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Heavy Meddle: Crazy Right-Wingers Have Tread On My Husband's Favorite T-Shirt

When a slogan's meaning is co-opted, a favorite t-shirt becomes a symbol it wasn’t intended to be. (saintmurse/Flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
When a slogan's meaning is co-opted, a favorite t-shirt becomes a symbol it wasn’t intended to be. (saintmurse/Flickr)

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,

Steve

Dear Steve,

Several years ago, I purchased a beautiful t-shirt for my husband from the gift shop at the Concord Bridge. The slogan on the tee is “Don't Tread On Me,” with the coiled snake. Since that purchase, the Tea Party has co-opted the phrase, along with many others from the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. My husband loves the shirt but hates to wear it, because he gets comments from crazy right-wingers who think he is on their team. He is not and gets into arguments with these crazies. Like you, he is to the left of Jesus.

Personally, I am appalled that the Tea Party and others like them have taken control of historical content to support their misguided causes. I know the history behind that phrase, and I’d bet they don’t. Regardless, if he wears it, he is immediately identified as being among their ilk. What advice would you give him? Fight or flight?

Thanks, and I would love to know how to take back these stolen phrases.

Signed,

Tee’d Off

PHOTO

Dear Tee’d,

As someone who dresses almost exclusively in t-shirts with controversial slogans (e.g. I Like the Pope, The Pope Smokes Dope), I like your husband already. I’m sorry that he can’t wear his beloved shirt without feeling that he’s sounding some kind of dog whistle to Tea Partiers, who view that slogan as an implicit endorsement of their anti-government zeal. That’s the risk that comes with wearing any kind of catch phrase on your clothing: It becomes public property, and, thus, subject to interpretation.

My hunch is that you bought him the shirt, and that he wears it, because you two view the snake as a symbol of national unity. The original intent of that image was to suggest that America would only survive if the individual states joined forces, which is actually a powerful argument for the necessity of a centralized government. Instead, as you note, right-wing activists now use the symbol to suggest that citizens should oppose any government action that they feel intrudes upon their rights — to own a gun, to pray in school, to pay certain taxes, not to purchase health insurance, and so on.

That’s the risk that comes with wearing any kind of catch phrase on your clothing: It becomes public property, and, thus, subject to interpretation.

Alas, I can’t help you with this problem. The meaning of symbols is always going to be in the eye of the beholder.

Nor can I tell your husband whether he should pursue a strategy of fight or flight. That really depends on his temperament. In my own experience, arguing with activists who don’t agree with you is unlikely to create any change in their views, or in the world. And to be blunt, the idea that not arguing with someone is a form of “flight” — as opposed to a sign of common-sense or maturity — feels distinctly, well, Tea Party-ish.

Let me address your underlying question, which has to do with the appropriation of certain historical symbols and texts by political activists. You’re clearly distressed, and I understand why. But the truth is that special interests have been propagandizing our images and language for centuries. Conservatives have been far more effective over the past few decades. This is why you hear the term “entitlements” rather than “earned benefits,” and “pro-life” more often than “reproductive rights,” and “taxpayer” more frequently than “citizen.”

But the resentment that many on the left feel toward the Tea Party isn’t just a function of ideological objections. It’s due to the fact that the Tea Party has been effective. Whether or not they act at the bidding of cynical corporations, whether or not they have any coherent principles, the activists who make up the Tea Party have changed the nature of political and civic discourse in this country. They have steered the Republican Party toward a policy of perpetual obstructionism. Witness the election that took place several weeks ago. Conservatives romped not by setting out any coherent legislative agenda, but by vilifying a moderate sitting president. In the larger battle for the soul of the country, they are winning.

So my larger advice for your husband (and for you) is to focus on the big picture. Folks on the left should fight. They should fight to enact their principles. Not by bickering with Tea Party folks over the meaning of a symbol on a shirt, but by emulating them, at least in terms of political organization and activism.

You may not agree with Tea Partiers. But they are just as entitled to their opinions and activism as you are. That’s how it works in America.

We shouldn’t squander our energies laughing at “crazy right-wingers” on The Daily Show and patting ourselves on the back. We should engage in the political process by volunteering for causes and/or candidates we believe in, organizing rallies of our own, and showing up at meetings. The goal should be moral progress: reckoning with climate change and income inequality and the financial corruption of our current political process.

You may not agree with Tea Partiers. But they are just as entitled to their opinions and activism as you are. That’s how it works in America. We’re all responsible in a democracy. We have a sacred opportunity: to build consensus and coalition with the vast majority of Americans who want a more just an equitable and kind union.

Your husband should wear whatever he wants, Tee'd.

He (and you and I) should also get to work.

Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football."

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