Misreading What a T-Shirt Says

In anticipation of the Boston Marathon, public radio’s “All Things Considered” ran a piece considering he Boston Strong phenomenon. But some “expert” commentary seemed better described as some things ill-considered.

The program described how, within a few hours of last year’s bombing, a couple kids at nearby Emerson College had designed the now iconic Boston Strong T-shirt thinking they’d sell a few hundred. At last count they’d sold over 66,000 and had spawned a light industry of Boston Strong objects.

Part of the original appeal was the promise to donate a portion of the proceeds to the victims. But by now it looks like the business has morphed into a gravy train. They are bringing out a first anniversary edition, for instance, and there is reason to believe the charitable cut has dwindled. What could be more American than to do well by appearing to do good.

But that fact seems to me less interesting than some of the criticism NPR turned up. They interviewed a psychologist named Joseph Burgo who said he understood the ideas of solidarity and defiance in the face of an assault on normalcy.

But Burgo didn’t quit there. He went on to say that “I cringe at people feeling that their every sentiment has to be tweeted or posted or literally worn on their sleeves.” He attributed the Boston Strong phenomenon to “our narcissistic culture” where everything “is about self display.” And he is not alone. Some have scorned such displays as Slacktivism, lame attempts to appear to be activists without actually doing anything other than wearing a shirt, bracelet or ribbon.

I get some of the criticism, but a lot of it seems wildly wrong-headed as an analysis of what the Boston Strong thing signifies. I don’t think I’d like Mr. Burgo as my shrink since he seems to be working out some anger and ego issues of his own.

I certainly agree that the constant phoning, texting and tweeting by people in the produce department describing how they are now buying an orange or celebrities narrating each time they clip a toenail are a trifle self-obsessed. And long ago Paul Fussell, in the hilarious “Class,” scorned what he called legible clothes as a dimwit substitute for originality or belated prole attempt to be with it. (On the other hand, ever since beginning to blog I have regarded blogging as a very high form of literary art).

But is the case of Boston Strong really about narcissism or ego? It seems to me this is 180 degrees wrong. Wearing shirts proclaiming Boston Strong is not meant to celebrate the self. On the contrary, it is meant to celebrate the tribe to which one belongs. It’s not about me, but us.

Waving the flag is not narcissism nor is identifying with your team or your military unit. When a Royal Welch Fusilier put on the uniform he wasn’t arrogant about being himself, but humbled to be a part of the group under whose banner he marched.

Today few or none of us live out our lives in the village in which we were born. We no longer expect to work 30 years for the same company and may be twice or thrice divorced before calling it quits. Instead of stability and consistency, we inhabit a world of constant flux. That is disorienting to humans who may actually be wired to be part of a group, a tribe, a clan, a village.

I’m not from Boston, but I get the sentiment. I haven’t lived in the town where I grew up since 1975 and haven’t been back for almost a decade. But if somebody tried to blow it up, I’d take the attack really personally and I’d rally to the cause of my home place and proclaim my identification with its plight.

That may express a deep, primitive psychological need, but it isn’t the need for self-display or an expression of vanity. It is the need to belong to something and somewhere in a world where we too often seen anchorless, rudderless and adrift.

In short, think again Mr. Burgo. Boston Strong. Long may she run.

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