Culture

Symbols and ‘Mere Symbols’

On hashtags, peace signs, flowers …

In the current issue of National Review, I have a piece called “Symbols and Their Limits: A caution against the yellow-ribbon culture.” I would like to blow that piece out today — meaning, I would like to expand it, here in Impromptus.

See what you think of all this.

‐After the recent terror attacks in Paris, a hashtag arose: “PrayForParis.” You saw it all over Twitter.

A symbol arose, too. Designed by Jean Jullien, a French illustrator, it was a peace sign with the Eiffel Tower in the middle. You saw this one all over Twitter, too.

Symbols have their place, of course — think of a cross, or a heart. They can serve multifarious purposes: to recall, to console, to stir, etc. But they can sometimes seem awfully weak, even escapist. Rather than symbols, they can be “mere symbols.”

‐I did a thorough study of the peace sign when I was writing my history of the Nobel Peace Prize (Peace, They Say). I have a little section on the peace sign in that book.

There is much to say about it, but I will say just a little, here. The peace sign was designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom, an Englishman who had been a conscientious objector in World War II. He had the flag-semaphore alphabet in mind. He took the letters “N” and “D” and placed them within a circle.

What did they stand for? “Nuclear disarmament.”

Some people like to turn the peace sign upside down, so that the “arms” are thrown upward. It looks exultant. Gerald Holtom liked this too. When you turn the peace sign upside down, the flag-semaphore letters are “U” and “D.” Holtom said that these stood for “unilateral disarmament” — which he was very much in favor of.

And he came to prefer this form of his peace sign.

Britain has seen an interesting development this year. Jeremy Corbyn was elected the leader of the Labour party. He is, in a sense, a descendant of Gerald Holtom — in that he favors the unilateral nuclear disarmament of Britain.

The story of Holtom brings out the general problem of symbols (of which his peace sign is one of the most famous in world history). Peace is great, of course, and a sign is okay. But someone’s got to win World War II, right? I mean, someone has to face the Nazis. We can’t all be Gerald Holtom, or we lose, the first day.

‐After the Paris attacks, a video shot round the world. It showed a French father talking to his little boy. They were at some kind of peace rally or vigil, replete with flowers and candles. To make the video all the more touching, the family appears to be of Southeast Asian origin. The father says, “We don’t need to move out. France is our home.”

The little boy notes that there are bad guys around. The father responds, “Yes, but there are bad guys everywhere.” The little boy says, “They have guns, they can shoot us, because they’re really mean, Daddy.” The father says, “It’s okay. They may have guns, but we have flowers.” The little boy says, “But flowers don’t do anything.” The father denies it.

I don’t begrudge a parent his efforts to do right, at any given moment. A parent has to make a million split-second decisions.

Anyway, to read about the father and son, and to see the video, go here.

I thought of one of the most famous news photos of the 1960s. A Vietnam War protester in America is putting flowers into the barrels of rifles carried by National Guardsmen. (Remember “flower children”?) The Guardsmen are sweet about it. Impassive.

The thing about ISIS: They’re not so sweet.

(To remind yourself of that famous news photo, go here.)

‐In the wake of the Paris attacks, the “Marseillaise” was sung and played around the world — including at the Metropolitan Opera, before a performance of Tosca. Some people were put out, however: Why wasn’t the Lebanese national anthem being sung and played, huh, huh? Lebanon, like France, had suffered a terror attack. Didn’t the preference for France reveal something shameful — specifically, racism?

Let me just sneak in an observation: Few are those who can resist the opportunity to sing or play the “Marseillaise.” It’s one of the greatest songs, of any type, in history.

In any event, I had a memory: Last January, a conductor walked out of the Israeli Opera. Islamists had attacked Paris, killing people at a magazine (Charlie Hebdo), a kosher supermarket, and elsewhere. In Tel Aviv, Maestro Frédéric Chaslin wanted to say a few words before a performance of La rondine (another Puccini opera, like Tosca). He also wanted to perform the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva.” Management said no. In disgust, he walked.

I understand Chaslin real well: He’s a Frenchman, a Jew, and the son of Holocaust survivors. I also understand management, real well. They said,

The Israeli Opera is pained by tragedy and its aftermath, and its heart is with the French nation and Jewish community. For the 30 years that the opera has been in operation, it has insisted on maintaining its routine even on the painful days of dozens of terror attacks and during wars. This is the way of the opera — not to allow terror to win and disturb the routine of our lives.

In view of “the complex reality we live in,” said management, it would be necessary to “sing ‘Hatikva’ nearly every day.”

I sympathize with this view entirely. I would point out, however, that the “reality” is not so “complex”: People hate Jews and perpetually murder them, or try to.

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‐Twenty or more years ago, I coined a phrase for a side of America I didn’t especially care for: a treacly, sentimental, touchy-feely side (which can also be morally preening). I spoke of the “yellow-ribbon culture.”

But this does a disservice to the original yellow ribbons — which I give a complete pass. Those came about during the Iranian hostage crisis. Yellow-ribbonization took hold in subsequent years.

To review: Islamists in Tehran seized our embassy personnel in November 1979. Earlier that decade, Tony Orlando and Dawn had a hit song: “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” The song had its origins in a folk tale about a convict coming home from years in prison. He didn’t know whether his woman would want him back. If she did, she could tie a yellow ribbon round the oak tree. If she did not tie such a ribbon, he would keep on going, not bothering her at all.

The senior official in our embassy was Bruce Laingen. Back home, his wife, Penne (short for Penelope), tied a yellow ribbon around their oak tree — literally. Soon, people across the country were doing this, in solidarity with the American hostages and their families.

Mrs. Laingen said, “One of these days, Bruce is going to untie that yellow ribbon” — her ribbon, the original one. “It’s going to be out there until he does.”

In 1991, she donated her ribbon to the Library of Congress.

Let me give you a personal aside: I had the opportunity to meet Bruce Laingen, sometime in the ’90s. It was a thrill and an honor. He meant kind of a lot to us, during those 444 days, November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981.

‐A yellow ribbon became a symbol even as far away as the Philippines. Supporters of Benigno Aquino, the opposition leader exiled in America, tied yellow ribbons round their trees. When he returned home, he was murdered on the spot. His widow, Corazon, led a political movement, eventually becoming president. Yellow was her color, and sympathetic Americans wore yellow, in support of her.

I remember Ben Wattenberg on The McLaughlin Group — he wore a yellow tie.

The Aquinos’ son, also called Benigno, or “Ninoy,” became president too. He’s president now. And his color, too, is yellow.

‐We have ribbons for all sorts of causes, and these are called “awareness ribbons.” Since the early ’90s, a pink ribbon has been the symbol of the fight against breast cancer. Athletes are periodically asked to pin them to their jerseys.

Pink is a color for womanhood in general. Here in America, we have “Code Pink,” the left-wing activists who are “Women for Peace.” In Britain, during the most recent general-election campaign, Labour launched a pink minibus, for a “woman to woman” initiative. It was roundly mocked, and Labour was left a bit flush with embarrassment.

You want to see that historic vehicle? Here.

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‐Ronald Reagan was not averse to symbolism, of the right kind. The old actor was certainly not averse to a little theater.

In the second week of December 1981, the Communist dictatorship in Poland declared martial law. In Washington, the Polish ambassador defected to us. He asked President Reagan to light a candle in a White House window on Christmas Eve. This would show solidarity with the beleaguered Poles.

Reagan agreed to do so, and, in a typically stirring address, he asked all Americans to place their own candles in their own windows.

Of course, Reagan was not a mere symbolist. He was working night and day to bring down the Soviet empire, by all means at his disposal — which included the symbolic and theatrical, as well as the military, economic, and so on.

‐Jump now to April of last year, when the Islamist group Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria. There was a great hashtag campaign, “BringBackOurGirls.” The first lady, Michelle Obama, got in on the act, frowning at a camera and holding up a sign with the hashtag.

For their part, Boko Haram put out a video, mocking the campaign. Who can blame them, really? They are not the kind to be moved by a plaintive hashtag.

Let me quote from a news article — which reported that a congresswoman, Frederica Wilson (D., Fla.), “has been furiously tweeting and retweeting.” I think that’s one of the saddest sentences I have ever read.

But I must not be too hard on the tweeters and retweeters — on the hashtaggers or symbol-mongers. In their impotence, they want to do something, or say something. They want not to be bystanders. That’s an honorable impulse.

Still, I think of something my colleague Mona Charen said about Mrs. Obama, at the time of “BringBackOurGirls.” She said, in essence, Gee: If only the first lady knew someone with guns and special forces or something …

‐More and more, I sympathize with the spirit of the Israeli Opera. Walking around Washington, D.C., or New York, I see flags at half mast all the time. We lower our flags at the drop of a hat. It’s gotten to the point where I notice when they’re flying high. Somebody, somewhere, is always doing something evil. Maybe we should reserve our flag-lowering for when an elderly statesman dies in bed?

In Canada, they lowered their flags every time a soldier of theirs was killed in Afghanistan. When he became prime minister in 2006, Stephen Harper stopped the practice. He reasoned as follows: There’s a war on, and with war come casualties. The dead can be remembered on Remembrance Day. Otherwise, fight on, until victory.

‐How do you know a good and worthy symbol versus a treacly, escapist, or otherwise unworthy one? I’m not sure I can lay down rules. I think it’s a matter of taste, of stomach. I, for one, am allergic to the Coexist bumper sticker — the word “coexist” done up in religious and other symbols. Those who need the lesson or reminder don’t see the sticker, or don’t care about it. And the rest of us don’t need to be preached to.

‐John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a Christmas poem, which includes the words “Keep while you need it, brothers mine, / With honest zeal your Christmas sign.” By all means, keep your signs and symbols, for as long as you need them, and for as long as they have a scrap of potency. But let them not be substitutes for looking reality in the face and doing whatever can be done.

The little French boy said, “But flowers don’t do anything” — a phrase that haunts.

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