At random intervals, two Torontoist staffers square off to debate an issue that’s important to our city. We invite our readers to join the debate in the comments section following the post.
This past week, there was considerable uproar when it was revealed that Toronto emergency vehicles would be forced to remove magnetic decals saying “Support Our Troops.” However, following much public outcry, and the deaths of three more Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, Mayor David Miller did a 180 degree opinion shift and came out in support of the decals. On Thursday, City Council voted unanimously to allow the decals to remain indefinitely.
Read on as Torontoist considers both sides of the issue.
So Mayor David Miller has kowtowed to public and media pressure and agreed to keep magnetic “Support Our Troops” decals on emergency vehicles for the foreseeable future. While that ought to get the Toronto Sun out of the Mayors hair and back to sports, crime and sports-related crime, was it the right decision, or simply the politically expedient one?
Well, both, for a couple of reasons.
The original objection made to the decals was that they could be construed as support for the military mission in Afghanistan, a political sentiment by no means universally shared by Torontonians. It’s inappropriate, so the argument goes, for the city to be taking a stand on political issues far outside the scope of responsibility of municipal government.
Fair enough. I’d be a little nonplussed if firefighters were driving around with “Nuke Iran” or “Impeach Bush” stuck on the back of their trucks. But that’s not what’s going on here.
Whatever one’s opinion on the morality or practicality of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, it’s worth remembering that our soldiers there are men and women who have voluntarily placed themselves in harms way in defense of the greater society. They are isolated, far from home, and at risk, showing courage and professionalism in a difficult, dangerous, undertaking that we as a nation have decided is worthwhile.
To acknowledge who they are and what they are doing is no judgment on the battle they’re fighting. Surely our Remembrance Day poppies don’t make us cheerleaders for pre-WW1 British imperialism.
A still more specious objection to the decals is that they do nothing to help the troops, that they are purely symbolic. But symbols matter. They create awareness, evoke emotion, and inspire people to action. If the decals – or the controversy around them – prompt a single person to send a letter, they’ll have done their job.
True enough, the decals won’t put more armour on jeeps or pour coffee for the troops on a cold morning. But since when do we evaluate our actions on the basis of what they don’t accomplish?
The decals are indeed a small gesture, but a worthwhile one, reminding us that there are men and women in uniform who are quietly making tremendous sacrifices on behalf of the nation. What’s more, where better to place that symbol than on fire trucks and ambulances, vehicles driven by those who’ve also chosen a career of public service. If they aren’t cynical about the yellow ribbons, what right do the rest of us have?
In a famous episode of Seinfeld, Kramer is attacked during an AIDS walk because he refuses to wear a red ribbon. It doesn’t matter that he’s against AIDS, or that he’s participating in the walk, the fact that he eschews the symbol is the only thing that anyone cares about.
The yellow ribbon decals on Toronto’s emergency vehicles are promoted and defended with the same sort of fanaticism. It doesn’t matter what anyone actually thinks about the war in Afghanistan, all that matters is whether or not you are willing to buy into the symbol of the ribbon itself. If you happen to be against empty symbolism, or if you think that city vehicles are not the best place to advertise causes, well then, you’re slapping our troops in the face. What a bunch of hooey.
This is the problem with symbols and slogans. People would much rather put bumper stickers on their cars than engage in a real debate on any issue. It is part of the general erosion of public discourse that pushes meaningful action and thought aside.
At best, the yellow ribbon decals (like all the other ribbon campaigns) are merely a form of advertising. Putting on a ribbon is a way of acting like you’re doing something, without actually making the effort to do anything. The yellow ribbon is especially powerful and popular because, like the Nike swoosh, it lets us affiliate ourselves with heroic actions and individuals without ever breaking a sweat.
At worst, the yellow ribbon is a deliberate attempt to squelch debate. Even if the ribbon isn’t explicitly pro-war, the message “Support Our Troops” implies that there are certain things that we should not do. We should not question the war or our mission there, because that is not “supportive.” We should not raise questions about POWs and how they are treated. We should not attack the military or political leadership. We should not protest in the streets. We should not demand an end to war. We should just think happy thoughts, pray for everyone to be safe, and let the people in charge do their jobs.
Of course, if you want to put a yellow ribbon on your own vehicle, by all means, go ahead. That’s your choice, but ribbons of any colour do not belong on public vehicles. Even if the purpose of the yellow ribbon is not to limit debate, why are our troops more important than the people in our communities fighting AIDS or cancer or diabetes? If we’re putting ribbons on things, shouldn’t emergency vehicles that are often called to scenes of domestic abuse display white ribbons? Why not plaster “Just Say No” bumper stickers on every police car in our fleet? If we decide the troops are worthy of advertising, how do we continue to say “no” to every other cause? Perhaps, rather than turning our public vehicles into moving slogan-of-the-moment-mobiles, it should be our actions that speak to what we think is important. That’s the best thing any of us can do for the causes we believe in.