Thursday, March 24, 2011

"If You Can Read This: The philosophy of bumper stickers" by Jack Bowen

Long before blogs and tweets, people were telling the world how they felt through bumper stickers. Even now, whether they're political or religious, passionate or proud, controversial or corny, these brightly colored, boldly lettered mini manifestos are declarations of who we are, where we stand, and what we'd reather be doing. But as bestselling author and noted philosopher Jack Bowen reveals, there's much more to the pop-culture phenomenon than rolling one-liners - no less, in fact, than a wise, funny, poignant, contentious, and truthful discourse on the human condition. Mixing pop culture with the ideas of historically prominent philosophers and scientists, If You Can Read This exposes the deeper wisdom couched behind these slogans - or, as need be, exposes where they have gone wrong. If you brake for big ideas, now's the time.

This was not exactly the book I thought it was when I put it on my "to-be-read" list so long ago. I thought it was going to be more of a historical look at the bumper sticker itself; how they came about, have evolved, why people love them, etc. Imagine my surprise when I realized that I was going to get a lesson in philosophical theory instead!

But it works, it really does. I thought it was very clever of Bowen to use something we all know (and mostly love), something as simple as a bumper sticker, to delve into some pretty tough topics. This small work covers just about everything: "reality", "the self", "values", "morality", even "the big questions". Each chapter has one of these general titles, then we get the bumper stickers.

For example, under the chapter "God and Religion", there are bumper sticker slogans ranging from "God Said It. I Believe It. That Settles It." to "God, Please Save Me, From Your Followers!". No sticker is safe, and Bowen discusses the philosophy behind them all. And brings up some valid points that I hadn't really thought about, either. Such as when he discusses the sticker "When You Pray Get Off Your Knees". I'm pretty sure I've seen this one somewhere before but have never really given it much thought. Bowen talks about the driver's selection of this sticker, that this person most likely believes that you need to do something to change things other than pray. Or that you can pray, but still need to get off your butt and do something to help yourself as well. Bowen uses a quote from Frederick Douglass to illustrate this point: "I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs." Perhaps the driver would have the companion sticker on the other side of the bumper (just my thinking here....), "God helps those who help themselves."

It's a very interesting look at such a small, common thing, one that really makes the reader think about the "slogan" being advertised. Some stickers have a good, solid philosophical theory behind them; others are completely destroyed by Bowen, who points out a lot of faulty logic. A fun read, and one that will teach you something while entertaining you at the same time.

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