Samantha Allen notices that “in the South, rural billboards have become a bizarre battleground for tired culture wars” and that the region “is where the irrepressible subconscious of white America waves to you from the side of the road”:
But why does it manifest itself in the form of billboards, flags, and crosses? And why is the roadside such prime real estate for incendiary rhetoric in the first place? Billboards remain relatively effective forms of commercial advertising in cities with a large commuter presence but billboards with social messages are not advertising a product, nor are they typically placed in urban areas where ad space would be more expensive. Driving past a loud billboard in the middle of nowhere feels a little bit like watching someone shout impotently into the void. As for flags and crosses, well, they’re just sort of there, aren’t they? What is anyone who rents a cheap billboard or who snatches up land on an access road hoping to accomplish?
The driving factor behind these ads, flags, and attractions seems to be the simple urge to be seen. The Southern Party of Georgia, for example, brags that the Confederate flag outside Tifton is “highly visible to traffic from both directions.” The Sons of Confederate Veterans similarly note that the flag has been “strategically placed” so that it can “be easily seen by the millions who travel Georgia’s main interstate back and forth to Florida.” Cross Ministries, the church affiliated with the Texas cross, claims that “10 million people pass by [the cross] every year” and that it “can be seen from 20 miles away.” The farmer and welder who bought the land for the Confederate flag outside of Tampa was looking for a “high-profile site” that he could still afford. But these roadside sights are nothing more than last-gasp bids for cultural relevance in a world that is, quite literally, passing them by. The people who buy them are playing a no-stakes game of “made you look” with a dogmatic twist.
(Photo by Flickr user me and sysop)