Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around The Really Shitty Story

Well, somebody tackled the story I always wanted to see done, about where exactly all those yellow ribbon magnets (and camoflague ribbon magnets, and red-white-blue magnets) came from. Unfortunately, they made a complete goatfuck out of it.

Any emphasis added in the following (somewhat long, sorry) infuriating piece of journalistic pestilence is of course mine.

Bob Means put a yellow “Support Our Troops” ribbon magnet on the back of his Ford pickup, then handed a dozen others out to friends without knowing he was making a political statement.

“I wanted to show my support for the troops,” said the 57-year-old retired Oakland firefighter and Vietnam-era Army veteran, who now lives in Martinez. “Yes, I’m pro-military and pro-Bush, but that’s not why I have it on there. Our troops are over there to do a job — one that some of them would probably not choose to do — but nevertheless, they’re keeping us safe.”

Yet as the latest trend in bumperwear moves inexorably from its origins in the South toward the Caldecott Tunnel, its cultural meaning is being debated in ways that its creators couldn’t have imagined when they started turning out the magnets at the height of the Iraq war’s popularity nearly two years ago.

So as long as the war was popular, we didn’t need to debate the meaning of supporting the troops? How convenient. See, when there’s only six people who think the war is a rolling clusterfuck, you don’t have to debate them, but now that there’s sixteen, well, pull out your debating caps and get to it.

Oh, and by the way, if you think there’s going to be any debate at all from anybody with any expertise in marketing or wartime propaganda or even American culture in the article which might naturally follow this reference to something being debated, yeah, you can just throw that whole idea right out the window.

The North Carolinians who thought up the rubbery, 8-inch-high magnets saw them just the same way Means does — as a way to support the troops. Instead, they’re becoming part of the blue-red cultural divide.

If you’ve got one on your car, many people now think you support the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq. There have been reports of people stealing yellow ribbon magnets from cars in other parts of the country, symbolic vandalism akin to tearing down a political opponent’s yard sign.

HOLY SHIT. That’s awful! Those commie bastards! I assume the writer is now going to provide us with examples of those “reports,” perhaps citing complaints received by police, or even quoting someone whose ribbon was stolen.

Except, NO. No reports, no substantiation, nothing. I’d like to know exactly who edited this piece of crap and didn’t demand to see evidence for that claim. And the only way we know they’re becoming part of the red-state blue-state divide? Yeah, because the writer tells us.

In November, one of the nation’s largest anti-war organizations began selling a response ribbon. The similar-looking yellow magnet reads, “Bring the Troops Home Now.” Some sellers of the “Support Our Troops” ribbons say they’d be leery of carrying it, fearing it comes with political connotations they don’t see in the “Support” ribbons.

L.A. Kauffman, a former Bay Area resident who is now a New York City organizer for the anti-war organization United for Peace and Justice, thought of the “Bring the Troops Home” idea after seeing “Support” magnets everywhere on cars in relatively conservative upstate New York.

“I thought, ‘We have to respond to this,’ and the way to respond is to say we should bring the troops home now,” Kauffman said. The first 2,500 sold out hours after being posted on the organization’s Web site, unitedforpeace.org, and another 7,500 have been sold on the site since.

Kauffman attributed the sales to a post-election hunger among the anti-war crowd for something symbolic to display in response to President Bush’s re-election. “After the election, people were drowning in red-state sentiment,” she said.

The anti-war “crowd.” Mmm, contempt. It’s what’s for dinner.

None of this cultural reaction was the intent of Derrick Carroll, the North Carolina man who designed the ribbon.

“Its sole intent was just what it says: To support the troops, whether we’re at war or not,” Carroll said. “That never did enter my mind that it would be a Republican thing or a Democrat thing. There’s no agenda here.”

Nevertheless, unintended symbolic meanings have been threaded to the ribbons since shortly after they debuted in early 2003. Chris Smith, owner of a North Carolina-based printing company, heard about a shortage of the cloth used to make the yellow ribbon that is symbolic of supporting overseas soldiers.

Carroll, a designer for Smith’s company, took two days to design a simple yellow ribbon magnet. Then Smith sold the rights to sell 1,000 units to North Carolina Christian bookstore owner Dwain Gullion in March 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq.

“To be honest, at first I just did it to learn how to run an e-commerce site where I could sell items from our (four) Christian bookstores,” said Gullion, owner of the Internet site that became known as magnetamerica.com.

Gullion saw its potential as a fund-raiser for military families and veterans’ support groups, both of which spread the ribbon magnet across the country, from red states to blue.

California, however, had been behind the curve until recently. Gullion and other suppliers say that based on recent orders, the state has just caught onto the trend in the past few weeks.

“We noticed that when we traveled around the country that (the ribbons) were everywhere but here,” said Deb Saunders, president of East Bay Blue Star Moms, a troop support group. In the past three months, the group has given out 350 “Support” ribbons in exchange for a $5 donation to the group.

While the “Bring the Troops Home Now” magnets might find a more receptive audience in the Bay Area, the heart of blue America, they might not be available from many of the same retailers. Several “Support” ribbon sellers said they wouldn’t carry them.

People in the evil inner city might like them, because we know how they are, down in the heart of blue America. Seriously, this story is like Mad Libs. Just insert the offensive and condescending phrase in the blank space so thoughtfully provided.

“We probably wouldn’t,” said Bobbie Leab, an office manager and spokeswoman for the North Carolina-based Internet business USA Magnets and More. The firm recently declined to do a custom order for a “Bring the Troops Home”-type magnet.

“The troops are going to come home when their work is done,” Leab said. “But we don’t push any political agenda with our work.”

*the sound of Athenae’s head exploding*

As Wal-Mart, Rite Aid and several dozen other retail chains began selling the ribbons online over the last six months, sales have fallen at Oxford’s site. Gullion, the originator, had to lay off half the 55 employees he hired to handle the rush and now concentrates on custom orders. Unlike others, Gullion refused to buy magnets made overseas at a fraction of the price.

While partisans debate the meaning of yellow ribbons, the magnet trend is heading in other, largely less controversial areas.

While partisans debate the meaning of yellow ribbons presumably somewhere else, since we never actually get to read about them doing it in this story …

Hot sellers include a multicolored puzzle ribbon for autism awareness, and a pink one for breast cancer research. A quick Internet dash finds them for everyone from POWs to cancer survivors, with a number representing red state-friendly religious themes like a Ten Commandments tablet-shaped magnet. The Sacramento Kings basketball team will sell a purple “Kings Tsunami Relief Ribbon Car Magnet” starting at Tuesday’s game and give the proceeds to UNICEF for tsunami victims.

Whatever the color, the car magnet trend is welcome news to retailers who don’t let politics get in the way of a hot seller, like the New York-based Internet novelty and clothing site, BeWild.com. “Support Our Troops” is one of the site’s hot sellers, sharing online shelf space with “Jesus is My Homeboy” T-shirts, tongue studs and a category called “Stoner Gear.”

“I don’t know how well (the “Bring the Troops Home Now” magnet) would sell, but sure I’d carry it,” BeWild.com President Brian Cohen said. “Hey, every person in the world could put one on their car, but it probably wouldn’t make a difference. It’s just people expressing themselves.”

But can I get a ribbon-shaped tongue stud, is what I’m really wondering.

The entire ribbon phenomenon could have been dealt with in an interesting column about our tendency to homogenize and commercialize everything. The author could have looked at which companies are profiting from these things, which are donating the most money to military charities and which are donating none at all. The author could have looked up the political contributions of the owners and manufacturers of these things, or talked to a history professor about World War II and Liberty Bond drives. There were any number of ways to take this story, even a simple “who thought up these things?” could have been done without turning it into this incoherent mishmash of various phrases-du-jour the writer obviously overheard on the radio and picked up just enough of to misuse it all.

I can’t decide which enrages me more: the casually vicious treatment of “the anti-war crowd” or the confused, facile, intellectually shallow writing. Journalism students were once taught to write for a fourth grade audience. Clearly, this story is old school.

A.