There are many ways in which I could be a better person. I could drop my laundry quarters into the coffee cups of the panhandlers outside my office. I could work to suppress my nervous reaction to sad or uncomfortable news, which is to giggle uncontrollably. I could even stop and listen politely to vested activists on the street who are trying to “raise awareness” for a cause of the month (the last time I walked through Union Square, I was stopped by three different people trying to get me to sign a petition to make non-Christians in the U.S. sign a loyalty oath, as a form of protest against Israel). But, rather than conforming to normal avenues of betterment, I strive to make a difference through Civil Vandalism.
Loosely inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience, Civil Vandalism is my way of making the world we live in more sightly and slightly more true. Basically, Civil Vandalism allows adherents (as of yet, me) to visually and textually amend and correct the world. While this philosophy does give me some dispensation to, after a few drinks, copyedit the fliers taped to the walls of my friend’s building’s elevator, it is more focused on a sober attempt to undermine the constant societal reminders of Right-wing hatred and lies. They have Fox News, I have my Sharpie and quick hands at bookstores. I find my particular inspiration in this passage from Thoreau’s essay (with my notes included):
Unjust laws [or books] exist: shall we be content to obey them [slash let them sit comfortably in a bit of prime real estate by the front door of the airport Borders], or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded [wait around until Random House suddenly decides to stop giving seven-figure advances to rabblerousers who sell books to the deeply misinformed/ sycophantic], or shall we transgress them at once? “¦ I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in [although I do what I can], but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong [and that the wrongness is helped by inaction].
I don’t have the guts or talent of Banksy, so I’m constricted to switching out and covering up displayed books by Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck with milder fiction and memoirs about dogs. Anyone looking to read anything by those purveyors of fear and deliberately misleading end-notes will have to rummage through layers of the latest Jodi Picoult tear-jerkers or “groundbreaking” biographies of Princess Diana.
I don’t know how I started doing this, but I’m pretty sure my mother is somewhat to blame. She is a woman who kept our Kerry/Edwards 2004 sign out on the front lawn until May of 2005, until it was stolen by some neighborhood ruffians. The fact that my younger sister and I have the same habit also implicates our mother. I asked my sister for her philosophical rationale for obscuring books and this is what she had to say:
Whenever I’m in Borders and I see an Ann Coulter book on display, or any caricature of a book that doesn’t deserve to exist let alone be on a visible shelf, I feel it’s my patriotic duty to flip it around or put it behind other books. This is my little form of rebellion. I know that it doesn’t do much, but it does do something for my sanity. If I were braver or didn’t fear incarceration I would actually vandalize these books. It actually pains me to think that people would spend money on these works of ignorance, dim-wittedness, and hatred.
I’d like to point out that neither of us actually break the law. As far as I know, it is not illegal to hide copies of Decision Points behind issues of Bitch magazine. Nor is it illegal to accidentally leave a copy of Pinheads and Patriots facing away from any possible buyers, so that all that is visible is O’Reilly’s unappealing mug.
Bookstores are easy targets for this sort of vandalism, as as long as you don’t steal the books or actually damage the product, there is nothing technically inappropriate about it. It becomes slightly more difficult when one leaves the world of retail and begins encountering posters and advertisements.
In particular, I’m talking about how anti-choice activists have, through posters and false-advertising campaigns, attempted to high-jack the national discourse on abortion and reproductive rights. Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg signing Intro.371-A, legislation which would regulate the deceptive practices of so-called crisis pregnancy centers, into law, I was able to cancel my order of stickers reading, “Not Licensed Medical Professionals.” I planned to affix this stickers to all subway ads that feature the face of a worried, but very attractive, lady above text that read “Pregnant? Scared? Call this Number.” (Bonus points if she’s resting her hands on a hugely pregnant belly.)
My truth-spreading campaign reached a hiccup when I noticed a bus on my way to work. The side of the bus was covered by an ad declaring “41% of Viable Pregnancies Aborted? We Need a New Strategy, Mr. Mayor.” I thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to run into traffic with a long manifesto describing why that is a willfully and calculatedly misleading ad, so I’ll reproduce it here:
1. The only reason there are so many abortions in NYC is that they are more accessible here than in other parts of the country. There isn’t something in our delicious tap water that makes women more likely to chose to end pregnancies.
2. So what if 41% of viable pregnancies are aborted? It just means that 41% of women who found themselves pregnant decided that the best decision them and their families would be to terminate the pregnancy. Perhaps someone should look into why these women feel unable to start or expand a family (Hint! It could have something to do with poverty and a lack/decrease of fundamental social services! Or myriad other reasons that are none of our fucking business!), rather than demonizing them as a monolithic, heartless, entity.
3. An appropriate “new strategy” would be to increase access to birth control, so that fewer women find themselves in a situation where a viable pregnancy would need to be aborted. Maybe replace trans-fat and salt with spermicide and oral contraceptives?
A bit long to put on the side of a bus, right? Maybe it would fit on a t-shirt “¦
Deep down, however, I know that these little things I do really accomplish nothing. Publishers will keep paying wingnuts to write wingnutty things, salespeople at Barnes and Noble will excavate copies of Arguing with Idiots from the Romance section and return them to their proper place by closing, and the Right, with questionable funding and single-minded intensity, will continue its war on women and their reproductive autonomy. Even on a personal level, I would be better suited to redirect my rage towards exercise and cleaning and away from muttering on the subway. And while I make sure to donate as much as I can to causes like Planned Parenthood and the New York Abortion Access Fund, there is still something deeply satisfying about hiding a book written by someone who thinks that the country would be in a better place today if women never got the right to vote (I’m looking at you, Coulter).
CPC ad sourced from lifesitenews.com, an anti-choice site. Don’t give them page views, please.