Believe! by Doug M. Dawson

“Good morning, Baltimore Office of Tourism and Promotion – may I help you?”

 “I have a question.”

“And that is?”

“All those ‘Believe’ signs around the city … I see them everywhere – schools, sides of buildings, on billboards …”

“What is your question, sir?”

“What is it I’m supposed to believe?”

“Excuse me?”

“The city of Baltimore is telling me to ‘Believe,’ right? OK, I’ll bite – but believe what?”

“You know, it means believe in something – believe in yourself.”

“Ma’am, I already believe in myself – I don’t need a sign to tell me that.”

“Well, believe in Baltimore, then.”

 “Believe in a city, like it’s a religion or a principle? Can I quit being a Catholic and convert to Baltimore?”

 “Sir, that’s funny – you’re making a joke, but you can believe in your city, that it can do great things …”

“Then why not just paint “Believe in Baltimore” on the walls. At least that tells you something – it’s a complete thought, almost.”

“One word is easier to remember and there’s the matter of saving money, – you know, uses less paint, that sort of thing.”

  “But do you want to say something or do you just want a mindless one-word slogan, like ‘Go’ or ‘Do,’ or how about ‘Move’?”

  “Sir, I think you’re taking this too seriously and we prefer the word mantra.”

 “Ha! What is this – transcendental meditation? I’d call it eye-wash. ‘Believe’ looks good up there on the wall, but it has no meaning.”

“It does have meaning … it just might be a little different to everyone who reads it.”

 “M-m-m-m – sounds ambivalent.”

  “Sir, I have other things to do.”

“Let me speak to the mayor.”

  “You’ll have to call the mayor’s office for that and I don’t think they let everybody who calls speak to the mayor.”

“God forbid! He might stay in touch with the people that way.”

“Sir, what’s your name?”

“Jim Harvey,” the man said just before he hung up.

The next afternoon Harvey drove downtown and visited the offices of the Baltimore Sun. When asked what he wanted, he attempted to explain himself, but only managed a rant about the ‘Believe’ signs and slogans in general. Before the staffer he spoke to could glean his meaning, a well-known reporter of Baltimore’s local scene walked by and managed to catch the words ‘Believe sign,’ and ‘ubiquitous,’ which made him stop and listen. A minute later the reporter stepped up, offered his hand and said “Hi, I’m Dave Richards – sounds like there’s something you want to air out – care to step into my office?”

The columnist listened politely as Harvey spoke and he smiled when the latter reiterated his conversation with the Office of Tourism and Promotion. “I see your point,” said Richards, “but what did you want the Sun to do, exactly?”

 “Some publicity, man!” said Harvey, delighted that someone finally understood his complaint. “Look, if you could do a piece on this, maybe other people would write in … maybe they feel the same about it.”

“Even if I did write about it, what do you want the city to do, obliterate the signs?”

“No, man, just replace ’em with something that means something.”

“Like what?”

“I’ll think of something, somebody could come up with something … anything but what they got now.”

“I can’t promise you anything,” said Richards. “Let me think about it.”

 “OK, at least you listened to me – thanks for that,” said Harvey as he walked out.

A week later Richards titled his column with a simple question: “‘Believe’ – does it mean anything?” and to his surprise hundreds of readers responded with letters, calls and e-mails. A few supported the signs and a few were adamantly against them, but most echoed Harvey’s complaint that ‘Believe’ only begs the question: “Believe what?”

Richards decided to reprint a few responses in his column, which only generated more responses as people began to question the meaning and purpose of the signs. “Believe” was taken up by radio and television talk shows as baseball season started and no doubt due to the increased publicity people started to chant “Believe” at Orioles’ games. A guy nobody seemed to know stood up in the stands and creatively used his arms, head and torso to form the letters “B-E-L-I-E-V-E,” as enthusiastic fans screamed the letters then the word. It was more than a little reminiscent of an earlier era, when a self-appointed cheerleader named Wild Bill Hagy stood in the stands of Memorial Stadium and with gestures and his famous “Gimme an ‘O,’ Gimme an ‘R’ …” spelled out “O-R-I-O-L-E-S,” as frenzied crowds screamed out their team’s name. “Believe” had gone from being a sign to a motto purporting to represent a city. As baseball fans screamed it and pundits pondered it, tens of thousands of Baltimoreans continued to ask “Believe in what?” as the mayor’s office’s and the Office of Tourism and Promotion continued to supply stock answers. A man was even spotted by TV news cameras, pacing up and down in front of Camden Yards stadium with a placard saying “BELIEVE – My Ass!” until a passerby grabbed the sign and knocked him down. Around the same time a woman carried her own placard around the Inner Harbor saying “A Mantra’s No Substitute for Thinking.” Her protests didn’t lead to violence, although she was repeatedly challenged verbally and eventually taken away by police. Another protestor’s sign read “BELIEVE isn’t VIABLE.”

 Dave Richards gave “Believe” a rest in his column, finding little more to say about it, while the city government, inspired by all the publicity, put its sign on more walls, park benches and billboards. When the fall arrived, Baltimore Ravens football games were accompanied not only by Wild Bill Hagy wannabees in the stands but by the official Ravens cheerleaders, who held signs spelling out “B-E-L-I-E-V-E,” as fans screamed the motto, TV cameras zoomed in and sports announcers pontificated on the meaning of the word that had replaced Mayor William Donald Shaffer’s famous “The City That Reads.”

With interest running so high, a TV news station decided to find out what Baltimore really thought of its one-word cheer and rallying cry. While many people had already suggested a replacement and others weren’t sure the city wanted or needed a new one, WBAL-TV reporters went out on the street every day, gathering opinions. A sampling:

“Hi, WBAL live here on Pratt Street, in front of the Galleria. We’re asking people what they think Baltimore’s motto should be. First, we’d like people to tell us what “Believe” means to them.

“Sir, how about you?”

“To me, it’s all about life and life is thinking and doing, but you got to believe before you can think and do, so that’s where the signs come in. Now to think is to do, to do is to get going, and to get going means be in touch with yourself. Now if you’re in touch with …”

“Yes, thank you sir. And you, young lady, what do you think of ‘Believe?'”

“I think it’s your faith in God – and that comes from inside you.”

“Okay, thank you for that and what does ‘Believe mean to you ma’am?”

“I like what she said about it being inside you … your belief, I mean. Everybody’s got to have a belief. If you don’t have a belief, then what have you got? Tell me, just what have you got?”

“And you sir, what do you think if means?”

 “It means what you want it to mean and that’s good. You see, everybody’s got their own thing and your own thing’s your own thing – you see what I’m saying? I got my thing, you got your thing, this lady I’m lookin’ at here – she’s got it goin’ on, don’t you agree? – she’s got her own thing. I mean everybody’s got their own thing, ’cause if they don’t got their own thing then … then …”

“Thank you, thank you so much, sir. We’ve got time for one more opinion. You sir, what does it mean to you.”

“It don’t mean nothin’ and that’s a fact. Everybody here sees somethin’ different in it, don’t that tell you something? That alone tells me everything I want to know about it.”

“Thank you, sir and that’s it for this segment. This is WBAL – live, here at the Inner Harbor.”

A few more televised interviews like this convinced even the Office on Tourism and Promotion that their cherished mantra meant nothing to many people and to nearly everyone else it meant whatever they thought it meant. Finally, city officials, including the mayor, determined that their motto needed rethinking. It was decided to have a contest open to the public to collect suggestions for the new motto. It would be like the one of fifteen years earlier, where the public submitted designs for the logo eventually chosen to represent the Baltimore Ravens. The contest was attended by more placard carriers, many of whom paraded around the Inner Harbor, determined to be noticed. One such placard read “Can you BELIEVE this shit?”

 Thousands of submissions came pouring in, as newspaper columns and radio and television shows continued to discuss the issue and WBAL solicited opinions on the street. On the last day of the contest the station collected its last live sampling of offerings:

  “This is WBAL, here at the Inner Harbor. Today is the last day the city is accepting submissions for a motto to replace “Believe” and we’re live, asking people for their ideas. Any suggestion is OK, we’re just asking people to keep it clean. Hello, sir – do you have one for us?”

“I like the word ‘Do.”

“Just ‘Do,’ is that it?”

“Sure, it works for me and it’s pro-active, it’s like a verb, man, it’s telling you to get out there and act, not just talk.” 

“Thank you very much and … you, ma’am … how about you?”

“Well, I thought about it and I still like ‘Believe,” but I also like ‘Go’.”

“Just Go? The one word, that’s it?”

“That’s all she wrote, or I should say I wrote. It’s another action word, it means you gotta be on the move – or else.”

“Or else what.”

“Or else you’re not on the move, see? And you’re not gonna make it, that’s all,” said the woman, as a few people standing nearby laughed.

“And you, sir,” said the TV reporter to a wrinkled old man wearing a golf cap. “Do you have a suggestion?”

“Haven’t we had enough verbal placebos? Maybe what we all need in this town is a mental enema!”

“A what, sir?”

“You know, clean the brain out, kind of like flushing a toilet. Then we could start over with some fresh ideas. Just like giving yourself a physic, then eating a salad, so there’s nothing left in you that’s not nourishing.”

There was more laughter on the street as the reporter closed with “Well, that’s it from the Galleria, live on Pratt Street. Send your suggestions to the Office of Tourism and Promotion, but you better send them Fed Express, because today’s the last day they’ll be accepted. 

 At the Office of Tourism and Promotion the suggestions received included: “Hope,” “Go for It,” “Keep It Real,” “Bust a Move!” “I Be Fine, You Be Fine,” “Fo’ Shizzle, My Nizzle,” “If It Feels Good, Do It!” “Catch You on the Flipside,” “Just Do It,” “That’s What I’m Talkin’ About!” and “Bust a Cap in Yo’ Ass!” Given the mountain of offerings, not to mention the fact that nearly all of them were bland or inane, the mayor appointed a “blue ribbon panel” to decide the matter. The panel consisted of one representative from the Mayor’s Office, one from the Office of Tourism and Promotion, a radio talk show host, a minister, an industrial psychologist and several professors from local universities. The panel was given one week to pick a motto and would meet exactly three times: once to wade through the mountain of suggestions, once to create a manageable list of finalists and the last time to pick a winner. The first two meetings left the panel divided into two “power blocks” – one wanting “a complete thought,” the other wanting another one-word motto. 

The third and last meeting was conducted on a Friday afternoon and this time the mayor sat in. No decision had been reached after three hours of wrangling, so the city’s chief executive broke the deadlock by letting the industrial psychologist decide, because as the mayor put it “the psychologist has the skills to understand and manipulate – not just some of the people and not just some of the time, but as far as he could tell, all the people, all the time.” The psychologist had scored points with the mayor by describing what motivates and satisfies “the mob.” As the meeting wound to a close the various panel members expressed their thoughts as follows:

 Mayor: “I’ve given Dr. Shysman the final word and he’ll give us his decision in a moment, but whether the motto is a single word, a phrase or a complete sentence, this time it’s being chosen after a process of elimination and will be the result of careful and sound reasoning. Far more important, it will be informed by the sure hand and wisdom of someone who understands human perceptions, foibles, weaknesses and gullibilities.”

Minister: “I’ve never seen so many unfamiliar expressions in my life.”

Tourism Office: “We got a lot of street slang, reverend – it’s to be expected. We didn’t want that anyway.”

1st Professor: “And I thought the whole purpose of this exercise was to move away from one-word mantras.”

2nd Professor: “I even hoped for a complete thought!”

Psychologist: “We tried a nearly complete thought once – it didn’t work.”

Tourism Office: “You mean ‘The City That Reads?'”

Psychologist: “Yeah, that one.”

Mayor’s Office: “And you think it didn’t work because …”

Psychologist: “Everybody knows nobody reads any more – not books, anyway, with audio books, chat groups, blogs, IPods, cell phones, video games … (pause) …TV and movies.”

Mayor’s Office: “Yeah, don’t forget to mention that old-fashioned, low-tech stuff.”

Psychologist: “Besides, most people wouldn’t know what to do with a complete thought – it would only confuse them.”

Mayor’s Office: “How flattering. You must think people in this town are feeble-minded.”

Psychologist: “I didn’t say in this town – people are the same everywhere; gullible, easily tricked and they relate to simple directives – the simpler, the better. The trick is to find what they think they want, give it to them and use it get them to do what you want. ‘Believe,’ ‘Go,’ ‘Do’ – they’re all the same. People just read into them what they want anyway.”

The minister looked as though a light had just been turned on in his head. He turned and whispered into the ear of the psychologist, who wrote something on a piece of paper, which he then folded and handed to the mayor. The mayor took the paper, walked to the window, looked out over his city then opened the paper and turned to face the commission.

“All right, here it is – the winning motto is … ‘Believe.’ This is a surprise, doctor – care to elucidate your reasoning for us?”

The psychologist stood to face the group: “It was a no-brainer. Why, the very blandness and silliness of a verb with no object is what makes it work. I chose ‘Believe’ again because other words, like ‘Go,’ ‘Do,’ and ‘Think’ just don’t pack the same punch. Getting people to think they’re believing in something makes them feel they’re good people, just like religion does. Furthermore, it relieves them of the burden of having to think, because there’s nothing to think about. It’s perfect and it’s beautiful because it doesn’t mean anything. All that said, the real genius behind ‘Believe’ is that it doesn’t offend anybody – that makes it ideal, not only as a verbal placebo, but as a political motto.” 

The mayor thought for a few seconds before he spoke: “Well, that may not be the kind of reasoning I was expecting, but it’s informed by a thorough knowledge of our species and infused with a cynicism breathtaking in its coldness and that makes me wince and from which I can only retreat, while at the same time admire its candor and truthfulness. Thank you, Dr. Shysman and thank you all for your hard work and dedication to your community.”

The following week the TV and radio news stations praised the commission for its “depth of thought,” while visitors driving to and through Baltimore on Route 95 kept asking themselves “Believe what?” Unbeknownst to the psychologist, his closing statement to the commission had penetrated the Capital and made its way around the halls of government to become a classic, containing as it did thoughts that couldn’t help but appeal to politicians, public relations types and spin doctors. By now contenders for the next presidential election were making themselves known and when one emerged as the early front runner his campaign managers adopted ‘Believe’ as their candidate’s motto, latching onto it like “Crazy Glue” holding onto a piece of broken china. Soon Baltimore’s motto and theme represented a candidate, a platform and a party, as that candidate received his party’s nomination for President. In due time the ‘Believe’ candidate became the next President of the United States, leaving first the nation and then the world to ponder “Believe what?”

Doug Dawson hails from Brooklyn, New York, wrote extensively for the US Defense Dept. and as a freelancer had some 40 articles and fiction published by car magazines (“Vette Vues,” “Corvette Enthusiast,” “Corvette” magazine). He holds degrees in music and computer science, studied fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University and has had his short stories accepted for publication by Academy of the Heart & Mind, Ariel Chart, Aphelion Webzine, Literary Yard, Scars Publications in the U.K. (3 stories), Scarlet Review, HellBound Books, LLC (story “The Poetess” appears in “The Devil’s Doorbell 2” anthology), Goats Milk and others and poetry accepted by Page & Spine and Short-Humor.