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Flag Pins, Slavery, and the Politics of Image

"S.I. Hayakawa and the Politics of Image" [originally published 2012]

California senator Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa discusses matters with President Ronald Reagan, May 8, 1981.

After completing a decade-plus of research on the life of the late Senator S.I. Hayakawa, I've been listening to presidential aspirants debate and various commentators comment. As a result, I have been once more alerted to the politics of words and images in a culture where those are often treated as more important than actuality.

        Hayakawa would have roasted a Republican presidential candidate who, ignoring real records, defined himself as a "conservative" then called his opponent a "Massachusetts moderate" — with that term's evocation of the Kennedys. If words and the images they evoke could kill a GOP campaign, the so-called Massachusetts moderate would be defunct, exemplifying what the renowned social historian Daniel Boorstin once observed, "our national politics has become a competition for images or between images, rather than between ideals." Fortunately, Republican voters are smarter than that.

        But, as Hayakawa warned, for some people words and other symbols are reality. During the 2008 presidential campaign, a chum who knew I was an independent e-mailed me to say that he hoped I wasn't supporting "Barack HUSSEIN Obama" [his cap's], then added, "= Saddam HUSSEIN." I wrote back and said, tongue in cheek, that I was also having trouble accepting "JOHN McCain = JOHN Wilkes Booth." Baloney is baloney, but I actually admired both candidates.

        Hayakawa, a naturalized American, would likely have scorned the fuss in 2008 over the symbolism of candidates and flag pins. Wearing the latter might allow any phony or foreign agent to pass as a patriot. As it turns out, I don't wear one, but I did volunteer and serve six years active and reserve in the U.S. Army. When I meet young veterans today I say thanks; the last thing I do is search their lapels.

        During that campaign, too, an associate confided, "That Obama doesn't look like a president to me." When I said that McCain didn't much resemble Abe Lincoln, either, he said, "You know that I mean." Of course I did: he was employing racist code, white-guy-to-white-guy. (The latest similar nonsense is Franklin Graham's "son of Islam.") Old bigotry dies hard.

        After Obama's inauguration, yet another chum — a "progressive" White Democrat — grumbled, "We should have elected a real African American." I pointing out that Obama's African father and American mother seemed to qualify him for that label, "Not in my book. His people never suffered slavery!" he snapped.

        That same guy went ballistic when Obama bailed out the auto companies, calling him "a tool of big money," which particularly amused me because other acquaintances were at the same time describing the new president as "a socialist, maybe a communist." Those labels come easily; people employ words to convince themselves their prejudices are true… no matter what the reality.

        For S.I. Hayakawa, born in 1906, exposing the misuse of language — particularly Nazi anti-Semitism, both coded and blatant — was a duty. He mocked Adolph Hitler's inconsistent-but-deadly use of the term "Aryan" which then epitomized the manipulation of a word/image. Hitler's "Aryans" were white, except that he included the Japanese when they agreed to become his allies and the Mexicans when he was courting them as supporters.

        Despite this inconsistency, much of the German populace and even some Americans took his screed seriously, and some still do. Fortunately in the 1930s and '40s critics such as Stuart Chase, Wendell Johnson, Hayakawa and, of course, the inimitable Spike Jones ("Right in der Fuehrer's Face!") exposed Hitler.

        Too bad they aren't around to examine contemporary American politics. Periods of social change such as this one seem always to threaten some segment of the population and to trigger a preference for illusions.

Originally appeared in The Bakersfield Californian for March 3, 2012.

And, for those of you who are curious, here is Spike Jones & His City Slickers doing their hit "Right in der Fuehrer's Face" [1942]: Click Here!

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