The “III” Symbol (Car Decals Decoded)

This interesting and cryptic symbol includes the Roman numeral three, “III,” and usually a ring of stars.

What III means

The three refers to the 3 percent of the American population that supposedly fought in the American Revolution against the British. We should say “supposedly,” because I don’t get the sense this was an especially well-researched figure, approved by historians. But maybe so.

The stars are a reference to the American flag during the Revolutionary War, often referred to as the Besty Ross Flag. It’s often shown along with various other symbols, such as period-specific muskets and the like.

If you are displaying these, the idea is you are part of the noble but tiny minority of people who will actually put your life on the line to defend freedom.

What actual battle you are fighting or what “freedom” or “liberty” mean in these instances is up for grabs. These stickers definitely seem to be linked to Second-Amendment-type sentiments, as in, the freedom to own firearms, and the threat being the United States Government, not foreign powers.

In some areas, the “Three Percenters” are numerous enough to form actual organizations and chapters, hold rallies and participate in paramilitary activities like marksmanship training. They recently made headlines in Washington State, where members appeared at the state Capitol in Olympia heavily armed, in support of a lawmaker accused of participating in domestic terrorism.

The Punisher Skull (from the Field Guide to Car Decals)

A few years ago a long-toothed white skull began appearing on the back windows of pickups on my local highways. Always curious about the symbols people display, I looked it up. It’s the Punisher skull, and it has traveled from Spider Man comic books to the killing fields of Iraq, to your local Trump supporter’s trunk.

Identification of the Punisher Skull

The Punisher skull or logo is easily distinguished by its elongated teeth (four of them) and lack of a bottom jaw. It’s always shown face-on, with empty eye sockets conveying menace.

Habitat of the Punisher Skull

The logo frequently is found on pickups, a vehicle of choice for members of the military who popularized it. Consistent with its fan base, it is also frequently found near firearms-related symbols and other conservative causes. The photo above shows it displayed on a sedan, with a patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme and “Trump” printed on it, near a National Rifle Association sticker.

History of the Punisher Skull

The skull is the symbol of the comic book character the Punisher, a Vietnam veteran who takes the law into his own hands after his family is killed in mob violence. The Punisher is described by creator as an “anti-villian,” some one who does the wrong thing, like torturing his victims, for the right reasons.

Although the Punisher was introduced in 1974, his icon surged to fame after 2014, when joint Iraqi/U.S. forces were fighting a brutal enemy, ISIS, for control of parts of the country. The same year, biopic “American Sniper” told the story of Chris Kyle, who belonged to a military group that called themselves the Punishers and painted the skull logo on everything they could.

“As a poorly-guided vigilantes, the Punisher is a well-suited icon for the Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite militia that have been accused of looting towns, burning homes and murder in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).”

Time Magazine in 2016.

Meaning of the Punisher skull

When used by soliders fighting ISIS (which was known to burn captives alive) the skull was clearly meant to symbolize their own bad-assedness. That is, they literally dealt death to their enemies.

On sedans parked near grocery stores, the meaning is less clear. Certainly it conveys toughness, and a sense of deadly resolve, especially when near other symbols of weapons. It seems to say that the owner is armed and dangerous.

This, of course, is not a welcome message for some. In 2017, a Kentucky police department stopped using the skull logo on its cruisers after complaints. And in 2019, Salon.com published an article titled “The Punisher skull: Unofficial logo of the white American death cult.”

Our Politics Aren’t As Red vs. Blue as You Might Think

After the 2016 presidential election, I decided I didn’t understand America as much as I thought. So I spent the last few years readying American history. And you know what? Despite the many, many news stories saying otherwise, there isn’t a red/Republican America and a separate blue/Democratic America.

It’s true that we are deeply polarized politically. A recent in-depth poll by Pew regarding the impeachment of President Trump found 86 percent of Republicans think the Senate trial should end with Trump remaining in office, while 85 percent of Democrats thought he should be removed — exact mirror images. But we shouldn’t take findings like that to mean there are Republican and Democratic Americans sprinkled evenly across the country, torn in half like two sides of an open book. It does not imply we have each carefully considered our own philosophies of the proper role of government, the meaning of freedom and the goals of public policy.

In reading history, I noticed one state kept popping up in the text — South Carolina. You don’t read much about South Carolina, at least where I’m from. More than anyplace else, it seems to pop up in politics, especially during the presidential primary. But it’s not Texas, New York or California, dominant in economics, pop culture and politics. Once I realized South Carolina seemed to be disproportionately historical, if you will, I began to notice a sort of echo in the history books — Massachusetts. If you see one mentioned, you can expect that nearby in the chapter there is an answer from the other.

Following this intriguing thread of regionalism in political history and perpetual power struggle, I found Colin Woodard’s work American Nations (actually first in a NYT op-ed, but this was based on the book). Woodard will lead you to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. These two works do more to explain the American polictal dynamic than any others, in my experience.

I wish there was a snappy name for their approach, but I haven’t come across it. The premise is simple, however. America was not a single culture, founded on Plymouth Rock and spreading west to Waikiki. England and other European powers colonized North America more than once and in more than one place. Each one colony, even those from the same mother country, had its own cultural approach to freedom, government, power, labor, class, religion — all of it.

Massachusetts and South Carolina represent the seed beds of the two most dominant of those cultures, the former founded by priggish Puritans, and the later by slave-holding planters from Barbados.

Most of us have a place on the political spectrum, but that spectrum is set by the culture in which we live. A Boston conservative is not necessarily in much agreement with a Charleston conservative. When we look at the map, we see that there isn’t a blue America, in which everyone mysteriously agrees with the Democratic Party. Rather, the Democratic Party has it’s power base in the land of the Yankees, and to the degree it can flex to attract dissidents in other regions, it creates a map of blue America.

Likewise, the definition of what it means to be a Republican has evolved to resemble a prototypical patrician of the Deep South.

The upshot is this: America hasn’t been pulled apart into red and blue camps of liberals and conservatives. American political parties have been pulled back into alignment with the oldest and deepest divide in America itself — North vs. South.

What this is all about

I’m launching this blog to advocate for seeing American politics and society differently.

All politics are identity politics of a kind. I say this as some one who has spent his adult life working in and around politics. Some of it is beneficial to society (“We’re the kind of people who care about kids”) and some is harmful (“Those people want to hurt our kids”).

For some time now, the harmful species of identification has been growing in the ecosystem. While much of it is well-intentioned, an effort to erase longstanding injustices, or create new levels of acceptance for marginalized people, some is definitely not. All of it has side effects. For now, I’ll just paraphrase Alan Abramowitz by saying more and more, we see people of a different political stripe not as people with whom we disagree, but a different kind of person all together. In identity terms, we could see the other side as belonging to the same national group as we do, but a different political sub-group. Instead, most of us see the other side as a whole different tribe. We see them as “them.”

To me and my reading of American history, this is dangerous ground.

What I would like to do here is start questioning our hardened political identities. I want to talk about what are actual differences between us, and what are perceived differences. What are the strong, deep divisions, and what are the small differences that happen to be apparent on the surface. I want to start a conversation that starts from the premise that we are people with differences, not different peoples.

That does not mean we have to check our values at gate of the public square. It doesn’t mean we declare ourselves “united” and quit talking about imbalances within our unity. This isn’t about preserving the status quo.

What this conversation is about — and I hope it becomes a conversation — is talking with respect and integrity. It’s about talking about different views with passion, and caring. Its’ about zooming out a little bit to remember every one of us has many identities, but we are all — all — human.