Visual Symbolism and Stereotypes in the Wake of 9-11

A chapter within
Images that Injure, Second Edition (2002).
Paul Martin Lester and Susan Ross (eds.). Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers.

By Paul Martin Lester

When Earnest Hemingway first moved to Key West, Florida, he hung out at the original "Sloppy Joes" bar, now called "Capt. Tony's Saloon." It's quite different from the touristy "Sloppy Joes" on Duval Street. "Capt. Tony's" is a much smaller, seedier, and more comfortable bar around the corner on Greene Street. It is also the oldest drinking establishment in town.1

Three months after the aerial attacks of September 11, 2001, I found myself sitting at the bar at "Capt. Tony's" nursing a Bushmill's Irish whiskey on the rocks and listening to a young, heartfelt woman with a guitar, a microphone, and an amplifier belt out classic saloon hits such as "Brown Eyed Girl," "Hotel California," and "House of the Rising Sun."

For the most part her performance was lost on the drinkers left alone with their private thoughts that afternoon, until she announced the last song of her set. And incredibly, when she started singing, almost everyone in the bar put down their drinks and sang along with her.

Since that afternoon, I've seen the title of that melody displayed with black, sans serif typefaces on storefront marquees in my hometown and throughout the country when I travel. I've heard it sung by flag-waving fans at half time and seventh-inning stretches countless times. I've seen and heard it so often that I wondered if there would be a serious movement to make the song the new national anthem because it is much easier to sing and contains lyrics that are much easier to remember. Through a little research, I found out that in the 1930s, when "Papa" was drinking in "Capt. Tony's," many in this country felt the same way.

The song, of course, is Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."

On one of several sites devoted to Irving Berlin and "God Bless America" it is noted "America's 'unofficial national anthem' was written during the summer of 1918 at Camp Upton, located in Yaphank, Long Island, for his Ziegfeld-style revue, Yip, Yip, Yaphank." Another famous tune written for the musical was "Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." But "God Bless America" was left out. Berlin thought the tone seemed too serious for a comedy. 2

Interestingly, "God Bless America" started out as a peace song. When war was threatening in Europe again 20 years later, Berlin wanted to write a song that would calm his anxious fellow citizens. He recalled his abandoned tune, changed some of the lyrics, and had singer Kate Smith introduce it through a radio broadcast on Armistice Day, 1938. And as today, the song was such a success that many wanted to replace the national anthem with it. "Berlin soon established the God Bless America Fund, dedicating the royalties from sheet music sales to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America."3

"God Bless America" is a song that was written during World War I, first became popular just before World War II, was little heard of during the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars, and now has regained its popularity during our current War on (Terrorism, al-Qaida, Taliban, Osama bin Laden, the "Axis of Evil"-Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, Filipino Insurgents, or Drug Smugglers and Rebels in Columbia).

As the woman and the bar crowd sang the song, I looked around "Capt. Tony's" and for the first time noticed all the patriotic graphic symbols around me-the "God Bless America" sticker with its red-white-and-blue typography stuck to the singer's guitar case, the small American flags placed inside empty beer steins on the bar, and the jacket of the woman sitting across from me with a flag lapel pin on it.

Within 48 hours of the 9-11 aerial attacks, Kmart sold 200,000 American flags nationwide. And you could see flags everywhere-cut out of newspapers and stuck to house windows, displayed large on the side of shopping malls, painted on the side of buildings, and flapping until dirty and frayed while tenuously attached to car antennae. Without doubt, the use of the American flag is fair game to communicate American ideals and products.

But it wasn't always that way. American flags on shirts, pants, and even diapers got people arrested in previous eras. Abbie Hoffman of "Chicago Seven" fame was arrested in 1968 for wearing a shirt that resembled an American flag. He was released when it couldn't be determined if the shirt was made from an actual flag.4 A man in Ohio was arrested and convicted in 1972 for wearing a flag sewn on a back pocket. An Ohio appeals court upheld the conviction because it was determined that the flag was placed "over the anus" and thus was subject to the state's desecration law. However, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned the decision noting that the anus is not under a person's pocket area.5 Hustler publisher Larry Flynt wore a flag diaper "to deliver a court fine in 1983 and spent five months in Federal prison for desecration of the flag."6

The clearest indication of how times have changed for the flag is to note a product from Atlanta-based Paragon Trade Brands, the country's largest manufacturer of disposable diapers. It recently introduced its "Little Patriots" line of red-white-and-blue starred diapers that were sold in Wal-Mart stores. The colorful package shows a baby in front of a stars-and-stripes backdrop, waving a flag while sitting on what appears to be a toilet, with text that includes the obligatory message, "A portion of the proceeds (10 percent) benefits the American Red Cross."7

Of course, the original meaning of the American flag, and the meaning for many today, is not one based on a protest or eye-catching ability in an advertisement. Through the years, the red color of the flag has come to symbolize valor and zeal. White has a sociological meaning in the flag as hope and purity. The color blue is for "reverence to God, loyalty, sincerity, justice, and truth." A star, an ancient Egyptian symbol for sovereignty, represents each star in the Union while the 13 stripes stand for the 13 original colonies. George Washington described the symbols that make up the flag as "we take the stars from Heaven, the red from our mother country [England], separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing Liberty."8

Berlin once said that "a patriotic song is an emotion and you must not embarrass an audience with it, or they will hate your guts." For this book, an appropriate paraphrase might be that the use of a flag is an emotional choice that must not embarrass its audience. But far too often, many in this country have been embarrassed and disturbed by the flagrant display of visual patriotism in the mass media, advertising, and by ordinary, well-meaning citizens.

Patriotic Symbolism in the Mass Media

Jennifer Lambe and Ralph Begleiter of the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware examined the use of patriotic symbolism in local news shows through a survey of news directors of television stations across the U.S.

The two researchers noted the difference between visual symbolism used with television news reports between the Gulf War of 1991 and the current one. "While many broadcasts adopted the names of the U.S. missions in the Gulf, such as 'Operation Desert Shield' and 'Desert Storm,' color schemes used in newscasts generally did not involve red-white-and-blue and American flags were not prominently in evidence on TV news screens. All that changed dramatically after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. As the American people wrapped themselves in their flag for comfort, TV stations followed suit. As Americans hung flags from their windows and flew them from their cars, television news programs used patriotic symbols to express solidarity with their American viewers."9

With red-white-and-blue graphic elements and typography, news stations-both local and national-were quick to produce slogans and designs that undeniably presented a pro-government, pro-war theme. Slogans such as "Assault on America," "America Fights Back," and "Americans United" conveyed to the American public, with words and graphic symbols, solidarity, if not necessarily journalistic objectivity.10

Newspaper front pages and magazine covers are also important areas for research into the word, picture, and design choices made by journalists and editors regarding events of 9-11 and beyond. The Web site of the Poynter Institute, a media training and resource center based in St. Petersburg, Florida, reproduced many newspaper front pages from around the world that were published on September 12.11 As expected, every paper printed a large, colorful photograph of the destruction. Some of the best designs used images that expressed the human element-people running in fear, crying and holding each other, or erecting an American flag. One striking difference between U.S. and foreign front pages is the use of red-white-and-blue colored text, backgrounds, and graphic rules. The effect of the use of the patriotic colors was to symbolically link the coverage with the country's tragedy.

The covers of the major U.S. news magazines, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, and Time were no exception. U.S. News used the headline "UNDER SIEGE" and a picture of a firefighter attaching an American flag to a street-light stand. Newsweek used the headline, "God Bless America" with an image of three firefighters erecting a flag. Time showed an image of President Bush waving a small American flag with the headline, "One Nation, Indivisible." Time also displayed patriotic colors in the most blatant way with the "T" in red, the "I" in white, and the "M" in blue. Perhaps symbolic of America's struggle, the "E" was printed in black. Although not a news magazine per se, The New Yorker cover was quite different. It showed a dark illustration by Art Spiegelman of the twin towers titled "Ground Zero" and contributed to the serious tone of the stories that reflected the solemn mood of the country.12

The World Wide Web is, of course, a medium that has a wealth of media messages related to 9-11 and patriotic themes with few qualms about not being objective. For example, on, there is a collection of "cartoons, funny pictures, doctored photos, and patriotic art targeting Osama bin Laden and boosting America's war on terrorism." On the site is a long list of collected works that mostly provide stereotypical humor related to the events covered in the media. "Jihad for Dummies," "Absolut Dead Man," "The Turbanator," and "Afghanistan Terrorist School" are pictures you can click on. In a piece called "New World Trade Center Design," there is a picture of five World Trade Center buildings-the middle one is higher than the other four.13

Patriotic Symbolism in Advertising

Many would probably conclude that using the flag to sell diapers is over the top, but all kinds of products are being sold with 9-11 visual symbolism tie-ins-most with an American-flag motif.

For $795 you can buy a pair of red-white-and-blue Manolo Blahnik heels from Neiman Marcus. Two new Beanie Babies, a bear named "America" and a dog named "Courage," come from Ty Inc. For $16 an American flag embroidered on a baby's burp cloth can be had from Sturbridge Yankee Workshop of Portland, Maine sells "Liberty Pillows" that a spokesperson says, "speak our love and belief in country and freedom." Flag-themed prom dresses and wedding gowns allow you, through photographs, to remember "the year that American freedom was under challenge." You can get a barbell for your pierced tongue that has a small American flag on the end and buy toilet paper with each sheet printed with Osama bin Laden's picture with a bull's eye on his forehead and the words, "Wipe Out Terrorism" printed below.14

Television commercials have also used 9-11 patriotic symbolism. General Motors used a "Keep America Rolling" theme while AT&T had a let "Freedom Ring" telephone pitch. Most notably, during Super Bowl XXXVI, Anheuser-Busch showed a commercial of their famous Clydesdale horses digitally kneeling at the site of Ground Zero in New York City.

The Topps Company, most known for their baseball trading cards and "Bazooka Joe" bubble gum, is also quick to produce cards on topics of significant interest to the general public. For example, Topps published a set of cards about the Korean War called "Freedom's War," a set titled "Man On The Moon," three series having to do with the Gulf War, and most recently, a 90-card set titled "Enduring Freedom." In an appeal to parents to purchase the cards for their children, the Topps Web site proclaims that the company "presents the New War on Terrorism in a format that children understand. Not included are the disturbing images shown repeatedly on national newscasts." The advertising pitch uses the language of President George W. Bush: "kids need to understand that the President (and his team) will keep them safe and that evil-doers will be punished. Our cards deliver the details in a medium with which they are familiar and comfortable."15

Each pack contains seven cards plus a sticker with patriotic symbolism. The cards are divided into seven sections: "September 11, 2001," "To the Rescue," "The World Supports America," "The Investigation," "America Unites," "The Nation's Leaders," and "Defending Freedom." On the front of each pack is a close-up photograph of an American flag with a red-white-and-blue illustration that shows a stern looking soldier in battle gear, another stylized American flag, and the words "ENDURING FREEDOM."16

Within a pack recently purchased is a sticker of an American flag with the words, "THESE COLORS DON'T RUN" under it and seven cards: "Secretary of State Powell Meets the Press," "Sailors Aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt," "Army Paratroopers Boarding an Aircraft," "FEMA Director Allbaugh Meets with Bush," "Prepping Aircraft Aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt," "Condoleeza Rice, National Security Advisor," and "Air Force's SOS MH-53J Pave Low IIIE." On the back of each card is a brief description about the subject of the card with a photograph, two American flag illustrations, a white star, and red-white-and-blue typography. "The last thing we wanted to do was tug heartstrings," says Arthur Shorin, Topps' chairman and CEO. But he adds that there is a market for "an encyclopedic" collection of cards explaining events and effects of Sept. 11 in a manner to which children can relate.17 Nevertheless, consumers of these cards, who are mostly children, receive a highly colorful and one-sided, governmental, pro-war message within an advertising context.

Personal Patriotic Symbolism

Personal statement of patriotism by journalist through the wearing of flag lapel pins sparked controversy at some television news stations. In response to the Lambe's and Begleiter's survey, one news director wrote, "I assume you are aware of the situation at the NBC affiliate in Columbia, Missouri, owned by the University of Missouri school of journalism. The news director there banned anchors from wearing patriotic displays."

But another news director wrote, "Any journalist who believes that by displaying the symbol of our nation that he/she cannot be an objective, responsible journalist is either: 1) a lousy journalist 2) a lousy American. Our flag is not Democratic or Republican; it is not George Bush's flag or Ted Kennedy's flag. It belongs to EVERY American, bought and paid for by the bloodshed and sacrifices of millions of American soldiers and citizens. If I can't be an excellent journalist and a proud American, then I don't deserve to be either. This is the saddest controversy I've ever seen the media embroiled in."18 Like the country, members of the journalism profession are divided as to the appropriateness of displaying patriotic symbolism.

Entertainers and sports figures have contributed to personal patriotic displays. Through public testimonials, concerts, and commercial endorsements, celebrities show their colors in a symbolic way. Many players-for all the major sports-wear embroidered flag ribbons on their jerseys or uniforms. Chad Kreuter, catcher for the LA Dodges baseball team wears a highly stylized American flag graphic enameled to the back of his mask.

Patriotic Symbolism and Stereotypes

Ira Glass, the thoughtful host of Public Radio International's "This American Life," has misgivings about too outward a display of patriotism. Glass relayed that on the "first day [after the attacks], it felt like waving a flag was an act of mourning. But now that we're going to war, waving a flag feels like giving carte blanche to Congress and the President to do whatever. And I don't believe that."19

Glass and others believe that a danger in all the flag-waving and other patriotic displays is that they can stir up resentments against specific cultural groups-namely, those individuals of Arab descent (see Jim Brown's chapter to follow).

Soon after the attacks of 9-11, "mosques were firebombed, Arab-Americans were vocally abused and physically attacked, and at least six persons of Arab descent were murdered. Five months after the attacks, Arab-Americans filed 260 claims of workplace discrimination with the Federal government, an increase of 168 percent over the same time period the previous year. Equally alarming was a CNN/Gallup poll that asked Americans if they would support a policy requiring all individuals of Middle Eastern heritage to wear some form of identification indicating they had been checked by security. Half of those polled would support such a policy."20 Consequently, Glass warned his girlfriend, who is Arab-American "that she ought to put up a flag, since the other houses on her block are displaying them."21

When mass media, advertising, and personal messages employ patriotic symbolism in too strident and prevalent ways, the result can turn American against American.

Back at "Capt. Tony's Saloon," most everyone in the dark and smoky bar along with the guitar-strumming singer finished "God Bless America" with the familiar last line, "My home sweet home." The patriotic saloon singers immediately exploded into applause.

But when the performer didn't miss a beat and went right into the chorus of another famous song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the clapping stopped. Some say it too is a call for peace and just as patriotic as "God Bless America":

"All we are saying is give peace a chance."

1 See and

2 If for some reason you need to be reminded of the tune and lyrics, head to and sing along with the cheesy electronic accompaniment.

3 See

4 See

5 Hill, Hal. "Endangered Expressions," October 1997 by Hal Hill available at

6 Zeller, Tom. "Patriotic Marketing Hits Bottom," Mother Jones, May/June 2002, p. 22.

7 Op.cit.

8 See

9 Lambe, Jennifer L. and Begleiter, Ralph J. "Wrapping the News in the Flag: Use of Patriotic Symbols by U.S. Local TV Stations After the Terrorism Attacks of September 11, 2001," available at

10 Op. cit.

11 See

12 See the September 24, 2001 issues of U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Time, and The New Yorker.

13 See

14 De Lisser, Eleena. "Companies Flood the Market With Patriotic-Themed Wares," available at

15 See

16 Op. cit.

17 De Lisser, Ibid.

18 Lambe and Begleiter, Ibid.

19 "Flags Invoke Feelings," Journal Staff and Wire Reports. See

20 Lester, Paul Martin. (2003). Visual Communication Images with Messages, Third Edition. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, pp. 105-106.

21 "Flags Invoke Feelings," Ibid.

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