Failing Every One of Us

By Dan Conaway

FAILING TO DECIDE. I once heard advertising legend and certifiable-one-of-a-kind Jerry Della Femina give the keynote address at an Ad Age Creative Workshop in San Francisco. He was bemoaning the loss of creativity in American advertising at the time and the homogenizing of our colorful national character into a colorless blob. As I remember it, he said he’d had a dream that sometime in the late 60s all the radicals, revolutionaries, hippies, dropouts, turn-ons and turn-offs all got together in a field somewhere to figure out what to do next to take over the country.

Eventually, it broke into two camps: militants who would destroy everything from the outside via open revolution, and the rest who would all conform, go back to school, get MBAs, infiltrate society and destroy it from within by refusing to ever make a decision.

They won, he said.

That speech was 30 years ago, and the victory is close to total.

Nationally, we’re waiting for somebody to make a decision – a balanced, hard adult decision – but the children keep playing kick the can. We’re hanging off fiscal cliffs, sequestering our sanity, filibustering our common sense, furloughing our responsibility, lowering our defenses and raising our vulnerability with the gentle touch of elephants and the quick wit of donkeys.

At the state level, decision making for the good of the whole has been replaced by fixin’ anything the boys don’t like with special interest legislation, and if the fixin’ is declared unconstitutional, we’re fixin’ to fix it again. Be assured, while Tennessee’s opportunity to control insurance cost or save on the cost of indigent care goes right by, we’ll always have plenty of baling wire and chewing gum to slap on Shelby County’s uppity ways. Be assured, this legislature will make no decision that unites, only those that separate. Women from their rights. Gays from their rights. Teachers from their rights. Voters from their rights. Be assured, you can take your gun with you, minds are closed for state repair, and you are in no danger of progress.

Locally, councils and commissions make scenes, school boards make symbolic gestures, nobody makes sense, and they all make such a mess of trying to make a school decision that a federal judge has to put on big boy pants and make it for them, even appoint a study hall monitor to make them behave.

At every legislative level, pointing has taken the place of leading, and make me has taken the place of making decisions.

Maybe it is a dream, a nightmare. But I sense the public’s dawning awareness that people so narrow in focus and small in mind are becoming sideshow caricatures while the rest of us must get on with bigger things.

The cooperative efforts of city and county mayors, the recent successes in attracting and retaining high-profile businesses, and the continuing national interest in developing a viable educational model here may help us open our eyes and see the light.

I’m a Memphian, and it’s time to wake up.

Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at