Looking at the election through a drinking straw.

Symbols and Reduction

Blake Commentary

This week’s Mountain Xpress includes an opinion piece by me related to the election. The title they chose: “Beware oversimplification.” It’s out in print, but not yet published online in a way that’s easy to link to.

While I stand by what they published, I’m not thrilled with some of the edits they made, nor with their inclusion of a photo of me instead of the graphic material I had provided.

The graphic is above, the unedited version of what I sent to them, below:

[Update, Oct. 29: It’s now published online here, with the title “St. Lawrence Green no litmus test for voters”]

The sign troubled me from the first time I took a close look at it.

If you live in Asheville, you’ve probably seen the yard sign I’m talking about. It bears a sunny image of the Basilica of Saint Lawrence — but instead of a gravel lot in front, there is a grassy expanse fringed by plants. It’s an imagined scene, designed to promote the concept of a park on that site.

Let’s set aside the question of how much of the publicly-owned and church-owned land should become a park. I’m not here to take a stance on that. But I do have concerns about the sign itself, concerns which might be instructive as we approach an election.

The image on the sign pleases the eye, and the photo-manipulation is well-executed. But to me, the vision is unsettling, for a number of reasons:

  1. It doesn’t look like a city. The image artfully makes this site, which indisputably is downtown, look like it’s set on a bucolic suburban college campus.
  2. Where are the people? Perhaps the college is on a holiday vacation. Or there’s been an apocalypse.
  3. Have vehicles been prohibited? No trace of cars or trucks, buses or bikes, scooters or strollers.
  4. Important context is missing. I reckon someone from out of town looking at this image would be surprised to learn that the church sits within a stone’s throw of two high-rises and an interstate highway.
  5. The composition seems designed to downplay any buildings other than the basilica. It’s even hard to make out the building immediately to the left of the church.

In short, it looks more likely that a deer would wander into this scene than a pub-cycle. The visuals don’t match the vibrant, complex, richly-textured, multi-cellular organism that is downtown Asheville.

So now when I see this sign, I see a carefully circumscribed viewpoint, oversimplified, dismissing context and the big picture.

Can anyone guess where I’m going with this?

With this image as a rallying emblem, some in the community have urged that a willingness to embrace the “St. Lawrence Green” concept should serve as a litmus test for the Council candidates. A reductive viewpoint, oversimplifying, dismissing context and the big picture.

This choice of wedge issue coarsely divides the field into two halves, doing a disservice to all those running for office. And the greatest disservice may be to the ones whose names often appear next to this image. Their identities are now associated with a symbol.

As we’ve recently seen with the Confederate Flag near South Carolina’s Capitol, and the Rainbow Flag on Asheville City Hall’s facade, symbols can represent vastly different things to different people. When I see someone displaying a symbol, I confess I might — wrongly — jump to ascribe to that person an entire agenda.

A tangle of complex challenges awaits our region on the other side of this election. To address them, we can choose three souls from a multifaceted bunch of candidates with varied backgrounds, work experience, and public views on an extensive range of topics.

Relying on the single-issue test is like looking at the panorama of the election through a drinking straw. But another much more appropriate tool is close at hand: the voters’ guide in this very publication. Readers, I urge you to take the time to study it, then use it to determine which candidates will be the most effective advocates for the causes (plural!) that you care about.