IT really is quite amazing how Americans plaster bumper stickers on their cars so every Tom, Dick and Jane will know where they stand on anything from abortion rights to the environment to where their kids go to school to where they vacation.
I'm a bumper sticker aficionado, and the stickers always entertain me. One of my favorites is "Eschew Obfuscation," which is usually plastered on the backside of a Volvo.
Another favorite is "Born to Shop." Who is born to shop? Does that mean when asked on a form what their occupation is, these people list "shopper"?
From "Don't Hit Me/My Daughter's a Lawyer" to "Visualize World Peace" to "Every Mother Is a Working Mother," the old slogan "You Are What You Eat" seems to have given way to "You Are What Your Bumper Sticker Says You Are."
In a society in which Americans regularly move from one location to another and have few community ties, there's a growing need to proclaim one's social consciousness, economic status, level of education, place of birth and political persuasion.
A hundred years ago there was little such need. If you were born a Boston Brahmin, the world knew you had all the advantages that privilege bestowed. If you were born on a farm in Kansas, everyone for miles around knew you and your family. More important, everyone knew how your last crop fared.
If you were born in the Irish, Italian or Jewish ghettos of New York City, you didn't need to proclaim your identity. All your neighbors knew you were poor and uneducated, just as they were.
That's all changed. As ethnic ghettos have given way to suburban mobility and rural farmlands have turned into smog-filled metropolises, many Americans need a bumper sticker to proclaim who they are or what they've become.
This need to make a personal statement seems to get a real boost around election time. In 1984, I remember the dilemma of a friend who was what is known as a "yellow-dog Democrat." That's an old Southern expression meaning you'll vote for a yellow, mangy dog before you'll vote for a Republican.
In that campaign, it was clear from the outset that Ronald Reagan was going to make mincemeat of Walter Mondale. While my friend supported Mondale and wanted to do the politically correct thing, she was reluctant to have a loser stuck on her bumper for the next four years.
Her solution was to apply the Mondale sticker in September. After he was soundly trounced in November, she stuck "Save the Bay" over poor Walter. Voila!
Not all bumper stickers carry a social or political message. One of the most popular and least offensive rear-end slogans begins: "I Love [figure of a heart] . . ." My Schnauzer, New York, Maine, Wife. It's hard to be offended by someone who has a fondness for his or her spouse, pet or favorite state.
Almost more important than the message they seek to convey is the practical side of bumper stickers. Anyone who's been lost and disoriented in a crowded mall parking lot knows the sight of a familiar sticker can mean instant relief.
Susan Sullam is a Baltimorean living temporarily in Honolulu.