top of page
  • Ken Ilgunas

On mean signs and our lousy democracy

North Carolina

[I wrote this essay a few years ago when I was living in North Carolina. It was for my photo blog, I recently reread it and thought it was worth reprinting, especially after I read George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage, which helped me piece together a few disconnected thoughts. So here it is, refurbished, updated, and Trumpified.]

A few people in my neck of the woods have raised Confederate flags on flagpoles in their yard. Rarely are these flags displayed in a wealthy or middle class person’s yard. Most folks who raise Confederate flags around here are quite poor.

One home nearby doesn’t look like it’s fit to house people. The driveway is muddy. Two mangy dogs live in triangular dog houses in the woods, tethered to short leashes. The house is a double-wide with severe water damage. It looks like it could collapse any second. On the window that faces the road they’ve tacked up a Confederate flag.

I felt bad for them. They have practically nothing. When I first noticed the flag, I thought, Well, at least they have that.

I thought about all the crazy signs: the “Armed crazy red neck lives here,” or the “Notice: If you are found here tonight, you will be found here tomorrow,” or even your basic “No Trespassing” sign. I feel the same with all these signs: Well, at least they have that.

These people might be dirt poor and have next to nothing, but they do have the right to put up a crazy sign. One worker’s CEO might be making two hundred times more money than he is, but, hell, he’s still legally allowed to raise a flag that’s offensive to black people. His truck might need a new transmission, his best friend may be addicted to opioids, and he may be losing custody of his daughter, but, hell, he can still put up a big, mean sign in his front yard that no one can legally take down. At least he has that.

North Carolina

I believe that a person posts a crazy sign to feel something that his government, society, and economy fail to let him feel: like a free person and a citizen with a say. While that person does not have much and cannot do much, he knows he can at least stretch his First Amendment rights as far as they will go by waving a hurtful flag. To get to feel like a free person and a citizen with a say, he can’t just put up a mild “This is me using my First Amendment rights” sign; rather, he has to put up something fucking crazy. He has to warn people that they’re going to get shot for placing their pinky toe on his property. Or that everyone should “Fear God.” Or he might just post a giant picture of a dead fetus. To get an adequate sense of validation, you have to be menacingly zany about what sort of sign you put up.

Because he feels his opinion doesn’t count, because he feels his vote means nothing, his only way of feeling like a citizen in a democracy is to radically embrace the First and Second Amendments—the constitutional crumbs left to him by his weak community, his broken government, and his corporate overlords.

Displaying the Confederate flag and the “No Trespassing” sign serves two purposes. The first purpose is, as I’ve mentioned, to embrace the First Amendment, which makes him feel a little bit like a free man and a citizen. The second purpose is to express the desire to exclude society from his life just as he feels society has excluded him. At bottom, he probably feels pointless, useless, and unimportant to his society. He feels ignored and left out. So instead of wallowing in the pain of his unimportance and his exclusion from society, it’s better off, he feels, to display his renunciation of society. By putting up a sign that’s so uninviting, he hopes everyone gets the message that he never wanted society in the first place. It’s his way of saving face.

Surely there are people who raise their Confederate flags for reasons other than the mere expression of their First Amendment rights. And surely there are people who have many good reasons for posting “No Trespassing” signs. (I could see myself posting one in the right circumstances.) But I think many people who post crazy signs do so out of desperation. It’s likely that they have insufficient social lives. They probably play no role whatsoever in their government (locally or nationally). And they probably feel small, weak, and rundown. Because so many feel powerless and alienated by their community and government, posting a crazy sign may be some people’s only chance at participating in their democracy and within the marketplace of ideas. “It is in the powder of shattered communities that anti-politics swirls,” writes George Monbiot.


This brings me to Trump.

I believe that, in many cases, the instinct that made the flag wavers sling up the Confederate flag is the same instinct that made them cast a vote for Trump. When they vote for a person who’s completely unfit for the presidency, they’re doing so partly as a collective and desperate plea for recognition.

With a crazy sign, they are saying, “Look at me! I have a voice!” Same thing with a vote for Trump: “And I’m going to get your attention and show you I have a voice by supporting the guy who no rational person would ever support!”

These are people who feel ignored. New Yorker writer James Surowiecki wrote, “A RAND survey in January found that voters who believed that ‘people like me don’t have any say about what the government does’ were 86.5 per cent more likely to prefer Trump.”

The Trump voter is the forgotten voter, the voter who feels that no politician represents him. I don’t think he votes for Trump so much because of Trump’s ideas (which really just amount to a bunch of unarticulated and unachievable promises of prosperity); rather, Trump is the vessel into which all of these forgotten Americans are placing their frustration. He is like a giant “No Trespassing” sign: an absurd sign of hate posted by people desperate to be recognized.

I don’t think it has to be this way. I think the sickness behind Trump, all the mean signs, and general meanness can be cured. Give people a voice, a meaningful social role, a fair wage, and I bet all the signs will come down. Let’s imagine that one of these poor, sign-displaying loners had been luckier. He got a job paying $30 an hour with benefits at a place that manufactures good, necessary products. He’s been invited to run for his local school board. His county commissioner shakes his hand, wants his vote, and listens to his opinions. He plays an instrument in a band, attends monthly barn dances, and interacts with his community all the time. He feels like his votes are going to politicians who haven’t been bought out by billionaires or special interests. Do we think this person, who now plays a role in his community and country, would still be as likely to raise an offensive flag or post an exclusionary sign? Enhance democracy (locally and nationally) and make people feel like citizens, and I bet all the mean signs will come down

An old neighbor closing down a public road in North Carolina.

I can’t recommend George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage enough. As I mentioned in my last post, because Swiss citizens have lots of control over their government, the Swiss express more “confidence in government” than any of the other forty countries studied.

There are lots of ways to enhance democracy. I recommend reading Monbiot’s book, but here’s one paragraph:

The people of Switzerland vote in around ten referendums a year, clustered into three or four polling days. Some of these are initiated by parliament, some by citizens. Any law passed by parliament can be challenged by the people. If, within one hundred days, someone can furnish 50,000 signatures from people opposed to the law, the government is obliged to put the question to the country. These referendums are binding: if the people vote against it, the law is struck down. People can also propose amendments to the constitution, if they can gather 100,000 signatures within eighteen months. The federal council might suggest a counter-proposal, which is put to the popular vote at the same time.

Think about that. In Switzerland, you are not merely a citizen in name, but in practice. Even though you’re just one vote, that one vote actually matters and factors into actual results. I don’t know about you, but I feel like being a citizen in America is completely dissatisfying. There isn’t really a structure that allows or compels ordinary people to continually feel like engaged citizens. Maybe we vote every two years (about 55 percent of us do). Maybe we briefly volunteer for a candidate, write a letter to the editor, or call our politician to urge her to vote a certain way (5 percent of us?). Maybe we run for school board or county commissioner (.001 percent of us?) But mostly, we just wait another two to four years for the next election and hope our elected officials sort it all out. Marches, phone calls, Facebook posts—none of them are satisfying or feel like they’re accomplishing anything. You feel so small, participation feels so futile. You’re frustrated with the unfairness of the electoral college, gerrymandered districts, disproportionate senate representation; you’re disgusted with how much political power our corporate overlords have; you’re deflated with the apathy of your fellow citizens. And then nothing changes and you just feel empty and demoralized and want to quit politics altogether.

Monbiot recognizes the importance of a strong national government, but he says a strong government is not enough: We need strong local communities, too. Local communities give us the everyday feeling that were part of something bigger. Our voice, on this local level, is heard. The products of our efforts are tangible.

Strong, empowered communities can give us the opportunity to feel continually and meaningfully engaged. I’ve seen it! In Scotland, many communities are purchasing land to be collectively owned and managed. These communities (often classified as “trusts”) are creating businesses, building affordable housing, making their own electricity, and giving votes and voices and important roles to community members. On the Isle of Eigg, where I spent a week interviewing as many of the 107 residents as I could, I discovered something quite beautiful: a full-fledged, functioning community. You could feel the warmth of the place. You could feel the confidence. These aren’t experts running the island; just ordinary folks who’ve learned how to monitor electrical grids, keep the Internet running, work with government officials, develop business plans, make architectural decisions. I spoke with a resident named Camille who said the community ownership of the island made ordinary people more engaged:

There’s quite a lot of community involvement in the affairs in the community. [The community purchase] made people on the local level more responsible, more interested in outcomes. I think that’s why we are in some places seen as dangerous revolutionaries. It just shows when you give power to a bunch of ordinary people, they can deal with it quite well. It’s dangerous to think that people can think for themselves and do for themselves.

On Eigg I saw an empowered people, a thriving community, and a functioning democracy. And not one mean sign.

Isle of Eigg Scotland

Isle of Eigg, Scotland
Isle of Eigg, Scotland
Family exercising right to roam. Isle of Eigg, Scotland.
Family exercising right to roam. Isle of Eigg, Scotland.


bottom of page