As I walked towards the Verizon strikers' rally in downtown Providence a couple of weeks ago, I realized my mistake. The street held a sea of red t-shirts, identifying members of the IBEW and CWA, and supporters from the UAW and other unions. My light blue one marked me as a clueless outsider, no matter how lustily I sang “Solidarity Forever.”
Walk with me past the squiggly barrier.
I grew up during the 1950s, as a red-diaper baby. My father lost his university teaching job in 1953, thanks to Joe McCarthy and HUAC. I was a staff brat at an interracial summer camp in the Catskills (featured in the book Raising Reds) with campers from Local 1199 Hospital Workers Union, counselors who had been in lunch-counter sit-ins, and Pete Seeger. I learned Malvina Reynolds' song about the little red hen who believed that only those who worked should be allowed to eat – and that, Malvina said, is why they called her “red.” I understood, as much as a child can, that “red” signified the struggle for economic justice and democracy. Even J. Edgar Hoover knew what “red” meant, though he thought it was evil: Red China, the Soviet Union, and their “pinko” sympathizers.
“Blue,” on the other hand, meant some of my mother’s Republican relatives. Blue-blood WASP elites. Blue ribbons. Blue cheese, served on a real silver plate in an elegant drawing room. And the New York Yankees, the richest team in baseball, in their blue pin-stripes.
Then suddenly, within a few days in November 2000, all that changed. Somewhere in the early reporting on the too-close-to-call election, the Washington Post and other news outlets inexplicably mapped the results using blue for states that went democratic and red for republicans. Was it a planned assault? I doubt it. More likely, some non-political 20-something graphics designer just thought it looked good on the screen. (As my lawyer friend Tom says, “Betsy, in lieu of malevolence, consider incompetence.”) Then others copied the same maps, and before you could say “Dick Cheney,” every media outlet had red elephants and blue donkeys.
And we all went along. No one – on either side – seems to have said, out loud, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s OUR color, you can’t DO that!”
Back in the day, the Rush Limbaughs – like J. Edgar Hoover – would have erupted in fury at being labeled “red.” But that was then. Now, they probably associate “red” with red meat and real he-men, in contrast to wimpy peace-mongering anti-American vegans like, well, Dennis Kucinich.
What were we thinking? Probably, we were feeling blue, as we contemplated the world that the U.S. Supreme Court had just ushered us into. What with hanging chads and suit-clad thugs disrupting the Miami ballot-counting, who had energy to worry about colors on a map? And so it stuck.
Eleven years later, I still find the swap profoundly disorienting. Just down Thayer Streeet, Blue State Coffee urges me to “drink liberally” of its fair-trade shade-grown organic coffee and progressive Democratic causes. The left-wing blogosphere is full of BlueMajority, ActBlue, BlueHampshire, BlueJersey, Blue everything good and true (blue). Many dailyKos bloggers use “blue" screen names. Red? Naw, that’s the other guys (except during baseball season, here in New England).
It’s all arbitrary, I suppose. “Yellow” meant “cowardly” or “chicken” until the 1991 Gulf War, when, thanks to a stupid song, fat yellow ribbons tied around trees gave birth to gazillions of yellow “Support Our Troops” car magnets. “Green” meant envy and nausea, until it evolved into “save the planet.” Even “left” and “right” are arbitrary labels, taken from the French Etats General of 1789, where the working-class deputies sat to the left of the president’s chair and the nobility sat to the right.
But still I wonder: when we forfeit our symbols, what happens to our collective memory?
In 1971, when an aging Franco still controlled Spain, I spent a week in a village near Malaga, at the home of a Catholic pacifist. One sunny afternoon I sat on the patio with two brothers, munching almonds from the overhanging tree. Drawing a map in the dirt, they recounted for me, la extranjera, the entire Spanish Civil War, from the republican (anti-fascist) perspective. I said, “You didn’t learn it this way in school, right?”
“Claro,” they replied, “of course not. Our father fought for the Republic, and he made sure we knew, so that when the time comes, we’ll know who we are and what to do.”
How do we know who we are, and what we need to do, when we can’t even keep straight which color flag is ours and who our allies are? Will we forget our solidarity with the progressive and labor movements of the past 200-plus years, and with progressive movements around the world that still celebrate May Day with red flags? Do people think that China, Russia, and Cuba – and now Venezuela and much of Latin America -- were taken over by flaming mobs of rich suit-and-tie-clad right-wing evangelical Christians? When Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos gives a speech in Chiapas, Mexico entitled “Feeling Red,” do people in the U.S. understand that he’s not running for the Tea Party nomination for President?
One of the striking images from last winter's protests in Madison, Wisconsin was a flash mob (dressed in red, of course) singing, from Les Miserables:
Do you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men?Both the song and the color red honored – appropriately – the links between the Wisconsin struggle and that of workers and students in nineteenth-century Paris.
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.
When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums,
There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.
A recent issue of the UAW's magazine Solidarity asks: “Why Red?” Its answer:
Wearing red shows solidarity in the fight to preserve the middle class and all workers' rights.Those of us outside of labor unions but in solidarity with them need to heed that call.
Wearing red symbolizes bargaining for the benefit of all workers.
Wearing red means we are one.
Please, during this window before the November 2012 elections, let us reclaim the color “red” to mean the Democratic Party and especially its democratic wing, anti-racist, committed to global and domestic economic justice including (though not limited to) workers' rights. Let us refuse to use the upside-down labeling that obscures our message and our alliances. Dave Leip’s online Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections retains the traditional blue = Republican, red = Democratic color scheme. It's a start. We can do this – we need to do this. I want my color back.