November 12, 2005
'Girlcott' Tells an Unexpected Tale in Various Shades of Gray

By David M. Shribman

A remarkable story unfolded in this community this month, with implications far deeper than even the brave principals in the event realized. It was the successful "girlcott" of offensive Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts mounted by a group of young women who showed more character, more intelligence and ultimately more ingenuity than the apparel manufacturer.

These protesters, part of the Women's & Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania, took their indignation to the public, and before a week was out they took it nationally. It's important to remember that this is not your father's Abercrombie, which created the sort of buttoned-down fashions you might have seen amid the raccoon coats and the tailgate boola-boola of the Yale-Princeton game in the Coolidge years and then, hours later, in evening wear under the Biltmore clock. This is your twisted sister's Abercrombie, which once produced thong underwear in children's sizes.

These young women got Abercrombie to admit that even the shameless can be shamed, thereby learning a lesson. They proved, to start, that brains are more powerful than breasts, thereby refuting the credo printed on the most notorious of the T-shirts. They reminded us all that an entity that thrives by publicity can also be destroyed by publicity, a lesson that Paris Hilton and Terrell Owens regretfully have yet to realize. And, if they were watching very carefully (and given the sense of purpose and the abiding intelligence of the young women involved, I suspect they were), they discovered something important about contemporary political culture that most of their adult parents, teachers and associates have missed.

The heroes of this piece are smart, driven, independent and, let it be said, liberal. (Let it also be said that those four words are not mutually exclusive.) They were cheered on by their parents, who tend to identify with those four words as well. But there's more to the story.

The first prominent adult to rally to their side was someone they never heard of, an Illinois state senator named Steve Rauschenberger. They were delighted to win the support of someone with a big-time title and, it might be added, someone who aspires to an even bigger title. He's running for governor. But the Pittsburgh girls didn't know that at first. They also probably didn't know that Mr. Rauschenberger is a devout conservative. Or that he opposes abortion rights. Or that he supports the rights of gun owners. Or that he opposes same-sex marriage. Or that he supports school vouchers.

The only thing that is important in this episode, and the only thing that is important in this column, is that on one issue Mr. Rauschenberger and the Pittsburgh protesters found common ground. They found something -- a very important something, it turns out -- to agree upon. There are lots of ways to describe it, but here's one that is as good as any: the dignity of women.

"There's a co-belligerency among these kinds of groups," says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "They're both against the degrading of women."

There is a lot more co-belligerency -- or congruence of thought -- between the right and the left than the people who tend to see the world broken down into liberals and conservatives -- or, the ultimate expression of simplistic identity, red states and blue states -- dare admit. Indeed, some of the more extreme (and, to my view, more urgent) issues have just this sort of congruence.

The other day Jimmy Carter came out with a new book called "Our Endangered Values," and it got a lot of attention because it is not every day that you get to see one president of the United States criticize another one, and a lot of people who deplored Mr. Carter's presidency nonetheless took great joy in the way he attacked President Bush. But let us not forget that Mr. Carter was the first modern religious conservative to be president, and his book on values includes a strong chapter on the environment. His emphasis on environmental issues is less political than spiritual.

But he is not alone. The environment is regarded as a liberal cause, but just this month the National Association of Evangelicals, whose mission statement is "to extend the kingdom of God" and "demonstrating the unity of the body of Christ by standing for Biblical truth," began circulating a draft policy statement calling for laws controlling the carbon dioxide emissions that liberals are so fond of saying cause global warming.

If you don't know why the evangelicals are doing this, you have not been paying attention to what they say (about being good stewards of the Earth) or to what the Bible says (man was put in the Garden of Eden to "take care of it and to look after it").

Some members of the animal-rights movement -- sometimes regarded as anti-corporate extremists from the left -- are finding some support on the right from religious conservatives like Matthew Scully, who in an article this year in The American Conservative described huge factory farms as a "serious moral problem" and argued:

"Conservatives are supposed to revere tradition. Factory farming has no traditions, no rules, no codes of honor, no little decencies to spare for a fellow creature. The whole thing is an abandonment of rural values and a betrayal of honorable animal husbandry -- to say nothing of veterinary medicine, with its sworn oath to 'protect animal health' and 'relieve animal suffering.'"

All this may seem surprising, but only because we have been conditioned to see the world in a binary fashion: You're either liberal or conservative (no agreements possible), or maybe Republican or Democratic, or maybe feminist or traditionalist.

But as the Abercrombie episode shows, it was feminists who were standing up for traditionalist values, or, if you prefer, it was traditionalists standing up for feminist values. It doesn't matter which way you shape the sentence, which is an astonishing lesson, even to the fellow who just typed it.

Copyright 2005 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman

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