Saturday, March 26, 2011

One Nation, Indivisible?: Rebranding American History (#redallover)

The United States Soccer Federation has revealed a new uniform and a new motto to go with it: "Indivisible." The single world slogan is the product of a "crowd sourcing" campaign, in which fans were encouraged to submit their ideas to team-sponsor Nike. Dubbed "Red All Over," the project created a lot of buzz and raised a big question: Why would the USSF want to replace the old motto, "Don't Tread on Me"? 
Grant Wahl suggested (via Twitter) that the Red All Over re-branding was provoked by The Tea Party's appropriation of the colonial image of a coiled rattlesnake and "Don't Tread on Me" as its official emblem. (He also explained that "Yes we can" - another popular suggestion - is similarly partisan.) I can imagine a number of factors prompted this campaign, but this suggestion stands to reason and Wahl is as good authority on this matter as any.

Perhaps I just want to believe that the USSF is purposefully taking a step to disassociate itself with what the Tea Party represents.

The need to refuse any identification with the increasingly fascistic character of the anti-immigrant far right is particularly important for US soccer fans, given the political and social diversity of its community of players and fans. The sport has long been identified as an immigrant sport (which masks the very high profile of immigrant families in other sports, like baseball), it is played and watched by women (and this is a distinctive aspect of soccer culture in the US), and it is the one major sport in the US that is not isolationist - our participation in football culture expresses a desire for a relationship with the rest of the world, and we enter into that playing field not as a powerhouse, but as a respected, and hard-working side. (This is slightly different for the women, but more and more, the women's team is one good team among other good teams - a fact that fans celebrate.)

Before looking more closely at what that word "Indivisible" represents, let's consider the emblem the USSF has put to bed. As most readers well know, that emblem has a long and rich history - which is exactly why the Tea Party is drawn to it.
There are two separate aspects to the core image for this emblem - the image of the rattlesnake, and the motto. The conjunction of the two in a flag dates to 1775: the "Gadsden Flag" was flown on the flagship for the newly formed "Continental Navy" and found on revolutionary Marine corp drums - this image in fact still functions as an emblem for the U.S. Marine Corp.
Gadsden Flag, as we know it today.
Rattlesnakes appear all over colonial culture: on coins, flags, and in writing about American identity. They are paired with different slogans: In an 1751 political cartoon authored by Benjamin Franklin, "Join, or Die" captioned the image of a snake cut into pieces - a reference to the need for the colonies to band together in opposition to colonial power. In other images (e.g. the flag for the Culpeper Minutemen) the snake is coupled with the stark declaration: "Liberty or Death."

Benjamin Franklin's 1751 political cartoo
The venomous rattler is native to the Americas: this is the primary reason they emerge as a symbol of opposition and independence. Benjamin Franklin helped its career along with an essay, "The Rattlesnake as a Symbol of America" (1775). His observations in that essay help explain why it is still a compelling symbol for certain kinds of political formations - but they also suggest that its appropriateness as a symbol for the US soccer team is perhaps mixed, at best. In his view, it is an elegantly defensive reptile: "ever vigilant," "she never begins an attack," he observed, "nor, once engaged, ever surrenders." The snake, as he characterizes her, is wholly defensive - the rattles are there to warn "stay away," what poisons others is necessary to her survival. This makes a lot of sense as a military emblem (even if it conflicts with the US's post WWII "preemptive strike" ethos). The image is both nativist (in the right wing-sense) and isolationist.

In 1751, however, he used the same snake in an entirely different kind of polemic. Responding the practice of shipping felons to the New England colonies, Franklin suggested sending rattlesnakes across the Atlantic as a fair exchange: "this exporting of felons to the colonies, may be considered as a trade, as well as in the light of a favor. Now all commerce implies returns: justice requires them: there can be no trade without them. And rattle-snakes seem the most suitable returns for the human serpents sent us by out mother country." He goes on to say that England gets the better half of the trade, for at least the snake gives a warning before it strikes. Here the rattlesnake does not represent the colonists - it represents in fact a toxic element that endangers colonial health. Unfortunately, today we see Franklin's polemic cited by anti-immigrant groups - who are always on the hunt for bits of American history which they might re-purpose in order to legitimize reactionary politics.

Complicating this story is another national emblem involving a snake:

Mexico's coat of arms has its own complicated history - it is an appropriation of an image embodying the founding myth of Tenochtitlan - Mexico City. The cactus represents the island on which the city was built, and the eagle stands for the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli. Within that tradition, the snake signals Coatlicue - who is something like "mother earth." From what I can tell (and I am far from an expert on Mesoamerican icons), the image of the snake being devoured is a colonial hybrid - a transposition of Judeo-Christian mythology onto a Tenochtitlan origin story. This may be why the Mexican football federation emblem does not feature said snake. El Tri may want to recuperate the hybrid image, however, as a nod to its border rivalry. Or not.

In any case, the rattlesnake is not much of a team player, it has a shady history, and it appears on the Mexico's flag, caught in Huitzilopochtli's beak. Not a place the USSF wants to be, really. But I digress: By losing the snake, the USSF is disassociating itself from Tea Party politics, and in choosing this word "Indivisible," it is also trying to disentangle itself from the generally hateful nature of nationalist rhetoric.

"Indivisible" is not an uncomplicated choice, however. The word is a clear reference to the pledge of allegiance - written in the 1890s by Francis Bellamy, a Socialist minister. (Yes, you read that right.) The original pledge went roughly like this:
"I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all."
It was first read to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage, and it was written - of course - in a wave of nationalist panic, formed in reaction to immigration patterns and the changing demographics of the U.S. That pledge was used in schools until the 1920s, when it was revised slightly to read:
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all." 
The phrase "one nation under God" was inserted in 1954. Incredibly, given the name for Nike's campaign (Red All Over), this was during the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, and was done as a way to distinguish the U.S. from "godless communists." 

Adding to yet another layer of complexity and ambivalence to this story: the word "indivisible" is a clear reference to the Civil War: It is an assertion of the triumph of "union" over secession - but, as is the way of such things, in asserting the indivisibility of the nation, the pledge of allegiance raises the specter of disunion as a latent possibility.

Which brings us back around to the current state of affairs. The assertion of "Indivisible" as the national team's motto could not be more apt, for, in signaling the team's unity as its strength, the USSF is doing so precisely in reaction against the culture of hate and fear propagated by the far right, in a campaign provoked by that movement's theft of the team's motto.

"Indivisible" is quite literally the least divisive (or do I mean divisible?) of the proposed slogans entertained seriously by Nike and the US Soccer Federation. That said, no slogan or motto for a national team will ever banish the sinister shadow of nationalism's enterprise.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (1989-90)


  1. I think you have some good thoughts on the politics of branding. However, from pictures I've seen of the red jersey, the DTOM snake is still on the inside of the jersey. I think the Indivisible moniker is just another PR move while DTOM will remain the motto of the team. At least, that's as far as I can tell.

  2. Thanks for commenting! I've also seen this: Somehow I think the inclusion of the logo on the inside of the Jersey proves the point even more starkly. It's so strongly identified with the team (e.g. Dempsey's awesome rap video 'Don't Tread on This') that there'd have to be a darn'd good reason to "rebrand" the team with a campaign like #redallover. Wahl's suggestion is the best explanation I've seen - "Indivisible" is a really good result!

  3. Initially I raised my eyebrows, but now I must admit that I like the new motto. I think people need to develop more solidarity and team spirit, these days, and Sport should serve that purpose.

    Do you remember when they had to change their renowned slogan "JUST DO IT" because of the Church interference?

    I hope Pope Ratzinger will like it this time!
    Cheers, July

  4. One of the great ironies of the Tea Party appropriation of the colonial rattlesnake imagery (and one of the reasons why it was so appropriate for US Soccer) was that it was an explicit argument for Federalism--a strong centralized government to unite the disparate interests of the colonies. "Join or Die" is an explicit argument against the "states' rights" or "limited government" interests of many Tea Partiers, but it's an incredibly apt slogan for the fractured and distinctly un-unified US soccer landscape.

    I'm okay with "Indivisible" (would have preferred "Out of Many, One" if only for stylistic reasons), though if I think about it I don't know if I actually believe in them as slogans. At least it wasn't "Manifest Destiny" or "Mission Accomplished" I guess.

  5. Franklin's suggestion re: felons was from 1751, not 1851 (when he was long dead).

  6. @michaelddwyer Spot-on analysis - thank you for posting it!

    @amoral, funny & weird blog.

    @dagaita - thank you for catching the type o!

  7. A German friend asked me why our politicians talk about "unity" so often. He's from a country that often de-links national identity from patriotism. There was an open debate over whether or not the enthusiasm for their MNT was a good thing or not.

    This blog (the best) linked me to a video clip of Slavoj Zizek, who usually frustrates me but had a very good point. International Soccer hedges against a crude ethnic nationalism. Slovenija cannot assemble a competitive eleven and stick to a right-wing definition of Slovenian.

    The NPD in Germany, composed of dissembling fascists, issued a poster with a Black German national player and the slogan "White isn't just the color of the jersey!"

    When the US team plays, some fans learn where Ghana and Slovenija are and we end up saying things like "You can't underestimate so-and-so."

    When sport is good (besides those times when it is beautiful) that is mostly an accident. Such accidents are generated by this blog and ought to be generated by sporting federations.

  8. @Murfmensch Always a pleasure to have your comments on this blog. I love that Zizek interview, smart, honest and hilarious.

  9. I love it! but I just wanna say I'm so sorry that a yahoo blog has linked to you, you're bound to get inundated with all sorts of comments...

  10. meh, shite reasons in my opinion. DTOM has always been a great motto. England still calls us the colonies, most teams don't worry about us still. So be it, settle score, touch me again for the words you will hear ever more! DON'T TREAD ON ME!
    Screw the people who whine and complain about the motto. Really. If you can't reference the history to it because some political group uses the same thing, go play lacrosse.

  11. @Brit: Dirty Tackle's readers are welcome here! And Robert: Hilarious! Though I think problem I have with some of the fan-culture around the USMNT is a kindof outdated antagonism w/ England - outdated because that's an old world relation that is only one thin slice of the colonial history for the US, and because England just isn't a worthy rival these days!

    And, readers: at some point I'll be posting a rant about what looks like it might be the women's shirt - which looks like a nurses's uniform.


Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

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