Celebrities aren’t the only people who need public relations help. Anyone oblivious to the power of symbols ought to have a publicist on retainer to interpret for them how the “message” is playing under the microscope of societal consumption. Newsmakers and ordinary citizens alike have a tendency to botch their presentation. Someone needs to refine (and reinvent) the key details, the symbols that resonate more powerfully than mere words.

Take Jack Abramoff, the disgraced Washington lobbyist who had the misfortune of being caught doing what most of his colleagues do. In every photo accompanying news stories describing his misbehavior, he’s wearing a black fedora and a black trench coat. Men in black hats are bad. They’re the ones the guys in white hats are trying to apprehend and bring to justice. Black hats are not a good idea on men facing 120 years of prison time.

The legions of immigrants — legal and not — demonstrating in Los Angeles against proposed legislation that would make life more difficult for undocumented visitors to this country carry symbolic signs and sing symbolic songs, and in many ways their fervor and acts of civil disobedience (such as clogging downtown thoroughfares) recall the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Many of them, however, carry the Mexican flag. This is a symbol that represents the country that many of them escaped from, not the one they claim to love. By choosing the wrong symbol, the marchers forfeit whatever sympathy they may have earned with their signs and songs; they appear to be an invading army, not peaceable undocumented residents.

Driving through a torrential rain to be there for a friend is a powerful and touching symbol. Staying at home and watching television is not. At least not powerful and touching. It’s a symbol all right, but of something disheartening. Extravagantly admiring the art a friend has created is one thing; actually buying it is another. Each act symbolizes something, and we’re all able to decode the difference.

Symbols become problematic when the symbolizer is the only one who seems unable to understand his symbol.

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