If voting is for old people, irony isn't

Posted: Mar 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Urban Outfitters, a 58-store chain that has made millions from marketing fashion for young people who want to look like they still live in their parents' basement, sold a T-shirt so vile - so Just Plain Wrong! - it's thrown big swaths of the media, the do-gooders at Harvard University and that wall of sound usually called "youth-outreach groups" into paroxysms of rage.

The shirt wasn't racist, sexist or any of the other outrages that usually send sensitive America into regular bouts of St. Vitus' Dance. No, this bonfire of outrage has been lit by a most unpredictable torch: a T-shirt that reads: "Voting Is for Old People," which has subsequently been pulled from stores.

Now, before I go on, let me provide a bit of politico-sartorial context.

As I write this, I am wearing a T-shirt that says on the back, in various rasta-marijuana hues of green, yellow and red: "Celebrate Diversity." Accompanying these secular holy words are pictures of dozens of different handguns (you can get one yourself from thoseshirts.com).

I know a guy who teaches at a prestigious private school. His school had to adopt a strict dress code when 12-year-old girls started coming to class wearing T-shirts with the words "Porn Star" emblazoned on them. Just the other day, I saw a girl at the airport who couldn't have been much older than 14 wearing sweatpants with the word "juicy" emblazoned across her butt. And, two of my best friends are still remorseful, years after the incident, because they didn't rip off a kid's T-shirt - and perhaps his head - because across the cretin's chest read the words: "Stalin was right."

As far as I can tell, none of these examples - nor thousands like them - have garnered one one-thousandth of the hand-wringing that this preshrunk cotton hate crime- "Voting Is for Old People" - has caused.

Dan Glickman, director of Harvard's Institute of Politics and a former congressman, D-Kan., has his dress completely over his head about it in a letter to the CEO of Urban Outfitters. "The shirt's message could not be further from the truth," he wrote.

Sounding like a parent insisting that it's actually really, really cool to bring your sister to the prom, Glickman promised, "We would be eager to work with you to suggest alternative products that send the right message to America's young people, and better reflect the considerable social conscience and political participation of today's youth." For instance, he said, "You might consider 'Voting Rocks!'"

Meanwhile, a bunch of musicians and other music industry types have gotten into the act. Al Jourgensen of the band Ministry and a board member of something called "punkvoter.com" that bills itself as a coalition of punk bands and fans dedicated to "political education," called the T-shirt an "anti-American abomination."

In his letter he told Urban Outfitters, "Your T-shirt design is knowingly irresponsible. . It is a disgusting effort to reap profit from cynicism while suppressing civic involvement and encouraging apathy, not to mention referring to our senior citizens as old people." He also suggested that the store was conducting a Republican-led suppress-the-vote effort and that the shirt is "a blatant attempt to quash the efforts of Punkvoter.com, Music for America and Rock the Vote, and other pro-youth vote organizations."

I don't know what the cool kids say to such self-important nonsense these days, but when I was in college we'd say, "Lighten up, Francis." The shirt was ironic - just like roughly 90 percent of all humor for people under 35 today. Get over it.

But this astoundingly stupid controversy does get to the heart of why I think the cult of "youth politics" is so contemptible.

First there's the cynicism of Democrats like Dan Glickman, Clinton's secretary of agriculture, who obviously love youth voting because they think the youth will vote Democratic.

This in turn highlights the muddle-headedness of "youth advocates" who insist that you can't stereotype "the youth" but who also insist that there are a bunch of issues and concerns (i.e. liberal ones) that unite all young people. Um, which is it?

But what bothers me the most is the cart-before-the-horse logic that says it's fine for young people to be lazy, scummy, ignorant and immoral, but it's an outrage against God and man if those same kids don't vote.

Urban Outfitters' Web site features dozens of T-shirts with slogans that would be truly offensive if they were to be taken with a fraction of the literalness of Glickman & Co. A girl's shirt reads: "I did Justin three times." A boy's tee says: "I rock Catholic girls." Another: "American rat race: Drop out." Another: "Beer: It's what's for dinner."

I understand these are jokes. But it's not clear that Glickman & Co. do. Isn't it interesting that they don't care if kids get the message to be lazy, slutty drunks - so long as they vote?