The Trump Baby balloon that floated over London, England, last Friday was the culmination of efforts on the part of graphic designer Matt Bonner and a team of political activists and balloon fabricators who wanted to make a statement about the petulant and childish temperament of the current American president. As a mocking indictment of his destructive behavior, it is an effective piece of work. The activists plan to have the balloon shadow it’s real-life angry baby model as much as possible wherever he travels around the world.
The Trump Baby balloon rises over London’s Parliament Square. Photo by Michael Reeve.
Large balloon caricatures came about with the work of Tony Sarg on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in the 1920s. Mr. Sarg was a German-American puppeteer who took the concept of marionettes and simply turned them upward and inflated them, though the comparison ends there because the guide ropes for a balloon caricature do no more than tether and control them, as opposed to the thin wires that puppeteers use to manipulate the movements of small marionettes.
The technology for creating large balloons with discretely modeled characteristics like arms and legs has changed over the years, of course, with the biggest difference coming in the planning stage when designers can now model the character with 3D animation on a computer, eliminating some of the trial and error involved in the design and fabricating of earlier balloons. Experienced engineers at the fabricating plant can then examine those computer designs and make or suggest alterations that will improve the balloon’s stability when floating overhead and streamline its manufacturing, all without greatly changing if possible the designer’s intent.
The statue of Winston Churchill in London’s Parliament Square. Photo by Braveheart.
These protest balloon caricatures appear to be gaining popularity, and it’s easy to see why since they fit the criteria of making an impact over a wider area than a hand-held placard and they can show up around the world as needed with a relatively small support team. An excellent graphic design can also generate revenue for the protest movement through merchandising. The main difficulty in deploying the balloons is in securing permission from government officials, which ought not be that much different from acquiring the usual permits for a protest other than stipulating a maximum height for the balloon when it is in the air.
Since the balloons are not intended to float higher than about 50 feet, conflicts with aviation should be minimal. The main obstacles aloft to safe deployment, besides high winds, are things arising from the ground such as power and light poles and electrical and communications cables. Let’s hope these symbols of protest continue floating freely wherever there’s enough helium a need for them, as a reminder to everyone that many powerful public figures need to have the air let out of them, not necessarily for their benefit since it can be all but impossible to deflate their often massive egos, but for ours as citizens in a still relatively free society.
This Memorial Day marks the 150th anniversary of the holiday. When it was first formally celebrated, the holiday was a remembrance of Civil War dead and was called Decoration Day. Since 1868, Americans on Memorial Day have taken to visiting the graves of not just fallen soldiers, sailors, and marines, but those of their friends and relatives regardless of whether or not they died in military service to the country. Officially Memorial Day is for remembering and honoring the country’s war dead, but it has also become a day for remembering and honoring the near and dear, and most Americans usually do that by decorating the graves with flowers.
In western societies, placing flowers at grave sites goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and even before, to the stone age, as archaeologists discovered not long ago. Since then, as Jews and Muslims have asserted their own cultural and religious preferences for honoring the dead, the tradition of remembering with flowers has remained mostly a Christian one in the west. There is an entire symbolism of flowers dating from the ancient Greek and Roman mythologists and carried on by Christians, but it’s a safe bet to guess most people pay little attention to such subtleties when picking out a specific flower or an arrangement of flowers to place at the grave of their loved one. Most likely they pick out something they themselves enjoy, or that they know was a favorite of the departed.
Common poppies blooming in May 2015 in Guelma, a district in northeastern Algeria. Photo by Yaco24.
There is one flower symbol that remains widely understood, and it is the red poppy originating from the battlefields of Flanders in World War I, which has come to specifically memorialize military members dead from service in all wars since the so-called War to End All Wars. “In Flanders Fields”, a poem written by John McCrae, a Canadian who served in the war with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, noted the red poppies growing among the graves of soldiers buried after the Second Battle of Ypres. The fame of McCrae’s poem established the common red poppy, Papaver rhoeas, a tough plant long known in the region as a colonizer of disturbed ground, as the Remembrance Poppy thereafter.
It is worth noting that the opium poppy,Papaver somniferum, is native to the Mediterranean region and the Near East and yields opiates such as morphine, named for Morpheus, the god of dreams. Opium poppies were well known to the ancients for their anesthetic properties, a blessed relief for those wounded in battle or near death. It’s flower is not a symbolic reminder like the red poppy of those lost to the violence of war, but its value in easing suffering and bringing on the forgetfulness of sleep to those maimed and agonized by that violence makes it more important to those poor unfortunates, and certainly more useful. Rest in peace.
The urge to leave a personal markon the relatively permanent structures around us is strong enough to prompt some people to break laws against vandalism and trespassing and paint, mark, or scratch into public view an announcement of their existence. Is it graffiti, street art, or defacement? We can see these markings on buildings that are a few thousand years old, but beyond that, as a recently published scientific paper asserts, everything gets ground up, mixed together, compressed, and dispersed, making it hard to determine anything conclusively about human civilization and its discontents as expressed in graffiti. Caves have preserved paintings on their walls for tens of thousands of years old, but that artwork tells a very different story of humanity before what we consider civilization.
Sometimes graffiti addresses social and political issues, though more often the concerns of the artists are more mundane. It’s overstating to call a scatological scribbler a street artist, or even a graffiti marker. It doesn’t take much imagination or skill to scrawl the image of a phallus across a stone wall, whether it was done two thousand years ago or yesterday. Similarly with personal insults, the boorish nature of which have not changed at all over the centuries. The best graffiti is illustrative of a unique frame of mind, an altogether personal view of the world. The same definition can apply to art.
In Kansas City, Missouri, a 2008 rendition of the graffiti made famous everywhere during World War II by American servicemen. Photo by Marshall Astor.
John Cleese as the Centurion and Graham Chapman as Brian in the 1979 satirical film Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Tagging, which is marking or painting of initials, nicknames, or symbols, and is often used to mark territory, is not a particularly enjoyable or meaningful form of graffiti to anyone but the marker and others who need to interpret the signs. They rarely exhibit any wit, and are usually straightforward signs meant for specific groups instead of the larger society, hence their often cryptic appearance to those not in the know. The signs say, among other things, “Keep out”, “This is our territory”, or “I am here”. The humorist Jean Shepherd, in a video essay about roadside features in New Jersey, speculated about the confusion of future archaeologists as they attempt to decipher the graffiti of our times, attaching to it perhaps more importance than it warrants. The entire television special is a treat, featuring Mr. Shepherd musing with philosophical delight about what constitutes art as he observes all the commercial kitsch he finds along a New Jersey highway. All our artifacts and graffiti will be gone in a millennium, of course, crumbled into disconnected bits, but for now they say “I am here”, and “We were here”. — Vita
Roadside memorials for traffic accident fatalities have been appearing more frequently over the past 20 years, a period when the numbers of deaths per capita or per mile driven had been dropping until the last two years, when they have risen again. Since the increase in memorials has not been tied to overall traffic fatalities, there must be another reason. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a reason other than the increase in memorials being due to a snowballing cultural phenomenon. People become aware of the memorials, and then when a loved one dies in an automobile wreck, they feel moved to erect a memorial near that spot, and so the phenomenon builds on itself, this being its moment.
One force that could be feeding the movement is the amount of young people who are dying in traffic accidents, many of them on account of their own negligence due to distracted driving. Young people have always been overrepresented in the traffic fatality statistics due to their willingness to take foolish risks, but now add in their addiction to cell phones and they have become an even more dangerous element on the roads. Insurance companies, who put dollars and cents numbers on risky behavior, understand this and accordingly attach high premiums to policies for drivers under 30 years old. Having a relative taken away by death in a violent accident at a very young age is of course a more traumatic event than having one taken away by natural causes at an advanced age, and may be a factor in the urge of friends and relatives to build a roadside memorial.
Statuettes at a roadside memorial in 2006.
None of this is by way of claiming that most roadside memorials are erected by traumatized relatives on behalf of teenaged drivers and drivers in their twenties who were irresponsibly texting when they ran their car off the road and flipped it over in a ditch. There are scant statistics available to support such a claim, though a deep dive into state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) websites may turn up a breakdown of accident causes or contributing factors. Mainly it is speculation to suppose distracted driving may have been a primary cause of any accident marked by a roadside memorial. While texting is a phenomenon of the past 20 years, and as such coincides with the increase in roadside memorials, there is nevertheless a logical fallacy described in Latin as “post hoc, ergo propter hoc”, meaning “after this, therefore because of this”. Still, the coincidence bears consideration.
As a matter of personal experience, however, anyone who has been driving the past 20 years cannot help noticing the increase in distracted driving around them. Sitting at a red light behind a driver who is mesmerized by his or her phone means waiting extra seconds before accelerating after the light turns green, or even having to honk the horn to rouse that driver from smartphone induced hypnosis. Driving on a road behind or next to a texting driver means being alert to his or her sudden and unexpected accelerations and decelerations of their vehicle and jerking it from side to side, behavior that is exactly the same as a drunk driver. Getting out in front of a texting driver is not entirely safe either, as is obvious by glancing in the rear view mirror at the texting driver looking down toward his or her lap rather than up toward the road and the back of the car, your car, that they are dangerously closing in on.
A 2012 experiment in Belgium to demonstrate the dangerous foolishness of people who believe they can drive competently while texting. For additional views on the casualties of texting and driving, see the 2013 Werner Herzog documentaryFrom One Second to the Next. As they drive past a roadside memorial bedecked in flowers and balloon hearts and teddy bears, motorists reflecting on its meaning have no idea whether the memorial is for an irresponsible driver or the innocent victim of that driver, any more than a person walking through a cemetery knows the particulars behind the deaths of the people marked by the tombstones over their graves. If the driver thinks for a few seconds about how quickly life can be snuffed out, whether by foolishness or merely by bad luck, and checks their vehicle speedometer and puts their phone away in the glove compartment, then maybe the roadside memorial has served a good purpose after all. Taking it easy and laying off the accelerator and the constant jonesing to communicate, even though it be about nothing of note, maybe the driver reflects upon seeing the roadside memorial and thinks “There but for the grace of God go I”, and gets home safely. — Ed.
Lee-Jackson Day is not a holiday that is generally recognized throughout the United States, and even in Virginia, where the holiday originated, most people are unaware of it. Yet it persists, tied to the Friday before the third Monday in January, which happens to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For nearly 20 years at the end of the twentieth century, the two holidays were bundled together in Virginia on the same day, making it an even more peculiar observance. Since the separation of Lee-Jackson day to the Friday preceding Martin Luther King Jr. Day, some of the minority of people who regularly note its passing are the state workers who get Friday off, and therefore a very long weekend on account of the national holiday the following Monday.
Giving some state workers an extra day off is a poor excuse for continuing a holiday that most people have little enthusiasm for observing. There are small groups of Southern history enthusiasts who gather in Lexington, Virginia, every year on the long weekend (long, but not very long, because it includes Friday, but generally not Monday), where both Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are buried. Washington and Lee University, a private institution in Lexington, and the place where General Lee was president from shortly after the Civil War until his death in 1870, only recently started distancing itself from the Confederate memorializing controversy by refusing to lend its facilities to these Southern history groups and by canceling classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The Southern history enshrined by observances like Lee-Jackson Day and by monuments to the Confederacy is a peculiarly blinkered history, however, and for enthusiasts of that narrow vision to act perplexed when some other folks object is either daftly naive or disingenuous, more likely the latter. In the Jim Crow days of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when many of the Confederate memorializing was first officially sanctioned as a means of reminding everyone who was still really in charge in the South, fans of the Confederacy could be quite open about their views and not be concerned over anyone’s objections. It was easier then to point out such people for what they were, even if it was harder to do anything about it.
Arlington House, former home of Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, with Section 32 of Arlington National Cemetery in the foreground. Photo by Protoant.
Martin Luther King Jr. was the civil rights leader most instrumental in changing all that in the middle of the twentieth century, and for his accomplishments he has been nationally recognized with a holiday on the third Monday in January. Discrimination against black people was certainly nor restricted to the South, but since it was there where it was most culturally and institutionally ingrained, that was where Dr. King held his rallies, boycotts, and marches.
The regional holiday of Lee-Jackson Day is a holdover from the Jim Crow era, and for the people of that time, who could be open about their white supremacist views, the holiday certainly represented something less innocuous than the claims today’s Southern history enthusiasts make for it. Some of those Confederacy fans understand that, but they also understand that these days it behooves them to be less open about their views, in great part due to the legacy of Dr. King. Nowadays they are often as not passive-aggressive in defiance of others’ objections to their glorification of white supremacy, saying “Oh, does this [Confederate statue, battle flag, etc.] bother you? I’m so sorry to bruise your delicate feelings, Snowflake.”
Such people may be ignorant of the view of their hero, General Lee, who did not approve of memorializing the Confederacy because it would prevent wounds opened by the war from healing. It could be, however, that since they are not the ones who suffered any wounds, they lack the imagination or the empathy to understand Lee’s sentiment. Then there those who recognize the wounds in others and seek to keep them open, even salting them occasionally, because it gives them power or satisfies their spitefulness. Those are the ones who held rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, in July and August of last year. Everyone should consider honestly then whose interests are served by propping up outdated and outmoded Confederate memorializing, whatever form it takes, and by relating a history of stars and bars while glossing over shackles and whips.
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 ended up being more about the neo-Nazi version of white supremacy than the purported issue of memorials to the Confederacy and whether or not they represent another version of white supremacy. Despite that difference, it hardly matters to the victims whether white supremacy is rooted in Nazism and World War II or slavery and the Civil War. The neo-Nazis merely co-opted the issue of removing a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park in order to further their own hateful agenda.
The backlash to the rally in Charlottesville has had the effect of expediting removal of Confederate memorials around the country. Instead of preserving memorials to the Confederacy, an issue which the neo-Nazis obviously had an interest in only as a flash point, the effect of their demonstration has been to bring to the attention of the general public the real purpose of many of those memorials and why it is a good idea to remove them. The majority of the statues, for instance, were put up in the Jim Crow era, often outside courthouses, and it is clear from dedication speeches of the time that the statues were meant to serve the dual purpose of preserving the memory of the rebellion as well as reminding black people and their few white allies that the old guard was still in charge, no matter what the Constitution of the United States had to say about equality of the races.
Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), writer of “This Land Is Your Land”, performing in 1943. The sign on his guitar says “This machine kills fascists”. Photo by Al Aumuller of the New York World-Telegram.
Another bump in confederate memorializing came during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. Through the Jim Crow era assertion of the old order and then reassertion during the Civil Rights era the rest of the country took little note of the symbols being put up all around the South. Visitors might think some of the memorializing was odd to the extent that they noted it at all, but for the most part they put it down to a “Southern thing” in which it was best not to interfere. The region’s inhabitants, black and white, surely understood why the memorials were there, though some of the white people among them chose to gloss over their uglier meaning by looking at them only as symbols of plucky defiance against Northern aggression, ignoring the centrality of slavery to the conflict, which was written down in the Declarations of Secession by their own leaders.
Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a region sacred to many Native Americans.
Now that the issue of Confederate memorials’ role in asserting white supremacy has come to national attention, it is perhaps time to start examining white supremacy memorials in every context across the country. The idea expressed by the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville that white people have an inherent right to lead this nation and subjugate other groups is self-evidently asinine. Native Americans are the only true Americans, and they of course are not white people. It is entirely unlikely at this point, however, that hundreds of millions of people, black and white, African and European, will board ships and return to their lands of origin, much as the real Native Americans may wish that at least some troublemakers would do just that.
Like it or not, this land is now populated by one big, argumentative family. Some of us hate each other, and it appears that will always be so, but the idea that one group of the family, namely white people – and in particular a subset of privileged white heterosexual males – should continue to dominate the others is an evil premise. Stow your petty, self-pitying grievances and move on, so that when we all get together for Thanksgiving we can have peace in the family.
An August 1993 performance at Wolf Trap in Virginia. Arlo Guthrie’s daughters sing backup, his son plays keyboards, and Pete Seeger’s grandson is the singer in between Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger on stage.
The 1944 filmHail the Conquering Hero, written and directed by Preston Sturges, satirizes our need for heroes and the lengths we will go to in order to assert myth over reality.
People seem to have a deep need for heroes, and will invent mythologies around the ones they anoint and erect monuments to them. If worshiping their hero and fetishizing the symbols around him or her serve as a poke in the eye to some others, well then that’s too bad. Those in power decide who gets a monument, and the powerless have to live with it. When some citizens criticize the symbolic nature of those monuments, the powerful react with anger, as if some people have a lot of nerve for objecting to getting poked in the eye.
All around the former Confederate States of America, civic arguments are going on over the proper role of Civil War symbols and monuments in public places. Almost all of these symbols and monuments are martial in nature, with an undertone of defiance. For some, the War Between the States continues, 150 years on, and those whose eyes are poked because of it need to remember their place. One wonders how they would feel if a statue of William Tecumseh Sherman was put on prominent display in Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta, Georgia. How about a statue of the English King George III in New York City’s Central Park? Since at least a third of residents of the American colonies were Loyalists during the Revolution, that war can be considered the first American Civil War, or War Between the Revolutionists and the Loyalists, if you prefer.
General Sherman Memorial, Washington, D.C.; photo by Flickr user debaird.
New York City. After a public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776, a crowd pulls down the statue of King George III to be melted into bullets. Contemporary engraving.
The Civil War monuments should not be removed, as that would silence part of history, like the activists who want to silence speech they don’t agree with. A better policy is to acknowledge and memorialize those other people from history, the ones who have been ignored while the powerful played up the mixed accomplishments of generals and statesmen. In Charlottesville, Virginia, where one of those civic debates is going on about the desire of some to see statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson removed from public parks, the former head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1950s, Eugene Williams, believes the statues should stay, but the city should also memorialize the slave auction site at Court Square. Auctioning slaves within sight of the seat of justice, the local courthouse, is a stark reminder of the contradictions in our culture, and memorializing both the auction block and Generals Lee and Jackson on their horses would yield a more complex, adult understanding of history than listening to only one side of the story. ― Vita