Made in the U.S.A.

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At a cookout last month, I ran into my tall friend Ray. I am shortish, so when Ray and I talk, I stare directly into his chest.

My vantage point was perfect for reading his T-shirt, which depicted an all-American girl — blond hair, blue eyes — holding a Raggedy Ann doll. Up top, the shirt said “Sure! You could be President some day!” Underneath the image were the words “But leave those reproductive health choices up to us menfolk!” This slogan was accompanied by a star-spangled elephant symbol and the Web address for the T-shirt’s Kansas City-based creator,

What was great about this T-shirt was that a far-right-winger might have agreed with it. And on the off chance that such a person might then check out Oldamerican, which links to news stories that haven’t been picked up by the mainstream media, this shirt might be even more effective.

Which got me thinking about propaganda.

Election-year bumper stickers — especially the ones that just say “Kerry-Edwards” or “Bush-Cheney” — are totally worthless. Anyone who is just now learning these names is clearly unfit to vote.

And then there’s the problem of people who compulsively bumper-sticker their cars. There’s a peculiar belief among the slogan bearing that one is not enough. Unfortunately, the inevitable second bumper sticker is bound to undermine your credibility and work not for but against your candidate. Putting a Kerry-Edwards sticker next to one that reads “Save a tree, pee in the bushes!” or “Envision whirled peas” does nothing positive for the Kerry campaign. Ditto for a Bush-Cheney sticker next to one that says “If life doesn’t start at conception, then you’re not pregnant.” I mean, really. You will not win the heart of one single Democrat riding around with that plastered on your car’s rear end.

So where can you turn for some effective propaganda? Let’s roll through the options.

The Button: Button wearers, like bumper-sticker affixers, have a tendency toward accumulation. “Button Guy” — that’s what they call you behind your back. Or just “Dork.”

The Doormat: Emblazoned with Dubya’s face, one doormat bears the slogan “Don’t misunderestimate how dirty your feet are.” This is good for venting frustrations — but not much more, unfortunately.

The Yard Sign: If the house is really cool, maybe. Trying to put myself in the shoes of the person who does not yet know whether to vote for Bush or Kerry in November, I think that maybe a really cool house with a Kerry-Edwards or Bush-Cheney sign might be persuasive. But we’re talking really cool. If the homeowner offered free rides on a Slip N’ Slide, that might strengthen the case.

Posters: A friend found out about this option from lefty blogger Wonkette. Earlier this year, the Bush-Cheney Web site began allowing visitors to make their own customized Bush-Cheney posters — easily more fun for Democrats than for Republicans. When Wonkette visited the site, she was able to write in whatever phrase she wanted above the official Bush-Cheney logo, though a few giveaway words were blocked — words like Hitler and war monger. Someone must have noticed that people were making posters that said things like “We hate poor people — Bush-Cheney ’04,” because now the only customizing you can do is to select a state or coalition group from a list of options. The only real fun to be had is in not choosing. When you select neither a state nor a coalition, you end up with a poster that reads “NONE for Bush Cheney ’04.” I have one in my office. It’s both nihilistic and hopeful.

T-Shirts: Ah, back to T-shirts. Unlike buttons or bumper stickers, you can wear only one T-shirt at a time. If the one you’re wearing is a winner, it doesn’t matter how embarrassing the rest of your wardrobe may be. This is, therefore, our preferred form of propaganda.

Almost every T-shirt contains an issue-based message, something that at least hints at information. Using old pulp covers and 1940s wartime propaganda (now public domain), T.J. Templeton makes political issues look like overdramatized, trashy fiction plots. One image, titled “Operation Sweatshop,” says “They did their job with Iran Contra! Now they’ve come back for Haiti!” Then, in smaller letters, it adds “Aristide thought he could nationalize industry and raise the minimum wage. He had another thing coming.” The shirt depicts George W. Bush in an unbuttoned U.S. Marines uniform, running on a beach. It’s amusing, sure. But it also might inspire someone to look into what’s gone down in Haiti over the past four years. (If you are among those who don’t know, don’t feel bad. There hasn’t been much major U.S. news coverage of the coup, which resulted in a democratically elected president’s being deposed. The U.S.-backed interim government remains unrecognized by any of Haiti’s Caribbean neighbors, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has rejected calls for an investigation into Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s removal.)

Templeton makes the items, and his wife, Robin, handles the business side of things. Another T-shirt depicts a World War II-era image of a teacher and two kids standing with their hands over their hearts beside the flag. “Teachers,” it says. “Just a bunch of over-paid, over-educated, union-loving liberals.” It’s accompanied by the Bush-Cheney ’04 logo.

Templeton gleefully acknowledges that a superconservative would probably agree with the sentiment. “You’d think that would be a Bush-Cheney item,” he says.

That might be why the right has noticed the Templetons’ work. The couple’s identity — including their phone number and address — was posted on Sean Hannity’s Web site for a while. “It’s gone now,” Templeton says. “But it was really scary and creepy.”

The Templetons work on full time. Their living room is a T-shirt factory, their kitchen an office. They’ve cashed in their 401(k) accounts. They’re behind on their rent.

Do these regular Kansas City people feel that perhaps this shouldn’t be their responsibility? Do they wonder why the better-funded Kerry campaign isn’t making sure American voters are equipped with all this information — or at least with cooler propaganda?

“No, I don’t blame the Kerry campaign at all,” Templeton says. “It’s the media that’s really dropping the ball. And we might be broke, but we have so much emotional support.”

Talking about a friend in the U.S. Army Reserves who just shipped out for Iraq, he adds, “I see these people driving by with bumper stickers on their cars that say ‘Support Our Troops.’ What are they doing besides putting magnets on their cars? I’m supporting our troops.”

That much is obvious on his T-shirt design depicting a soldier about to jump out of a plane. “We can’t question our orders,” it reads. “It’s your duty as civilians to protect us from war profiteers.”

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