Blind To The Obvious

The Urban Outfitters/Kent State sweatshirt controversy seems unbelievable to me — but maybe I just don’t realize how little companies know about the schools whose names get put on the front of products those companies sell.

In case you missed it, Urban Outfitters was offering a faux vintage Kent State sweatshirt that was daubed in red paint smears and splots.  Of course, anyone who knows anything about Kent State and its history would immediately think that the sweatshirt was referring to the shootings that killed four Kent State students and wounded others on May 4, 1970.  Not surprisingly, people were outraged by what seemed like a sick effort to profit from a terrible American tragedy.

Urban Outfitters claims, however, that it “was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such.”  Which is worse:  trading on a tragedy, or being so obtuse and insensitive that you don’t recognize that a red-spattered Kent State shirt would inevitably be thought to allude to the May 4 shootings?   It’s a close question in my view.

Urban Outfitters is one of those stores that tries to portray the most hip image possible.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the people who designed the offending sweatshirt had never heard of the Kent State shootings.  If you treat everything as just another “brand” and make no effort to understand an institution or its back story, this kind of embarrassment inevitably is going to happen.  Urban Outfitters should be ashamed.

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The Known Versus The Unknown

On Thursday the people of Scotland will vote on whether to dissolve their ties with England and become an independent nation.  After an early history of bloody wars, Scotland and England settled their differences and have been part of the United Kingdom for 307 years.  All of that could end on Thursday if the Scots vote yes, and emotions are running high on both sides of the referendum campaign.

As part of the United Kingdom, the Scots have experienced the glory of being part of the world’s most powerful nation and won two world wars, but many of them are chafing under the restrictions that come from the current arrangement, where Scottish aspirations might be subjugated to the votes of the English.  Independence, and a sovereign nation that will consider only Scottish interests, therefore is a tantalizing prospect.

But there are risks in independence — and opponents of a yes vote are describing those risks in gory detail.  Major players in the Scottish financial industry, like RBS, have indicated that they will relocate in the event of a yes vote, and supporters of a continued United Kingdom argue that a yes vote will hurt Scottish universities and — horrors! — the Scottish whiskey industry.

The key question raised by opponents of independence is whether Scotland’s economy is sufficiently large to hold its own on the world stage, or whether its budget would be out of balance, interests rates would rise, and businesses and academic brainpower would flee the country.  Proponents of independence say that such concerns are simply scare tactics ginned up by the English, who fear how they will fare, economically and politically, if they are forced to go it alone.  Would an independent Scotland struggle — as has been the case in Iceland and Ireland — or would it be a sturdy economic engine like Switzerland?

Of course, it’s impossible to say what the future holds — so the vote boils down to a classic choice between the known and the unknown, comfort and risk, old and new.  Scotland’s great poet, Robert Burns, spoke of fear of the unknown in the first stanza of his poem A Prayer in the Prospect of Death:

O THOU unknown, Almighty Cause
Of all my hope and fear!
In whose dread presence, ere an hour,
Perhaps I must appear!

We’ll find out whether the Scots elect the known, or the unknown, on Thursday.  People throughout the United Kingdom are holding their breath.