Flag Decals, Yellow Ribbons, and Pink Bracelets

Pink RibbonI’ve loved John Prine’s first album since I was a kid. One of the (many) standout songs on the album is, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” It’s an anti-war song for the Vietnam era. The line following the refrain is, “They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war.” But I don’t have much a visceral connection to the Vietnam War. So what has always spoken to me is the use of signifiers to represent which “side” you are on in complicated issues that really do not lend themselves to simple binary positions.

The best example of this is the yellow ribbon. These usually go along with the jingoistic slogan, “Support the troops!” I’ve given this a lot of thought and the reasoning behind this slogan goes something as follows, “The troops have to do whatever the government tells them. Therefore, supporting the troops means supporting whatever the government tells them to do. Therefore, support the war you commie bastards!” The yellow ribbon, just like the flag decal before it, is meant to shutdown debate.

The other side of it is that the yellow ribbons allow people to feel good about “supporting the troops” in a theoretical sense but to not do so in a practical sense. We have a long history of lavishing money on defense contractors while low-level military personnel live in near poverty. We go into war with high tech, whizbang devices (that made some rich guy even more rich) but without basic body and transport armor because, “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” And, of course, after the wars, the military personnel are largely forgotten. The conservatives who were so keen on “supporting the troops” tend to forget about the former troops and their needs.

This issue of the meaninglessness of such signifiers is discuss today by Danielle Kurtzleben at Vox, Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbons Sell Because They Don’t Really Say Anything. It discussed how the pink ribbons mean something different to everyone. But as I have already indicated, they don’t actually say anything about the person or entity sporting one:

“Ribbon-wearing requires very little commitment to a cause. Indeed, wearing a ribbon does not mean that one is an active or staunch supporter of a given charity,” writes Sarah EH Moore in her 2009 book Ribbon Culture. And though she’s talking about [the] person wearing a ribbon, her comment can easily transfer to a yogurt or a football league — the pink ribboned advertisement can often signify very little in the way of how much money that company is giving to fighting cancer, as “pinkwashing” opponents often warn. There are several instances of companies saying they will give “a portion” of a product’s proceeds to cancer research, without specifying exactly what the amount will be.

The article goes on to discuss how most businesses just see the pink ribbon as good PR. It’s just fondness by association. But this is nothing new. I’m more bothered with it on a personal level. What exactly would it say if I wore a pink ribbon? That I’m against breast cancer? That seems like a non-statement, like, “I’m against things that are bad!” Or perhaps it says that I’m in favor of finding a cure? Ditto. Or maybe it says that we should put more resources toward finding a cure for breast cancer? Well, there I have to break ranks. Sure, I’m for more research. But in our current “pay as you go” environment where we absolutely positively cannot raise taxes (and people are constrained in their giving), more money for breast cancer research is less money for something else. It would depend upon what that something else was.

Of course, pink ribbons don’t express jingoism. But otherwise, they are the same as the yellow ribbons. They either say something so vague that they are meaningless. Or they say something contentious, so they divide us. Kurtzleben briefly discussed this issue in her article. Recently, Susan G Komen has twice gotten into trouble by being something other than the anemic, “We’re taking a bold stand to be against breast cancer!” The first was the Planned Parenthood fiasco and then the pink fracking drill-bits.

I would never give Komen a cent, because their real intentions are too clear. No one is too dirty for them to partner with. If a rich neo-Nazi wanted to give them billions for the cause, they would take it. All that matters is that they get the cash for their one cause. Of course, it doesn’t even take billions (it probably would for a neo-Nazi); Baker Hughes only had to donate $100,000 to equate fracking with breast cancer awareness. What’s more, the Planned Parenthood case showed that Komen doesn’t even care about women generally. So unless you believe that nothing matters as much as breast cancer, I can’t see why you would support Komen.

That gets to the very heart of the flag decals, yellow ribbons, and pink bracelets: they don’t actually mean anything to the people sporting them. But they mean a great deal to the people pushing them. And what they mean is at best complicated and at worst downright evil.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Flag Decals, Yellow Ribbons, and Pink Bracelets

  1. I remember the yellow ribbon going mainstream with the Iranian hostage crisis. Wikipedia says the yellow ribbon has an older tradition of significance for absent loved ones in prison or on military deployment. Hence the popular song of those times. It came to mean solidarity with the hostages, as I remember it. And I don’t quite remember where it morphed into the “Support The Troops” pablum we have now. Probably at least by Gulf War 1. But probably not before the release of First Blood. Sylvester Stallone really planted the “hippies spit on the soldiers” meme solidly with that film. Of course I knew the story already. Mom ranted about it to me, which means she read it in the Wall Street Journal. I got the Welfare Queen meme from the same place, and before St. Ron popularized it. Of course it wasn’t true, or at least in the most generous sense wildly exaggerated (both), and no indication of a widespread phenomenon. I have since read that Vietnam veterans were treated worse by veterans of Korea and WW2. No doubt the propagandists of our age would have no trouble selling the dumb car magnets for the cause of our garrison in Germany sitting there hoping world war 3 never happens. But the right was merely an army with lunatic generals then, and not yet an army of lunatics.

    • Yes, I remember at the time of the Gulf War, there was this hysteria about how we didn’t want it to be another Vietnam War and, of course, we all know that we lost that war because we didn’t “support the troops.” I think Bush’s great approval rating came from the fact that the war went well (for us). Of course, 9/11 is a direct result of that war, so maybe not so much.

      You are right about the yellow ribbon going back. It was only today that I realized the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” was about a guy coming back from war and not prison. I always misunderstood the line, “I’ve done my time.” But for people drafted, that was exactly what it was. This disappoints me, because I had planned to write an article about how the song was kind of hip in admitting that felons are humans deserving of acceptance too. But as it stands, it’s just the 1970s version of a Vera Lynn song.

  2. It goes the other way too. It seems like a lot of guys (always guys) who used to wear Dead Kennedys pins are now stock traders.

    • I knew conservative teens who were mad for Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables in 1980! Punk music appealed to a lot of angry white guys. So the fact that Jello Biafra was a radical leftist didn’t play into it at all. I don’t even think they understood that “California Uber Alles” was an attack of Brown from the left.

      But I take your point. I think.

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