Of all the T-shirts to spark controversy in the off-the-rack irony department of trend megastore Urban Oufitters, we should take heart that the one to garner most attention is about voting. Internet gossip clearinghouse The Drudge Report even gave the scandal top billing.
Sure, the T-shirts that promise, in stereotype appropriate typeface, that “Everyone loves a Jewish/Asian/Irish girl” are offensive, but only in that run-of-the-mill politically correct way that is, frankly, probably the point. “Voting is for old people” — as the T-shirt in question reads — now that’s an original way to offend people. For once, you can’t accuse Urban Outfitters of pandering to the post-Letterman generation’s facile sense of sarcasm. “Voting is for old people” —it’s funny because it’s true.
If anything, the mere existence of the shirt — to say nothing of its sales — suggests a level of acknowledgement of the democratic process one wouldn’t expect from a demographic more likely to vote for an American Idol than an American president. What’s more, as any trendspotter will tell you, old people lead the way in current fads: drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, wearing trucker hats, enjoying “COPS” … if something truly is for old people, the young folks can’t be far behind.
Of course, not everyone saw things this way. Once the story hit the wires, the Harvard Institute of Politics — which, really, might just as well call themselves “The Man” — promptly wrote Urban Outfitters, scolding the company for putting out “the wrong message at the wrong time.” Ending on a positive note, Harvard offered an alternative: “You might consider ‘Voting Rocks!’” — the equivalent of a putting a big “Kick me” sign on the back of a polling booth. Now there’s a T-shirt a nonvoting young person could wear ironically.
Have those interested in marketing civic virtue to teens and post-adolescents learned nothing from the “Just Say No” disaster? (Do you know a stoner who wouldn’t love to own one of those T-shirts?) Easily half-a-dozen groups are striving to get out the youth vote this year, including World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Smackdown Your Vote,” the Norman Lear-founded “Declare Yourself,” the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and the granddaddy of youth voting projects, Rock the Vote. Will the vote be declared, smacked down or even rocked? The combined budgets of these groups must run into the tens of millions, but the biggest splash they’ve made so far was Smackdown Your Vote’s cajoling Hilary Clinton into admitting she likes watching wrestling. Are you ready to vvvooooooote yet?
Even MTV, a behemoth powerful enough to foist Carson Daly’s stardom on an unsuspecting populace, cannot endorse voting without sounding the false note of the trying-way-too-hard guidance counselor who keeps a guitar in the corner of his office. The channel’s most recent attempt to give weight to the directive of its “Choose or Lose” campaign takes the form of two essay contests. Because, really, nothing says “cool” like doing extra schoolwork over summer vacation.
Held in cooperation with the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, the contest winners will get the opportunity to speak at their party’s respective convention. You’d think the company that came up with the reality TV material hedonism of “Pimp My Ride” and the beauty-bondage masochism of “I Want a Famous Face” could offer a more generationally appealing prize.
Then again, perhaps the problem with all these campaigns resides exactly in their massive marketing budgets and extensive brand reach. The most audacious and effective voter outreach to young people I’ve seen spun out of an ad hoc Oregon group, whose T-shirt bore a simple message: “Vote, F*cker.” It’s in-your-face, it’s honest, it’s not preachy or serious. I want one.
But giving the Vote, F*cker people an MTV budget would just make them MTV, no? Is there a way to make voting appeal to 18-year-olds that doesn’t depend on making voting seem cool?
Maybe we should take a lesson from the Just Say No venture: Anti-drug ads started making an impact only when they stopped trying to encourage kids to stay off drugs and instead tried to scare the shit out of them. “This is your brain on drugs,” etc.
Maybe we should stop trying to make voting cool. We should just show kids what happens when they don’t. In other words, we need to get them to watch the news.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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