The recent reports of the introduction of ‘9/11 Memorial Commemorative Merlot’ and ‘Memorial Commemorative Chardonnay’ by Lieb Family Cellars, a Long Island winery, has inspired reactions ranging from rage to disgust to macabre curiosity. The wine producer’s intention behind the sale of the wine is, at least partially, to raise funds for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to which 6% to 10% of the sales proceeds will be donated. Anthony Bourdain, the chef and author whose show ‘No Reservations’ can be seen on the Food Network, has added his two cents to the public outrage by declaring the marketing ploy, as some are calling it, as ‘vomit inducing’ and ordered the restaurant where he once worked, Les Halles, to remove it from its list. Apparently, they did.
The ploy, if indeed that’s what it amounts to, has certainly raised the public profile of the winery, in which case, making their high-publicity move a success. In marketing, any kind of press, good or bad, is good press.
My thoughts about this, though, center around the reactions of the public, the media, and celebrities. I find the ire raised by 9/11 wine to be both understandable and yet, curious. Certainly, Lieb Family Cellars can be accused of taking advantage of an event that was a horrific national trauma, a culturally offensive move worthy of harsh criticism and maybe condemnation. But in time, once the current wrath dies down and the news cycle has moved on the next and newest sideshow, people will forget and life will have moved on.
However, how does the 9/11 Commemorative wine differ in principle from the many instances of similar exploitations for the sake of profit and entertainment?
For instance, and I will cite several, Americans enjoy professional sports teams that bear offensive references to the dignified Indigenous peoples of the North American continent ravaged by genocide and, for their survivors, extreme marginalization – the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves (whose fans display the ‘Tomahawk Chop’ during games), the Chicago Blackhawks, to name only a few. And in college sports – the St. John’s Redmen, Florida State Seminoles, among many others.
What about the co-opting of the language of the Indigenous peoples of this continent? Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Nebraska, Arizona, Wisconsin, Illinois, Mississippi – examples of lands whose names are extracted from the vocabulary of the very people those lands originally and rightfully belong to.
What about publicity-producing moves by savvy celebrities who recognize the American public will gravitate to ‘freakshow’ demonstrations that are crafted with the intention of drawing attention and garnering sales?
Lady Gaga wearing a dress made of raw meat or bearing dysmorphic prostheses to suggest horns on her head and grotesque protrusions from other parts of her body; Madonna, whose provocatively paradoxical public name is itself offensive to many Catholics, publishing a book about her sexual expressions and wearing outfits of contradiction featuring crucifixes and dominatrix attire; Andy Golub’s bodypainting of nude models for public display; Andy Kaufman wrestled women and faked very real-looking public fisticuffs with Jerry Lawler on the David Letterman Show; the outlandish, to some, costumes of Liberace or Elton John; even non-celebrities got in on the act as evidenced by the father in Colorado who faked the homemade hot-air balloon carrying away his 6 year old son in an effort to get a tv show; and of course, the entire universe of ‘reality tv’ where participants are often encouraged by producers, or self-motivated, to be controversial, contentious, and comedic just for higher ratings.
Two movies from the 70’s showed us, astutely, the cynicism of our age – ‘Network’ and ‘Taxi Driver’. In the former, a cleverly ambitious news executive, played brilliantly by Faye Dunaway, exploits what appears to be the gradual and very public emotional and mental collapse of its news anchor; and in the latter, we witness the progressive derangement of a New York City cab driver whose social alienation, discontent and increasing paranoia drive him to murder at which point, and only then, does he gain any recognition on the front-pages of sensationalism.
Circuses, which for millenia have offered rings of entertainment, now typically three, force animals, once wild, always sensitive and beautiful, into the captive life of transient, depressing servitude, forced to perform for the delight of a squealing public.
We cheer and yell as men, and women too, battle each other in rings and cages, exchanging blows and blood.
When boycotts are organized by special-interest groups protesting an offensive display of some kind through cinema or song, the lines of people buying tickets grows; when rappers claim to have a ‘beef’ with each other, whether real or staged, album sales go up; when a politician or media figure (think George Wallace or Rush Limbaugh) does or says something offensive it strengthens their base as their detractors grow more vehemently vocal.
In so many ways we see reflections of a national soul still seeking a cohesive identity that remains elusive. And maybe that is the point – to retain the diversity, even to extreme degrees, to reinforce to the individual that he has a vein in the nation’s circulation of ideas and aspirations into which he can inject his own personality and narrative. In a pool of myriad creative expressions, political philosophies, and shifting policies at all levels – personal, institutional, local, regional, national – we are invited to observe, to consider, to reflect, to define, to initiate, and to react however choose.
But I wonder how much time and space of silence we are taking to carefully weigh our contribution to a society that seems to be falling apart in all directions? How much responsibility are we willing to admit for what we perceive as social ills – or social evolution? After all, the whole is the sum of its parts and in the case of modern America it may be the case that the whole is far less than the sum of its parts.
Our greatest resource, as a nation, is not the U.S. Constitution, not our military might, not the free market economy, nor our democracy or historical republicanism – no.
Our greatest resource as a nation is what it is for the world, for all races, tribes, communities, and times – it is the individual. It is the individual mind that imagines and discovers, the heart that feels and reaches out compassionately, the soul that embraces, with or without understanding, saying yes to all. It is the child whose ideas of peace, however seemingly simplistic and fanciful, must be heard and integrated meaningfully into the efforts and halls of diplomacy; it is the mother, the wife, whose toils, always with tomorrow in view, have so much wise counsel to add to our global complexion; it is the man whose way of being, when balanced between the active masculine and receptive feminine energies, has much more to offer than the false promises of patriarchy.
So, as each of us gives thought to any issue of our time, or of our day, whether major or minor, let us inject our personal soul into the makeup of thought and carefully consider, with a more thoughtful view of things, whether we ourselves have any share of the judgments and condemnation we project onto others.
More importantly, let us, when viewing others admirably – especially public figures from ‘God’ to the celebrated artist to the President – look for in our own selves the same qualities, the same DNA, and the same potential for greatness and genius. In doing so, it just may be that the world of people and achievements we deem worthy of celebration and emulation will include, and even be led, by us.