Symbol Wars: The Cross Should Stay Off L.A. County's Seal

Left: L.A. County seal between 1958 and 2004. Right: L.A. County seal after 2004.
Left: L.A. County seal between 1958 and 2004. Right: L.A. County seal after 2004.

In 2004, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided, probably for the best, to erase the cross that former Supervisor Kenneth Hahn had put on the county seal in 1957. A majority of a divided board edited out the disturbing imagery and made other changes to the seal.

They swapped a representation of the Roman goddess Pomona bearing a sheaf of grain for a Native American woman offering a woven basket. Oil wells were replaced by the façade of Mission San Gabriel (minus any Catholic symbolism).

The supervisors kept a cow, a tuna, a Spanish galleon, the band shell of the Hollywood Bowl, and some drafting tools.

Last week, Friday, Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe submitted a motion to redraw the county seal again to rectify a historical mistake, they said. The mission church depicted on the seal is "artistically and architecturally inaccurate" without a tiny cross, they said.

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"We, therefore, move that the Board of Supervisors direct the Chief Executive Officer to make the county seal artistically, aesthetically and architecturally correct by placing the cross on top of the San Gabriel Mission in order to accurately reflect the cultural and historical role that the mission played in the development of the Los Angeles County region," Antonovich and Knabe wrote.

The supervisors should know better.

Any attempt to draw a symbolic representation of ourselves is misguided. We're so impatient with other people's memories and so careless with our own. In our Los Angeles, a place notable for edited memories, an official symbol would have to picture the unimaginable. How do you draw a universal symbol for forgetfulness?

Corporate America learned that lesson long ago. Product names and logos can be resting places for unwanted meanings and therefore contentious. Misinterpretation isn't good for business, as Proctor and Gamble discovered in the 1980s when some zealots imagined satanic references in that company's former logo.

To solve the identity problem, say the makers of advertising nonsense, corporate names and symbols should be reduced to meaningless sounds and visual conundrums. If the products they advertise fail to satisfy, they can easily be rebranded.

If we have to have a county seal, it shouldn't contain appeals to a past we don't know. Forget the goddess Pomona, Pearlette the award-winning heifer, and the unidentified tuna fish, or monuments imperialism and the music of dead European males. It would be even better to scrap the name "Los Angeles" for its religious and colonial overtones.

The rebranded county's name should be "El-?" - two meaningless syllables, pronounceable in most of the 100 languages spoken in the county, as well as short and sort of uplifting without promising anything. The new county symbol ought to be just as pointlessly assertive, celebrating action without purpose.

Too bad the Nike "swoosh" is already taken.

If the county can't be boiled down to a harmless trademark, then draw something like an odometer, the numbers rolling up from 13,000,000 as the county population increases. New numbers could be stenciled on county buildings every few years, memorializing the bare fact of our existence.

Or the surface could be replaced by a mirror so that whenever you looked at the county seal you'd see your own image. Self-regard is the only thing that matters.

"Placing a cross, the universal symbol of Christianity, back on the seal communicates that Los Angeles County favors and endorses one religion above all others," fumed American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Hector Villagra in a statement sent to the Los Angeles Times in response to the supervisors' motion.

"This thinly veiled attempt to smuggle the cross into the seal will fool no one; it will reopen the debate about the separation of church and state, distract officials from pressing questions, and risk the lawsuit and liability supervisors once wisely avoided."

Of course, the cross should stay off the seal. It was put there for sectarian reasons, despite rhetorical appeals to the county's Spanish and Mexican past. The cross should stay off because, among other things, it represents faith.

Returning the cross would fool no one. A public reminder of faithfulness is the last thing we want.

All the iconography of the seal's incomplete list of reasons for living here should come off, because we have neither the courage nor the humility to deal with the history the county seal represents so poorly. We demand that our symbols be untroubled by what we've been and uncomprehending of what we might become, because we resist the idea of becoming anything together.

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 a matte gray space where a seal might go and hold that empty place for an artist of the future for whom our carelessness about who we are will be a historical footnote.

By then perhaps, braver Angeleños might be able to be drawn together.

(A significantly different version of this commentary was published in the Los Angeles Times in 2004.)

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