“Use the force, Luke,” says Obi-Wan Kenobi in the great epic film by Modesto’s most famous former resident. Luke’s problem is he doesn’t believe what he’s capable of. Once the belief’s in place, Luke has powers comparable to those of the legions of super-heroes who preceded him in fantasy fiction.
Belief is the key that releases the super-hero’s power. In The Matrix, the cyper-punk fantasy set in a machine-dominated future, Neo must realize his capabilities by believing in them. The powers of belief are indeed impressive, but they’re more effective warping reality than overcoming it.
Denial and wishful thinking, the likely roots of super-hero fantasy, are harmless as long as they’re confined to comic books, epic film, and science fiction. Sometmes, though, they exhibit themselves in deceptively harmful ways in the form of “branding” and sloganeering. These two fetishes of modern marketing more often conceal problems than solve them. The late John Michael Flint found attempts to make Stanislaus County “The Stanislaus River Valley,” amusing, and he’d likely have had a field day with “Family Owned and Operated,” the latest attempt to “re-brand” Modesto.
When “Family Owned and Operated” had its brief flight in the sun, a short life of less than a week, it spawned countless feeble attempts at wit, most of them involving some play on the Gallo name. The jokes, like the slogan, fell flat.
Modesto’s regular appearance on the “Worst Cities” lists of organizations like Forbes is an ongoing source of shame, but many of our residents simply deny the crime, the foreclosures, and the unsustainable planning that make the low ratings obvious. Instead, every time another low ranking is published we get a chorus of cheer leaders chanting, “We’re Number One,” followed by serious concern over our “image problem.”
And for those who’ve profited handsomely from overbuilding and underfunding, Modesto really is the best of all possible worlds. Securely ensconced in the best neighborhoods, their selective vision excludes by default negative realities. These of course, are the same people for whom “accountability” and “responsibility” are overemployed buzz words, as long as they apply to others.
It’s not easy to deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes with knowing you’re a mover and shaker, a community leader, a pillar in fact, of a city consistently ranked at or near the bottom of cities nationwide. Denial and wishful thinking are not only necessary, they need augmentation in the form of slogans, chants and brands. It’s difficult to support business as usual in the face of facts that shout we need change. The tyranny of the status quo is in part accomplished by saying, “It ain’t so,” as you reach for your branding iron.
Given Modesto’s enduring occupation of the bottom, we might be better off reaching for a ballot than a branding iron, and casting a vote for change. Those who need guidance on who to vote for can ask Bruce Frohman, for starters.