie compounded on a lie compounded on a lie can still be trustworthy, just so long as it asserts its honesty.

There is something that seems to me to be quintessentially American about Presidents’ Day.  That it is a holiday that purports to honor our American forebears by making them into marketing tools (because what higher honor is there in American society than making money for someone?); that it we can all but sanctify a historical figure and then not hesitate to attach them, in the most half-assed, lackadaisical way, to the basest commerce that we have; that the sacred and profane can abut directly against each other.

So many of our other holidays are inherited; Presidents’ Day is entirely our own, and has (unlike the Fourth of July, or Martin Luther King Day) no particular theme or agenda, beyond “Aren’t presidents great?”

I’m not saying that my nation is culturally bankrupt, or anything, but when we’re given free reign with history and holidays what do we do?  Stick Abe Lincoln’s face on a couch and try to sell it.

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