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If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I'm not much of philosopher...or much of a reader, for that matter. Yet this book gets an easy 5/5. It's surprisingly easy to read for how deep some of the topics are...it moves along at a very digestible-but-entertaining pace.

Also, the vignette-like structure makes it really easy to pick up and put down. However, I found myself saying "oh just one more" whenever I finished one, so maybe not super easy to put down.

I highly recommend this book for...
- philosophy students
- intellectually curious kids
- adults
- all book clubs
- birthday/graduation presents
- anyone who needs to go to the bathroom and wants something to read

I guess I'm highly recommending it to just about everyone. I'm putting it in the rare category of "can't miss."
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2011
Format: Paperback
This was not exactly the book I thought it was when I put it on my "to-be-read" list so long ago. I thought it was going to be more of a historical look at the bumper sticker itself; how they came about, have evolved, why people love them, etc. Imagine my surprise when I realized that I was going to get a lesson in philosophical theory instead!

But it works, it really does. I thought it was very clever of Bowen to use something we all know (and mostly love), something as simple as a bumper sticker, to delve into some pretty tough topics. This small work covers just about everything: "reality", "the self", "values", "morality", even "the big questions". Each chapter has one of these general titles, then we get the bumper stickers.

For example, under the chapter "God and Religion", there are bumper sticker slogans ranging from "God Said It. I Believe It. That Settles It." to "God, Please Save Me, From Your Followers!". No sticker is safe, and Bowen discusses the philosophy behind them all. And brings up some valid points that I hadn't really thought about, either. Such as when he discusses the sticker "When You Pray Get Off Your Knees". I'm pretty sure I've seen this one somewhere before but have never really given it much thought. Bowen talks about the driver's selection of this sticker, that this person most likely believes that you need to do something to change things other than pray. Or that you can pray, but still need to get off your butt and do something to help yourself as well. Bowen uses a quote from Frederick Douglass to illustrate this point: "I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs." Perhaps the driver would have the companion sticker on the other side of the bumper (just my thinking here....), "God helps those who help themselves."

It's a very interesting look at such a small, common thing, one that really makes the reader think about the "slogan" being advertised. Some stickers have a good, solid philosophical theory behind them; others are completely destroyed by Bowen, who points out a lot of faulty logic. A fun read, and one that will teach you something while entertaining you at the same time.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2011
Format: Paperback
The premise of this book struck me as promising when I picked it up, as I am a great lover of both bumper stickers and philosophy (which I teach, along with literature and history at the college level). Sadly, the book failed to deliver. Indeed, before halfway through I thought about putting it down for good, but chose to finish it for the sake of writing a review.

The book does not really do what the jacket blurb purports it does -- "dissects and reassembles the bumper-sticker 'wisdom' on passing cars." Rather, it uses bumper-sticker slogans as points of departure for (in the manner of the mechanicals in "A Midsummer Night's Dream") a sequence of brief, tedious musings that largely present center-left conventional wisdom. Being somewhat center-left myself, I didn't see terribly much to disagree with, but the fact is, I learned nothing new -- nor was any new light shed on old truths. In the end the clever premise for the book was rendered trite.

At first I imagined that my reaction stemmed from the fact that I was not the intended reader of this book, that it was aimed more at the young who are still forming their ideas about life and so on. But the further I got into the book, the more I wondered who the intended reader might be. The writer's voice is initially genial in this book, and charming at times, but it too often descends into glibness and mockery, the sign of someone less interested in persuading others than he is in asserting his own intellectual superiority. It's clear the writer has a quarrel (as do I) with Christian fundamentalists, but does he imagine that taking such a stance is going to change any of their minds? In my experience, it only hardens them. Hence, I think the book is mostly aimed at folk who already agree with the writer, in which case, what's the point? (I would add that the book at no point engages the stronger Christian thinkers or apologists, who are serious and sometimes rather formidable thinkers; Bowen largely contents himself with shooting at easy targets like Creationism, healing prayer, and popular superstitions, often conveniently oversimplified.)

Likewise, the mini-essays in this book largely lack rigor (there are no citations or notes for anything quoted or alluded to) -- I would even say they border on sophistry of the easily detectible sort, certainly on par with what one finds in partisan op-ed pieces in good city newspapers. There's a place for that in public discourse, but to call it "philosophy" is what Huck Finn calls "a stretcher." To be sure, Bowen quotes philosophers, but I remark he mostly approvingly quotes chaps like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, John Dewey, and others of their camp as if they were unquestionable authorities rather than contentious public intellectuals. Catholicism (I am not Catholic) gets routinely thumped; Buddhism always gets an affirming nod. This smacks of a smug, conventional contemporary prejudice. I'm wondering if the author, if gravely ill, would rather go to St. James hospital or the local Qi Gong healing center?

Bowen's stance toward Utilitarianism is quite confused -- at times he seems to condemn it; at times to embrace it (subtextually and overtly).

I was disturbed to see factual problems. For instance, on p. 147 Bowen claims that "since 1900, the United States has executed twenty-three innocent people." He offers no source for this, but I take it his source is Radelet et al (1992), a study that has been seriously disputed by legal scholars and law-enforcement researchers. I take no position here whether Radelet is correct or not; my point is that to simply assert this as an uncontrovertible fact (and to offer no citation) is beyond tendentious. Further, in the section on torture, Bowen asserts that waterboarding was a crime that "the U.S. prosecuted in war crime trials following World War II" (p. 144). Not so: the Japanese method of water torture involved the forced ingestion of water; waterboarding used by the CIA involved the kind of simulated drowning that U.S. Navy SEALS (and other military personnel) experience in SERE training (I would add that war-crimes prosecutions against the Japanese involved POW abuses that went well beyond this). I can attest that it isn't fun, but it also isn't fatal: forced ingestion is. On the matter of education, on page 190 Bowen points out that "In 2008 the Department of Education had a budget of $80 billion dollars, while the Department of Defense had eight times that," conveniently ignoring that education is largely a state and local expenditure, and according to the Statistical Abstract of the U.S., in 2008 total education spending was around $900 billion.

Now let me be clear that I'm neither a fan of capital punishment nor waterboarding. The problem is that one weakens one's ethos (see Aristotle's treatise on Rhetoric) when one presents as facts things that are not facts, and thus becomes less persuasive. Hence, Bowen undercuts his own cause with these tactics. And the sad thing is, I believe on re-reading this book I would easily find many similar tendentious constructions. This book almost amounts to a bad case for mostly good things, which makes those good things less likely to come about.

And here's the really sad part: philosophy has a lot to consider in bumper stickers. There are some incredibly witty bumper stickers out there (my favorite: "God is coming, and She is pissed!"). Really great bumper stickers are rife with irony and paradox, and Western Philosophy has a hard time still with irony. The Western tradition is one of rational discourse and ratiocinative thinking; even quirky characters like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche follow the Cartesian pattern of starting from a premise and reasoning onward. Irony and paradox tend to deflate that enterprise, as they remind us that we embrace within our minds a host of contradictions. Perhaps this is why I've come to prefer literature to philosophy, as novelists and poets and playwrights seem more alive to that human condition than do philosophers.

Maybe the first Eiron, Socrates, would have liked bumper stickers more than we would have guessed. I'm not sure we'd know that from this book.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I had heard Bowen interviewed on NPR and was excited to buy this book, particularly as my own studies have involved quick sum-it-all-up blurbs that people write in guestbooks at historic monuments. I hoped that, in addition to an assemblage of witty bumper-stickers, Bowen's commentary would provide (humorous) insights into the motives behind bumper stickers, (witty) analysis of origins in meanings, and the relevance of philosophy to the various positions assumed in bumperstickerism. The book proved sorely disappointing. The bumper stickers often speak well for themselves ("All Extremists Should Be Shot"), but are then followed by inept commentary "That's a little extreme, don't you think?" (p. 163).

The treatment of religion is particularly inarticulate. Bowen generally seems to mean conservative/fundamentalist, American Protestantism when he's not: (1) posing the shallow "If all religions claim to be right, are any of them?" question (p. 95, 210, etc.) or (2) reminding us that Muslim women are victims of honor killings "often carried out publicly" (p. 181). Ha! Ha! Ha! Love the humor! On pages 92 - 94 he writes about the Ichthys, inaccurately transcribing it as I-X-O-Y-E, thus missing both the Theta and Sigma (which he transcribes as O and E), also missing the alliterative-phonic origins of the symbol I for Iesous, X (chi), for Christos, etc. Instead he equates the symbol with creationist theology "Fish symbol: God - the Christian god - created everything just as it is in its current form" when the origins of the pop-Christian phenomenon were not rooted in the fundamentalist debates over evolution but were a part of post-Jesus movement marketing and notions of Christian (including Catholics who have been fine with evolution since Catholic theologians in the 19th century claimed that "It is in perfect agreement with the Christian conception of the universe; for Scripture does not tell us in what form the present species of plants and of animals were originally created by God. As early as 1877 Knabenbauer stated "that there is no objection, so far as faith is concerned, to assuming the descent of all plant and animal species from a few types" (Stimmen aus Maria Laach, XIII, p. 72)." (Cited from the on-line New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia).

His treatment of Ethics and Morality are equally shallow. He becomes as ham-fisted when he ventures into Politics and Society, noting smugly that "And with most of the concern over gay marriage coming from the religious right, it should be somewhat of a surprise that their divorce rate is higher than that of the non-religious atheists and agnostics." (p. 181). Sure, it's a comedy book,so he doesn't need to back up anything he says, but he does dip in and cite the Pew Forum on public research when he wants to back up selected statistical points (p. 111) and he pontificates so much, he might as well be writing sermons for Christopher Hitchens (who loved the book, btw) and cease posturing as a philosopher. It is not surprising in this context that Bowen frequently quotes religious "expert" Richard Dawkins (p. 79, 95, 161, 210), and gives awkwardly mangled interpretations to the likes of Kirkegaard (p. 77) and Pascal (p. 209): "Pascal frighteningly instructs us to 'renounce reason,' 'deaden our acuteness,' and 'realize nothing is certain ... for it is not certain that we may see tomorrow.' By decontextualizing the philosophers' statements, Bowen can play fast and loose with their philosophies and prop up those he esteems (Camus, Hume, Sartre) and make those he disdains appear as fools. I wouldn't want to be guilty of the same accusation, so i leave page references so you can print this review out, take it to a bookstore, and fact-check my claims. Bowen fails to provide his readers with footnotes, not even clear references to the works he cites. As such it's not much use to the philosophically-curious if they wish to pursue further study. But it may be good for a snort of self-congratulatory snide disdain that free-thinkers can enjoy while sitting on the porcelain throne. Frankly the works of Ben Goode are far better for that sort of thing.

Really, it's a tractate for atheism disguised as a comedic book on bumper-sticker philosophy. There's nothing wrong with that (aside from the disingenuous false-advertising). But it was neither particularly funny nor insightful.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 15, 2015
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Interesting perspective on getting at the social attitudes and opinions of bumper-sticker sloganeers. And humorous, to boot. And a good introduction to Philosophy 1A.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 4, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
The book is a wonderful masterpiece of witty philosophy that can be handled by high school kids up though senior citizens. It's an easy ready but definetly takes a little bit of focus to truly understand what Bowen is trying to portray about modern society. When you're in the mood for a break from that novel and could take some easy humour to lighten up your day, this is the perfect choice. The short chapter style of the book makes it really easy to pick up and put back down because you don't find yourself stuck in the middle of a really long chapter and don't have to worry about not remembering where you were in a story. Read this if you enjoy life's questions, Bowen offers some interesting insight in a very entertaining way. Overall, excellent 5 star read. Don't miss this one.
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10 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2010
Format: Paperback
wow. i pretty much randomly picked this book off the "new books" shelf at the library because the title caught my eye. How easy and entertaining it is. Everything is told on a level anyone(me being a high school student) can understand and the humor is very funny i actually laughed out loud..it takes no effort to sit down and read this nonstop
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 27, 2011
Format: Paperback
When I picked up this book, I wasn't sure what to expect. It's a surprisingly good read with lot's of fun and thought-provoking perspectives and arguments. I really liked how each section stood on its own and was packaged to be consumed quickly. I ended up reading a few sections each day and always found something interesting in there. Anyway, I highly recommend it if you like to think beyond the surface about what's going on in the world.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2011
Format: Paperback
I'm a huge fan of books with perspective and philosophy and this book is just that. The reading isn't difficult, it's quite entertaining. It scratches the surface at some things and forces you to think about it. It also offers some fun facts, and is packed with light humor. I recommend this book for anyone who likes to read about perception.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
As a number guys, I'm not inclined to read many books on philosophy but Bowen's light romp through the world of bumper stickers is both fascinating and entertaining. The pace of the book is fast and almost gives you the feel of riding down the freeway passing cars and analyzing their bumper sticker.

Having been involved professionally with social media, the notion of bumper stickers as the precursor to Twitter is both relevant and enlightening. I found Bowen's viewpoints often challenging, never mundane and found myself rereading certain parts to slow the pace down so I could come to my own opinions about his different points. That in itself should prove the compelling nature of this unique book.

Great read for anyone looking for some unique perspectives.
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