Bumper Sticker Nation


by John Tyler Connoley

May 25, 2004


I bought my first bumper sticker this year. It reads "Pro-Constitution Anti-Bush." I admit I bought it in a fit of anger. The day Bush announced his backing of the Federal Marriage Amendment, I Googled "constitution bumper sticker" and this one came up. I liked that it encompassed not just my anger about the FMA, but a libertarian critique of Dubya, as well. I felt almost patriotic pasting that red-white-and-blue decal to my trunk lid. And I've had several people stop me in parking lots to say they liked my bumper sticker.


The other day, in a public parking lot, I found a piece of paper under my windshield wiper. It was a photocopy of a political cartoon: Several shifty-looking Arab men with beady eyes, big noses, and Taliban hats, and carrying AK-47s are surrounded by explosives and barrels of bio-hazards. In the middle, two of the men hold a John Kerry banner. The caption reads, "Unidentified Foreign Leaders Who Want Kerry to Beat Bush."


I laughed out loud. I'd seen the cartoon before, and I actually think it speaks to the only worthwhile critique of Kerry -- how will he respond to terrorism? However, I thought it ludicrous that some anonymous person would take the time to photocopy this cartoon and place it on my car, as if I'd suddenly say, "Oh, well then, I guess I'm for Bush after all." It reminded me of the Christian fish stickers, which became the Darwin fish-with-legs stickers, which became the Truthfish-eating-Darwinfish stickers. It's fun, but what good comes from these dueling decals?


During the past week, as I've thought about it more, I've stopped laughing. As a matter of fact, I've become a little sad. It seems to me that my exchange with this anonymous individual is representative of the political climate in America these days. We speak past each other in short phrases that are supposedly packed with meaning, but really add nothing to the debate. Pro-choice and pro-life, devolve into feminazi and Heir Bush.


Just think about the people framing the national debates. On one side of the political spectrum, you have the cartoon characters of Rush and O'Reilly. Rush may not be as fun since he kicked his drug habit, but we all know they're both blowhards with microphones. That's why we love 'em.


So, to counteract Fox News and the EIB Radio Network, the political left has come up with Air America. This fledgling radio network, boasts a headliner who's literally a comedian: Al Franken. You probably remember him as the writer of such thoughtful titles as Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.


Then you have MoveOn.org and the Family Research Council. I'm on their email lists, and I'm always amazed at how these organizations can take any topic and transform it into a bumper sticker slogan. Their press releases have as much nuance and depth as a high school football cheer, with the same purpose of getting the team riled up enough to trounce the opposition. "We've got spirit yes we do . . ."


It sometimes makes me want to give up, and let the cartoon characters and the cheerleaders play their little game without me. But then I'll have a conversation that gives me hope for our ability to dialogue across political divides. It might be a conversation with my mother about same-sex marriage. Or maybe it's a phone call with my friend Kelly about abortion, or an email exchange with my friend Springer about the war on terror. The key is that we explore ideas I hadn't thought about. My partner in conversation challenges me, but also listens. Together we discuss what matters to us, what it is about our position that resonates, our reservations about the other side, and our fears about where the country is headed. We explore where we agree, as well as where we disagree.


I always come away from these conversation changed. Perhaps my opinion hasn't moved much, perhaps it has. More than likely, there's a new sensitivity in my position. I've grown as an individual, and so has my conversation partner.


Unfortunately for our bumper sticker nation, you can't have these kinds of conversations anonymously. You have to invest some of yourself in the dialogue. It's not like exchanging political cartoons. It requires thought and patience.


You also can't have these kinds of conversations if you surround yourself with people who agree with you. Fox News and Air America aren't interested in offering meaningful dialogue. You also won't find it at a MoveOn meetup, or at a Family Research Council rally. If you want honest dialogue you have to go out of your way to look for it, and you have to make yourself open to it.


Which brings me back to my "Pro-Constitution Anti-Bush" sticker. I wonder how many people have seen that red-white-and-blue label on my trunk and figured there's no point having a conversation with me. Or how many have seen it and thought I'd be a good sporting companion for a nice shallow evening of Bush-bashing. I don't want to be a bumper sticker philosopher and I don't want my friends to be political cartoon characters, so I think I'll spend this Saturday scraping that ugly thing off my car.


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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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