I was invited to comment on the flyer that announced the inaugural meeting of a new student organization, The Wooster Right Wingers.
No doubt someone will be offended no matter what I say, but I nevertheless hope that this essay will encourage some thoughtful and substantive conversations.
I know why at least some viewers were upset, because they shared their concerns with me.
But was this the intent? As with any creation, there is a complex relationship between what the creator intended and what the viewer/reader saw.
After days of looking at this poster, these are my conclusions: the wording was intended to be provocative. The imagery probably wasn’t intended to be provocative, but its effect turned out to be even more provocative and disturbing.
“Provocative” is not necessarily bad. Posters, after all, are meant to grab your attention and being provocative is one way to do that, especially on a college campus. I did it myself before break, advertising a Café Bob presentation by asking whether it’s fair to compare Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump (The answer? As antisemites, no — although the Trump camp willingly used antisemitism, among other tools, during the campaign. As demagogues who exploit real issues by pandering to racism and other forms of bigotry — absolutely yes).
The provocative verbal message of this flyer is its implicit endorsement of two of the more problematic aspects of Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
First, the choice of “right wingers.” The group could have chosen to label itself “conservative,” a term with a venerable political tradition behind it. “Right winger” is more combative and less intellectual. Unfortunately, it calls to mind the rise of the so-called “alt-right” and its links to white racial nationalism.
Second, “America First”: Trump used it in his campaign and in his pugnacious inaugural address. Using it here is an obvious allusion to, and endorsement of, his controversial views, since no one else has used it as a slogan since the eponymous isolationist anti-war movement of 1940-41.
However, it’s the poster’s iconography that is actually far more problematic, especially combined with the explicit Trumpian allusions.
For a group that wants to “put America first,” the effect is strikingly and surprisingly un-American.
Yes, the colors are red, white and blue, but this eagle does not remotely resemble an identifiable and conventional U.S. bald eagle image.
Nor does the shield with the cross resemble any image commonly associated with the U.S. They are strange choices for a group that wants to assert its patriotism. The generic eagle looming in the background with squared-off shoulders is vaguely reminiscent of some Nazi images I’ve seen (though on the other hand, it is also vaguely reminiscent of the blue eagle of FDR’s National Recovery Act). The shield has a cross — definitely not the shield that appears in any U.S. images, but most definitely exactly the image that the Crusaders carried on their shields.
Was the group intentionally trying to link itself to Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry? I hope not.
But intentionally or not, the iconography of the poster evokes sinister and alien associations.
I understand that many student groups use a particular program to design posters, so until I know otherwise, I prefer to give the designers the benefit of the doubt and assume that their image options were limited.
If these images were chosen over more identifiably U.S. images, then maybe the designer was just inexperienced.
I hate to think that any of our students actually endorse the threatening associations of those images and are using them deliberately.
My personal preference is to see less throwing of verbal or visual bombs, and less expecting other people to agree with us before we will even talk to them.
Fear and hatred are convenient refuges from serious conversation, but not terribly productive. Let the conversations commence.
Joan Friedman, a Contributing Writer for the Voice, can be reached for comment at JFriedman@wooster.edu.