It’s summer break, 1993, and I spend most Saturdays near the square with my friends, trying to avoid getting ticketed for underage smoking, loitering, and jaywalking. We use paper clips to make free pay phone calls to each other’s pagers, passing notes in numeric code. We pierce our own ears in the bathrooms of the Nordstrom across the street. We sneak samples from the perfume counter to scent our Zippos with CK One. We wade in the fountain in front of the Civic Auditorium.
My parents give me some money for back-to-school clothes so I buy a LOVE SEE NO COLOR T-shirt. It’s a Hanes men’s size medium and hangs off my shoulders in a just-right way. It must have been screen printed hastily, because the black is a little streaky in places. Made for a man, there is nothing soft or yielding about the shirt. The collar is thick, double-strength. So are the seams on the sleeves. After washing, the fabric loosens a bit but it stays stiff. I adore its coarseness.
The shirt looks cutest with super-short cutoffs and docs, but it also works with jeans. It dresses up, knotted at the bottom over a denim mini; it dresses down, tucked into too-big men’s slacks from the Goodwill.
I get tons of compliments. No one ever mentions race.
It’s 2018 and the political “slogan tee” is back in style, along with a bunch of other things that were bad ideas in the 1990s, including alternative rock, pre-ripped jeans, and heroin. I’m back in Portland for the summer, where the ’90s vibe is particularly intense. The T-shirts say things like LOVE WINS and PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE. Everywhere I go I hear Bush and Smashing Pumpkins on the radio. There’s a lot of purple hair dye and chokers. And it isn’t just fashion and music that seem to have reeled back two decades. Last year, two men were murdered by a white supremacist on a commuter train, echoing the 1988 murder of Mulugeta Seraw by neo-Nazi skinheads. If I squint, I feel like I’m 14 again.
But things have changed. The population has grown by 50 percent since 2000 and the average cost of a house has more than doubled. There are homeless encampments on the margins of every public space. Most of the city seems to be either shantytowns or luxury condos. An entire downtown neighborhood has been constructed where there was once a huge rail yard.
I am living in that neighborhood. If, while I am sleeping, my bed is magically transported back to 1993, I will wake up hanging in space, 50 feet above a freight train.
I look for my old friends, scouring faces for something familiar.
At Powell’s Books, I see a woman about my age wearing a white T-shirt with the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book We Should All Be Feminists screen-printed on it in all caps. The letters are a little bit faded. She’s flipping through Roxane Gay’s Hunger, thoughtfully biting the nail of her index finger. Even though I know I’ve never met her, I have a rush of identification and unconsciously move closer to her, feeling comfortable in the proximity of a stranger who feels familiar.
When I get home, I Google the T-shirt and learn that it retails for $710 at Dior. That is when I learn that I can no longer tell the difference between friends and enemies.
In his 1932 study, The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt offers the following definition of politics: the “political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes that much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend-enemy grouping.”
Schmitt believed that the political sphere was inherently antagonistic, and that any attempts to make it otherwise amounted to a denial of politics as such. To be political, he argues, is to be fundamentally concerned with the distinction between one’s friends and one’s enemies.
According to all the reports, we are in a new era of political fashion, with a particular emphasis on the slogan tee. From high-fashion designers such as Prabal Gurung, Christian Siriano, and, of course, Dior, to small boutiques such as Portland’s own Wildfang, to online print-your-own novelty shops, slogan T-shirts can be found virtually everywhere. Even The New York Times has gotten into the slogan tee business, prompting controversy with its shirt responding to Donald Trump’s assault on journalism. Designed by Sacai and currently available for $300 at Saks, the shirt reads: “Truth. It’s more important now than ever.”
Kari Molvar, assessing the phenomenon for Allure, sounds accidentally Schmittian when she argues that the slogan tee offers “a form of bonding among those who share the same beliefs.” Other fashion insiders agree. The season’s obsession with slogan tees, according to Sarah Young, is a function of the desire for “a visual marker for what you believe in.” The slogan tee, according to this notion, is like a military uniform or tribal marker. It should alert a person to who her friends are. It should be a vehicle for the intensification of politics.
And in a certain sense this is the case. The slogan tee is one of many cultural markers of polarization in the United States today. The left has pink hats and NASTY WOMAN T-shirts; the right has red hats and DON'T TREAD ON ME T-shirts. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that pink and red could take the place of blue and gray in a 21st-century civil war.
But on the other hand, the slogan-tee-as-fashion-item has a longer history, one that precedes our current moment. The trend has roots in the commercialization of the counterculture in the 1960s and punk in the 1970s. Slogan tees with bold black letters first became a fashion trend in the 1980s and ’90s. They took a hiatus during the ironic 2000s and minimalist early 2010s and are now back. This history does not coincide with a steady rise in political polarization. The ease with which the slogan tee was marketed after the end of the 1960s is a sign not of a populace generally more concerned with politics, but of something quite different: the increasing speed with which oppositional cultural markers are subsumed into commerce and incorporated into the mainstream.
The slogan tee, as a symptom of this trajectory, is not a vehicle for politics, for marking the difference between friends and enemies. It is rather evidence of the ease with which dissent can be marketed. Rather than a sign of increased polarization, of increased political energy, the popularity of the slogan tee is evidence of the dissolution of the political.
We know this story, the story about the commercialization of dissent; we tell it all the time, almost compulsively. This is the story, for instance, of Mad Men. Throughout the series, countercultural figures, sites, and cultures relentlessly pull at ad-man Don Draper, who seems perpetually caught between the polarized worlds of the anti-establishment on the one hand and the establishment on the other. Should he move to Los Angeles or stay in New York? Take LSD or drink a cocktail? Give in to existential confusion or focus on the upcoming pitch? In the penultimate scene of the final episode, however, Don seems to finally decide who his real friends are. As he sits on a hilltop yoga retreat, improbably om-ing with a motley group of truth-seekers, the scene ends with a close-up on his face smiling broadly, a smile that seems to suggest that he has found his people.
But this is not the end of the episode. As we watch Don’s smile in close-up and hear the fading ring of a meditation bell, a single voice begins to sing, “I’d like to buy the world a home … and furnish it with looooove.” We then cut to the source of the voice, a beautiful woman, fresh faced and makeup free, also in a close-up, also smiling a smile of yogic bliss, who, as the camera zooms out, we see is on a hilltop in the company of a group of singers, seemingly from all over the globe, all with the same faraway look of peace and optimism. They look just like Don’s meditation group. Unlike the mediation group, however, each of the singers holds a bottle of Coke.
The footage is from the 1971 “Hilltop” ad (commonly known as “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”), produced by the real-life ad agency McCann Erickson, for whom the fictional Don Draper works at the end of the series. If we are to believe that Don will go on to create this ad for McCann Erickson, which seems to be the implication of the final scene, it means that Don’s apparent experience of spiritual harmony is actually a moment of entrepreneurial recognition, a recognition that the counterculture is selling something very powerful.
“Marching in Selma was so exciting,” my mother’s friend says, awash in nostalgia. “I had just spent all of my money on these gorgeous new boots and I couldn’t wait to show them off.”
This all came to a head in the 1990s. This was a decade in which, according to the editors of The Baffler, “the more closely American speech was brought under centralized corporate control, the more strenuously did our advertising, TV sitcoms, and even our management literature insist on the virtue and widespread availability of revolution.” As media corporations consolidated, advertising increasingly took on a pseudo-countercultural stance. The decade therefore saw a dynamic latent ever since the 1960s — the imminent marketability of the counterculture — hit a peak. “In economic terms,” they explain, “the nineties were years of unprecedented consolidation; in terms of official culture, they were years of unprecedented radical-talk.”
Of course, this had everything to do with advertising and nothing to do with radical politics. Politically, the 1990s were the decade in which it became imaginable for economic elites in the West that the entire planet might be on the march toward a universally beneficial global capitalist democracy. Domestically, it was the decade that saw a Democratic president enact aggressive cuts to welfare programs and institute mandatory minimum sentences that would double the federal incarceration rate, putting nearly a million more Americans, predominately black men, behind bars. It was the decade in which it became clear that it mattered less whether you were on the left or the right and more where you stood within the global capitalist order. As Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow, the Clinton policies of the 1990s were more responsible than those of previous Republican administrations in creating “the current racial undercaste.”
In other words, while white middle-class teenagers like me were wearing LOVE SEE NO COLOR slogan tees, black teenagers were being put in prison at unprecedented rates. My T-shirt did nothing to politicize me around issues of race or class. It did not alert me to who my enemies were, nor did it alert me to the many ways in which I was the enemy of the things I purportedly believed in.
Instead, it made me feel like everyone could be friends.
Just like everything else from the 1990s, this sentiment, too, is crawling back. M.I.A., having unexpectedly alienated herself from anti-racist movements in the United States by criticizing Black Lives Matter, said the following about her 2016 album, AIM:
If I can be optimistic on this record, that really feels like a revival to United Colors of Benetton, like, in the ’90s. […] It was like our cure for racism is unity, you know? And I think that's why right now, even though it’s not very trendy for me to be about love and unity and peace — it’s the most, like, uncoolest thing for M.I.A. — brand M.I.A. to ever, like, push. But right now I feel like it's the most revolutionary thing you can do.
The United Colors of Benetton is the perfect figure for the ’90s alliance between the belief in global unity and the expansion of global capitalism. Because what is globalization but the belief that the realization of the unity of humankind is possible if we are united through commerce? The United Colors of Benetton literalizes the metaphor of globalization: we are United, says Benetton, through Benetton.
Wearing Benetton, like wearing a high-fashion slogan tee, conveys a group-convening message that is more fundamental than “unity” or WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS. The message is I CAN AFFORD THIS T-SHIRT.
On the way to the Pride parade, I pass a woman in expensive active wear, a child in each hand, a clean-cut man trailing behind, all of them in matching Nike T-shirts that read EQUALITY in rainbow letters. The children, blonde with bows in their hair, have rainbow flags carefully painted on their cheeks: Instagram-ready. Behind them, about 50 more Nike-clad Pride attendees make their way downtown.
I try on this thought: This is a good sign. But it grates, this thought. It scratches at the chest.
Schmitt has a name for the belief that we can all be friends. He calls it liberalism.
There is, he argues, “absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics.” An ideology based on individual rights, liberalism at root concerns itself with the individual, which means that collective commitments like friends and enemies are inconvenient.
The result is that liberalism replaces politics with two other domains: ethics and economics. In the place of a concept of the state, we get an ethical collectivity — the “humanitarian conception of humanity” — on the one hand and an economic collectivity — the “economic-technical system of production and traffic” — on the other. A citizenry becomes, on the one hand, “a culturally interested public” and, on the other, “a mass of consumers.”
In other words, we get “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” We get The United Colors of Benetton. We get LOVE WINS. PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE. LOVE SEE NO COLOR.
In the final paragraphs of The Concept of the Political, Schmitt offers a vision of what a liberal world order would look like that is startlingly prophetic. He imagines that “an imperialism based on pure economic power” could emerge, and that it would “attempt to sustain a worldwide condition which enables it to apply and manage, unmolested, its economic means.”
Sounds like the 1990s again. But The Concept of the Political wasn’t written in the 1990s. It was written in the 1930s.
Perhaps because of this, the second half of his prophecy is more clearly inflected with the anticipation of a different historical moment, a moment that we may now be in danger of repeating.
Despite efforts to institute a purely economic world order, he argues, “politics cannot be exterminated.” There will be friends and enemies, and wars will be waged. The only question is whether these wars will be between states, on the pretense of politics, or between those recognized as part of “the humanitarian conception of humanity” and those who aren’t. In this latter case, “[t]he adversary is no longer called an enemy but a disturber of the peace and is thereby designated to be an outlaw of humanity.”
Without a conscious concept of the political, in other words, the inevitable repoliticization of a liberal system is likely to give rise not to a new age of democratic participation, but a situation where violence, both direct and indirect, determines who counts as a human being.
Along the Eastbank Esplanade there are runners with T-shirts proclaiming WE ARE ALL HUMAN BEINGS and WOKE AF.
The banks above and below the path are studded with tents and lean-tos. There are people crouching in the blackberry brambles, bathing in the river. One man heaves himself out of the water and onto the path, soaking wet in his clothes.
The runners check their GPS watches.
I am one of them. My T-shirt reads: EMPIRES CRUMBLE. But I’m feeling unnerved, because Schmitt’s words are echoing through my head.
“A war waged to protect or expand economic power must, with the aid of propaganda, turn into a crusade and into the last war of humanity.”
Rachel Greenwald Smith is associate professor of English at Saint Louis University and author of Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism.
Banner image by Sonny Abesemis.