A Symbol of the People

By Deborah Z. Altschuler, NPA President

You may or may not think Rush Limbaugh is a louse.  But I was struck by one of his positions, namely that he believes we need a new national symbol.  He devotes an entire chapter of his book, The Way Things Ought to Be, to the proposition that “we should junk the eagle and come up with a symbol more appropriate for the kind of government we have today.”

Copyrighted 1949 By W. H. Shaper MFG. C. Inc.

Limbaugh has a candidate in mind: the pig.  He suggests that …”we replace the eagle with a huge sow…one with lots of nipples and a bunch of fat little piglets hanging on, all trying to suckle as much nourishment as possible.”  Calling it “truth in advertising,” Limbaugh asks his readers to visualize the sow on the side of Air Force One.  This would prove a bitter rebuke to the bald eagle (selected over Ben Franklin’s original nomination of the turkey), which has barely escaped extinction at the hands of those who found in it a symbol of power and immortality.
I feel awful kicking a bird when it’s down, but I have to agree with Rush on this one:  the eagle is the wrong symbol for the times.  Air Force One should carry the image of a creature we not only can relate to, but one entwined in our national history.  One that accompanied the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, made itself part of every community in America, joined our solders in the trenches, has gone to school with our children, shared our lovers, and more recently been an environmentalist of the first order by resisting pesticides.  My candidate for the nation’s symbol is the louse – an equal opportunity, gender blind, ethnically diverse parasite.

The louse is also a fully pedigreed American.  It already has its own organization (the National Pediculosis Association), its own game (what did you think cooties were, anyway?), and its own coloring book (noted by Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Barry, who gave The Latest Greatest Coloring Book About Lice high praise in his nationally syndicated column).

Moreover, the louse long ago became an integral part of the American vernacular.  Everyone uses lousespeak:  Vice President Gore told Katie Couric that the “Clinton tax business has been gone over with a fine-toothed comb.”  Another Pulitzer winner, Ellen Goodman, referred to the money issues surrounding Hillary Clinton’s cattle futures as “the nitty gritty.”  A Boston Globe cartoonist depicted Hillary promising Bill that a Supreme Court appointment would get her and the Whitewater thing “out of his hair.”  All of these metaphors were taken straight from louse hunting.

The ubiquitous louse appears in more than political discourse.  Dear Abby described a Thanksgiving holiday that went from “lousy to worse,” and a series of TV and newspaper advertisements for Toyota’s upscale Lexus spoke of the car maker’s “nitpicky” approach to quality control.  Toyota went so far as to show a graphic of a fine-toothed comb with the caption, “Every car that enters our lot must pass through here.”

The renowned bacteriologist Hans Zinsser said it best when he immortalized the louse in his classic book, Rats, Lice and History. “We must endeavor to present the case of the louse in the humane spirit which our long intimacy [deserves]…”

Let’s face it, the world is in a lousy state of affairs.  If it isn’t the lousy weather, kit’s the lousy ballgame, the lousy food, the lousy paycheck, the lousy cigarette smoke, the lousy economy, the lousy crime rate, and, of course, the lousy politicians.  The louse has earned its rightful place of honor as a national symbol truly “of the people.”

Americans under the age of 25 are sure to embrace this catchy new symbol.  A creepy crawling icon that evokes the dangers of reckless intimacy seems especially appropriate for a generation growing up in a world of AIDS, antibiotic resistant microbes, and resurgent tuberculosis.  Even Beavis and Butthead would approve of a national symbol that sucks.

Nonetheless, however cute?  The cootie, the National Pediculosis Association, a non profit health education organization, is committed to its campaign to remind people of the prevalence of the head louse which does not spare even children who never share their baseball caps.  More prevalent than all other communicable childhood diseases combined, parents spend millions of dollars a year to apply lice pesticides directly to their children’s skin – a situation where misuse and abuse of products is normal use, where the ill effects can be acute, chronic or lethal, on a generation of children who deserve better.  You don’t get much lousier than that.

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