I'd rather be in Texas.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I woke up this morning contemplating a bumper sticker -- one containing the words in the title of this post. There will be no graphics since I am using a very slow telephone modem and posting via email. But I am sure that if you looked, you could find one out there on the web.

I am not the bumper sticker type. I will not risk damaging the paint job of my car if it is new, by placing one anywhere other than on a metal bumper -- Do new cars have those anymore? -- or on a window. I am a little freer with old cars, but that said, I think I have used a total of two bumper stickers in my entire life.

In addition, I simply dislike most bumper stickers, and this borders on disliking the idea of bumper stickers in general.


For one thing, most of them violate my sense of aesthetics. For another, as an intermittent series of posts here would indicate, years of seeing people attempting to "educate" others about their almost uniformly incorrect and immoral political views have caused me to regard the practice with distaste. (The series is titled "Idiot Bumper Stickers". You can find them on the "Favorite Posts" page. No link today -- I am composing this on my laptop for a cut-and paste later, and there's ZERO wireless access here....)

But I have nevertheless tattooed my car twice. The first time, I was a soccer-playing kid in high school, and had a sticker that simply read "Soccer" on the metal bumper. The "o" was a soccer ball. The second time was after the Islam-inspired atrocities of 2001. I placed an American flag decal on my rubberized plastic bumper. Expressing my allegiance to civilized values in some way was simply too important.

The bumper sticker originated as tourist advertising, and owners of popular attractions would apply them to the cars of tourists while they they were having fun and the cars sat in their lots, if I recall correctly. (If I remember to do so, I'll link to some reference here. If I don't, you'll get this parenthetical comment. Damned telephone modem. And dammed recollection!) The bumper sticker was and is a form of advertising.

This fact is crucial when considering whether a bumper sticker really is appropriate or trying to understand the phenomenon of the political bumper sticker. What is an advertisement? It is an attempt to make others aware of something, motivated by the values of the advertiser. Some guy running a campground obviously wants to attract more paying customers. The American patriot wants to rally his countrymen to its defense. Those are obvious enough.

But what about the left-winger who slaps a "Coexist" sticker on his car -- as if people attacked while minding their own business need to hear that? Or the fundamentalist who proclaims that abortion "stops a beating heart" -- as if this standard of the sanctity of life wouldn't make slaughtering cattle just as wrong as murder?

They, too, are motivated by their values, or at least what they imagine to be their values. The novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand made an astounding and revolutionary connection as an ethicist: She connected the notion of "value" to the process of a living being remaining alive, and thereby connected morality to life, uniting the moral and the practical for the first time in millennia of philosophical and proto-philosophical (i.e., religious) thought.

All philosophies have something to say about how man should act, and those which answer the question of what constitutes the good will hold that man ought to do what is good. Ayn Rand alone was able to connect morality to life by asking why man needs morality at all.

Doing so, she realized that it is because man hasn't instincts, but a rational mind that needs to explicitly answer the question, "What must I do to survive?" This is why man needs an ethics and, incidentally, why a proper ethics will be egoistic, but Rand explains this better than I ever will.... A value, for a living thing, is something it needs to survive. Man, having no automatic way to seek values, needs a proper morality to guide his pursuit of values.

I will note here that in this context, Rand defined "value" as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep". Guided by a rational morality, one would act to gain or keep only those things that would actually further his life. One's professed "values" would ... really BE values.

But let's get back to the popular understanding of the term "values". In the parlance of our times, "values" is a package-deal of valid elements (i.e., things we really do need to live and prosper, such as political freedom) and elements that really ought to be examined further (i.e., morality, which most people unfortunately equate to a specific kind of morality, altruism).

Indeed, since "values" is an abstraction and most people are not in the habit of connecting their abstractions to reality or checking them against reality, the valid part of the package deal is used to sucker people in to committing the human (self-)sacrifice that is the essence of altruism.

Consider almost any discussion of moral ideals or "values" today and you will see what I mean. The leftist will speak of "tolerance" when he hopes for you to remember the benefits of individual freedom as he slips egalitarianism in under the radar. (The left has ridiculed values as being religiously-based, which they are not, for so long that few who aren't religious will openly speak of having values.) A theocrat will speak of "values" such as faith, sacrifice, and obedience while pretending that America, which often ridiculed the first and rebelled against the second two, was founded on them.

Now consider the idea that to survive, man must act rationally to further his own self-interest. In the sense that an altruist will act to gain or keep it, having others subscribe to or at least profess his code of morality is a value to such an individual. In the sense that self-sacrifice diminishes one's ability to live, having anyone at all adhering to altruism to any degree whatsoever is not a value to anyone.

So it is in the former sense that the altruists advocating leftist or theocratic political causes are advertising their values, but in the latter sense that they have a tough sell. Reality and rational self-interest are not on their side. Leftists, being animated on the whole by a visceral hatred of America, can't offer actual rewards to people who adopt their causes. You will live more poorly if you go green. You will die or worse if you give Islamic totalitarianism any quarter. They can't sell their ideas based on the results of carrying them out, so they attempt to paint those who disagree with them as horribly, inexcusably, and morally wrong. It is no accident that leftist bumper stickers come across as preachy and snide at once. Hatred isn't just not a family value, it's a tough sell. Shame (and often improper shame at that) and social intimidation are about all they have to work with.

And on the right? Religion is a confused lump at once of man's highest aspirations and some of the deadliest teachings he has ever conceived, and it is irrational at base. The fact that you can't come up with a rational argument in the space of a bumper sticker is no problem to someone whose whole philosophical system is built on faith and obedience. The things needn't even make sense. "God is love." "Jesus plus one cross = 4given" (or something like that).

Religion so permeates our culture that theocrats need only remind others of religion to have some hope of that person returning to the fold. Religion also poses against the left -- which is collectively the biggest "useful idiot" in history -- as the defender of actual values, and as the path to happiness. Some religious bumper stickers (such as anti-abortion stickers) are, to be sure, as preachy and nasty as anything from the left. (I would suspect that this would tend to happen mostly when the obvious implications of religion are anti-life.) But many enlist the aid of actual values for the cause of spreading religion.

It is our current cultural state, I think, that I really hate, and not so much the bumper sticker itself. The bumper sticker, as an advertisement can be harmless fun, and plenty of people use them in this way. And if you are really telling others about something of value to you, isn't part of the whole point that you might occasionally get the chance to explain what you like so much about that value? Might an advertisement of an actual value lead to some interesting conversations or lead to meeting interesting people?

I'm really going to miss Texas. Perhaps mentioning this fact will occasionally allow me to explain what about it I will miss, and lead me to meeting the occasional Texan in spirit as I go about my business in Massachusetts. If don't learn that it is less un-Texan than I think it is, I can at least interject an, "It doesn't have to be this way!" into the sound bytes that constitute roadway conversation. And if I do, the Bay Staters, will smile and understand.

-- CAV


Roger said...

And not just a bumper sticker to advertise something important to oneself. Some of us use vanity plates. I have the best one in the entire country. I live in New Hampshire. The state motto at the top is "Live Free or Die". My plate is A-is-A (you can't have spaces, so I had to use hyphens). Talk about your hierarchy! I have the top and the bottom in one place. I think it frames the essence of my life quite nicely. I have had quite a few conversations: "What does A is A mean...?" and I take it from there.

Chuck said...

"And if you are really telling others about something of value to you, isn't part of the whole point that you might occasionally get the chance to explain what you like so much about that value? Might an advertisement of an actual value lead to some interesting conversations or lead to meeting interesting people?"

That is exactly why I had a bumper sticker custom designed for my car, reading "I love Dae Jang Geum." A great, largely undiscovered work of art I want others to know about, and ask about if I meet them.


Gus Van Horn said...

Your state has the best damned motto in the country! And sales tax. And income tax.

Gus Van Horn said...

RE: Dae Jang Geum.

Galileo Blogs blogged bout that some time ago. You may want to check out what he said about it, if you haven't already.

Thanks for reminding me of it, and for mentioning your blog, which I'll take a look at some more when I get back home to Texas.

Chuck said...

Galileo Blogs is the one who got me hooked on Dae Jang Geum originally. His review was very enticing. The Dae Jang Geum fan base is a small but growing fraternity . . .

Gus Van Horn said...

It's in the Netflix queue now. Thanks for reminding me of it.

Charles T. said...

I have a bumpersticker which states simply: "There is TOO MUCH GOVERNMENT."

And a license plate frame which reads, "Read Ayn Rand."

After 9/11 I had a sticker that had a picture of the twin towers on the left, and to the right said, "Remember them . . . Now let's roll!" After it weathered away, after about three years, I did not replace it because, sadly, I believe that message is now lost on people.

Any new sticker I would attach to my bumper would get me ticketed for "indecency" or some such thing, as I can only think of horrible things I want to say to the general public these days. Something like, "You all suck," would be a mild example. lol

Gus Van Horn said...

Charles T,

I don't know whether you simply tack "LOL" onto everything you say, but you should break that habit. There is nothing funny about our cultural state.

Also, you seem to be making an error all too common among peole who use bumper stickers: Expecting them to win converts.

A bumper sticker barely has room to express an intelligible sentiment and none for explaining it or arguing for it. If your attempts at intellectual activism are limited to using bumper stickers, you will ALWAYS be disappointed.

People don't suck because they can't read your mind, and their not just adopting any sentiment they happen to see on a car bumper is actually a virtue.