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

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