As a progressive activist, I find it useful every now and then to look at the work of my counterparts among the Republican American nationalists. I read their articles to see what new nationalist ideas they are promoting, but I find it just as important to look at the pictures that the Republicans are using to promote their nationalist vision.
It was this spirit of progressive reconnaissance that led me to look at a web site that calls itself Freedom to the Max (actually, in the new slurred idiom of the web, the web site calls itself Freedomtothemax - even in graphic titles and text where it's okay to make use of the spacebar). The first thing I noticed was the obvious irony that the people behind Freedom to the Max are, in fact, promoting an anti-freedom agenda. On the Republican right, the word "freedom" has come to take on the new, curiously vapid definition of anything related to the American national identity, whether it actually promotes liberty or not.Pretty, Pretty Nationalist Icons
But, mostly, my attention was captured by the pretty pictures. You see, Freedom to the Max is one of those sorry political outfits that consists of nothing more than an online catalog. There is no discussion of ideas. There are no links. There are no opportunities to actually learn something or get involved in the civic process. Just the opportunity to look at pretty pictures and buy t-shirts.
Now, don't get me wrong - I think that political stores are wonderful things. In fact, we here at Irregular Times have one of the largest catalogs of political merchandise available anywhere online.
The problem is that too many political web sites consist of really nothing more than online shopping centers, where activism is confined to nothing more than buying something like a t-shirt or a bumper sticker. What I like to see is a broad, open investigation and discussion of political ideas, links to resources for political action, and coverage of important political news, with a political catalog on the side. Before I ask anyone to buy a political button, I want them to provide that person with a huge range of possibilities for exploration of the ideas behind the slogan expressed on that button.
The graphic-heavy, word-skimpy nature of Republican sites like Freedom to the Max tends to produce very weird results. What words there are mostly are embedded within graphics, and remain at the guttural level of slogans without explanation. So, these web sites offer a kind of pre-linguistic view of the raw absurdity of the Republican agenda.An Image of American Justice
Consider, for example, this strange image, produced for a t-shirt for happily-armed Republicans. The initial message is pretty clear: Mess with America, and we'll shoot you and call it American Justice.
But what's with this "Don't tread on me" element? In the initial flag design with that slogan, the United States is represented as a snake with a vicious venomous bite. The flag made it clear that the "me" being discussed was the nation itself - the snake was doing the talking. But with this t-shirt image, there is no visible speaker. So, the "me" in the slogan "Don't tread on me" becomes the person who is wearing the t-shirt. With this shift, the person wearing the t-shirt is issues a personal threat along with the nationalist threat: Don't mess with me or I'll shoot you.
So, this Republican t-shirt graphic really promotes a kind of Wild West mentality, where justice is not based upon the rule of law. Instead, in the mindset of this t-shirt's Republican designer, justice in American society appears to be based upon the suggestion that anyone who steps out of line gets shot. In this vision of America, every person is a law unto themselves, with the weapons to back up their personal visions of justice.
The t-shirt expands this vision of a society held together at gunpoint with the interesting placement of the letters "US" on the grip of the two handguns. The letters stand for United States, of course. So, this image presents the creepy metaphor of the American nation as a gigantic handgun. Thus, the sole purpose of the United States of America is to shoot at others - bang bang.
Of course, there isn't just one American handgun in this picture. Isn't it interesting how the two guns are crossed, pointing in opposite directions? Picture people holding the guns, and you get an immediate image of two people holding guns pointed at each other's heads. Notice that only one gun is smoking. The other gun has not had the chance to be fired. Symbolically, the implication is that two versions of America have pointed guns at each other's heads, but only one survived long enough to shoot. The other version had its head blown off.
There's more element to this picture that grabs my attention - in fact, it was the first impression I got from looking at the image. The way that the two guns are crossed is quite reminiscent of a swastika. American nationalism indeed.What Colors Don't Run?
Now consider this image, which makes the strong statement: These colors don't run. Republicans love using this slogan, which suggests that the worst thing a person could ever do is run. I've always wondered - what do the Republicans have against running? I mean, the Republicans are a militaristic lot these days, so why would they be against running? Soldiers run into battle, after all. Running towards something can be a great thing. What kind of motion is tolerable in our Republican-run America? Can we saunter? Can we lumber? I seriously doubt that skipping and jumping is tolerated.
Well, of course I know what the Republicans mean to say with this slogan. It's supposed to have a clever double meaning. The colors are mean to refer to the American flag, and to the American nation, suggesting that the patriotic red white and blue sentiments are steadfast, not smeary like Tammy Fae Bakker's mascara. Also, the slogan suggests that America will never run from a fight - you know, kind of like those stupid kids in high school who never back down from a fight, even if they have no clue why they're pummeling some other kid in the face.
In another article for Irregular Times, I've written about a poster I saw once in Oak Park, Illinois. It had the slogan "These colors don't run" on it, written in red and blue ink on a white background. The funny thing was that the poster had been up so long, in a sunny window, that the colors had almost completely faded. So, if you wanted to read the poster, you had to get up very close, and shield the poster from the sun, looking at it from a particular angle. What I wrote after seeing this poster was that, although the colors of the American flag apparently don't run, they clearly do fade.
As I reflect on this incident now, the idea that becomes clear to me is that running away is not the only way to lose a struggle. In fact, sometimes running away is the best way to win. Think of the shopkeeper who put that poster up in his window, for example. Surely, he must have noticed that the poster was fading as a result of prolonged exposure to the sunlight. Yet, he refused to move the poster. He wouldn't back down. He wouldn't allow his proud poster to be pulled back into a more shadowy place. So, the colors faded for so long that the entire point of the poster became meaningless. The poster's owner could have reconsidered his position, or his way of expressing it, and preserved the poster, along with its message. Instead, his steadfastness became an exhibit for the decayed weakness of his propaganda.
The national lesson is that resolve often brings very weak results. When our national leaders make a stand, and refuse to change their positions no matter what the consequences, they often end up defeating the very purpose that their stand was supposed to promote. George W. Bush's resolve in Iraq is the most obvious example of this principle, but it applies to his domestic policies as well. Take, for example, Bush's tax cuts for wealthy American families. First he said that the tax giveaways were a reward for the budget surplus created under Bill Clinton. But, when the budget deficit disappeared under the mountains of Bush's spending, Bush merely increased the tax giveaways to the rich, saying that he was doing so in order to stimulate the economy so that the budget deficit would disappear. The circular reasoning became obvious to any thinking American, but steadfast Mr. Bush refused to weaken his resolve. So, the economic principles of fiscal responsibility that were once the cornerstone of Republican political philosophy have faded into nothingness. So, the Bush Republicans have ruined the very principles they claimed to be fighting for - all because they refused to back down from a ridiculous stand.
Taking a look at this particular picture, the "these colors don't run" slogan becomes even more meaningless. I mean, look at the picture, and tell me - which colors is the designer talking about? Yellow? Orange? Purple? What the hell do these colors mean? The slogan on this t-shirt design has been stretched beyond the limits of common sense. It seems that Republicans are repeating these slogans to each other without even bothering to remember what those slogans really mean. This unthinking repetition suggests a willing to go along with whatever the majority says, even when it doesn't make sense anymore.
The only red, white and blue I see in this image is inside the eagle's head, and those colors are already faded when the t-shirt is produced. Just imagine what would happen after the shirt is put in the washing machine a couple times.Gag Me With a Slogan
I'll just comment on one more image I found in the Freedom to the Max t-shirt catalog. "One Nation Under God" the t-shirt reads. "Need we say more?"
I find that the best reaction to a stupid rhetorical question is to answer it. Yes, America does need to say more than just the Christian slogan "One nation under God". First of all, the United States of America has a secular constitution. To promote the idea of America becoming one nation under God is to promote an attack against the United States Constitution, the foundation of true freedom in America.
Americans certainly need to say more than just repeating "One Nation Under God" all day long, day after day. Imagine a nation where the government does everything according to the rule that everything must be "under God". That's a theocracy, like Iran, where the priests run the show, and anyone who refuses to conform to their religious edicts gets punished harshly. That's what "One Nation Under God" really means.
We do need to say more. We need to say yes to separation of Church and State. We need to say yes to freedom of speech. We need to say yes to the right to peaceably assemble to petition the government for the redress of our grievances, without having undercover FBI agents sent under the Patriot Act to infiltrate our meetings and report back to Alberto Gonzales in Bush's Department of Justice.
We need to say no to cruel and unusual punishment. When torture becomes official government policy in America, silence is rotten.
We need to speak up against unprovoked wars and prolonged occupations of foreign nations. We need to say something about the way that the Republican government is sacrificing the interests of working Americans for the sake of corporate executives who make big campaign donations.
Perhaps the Republicans do not need to say more. After all, the Republicans are the new elites. They have the entire federal government on their side, and most of the corporate world, and the American religious establishment. Republicans have all the sources of power in America speaking for them.
So, rank and file Republicans are apparently content to say little about the decay of the traditional pillars of American liberty. They are content to wear pretty, iconic t-shirts, without saying why they are wearing them, or even thinking about it. They are content to make displays in order to fit in.
Those of us who are not willing to go along with the crowd as the integrity of America decays must now think deeply about what we need to say, and how we will say it. Yes, we need icons of our own, and slogans to support them. However, we must not become like the Republicans, who, by following their icons and slogans without comment, have forgotten what it was that they stood for in the first place.
There's a fashion for images without words, these days - a fashion that has strong parallels to the development of nationalist iconography in Nazi Germany. We in the progressive resistance to American nationalism must put strong and careful words behind the images of our resistance, lest we fall into the same militant absurdity as the Republicans we oppose.
You see, there's just one more thing about the image that accompanies the "One Nation Under God" t-shirt, something that the designer seems not to have noticed. That American bald eagle is gagging.
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