Live TV
O,the power of the letter!

O,the power of the letter!

The syllable has taken on a political and cultural life of its own

The syllable has taken on a political and cultural life of its own
“O for a muse of fire,” the Chorus declaims at the start of Shakespeare’s Henry V. It celebrates a youthful,inspiring national leader. Imagine a slightly different play. It,too,celebrates a youthful,inspiring national leader,except this play’s not history. Call the play Barack I. It starts the same way Shakespeare’s does,only the emphasis comes on the very first syllable: “O”.

You already know what the poster looks like. O is the letter of the hour. It’s all things to all men (all women,too): open and opaque,old and original,opinionated and objective,organic and opportunistic,outstanding and overdone,ordinary and ostentatious,oratorical and oracular.
Time named the November 17,2008 New Yorker,with Bob Staake’s illustration of the “o” in the magazine’s name hanging over the Lincoln Memorial like a full moon,as cover of the year. The cover,Time suggests,“whispers ‘Everything’s okay now—we have our country.’”

O is constant and self-contained. O is the symbol for oxygen. It also has a numerical near-twin,zero,and the two can seem as indistinguishable at times as Sarah Palin and Tina Fey. That indistinguishability is the letter’s symbolic limitations. One voter’s O is another’s 0. The letter is as much absence as presence,no less likely to be uttered as lamentation as delight.
It was O rings that undid the space shuttle Challenger. A fuzzy red O was the logo for Lucent,that strange hybrid of frenzy and industrial dinosaur. Uh-oh—or,better yet,uh-O.

The mystique of the Obama O began with the campaign logo. Combining understatement and assertion,it’s visual sloganeering at its most economically eloquent.
The elements are simplicity itself. The colours are the standard patriotic trio: red,white,blue—with a subtle difference. The blue is sky blue,evoking a sense of promise as well as a pleasing sense of variation (innovation?).


Another flag allusion is the set of curved stripes that cover the lower half of the circle. Are they plowed fields or roads? That ambiguity is one of the design’s few weaknesses. Another,which can just as well be seen as a strength,is its vaguely feminine quality: all curves,no sharp edges. Is it too much to also read a bit of the Tao in the design? The logo does have a faintly New Age feel. Call it Uncle Sam Mystical.

Pepsi,knowing a bandwagon when it sees one,has rolled out a new ad campaign that piggybacks on this mutual O-ness.
This isn’t the first time a letter has taken on a political/cultural life of its own. O’s usually come with X’s,and that’s the case here. A quarter century after his murder,Malcolm X became a cultural phenomenon and X,a very different proposition from O both visually and metaphorically,became the letter of that equally different cultural hour.

X’s angularity is confrontational,yet X is also the classic indicator of anonymity. The contrast with O—no sharp edges,a void,a blank space waiting to be filled in (as on a ballot?)—is obvious. Yet X and O,as any tic-tac-toe player knows,are an inevitable,even necessary,pairing. They’re counterparts. And so it is with Malcolm and Obama. The separatist activist who became a Muslim vs. the assimilationist politician who had a Muslim father. Conversely,just as slender,intense,light-skinned Malcolm was a gifted orator and writer,so is Obama.

George W. Bush has been a letter man,too. His letter has two syllables,dubya. The clunkier sound is indicative of a more muddled cultural significance generally. W signifies a win,but such triumphalism doesn’t quite gibe with W.,the fashion magazine,let alone the dimwit thrust of W. the Bush biopic.
O for a muse of fire,yes,but W for a muse of ire.