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Making slogans, not sense

‘DON’T MESS With Texas” is officially the nation’s favorite slogan. In September, it won the third annual Advertising Week Walk of Fame contest, defeating popular corporate maxims like “Got Milk?” and “Just Do It.” There’s no evidence the Bush administration tampered with the voting, although in a climate of catchphrase-as-truth, it seems appropriate there are contests for such things and, moreover, that the president’s home state is the reigning champion.

In March 2003, Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the country-pop trio the Dixie Chicks, messed a bit too much with Texas when she expressed her disapproval of U.S. intervention in Iraq. At a London arena, she said she was “against this war” and then added: “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” The comment elicited cheers from the British crowd, but, within days, the Chicks had become pariahs in the country music world.

Maines was tarred as a traitor. Spurred by the right-wing blog Free-Republic.com -- which posted every news story remotely pertaining to the controversy and invited no end of public bashing of the Chicks -- there was soon a nationwide radio boycott, a rash of CD burnings and at least one death threat to Maines. When Maines tried to explain she did support the troops and did consider herself patriotic, she was drowned out by the much simpler -- and conveniently hard to counter -- idea that the Chicks “didn’t support the troops.”

This is old news, but a documentary about the Dixie Chicks incident, “Shut Up and Sing,” opens nationally next week, and in light of the screamfest over remarks made Monday by John Kerry, the timing is uncanny. Although Maines and Kerry occupy very different cultural platforms, they both show how much trouble you can get into when you try to talk in public and say something more nuanced than “I support the troops.” For instance: “I support the troops, but I don’t support the war.”

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As we all know by now, Kerry said: “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” As we also know by now, this was apparently a botched joke, and it pretty quickly became clear that he didn’t mean to attack the troops’ intelligence, only their commander in chief’s.

No matter how clear such realities are, the political buzz machine is all too happy to obfuscate things, mincing words into ad copy to suit various agendas.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey explained the process during the Kerry flap even as he conceded that what Kerry said was just a slip-up. “It’s pretty standard-fare political discourse,” he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Tuesday. “You misconstrue what somebody said. You isolate a statement, you lend your interpretation to it, and then you feign moral outrage.”

Armey added that “the Democrats have been doing it for years,” and, of course, he’s right. Sloganism-as-national idiom isn’t a partisan tick. Here’s Kanye West’s post-Katrina mantra, although he didn’t so much reinterpret a statement as an entire agenda: “George Bush hates black people.” It mushroomed into a rallying cry for black America. Catchy, yes. True? Come on.

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Left to his own devices, a reasonable person of any political stripe could chalk this stuff up to empty theatrics. The problem is, we’re not left to our own devices. Before we have time to assess the facts, the political machine beats us to the punch, and then the media take their own swings, repeating the minced ideas and the controversy to feed the beast that is the 24-hour news cycle.

Inevitably, what’s minced is what sticks: The Dixie Chicks are commies. Kerry thinks the troops are stupid. Bush, in New Orleans, is part of an anti-black conspiracy.

But this is standard fare in a world that speaks -- and, in turn, thinks -- in boiled-down axioms that have little to do with the ideas that spawned them. As it happens, “Don’t Mess With Texas” originated 20 years ago as an anti-littering campaign. In what might even be a surprise to many Texans, the words were not a hurrah for state-bred machismo but rather a tag line that appeared on trash cans.

Now, “Support the Troops” has wandered off-message as well. We hear it all the time, but what, exactly, does it mean? Are we really talking about the well-being of those who serve, or is the Bush administration forcing our hands into an approving pat on the back?

“I support the troops” ought to translate easily into “I support the troops, not necessarily the war.” But thanks to a downward spiral of misconstrual, oversimplification and downright laziness, we’re increasingly relying on language that more or less nullifies actual intent. All too often, we’re not speaking in sentences and thoughts, just barely meaningful bites. “Don’t Mess With Texas” may be the most popular slogan, but it’s got plenty of dopey competition nipping at its heels.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com


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