Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Ole Oak Tree . . .

Why is this song playing over and over in my mind today? Because, the College Republicans on my small campus tied yellow ribbons on trees, drew yellow ribbons on the sidewalks, and then asked me if I wanted to wear a yellow ribbon to support our troops in Iraq while I walked through the college union building.

One chalked statement read: "9/11/2001. Lest We Forget." Other statements played on our guilt, reminding us of the ultimate sacrifice that our military has made to protect us.

This newest campaign by the College Republicans is strategically brilliant, yet morally bankrupt.

The rhetoric of the campaign is: if you don't wear this yellow ribbon, then you are against our brave soldiers who are sacrificing themselves for you.

We call this rhetorical style a "complex question," which is a fallacy of composition. The most common example of a complex question is "when, sir, did you stop beating your wife?"

The framing of the very question traps the respondent into a no-win situation.

I condemn the College Republicans for engaging in such obviously polarizing behavior.

They refuse reasonable and principled moral outrage at the Iraq war: over 2000 American soldiers have died, while the number of Iraqi civilians is exponentially higher; there is little hope for any timely or peaceful resolution to this war; we are spending billions of our future grandchildren's income on this war; we are giving no-bid contracts to companies such as Halliburton to "rebuild Iraq," . . . There are so many manifest reasons why this war is immoral.

Disapproving of a war is not equivalent to disapproving of soldiers.

I also reject this deployment of the "yellow ribbon" symbol to rally support around an immoral war, to demonize those who don't support it, and divide the country.

None of these students was alive during the Carter era, when the yellow ribbon represented hope for freeing the hostages in Iran. They have perverted this symbol, and used it to advance an unjust war.

I thought it might be helpful to remember the folk roots of the yellow ribbon tradition, so I visited the American Folklife Center, which is a branch of the Library of Congress. It might be helpful for these students to spend a few minutes reading this account:

It begins as a folk tale--a legend, actually. Here it is in the earliest version I've found:

It is the story of two men in a railroad train. One was so reserved that his companion had difficulty in persuading him to talk about himself. He was, he said at length, a convict returning from five years' imprisonment in a distant prison, but his people were too poor to visit him and were too uneducated to be very articulate on paper. Hence he had written to them to make a sign for him when he was released and came home. If they wanted him, they should put a white ribbon in the big apple tree which stood close to the railroad track at the bottom of the garden, and he would get off the train, but if they did not want him, they were to do nothing and he would stay on the train and seek a new life elsewhere. He said that they were nearing his home town and that he couldn't bear to look. His new friend said that he would look and took his place by the window to watch for the apple tree which the other had described to him.

In a minute he put a hand on his companion's arm. "There it is," he cried. "It's all right! The whole tree is white with ribbons."

That passage comes from, of all places, a 1959 book on prison reform. The title is Star Wormwood, and it was written by the eminent Pennsylvania jurist Curtis Bok. Bok says it was told to him by Kenyon J. Scudder, first superintendent of Chino penitentiary. I take this information as evidence that the story was in oral tradition as early as the mid-1950s. I note also the implication of a certain occupational interest in the tale.

During the 1960s, the returning prisoner story appeared in religious publications and circulated in oral tradition among young people active in church groups. In this environment, both the versions that appeared in print and those collected from oral tradition highlighted similarities to the New Testament "Parable of the Prodigal Son."

In October of 1971, Pete Hamill wrote a piece for the New York Post called "Going Home." In it, college students on a bus trip to the beaches of Fort Lauderdale make friends with an ex-convict who is watching for a yellow handkerchief on a roadside oak. Hamill claimed to have heard this story in oral tradition.

In June of 1972, nine months later, The Readers Digest reprinted "Going Home." Also in June 1972, ABC-TV aired a dramatized version of it in which James Earl Jones played the role of the returning ex-con. One month-and-a-half after that, Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown registered for copyright a song they called "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree." The authors said they heard the story while serving in the military. Pete Hamill was not convinced and filed suit for infringement.

One factor that may have influenced Hamill's decision to do so was that, in May 1973, "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" sold 3 million records in three weeks. When the dust settled, BMI calculated that radio stations had played it 3 million times--that's seventeen continuous years of airplay. Hamill dropped his suit after folklorists working for Levine and Brown turned up archival versions of the story that had been collected before "Going Home" had been written.

In January 1975, Gail Magruder, wife of Jeb Stuart Magruder of Watergate fame, festooned her front porch with yellow ribbons to welcome her husband home from jail. The event was televised on the evening news (one of the viewers was Penne Laingen). And thus a modern folk legend concerning a newly released prisoner was transformed into a popular song, and the popular song, in turn, transformed into a ritual enactment. Notice that Jeb Stuart Magruder's return to his home exactly parallels the situation in both the folk narrative and the popular song. The new development, at this point, was that Gail Magruder put the story into action.

The next big step was to make the ribbon into an emblem--not for the return of a forgiven prodigal--but for the return of an imprisoned hero. And that step was Penne Laingen's: On November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held Ambassador Bruce Laingen and the rest of the embassy staff hostage.

Six weeks later, on December 10, the Washington Post printed two short articles by Barbara Parker: "Coping With `IRage'" and "Penne Laingen's Wait." The first article began "Americans are seething" and went on to quote psychologists concerning the widespread and intense emotional distress caused by the hostage crisis. The article presented a helpful list of things to do to "vent irage": "ring church bells at noontime . . . organize a neighborhood coffee to discuss the crisis and establish one ground rule only: no physical violence . . . play tennis and `whack the hell' out of the ball . . . offer family prayers or moments of silence . . . turn on car headlights during the day . . . send gifts to the needy `in the name of the hostages,'" and, of course, the old stand-by, "conduct candlelight vigils."

Then in the Post article come the words "Laingen, who has 'tied a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree'. . . suggests that as something else others might do." The article concludes with Penne Laingen saying, "So I'm standing and waiting and praying . . . and one of these days Bruce is going to untie that yellow ribbon. It's going to be out there until he does." According to my current understanding, this is the first announcement that the yellow ribbon symbol had become a banner through which families could express their determination to be reunited.

The next major step was to move the ribbon out of the Laingen's front yard and into most of the front yards in the United States. That move came about in a particularly American way. With a wonderful exhibition of the spirit that Alexis de Tocqueville thought was a cardinal virtue of our society, the hostage families met and formed an association: the Family Liaison Action Group (FLAG). FLAG quickly found allies among existing humanitarian organizations, most notably an organization called No Greater Love.

So, what is the lesson drawn here? The yellow ribbon was a symbol that originally embodied the compassionate, forgiving Christian attitude toward the prodigal son; it was a sign that a family or a society could give to an ex-convict looking for acceptance, love and redemption.

Then, the yellow ribbon became a symbol of a nurturing, supportive, and united Country. What do these Republicans use this symbol for: dividing, hate and intolerance.

You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Before I finish this rant, it might be a good idea to remind you that Iraq did NOT send planes into the Pentagon, Somerset county, or the World Trade Center.