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Crash of Symbols, and Then Nothing

Commentary

Millions of resident soloists see no value in playing together.

June 18, 2004|D.J. Waldie

The Board of Supervisors has decided to erase the Latin cross that former Supervisor Kenneth Hahn put on the Los Angeles County seal nearly 50 years ago. But the board hasn't gone far enough. In our Los Angeles, a place notable for its edited memories, an official seal that confirms who we are would have to picture the unimaginable -- how do we draw the universal symbol for forgetfulness, for heedlessness?

Corporate America learned long ago that product names and logos can be contentious. Public misinterpretation isn't good for business, as Procter & Gamble discovered when some Christian zealots imagined satanic references in the company's seal. To solve the problem, say the well-paid makers of advertising nonsense, a product name should be reduced to meaningless sounds, and the company symbol should be a visual conundrum, memorable only as long as they tell us to remember it. Did the name Enron identify a power company or an erectile dysfunction cure? The company's listing-E logo refuses to own up.

The beauty of abstraction for the people in marketing is that Enron had whatever meaning the company said it did, and if the product ultimately failed to satisfy, it could be re-branded with a different string of optimistic consonants and vowels.

If we have to have a county name and a seal, they can't contain appeals to a past we don't care about or evoke aspirations we're ashamed of now. Better to scrap the name Los Angeles for its religious and colonial overtones and junk the seal's carefully drawn but unsatisfying iconography.

Of course the cross should come off. It was put there in 1957 for sectarian reasons, despite rhetorical appeals to the county's Spanish and Mexican past. The cross should come off because, among other things, it represents faith. Leaving it there would be a lie. A public reminder of faithfulness is the last thing we want.

Everything else should come off, too, because collectively we have neither the courage nor the humility needed to deal with the history the seal represents so poorly. Forget the goddess Pomona, Pearlette the award-winning heifer, the unidentified tuna, the monuments to oil, empire and the music of dead European males. For we demand that our public symbols be neutral surfaces, untroubled by what we've been as a people and uncomprehending of what we might become, because we resist the idea of becoming anything together. We're forgetful of other people's memories and careless with our own.

The re-branded county's designation could be Ela -- two meaningless syllables, pronounceable in most of the 100 languages spoken in the county, short and sort of uplifting without promising anything the Federal Trade Commission could question. The new symbol ought to be pointlessly assertive, celebrating action and not purpose. Too bad the Nike swoosh is already taken.

If the county can't be boiled down to a harmless trademark, then draw something like an odometer on the seal, the numbers rolling up from 10,130,000 as the county population increases. New numbers could be stenciled on county buildings every year, memorializing only the bare fact of our existence. We have so little we want to reveal to each other except the commercial and social abstractions we've become.

Ramona Ripston, the executive director of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Times that the ACLU was pleased with the county's plan for editing some of its public memories. "The county seal will reflect all the people who live here," she said.

That's saying too much. To pass Ripston's impossible test of maximal inclusiveness, the county seal would have to be a disk of solid matte gray, carefully painted to reflect nothing at all. Or the opaque surface of the seal could be replaced by a mirror so that whenever you looked at it you'd see your own image, the only thing that really matters. Nothing else endures the fury of our grievances against the past or our neighbors except our own self-regard.

The county shouldn't have a seal if it won't console us. If it doesn't respect every shade of our differences or burnish the esteem of each one of us, then it doesn't represent our L.A. and can't guarantee anything it's stamped on. A brush stroke in the form of a Zen master's calligraphic O might be a fitting substitute, a cipher for the ambiguity of our identity.

Or paint out a large blank space on the seal and hold it for an artist of the distant future for whom our heedlessness about who we are will be a historical footnote. By then, braver Angelenos might be able to be drawn together.

*

D.J. Waldie's most recent book is "Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles" (Angel City Press, 2004).

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