Oklahoma iconography from the latter half of the twentieth-century to today has been carefully manipulated by the state’s corporate power structure for less than altruistic reasons. This has left the state with a weird, iconic cabal of ultra-conservative cowboy-singer types, from Reba McIntire to Brooks & Dunn to Toby Keith.
Our icons serve as models for Oklahomans, and they tell the world how to view our state.
So it is extremely unfortunate for all of us that the state’s power structure does not broaden its definition of what makes an Okie a famous icon.
I think of this issue after considering how the mainstream media recently conducted printed and visual worship services for Toby Keith, the state’s warmongering country singer. On top of the list, of course, is The Daily Oklahoman, which devoted a chunk of its new “publication,” Look@OKC, to the opening of Keith’s new Bricktown restaurant.
So this is what we are supposed to worship; here are some lyrics from Keith’s song, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”
Justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
You’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.
'Cause we'll PUT a boot in your ass
It's the American way
And, of course, we have to ponder Toby Keith on posters paid for by the Great Oklahoma Library Association. There is Keith, lying down, with the vernacular expression “Read Y’ALL” next to him. There is much wrong with this poster, which is part of the fight against illiteracy in the state. First, there is Keith himself, certainly not a model of reading or academia. Then there is the expression, “y’all,” which contradicts any sense that this illiteracy effort is based on sound reading and writing principles.
So here is Keith serving as both the icon of American military might and empire and Oklahoma reading and intelligence. It is tragic. I think the Iraq war has proven it is wrong to base our foreign policy on “we’ll PUT a boot in your ass/It’s the American way.” And there are plenty of wonderful people in the world of Oklahoma academia who could serve as intellectual and "reader" models besides Keith.
Meanwhile Oklahoma has plenty of true heroes, from Woody Guthrie to Will Rogers to Ralph Ellison to Scott Momaday. There are also the current performers, Kristin Chenowith, who is apparently on one of the library posters, and Megan Mullally. Mullally stars on the television show "Will and Grace." (This show, of course, contains sympathetic depictions of gay people.) Or what about the legendary Frosty Troy, the tireless editor of the progressive journal, The Oklahoma Observer? He should absolutely be on a state library poster, not Keith.
But the relentless, self-serving Oklahoma power structure, made up of filthy-rich corporate owners and executives, choose the state icons carefully with their greedy interests in mind. They do not care if people can read; in fact, they would prefer you to remain stupid so they can steal your money.
Fortunately, some people in the state are starting to recognize this manipulation has left the state with shallow, fleeting icons who represent hollow ideology and commercial interests. The site, Oklahomans For Global Solutions, recently published articles related to Oklahoma’s true heroes, virtually all of whom are progressive. I have also tried to deal with this problem in how we intrepret Oklahoma history and the state's icons with my “ Okie Rebels With A Cause” series. (Just click on the category on the right side of the blog.) In addition, the Oklahoma Independent Media Center offers an alternative view to the local corporate, mainstream media.
It is simply immoral that the right-wing corporate media ignores the state’s true, progressive history. Moral, Oklahoma progressives helped to win all of us retirement, the concept of the five-day work week, and health insurance. Woody Guthrie and Will Rogers once worked to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, but the local, corporate, right-wing media distort their legacies.
Here are some Woody Guthrie song lyrics, written during The Great Depression, which will live on forever. These lyrics are from “This Land Is Your Land.”
One Sunday morning
In the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office
I seen my people
As they stood hungry
I stood there whistling this:
This land was made for you and me.
Guthrie’s legacy lives on and will continue to live on for centuries. Keith is just a part of the prevailing corporate interests.