Every time I walk the dog, I hope to run into the neighbor with the Black Lives Matter sign in their front yard. I want one, too. In our sweet but painfully white town, I figure the more the better.
Then I pass three houses with “Pritzker Sucks” signs in their front yards, and my stomach burns with what is either rage or the beginning of a 2020 ulcer. The sentiment is all over the internet, emblazoned on memorabilia and variously finished with either “the life out of downstate Illinois” or “the life out of small businesses.” Someone planted one of these signs in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s front yard to, er, drive the point home.
I do not remember a cottage industry of hateful signs about Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the man who thinks of himself as Gandhi, cheerfully broke the law, defunded culture and education, and used up the nation’s supply of hair-care products. Nor do I remember threats to slit his throat, shoot him in the face, or put a bullet in his brain. Mainly, people either railed or chuckled and called him Blago.
But these are the times we live in. The firestorm over Pritzker was ignited when he shut down small businesses to keep people safe during lockdown. Southern Illinois was not suffering the way Chicago was and resented being dragged down along with the big city. People downstate feeling ignored is an old pattern with plenty of data to back it up, and resentment has simmered for years; Pritzker just lit it up by endangering people’s livelihoods. He was heavyhanded about it, very “Chicago,” as people around here would say. But I was glad he acted, and the signs make me queasy.
They make my Jewish husband a lot queasier, thanks to the “suck the life out of” phrasing. I look at him blankly. He reminds me of the antisemitic notion that Jews are parasites, and that is what parasites do. “I’m sure the people who put these signs in their yards aren’t thinking about Pritzker being Jewish,” he says, “but I wonder about whoever wrote the text in the first place.”
I am convinced he is overthinking this—but I google it anyway. “The ‘Jewish parasite’ is a notion that dates back to the time of the Enlightenment,” I read. “It is based on the idea that the Jews of the diaspora are incapable of forming their own states and would therefore parasitically attack and exploit states and peoples…. In the period of National Socialism, it served to legitimize the persecution of Jews up to the Holocaust.”
A shudder runs down my spine. Surely Pritzker being Jewish is coincidence, the copywriting just an attempt at clever. After all, one of the lockdown protesters put a Hitler mustache on his picture and called him a fascist, which is just as hateful but flips the equation. On the other hand, why are those the associations that sprang to mind? According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents in Illinois have increased 340 percent since 2016 and are at an all-time high nationwide.
Yard signs used to feel like democracy, like taking a stand, raising up a grass-roots candidate’s profile, starting a conversation. Freedom of speech, and a cheer for whatever you felt loyal to, excited about. I pumped the air when fancy neighborhoods that had pressured radical residents to remove their yard signs were told to back off.
Now we are all so polarized that these signs function more like gang colors, showing solidarity with other initiates and warning people off your turf. Some carry baggage and others are just crude or clever, but either way, they shut down conversation. Someone who puts up a sign becomes “the one who has that sign” instead of a human being whose ideas will be revealed in conversation. And a sign you disagree with rouses nothing but anger—and leaves you knowing nothing about why it went up. You are too busy making a snap judgment, overreading or reading between the lines, making a caricature of your own, and crossing that person off the list of people with whom you will gladly converse. My husband could be entirely wrong about the layers of hatred beneath “Pritzker sucks,” just as people who mutter “All lives matter” are wrong about why I want to emphasize Black Lives Matter. But we will never know.
On social media, I dance back and forth, sometimes trying to restrain myself from any sort of partisanship so I do not wind up talking only to people who agree with me, and other times feeling like the stakes are too high for such niceties. Should we all just dress either in red or in blue, cover our bodies with political signs and slogans, plaster our cars and yards with signs, and fight it out? The image teases me with associations: not just gangs but war insignia, military garb, radical extremism. The right to assemble has become an invitation to die. The right to express your opinion is now just a chance to hurl rotten tomatoes at your neighbors. Boosterism has turned into vilification, because we are so often voting against and not for someone.
If I force myself to be honest, that is exactly what I wanted to do with my Black Lives Matter sign: scold any White neighbors who refuse to admit (or is it that they really do not realize) that until now, Black lives have not mattered as much as ours. But what will that sign really do? Get a few cheers from people who agree and make me feel inordinately proud of myself. Who is going to see it and pull over, stunned by the truth of it, suddenly realizing all the injustices it encapsulates and vowing to do their part to make the world different? (And how likely am I, in this climate, to see any sign I disagree with and rethink?)
So where does the stalemate leave us—silent? That is not democracy either. We have backed ourselves into a corner.
It is tempting to point blame at the top, but the escalating nastiness of campaign tactics and all the anonymous rage our media allow have done their part to wear away the country’s civility. As have the silos in which we receive very different news and the psychological instability of living in an uncertain, terrifying, rapidly changing world.
In the 1964 American National Election Study, more than three-fourths of respondents said they trusted the government “just about always” or “most of the time.” By 2015, before the presidential election, the overall percentage had dropped to nineteen percent. Then the level of discourse really fell apart. The percentage of people worried about a loss of civility in the U.S. had shot up to ninety-three percent by 2018.
Civility comes from the Latin civilis, “befitting a citizen.” That means assuming positive intentions (something I have forgotten how to do). In a civil society, people speak their minds without degrading others in the process (but now we are at such a flashpoint that any sign or slogan we disagree with feels like a throwdown.) Societally, civility requires orderliness, the absence of anarchy or disorder. Individually, it requires old-fashioned politeness and a concern with the greater public good (and we cannot seem to agree on what that looks like). Civility is “the baseline of respect that we owe one another in public life,” says Keith Bybee in How Civility Works.
Respect does not mean staying silent about injustice in order to keep a fragile peace. But are yard signs meaningful speech, or just a lazy, self-indulgent shortcut that will only piss people off? It occurs to me (as though a revelation) that democracy might actually require me to do a little work to prove Black lives matter—look for specific injustices to counter and real ways to help even the economic scales or the quality of education—not just wave a smug flag. As for the Pritzker Sucks movement, the only people who seem to be benefiting are those who sell the swag. But if small business owners were to form a network, barter, support each other’s businesses, lobby the governor with policy suggestions to stay safe and stay open? The odd thing is, when you roll up your sleeves and do something, it is often less inflammatory.
For now, we have regressed to primitive warfare, and it is no wonder other countries are sending weapons.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.