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Symbols for our time

November 28th, 2017

In an age of hashtags, social media campaigns, lit candles and all the rest of it, it is easy to sneer. Such narcissism. Gesture politics is castigated as the last word in pointless posturing, mainly designed to make the politician – rather than the persons at whom it is aimed – feel good. “Action this day. Not words or images” – as Churchill did not say.

But symbols and gestures do matter. Done right – an image, a simple action, wordless – they can sum up a cause, express anger, help heal a wound or set an example. They often bring a touch of the sacred to pedestrian concerns. They can inspire action. They can make us pause and reflect and remember. They often transcend boundaries. Symbolic gestures – and the rituals which often accompany them – form part of the rhythm of our story, whether personal or collective. So here is my list of some of the most important – and beneficial – symbolic gestures of recent times – and two which should have happened – and why they matter.

1. The Queen bowing after laying a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin in 2011 and then opening her speech in Dublin Castle with Gaelic. A minute’s silence and a few words helped bring a full stop to a long, troubled relationship in a way which had been unimaginable for so long. And it was precisely because of who did it that it mattered. There are many others which could have been chosen: Martin McGuinness and HMQ shaking hands and smiling, Cameron apologising unreservedly for Bloody Sunday. But royalty’s enduring appeal and power is fundamentally based on the way it can both express and transcend the work done by here today/gone tomorrow politicians. For those who care about Anglo-Irish relations, it was a genuinely moving moment.

2. Mandela attending the rugby World Cup final in 1995 and shaking hands with the Afrikaner captain. Nothing better exemplified what Mandela said about wanting to unite the country. Nor his emotional intelligence in reaching out to something that mattered to South African whites – sport – and which had long been used by apartheid’s opponents to exemplify that community’s isolation.

3. Pope John Paul II praying at the Wailing Wall in 2000. The Catholic Church had earlier formally apologised for its attitude to Jews. But the sight of the frail Pontiff praying – and seeking forgiveness – at one of Judaism’s holiest shrines made explicit and human what had been previously set out in archaic and ornate language few ordinary people would read.

4. Playing the American national anthem at the Changing of the Guard after 9/11. A small thing but to Americans in London at the time it felt like someone reaching out to hug them. Look at Bill Clinton’s response to a British journalist at the time to see what it meant.

5. Vietnam veterans protesting in Washington by throwing their medals over the barriers designed to keep them out. When those who had fought and won medals threw away what had been so hard won, so hard fought for, it brought home like nothing else how toxic that war was to the US’s very best idea of itself.

6. The decision by Emmett Till’s mother in 1955 to have an open casket showed America the reality of racism: the beaten and bloodied body of a 14-year-old, unrecognisable as the child he was. There was a faint echo of the “Am I not a man and brother?” coins of the anti-slavery campaign two centuries earlier. This – a man in chains, a child pulped – is what your ideology means.

7. Mitterand and Kohl holding hands at Verdun in 1984. Nothing better symbolised the hopes of a Continent for no more war.

8. Willy Brandt falling to his knees at the gates of Auschwitz in 1970. He expressed the shame and sorrow of a nation both as his nation’s representative and as a German who could justifiably claim to have been a good German during the war.

9. Mrs Thatcher turning up, impeccably dressed, not a hair out of place, walking to the podium at the Tory Party Conference in 1984, barely hours since the assassination attempt on her and while others were still being rescued. Before even saying a word, her mere presence – defiant, angry, determined – symbolised democracy’s resistance of those who would use violence to impose their will.

10. “Liberté Egalité Fraternité” emblazoned at Wembley Stadium 3 days after the Bataclan terror attacks in 2015. Sport again. Using the emblem of the attacked nation. And a reminder that the French are, au fond, family. The image of the statue of Marianne draped in the French tricolore at the end of the march after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 could also have been used. But that was a nation speaking to itself. This was one nation reaching out to another.

And the two which should have happened.

• After the furore caused by the Danish cartoons, they should have been published in full by every outlet in the free world. Free speech needed its “I am Spartacus” action. Saying that you believe in freedom of thought and speech is no good if you fear exercising it. Understandable why no one newspaper did so. But this was a time when solidarity and collective action really was needed. Instead we got demos and apologies in 2005 and murders and outrage in 2015.
• Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent speech about what has been done to the Rohingya was a missed opportunity to speak out with moral clarity about the evil done to the innocent. It was a speech by a politician. Not the speech of a leader who knew what it was to suffer human rights abuses.

Plenty I’ve left out. Over to you.

CycleFree