some ridiculousness

Now: bear in mind that I’m not an American, I live in Canada, grew up in western Europe, and my slant on these things might be a bit different. But this all struck me as utterly ridiculous. And thus, a useful contribution to the grossly underused “folly” category here on Praise of Folly.

ITEM ONE (2004)

Alas, back in 2004 I was living in the USA myself, and had not voted for that B*** person either. Also, I had not yet discovered the joys of Tom Bihn.

Worse: I didn’t have a vote there at all, what with being a foreigner, a non-resident alien albeit there legitimately on a visa and all and all. I couldn’t be a decent upstanding citizen, what with not being a citizen; but I like to think of myself as being an upstanding member of civil/ized society, wherever I happen to be living, in whatever society. Respectable and respectful. That includes performing all the requisite duties within the social contract. Including paying taxes.

By a hilarious irony, I was paying taxes without having a vote, in the very country with which the following phrase is most associated:


Uses: 1750s-60s: radical rhetoric in (Ireland and) America—cos contrary to the 1689 Bill of Rights, as colonies had no representation in Parliament—and as resurrected more recently in Washington DC, poor things suffering from same problem of a lack of representation at the legislative level as the colonies did with respect to Britain, but here with respect to Congress.

See also: the Boston Tea Party (1773), key step inthe buildup to the American Revolution… and dear to American Republican hearts, of the Tea Party variety. Thus doubling the irony.

But anyway.

Discussion has resumed online more recently of labelgate.

ITEM TWO (2011) Rumour Has It, who specialize in urban myth-busting:

(image links to post; excerpts from full answer follow below)


Let’s go see what Tom Bihn has to say about this. Doing things properly: scepticism, fact-checking, responsible research, going to primary sources, tracing/tracking it all back to the original source.

And yes, that all agrees with ITEM TWO above.

C/o the Internet Archive Wayback Machine:

and, re. the t-shirt:

Note: (just out of shot in webarchive shot above):

While our best guess here at Tom Bihn is that this was a prank meant to poke fun at the company’s founder and president, Tom Bihn himself, many have assumed that this is about another president. Regardless of what the intention was, much publicity has come of it, and many people have requested and purchased bags made with this label.

So, now, not only can you have this label inside your bag, but you can also wear it proudly on your chest. And you can feel good about it because all the profits from sales of this shirt will be donated to the Seattle Vet Center to benefit their Homeless Vet Program.

I should add here for the record:

  1. A MATTER OF PRACTICAL FACT: the extra bonus message is no longer in the Large Café bag. I checked mine (all bought withint the last 3 years). Conclusion: whatever the rights and wrongs and so on, it’s past history.
  2. A MATTER OF LANGUAGE & LINGUISTICS: the sense of that whole label hinges on two senses of “président” in order to produce a double sense / ambivalence / ambiguity, and so what is technically referred to as “a pun / word-play (French jeu de mots), whose intended effect is the production of what is known as “laughter” (an antiquated, archaic, idea and associated near-obsolete word, from which is derived the modern “LOL”).
  3. AND ANOTHER ONE: there may be a translation / cultural difference issue complicating things. It is standard French usage (i.e. use of language + how companies are structured) for “président / président-directeur général / PDG” to refer to the head of a company (by whatever name in English), and for that position to have been elected (like the Chairman of the Board in a British, American, Canadian, Australian, etc. company): voted for by the shareholders, board of directors, or other body of voting individuals who constitute “the company.”
  4. TRANSLATION NOTES: Item 3 above is a more common administrative structure in France than in the USA. Cultural note: used in English, amongst Americans, the word “president …” is more likely to carry a more immediate and stronger connotation of “… of a country” than it is to imply the wider range of applied senses derived from the main connotation of “person who presides (over anything that can be presided over.” Further, “president → of a country” is more likely to be more immediately automatically assumed to refer to “of this my country”; and the automatic nature of that assumption will in turn be assumed to be natural. With the implication that other senses are unnatural. As you’ll see below, this atttribute dovetails with “un-American.”
  5. HISTORICAL NOTE: the Founding Fathers would be turning over in their graves. Take for example Jefferson: he would have seen the joke right away, and laughed (here’s to hoping that sort of rolling over in graves, a ROFL of sorts, did indeed happen… before the tears at unfortunate interpretation by live Americans). Then again, cultural difference: that age of revolution, of perhaps the greatest transatlantic rapprochement, in universal brotherhood of rational man in unison against aristocratic repression in the name of divine right. Those were the days: when Americans and French at least read (if not also actively used) one another’s native tongues, spoke to each other, spoke a common language of shared ideas, and wrote and spoke it publicly—on both sides of the Atlantic and in both their languages—with panache, élan, and wit.
    The example in this post is just one of, alas, all too many of a modern association between the concepts of
    double-sense / ambiguity / wit / humour (and I’ll not get started on what happens when you take the “you” out of “humour”… and old joke but a good one…)
    having to think things through / wits
    there being more than one way of looking at anything, there being more than one angle of approach / point of view, your not being the centre of the (monoglot, insular) empire universe.

*historical shrug*

ITEM FOUR (2012)

8-12 August 2012: Reporting of the topic at One Bag One World. See for example this comment (12 August):

Well, maybe Tom Bihn has a sense of humor… Some of the posters on the flyertalk thread certainly don’t.

That comment persuaded me to go and have a look over at flyertalk… and all I can say is: I’m glad I know Americans who are nice, sane, witty, rational people; and that I lived there through times that were unpleasant for foreigners (2000-06), and met those lovely Americans there then: otherwise I would have snickered snidely and smugly, or guffawed, or howled, or leaped up and down in despair at the American Human Condition. And otherwise fallen into the direst of sterotypes.

What worries me, of course, is that I’ve also met living embodiments of that stereotype, and am aware from online discussion elsewhere that there’s a fair number around. Of gobsmacking views on freedom of conscience, religious toleration, women’s rights, human rights, ecological rights, and basically any major ethical, political, social, and environmental issue. (I’m not even getting started on international relations, nationalism, and economics. For that, recommended reading would be Raymond Aron or our other old favourite on here, Karl Popper. Or any other sensible wise historian with a perspicacious perspective on the rise of totalitarianisms.)

Disturbingly, often hard to tell that sort of trolling apart from actual trolls proper, of the caricature parody type.

Distressingly, such poor excuses for human beings have all those rights of which I was deprived; whatever happened in the Bush elections and however close they were, there were still an awful horrifying number of supposedly compos mentis individuals who voted in that direction; and there is a serious risk of a repetition of such folly.

But hey, editorial warning to the gentle reader aside, let’s not forget equal opportunities and justice and fairness and all that. This is a blog about praising Folly, and that sort of thing is one of Her attributes/forms/avatars.

Onwards and upwards, then: Folly be praised!

2-10 August 2012: a flyertalk thread goes off its original topic, “Need a small companion bag for my Sky Train”:

Materdei: The TB bags look nice and I read nothing but good reviews but I’ve got a problem with their politics and I’m just not sure I want to give them my money. I support their right to speak their minds just as I’m sure that they support my right to not buy their stuff because of it.

Kggm: …the label “incident”? But he is an idiot….

M: Google ‘tom bihn treason tag’ for details.

The tag said ‘we are sorry about our idiot president, we didn’t vote for him’. For them to claim they were referring to their company is a lie. Company presidents are not voted into office.

Like I said before, I totally support their right to free speech, but let’s call a spade a spade. They said what they said and then they didn’t have the guts to stand up for it.

Dianne: […] Reading the snopes write-up made me laugh.

I happen to have no issue with the sentiment expressed in French, and I’m certainly and absolutely NOT a traitor to my country. There is no way for a reader to know what president the label is referring to: Bihn, Bush, Chirac, Putin? I don’t want this thread to drift off-course, then it might get kicked to Omni or closed by the moderator…

It’s a great country isn’t it, we’re free to vote for whom we wish and buy or not buy products for any reason whatsoever.

tfar: Sweet Mother of God, what a good laugh. I’ll look at my care labels more closely from now on.

I agree that it was certainly minted on then Pres. George W.

a) TB is to my knowledge not distributed in Europe but only in USA and Canada. Especially back then. Canada is bilingual in English and French. The Canadians were (like the rest of the civilized world) not super fond of W.
The worldwide sentiment was to the point where some Americans felt it best to “disguise” themselves as Canadians with Maple pins and the likes when traveling abroad. So it is an apology about the US president to the Canadians.

b) “We didn’t vote for him” is a double entendre. Not only did TB probably not vote for him but there were also (in my view very tenable) allegations of electoral fraud, where in reality he should not have been in office.

So I agree with MaterDei that this was definitely a shot at W. But I agree with TB that it was a good shot […]

Samson: While I have been an “observer” here for quite some time, I felt the need to register just to give my feedback in this thread. This is my first – and perhaps my last – post on this forum.

First of all I want to thank Materdei for bringing the issue of Bihn’s “politics” to light. While I never purchased any of his products, I will now make sure I never will.

I agree that he is taking the coward’s way out by not acknowledging the obvious content of these tags and the message being sent and not owning up to what he obviously knew.

I own many Red Oxx products and while I happen to agree with many of Jim Markel’s opinions and life choices, you cannot equate his supposed embracement of “liberal” causes with the outright disrespect for an American President that Mr. Bihn and his company obviously promote and condone.

As an American, you may disagree with a the views and actions of a sitting President, but you do not disrespect the individual or the office. Sorry Jack, but it is “Un-American.”

9 August 2012: All of which has been reported over on the Tom Bihn blog. No responses to that post so far, here’s to hoping folks either say “meh” or regard this as light-hearted fun and/or of historical interest. It would be nice if it proves to be a damp squib, this ending of this post proves anticlimactic, and the stuff higher up turns out to be just more hilarious hyperbolic histrionics.

Seriously: nothing would please me more than to return to this post in mid-November, have a bit of a LOL, add a self-mocking UPDATE about being hoist by one’s own petard, and declare that The Praises of Folly had indeed been sung in exultation: hallelujas, hos(h)an(n)as, and glorias and all. By me.

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