Reading an article on the BBC website recently, I was struck by a British journalist's observation of the American T-shirt obsession. I got to thinking, so prepare for a rant, which I hope will be amusing if not edifying.
There is something exquisitely distinctive, and perhaps emblematic, in this humble pillar of our national culture, this unofficial uniform. The T-shirt is, first and foremost, egalitarian. Graciously accomodating all waistlines and pocketbooks, it denies no aspirants to its cottony embrace. It is no less significant that its accessible price tag owes great thanks to subsidized American cotton growers and sweatshop workers in Malaysia; and perhaps one in a hundred will care enough about that contradiction to leave the T-shirt on the rack.
But aside from their price or their provenance, I am fascinated by what the T-shirt is expected and allowed to do. We give it such unmitigated sway in defining our self-image and affiliations, our deepest hurts and gripes, our stupidity and immortality.
Take the following cases in point:
The 4th-grade girl, with the decolletage of a pair of seedless grapes, whose pink, torso-hugging T-shirt pronounces her "Juicy;" the man in the Giant Supermarket that, while standing in front of his clothesrack this morning, made the conscious decision to don the brown T-shirt that proclaims in bold capitals "I'M PROBABLY LYING;" the group of high school kids on a summer missions trip - I was one of those kids - that clump together like raisins, rendered hopelessly cultish and inaccessible by the blistering Bible verses emblazoned on their chests, to say nothing of their blinding royal purple color; the politico who doesn't bother to articulate an argument, but whose T-shirt vehemently shouts "Impeach Bush" as the answer to all questions; the grieving family at the 5th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, whose matching T-shirts declare their love and remembrance that past ages might have set down in a ballad.
Perhaps all these cases (with the exception of the "probably lying" man, who is indefensible, and the "Juicy" pre-pubescent, whose parents have clearly not been parenting) stem from the American notion that our essential values can, and should, be boiled down to a memorable slogan that we can plaster on our car bumpers or on our physical persons. Who, after all, can a remember a single line of the Declaration of Independence except that "inalienable" part about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." If you can't say what's important to you in a few words, you might not get to say it at all, and a snappy slogan (preferably alliterative) is less refutable than a reasoned argument.
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