Mapping License Plates/Maps in License Plates

The landscape plate varieties well offer a proxy map of uncertain or multiple aesthetics, a bid to gain specificity and location that might respond to the popularity of the vanity plate, but really holds little sense of place:  the feeling that “there’s just no there there” across the entire continuous 48. Several states prefer to select one monument that reflects the state’s identity or motto, as the folks in New Hampshire who, making good on the tough state motto–“Live Free or Die“–have chosen to popularize the iconic “Old Man on the Mountain,” a geological formation that is also symbol of rugged individualism, known mostly to state residents , but which falls decidedly short of a map, and seems more of a generic landscape given its muted tones, barely perceptible on the road:

New Hampshire

The image of the Granite State’s tough motto, introduced by a Republican governor in the midst of anti-Vietnam War protests, provided a knew-jerk affirmation of a local continuity with the principles of the American Revolution in the quite restricted options that it offered–

–as if to affirm the state’s centrality in a personal credo common to every one of its residents, for which little sense of consent or ability of qualification was allowed.

The polemic undertones increasingly characteristic of such specialty plates has proved extremely popular, producing an astounding amount of 17.6 million dollars in Texas alone.  In the lone star state, some 877,000 vehicle carry one of the 350 types of plates currently on offer.  The medium that has become a surprising source of state revenue as much as an adornment of a car has become as well a form of fundraising in states like Michigan, where public universities are the unlikely recipients of DMV-issued plates, in a new monetization of attention that has migrated from public universities to health care to political action groups, where for an extra nominal fee and a surcharge on renewal, as a way of raising revenues from causes as diverse as Breast Cancer Awareness, anti-abortion groups, Boy Scouts of America, or, indeed, lighthouse preservation. In such a setting of local sentiment and national mapping, the treatment of the license plate as a miniature billboard, the Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed their own license plate in Texas seems disturbing in its secessionist iconography as well as its retention of odious imagery.

The nationalistic license plates of the state fits neatly into its landscape of open skies, so there was no surprise that the prototype of the design was initially accepted.  But the prominence it gives the confederate flag raises eyebrows for more reasons  than its symbolic shock, given that its relegation of the state’s image to its margins–as if the map were a secondary designation of the car owner’s affiliation.  The proposed design clearly distracts from the state of Texas’ map–long naturalized in a position of conspicuous prominence in the lone star state, even when the state is painted as a microcosm of the red, white, and blue–as if loyalty to a state could replace or effectively substitute for loyalty to the country, as if the center of a broader ideology of the nation state.

Open Skies:Map as Hyphen

Although Sons of the Confederate Veterans insists that the medium of the license plate is an act of free speech in the Lone Star state, such claims may mask the fact that its strategically-placed surface is designed to get the public attention of motorists that included ideological statements.  The attempt to introduce a more explicitly states’ rights image of the confederate flag as an option for a Texas license plate takes the assertion of the particularity of a state much farther, in ways that press against not only the First Amendment but the notion of a political union.  The recently proposed license plate honoring the confederate soldiers who were ancestors of some Texans, semantically foregrounds the ideology embodied in flag and demotes a map of the state to the upper right hand corner to an empty sign.  Indeed, instead of evoking the state, the image it includes both as a badge and as a flag embody an openly separatist ideology through the “rebel” or confederate battle flag. Although the license plate’s design is presented as only an option for descendants–or “Sons”–of confederate soldiers to honor descendants of a long defunct fighting force, the sympathies that these descendants seem to share with the cause of their forefathers to some degree suggest it is not only a form of ancestral pride.  It takes no great iconographical chops to identify an emblem inherited from the civil war of 1861-65, even if it is still retained in the flags of seven state flags in the South and Lynyrd Skynyrd patches and shirts, where it is presented as the image of Nashville, as an odious racist symbol.


For the flag of the Confederacy has long stood not only for racial segregation but oppression and an old order of dehumanization that is inseparable from a form of hate speech–and an insult without much place in civil society–if this is only being recently recognized.  The emblem’s evocation of a battle cry not only verges on a hate crime, but embodies one; more than one of the most “odorous products of a democracy,” as Nat Hentoff has it, its stench might well be quite offensive to many drivers who share the road–if not an odious form of speech, resting as it did on the defense of a discredited and odious institution.  (And the long-time columnist and adamant spokesman Nat Hentoff, who spent his career both defending civil liberties and evaluating what lies in the common good, has as good a nose for such a stench as anyone around.)

Confederate License plate texas

Hentoff pinpointed the problems of confounding the medium of the license plate with a forum for political speech.  For the inclusion of a political emblem in the state-issued plate is akin to confusing a bumper sticker with a state-issued ID.  The assertion of the license plate as an instance of the government’s alleged restriction of free speech suggests the suppression of fairly unarticulate speech, at any rate, as it does not distinguish or try to distinguish the connotations of juxtaposing a secessionist flag on a surface issued by the state–and a narrow notion of where such free speech might occur. We express deep thanks that Justice Stephen G. Bryer ruled it unprotected by the First Amendment, concluding that rather than constitute only an act of “free speech,” the medallion-like prominent of the positioning of the flag on the license plate constitutes a sphere of government speech.   Yet given the extremely personal symbolism with which the piece of metal attached to one’s own car’s bumper might be invested, Bryer hesitated identifying it as hate speech–or as an undue appropriation of a state-sanctioned vehicle identifying tag in ways that could be readily confused with state-sanctioned speech.

There is something slightly obscene about obscuring the denotative functions of license place as insignia of local registration, and the time-worn republican function of state maps with the most important icon of secession ever to be produced in the nation’s history–and an icon that was intended to be a form of resistance to desegregation when introduced into the South Carolina in 1962.  Associations of intolerance are so inseparable from the emblem that they go beyond its federalist tones. The flag’s prominent inclusion in the plate as a form of odious speech might have been better to explicitly recognize and acknowledge.  Such an acknowledgment will not be far in coming.  It’s explicit statement would, indeed, be likely to be an overstepping of the judicial role.

Even as the confederate symbol was planned to be removed from the flag of Mississippi and its symbolism in Virginia was openly acknowledged to be “divisive and hurtful,” civil society seems to have moved in the legislative direction that the court cannot properly attempt–if only since it would have extended beyond the scope of a judicial opinion.  (In a cascading of the subtraction of what was quite recently central to the iconography of the South, Virginia’s Governor has promised to have the Confederate flag banned from the state’s license plates, on the heels of Justice Bryer’s ruling–even though a state referendum chose not to remove the reference to the Confederate flag from the state flag in 2001; the confederate flag has been unilaterally absented from public display in Alabama by its state’s governor.)

The apparent abandonment of the iconography claiming descendence from a segregated society rooted in racial oppression will not be without resistance.  The barely credible acceptance of the license plate as a surface of free speech reflects a reduced notion of articulate speech, but also hijacks the designation of place by taking it as a surface where hate speech might appear.  The undue prominence of a separatist flag within a license plate poses an interpretive conundrum as much as an issue of free speech.  But unlike “God Bless Texas,” or even Choose Life”–both included among the 58 possible designs of license plates on offer in Texas that Justice Samuel Alito helpfully offered any interested readers in an appendix to his dissent that suggest potential capabilities in a career in marketing, the prominent display of a separatist icon seems to engage in a dialogue with the map perched in the upper right, diminishing if not emptying it of symbolic power.  Identification of the car as belonging to a “Son of the Confederate Veterans” riffs on “Support our Veterans” logos in claiming pride for past military effort–


–that subsume state of origin to the notation of military service.  If this is argued to be an avenue of individual expression, it seems more of a bit of a desperate appropriation of a luggage-tag or registration as an excuse for individual attention, akin as such to the vanity license plates which try to compress a clever message into the alphanumeric sequence blazoned on the plate itself. What was demonstrative of national sacrifice has been used as a foil to voice antimilitary statements, to be sure, but is coopted by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans to evoke another army, long ago, whose values have long been expunged from a politics of tolerance in ways that seems far more seriously socially transgressive than even the expletive of this veteran who was awarded a purple heart in combat.  (Indeed, as the sons of Veterans, they could be said to be recuperating from the inbred family-instilled affection for a flag with which they perhaps had around the house for their childhoods–so that it became a sign of belonging–stripped of the semantic connotations of despicable race hatred in connoted to the Confederate Army.)


For the evocation of identifying with a family of a veteran is overly instrumentalized as a statement of dissensus in the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” plate that first sent the case to the Supreme Court.  (“Many other specialty plates have the potential to irritate and perhaps even infuriate those who see them,” Justice Alito observed sharply in his dissent, but the deep singularity of the Confederate Flag in the nation–and in the nation’s history–as an emblem supporting separatism and the “darkest and most dehumanizing period for African-Americans in the history of the United States,” as B.J. Williams of the NAACP argued in response, whose image was especially toxic in its instinctual associations.)

For rather than only stand as an expression of honoring one’s family pride, the visual assault of the hate speech present in these plates seem intentionally designed to stoke issues whose levels of disturbance is all too familiar, but whose degree of disturbance, quite amazingly,  has only now begun to be openly recognized and no longer allowed to go without condemnation or reproving.  For even a century and a half after the Civil War, in the sentiment of affiliating with a long-disbanded army in a state where the Voting Rights Act is still locally contested, and statues at the state’s capitol include images of the Confederate flag, the odious emblem recalls an all-too-present hateful ideology whose expression more than offensive in the very continuity of its appearance.  Even if, as Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller conceded in prepared comments to the US Supreme Court, “Texas has its name on every license plate,”  the design treats the plate to yet another opportunity for framing an openly ideological statement designed purely to get public attention in ways that push the bounds of identifying as the resident of a region–by declaring one’s affiliation with not only a separatist philosophy but ideology of hate. Even without noting the existence of similar plates in other states, the red lettering identifies the driver’s pride in being among the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” seems to entail the secondary relegation of the outline of Texas to the upper right hand corner.  Indeed the demotion as an icon of belonging to an ideology whose racist component is difficult not to interpret or read as a sign of private sentiment with racist undertones–whose inclusion in a license plate’s seems to invest it with the status of a state-sanctioned expression.

What a clever ploy to call it free speech.  Indeed, it is effectively an explicitly ideological position individuals are invited to adopt in ways sanctioned by the state–or the Dept. of Motor Vehicles–despite the potentially animus sentiments triggered by the prominent place of confederate flag in two sites of the license plate–it elevates a symbol of pointedly political sentiment by emptying meaning from the evacuated map relegated to the upper right hand corner of the vanity plate, in ways that unduly politicize the sort of speech that a license plate might prominently include, even as a gambit to increase revenues of states. The business of vanity license plates has grown wildly popular in the fifty states, in ways that one doesn’t usually associate with Freedom of Speech.  Is there detectable tendency to discard the image of a map, and a sense of national belonging trumped by reasons of intense localism?  Not really. There is a degree of ambivalence toward the marginalization of maps in license plates, to judge from a quite condensed recent history of license plates across select states, although the example of Texas exemplifies the use of the reduction of the map for quite expedient political ends that almost suggest a mild desperation to make one’s political voice heard.


Of which I think I prefer the combination of map and landscape:

Place is at times evoked by a single monument, chosen by New Hampshire, but the official Maine plate seems a tasteful way to promote its status as a tourist site in an understated way, using a notional relation to place and space with ducks or pine-cones; Ohio offers a more place-less version of sun-drenched Americana among its range of ‘pride’-plates and Rhode Island a tasteful abstracted seascape.

maine licence plate
Ohio Plate Generic Scene
Rhode Island, Ocean State

Among those states that retain maps, Florida offering a range of options below an image of succulent oranges over a stenciled silhouette of the state’s form:

Florida Plates

And it’s kind of reassuring that Florida has retained a light Kelly Green map, even offering a variety of different mottos or place names.  But it’s difficult to tell if the trend to landscape bodes for the obscuring of a map, and many of the alternate choices don’t seem so inspired at all. It seems that the old standard of the iconic use of a map has lost even the pretense of being an identifying sign of provenance, despite whatever sort of clear identifying value that the only vague shape of the state that once appeared in unadorned form for kids raised on wooden puzzles of national maps of the US the continued to the wildly popular toys back in the 1970s.



We can now buy multiple license plate with different vanity designs on eBay; the license plate is no longer an official document or container of meaning arrived at by committee consensus, but something redesigned on the open market, and available in every flavor, color, and pattern one could desire.  I miss the outlined map, so reassuring a marker of place, maybe because I find the weird reduction of the cartographical form to a meaningless abstraction a source of perverse pleasure.  Yet folks who like to select their own numbers create hybrid statements on license plates that never fail to instruct and amuse because of their odd placement, especially below a state’s motto:

New Hampshire on the Road

The surprising combination between the state’s motto “Live Free or Die” with the personalized  “Shalom” seem a semantically odd pairing, no doubt not intended by its owner as a rhetorical device or a study in contrasts.  But it is striking. And it offers a maxim on driving, if not of living, that seems right on. The driver’s free speech, however, seems rightfully restricted to the center of the plate, rather than to its header, footer, or iconographic adornment.

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Filed under classificatory schema, iconography, license plates, mapping United States, states rights

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