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Levi’s urges youth to conquer Native Americans again

levisgoforth_body_lead_wideLevi’s has a new ad campaign that suggests American liberty is still a work in progress. One of its new videos has a voiceover reciting the Walt Whitman poem “O Pioneers” with youths dancing around a fire wearing Levi’s. [Watch video here: Levi\'s Commercial.] The recitation includes lines like

get your weapons ready;  Have you your pistols? … We, the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend… Fresh and strong the world we seize

Against whom are our weapons supposed to be used? Whose world are we seizing? Any 3rd grader could tell you:  Whitman is referring to the war against Native Americans by westward-bound settlers and the US army.

Does Levi’s want to celebrate that? Well, try to see it from Levi’s point of view: their company wouldn’t even exist if we hadn’t wiped out the Indians.

OK, trying to be a little more serious, Levi’s running this ad shows how we still don’t take seriously enough our Euro-American historical crimes. I know many people are tired of this topic. This is also a constant bone of contention between the Left and the Right, with the Right blaming the Left for apologizing too much and overlooking the great accomplishments of Western Civilization, like Individual Rights.

There is a middle ground: those of us of Euro-American heritage would be a lot more convincing on Individual Rights by acknowledging that we have had as much trouble applying them as anybody else. We were pioneers in applying them to our own ethnic group, but we kept handing out free passes to kill other people’s rights.

So no more holier-than-thou preaching about individual rights. At least, we have made progress on eroding some Double Standards: Jew and Gentile, White and Black, Man and Woman. Probably the worst Double Standard left is between rich and poor societies – we believe in Democracy in the former but not in the latter.  So let’s acknowledge how hard it has been, but keep striving for Liberty for All.

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7 Comments

  1. donna wrote:

    I despise this commercial and all the current Levis commercials. They have convinced me to never buy Levis again.

    Posted December 21, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  2. Ted H wrote:

    I’ve seen the ad a dozen times, but I never really listened so I never recognized the poem, I usually just tune out during ads.

    However, remember something though. Whitman’s poem is about Westward Expansion. When his poem first appeared in Leaves of Grass, in 1855, it was towards the very end of the Gold Rush (depending when you want to date it’s “end”). Whitman was largely writing about westward expansion – in particular the quest to find gold, and we know Levi’s has it’s origins in the Gold Rush. I believe that is what the ad is getting at. They are trying to tie the fervor of westward expansion to the historical origins of their jean company. I have no doubt they are using this poem to make the historical connection to their own company. I agree they could have been more sensitive to the Native American issue, but the historical context of the company and the poem makes it more clear why the poem was actually used. I’d give them a pass, as long as Levi’s recognizes the mistake. But since nobody has really brought the ad to their attention, I don’t expect that to happen.

    In terms of past injustices against others, it’s very simple to explain why Caucasian American’s don’t want to apologize and discuss it. One, it’s a nasty spot in our history. Two, no one currently living was responsible for any of this and who likes to apologize and discuss something they aren’t even remotely responsible for? It’s like how German’s don’t particularly like discussing the Holocaust, even though they are obviously apologetic for its occurrence.

    I don’t know what you mean by “taking serious” historical crimes, though. Surely a poor poem choice by for an ad of a company who selected it for other obvious reasons isn’t “Americans” spitting on historical crimes. We should teach it in history, and we do. We should explain to people why it was wrong and how society has evolved, and we do. I’m not sure what more we need to do, really. If you mean we should be more sensitive about it by, for example, not having offensive names for football teams or depicting them as violent in popular culture – I agree. But that is more leftover racism than nobody thinks about out of ignorance, rather than neglect of historical crimes.

    Finally, who in the world believes the poor don’t deserve democracy? You can argue the western world hasn’t done enough to facilitate democracy in poor societies, but to suggest that many people think the poor should live under totalitarian rule is patently absurd.

    PS: The poem is actually “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”, “O Pioneers!” is a novel by Willa Cather.

    Posted December 21, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  3. Kelly wrote:

    While we are on the topic of clueless and often self deprecating jeans commercials, does anyone remember a Wrangler Jeans commercial in 2002 where Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” played in the background? It was one of those hyper patriotic TV promos that came out in the wake of 9/11, in which happy looking, all-American families enjoyed fun summer times in Wrangler Jeans. The commercial borrowed the lyrics “some folks are made to wave the flag, oh they’re red, white and blue…” However, they conspicuously (and ironically) left out following verse “but when the band plays ‘Hail To The Chief,’ they point the cannon at you.” It isn’t enough that this song was directly designed to question the blind patriotism that ensued during the Vietnam War, it was mind numbing jingoism like this that led many Americans to support what amounts to the Vietnam of the 21st century, as the US invaded Iraq the following year.

    While the only correlation here is fact they are both companies that manufacture jeans, the valued lesson is that commercial enterprises like this honestly don’t care about the reality behind their messages, they just want to make money, and that the average consumer has too short of an attention span to care.

    Posted December 21, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  4. Devin wrote:

    “Finally, who in the world believes the poor don’t deserve democracy? You can argue the western world hasn’t done enough to facilitate democracy in poor societies, but to suggest that many people think the poor should live under totalitarian rule is patently absurd.”

    Come on, Ted, seriously? A group of almost entirely Saudi terrorists topple the world trade center towers and we respond by attacking…Iraq? And you don’t think this has anything to do with the fact the anti-democratic regime in Saudi Arabia is very cooperative with us in supplying oil?

    Pay attention to who our enemies are and who our friends are, and you’ll see that democracy doesn’t seem to be high on the list of attributes we’re looking for in a friend. We gladly work with any anti-democratic regime, regardless of how they might oppress their own people, as long as they are willing to cooperate with us and enable the “American life-style”.

    The article simply said we don’t believe in democracy for the poor world. That doesn’t necessarily mean we think they “should” suffer under totalitarian regimes…it just means we’re not really interested one way or another. Whatever system gets us our oil and other goodies at the lowest price is fine with us.

    Posted December 21, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  5. Oso wrote:

    Ted H.
    While I agree that the people responsible for the genocide are no longer living, the beneficiaries of the conquest are, and they still occupy the land. Since they are unwilling to leave or give any of the land back a simple “Sorry about 18 or 20 million dead dudes” isn’t asking a lot.

    Posted December 21, 2009 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  6. unfortunately HRI (http://handrelief.blogspot.com) was not around in those days. We would have easily organized some cash from USAID, set shop in a pleasant area of nebraska and engage in workshops and capacity building. we would have provided sustainable employment in the household support industry as well as in the new, sustainable, levi’s clothing cooperatives (“fabricated right here, by proud noble savages”).

    Posted December 22, 2009 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  7. Anja wrote:

    The whole campaign is so insensitive. I didn’t know until now that this video is part of it, but there’s also a print ad out that shows a guy in dirty shoes and pants, hiding his face, with the tag line “Will work for better times”. I see it every morning and get angry. That it’s right next to a New York subway entrance in winter only heightens the cruelty.

    Posted December 22, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

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  3. By uberVU - social comments on December 21, 2009 at 10:20 am

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by IdealistNYC: A very different type of post over at @aidwatch: http://ow.ly/OeFB. Is this @bill_easterly ‘s version of a holiday post?…