Happy New Jersey Street Signs

This story came up on the World Service yesterday about a New Jersey city that has installed “happy street signs” in an attempt to improve residents’ lives and outlooks:


When I heard the love-in this received from the media I became quite angry. About one third of this mostly black city live in poverty, in 2012 it was ranked the 6th most dangerous city in the United States and it has an unemployment rate of 11.4%. These are serious problems. Maybe the reason why people in Newark are unhappy is because they are unsafe and poor, and they have incredibly limited life chances in a city in which only 68% of residents aged 25 or over have graduated from high school. “But don’t worry.” the mayor says, “There’s a campaign putting happy signs on the street courtesy of DEPT OF WELLBEING!”

You can look DOW up if you like. I’m not going to post a link to them because I don’t want to be any more personally responsible for giving them traffic than I already am. The goal of these street signs is to create a viral internet campaign for an advertising company, plain and simple. How do I know? Well for one thing they’ve got a British artist in the publicity. If this was an actual grassroots movement they would have got artists from their own city involved, and it wouldn’t have crossed their mind to cross the Atlantic. Second, the mayor is up there talking about how he’s from advertising and advertising is about encouraging people to buy things they don’t need and he wants a positive campaign for a change – which is exactly what an advertising campaign does.

I’m not saying that local people making things is a bad thing, but I’m angry that this is a very, very disingenuous ploy and that nothing I’ve read or heard from the media has been critical. The street signs could have had genuinely engaging, provocative or subversive messages like “You are not your job” or “In Germany employees vote on company representatives, aren’t you glad you live in America?” or “Modern liberalism is a bland street sign initiative” or “Want to be happy? Why not ignore everything that’s going on in your life?” or “Depressed people are often able to remain calm during catastrophic circumstances” or “Don’t worry, if you’re unhappy, statistically you’ll likely live longer” or “Guns don’t kill people. Oh wait. They do.” or “I am everything your government is prepared to do for you” or “Arm the good guys first, ask what makes a good guy later” or “The American government spends more per capita on healthcare than the British one, and in Britain healthcare is free, and Britain is ranked number one in the world for healthcare by the World Health Organisation”.

I don’t think the goal of government should necessarily be to encourage people to be happy, especially when people don’t live in happy circumstances. In America in particular, people work ridiculous hours in jobs they hate for companies that don’t even know they exist. If they get sick they lose their job, and if they walk somewhere they sometimes get shot, especially if they’re black. It’s not nice. And the general response of society is to encourage them to drink, or take medication or illegal drugs, or show them shitty videos about how inspiring everyday life can be if we just dance or recite a poem or do some other bollocks that has nothing to do with the real political causes of our unhappiness.

Maybe this sign campaign is sincere and people actually want to improve one another’s lives through bland written pleasantries. But as a political statement it’s completely empty. It’s not even as important as being polite. And for me this happy sign campaign is symbolic of how legitimate empathetic sentiment is co-opted by the media and corporate interests and politicians so that we direct our positive energies into futile crap. I hope that if this happened in Britain people would respond in the same way as we did when David Cameron came up with the Big Society and say “But you haven’t actually done anything. Our problems are still here. The fact that you think this is a solution – that this is even proposed as a solution – shows how disconnected our political system is from the reality of life for ordinary people.”

And there are real solutions. Universal free healthcare. Employee representation in companies. Tax systems in which the rich are obliged to pay tax. Gun control. Human rights. Campaign finance limits. Financial regulation. All those liberal socialist communist things that rebalance power from the rich towards ordinary people. I mean, not all of them obviously, liberals aren’t always right. Sometimes they come up with pointless sign campaigns.

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