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Americans express themselves well through bumper stickers

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WASHINGTON — We are our bumper stickers. They are one way that we define ourselves and announce our various identities to the outside world: that we voted for Bush or Gore, that we're a Buckeye or a Wolverine, that we're "pro-life" or "pro-choice," that we favor this candidate or that for school board or Congress, that our kids play soccer and won the county championship, and that we vacation in the Grand Tetons or at Disney World.

These badges of self-expression span an almost-infinite range of beliefs and behaviors. They also capture one of the enduring contradictions of American culture — the tension between individualism and conformity. Bumper stickers are labels of personal preference and practice, but almost always, they also signal an allegiance to a larger cause or membership in some grander group. They allow us to set ourselves apart and to belong at the same time. Liberals exhort, "Wage Peace." Conservatives exclaim, "Vote Democrat, It's Easier Than Working."

Probably a majority of bumper stickers are nonpolitical and apparently innocuous, such as the widespread bumper boast that "My Son Is an Honor Student at (whatever) School." But even these are often meant to segregate us into worthy and unworthy groups. Proclaiming the achievements of their children allows parents simultaneously to advertise their own success and to place themselves in an elite group of families who are raising exceptional offspring.

The self-congratulation offends many, including some parents who apparently think that book learning isn't the only valuable life skill or, more probably, just can't stand the condescension. In the past few months, I've jotted down some interesting bumper stickers that I've glimpsed here and there. "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student" was one I noticed in May in Boston. A friend reported a more poignant version outside Traverse City, Mich.:

"PROUD TO HAVE A SON IN THE ARMY: My Son Is Fighting for the Freedom of Your Honor Student."

Some bumper stickers, though biting, are just plain fun. "A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle" was one of 41 plastered on a Honda in Mendocino, Calif. Another was: "Inside Every Old Person Is a Young Person Wondering What Happened." A few blocks away, a carpenter's pickup had this: "So Many 2x4s, So Few Studs."

Still, politics generates the fiercest passions. "I Love My Country But I Fear My Government" was spotted on a motorcycle in western Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, in April. A few weeks later, I recorded "I'm Already Against the Next War" in Silver Spring, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C.

Successful bumper stickers often inspire endless imitations. "My Other Car Is a Rolls-Royce" has had many knockoffs. "HONK if You Think He's Guilty," first used in the Nixon impeachment, has been often recycled. A recent version is: "HONK if I'm Paying Your Mortgage," a protest against relief for over-borrowed homeowners.

The bumper sticker apparently originated with the introduction of the Model A Ford in 1927, according to brief histories on the Internet. The predecessor Model T had lacked bumpers, which were added as a safety improvement. Made of cardboard and metal, the first bumper stickers were attached to the bumper with wire and string. The great technological breakthrough is usually attributed to Forest P. Gill, a silkscreen printer in Kansas City who in the 1930s printed messages on canvas, a change that ultimately led to the use of adhesive paper.

We don't know much about the bumper sticker demographics: who uses them; who doesn't (certainly a majority of drivers, many of whom undoubtedly view them as eyesores); and whether use varies by income, region, religion or sex. One social psychologist claims to have discovered a relationship between bumper stickers and aggressive driving. The more bumper stickers — regardless of their subjects or politics — the more aggressive the driver, it's said. The theory: more bumper stickers connote greater individuality, or perhaps greater egotism, and a belief that other drivers should get out of the way.

What we do know is that the bumper sticker has now merged into the larger attack culture of slogans and sound bites. It has survived the rise of the Internet — which is the pre-eminent platform from which Americans indulge their likes, dislikes and idiosyncrasies — and it has the saving grace of adding more to our humor than to our rancor. Laughing does not end an argument, but it prevents it from getting out of hand.

Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.