Idiotic Semiotic

Cars are like blogs: billboards for our opinions, if we chose to use them in that way. And unlike a blog, where exposure requires web traffic to come to you, your car can take your message to the traffic.

Bumper stickers have been part of the cultural discourse since the 1950’s. It’s as though Americans believe that by using our turn signals, stopping for pedestrians, and following other courtesies of the roadway, we might win over converts to our most deeply held points of view.  “I was undecided,”  she said, “but those Kerry supporters are such good drivers, I simply must vote Democratic.”  “God is his co-pilot, and he seems to be doing a terrific job of navigating this rush hour traffic,” he thought, “perhaps I should start going to church.”

Whichever side of the polarized political culture you find yourself, you can’t deny that you invariably check out the driver of a car with a bumper sticker, scouring the facial features for some form of confirmation that they are, indeed, the enlightened being or venal rube their vehicle’s message predicts them to be.

As the war in Iraq wears on, it is more and more common to see cars sporting stickers in the shape of a yellow ribbon. The message is lost on no one: this person wants the soldiers home safely. The yellow ribbon was also used in this way in the 1991 Gulf War. As I drive past yellow-ribboned cars, I can’t help but search for some sign of intelligence in faces the drivers, believing full-well that I’m unlikely to find any. The driver has not earned my prejudice and disgust for their ideology, however. I want American soldiers home from Iraq as much as anyone — and seemingly more than those whose yellow ribbon stickers are accompanied by “Bush Cheney ’04” strips. My issue is with the moronic choice of symbols used to express the idea.

As anyone within earshot of an AM radio in 1973 could tell you, the use of the yellow ribbon to denote “I miss you, come home soon” has its origin it one of the worst pieces of popular drivel in the history of music, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” Words and Music by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown, hit recording by Tony Orlando and Dawn . (Many of you are still wondering how such a fabulously talented — and well-dressed! – band could turn out such a horrible record. The Captain and Tennille never would have stooped so low.) In that ballad, the lover of a convict receives a final letter from prison:

I’m comin’ home, I’ve done my time
Now I’ve got to know what is and isn’t mine
If you received my letter telling you I’d soon be free
Then you’ll know just what to do
If you still want me
If you still want me

Whoa, tie a yellow ribbon ’round the ole oak tree
It’s been three long years
Do ya still want me? (still want me)
If I don’t see a ribbon ’round the ole oak tree
I’ll stay on the bus
Forget about us
Put the blame on me
If I don’t see a yellow ribbon ’round the ole oak tree

I should point out that a prison sentence of three long years means the guy was a felon. And though his conviction was well before the days when he might have been cleared by DNA testing, you’ll notice that nowhere in the lyrics does he so much as suggest his innocence of the crime for which he was convicted. This guy was quite likely someone you might not have wanted around.

Even if you are too young to remember the song, or have simply willed it from your head like a bad dream, you can guess how things turn out. The tree is festooned with ���a hundred yellow ribbons��� and the convict is embraced. Sexual desire triumphs over moral judgment. Let bygones be bygones; let���s go to bed.

Are these lyrics really the place to extract a symbol of well wishes and speedy return for soldiers in harm’s way? Even the cliff-notes explanation of the song would surely have pointed out that the story is a bit more involved than the come-hither punch line. To my way of thinking, using the yellow ribbon as a symbol of “hurry home” for American troops is about as intelligent and sensitive as the White House playing the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” for a state visit by Tony Blair. Sure, the point to be conveyed is mentioned, briefly; but the context rather spoils the sentiment.

Even giving “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree” its most bland reading, it is about forgiveness. One doubts that those with yellow ribbons on the back of their SUVs intend to say: “Come home soldier-boy, all is forgiven.” Few American service personnel in Iraq are criminals or require forgiveness. (Sadly, the Abu Ghraib Prison episode has disabused us of the notion that all are innocents.) I find the yellow ribbon symbol thoughtless and insulting.

If this Nixon-era symbolism is at all appropriate, it is as the victory flag for the recent Bush campaign. Though Mr. Bush and his cadres were not indicted, and probably never will be by any credible legal institution, they are the true criminals of the Iraq war. (I have yet to hear a cogent explanation, for example, of how the unilateral invasion of a sovereign state for purposes of regime change — the stated justification after pursuit of WMD was no longer a viable excuse — fails to violate international law.) And yet, a majority of the American voting public said, “We forgive you, and promise never to speak of your crimes. Come back.”

Tie a yellow ribbon ’round 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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