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  • My Volvo, My Self:The (Largely Unintended) Existential Implications of Bumper Stickers
  • Leslie Haynsworth (bio)


There is no recorded history (that we can find) concerning the origins of bumper stickers, though many have investigated the history. . . . After WWII, bumper stickers became useful in political campaigns. Once it caught on . . . advertisers grasped the concept for commercial purposes and then came the broad appeal to use them for all kinds of slogans, often just for a laugh.

—"History of Bumper Stickers,"

The people I don't know whom I think I'd most like to meet are the ones whose cars I sometimes see when I'm driving around town, cars that have several bumper stickers on them, and one says "Bush-Cheney '04" and the others say "Sierra Club" and "I Support NPR." Or they've got "NRA All the Way" on a decal on one side of the rear window and "Harvard Alumni" on the other. These people seem like they're having an identity crisis on a pretty fundamental level: Am I a gun-wielding redneck or a snooty Ivy-Leaguer? Do I identify with evangelical Christians and big business interests or with Volvo-driving, tree-hugging, organic-eating academics? You're not supposed to do both. So the people who do have got to be pretty interesting.

It might be that some of these cars belong to two or more people who have to share them and who have different beliefs and different passions, which they both broadcast on the same car, just like my sister and her husband each used their yard to support the candidate of their choice in the last presidential election. She wanted Kerry, he wanted Bush, and the way she told it, they both kept planting bigger and bigger signs in the yard to try to outdo each other. This was probably a healthy way of externalizing [End Page 21] all the marital tension that must have been the result of being on opposite sides of a heated political contest, but they lived on a busy street then, and I imagine that passersby were astonished at the sight of this house with this increasing proliferation of signs in its yard exhorting them to do two completely contradictory things.

Some of those cars I see might be like that too, victims of fierce intramarital ideological struggle or other kinds of family squabbles, but I'm guessing most of them aren't, that instead they each belong to a single individual who deliberately chooses to use them to broadcast ostensibly contradictory messages about him- or herself. So I want to meet them, these tree-hugging Republicans or these gun-wielding eggheads, and I want to ask them: But how do you reconcile your commitment to the Sierra Club and your urge to vote for a president with George Bush's environmental record? Or, how could you spend four years at Harvard with all those effete urban Yankees and emerge with your devotion to the Second Amendment that solidly intact?

Of course, there are few of us who don't have at least some apparent contradictions in our beliefs, values, and opinions. It's just that most of us don't broadcast these contradictions on the backs of our cars. Most people who choose to express themselves through bumper stickers present a nice, coherent front: country-music-loving Bush supporter; indie-rockfan cum-snide-feminist-cum-antinukes-protester; proud parent of an honor roll student who's also concerned that not everyone's quite as ready as they should be for Jesus' eminent return. Bumper stickers provide a quick and efficient way for people to say whatever it is they'd most like to say to the world. And in the aggregate, they, at least in theory, reveal the zeitgeist of an entire community. Which is all well and good up to a point.

But I've been sort of worried about bumper stickers lately. I'm worried because of the one I put on my car a few months back, which at the time I saw as a way to promote an organization I believe in but which I now see may...


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pp. 21-34
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