It was a dark and stormy night – well, at least it was late afternoon and they said there was a thirty percent chance of rain – it felt worthy of being dark and stormy because someone was about to do something truly horrible: the passenger window of the minivan rolled down as it passed us and a pale hand slowly nudged its way out like a cautious gopher. The hand held a crumpled shiny something that fluttered in the fitful breeze. The slightly pudgy fingers on the pale hand flicked briefly, detaching the shiny something. With the low hum of the minivan’s engine and they were gone.
That’s right, we had seen a litterbug.
If you have spent any time driving in the US, you have certainly seen the signs that read: Litter and it will hurt, or Littering will cost you, or something similar with the threat of a significant fine ranging from $100 to $3000. Freeways, highways, byways, most county roads, many city streets, sometimes even podunk little backstreets have these signs. Given the signage, it makes you think littering is pretty awful.
Luckily, in 1953, Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi-Co, and Coca-Cola put their heads together and created Keep America Beautiful (KAB). They launched their ‘Crying Indian’ campaign on Earth Day, 1971, with the slogan: ‘People start pollution. People can stop it.’
Iron Eyes Cody is the star of this little piece, famous for his roles depicting Native Americans in such classics as Pale Face, A Man Called Horse, and Big Trail. Cody always played the role of a Native American, and the life he lived followed suit.
Iron Eyes Cody was an Italian, born in southern Louisiana, named Espera Oscar de Corti. Margaret and I visited Gueydan, Louisiana, the small town where Iron Eyes Cody, nee Oscar de Corti, grew up. People there knew of the name, but not much else.
We decided to have a visit at a local retirement home to see if any of the old folks there remembered the de Corti family. Upon entering the facility, we realized that it was one of those care homes that specializes in dementia and Alzheimer’s care. Memory lane turned out to be more akin to an old abandoned logging road on a fault line.
Small towns are wonderful for their connections. It turned out that one of the nurses at the care home was related to the man whose memory we were tracking down. The nurse miraculously happened to be Oscar de Corti’s nephew’s niece. She didn’t have much to tell us about Uncle Oscar, but that she knew he was famous.
I find it poetic that Oscar de Corti was the man chosen as the star of the Crying Indian commercials. The same ethic that dresses an Italian up in native garb to tap into a stereotype with staggeringly false sincerity, matches the distraction of anti-littering campaigns. Litter is a bit of a red herring in my mind for two reasons.
First of all, the moral of anti-littering campaigns is simply proper waste disposal: make sure you throw it away in a garbage can. Instead, reducing waste by avoiding our manifold forms of excess packaging and disposable products is a solution that gets closer to the root of the problem. Second, litter is the most superficial way of looking at waste and devoting so many resources to it provides us with a false sense of achievement: our roadways are clean and pretty, yay! The problem has simply been beautified.
The great project of Keep America Beautiful isn’t really much more than teaching people to use a garbage can. Aren’t you glad they spend so much money on it?