No extinguisher, big problem

Published: Sunday | March 3, 2013 Comments 0
Carolyn Cooper
Carolyn Cooper

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

Those German men in that inflammatory Saturn ad should have had a fire extinguisher in their tiny kitchen. Even if the Jamaican flag did 'catch a fire' like the Bob Marley and the Wailers album, there would have been no need to take it to the streets. The fire could have been extinguished immediately, and an international incident would have been averted.

Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs wouldn't have had to issue a statement on the improper use of the Jamaican flag, including an appeal to the appliance manufacturer to "repair this most unfortunate breach". Olivia 'Babsy' Grange, JLP spokesperson on culture, wouldn't have needed to call on Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to take up the matter at the highest diplomatic levels.

All of the fuss over the ad is a classic example of life imitating art, or, more accurately, artifice. The real-life protest mirrors the outrage of the masses of 'Germaican' fans in the fictitious drama who invest cultural capital in our flag and what it represents: a nation of people who excel in all sorts of fields.

And beyond all reasonable expectations! How could Jamaicans really think we could compete internationally at winter sports? Quite easily! Bobsledding is no big deal. We have a history of go-kart racing. Freestyle skiing? 'A no nutten dat!' Errol Kerr certainly carried our flag with grand style at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The high visibility of the Jamaican flag on the world stage, particularly at the Olympics, both summer and winter, is the very reason it was selected for 'desecration' in the Saturn ad. Which other nation's flag would have excited that extreme response? Cynics will argue that our flag was abused in order to cut Jamaicans down to size. They've missed the point.

HATE CRIMES

The protesters in the ad can be forgiven for their righteous anger. They don't know the whole story. Viewers of the ad have no excuse. They know that the real culprit is a defective coffee machine. That's what caused the fire. It forced the endangered men to turn a private matter into a most public affair. Their cramped living quarters could not contain the fire, so they end up trampling the Jamaican flag in full view of surveillance cameras.

The burning flag becomes national news. A female news anchor announces, "Our top story today: rioting on streets, as burning Jamaican flag leads to countrywide protests." A diplomat in an international setting declares, "We all love Jamaica. These people are burning the Jamaican flag!" A baffled journalist at the scene of the 'crime' asks, "The question is: Why all this hatred?" Of course, it's not hatred at all. It's admiration.

Though I'm quite willing to concede that the Saturn ad was well intentioned, I must admit that I do find it troubling. The burning flag is the least of the issues. The average Jamaican is not going to go out on any demonstration because the national flag got burnt accidentally. I suspect that most of us watching that Saturn ad would just kiss our teeth and ask how come 'di eedyat man dem never throw lickle water pon di flag an out di fire inna di kitchen, an no tek it outa road'.

What struck me most forcibly was the way in which the Jamaican flag got caught up in a specifically European culture of political violence. 'How we get mix up into dat?' When a black man is interviewed on the street, his immediate response to the crime is retaliation: "If they burn our flag, I'm going to burn theirs." It's now a racialised hate crime.

Despite the apparent affirmation of the power of Jamaican identity as represented by the flag, the Saturn ad seems to be feeding on fears of foreign culture. Asserting national identity in Europe remains a huge issue. Citizens carefully draw lines that separate insiders and outsiders. So why are Germans hugging up Jamaican culture?

BURNING QUESTIONS

Ellen Koehlings and Pete Lilly, co-editors of Riddim, Germany's upscale reggae/dancehall magazine with a bimonthly circulation of 45,000, ask a penetrating question in their chapter of the Global Reggae book: "How did it come about that youths from European countries without significant Caribbean communities are able and motivated to recreate something that is genuinely Jamaican in origin but can, to a certain extent, even compete with what's happening in Jamaica today?"

Ellen and Pete argue that German folk music had been taken over by the Nazis and so was discredited. This music could not, therefore, be embraced as the source of modern pop songs. So German youth tuned into the music of Britain and the United States to find a language to express their 'post-Holocaust' identity.

Then they discovered Bob Marley, who embodied the spirit of rebellion against 'ism and schism'. So the Jamaican flag and the reggae soundtrack of the Saturn ad are both signs of German identification with a 'cool' culture. But why Murderer? I much prefer the 'get in and get happy' vibe of the VW Super Bowl ad.

Both ads celebrate German technology. But the scenes of social chaos in the Saturn ad are problematic. The image of Jamaica is tainted by association with street violence. When the new coffee machine goes on and the only flames are in the street, the voice of authority declares, "The world needs better technology. Saturn: that's what technology should be all about." But the ad is not all about that.

Bowing to the demands of literal-minded fanatics, protocol experts, humourless viewers, incompetent readers of signs, etc., etc., the electronics company has done the decent thing. It has pulled the ad. But the flames of dissent have not been entirely doused. If Saturn doesn't already do so, it needs to start manufacturing extinguishers. For all sorts of fire!

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.

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