Ambiguities of Identity on the County Seal


In 2004, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided to erase the Latin cross that former Supervisor Kenneth Hahn had put on a redesigned county seal in 1957. A divided board voted to edit out the disturbing imagery and made other changes in Hahn's seal. The mythical goddess Pomona was replaced by a Native American girl. Oil derricks were swapped for the mission church of San Gabriel Arcángel.

As Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky pointed out in a recent Los Angeles Times editorial, the mission was depicted without a cross. The board majority, he said, wanted it that way in 2004.

In 2014, another divided board decided to put a Latin cross back on the seal as an addition to the façade of the mission for, it was said, historical accuracy. Soon after, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which had urged removing the original cross, sued the board to turn back the seal to the cross-less 2004 version.

The case was argued in U.S. District Court in mid-November. Judge Christina Snyder is expected to issue a ruling on the constitutionality of the board's decision soon.

Whatever her decision, it will not achieve Yaroslavsky's naïve hope that "Our county seal should be a unifying emblem that all Los Angeles residents can call their own ..." We're so impatient with other people's memories and so careless with our own.

In Los Angeles, a place notable for its edited memories, a symbol that tried to confirm who we are would have to picture the unimaginable. How do you draw forgetfulness?

The cross should stay off the county seal because, among other things, the cross stands for the risks of believing in something. Leaving it there would be a lie about Los Angeles. An officially sanctioned reminder of any sort of faithfulness is the last thing we want.

Corporate America learned long ago that your misinterpretation of their symbols isn't good for business, as Proctor and Gamble discovered when some Christian zealots in the 1970s imagined satanic references in that company's corporate symbol. Proctor and Gamble adopted a new, innocuous logo.

For the makers of advertising nonsense, a product name should be meaningless sounds, and the company emblem should be a conundrum. Did the name Enron identify a power company or an erectile dysfunction preparation? The company's cockeyed E logo refused to own up.

For the people in marketing, the name Enron had whatever meaning the company said it did, and if the company's product ultimately failed, it could be branded with a different string of optimistic consonants and vowels and another bit of askew typography.

The Board of Supervisors should have learned Proctor and Gamble's lesson. The iconography of the county seal contains appeals to a past we don't want - to Pearlette the award winning heifer, an unnamed tuna fish, and drafting tools. These obsolete markers of our former prosperity mock what we used to think of ourselves.

Scrap the galleon San Salvador, which Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed into San Pedro Bay 1542, for its imperial presumption. And take down the cross-less mission church, symbol of Native American genocide to many.

Better to scrape off the name "Los Angeles" for its religious and colonialist overtones.

The county's corporate name should be El-? - two meaningless syllables, short, and sort of uplifting. The imagery on the its seal ought to be pointlessly assertive, celebrating action without purpose. Too bad the Nike swoosh is already taken.

But if our place can't be boiled down to a harmless trademark and a meaningless word, perhaps it should be represented by all of us instead.

Draw something like on odometer on the seal, the numbers in the total rolling up from 10,110,000 as the county's population increases. New numbers could be stenciled on county buildings every year, memorializing nothing except the bare fact of our existence.

Or the seal could be replaced by a mirror so that you'd see only your own image, the one thing that apparently matters. Nothing else endures the withering fury of our grievances against the past. The county seal should reflect only self-regard.

Or everything should come off, because collectively we have neither the courage nor the humility to deal with the history that the seal represents. Public symbols should be neutral surfaces, untroubled by what we've been as a people and uncomprehending of what we might become, because we resist the idea of becoming anything together.

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The county seal should be a disk of solid, matte gray, carefully painted to reflect nothing at all if the seal can't console every real and imagined insult. If it doesn't respect every shade of our differences, then it doesn't represent us. A large brush stroke in the form of a Zen master's calligraphic O might be a fitting substitute, a cipher for the ambiguity of identity.

Or paint out a blank space and hold it for an artist of the distant future for whom our passionate anxieties may have become a historical footnote. By then, braver and wiser Angeleños might be drawn together.

(Other versions of this essay appeared here when the Board of Supervisors redesigned the county seal in 2004 and 2014, with the same note of despair.)

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