Irregular Times: How Bumper Stickers Matter
One day last May my brother and I, who have been writing Irregular Times since 1995, saw George W. Bush act in a manner that at once managed to be so vapid, so offensive, so ignorant, so potentially destructive and so demonstrably at odds with the truth that we decided a change was in order at Irregular Times. To be honest, I can't remember what in particular George W. Bush did that day, mostly because that's the sort of thing he seems to manage to do every day. It's kind of like asking a chain smoker to identify when last March he picked up a cigarette. But the point is, that day my brother and I had enough. We decided to do something about the whole mess. We decided to take action!
We decided to sell bumper stickers.
If that's not exactly what you expected to read next, well, you're not alone. Every Sunday I share a dinner table and freewheeling discussion with seven friends. We talk about a lot of things: last week, we argued about whether a hypothetical web site entitled PornoJesus.com would qualify as offensive or not. When I told my dinner companions that I had decided to start selling bumper stickers, they all expressed support and interest, being the supportive friends they are. But then someone asked me a simple question:
"So what do you hope to accomplish by putting these bumper stickers out there?"
"Well, I'd like to help get the word out on opposition to George W. Bush, and about global
warming and John Ashcroft and alternatives to mainstream religion and environmentalism and..."
"OK, But what will putting those messages out there do? I mean, you can't fit a thorough policy
analysis on a 3x10 inch strip of vinyl, especially when your target readers are zipping along
at 35 miles per hour. And are people going to see
Vote Bush Off the Island and all of a
sudden decide to change their party affiliation? Somehow, I doubt that."
And that's pretty much how the conversation ended. I was, for the moment, stumped.
I walked away from that conversation frustrated because I obviously thought that bumper stickers
could make a difference (otherwise, why sell them?) but I couldn't articulate the reason
they mattered, the way in which bumper stickers could help make social or political change. After
some thought, however, I think I've come up with something: the question is not whether bumper
stickers matter, but rather how they matter.
With the question posed that way, there's more than one answer that I've come up with. Let me
share my answers with you, with a couple of examples along the way.
How Do Bumper Stickers Matter?How can bumper stickers make a difference in a nation's politics? Let's count the ways:
In conclusion, it really shouldn't be surprising that bumper stickers can play a number of non-trivial roles in political discourse.
After all, if they were so ineffective, would they appear on the backs of so many cars? Bumper stickers are a short form,
poetry (good or bad) in the pursuit of persuasion (for good or bad). If a sticker is on your car not only for the right cause
but also in the service of a sound strategy, it is no more to be ashamed of than a painting or a haiku. Like these other forms
of condensed expression, a good bumper sticker can help move civic conversation and action forward.
- Bumper Stickers can provide the punchline to an implicit argument.
One popular knock against bumper stickers is that they're anti-intellectual. "We need a foreign policy
that doesn't fit on a bumper sticker," is a typical dig at the form in policy circles, implying that an
expression of few words is not sufficient to grasp the complexities of a situation.
I think that such criticisms are not only wrong, but also underestimate the intellectual challenge implicit in some
bumper stickers. A 30-page policy tract lays out an entire argument, step-by-step, for a reader to passively digest.
Bumper stickers, on the other hand, may require the viewer to make an active, re-creative interpretation of an entire argument.
For instance, the bumper sticker to the right is really the lynchpin in a long argument that assumes the reader has
been following American politics over the past decade. Fully expressed, the argument might go like this:
- In the late 1990s, conservatives asserted that Bill Clinton should have either resigned or been kicked out of the
presidency because the consequences of his lie to the American people were egregiously damaging in their effects.
(see, for instance, this editorial in the Yale Herald)
- George W. Bush has lied to the American people.
- No one died when Clinton lied.
- Thousands have died as a consequence of Bush's lies.
- Bush's lies are more damaging in their consequences than Clinton's lies.
- If Bill Clinton should have resigned or been kicked out of the presidency for his relatively inconsequential lie,
then certainly George W. Bush should resign or be kicked out of the presidency for his lies of disastrous effect.
To put a "No One Died When Clinton Lied" sticker on your car is to provoke thoughtful viewers to consider that line of
argument. If the argument has merit, then the bumper sticker can play an important part in bringing a politician to account.
- Bumper Stickers can help others make unpopular stands.
If you've been living inside the borders of the United States of America for the past two and a half years,
you don't need me to tell you that there's a lot of pressure out there to conform to a certain
set of political notions (supporting the troops means supporting George W. Bush, supporting the troops means supporting war,
the deaths of innocent Iraqis don't matter as much as the deaths of Americans, sit down, shut up, salute the flag, sing
God Bless America, pretend you love it).
It's hard to be the only person around who seems to believe something unpopular. Solomon Asch demonstrated this in
a series of experiments half a century ago: Asch brought seven subjects together into a room. He displayed a series of cards,
each of which displayed three lines, and asked subjects to identify the lines that matched in length.
The secret of the experiment was that six out of the seven subjects were confederates (that is, they were hired
by and acted in cahoots with the experimenter) who sometimes gave obviously wrong answers.
The question of the experiment was to see how often the one real subject would go along with the
others and give an obviously wrong answer.
The first-blush answer is surprising: overall, three-quarters of the subjects gave wrong answers,
even when the answer was obviously wrong. Most of these subjects expressed relief when
Professor Asch revealed his trick at the experiment's end.
More importantly, however, it turns out that the extent of conformity by subjects varied according to what
others in the room did. If there was just one confederate who gave the right answer, then the subject became
much more likely (with visible relief) to give the right answer than to go along with the majority. In other
words, it's much easier for someone to publicly dissent from the conventional wisdom when just one other person
in the vicinity has done so first.
If you live in Manhattan, or San Francisco, or Denver, or Seattle, you're probably surrounded by people
who feel the way you do and aren't afraid to show it because so many others out there already have. If you live
in Alabama or Wyoming or Oklahoma, however, you may be surrounded by people who appear to disagree with you.
I say "appear" with purpose, since you actually might be surprised how many progressives live in those supposedly conservative states. But it takes the first person to stand up and say out loud, "The Emperor Has No Clothes!"
(or, in the case of George W. Bush, "The Emperor Has No Brains!"). Such a bumper sticker, prominently placed on
a car, can have that effect. Just knowing that there are other people in a community who feel the way you do
may put just a smidgen more steel in your spine. Making dissent acceptable -- another valuable purpose of
- Bumper Stickers can help raise awareness of a person or issue.
Last on my list comes simple awareness. When a challenger to a popular incumbent tries to get
a Congressional race going, for instance, the first hurdle out there is for citizens to simply
become aware that somebody is running as an alternative. Getting a name out there using a bumper
sticker is a low-cost way of starting up a media campaign. As more and more people are exposed to
the identity of a candidate, more and more people will become interested in learning more about that
candidate, making a donation to the candidate's campaign, or volunteering to help that candidate
prevail. No, this isn't an intellectually profound dynamic, but it matters, and bumper stickers
taking advantage of the dynamic can help a political movement get jump-started.
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