Sunday, September 11, 2005

Support Ribbon Awareness

Back in the day (the day being, oh, 1993) ribbons were all the rage. I feel like it started with Tom Hanks wearing a red AIDS awareness ribbon to the Oscars, where he won for Philadelphia. Apparently, singer/songwriter Paul Jabara, who died of AIDS in 1992,  conceived of the idea. Finally, we as a nation were ready for some AIDS awareness. It was an elegant statement (especially draped on an Armani tux). And it was subtle and simple – one strip of satin looped in an embrace, begging the question, “What’s the deal with the red ribbon?”, forcing people to go find out, to become aware.

(Upon further research, I’ve learned that Jeremy Irons wore the ribbon while hosting the Tony Awards in 1991. But I’m sticking with Tom Hanks for the move to mainstream, because, seriously, who watches the Tony Awards?)

Now, AIDS was unique – it was a closeted disease coming out for a night on the town, in need of some public recognition. Of course, that didn’t stop every other issue out there from choosing a color and trying to get some exposure. I can’t seem to find anyone to support this, but I’m fairly certain that racism was purple (well, anti-racism), anti-Semitism was yellow (anti-anti-Semitism), the environment was green (pro-environment), and I’m pretty sure blue was for or against something. I wish somebody could back me up on this.

Regardless, after losing their fashion cache around 1998 (when all social and political awareness was transferred to the curvature of Bill Clinton’s penis), ribbons are back with a vengeance, though they mostly have taken the form of car magnets. If you have something to say but are afraid of the commitment a bumper sticker requires, there’s a car magnet in your future.

Actually, I’m amazed no one came up with the idea sooner. Metal boxes, hurdling across America’s highways and byways. Magnets, liking to stick to metal. It seems like an obvious fit.

For awhile, though, I didn’t think the phenomena was going to move beyond the yellow ribbons of wartime. What began as a benign, relatively religio-political-free gesture of support for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (“Support Our Troops”) turned quickly toward jingoistic, righteous, sectarian chants of “God Bless America,” “Pray for Our Troops,” “Freedom Isn’t Free,” and “One Nation Under God,” in a variety of colors – from traditional yellow, to stars and stripes, to camouflage. I even saw one ribbon, turned sideways (into a Jesus Fish), reading, “Got Bless our Troops”. Brilliant. I can’t seem to find that one anywhere, but here’s one that says, “JesUSAves”. Equally craptastic.

I’m actually glad to see that there are more peaceful alternatives, like “Bring My Soldier Home” and “Pray for Peace,” but I feel like their messages, while going against the current administration’s dogmatic, blindly patriotic furvor, are only socially permissible because the first shows a closely personal stake and the second acknowledges the existence of a higher being. I liked that “Support Our Troops” required neither a military connection nor piety and did not truly take a position on the validity of the war, only on not punishing the thousands of brave men and women who got roped into fighting it.

One blog I read suggests that “Support Our Troops” is too much of a directive, as opposed to simply stating, “I Support Our Troops”. I guess I can’t deny the implied “you” in the imperative. So perhaps a plain yellow ribbon would be best, left to be interpreted however you like. For me, it would say, “I like to pee.” Because I do. Peeing is good. Except when I haven’t had enough water; then it kind of burns.

Interestingly, I think for most people (okay, me), the yellow ribbon recalls the 1973 Tony Orlando song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree”. Relatively soon after, yellow ribbons first cropped up as a mass media symbol, during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis; family members of the hostages decorated their homes with yellow ribbons as a plea for their homecoming. Now, I’d always thought the Tony Orlando song was about a soldier coming home from Vietnam. But that’s because I never really listen to lyrics, even when I’m singing them. But Tony sings:

“If I don’t see that yellow ribbon
‘round that ole oak tree,
I’ll stay on the bus,
forget about us,
put the blame on me.”

“Put the blame on me.” What the hell is that about? Apparently this soldier is coming home to his girlfriend or wife but is giving her a chance to back out of their relationship, because he’s been away so long? So the ribbon would be a sign of welcome, okay…but what’s the deal with “put the blame on me”? Why should he blame himself for being drafted into an unjust war?

Well, according to this site (and Tony), the story is actually being told from the perspective of a convict returning from prison, not a soldier. So there’s your blame – the guilt of being sent to the pokey.

Basically, it seems like somebody screwed up the symbolism. Which I suppose just creates a brand new symbol from the same piece of cloth. That happens all the time – like red meat; it used to clog your arteries, now it’s low in carbs.  I do have to wonder how Tony Orlando reconciles all of this with the fact that he travels around performing his song at military bases, veteran’s hospitals, and ceremonies welcoming soldiers home. Apparently he doesn’t listen to the words either.

Whether buying a yellow ribbon for your car is actually doing anything more than make a statement, I don’t know. Magnet America claims to have produced the “original” ribbon car magnets (their quotes, not mine), but I’m skeptical of any company whose accomplishments need to be quoted:

“Hey, Fred, would you say that this here ribbon car magnet is an original?”

“Well, I don’t know, Harold, have you ever made a ribbon car magnet before?”

“Nope, this is the first.”

“Well, then, by gosh, I guess I’d have to say that that there is one original ribbon car magnet.”

They’re also happy to point out that charitable groups like Operation We Care are certainly free to buy ribbons in bulk and then sell them to support the troops, but Magnet America itself barely donates the money it makes. I don’t know how much they’re raking in, but I think it’s fair to guess it’s more than the $42,000 they gave to the Freedom Calls Foundation, which “has deployed its first wireless VOIP telephone and video conferencing services in an Army Camp located in the Sunni Triangle”. That’s in Iraq (which I did not know, though it sounded vaguely familiar).

Magnet America, along with other brothers in commerce, is also happy to provide many other charitable organizations with the opportunity to purchase merchandise which can be sold to actually support their non-yellow causes (if you don’t like ribbons, they’ve got bracelets). I found a site that educated me on what all colors now symbolize (and battle). The list is honestly too long to bother pasting here (so just go to the damn site), but I hope that purple and lupus will be very happy together.

Of course, all of these ribbons have led to the inevitable backlash. Pomo Sideshow lets you design your own ribbon or purchase parody ribbons with such slogans as “Support the Magnetic Ribbon Industry” and “God Bless Jingoist Ribbons”. Sadly, I just don’t have the balls to buy them, for fear that someone will slash my tires (if not my balls).

AntiMagnet sells actual bumper stickers (since, obviously, they are opposed to magnets) that say things like, “We support the guy in China selling these idiotic magnets” and “We support the guy in the U.S. selling bumper stickers that complain about the guy in China selling idiotic magnets” (very meta). They feel compelled to fill most of their website with a defense of why they’re doing what they do. I guess it wouldn’t be a backlash if people didn’t sound snide and defensive, though I wish that questioning the conventional wisdom didn’t feel dangerous enough to put people on the defense.

The magnetic ribbon/awareness industry should be able to support both the perspective of the sayer and the naysayer. No, the mere presence of a message on your car touting the need for a cure for cancer is not likely to spur along said cure (though never underestimate the mysterious healing power of magnets). But it might encourage someone to donate to an organization that is trying to develop a cure. And it most certainly gives the driver of the car the small satisfaction of telling the world a little bit about what makes him/her tick, whether it’s wishing well for the less fortunate or keeping everyone informed of the ever-fluctuating cost of freedom. I for one have been turned right around on the issue of mean people and have determined that they do indeed suck.

But the revolving door of the First Amendment swings both ways. We should disagree with what we say and defend to the death our right to say it, to paraphrase Voltaire (who apparently never said that). Dissent is patriotic.

Hey, that would make a good bumper sticker.

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