Just recently, in New York, I walked into a room intending to meet someone who I had no idea was Jamaican. Then I saw the black, green and gold hanging from the wall and anticipated immediate connection and a shared identity. The symbol gives me an immediate positive predisposition and it signals that there would be many angles of association.
So said, so done! In a few minutes, this talkative Portlander and I were remembering when 'de river come dung' in Shrewsbury, the big corner on the road in Fruitful Vale, and when Roof Club was really-rahtid-rockstone-to-reggae-Roof Club in Port Antonio.
So when I read online that people were dissing the Jamaican flag, I just needed to round the big corner to outrage. Many were online expressing anger, which is catching - like the flu virus. Plus, I've been just waiting on a cause to declare jihad against Germany after they beat Argentina in the last World Cup.
Then I watched the ad. It shows the flag being lit by accident, and then a massive show of support for Jamaica and Jamaican culture when it is mistakenly assumed that it was lit intentionally.
First thing: There's a world of difference between 'burning the flag' and 'showing the flag on fire'. Burning it involves intentionally setting the flag alight to communicate condemnation. Whatever else may be said about the ad, there is absolutely no condemnation of Jamaica in it. In fact, at the end of the piece, the flag is triumphantly and majestically unfurled.
Would I rather they hadn't used the flag in that way? Yes. I feel like telling them to find some other country's symbols to screw with. It can be distressing that we have such little control over our images and symbols, personally and as a country. And some kinds of recognition aren't worth it. It's like the guy who wrote me a complimentary note, but ended by "forgiving" me for belonging to an evil Church. Or being told: "You're all right for a black guy!" The recognition of Jamaica by the device of lighting up the flag had that uncomfortable edge. Thanks, but no thanks!
geopolitically neutral country
But I can also imagine that the ad-maker was searching for an easily identifiable, geopolitically neutral country that has strong positive associations for the story in the ad to work. If they used the flag of Estonia or Burkina Faso, nobody would recognise it, and nobody would give a damn.
Actually, I was always wary of the gushing happiness and gratitude over the Super Bowl VW ad. It trades on a stereotype about Jamaicans that happens to be mostly false, but serves us, I suppose, because it gets tourists to jump on planes and spend currency. Well, if the underlying message of the VW ad was that Jamaicans are laid-back and unbothered, the response to this one shows that it just isn't so. It's all fun and games until we sense a diss, then we turn into Movado, the watchgiver:
De last time mi check,
Mi nuh tek disrespeck! (Tell dem)
Nutten nuh corposet ... ."
If you didn't like the ad, I think the correct reaction would have been to ignore it, or go to the company's website and give them a piece of your mind. Cuss off dem BC, yes! So it's not the retching at the ad that bothers me, but the demand for an apology does. And then the demand for action through the Government seemed way over the top.
The company has now apologised for hurting our feelings, which is to take something ridiculous and make it absurd. Demanding an apology was like giving an obscure middle European company power over Jamaica, as if the country's reputation had to be vindicated by extracting confessions of error from some Germanic misfits. This is not the behaviour of a confident people.
Now to the political reaction, because however bad a situation may be, we can rely on the typical political response to worsen it. The Gleaner reported that "Olivia Grange, the opposition spokesperson on culture, urged the Jamaican Government to immediately write to the German Embassy in Jamaica highlighting the situation."
Other politicians subsequently jumped into the fray of self-righteous indignation and demands for contrition. I want a requirement for politicians to think about what they're saying before hurriedly firing off press releases.
Come now, Olivia. What situation? Was this nonsense to set off an international incident? Perhaps government-to-government parlay on Switzerland's neutral territory? What I want from a senior politician is a sense that not everything offensive requires governmental intervention. Plus, a moment's reflection will tell you it's not the German government that authored, paid for, or promoted this ad.
Furthermore, what exactly would the Jamaican Government be asking the German government to do in this 'situation'? Imagine if a Jamaican company made an ad with the German flag on fire as a pretext to praise Germany and sell some product. Should the Jamaican Government intervene to forcibly remove the ad and discipline the company? Have we lost our goddamn minds? Maybe Yellowman should expect a belated letter from the Chinese government about 'Mr Chin'. What, after all, is, "Ung lang shang lang ung lang pie ..." but Cantonese on fire?
I suppose the makers of television advertisements face the same difficulty as your average politician: "How do I get people to pay attention to me?"
People who make it their business to look for offence are almost certain to find it, and often too. The world doesn't operate to coddle us and cater to our (apparently) increasingly fragile sensibilities.
Plus, respecting the flag is not the same as blasphemously worshipping it or expecting others to. I hope this subtlety isn't too much, and I wish we had paused before marching down this silly road of extracting apologies. Based on some of the comments, it's just a matter of time before there's a movement outlawing cutting a lignum vitae flower, harming an ackee pod, or desecrating a blue mahoe in the Church of the Holy Swallow Tail Humming Bird.
Well, I'm not on board with all that. I already have a religion, and I'm not looking for another one.
Daniel Thwaites is a partner of the Thwaites Law Firm in Jamaica, and Thwaites, Lundgren & D'Arcy in New York. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.