Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Dubya’s T-shirt Terrors

[[E V E N T S]] * During the mid-1990s, I escorted my then-pubescent daughter, Cassandra, on a summer vacation to Disneyland. Being the organized sort, she had our entire schedule mapped out, including multiple visits to the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain. With several days in which to duck Daffy and otherwise enjoy ourselves to the hilt in Walt Disney’s “happy place,” there seemed time enough to see everything.

However, we almost didn’t make it through the turnstiles. On Day One, as I was just entering the theme park, a broad-shouldered, official-looking guy stopped me. He told me I wasn’t allowed to come inside. “Why not?” I inquired, totally perplexed. He pointed at my black T-shirt, which was a gift from a good friend and bore the Mother Jones magazine slogan, “Hellraiser.” I still didn’t understand. “It’s profanity,” he explained, as if I was some dimwit. “Are you kidding?” I retorted, with my daughter standing by, alternately embarrassed and flummoxed herself. But the guard wasn’t budging. He informed me that I would have to go back to our hotel and change clothes, that my T-shirt wasn’t acceptable attire in Walt’s world. Since we were staying more than a dozen blocks away, I didn’t relish making the trek back, so I asked, “How ’bout if I just turn the damn T-shirt around?” It took a moment, during which my human roadblock was probably running through the theme park rule book in his head, but finally he said, “OK.” So I stripped off the shirt, much to the amusement of passersby, put it back on inside out, and was ushered into Main Street, USA.

I’ve told that story many times over the years, but it comes back to me now after reading about how antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan was arrested and then removed from the House of Representatives gallery last evening, even before George W. Bush began his latest State of the Union speech, because she was wearing a T-shirt that read, “2,245 Dead--How Many More?” It was an obvious reference to the growing death toll among U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq, and the Capitol Hill police weren’t amused. “She was asked to cover it up. She did not,” a police spokesman told CNN, explaining that Sheehan was subsequently arrested for the misdemeanor of unlawful conduct. It’s a charge that reporters were told could bring Sheehan up to a year in the hoosegow, but most likely won’t, since the identical charge would then have to be leveled against Beverly Young, the wife of U.S. Representative C.W. Bill Young (R-Florida), who was also “ordered to leave” the House chamber as a result of inappropriate attire, though in her case the offending T-shirt read, “Support the Troops--Defending Our Freedom.”

Just like my own “Hellraiser” experience, these episodes from Tuesday night are ludicrous from the outset, efforts simply to prevent cameras from zeroing in on either Sheehan’s or Young’s chest in order to support or criticize Bush’s prepared statements. As Unclaimed Territory blogger Glenn Greenwald observes,

This is nothing more than a naked attempt to stifle dissent and to create a criticism-free bubble around George Bush. Presidents routinely use all sorts of propagandistic imagery at the State of the Union to decorate their speeches with an aura of regal patriotism. We always see weeping widows and military heroes and symbolic guests of all sorts who are used as props and visuals to bolster the President’s message both emotionally and psychologically. The State of the Union speech is hardly free of visual messages and propaganda of that sort; quite the contrary.

But we apparently now have a country where the only ideas allowed to be expressed in our Nation’s Capitol while the President is speaking are ones which glorify the Government and its Leader and where dissenting views are prohibited and will subject someone to arrest. Message cleansing of that sort belongs at a political rally in North Korea, not in Washington, D.C.

I couldn’t agree more. Doesn’t the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantee freedom of speech? Certainly, what someone wears upon his or her bosom is an example of speaking their mind, no matter what others might think. The fact that these events took place during the run-up to a speech by an Oval Office occupant who goes around the world championing liberty and the freedoms that come in a democracy gives them a particular irony. That they weren’t the first instances of Dubya being menaced by T-shirt slogans only makes last night’s House expulsions that much more outlandish.

UPDATE: The Associated Press reports that “Capitol Police dropped a charge of unlawful conduct against antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan on Wednesday and apologized for ejecting her and a congressman’s wife from President Bush’s State of the Union address for wearing T-shirts with war messages. ‘The officers made a good faith, but mistaken effort to enforce an old unwritten interpretation of the prohibitions about demonstrating in the Capitol,’ Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said in a statement late Wednesday.”

GLIMMER OF ENCOURAGEMENT: Bob Geiger makes a good point on his blog, saying that he’s encouraged by the fact that Capitol Police also considered Beverly Young’s “Support Our Troops” T-shirt a form of protest. That slogan, he writes, “reinforces what I’ve been saying all along: That Bush and his administration do not truly support our military with anything but lip service and certainly do not support the troops in Iraq. Someone demonstrating that they are pro-troops was viewed as being anti-Bush--hey, now we’re getting somewhere.”

READ MORE:Congresswoman Outraged Over Cindy Sheehan Arrest” (; “First Amendment, Two Shirts--Cindy and Beverly,” by Patt Morrison (The Huffington Post).

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