A month before Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, when the campaign was a dead heat with John McCain, I ensnared myself in stupid, late-night hijinks that landed me on front pages nationwide and nearly in prison in the rural Midwest.
At the time, I was a visiting professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and had recently read Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, in which he discusses how conservative politicians often dangle social issues—like gay rights, abortion, and gun control—as red-meat bait to lure voters away from considering how the Republican Party's fiscal stances on taxes and corporate subsidies are often detrimental to low-income and rural voters. That theory seemed to be playing out with the voters in Minnesota who had consistently supported Democratic candidates for president since 1932, but were, in 2008, leaning toward John McCain.
My girlfriend and I had spent a warm Indian summer evening at stock car races in rural Minnesota. Driving back that night, it was impossible not to see that the two-lane highways crisscrossing central Minnesota were lined with McCainPalin signs. We were driving along Highway 19, a lonely stretch of road that reaches through farmland and into the small college town of Northfield. Suddenly, my girlfriend squealed out, “Stop!”
I pulled over to the gravel shoulder, and she dashed from the car, yanked out a small blue McCain lawn sign from a front lawn, and dived back into the car. “Drive,” she ordered.
A mile later, we repeated the same drill. Another mile farther down the road, we saw a lawn sign that only a rural home could accommodate: nearly the size of a billboard, the sign dominated a small hill. I drove by once and could see at least one light on inside the house. As a safety feature, newer models of Subarus do not allow the driver to leave the engine running and to turn off all exterior lights. The parking lights burned orange as I hustled up the small grass embankment. Inside, I could see a TV flickering blue light.
I reached the sign and, for the first time, recognized its sublime size. It stood as tall as I. Wrapping my hands tighter around the stake as if I were a Little Leaguer stepping to bat for the first time, I squatted, thrusting my legs. The post resisted for a strained, frozen moment and then released. I considered running away right then, leaving the sign crippled. But I grabbed the other post and yanked, dragging the sign behind me as I ran. I drove away with the hatchback yawning open and the sign hanging out over the back bumper.
It was nearly midnight when we drove past the college and arrived at the three-block stretch of downtown. We tossed the three signs into a dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant, snapped a photograph, and went back to my rented, single-story house.
Over the next week, I told a few friends about the prank, including the chair of the Media Studies Department. That could—and should—have been it; the lawn-sign-stealing event of 2008 could have passed gently into that night, a story I'd tell friends now and again after a few beers. But, over the previous several years, I had built a certain portion of my career around making a public jackass of myself.
For instance, in 2004 I campaigned for mayor of Portland—primarily as a P.T. Barnumtype stunt to promote a newspaper I had recently helped launch with the guys who started the Onion. And, a few months later, for our Halloween issue, I buried our music editor alive (with his consent) and dressed up our distribution manager as a zombie, letting him roam Pioneer Square and Lloyd Center mall to test out—and write an essay about—how numb the American public had become.
When, after six years, I left my position as the managing editor at the Portland Mercury, I posed for the cover of my final issue wearing nothing but a hard hat and women's lacy black panties, and holding a massive nail gun; 40,000 copies of the issue were picked up around Portland, and the image lingered on the Internet for years.
If nothing else, I have learned that the first rule of public spectacle is, of course, that the spectacle must have an audience. Motivated by what now seems like a form of Tourette's or a byproduct of vanity or a combination thereof (which anyone who has posted on Facebook while drunk can understand), I contacted an editor at Salon and, over the next week, researched and wrote an essay about lawn-sign stealing. I discovered that a few weeks before my own sign-stealing escapade, a teenager had been shot trying the same stunt in Indiana. I also found YouTube clips featuring Arizona residents who had plugged in their Obama signs to electrocute anyone who touched them.
But what I hadn't yet learned was the second rule of public spectacle, which is that the means of communication don't necessarily justify the message. In his textbook Making Sense of Media and Politics, professor Gadi Wolfsfeld clearly lays out the liability for using political stunts to elbow one's way into the media party: “Another problem of getting in the news through the back door is that even if you've only put on a weird costume to get in, you're not allowed to change clothes once you get inside. So there you are being filmed in a Polar Bear costume to protest global warming: You want to talk about the environment, and the reporters keep asking you about the costume.”
In writing that essay, I contacted both the Obama and McCain field offices, and interviewed campaign workers about the scope of lawn-sign stealing. I wrote what I thought was a thoughtful consideration about the need to participate in politics in a manner more visceral than merely casting a single vote, while also acknowledging that I'd committed a juvenile prank. I wrote:
Unlike stealing a lawn gnome or a plastic pink flamingo, I admit, stealing a lawn sign is a more heinous crime. There is moral and ethical guilt. I believe in free speech, and also believe and encourage political expression. I guess I could argue that I was flexing my free expression to say “shut up.” But that would put me at the same low-level of political discourse as Bill O'Reilly, who consistently steamrolls over anyone who disagrees with him.
Yet, as much as I tried to dress up my essay in respectability and journalism, I was showing up to the 2008 elections wearing an ill-fitting jester's outfit.
Two weeks before Election Day, as Obama slowly pulled ahead of McCain in the polls, I turned in my essay to an editor at Salon. Immediately, he suggested that I remove my girlfriend from the narrative and simply tell the story as if I had been pulling out lawn signs alone that evening—a concession that would have been enough to sound alarm bells for most reasonable people, but more than once has my personality been compared to a golden retriever who goes through life happy-go-lucky, not noticing that his wagging tail is smashing up lamps in the living room.
I edited the essay and resubmitted it to the editor. But, even so, concerned about legal liabilities, the online magazine decided not to publish it. There was a precedent for such concern: eight years earlier, in 2000, Dan Savage, then-editor for Seattle's weekly The Stranger (sibling to the Mercury), had written an essay for Salon in which he described how, when sick with the flu while volunteering for an anti-gay Republican candidate, he licked doorknobs at the campaign office in an attempt to infect the staff. The stunt landed Savage in jail for several days and Salon experienced threats of legal repercussions (though these were minor and hollow).
Even with this second warning about legal repercussions, I turned around and submitted the essay to the Huffington Report. The editors were eager for incendiary pieces, and the essay, “Confessions of a Lawn Sign Stealer,” ran prominently the Friday morning before Election Day.
Within hours, I received several hundred angry emails and phone calls, including three death threats. A man in Michigan yelled at me over the phone, calling me “sick” and “demented,” and informing me that he was going to go steal ten times as many Obama signs in retaliation. A man from Texas, who described himself as “a 29-year-old, 250-pound Republican,” called me “little Phillip” and offered to whoop my ass. A man in California told me to go play a long game of “go hide and fuck yourself,” and warned that he was planning to exercise his Second Amendment right. Another man from Springfield, Oregon, left a voicemail message calling me “despicable” and informing me that he would hunt me down if I returned to Oregon. Clearly, whatever message I had intended about visceral participation in politics was completely eclipsed by the messenger. In hindsight, this would be the third principle of public spectacle—and one that I was long overdue to have learned.
Ten years earlier, while living in San Francisco, I had followed the antics of a group of veteran protestors from the WTO street demonstrations who were staging a series of pie-in-the-face protests against prominent Bay Area public figures, including CEOs, political figures, and a CalBerkeley dean. They spiked their press conferences with such declarations as, “It is a good day to pie,” concluded interviews with “pie-pie,” and—with lead stories on National Public Radio and a front-page article in the New York Times—were satisfying the first tenet of public spectacle by scoring national attention.
But those antics ceased to be amusing when the Bay Area squad hit the dapper Willie Brown, then-mayor of San Francisco, in the face with three pies. The mayor's assistant tackled one of the protesters, a willowy blonde woman, so hard that he cracked her collarbone. (Ultimately, each protester was sentenced to six months' jail time.)
In the flurry of media coverage that followed, the original intent of the pie tossers was lost. According to a Mother Jones profile, on the day of the “attack,” forty different news outlets covered the incident, but less than a dozen mentioned what the activists were protesting—the Bay Area's “upper crust” and the treatment of the homeless.
Just a few hours after my essay was published, the Rice County Sheriff arrived at the doorstep of my house in Northfield. It was a day before Halloween and unseasonably warm. We sat outside, crouching on the concrete stoop. He explained that he did not plan to arrest me, even though his office had been swamped with requests to do so. He told me there would be a criminal trial, and he hoped I would cooperate.
“I just published a confession,” I told him drolly.
“So, you're not going to deny it?” he asked. “I don't need to get a search warrant for your computer?”
I shook my head and told him about the death threats. He nodded gravely, suggested that I pack an overnight bag, and kindly escorted me to an undisclosed location for the subsequent forty-eight hours.
That weekend, the media hoopla amplified, with stories trending on Fox, CNN, Drudge Report, and a front-page piece, above the fold, in Minnesota's daily Star Tribune. It was the lead story on two local TV outlets, and the City Pages, the popular weekly paper in Minneapolis for which I was writing a feature story, dedicated an entire page to me, publishing the photograph of me in women's underwear and forcefully suggesting that I should go back to underwear modeling. (Ironically, that paper settled a subsequent lawsuit for copyright infringement and publishing it without permission from the photographer.)
By Monday morning, I approached the incident the same way a disgraced husband manages a hangover: with confusion, shame, and a tail-between-legs desire to mitigate any further fallout. The college had been swamped with a thousand emails and phone calls, and the provost called me to his office. I was a visiting professor, there for only two months, and I had opened the floodgates for the biggest disgrace in the school's recent history. The meeting was brief, although not entirely unfriendly.
“I should fall on this grenade,” I told him. “After all, I pulled out the pin.” We shook hands, and I provided him with a letter of resignation and apology for the inconvenience to the twenty-five or so freshmen in the “Introduction to Media Studies” course I was teaching.
The day after I resigned, Obama was elected president, and the first major winter storm of the season chased out the mild weather across the northern stretch of America. On Wednesday morning, with permission from the sheriff, I drove back to Oregon through the two feet of snow that had enveloped the Dakotas. The radio was filled with excited political analysis. Three weeks later, I flew back to Minnesota for my criminal trial. The district attorney charged me with misdemeanor theft for the three stolen lawn signs and, in exchange for a guilty plea and a $500 fine, I avoided six months' jail time. Two months after that, I settled a civil lawsuit from the Republican Party for another $1,000. (Even though I was criminally convicted only for the three signs that I took, the civil lawsuit requested restitution for all fifty McCain lawn signs allegedly stolen in Rice County during the campaign cycle.)
Since publishing “Confessions of a Lawn Sign Stealer,” I have continued writing and teaching, penning dozens of magazine, newspaper, and blog articles, including what I consider one of the most important articles I have ever written. It is the story of gay man who started a hockey league in Wisconsin, but desperately struggled with his personal perceptions of what masculinity should look like and public expectations of him. In our second interview, he quietly told me how he had tried to kill himself three years earlier.
Yet, it is the fourth tenet of public spectacle that has had the most lasting effect on me: to misquote Neil Young, it is better to be forgotten than forgiven. When you Google my name, the lawn-sign stealing prank clouds the search—if it's not the first item that comes up, it certainly appears on the first page. And, even four years later, for people who don't personally know me, that incident eclipses their sense of who I am as much it does the Google search results, seemingly as fresh as a newly minted tattoo on my forehead.
When the editor of this publication asked me to write an essay about spectacle, I almost responded, “Oh, get over it.” Even as recently as last November, the Portland alternative newspaper Willamette Week published a short article about a project to start a new radio station in the city, which I have been helping with, and devoted as much ink to describing my past foibles as to explaining the project.
Around that time, I had been contacting several people for recommendations for board of director candidates for the Media Institute for Social Change, a nonprofit I manage that teaches college students how to make film and radio documentaries about social issues. On the same day that the Willamette Week article was published, I received what had become a typical response from a vice president at a local political consulting agency.
“Frankly,” he wrote in an email, “given your lingering perception by DT [downtown], it's probably harder than it should be for you to lead on that connection. Not being rude, just frank.”
I understand that these perceptions of me are my own Frankenstein; depending on my mood and the strength of my self-confidence on a given day, my reactions to such judgments vary from rolling my eyes to feeling as if my soul has been crushed.
I sent back an email thanking him for his time and adding, “If you ever have some time and interest in the new year, I would be thrilled to meet up for coffee and talk more about [the Media Institute's] programming, to learn more about [your company] and to show that I'm not the louse or scoundrel that the WWeek likes to portray.”
He never responded.
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