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