I walked into the Gap at Astor Place during my lunch break and was surprised to see this t-shirt hanging pristinely on a clothes rack near the entrance. As you can see, “Manifest Destiny” is emblazoned on its front, as bold as any Nike logo.
Manifest Destiny? The 19th century philosophy that kick-started our national expansion beyond the Mississippi River? The original instigating principle of American exceptionalism? The concept that helped our country crush the Native Americans and help expand slavery into Texas?
What an odd thing to put on a t-shirt. I could think of a million other things to put on a shirt, a thousand things from the 19th century alone. Romanticism, anyone? Transcendentalism, anyone? They put Walt Whitman in a Levi’s commercial…When will this hundred-plus-year-old fashion nostalgia end? What new twists will our understanding of our expansionist past undergo before marketers find some new era to exploit? The 18th century has already been kicked around enough, thanks to 1776. I’d really like to see someone find a way to profit off the Trail of Tears, just to see if it’s possible.
I don’t mean to make this an attack on t-shirt marketers, who aren’t expected to be the most contemplative people in society, but the shirt does raise a bunch of questions. Who would buy this shirt? Do the hipsters of Manhattan and other liberal areas understand the history that underlies this saying? And why would designer Mark McNairy play with that singular phrase, what was his motivation? A lot of people on the left have associated Manifest Destiny with a kind of racist jingoism, and few on the right have bothered to take the time to defend the idea, preferring to let America’s triumphant history speak for itself (hey, we won, didn’t we?). I would have thought the idea kind of toxic, when it’s considered at all, but apparently not.
Manifest Destiny has nothing to do with the usual trove of easy themes that motivate marketers, like self-esteem and self-aggrandizement. Which is why it’s so baffling.
Perhaps McNairy knew exactly what he was doing, and is trying to redefine the term, so that we all have our own “inner country” to fill out? I wasn’t able to find an interview online of McNairy explaining the shirt, but if I had to come up with a bullshit P.R. reason to explain such a decision, that would be it. If so, it’s a good thing Manifest Destiny stopped at the continental US, with only a few exceptions. Otherwise McNairy’s inner-country expansionism — yes, I’m just going to attribute a specific motive to him. For the sake of a cheap joke — would imply Americans are inevitably meant to get fat. It’s curious because I didn’t see any XXL sizes for the shirt.
I have no real conclusion for this post. I’d have to hear what the Gap actually said about their decision sell this shirt, learn something about what McNairy thought when he designed it. I doubt we’ll ever get that kind of insight. Most likely this is a seasonal thing, and will be off the racks by late November. But perhaps this incident underscores something we’ve been seeing a lot of lately, or at least these past four years. This may be no different than the dislocation of other words from their original meaning and using them randomly in regular discourse. Can the average American actually define socialism as it was originally articulated? Doubtful.
In any case, I promise to be on the lookout for any other incongruent marketing slogans like Manifest Destiny. I still have to get back to the Gap later today. I may not like their shirts, but their pants suit me just fine. And some of them are on sale.