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HERE TO 'STAY' Cukui manager R.J. Onaka models one of the store's current releases. Photograph by Jessica Shirley Donnelly

While itchy and ill-fitting,
these shirts offered ersatz individuality in the guise of innocuous or goofy declarations, or, more to the point, with pictures of a large and intimidating pickup truck with messages about God, Guns and Freedom.

But wherever we buy them and for whatever reason we wear them, we all love our T-shirts and we all have that one we've kept forever. We go on vacation, we buy the shirt. There's a family reunion, and we're making shirts to commemorate it. "I was there: McCarthy Family Picnic, 1995."

We wear some T-shirts until they're practically falling apart; others occupy nostalgia space in our bureaus until such time as a garage sale is declared or a rag is needed to wash the car.

We may outgrow the T-shirt, but not the message. Or we may outgrow the message and sell the shirt on eBay for $60 to some crazed Uriah Heep fan in Antwerp.

T-shirts are an easy and generally cheap way to self-identify. But our era does offer more than its share of the willfully offensive T-shirt—shock for shock's sake messaging under the mantle of "free expression" as the obtuse rationale du jour. Earnest expressions of self-identity and defiance—"I Had an Abortion"— have given way to the truly tasteless Ts of our time.

For example, those "Keep Calm and " T-shirts raise questions about how shock value has entered our politics as a form of legitimate discourse—and what the implications are for a country that greets serious issues with mocking retorts.

When so much national energy is spent, for example, talking about rape and trying to end it, what's the social value of wearing a T-shirt that declares "Keep Calm and Rape On"?

One might argue, none at all.

Or maybe it's all just payback for the "identity politics" movement of the American progressive left.

"I think stupid is the new cool," says Matt Morgan, founder and president of the North Bay's Farm Fresh Clothing, which sells organic cotton T-shirts made with sustainable practices. "Conservatives have figured out that they have to do something to be cool, to connect. But they are trying too hard."

Conversely, the T-shirt, lowly though its origins may be, has been absorbed into haute couture rituals of appropriation as well. Last spring, French fashion house Herms sold a $91,500 crocodile and chiffon T-shirt, while the legendarily most expensive T-shirt available cost $400,000, was custom-made, with diamonds embedded into the fabric—and purportedly available for purchase at, go figure, themostexpensivetshirtintheworld.com.

Of course, T-shirts make a good canvas for showing team pride.

"The most popular designs are usually our sports designs," says Onaka, "Most recent was the Golden State Natives, for the Warriors that we did. The Kaepernick shirt definitely put us on the map. We had lines around the corner for that. We were showcased on ESPN twice."

We've come a long way from the three-for-$10 concert T-shirts from 1970s flea markets. Those shirts were pretty cool, but they fell apart after one washing.

And, speaking of falling apart, you can tell a lot about where a country's sensibilities lie by the T-shirts it favors. In this country, the most iconic T-shirt image these days has got to be the famous Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" flag.

That shirt has supplanted the iconic face of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. The Che shirt had a decades-long run as go-to garb for any would-be radical with a bone to pick about imperial America and its various excesses of war and white privilege.

Got a problem with America? Get yourself a Che shirt! That'll show 'em!

The Che shirts had built-in shock appeal for anyone interested in posturing radical chic while still chomping a Big Mac with the "I'm with Stupid" masses.

But Che has left the building. The 9-11 attacks unleashed waves of embittered hypernationalism in this land, as right-wing intolerants got their footing in the smoldering ruins and ran with the imagery like so many chuckleheads with bullhorns. The premise was a nasty nostalgia for easy arguments of the "America: Love It or Leave It" variety.

Those attacks, commemorated in the aftermath with T-shirts proclaiming "Never Again," which came complete with an appallingly distasteful duo of flaming buildings, sharpened lines of disagreement over how America reckons with its various global roles, including and especially those weirdly conjoined roles where we throw lots of bombs and culture out there and see what sticks.

The ascendancy of an invigorated American right wing, with the Nuge at the helm, found purchase in the culture war with a twin-barreled push of nationalist symbolism and a self-assertion notable for its pigheaded indifference to the offensiveness it was spewing. Often, the two commingled on T-shirts. A new vocal minority of right-wing culture warriors strapped on the Gadsden T-shirt and the gun, watched Red Dawn for the 243rd time, and went to war at Chili's.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 upped the culture-right ante by proposing that the easy symbolism of Obama trumped his wishy-washy neoliberal pragmatism and complex, corporatist mind-set. Obama defied an easy T-shirt designation, so we were treated to all of them: Obama with a Hitler moustache, Obama wearing Muslim garb, Obama in makeup as "the Joker."

As Che chic gave way to Gadsden harrumphing in the Obama era, new questions were raised about the symbolism depicted across one's chest: How are we defined by T-shirts, and how do we define ourselves within the global T-shirt culture created by Americans?

Americans' twin obsessions with self-identity and consumption—the relentless pursuit of pigeonholing and product—come to roost in the T-shirts we purchase as signifiers of a cultural or ethnic sensibility. And in our world of rampant false equivalencies, false flags and false charges concerning "the Other" in the White House, the right wing has managed to insert itself squarely into the field of "identity politics" with some pungently abrasive Che mojo of its own.

"Identity politics" has been appropriated and reconfigured as anti-government chic, complete with a new conservative discourse that demands a "post-racial" vernacular. It's payback time, and the T-shirt is front and center in these days of down-market right-wing reckoning.

It's a reminder of those old shirts from the 1980s that read, "It's a Black Thing: You Wouldn't Understand." Nowadays, the theme from race-baiting agitators is: we understand all too well.

"T-shirts speak to like-minded people; a particular T-shirt may not be meaningful to those with different views and affiliations," writes Crane. "This reflects the fragmentation of leisure cultures into lifestyles and subcultures and other groupings whose members respond to the enormous cultural complexity of their surroundings by orienting themselves toward those who are like rather than those who are unlike themselves."

Nowadays, right-wing fringe politics have reoriented mainstream discourse into a mucked-up post-racialism with the help of T-shirts and other messaging vehicles that, for example, decry welfare and food stamps. There's a T-shirt that puts Obama's face on a food stamp and declares him the "Food Stamp President," for all the self-selected world to see.

This is the shock-for-shock's-sake state of America, where reactionaries offer snidely imagistic putdowns in lieu of debate: One man's "New Jim Crow" is another's "Been There, Done That."

At the same time, a new, homegrown industry of T-shirt manufacturers has emerged on the scene, some, like Farm Fresh, offering U.S.-made products whose politics are stitched into the fabric of the shirts themselves—and who offer a sort of "Don't Thread on Me" counter to the Gadsden flag-wavers. Cukui, which does sell other clothing items beyond T-shirts, has parlayed its signature item into a brand, certainly, and in some ways, a community. In addition to monthly art receptions, Cukui co-hosts events like Island Reggae Festival in July.

"We have a lot designs and people make a special connection to one of our designs; that's kind of what draws them into picking up a shirt from us. We're just looking to have a good connection with our community," Onaka says.

Farm Fresh's client list includes the worker bees at Facebook and Google, and the company also creates message shirts that lightheartedly tread onto hot-button issues like global warming or melting Japanese nuclear reactors.

But Morgan hits on an issue that speaks to the way the cultural right has been winning the "messaging" war. "The issues are real," he says, "but we are being lighthearted about it. I do sense a basic fear—in our market, in our meetings—that everyone is afraid to go that extra step."

Morgan recounts the hullabaloo that ensued when Farm Fresh created a T-shirt reading "Dog Has a Plan."

"Everyone was so nervous about releasing that shirt," he says.

With additional reporting by Heather Zimmerman

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