Libertarian bumper stickers. Tucson, 2013.

From a distance, it looks like the sort of thing you’d see on a dusty highway in those parts of the world where “development” is still regarded as progress, a testament to the ingenuity of people who have learned to make do with less. But then you remember: I’m sitting outside a branch of Chase Bank, across a strip-mall parking lot from Trader Joe’s.

Not that the sight is all that unusual in these parts. Unlike Western Europe or Japan, the United States is full of cars and trucks that defy, whether by accident or cold-blooded calculation, the standardization that heavy industry promotes. To be sure, in places where regulatory fervor rules the day, the authorities find ways to discourage such customization. Yet the interzone, those spaces where planning no longer holds sway, is never too far away.

Bumper stickers, that quintessentially American form of public expression, remind us of this fact. A community — like the one where this specimen was photographed — may declare that all commercial buildings must be painted in coordinated earth tones and even mandate that their signage be “tastefully” desaturated, so that even chain stores like Walgreens and Safeway have a classy air. The cars passing through, however, are not subject to these rules. Although the police may single out drivers for harassment because their rides don’t seem to belong, they lack both the resources and the legal standing to keep their municipalities pure.

Examined more closely, this truck turns out to be a self-conscious celebration of the failure to impose order from the top down. While the absence of windows on the makeshift camper shell is an invitation to be pulled over, it also represents a bold assertion of the individual citizen’s right to privacy. The bumper stickers to the left of the license plate reinforce this stance, advocating not only for the basic tenets of American libertarian ideology — “Live Free” and “More Freedom, Less Government” — but also the Libertarian Party’s 2012 Presidential candidate Gary Johnson, rather than the safer and far more common choice of Republican Congressman Ron Paul.

In short, the owner of this vehicle seems intent on communicating the seriousness of her or his political convictions and concomitant willingness to vote idealistically. As is often the case, though, the purity of this message is compromised by the owner’s desire to advance other positions as well. To the right of the license plate you see one of the boilerplate slogans of the anti-immigration movement, “Secure the border at the border.” Although plenty of self-proclaimed libertarians make this point, it verges on blatant hypocrisy, since securing the border pretty much demands a bigger government presence.

And then there’s the hand-scrawled slogan that meanders across the windowless back of the camper shell, “I emphasize everything.” What can this Walt Whitman-esque affirmation mean in the context of the owner’s political posturing? From a strictly logical perspective, to emphasize everything is to emphasize nothing. But this declaration seems to come from a different space altogether, where the goal is not to make a contrast, but simply to be unapologetically bold.

Many Americans subscribe to this approach, even those who fancy themselves sophisticated thinkers equal to the best Europe and Asia have to offer. For better or worse, they believe that timidity is antithetical to liberty. They would rather that people state make their views loud and proud, even when wrongheaded, than have them exercise rhetorical caution.

This may be the hardest thing for outsiders to grasp about life in the United States. Even when folks radically disagree, they can find common ground in the rebellion against good manners. The fastest way for Americans to defuse a political conflict is to invite their opponents to join in mocking some form of “correctness.” And more often than not, the object of ridicule is identified with the perception of nuance.

 

 

Commentary and photograph courtesy of Charlie Bertsch.