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The debate over the public square

November 03, 2005

CLAREMONT IS easy to find on a map: 30 miles east of downtown L.A., on the county border. Its position on the political chart is a lot harder to pinpoint these days.

College towns are traditionally liberal bastions, and the home of the Claremont Colleges has long been no exception. When I attended Claremont High, my ex-hippie teachers encouraged students to start underground newspapers, organize walkouts to protest racism on campus and included "massage circles" in the curriculum.

But cracks were bound to show in a place caught ideologically and geographically between liberal Los Angeles and conservative San Bernardino, and they became a fissure during the battle of the banners.

It started innocently enough. When Debra Mendelsohn, wife of a National Guardsman, handed out more than 800 "Salute the Troops" lawn signs, she persuaded the City Council to support a citywide banner program for a few weeks before and after Veterans Day with a similar message. The wording of the privately funded banners was left to her.

An uproar ensued. Peace activists sent Mendelsohn hate mail, made comparisons to Nazi Germany and insisted that Mendelsohn, who scrupulously refrains from revealing her political views, had a hidden agenda.

The trouble is, some see "Salute Our Troops" as a slogan of support for the Iraq war, or as vindicating President Bush's rationale for going to war. The council agreed to open the floor for debate again. More moderate community members wondered: Did "saluting the troops" mean supporting their mission? If so, was it a mission to fight an ill-conceived war or to wage a righteous one?

Some wanted an altogether different slogan -- "Work for Peace" -- which was no less political and no less equivocal because peace activists and war supporters both claim that's their goal. The "Work for Peace" camp simply showed that any banner the city chose would be read, as well as misread, according to the reader's politics or understanding of semantics.

Ultimately, the council's original vote stood. The banners, which now dot the streets, read "Claremont Thanks All Our Veterans for Serving Our Country," which avoids today's muddy political debates in favor of yesterday's settled, or at least submerged, conflicts. Thirty-eight individualized banners say "Claremont Thanks (Name and Branch) for Serving Our Country," with only a small fraction dedicated to those serving in Iraq. At the city's annual fall festival, the Village Venture, I saw residents carrying signs with less obscure messages: "We Support the Troops -- Bring Them Home" and "War Is Not the Answer."

Sometimes you can sense the soul of a community by checking out the trim of the hedges in the town square or the state of the houses beyond the railroad tracks. In Claremont, today's soul-searching is easy enough to discern: Just read the signs.

Swati Pandey

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