Magazine | August 24, 2015, Issue

Stick It to ’Em

(Jay Nordlinger)
A world of bumper stickers

Bumper stickers were a backdrop of my growing up, for I come from a lefty town, and the Left seems to love a bumper sticker. As I think back on it, most of the stickers had to do with nuclear weapons, the Pentagon, and war. Reagan was the villain of the period, bent as he was on blowing up the earth.

You Can’t Hug a Child with Nuclear Arms, read one sticker. True, you can’t. But maybe a nuclear deterrent would help keep you and your child in the hugging business? Arms Are for Hugging, went a variation on this theme. And then there was One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Whole Day. Yes — which never led these folks to support missile defense, frustratingly. Indeed, they had a sticker that said, Don’t Militarize the Heavens.

Turning to another issue, I recall this sticker: If You Don’t Like Abortion, Don’t Have One. I thought a cheeky counter-sticker might read, If You Don’t Like Slavery, Don’t Own One.

For my twelfth-grade year, I went to a boarding school, and saw something that took my eyes a minute to adjust to: a conservative, or anti-Left, bumper sticker. It was mounted in the room of a classmate. It said, Fear the Government That Fears Your Gun. After my eyes adjusted, I realized that this was a shot against gun control. This was something weird under the sun! By the way, my classmate soon outgrew his conservatism and went left.

We’re all supposed to deplore bumper-sticker language, simplistic as it is, but I remember something William F. Buckley Jr. said: Sometimes — not always, but every once in a while — big questions can be boiled down into bumper stickers. For example, Better Dead Than Red versus Better Red Than Dead.

I was in Washington, D.C., the other week, and saw a car absolutely lousy with bumper stickers. Actually, it was a pickup truck, meaning that the entire tailgate was available, not just the bumper. There were about 50 stickers on the back of the truck — all of them left-wing, pretty much, but with a strong dose of Ron Paul. Sometimes, these things resist categorization, or invite multiple categorization.

And let me note that a pickup truck is not a vehicle associated with the Left. On the contrary. In 2010, when the Republican Scott Brown was running for Senate in Massachusetts, commentators on MSNBC suggested that the pickup truck he drove was meant to appeal to white racists.

In any case, the truck in D.C. had D.C. plates, but also several stickers relating to the West, particularly to Montana. I took a picture of the array, for study later. Do you feel like a little tour?

Bring Our War $$ Home, said one sticker. Nearby was this chestnut: War Is Not the Answer. But sometimes it is, noted Bill Buckley. For instance, war put paid to the Nazis and the Japanese fascists. The truck also had a sticker simply giving the address of infowars.com. This is the leading conspiracy-theory website in the country (where you can find, for example, material alleging that the moon landings were faked). A more brightly colored sticker said, Code Pink: Women for Peace. They were prominent in the years of George W. Bush, but they went fairly quiet after Obama was sworn in, it seems to me.

The truck owner is not a fan of the incumbent president. One of his stickers shows a picture of W. and Obama. (One of her stickers? I somehow doubt it, but maybe.) The sticker then reads, Crimes Are Crimes No Matter Who Does Them. What’s our guy’s beef with Obama? He’s not a racist, is he?

Another sticker probably provides the answer: No Drones! It continues, Not in Their Countries, Not in Our Backyards. Amid the words is an image, with a red diagonal line through it. The image shows a drone firing a missile at a fleeing, desperate family, composed of father, mother, and daughter. I agree that drone strikes are problematic, with their collateral damage. But isn’t that image a little heteronormative? (Heteronormative: “denoting or relating to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.”)

#NullifyNSA, reads a sticker. This calls for the abolition, or nullification, of the National Security Agency. The sticker comes from OffNow.org, whose slogan is Shut Down the Surveillance State. It occurs to me that, as someone who took a picture of this truck, I might well be regarded by the owner as part of the problem.

Then we have Free Bradley. This sticker is way, way out of date — virtually a hate crime. Bradley Manning was the U.S. Army soldier who gave thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. He then revealed himself to be a “trans woman,” and is now known as Chelsea Manning. So, the bumper stickers and posters are Free Chelsea.

Economic populism has its place on the pickup with Banks Got Bailed, We Got Nailed! But there are many more that concern industry and the environment.

Ban Fracking Now, for example. There are two of those, for good measure. I wonder whether the truck owner has ever considered what more abundant energy does for the poor. He also has Truth Is Thicker Than Oil. And No Smith River Mine. The Smith turns out to be a river in Montana, at whose headwaters a copper mine is proposed.

Monsanto Is Destroying Our Future, says a sticker. The destroyer is an agri-giant, whose biotechnology is anathema to the Left, and to a strain of the Right. A companion sticker reads, No Farms, No Food. It does not oppose farms and food. It’s meant to say, “Without farming as we once knew it, we will not have food.”

The pickup has a few foreign concerns, or causes. There is a sticker of the South African flag — reflecting due satisfaction with the end of apartheid. There is a sticker that says, I Support Palestinian Human Rights! Good. Me too. The governors of the Palestinian Authority, Fatah and Hamas, treat their subjects abominably. Freedom of expression is blocked. Political opponents are tossed off roofs. Homosexuals flee to Israel, to avoid being lynched. But the bumper sticker, in smaller print, then says, End the Occupation. Ah.

It is a sad and vexing fact that almost no one outside the Middle East gives a damn about how Arab and other regimes treat the people under their control.

One interesting sticker says, Save Tibet. Tibet, I believe, is the only cause connected to anti-Communism that the Left has ever embraced. It may have to do with the personal appeal of the Dalai Lama. It may also have to do with the appeal of Buddhism as an alternative to the common religions of the West, especially Christianity. Say you’re at a Hollywood party, or a humbler party on campus. If you confess a religion, and that religion is Buddhism, you’ll likely get no grief.

Coffee and the Left are inseparable, it seems, especially when the coffee is “fair trade.” One bumper sticker on the pickup says Good Coffee (I think — the sticker has weathered and curled). Underneath those words, it says, Resist Mediocrity! The sticker comes from the World Cup Caffè, in Taos, N.M. — a beautiful place beloved by the Left, and also by Donald Rumsfeld, the ex–secretary of defense, who lives there. The neighbors don’t approve.

I Will Not Comply, says a sticker. Not comply with what? In my youth, one of the most popular stickers said, Question Authority. The people who really did that, in my observation, were the conservatives, because the authorities — teachers and professors, mainly — were on the left.

This pickup has a bit of nostalgia, in the form of Kennedy 68. My two main thoughts are that (1) I would like to add an apostrophe and (2) the sticker was obviously manufactured a long time after 1968 (when Bobby ran).

We Are All Trayvon, says another sticker. Trayvon is Trayvon Martin, the teenager in Florida who was shot to death in 2012 during an altercation with George Zimmerman. Trayvon was black, and Zimmerman is a “white Hispanic,” in the New York Times’s description. Another sticker says, Mass Incarceration + Silence = Genocide. There is a debate in this country over whether our main problem is mass incarceration or the mass crime that leads to mass incarceration. Personally, I’m for less crime (resulting in less incarceration).

As for “genocide,” it has come to mean, not genocide, or even murder, but “something bad,” or “something I don’t like.”

Finally, the pickup has a sticker reading, Keep Missoula Weird — and in smaller print, Do Your Part! This is a plea to resist mainstreaming or conservatism. Well south of Montana, there is a popular sticker reading, Keep Austin Weird. It gave rise to a counter-sticker: Keep Austin Pretentious: You Know Who You Are!

Bumper stickers advertise the political views of the car owner, of course, but also the owner’s virtue, as he conceives of virtue. I myself have never had a sticker on a car, and probably never would — at least not a political sticker. Why should I impose my views on others when they are simply trying to get from Point A to Point B, and why should I tick at least half of people off? Then again, as an opinion journalist, I have a platform. I can mouth off whenever I want, bumper or no bumper. Other people may feel a greater need to exploit the venue.

Some of the 50 stickers on that pickup I saw have nothing to do with politics, including this one: Put the Cell Phone Down and Concentrate on Being a Shitty Driver. It’s vulgar, yes, but provides sweet relief from the rest.

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