Branding and the American flag

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(Host) As political struggles around the world seem to be gaining in complexity, commentator Olin Robison reflects on the power of simple symbols.

(Robison) I sometimes wear an American Flag lapel pin. I do so because it distresses me that the political right in America has more or less appropriated the flag as their badge of patriotism. President Bush and, as far as I can tell by watching television, all members of his cabinet wear such flag pins all the time.

Since I am not known to my friends as being all that conservative politically, the flag on the lapel of my jacket or suit frequently elicits comment. Given your views, I am sometimes asked, why are you wearing a flag? My answer is that the flag is as much mine as theirs and besides it belongs to all Americans, not just to those who support any particular political perspective.

It is both interesting and distressing, at least to me, that words and symbols that should belong to everyone have become emblems of the divisions in American society rather than signs of unity. The words “freedom” and “liberty” have become the de facto property of the political right. The word “equality” seems to belong to the left.

Maybe it is just an extension of the market phenomenon called “branding,” which signals our ability to identify a project or a company simply by its logo. Quite possibly the most dramatically successful branding icon in this category is the Nike swoosh. When the television camera focuses in on Tiger Woods making yet another improbable golf shot, there it is: the Nike swoosh — front and center — right on his cap. No words; just the swoosh. That, of course, is meant to sell Nike products by association; and it probably does.

In the political and social worlds these icons frequently promote powerful — sometimes even violent — emotions. Sometimes these symbols become the subject of high-stakes politics, whether it is head-scarves worn by Muslim girls in France or the flying of the Confederate flag in George or South Carolina.

I recently heard fundamentalism defined as the fear of loss of identity. It is no doubt more than that but the point is a good one.

And, one might add, the greater that fear, the more powerful the icon or symbol becomes. Whether it is a lapel pin, a head-scarf, a flag, or, on a much more simple level, the clothes we wear — in every case identity, belonging, is conveyed without the need for words.

And, as with so many things, it has terrific potential for good and for bad. These symbols of identity frequently exclude more than they include. They tell others why I and my group are special — and maybe better — and maybe more deserving — and, by clear implication, different in ways that set me and mine apart.

Groucho Marx famously said that he wouldn’t be a member of a club that would invite him in. Okay. Let’s don’t go down that road.

But I will continue, from time to time, to wear the flag lapel pin; partly because I feel good doing so and partly, I must confess, because it seems to confuse some of my more conservative friends.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is President of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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