A POLITICAL RORSCHACH TEST FOR THE A.C.L.U.
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- The ink blot test named after Hermann Rorschach has become controversial among psychologists in recent decades, but I think the underlying idea has some validity as applied to politics. How else should we view the recent brouhaha over the Los Angeles County Seal?
The story in brief: A few weeks ago, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California threatened the County of Los Angeles over the county seal. The seal has a cross on it, and the ACLU promised to sue if it is not removed. (The seal can be seen at http://lacounty.info/seal.htm.)
Within days, politicians, radio personalities, the County Board of Supervisors and religious zealots involved themselves in the fray. The supervisors were split over fighting a lawsuit or cutting a deal, and the whole thing escalated into a media event. The Board of Supervisors initially split 3-2 in favor of settling with the ACLU by gradually introducing a new seal. Contending sides prepared for a second hearing in front of the supervisors.
Along the way, the positions of both sides revealed themselves to be overblown and often entirely irrelevant. It is as if the different players were looking at some ink blot and projecting their own fears, hatreds and obsessions.
The ACLU argues, reasonably enough, that the cross as a religious object does not belong on the official symbols of our governmental institutions. There is a certain level of straightforward logic behind this position. The ACLU has recently forced a settlement on the city of Riverside, California over a similar issue.
Perhaps to the surprise of the ACLU, few people who might have been expected to support them actually did. The reasons for this non-reaction we will consider below. At the other end of the spectrum, the politically conservative side reacted with expectable outrage.
Local talk radio shows used the issue to attack the ACLU. This is nothing new. These shows are for the most part highly reactionary and the ACLU has provided a convenient whipping boy for years.
One of the county supervisors who opposes the ACLU, Michael Antonovich, sent out a press release that begins by asserting, "The seal reflects our county's rich history and depicts many aspects of our county legacy including industry, agriculture and entertainment. The cross is just one of the seal's many features that include the pagan goddess Pomona and the 12 other objects."
In this view, the various objects on the county seal are meant to reflect aspects of Los Angeles history, culture and industry. The cross, as many have argued, simply stands for the history of Spanish missionary settlement, just as oil derricks refer to the local petroleum industry.
Antonovich went further though. "The ACLU threat to desecrate the county seal is Orwellian, out-of-control political correctness that has no legal basis." The press release concludes with a little bit of political paranoia that has been amply rebutted by urban mythology web sites such as snopes.com: "Next the ACLU will want to eliminate the crosses and Stars of David in our nation's military cemeteries."
Radio-host, author and pundit Dennis Prager has managed to gain the most ink (and pixels) out of this one so far. Prager's occasional resort to extremist overstatement is best revealed in a column he wrote (now widely available and cited on the internet), titled, "Taliban come to Los Angeles."
Here are a few choice excerpts: "Given the relationship between changing the past and totalitarianism, there is reason to be amply frightened by the current decision of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to change the seal of Los Angeles County." And, further along, "But the ACLU knows what is at stake -- the removal of religion, specifically Christianity, from American history; and the replacing of Judeo-Christian values with leftist ones." And more: "What we have here is an American version of the Taliban. The ACLU and the supervisors are leftist versions of the Taliban -- attempting to erase the Christian history of America just as the Muslim Taliban tried to erase the Buddhist history of Afghanistan when they blew up ancient Buddhist sculptures in their country."
Prager's article concludes, "Los Angeles County is the largest county in America. If it allows its past to be expunged by a vote of three to two, America's past is sure to follow. If you want to know what happens after that, ask any student of the Soviet Union."
What with Supervisor Michael Antonovich accusing the ACLU of wanting to rob the dead and Dennis Prager arguing that we are threatened with falling into Soviet style tyranny, the argument has been escalated, to put it mildly.
Prager led a large group of his supporters to a second session held by the county supervisors, but the 3 - 2 split was maintained even over his dramatic protest.
There is a certain element of the disingenuous in the right wing protests. They are not arguing that it is acceptable for the County of Los Angeles to establish a religion, to support any one religion, or even to recognize religion. They have taken the opportunistic path by arguing that this is a fight over historic preservation instead of taking the more honest approach and admitting that they seek to preserve some small but real element of religion in government.
Why then has there been so little support for the ACLU among traditional liberals or libertarians? Why am I (a former ACLU member and one-time member of the Greater Lafayette, Indiana ACLU board) not particularly interested in this fight? Or, to put it more bluntly, why did I first react by inquiring whether the local ACLU group is (expletive deleted) insane?
It's like this. In my life I have lived in many places, but I was born in Los Angeles County, live in Los Angeles County at the moment, and by calculation realize that I have been a county resident for thirty-four of my years. And in all that time, up until a few weeks ago, I was never even remotely aware that there is a cross on the county seal. If I ever noticed it, which I do not remember doing, I would have interpreted the cross as being associated with the Hollywood Bowl directly underneath it, and would have associated it with the famous Easter Sunrise services.
You really have to look hard to see that tiny cross. This is not like other more legitimate issues such as the Ten Commandments in the courthouse controversy or giant crosses on city-owned hillsides.
It is an issue of such monumental minimality, of such overwhelming irrelevance that it is justifiably being ignored by the liberals even as it is being manipulated and demagogued by the reactionaries. Adding a dab of touchup paint to the side of a county vehicle is no more to erase history than it is to solve our very real budget problems. Failing to add that dab of paint and thereby leaving that almost microscopic cross on the seal will not lead to prayer in the public schools, the closing of political bookstores or the establishment of an official church of southern California.
Unlike other parts of the world, Los Angeles residents are, for the most part, fairly happy about living in a secular democracy. Reactionary efforts to build a mountain out of this molehill have therefore been of limited success.
At the same time, the ACLU action has not been without cost to itself. To a certain extent this is a legitimate part of the process. You don't take an unpopular stand and try to force it on local government without enduring some fallout.
The ACLU ineptitude is of a different kind. It has allowed itself to be the target of local reactionaries without quite figuring out either that it can fight back or even that it should. The lack of media-savvy has been remarkable.
In the current controversy, the ACLU has allowed itself to be perceived as a posturing bully taking advantage of a county government which is suffering the worst budget crisis of modern times. The sudden, abrupt nature of the attack was a public relations disaster. Residents hoping that the county can even maintain acceptable levels of police and fire services have found reason to be offended.
As perhaps the worst example of this lack of media savvy, consider ACLU Director Ramona Ripston's comment that the cross on the seal makes some people feel unwelcome. This provided such an easy target that even staunch liberal Janice Hahn, member of the City Council, daughter of the man who originally proposed the seal's design, and a chronic target of talk radio herself was moved to respond.
In a letter to a local newspaper, Hahn points out, "Since the seal was adopted, the county's population has doubled. It doesn't seem to me that very many people have felt unwelcomed by the seal." I think Janice Hahn read this political ink blot perfectly.