Why I will not wear a safety pin

The short answer is: because I already wear this, but when I posted the photo for my Facebook friends, they did not immediately recognize it as a cross, which just goes to show you how hard it is to interpret most imagery.

But the long answer is the same: because I already wear this. This cross I bought from an artist at the annual Hyde Park Art Fair some ten years ago; I wish I could remember the name of the artist, as it is her design. She called it a "Trinity Cross," which as a medievalist I instantly saw as a representation of the Gnadenstuhl: God the Father seated on a throne (the Stuhl) holding the Son crucified on the cross with the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering in-between. It is intended as a representation of the great mercy (Gnade) that God had for his creatures in becoming incarnate and dying for them: all Three Persons of the Trinity participate in the sacrifice. As the artist for my cross has rendered the iconography, the body of Christ is shown as a kind of flame, blending with the fire sent down by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, with the Father's arms embracing the flame like a buckle and the whole suspended from the arms of the cross which are themselves bent like Christ's arms, as if to embrace the world.

A small thing, you would think, except if you live and work in academia. Because, of course, academics like myself do not do anything so vulgar as wear crosses, never mind let on that we are Christians. Not that there are many of us Christians in academia, although there are probably more than you would think. But the few of us who are--I know there are some, I see them at church--tend not to advertise. Except me. I was getting in the elevator one day with one of the women who shares my office floor. She teaches in the Divinity School in the Philosophy of Religions and to judge from what I have read of her work is relatively religious herself. But she looked at my cross and said, "It is very brave of you to wear that; I couldn't." Why not?!

Several of my friends have been wearing safety pins these past couple of weeks to show their solidarity with those who oppose the election of Donald Trump. As I understand it, the safety pins are meant to signal that those who might otherwise feel marginalized or threatened by the incoming government will be safe with the people who are wearing them, although safe from what is a little unclear. Are my friends promising to harbor them from the soldiers whom my friends know are going to be coming to the door to take them away? Or do my friends mean they are going to continue to call for legislation to prevent the soldiers' arrival? The pins are clearly meant to send a signal--but to whom? On campuses, the pins will presumably mean that my colleagues will refuse to cooperate with government officials looking into the status of undocumented non-citizens who are part of our student body, but I have seen friends not in academia wearing them, too.

So what do the pins mean? As with all such imagery, I think there are layers. One layer seems to be the desire to hold oneself to a vow, as with the crosses that medieval Christians who had taken a vow to go to the defense of the Holy Land sewed on their clothes as a sign both to themselves and to others that they were under obligation to God. My friends wearing pins consider themselves under a sort of vow to care for those they fear are in danger of persecution, which makes them warriors of a sort, willing to take up arms, whether legal or physical, against (as they see it) the enemies of mercy and justice. Another layer, of which my friends also seem conscious, is the desire to confuse the persecutors by marking themselves as members of potentially persecuted groups, by wearing, as it were, the badge that medieval Jews were required to wear according to certain church canons issued around the time of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. (Canon 68 of that council called not for badges, but distinctions in dress.) If everyone wears safety pins, then no one can be singled out, thus lending the individuals most threatened the protection of the larger group.

Both of these desires--to fight for the persecuted and to shield them--make sense to me, even if I think my friends' fears are overblown. There are other layers, however, that I find somewhat more troubling. When I see the safety pins, I see not crosses like the one I wear or badges like the Jewish star, but a much more political symbol: the tricolor cockade worn by the revolutionaries in France to signal their loyalty to the new Republic. Cockades were popular insignia throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for marking one's allegiance to particular political factions or military commands. According to Wikipedia (yes, I had to look it up), the Jacobites who opposed the Hanoverian kings of Great Britain wore white cockades, while the rioters in London in 1780 wore blue cockades as a symbol of their anger with the government for being willing to relax official discrimination against Catholics. The Continental Army of the American Revolution wore black cockades, while the soldiers of the Confederate Army of the American Civil War wore blue. To be sure, safety pins are not cockades--although they might be good for attaching cockades to one's hat or clothing--but the impulse to mark oneself as the member of a faction is definitely there, particularly given that the safety pins are being worn explicitly to mark disapproval of the outcome of the recent presidential election. Whatever religious undertones the safety pins might have, they are most certainly intended as political statements.

But this is not ultimately why I will not wear one. I am not sure whether my friends intend any more specific political action by their pins, but I do know this: they want to make a social statement about belonging to a particular group. They want to demonstrate to others wearing the pins that they are themselves Safe, that is, Liberal or Progressive or Democrat, not one of those awful Trump-voters who does not care for the fears of those living in our country without proper documentation or of those, other than Christians, whom they fear might be singled out for their religious faith. They want to demonstrate that they are not racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, or in any way Deplorable, which, it seems, they fear they might otherwise be supposed, particularly if they are white. (I have only seen white friends wearing the safety pins thus far; I am willing to be corrected.) It is not enough to be American, to believe in the values of liberty and equal justice before the law on which our country was founded; one needs visibly to mark oneself out as Not-Them or risk...well, what exactly is it that is at risk? The usual term for this kind of self-marking is "virtue signaling," but I think the fear actually goes somewhat deeper. The real fear I think most of my friends feel--being, as they are, human--is the fear of being ostracized, cast out of the group for not being in sympathy with the majority. In a word, they are Sneetches who need to show off their stars.

You remember the Dr. Seuss story? I wanted to do my valedictory speech to my high school class on it, but I changed my mind at the last minute and went with Ayn Rand instead. (No, I don't have the speech any more, but I remember it included the phrase "dregs of humanity" because some of my friends shoe-polished it on our driveway the next day.) At the time, the latter felt much edgier and dangerous, but in retrospect they were really ideas for the same speech. What does it mean to stand up to the group? What does it mean to have opinions about the way our country should be governed that are at odds with those of most of one's friends? In the story, the Sneetches with stars on their bellies think they are better than those without stars, until Sylvester McMonkey McBean shows up with his Star-On and Star-Off machines and takes all their money as they frantically try to maintain their social standing by adding and subtracting stars until none of the Sneetches remembers who had stars to start with and who didn't. According to the Wikipedia entry (seriously, it is the best thing for discerning what the Man on the Street believes!), Seuss intended the story as a "satire of discrimination between races and cultures," and it was "specifically inspired by his opposition to antisemitism." But the reason the story works is because everyone knows what it feels like to want to be one of the Sneetches with stars.

My husband gave me a print of one of the pictures from the book for my 50th birthday. It is perfect: there are two Sneetches standing hand in hand on the side of the lake, the one (larger, more masculine) with a star on his belly, the other (smaller, more feminine) without. They are looking into each others' eyes with something like love, and the Star-bellied Sneetch has his mouth open to speak. I hope very much that he is telling the Plain-bellied Sneetch how beautiful he finds her, with or without a star, but based on my experience over the past year in conversations with my colleagues, family, and friends about the election and our country's politics and culture more generally, I'm less sanguine. Sneetches like wearing stars. They like walking along the beach knowing that they are part of the in-crowd. This is why they like petitions and open letters to which they can all add their signatures, like this one the academics of Kent circulated yesterday to protest Milo Yiannopoulos's invitation to speak at his old grammar school. More than anything else, they want to be seen to be holding the right opinions, seen to be on the side of the virtuous and good. No, I don't think my friends wearing safety pins are so calculating as to think that wearing the pins will give them some social advantage; rather, I think they are afraid what will happen if they don't, if somehow they are caught out with their bellies exposed and no star upon thars.

Which is the real reason I won't wear one: I refuse to bend to the fear of the crowd. It is exactly the reason that I do wear my cross. Not because without it I feel less Christian, but because not to wear it suggests that I am somehow ashamed of being Christian, of standing out among my academic colleagues for my faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ. My cross, as it were, is a kind of anti-star: I wear it to stand naked before the world, starless, without protection against those who would categorize me as Deplorable on the basis of my skin color or education or social status. My guess is that this is something of the same reason that Milo wears his two crosses--you can see them around his neck in every speech he gives. Because the whole point of Christianity, the whole point of God's becoming incarnate so as to share in the suffering of his creatures, is that there are no starred or starless Sneetches, only human beings. In the words of St. Paul to the Galatians who were seeking to make such distinctions among themselves: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28 RSV). So if you see my cross and wonder why I am not wearing a safety pin, this is why: I have worn my cross for a decade when nobody else was wearing pins. I have been willing my whole life to stand up against the crowd on behalf of the poor and the meek and the persecuted, those without stars as well as those whom others assume have stars but may or may not, and will continue to do so whether or not those around me do. Ask yourself this: when the soldiers come to take your neighbors away, whom would you rather have on your side?

Popular posts from this blog

To a Fault: Eyeroll

To a Fault: Body Talk

To a Fault: Puppetry

To a Fault: Meta-Game

To a Fault: Word