Friday, September 15, 2006

Lady Liberty

Recently, I was reading Thom Hartmann’s 2005 article on political branding, which led me to reflect on the psychology of political identity. While his analysis was fascinating, I came to different conclusions about what the left really needs right now. The right wing has succeeded in wrapping itself in the flag of patriotism, creating a political identity of loyal, religious Americans who are strong and self-reliant. The right’s visual logo is the flag itself. Hartmann is quite accurate in portraying the right as having done a more effective job at creating an enduring identity than the left, regardless of what we think of the actual policies.

I see three main options for the left to improve its positive branded identity and thus create a more effective political movement. First, it can rekindle the class struggle against oppression – working and middle classes versus the upper class – that has served as a primary identification for the left in the past. This struggle has noble motives and a long history behind it. Hartmann advocates this route, linking it with the founding impulse of our country. However, I think this strategy has some real limitations, including being built on opposition rather than vision, limitation rather than abundance, and polarization versus our sense of interconnection.

The second option is to try to occupy the same ground as the right, reclaiming the flag, American patriotism, national self-interest, etc. This approach reframes the left’s policies as more effective paths to the same goals as the right professes, such as financial success and security. Recent Democrat candidates have often taken this angle, trying to be more patriotic, fiscally responsible, and tougher on terrorists than their Republican opponents. The challenge with this option is twofold: claiming aspects of identity already monopolized by the right is a long, slow fight, and the actual symbolism may not be as resonant for many left-wingers, many of whom do not feel a teary-eyed devotion to the flag or as strong a sense of American patriotism.

The third route, which I believe is the most evolutionary path for the long term, is to transcend class-based or nationalistic identification and connect the left’s sense of identity to something more universal, heart-centered, and principled. This approach sees left-wing policies as expressions of care not just for a few Americans but for the entire planet. It evokes an image of us carrying the torch of democracy and freedom not merely to advance our self-interest but to bring more light to the world. This is ultimately a spiritual impulse, but one that isn’t confined to a particular religion.

The clearest and most powerful symbol we have for this compassionate, universal mission is the Statue of Liberty. First, she was a gift from France and is thus symbolic of our strong relationship with other countries, which breaks down the isolationist impulse nationalism can trigger. She is carrying a torch, which has multiple levels of symbolism connected to light, freedom, and expanded awareness. She also compassionately welcomes the poor and the huddled masses of the world, who come to create a better life for themselves. On a still deeper level, she is symbolic of the sacred feminine in its powerful form, not subservient to a masculine God but carrying the torch of transformation with confidence.

As George Lakoff has pointed out, the values of the left are intrinsically more connected to the mother, to compassion, and healthy feminine qualities. Trying to use the American flag for the “branding” of the left is thus not a good fit. The flag symbolizes a political union of states. It is more linear and masculine in its design as well as its implications. Lady Liberty, by contrast, is a feminine symbol that evokes the compassion at the heart of democracy, the ultimate goal of which is liberation and happiness for all people. She is both beautifully symbolic of America’s special qualities AND she displays a more planetary concern for humankind.

In an age of hypermasculine government, retributive military action, and cutthroat business, the left needs a visual identity that embraces the feminine in its most powerful, compassionate, and beautiful form. It also needs to claim the sacred impulse that is at the core of progressive policies and platforms. Without that spiritual core, the level of connection people feel to the left’s political identity will remain weak. We need to feel the heart of the left. Lady Liberty is the best visual symbol we have for what we truly love – the liberation and advancement of all humankind. For Christians, Lady Liberty represents the same kind of love that Jesus expressed in his embrace of prostitutes and lepers, sinners and even Romans – a love that transcends class, race, and social status.

Lady Liberty thus represents the true heart of America and is a far more potent and accurate symbol for our mission than the American flag. Orienting the left’s identity around transcendent values via a strong connection to the Statue of Liberty begins to construct a new identity that is uniquely American AND global, spiritual AND religious, working-class AND elite. I see the potential to create a whole national awareness campaign driven by the left and using Lady Liberty to rekindle our commitment to what is most beautiful, noble, and generous about America. As that new, more encompassing view is reinforced, the left can re-emerge as stewards of America’s next political evolution.

Originally published at OpEdNews.com


Sacred America Series #29
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