What’s in a Walnut?

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Google “walnuts + FDA.”  Now google “Gibson guitars + export.” You may be surprised by what you find, because on either search, the very first page, not to mention many to follow, will turn up hits on numerous self-identified conservative and libertarian blogs and Web sites erupting with fury, often with misleading or distorted claims about governmental action. So what’s the big deal about walnuts and Gibson guitars? This is a textbook case of how apparently trivial and meaningless events can become signs whose significance is revealed by the semiotic situating of their relevant contexts or systems. Here’s what happened: the FDA recently ordered a major walnut producer to remove certain health claims from its Web site and its packaging because these claims would entail the reclassification of walnuts as a drug; they would then have to be regulated accordingly. As for the other story, it concerns an enforcement of the Lacey Act (an old law to protect endangered species) with respect to Gibson guitars, which may contain protected materials (like ivory) in their construction. Both stories went viral, and can be found on sites that have nothing to do with either food or guitars. The walnut story has been distorted into the claim that “walnuts are now an illegal drug” (which is not at all what the FDA said), while the Gibson story has morphed into an attack on Obama and a claim that he is trying to “export jobs to Madagascar” (which was not the point of this Lacey Act enforcement). When such small events make such a big splash and produce such distortions, it is a strong indicator that something else is going on. What, then, is causing all the passion? The key to the situation lies in determining who is doing the screaming. While it is true that health-food blogs are also reporting on the walnut story, the large number of purely political blogs from self-identified conservatives is far more significant, especially when associated with the same phenomenon regarding the Gibson story. The larger context here involves the nationwide conservative backlash that has been going on since Barack Obama was elected president (the Tea Party, for example, is a part of the backlash as well). This backlash has been widely expressed over the Internet, where any story that might be revised and reshaped to suggest tyranny on the part of the federal government is exploited to build an ever-growing case again the current administration. A member of a Web forum that I participate in posted a link to the walnut story claiming that “walnuts are now an illegal drug”; he then became furious with me when I pointed out the political implications of the post as well as his distortion of the actual event. When I also pointed out that our site had recently had an angry discussion about the Gibson story and related it to the walnut story, members of the site got even angrier, demanding to know what the connection was. After pointing out the connection, I was nearly barred from the forum. Simply visit some of the Web sites that are carrying the walnut and the Gibson stories (and which may contain ranting denunciations of the federal government with respect to both) and you’ll see that claims of political neutrality while introducing these topics in otherwise unrelated contexts (the Web forum I am referring to has nothing to do with either food or music) are not really very convincing. For when seen within the entire context of current politics, walnuts and Gibsons have entered into a political code; they join innumerable other signifiers whose full meaning lie not in themselves but in the politics of a starkly divided nation. Similar codes may be found on the left of the political spectrum as well, of course. Since codes tend to be more effective when they are not recognized as codes, one can expect furious denials when conducting semiotic analyses of them. But an informed citizenry is better off knowing how its codes of political discourse work, and that is a primary reason why semiotics can be useful in our goals as educators to create informed citizens.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.