Letter from the Editor

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Peace out

My big sister was a bit of a hippie back in the day. Instead of Sesame Street, as a kid I was bopping around the bungalow to John Lennon singing "Give Peace a Chance."

And I wasn't alone. I can still recall singing "One Tin Soldier Rides Away" with the fifth grade choir. "Listen children, to a story, that was written long ago..." Check that one out on YouTube and decide for yourself if it still applies.

But Ellen was my educator when it came to peace, without even knowing it. With her beat-up old accoustic guitar, long blond hair often tied back in a tie-dye bandana and her raggy jean jacket sporting a big iron-on hand making a peace "V" in stars and stripes, my early years were lived to music that included Bob Dylan's "The Answer is Blowin in the Wind," Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," Cat Stevens' "Peace Train," CSN&Y's "Ohio" about the Kent State killings, Jimi Hendrix playing the National Anthem and so on - punctuated liberally with parental yells to turn down that noise.

Peace songs didn't stop - Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," John Mellencamp's "To Washington," Lenny Kravitz' "We Want Peace," Eddie Vetter's "I am a Patriot," even a few Public Enemy rap songs. Willie Nelson, of all people, has come out with "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?" (That last one ties his long hair up with a bandana and probably has an iron-on on the back of his jean jacket.)

Still, it's not the same.

These were the thoughts - and the guitar chords - that ran through my head as I read about the Peace Symbol turning 50 this month.

I had never given it any thought. I was just born into a world that had it, just like it had a protracted war for the nightly news ... and in my childhood years I suppose I couldn't have imagined a world that didn't have both, hawks and doves, nearly pulling us apart. And, as it turns out, maybe we won't ever have.

For the first time, I think about that symbol itself, which I remember my sister wore on a cheap silver chain around her neck. It used to bump me on the nose when she would rough me up (she was pretty tough for a pacifist chick) so I know the design well.

Just three simple, clean lines within a circle. Yet, aside from the even more simple and powerful cross, it could well be the most recognizable and enduring symbol in the world. (I'm putting that smiley face thing third - and you probably have to flip "the bird" a nod for fourth.)

I looked it up. Most sources say the symbol is a form of semaphore, combining the symbols for N and D - "Nuclear Disarmament." Practical, but not very groovy, that.

The peace symbol was drawn by a British man, Gerald Holstom, who was looking for a graphic image to express himself at a ban-the-bomb rally in April of 1958.

Finally, I found something the inventor himself had written. According to the late artist - the symbol was very personal - and this, I had never known:

"I drew myself... a man in despair... put a circle around it to represent the world," he said.

By the Vietnam era, it was everywhere. Some soldiers made a pendant of it by twisting together a grenade pin and two cotter pins. And it has been borrowed by many countries, and movements from environmental to gay rights to anti-apartheid. In areas of Russia, Germany and the Czech Republic, it has been adopted as a symbol of resistance against communism; it's been painted on inner-city walls in the U.S, and Europe as a message against gang violence, and brought out of mothballs for protests against the administration's policies in Iraq.

Critics called it "the footprint of the American chicken."

The secret of the peace symbol success as a hieroglyphic superstar is because of its simplicity and universiality, according to the new National Geographic book "Peace: The Biography of a Symbol."

That, and the fact that it has never been successfully copyrighted, ever. It's been used on everything from cars to Lucky Strike cigarette products. Selling peace; off concept.

It might be partially the familiarity that I grew up with the symbol, but it is still somehow slightly comforting to me to see it, and to know the sentiment still exists, even if it can't push gangster rap or death speed metal off the radio these days.

How successful our symbolism of peace is would be another issue. The same generation that adopted it has since grown to power and become embroiled in fighting overseas again. The issue perhaps looks a little different when you are sending someone else's young National Guard trying to earn college tuition off to Iraq, as opposed to staring a draft card in the face yourself.

For the record, when the father of the peace symbol died in 1985, he was still sticking to his pacifist guns, so to speak. But he - and probably he alone - had come to regret the despair he intended years before. He asked that the symbols be carved into his tombstone, inverted, so the "arms" would be reaching toward the sky, more hopefully.

But instead they were carved just as he first sketched them. As if someone knew we would be needing that familiar symbol again. And again.

What images does the symbol bring to mind for you? That famous photo of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong officer with a single shot to the head? Or the frantic teenager kneeling over the fallen student at Kent State University? The student sticking a flower in the barrel of a National Guard rifle? The whaling ship bearing down on a Greenpeace raft? Freaky Woodstock hippies?

I guess for me, it will always be memories of my sister, set to the music she loved. Not to slight anyone's current politics here, but when did peace become such a wrong thing to want?

The symbol is 50. Far out.

Maybe someday we will have the reality for as long.