A lawn sign means more than just a sign

Kai Hagen

August 12, 2004

This column was going to be about challenges facing farmers in Frederick County, and what we can do as a community to maintain a substantial agricultural landscape and support a healthy farming economy.

Then someone stole a lawn sign from our property.

It may seem petty to put off a column about Frederick County farms and farmers to complain about a matter of misdemeanor theft. But, as they say, it's the principle of the thing.

I attended a political meeting in Frederick recently. I left with a lawn sign, which I put out at the end of our driveway as soon as I arrived home. Now, I know some people steal political yard signs, of course. And perhaps I was naive to think it wouldn't happen in my rural neighborhood.

But I was amazed to find it was already gone when I went out to fetch the newspaper the next morning.

This is probably only a new experience for me because I haven't posted many lawn signs before. Truth is, however, even though I didn't put up signs before the elections in 2002, I was glad to see them, even for candidates I didn't support. If nothing else, the signs reflect a level of interest in the election I find heartening when so many people don't bother to vote at all, and too many that do make so little effort to be informed and involved.

One reason I resisted putting out signs was that it irks me that signs, not to mention buttons and bumper stickers and billboards and the like, could have an effect on how someone who makes the effort to vote would vote. I'm just as incredulous that short, slick television and radio ads can and do make a difference.

After all, we generally have two to four years to develop an opinion about the incumbent, assuming they're running. We have months upon months to get to know other candidates. Anyone, anywhere, who wants to make an informed decision before entering a polling booth has the easy opportunity to read a little from the reams of articles and columns in newspapers and magazines, to see and hear speeches from all sides, to peruse a fraction of the abundant campaign materials or browse partisan and non-partisan Web sites covering any conceivable issue. And so on, and so on.

Sometimes I hear people say they are too busy. But without meaning to offend the millions of folks whose lives are busy, who rarely or ever have time for all sort of things they want to do more than they want to brush up on the issues or the candidates a bit, it's a darn shame.

I can't help but wonder if the things most people complain about in politics would be true if almost everyone was more engaged, or didn't vote at all. It's worth a thought or two.

We complain about money in politics. But what does it buy? Not more detailed literature about issues and ideas, problems and proposals. No.

Much of it buys highly polished, focus group-tested, overly simplistic and insultingly manipulative television ads. At best it pays for increasingly long, sophisticated, labor-intensive voter identification and get-out-the-vote drives.

In other words, the great majority of the money we decry for corrupting politics is spent to beguile or frighten the least informed and involved voters and maneuver them to cast their vote.

And yet, while I'll harbor quiet fantasies of a society in which candidates only need to put out thoughtful literature, put up informative Web sites, and participate in a few civil debates, I reluctantly accept the reality that ignorance and apathy have made the most shallow and symbolic sort of politics effective, and necessary.

Still, if lawn signs reflect the simple side of politics, tearing them down represents something altogether different. We call it petty theft, but it's really an ugly and mean-spirited attempt to deny free speech.

If that seems like an absurd exaggeration to someone, perhaps they don't appreciate the principle at stake.

There is a lot at stake in this election. So I'll continue to exercise my First Amendment rights, and keep the bumper sticker on my car.

And I'll get another lawn sign.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at