Andrew Vandenberg (supplement to talk at Summer School on Neoconservatism, 2006

Surf shops and cult wars

Late in January, a small slip advertising a sale in a local surf shop appeared in my mailbox at home in Torquay. It was one of those cheap photocopied ads that you usually throw in the bin before it comes into the house. This one caught my eye because an exchange student had recently arrived and she needed a rash vest for protection against the sun. The rashies were 25% off. Sounded good.

The sale started on Australia Day. It was very hot and the shop was nice and cool inside. It turned out that the Australian flag was all over the stuff on sale. There were singlets, board shorts, caps and thongs with parts of the flag printed at odd angles on them. Horror was my first reaction. The riots in Cronulla between locals and Muslim Lebanese from the western suburbs of Sydney were still in the news. Here was a surf company, Cult, selling a symbol of nationalism to surfers and wannabe surfers. It seemed jingoistic to me. Unlike her middle-aged, news junky, de facto father, our exchange student had not been following the news and she quite liked the idea of taking home some clothing with the Australian flag on it. I hesitated, thought that perhaps I shouldn’t be too judgmental, and went looking for the rash vests.

My first impression was soon reinforced by the discovery that the Cult company logo is very similar to the cross worn by the Templar Knights during the crusades. I thought to myself: “The bastards do want to make money selling stuff to people who want to confront Muslims on the beaches!” The shop also had posters of its advertisements in the lad magazine FHM with girls in bikinis and there were board shorts with Japanese characters and an alarming wood-block picture of a samurai leaning over a gagged, bound, and naked woman. The FHM poster seemed mild compared to board shorts that combined sadomasochism with xenophobia. To me this stuff was much more than mildly or ironically jingoistic, it was outright fascist.

Fortunately, neither my teenage daughters nor our exchange student wanted an argument. They didn’t like it either, but I suspect it was the blokey-ness of it all that put them off rather than the alarming politics of the symbols.

How would I have handled my absent teen-age son if he had wanted to buy something that was funny or cool and thought I was just rehashing political struggles so old they had been lost before he was even born? Would I have reacted like a Knight Templar myself and thrown down the gauntlet, so to speak, contacting the International Socialists with an ambition to organize protests outside Cult shops the way they used to protest outside Nike shops? It is not only baby boomer mothers who worry about fading feminist values among their daughters’ generation; fathers also worry about their sons not learning good values.

Or maybe I could have persuaded him that this stuff is on sale because it is too aggressive, too jingoistic, too sexist, too fascist for most people. Surely, the combination of a suggestion that it isn’t at all cool and disparagement of the supposedly funny side of it would have been enough.

With these thoughts, I began to calm down and think to myself that maybe skeptical Australians won’t be so easily lured by advertising and attractive shops and begin wearing a nationalist symbol, especially when it is actually Britain’s Union Jack. But I remain disturbed by the combination of Christian crusade symbols and aggressive sexism. Mostly I quite like going to surf shops but next time I get an ad about a sale in one, I will think twice about chasing cheap and possibly nasty deals.