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When I covered the police beat for a small daily newspaper years ago, I had a favorite petty criminal and frequenter of the town’s Crime Log:  a guy named Willie Peed. Although I never met Mr. Peed, I was endlessly, Beavis & Butthead-ishly amused by his name, and I secretly wished that he would, just once, be arrested for public urination (I can’t even remember what his actual crimes were).


I liked to joke with my colleagues that perhaps this type of descriptive naming could represent a new mode of punishment: criminals would have to be renamed after their crimes. There could be Bob Loitering, Joe Breaking and Entering, and Lisa Possession with Intent to Distribute.


Sure, these names are a bit awkward, but they certainly are the ultimate in transparency. You wouldn’t go on a date with Fred Rape, that’s for sure, or ask Bill Identity Theft to hold onto your wallet for a second.  Murderers and assassins, of course, could simply be given the middle name Wayne.


Obviously, I was kidding, not only because it’s kind of a Fourth Amendment no-no, but because it would be too strange, having the world populated by allegories.
I’ve since learned that it’s generally only a matter of time before the strangest notion one can think of becomes a reality. No, not the criminal part; but it seems that people are now renaming themselves after belief systems, Web sites and yes, even presidential campaigns.


First, meet In God We Trust. Mr. We Trust (that’s the last name), formerly known as Steve Kreuscher of Zion, Illinois, was recently granted permission by a circuit court judge to change his first name to “In God” and his last name to “We Trust”.


Apparently Kreuscher, a 57-year-old school bus driver and amateur artist, felt compelled to rename himself thus because God helped him through a painful divorce. He also took this action due to his concerns that “atheists would succeed in having ‘In God We Trust’ removed from US currency. Hmm, it’s too bad that in the current financial crisis, the newly-minted Mr. We Trust can’t be held accountable, somehow.


In God We Trust is not the only person who seems to have concluded that it’s more precise to identify oneself by a truism than by a mere name. There seems to be a rash of odd renaming underway for the purposes of promulgating certain beliefs, aesthetics, or political stances. After all, we live in a time when people are desperately seeking to be heard, and are vying for attention across a variety of mediums.


Our names, strictly speaking, are two words (more or less) that the world is forced to hear, or at least read, if only on tax forms or on telemarketers’ lists. So why waste these few words we’re allotted on oftentimes meaningless identifiers forced upon us by our parents?  This new reasoning seems to have given rise to maximization of names, the sloganizing of human identities.


There’s the Idaho politician who has officially changed his name to Pro-Life, and who will appear on the ballot as such in his bid for Larry Craig’s senate seat. Formerly known as “Marvin Pro-Life Richardson”, the aspiring lawmaker encountered some resistance when running for governor under that name in 2006. At that time, a judge ruled that Richardson had to eliminate his “middle name” from the ballot, since the state law prohibited the use of slogans on ballots.


Now, under the more streamlined Pro-Life, he has circumvented this glitch; because Pro-Life is his entire and only name, he can’t be barred from running as a human referendum. Pro-Life, who advocates murder charges for doctors who perform abortions and women who receive them, plans to run every two years for the remainder of his life. Pro-Life’s registered as an independent life, presently aged 66, and will probably appear on the state ballot for another 10 years.


Does all of this mean that maybe modern society is moving away from the self-absorption of personal bloggery, YouTube exhibitionism and tell-all memoirs?  That perhaps such people are now putting their ideals and beliefs before themselves? Are people evolving beyond obsessive individualism toward a concern for the common good?


An interesting concept, but I doubt it. While sacrificing one’s given name might appear to be a repudiation of the self in favor of larger matters, it’s actually quite the attention-getter for one’s self. If you’re going to get tons of publicity under the name, say, “Martian Puppet Fisticuffs” why go around as Joe Smith?


Some have taken it a step further, and are actually going by URLs these days. For example, there’s the young woman now known as CutOutDissection.com, the erstwhile Jennifer Thornburg, 19. Ms. Thornburg, or rather, Ms. CutOutDissection.com, apparently chose this URL name in order to embody the anti-dissection message she so strongly believes in (and to direct Web traffic to that particular site).


Animal rights activists tend to be branded as wack-a-doodle nutcases as it is; I don’t see how, in Ms. CutOutDissection.com’s case, this move is going to improve the cause. Plus, I question the judgment of “Cutout”, as she’s known for short, in choosing as her new moniker a pun on the very act she’s opposing. So now, she’s reduced to a pun and a URL, a human link to be cut and pasted as needed (Oops, I think I just made the ‘cut’ wordplay even worse).  In a sense, though, I can understand her—with a given name like ‘Jennifer’, one has to work hard to distinguish ones’ self.


It’s also probably relevant to note that these name-changing pioneers might not be the most psychologically stable units of the population. For example, a New Mexico man who recently caused a stir by seeking to change his name to “Fuck Censorship” had already amassed a laundry list of former names (“laundry list” not being one of them). The would-be Mr. Censorship previously had been known as “Variable”, and before that, as “Snaphappy Fishsuit Mokiligon”.


Unfortunately, his latest name change didn’t work out—in a show of irony befitting the occasion, the judge proceeded to censor the prospective Fuck Censorship on grounds of offensiveness and obscenity.  I’m torn on this one — I don’t like censorship either, but it’s hard for me to imagine, say, a nephew or niece addressing this man as “Uncle Fuck”.


So, it’s possible that rather than indicating an admirable devotion to ideals larger than the self, the trend toward sloganizing one’s name might be an indicator of mental illness. It’s possible that the reason these folks are so willing to assume identities like “Megatron” or “Big Crazy Lester” is because they lacked any sort of grounded identity in the first place.


In some cases, people seem to have forfeited their identities for nothing more than simple product placement. Like those who rent out their foreheads, stomachs, and dogs as available advertising space on Ebay, those who use their names like LED tickers are leveraging what little they have – their bodies, their names– for all they’re worth.


Take Australian footballer Garry Hocking, who traded in his own high-profile name for the meow-licious cat food brand name “Whiskas” as part of a weeklong ad campaign. Mr. Whiskas willingly identified himself as a pouch of savory vittles in order to ease the financial burdens facing the Geelong Football Club. Human beings named Coke and Pepsi surely can’t be far behind.


Most recently, I read about a man in Tennessee who made the unilateral decision to turn his newborn daughter into human hype for the republican presidential ticket.  Mark Ciptak recently welcomed “Sarah McCain Palin Ciptak” into the world. In a fascinating twist, he somehow managed to implement this name without consulting his wife, who hadn’t yet approved this message.  She had apparently planned to name the child Ava Grace (What was she thinking? That name advertises absolutely nothing!).


In a way, I give Mr. Ciptak credit: at least “Sarah McCain Palin” is an actual name, which is more than I can say for the insane mishmash of outdoorsy nouns Sarah Palin conferred upon her own progeny. The inspiration for these names seems to lie somewhere in between a bucolic outdoor walk and a trip to the Sports Authority.


Particularly unforgivable is the reported name of her eldest son, “Track Enfield Palin”, which reflects the interest of Track’s then-teenage parents in running. (note: I’ve also seen his middle name listed as ‘CJ’). It seems particularly unfair for a child to be saddled with a name based not only on his parents’ interests, but on their high school interests. If all teenaged parents followed this disastrous course of action, roughly half all kids would be named “Jell-o Shots.” (For more Sarah Palin naming madness, you can discover your own Palin name on the
Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator.


Alas, it seems grossly unfair that young Sarah McCain Palin will now be forced to live out her entire life as an involuntary plug for what is now an irrelevant vice-presidential run. It would be like if I’d been doomed to go through life as Adlai Stevenson Kefauver Byrne (catchy, though, right?).


Jennifer Byrne does not actively seek out pop culture, but instead absorbs it involuntarily, as if through a semipermeable membrane (actually, she gets it from her computer and TV). In Pop Osmosis she explores her own deeply conflicted reactions to will explore my own deeply conflicted reactions to many high and low pop culture phenomena to which she is exposed, from the genuinely intriguing to the stuff that might involve accessory dogs. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The National Ledger, and in various clever emails.


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