Magazine | December 21, 2015, Issue

Symbols and Their Limits

Vietnam War protest near the Pentagon, October 21, 1967 (Wikipedia)
A caution against the yellow-ribbon culture

After the latest terror attacks in Paris, a hashtag arose: “#PrayForParis.” A symbol arose, too. Designed by Jean Jullien, a French illustrator, it was a peace sign with the Eiffel Tower in the middle. Like “#PrayForParis,” it was tweeted around the world.

Symbols have their place, of course, and they can serve many purposes: to console, recall, stir, etc. But sometimes they can seem awfully weak, even escapist.

The peace sign — the original one — was designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom, an Englishman who had been a conscientious objector in World War II. Using the flag-semaphore alphabet, he placed the letters “N” and “D” within a circle. Those stand for “nuclear disarmament.” If you turn the peace sign upside down, you get the letters “U” and “D.” Holtom came to prefer this variation, and said that the letters stood for “unilateral disarmament.”

It so happens that the new leader of the British Labour party is a descendant of Holtom’s, so to speak. Jeremy Corbyn favors the unilateral nuclear disarmament of Britain.

After the Paris attacks, a video shot round the world. It showed a French father talking to his little boy. The little boy notes that there are bad guys with guns. The father says, “It’s okay: They might have guns, but we have flowers.” The little boy says, “But flowers don’t do anything.” The father denies it.

I thought of one of the most famous news photos of the 1960s. A Vietnam War protester in America puts a flower in the barrel of a rifle carried by a National Guardsman. The Guardsman is sweet about it. Impassive. The thing about ISIS: They’re not so sweet.

In the days following 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 miffed, however, remarking that the Lebanese national anthem was not being sung and played — and Lebanon, like France, had suffered a terror attack. Didn’t this show a shameful pro-Western bias? Even racism?

These contentions aside, 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. Maestro Frédéric Chaslin wanted to say a few words before a performance, and he 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, in essence, We Jews are attacked and murdered all the time. If we paused and talked and played the national anthem every time this happened, we would do nothing but.

Twenty or more years ago, I coined a phrase for a side of America I didn’t especially care for: the treacly, sentimental, touchy-feely side (which can also be morally preening). I spoke of “the yellow-ribbon culture.” Yet this does a disservice to the original yellow ribbons, which came about during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Islamists in Tehran seized our embassy personnel in November 1979. Earlier in the 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.

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.

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.

A Labour bête noire, Ronald Reagan, was not averse to symbolism, of the right kind. The old actor was certainly not averse to 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 terror 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.

And yet I can’t quite blame the hashtaggers either, who, in their impotence, wanted to do something, or say something — wanted not to be bystanders. This is an honorable impulse. Sometimes the hashtag or yellow ribbon is all we have. But I think of something my colleague Mona Charen said about Mrs. Obama. She said, essentially, 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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