Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Trouble With Symbolic Communication

The trouble is, it doesn't work very well.

I get the local morning newspaper in its old-school, dead-tree form on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. This is because my owner wants the supermarket ads, coupons, etc. So, I picked up today's paper and my eye was caught by this:
None of this attracted much attention until, shortly after Tuesday’s election, Townsend hoisted the flag, which has long flown in front of his shop, in the upside-down position, a distress signal protesting the election of Barack Obama and Joseph Biden.

It didn’t take long for the reaction to come. A 17-year employee told Townsend he was quitting. The phone calls started, about 300 in the past few days.

Almost all have been in support, Townsend said, but some clearly weren’t. Shortly after noon Friday, a woman called to raise hell with the employee who answered. There was no mistaking what the call was about.

No, the female employee said, it has nothing to do with the fact that Obama is black. It’s about abortion. Obama is a supporter of abortion, and the business owner is absolutely opposed to it, period.

The call dragged on for several minutes, and it wasn’t friendly.
Now, at my first glance at the headline ("Decatur abuzz over flipped flag"), since we're talking about Decatur and all, my initial assumption was that the source of Mr. Townsend's unhappiness was probably Sen. Obama's non-Caucasian ethnicity, and that goes to the point I'd like to make here: that we're lazy and/or post-literate, and we want to substitute symbols for a sufficient number of carefully-chosen words that, while laborious, offer a chance of communicating ideas that may be complex, conditional, subtle, or nuanced. Fly a flag, or maybe fly one upside-down. Wear a flag lapel pin. Wear a crucifix necklace. Display a "peace symbol." Affix a magnetic "ribbon" to your car. Wear gang colors. All of these are much less work than writing down a few coherent paragraphs, or speaking the equivalent; but they are also easily misunderstood, and it does seem to me that all such misunderstandings are really the responsibility of the symbol-displayer.

To a substantial degree, I agree with Mr. Townsend's expressed displeasure with Mr. Obama as the presumptive president-elect ("presumptive" because the Electoral College has not met to discharge its duty yet, as far as I know). What's mysterious to me is why Mr. Townsend would only now be getting around to inverting his flag, given Mr. Bush's clear identification with the American death culture. I certainly don't think that American babies should be hacked apart and vacuumed from their mothers' wombs; but I also don't think there's any excuse for Muslim babies being ripped apart by American high explosives. And, while Mssrs. Bush and McCain were allegedly "pro-life" (at least where American babies are concerned), even there it's easy to see how low a priority their supposed "convictions" had in terms of influence on policy and agenda: none. As I have observed in this space before, the god of contemporary American conservatives is war. They absolutely insist on "getting their war on," no matter what else has to be abandoned in order to get on with that. Well, guys, you got your war. Now pay for it ... and quit whining.

1 comment:

lemming said...

I have yet to understand how someone can be penalty, but anti-abortion. If life is so sacred, so valuable...

Then again, I'm pro-choice and anti-death penalty, but that has more to do with my conviction that the American legal system doesn't always hold fair trials.