Automobile owners in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts now have the option of a new specialty license plate. A percentage of the extra $40 fee goes to “support state and local police, firefighters, MBTA Transit Police, EMTs and their families in times of need.”
Who could object to helping first responders? These are the men and women who put their lives on the line for all of us, all the time. But the Massachusetts State Police campaign hat on the plate (think Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing, or Smokey the Bear) reminds us of recent disclosures about exorbitant overtime salaries for some state troopers. (Some troopers, particularly on the Logan International Airport detail, have allegedly earned over $300,000 a year. And the troop that covers the Massachusetts Turnpike may be disbanded to discourage further abuses of the public purse.)
Aside from the current issues affecting the troopers in their blue Hermann Göring-like uniforms, one maybe should ask why the widows of policeman and firemen need additional funds. And why is a license-plate surcharge the best way to secure those funds?
Yet the trooper license plate is not as egregious as the Choose Life one. Ostensibly, “Supporting the positive choices of life, adoption and safe havens,” this plate is clearly the darling of anti-abortion forces. As such it carries a heavy political message that seems to go beyond raising breast-cancer awareness or supporting the environment. (Virginia is one of the only places I know of with a counter plate: "Trust Women. Respect Choice,'' although perhaps one could imagine the corollary, "Choose Death,'' say, for Hells Angels or the Hemlock Society.)
The proliferation of specialty license plates is out of control, although the New England states lag way behind in the number of options available to its car owners. Several states offer “In God We Trust” monikers, which some might think violates the First Amendment separation of church and state. Kentuckians can mount a black plate that supports the Friends of Coal, while 9/11 memorials, autism awareness and veterans’ tags can be found in most states. Virginia has a “Protect Pollinators” (butterflies, rather than fertility clinics), there are numerous farm-themed plates to buck up agriculture, and in Texas, the Sons of Confederate Veterans sports that not-so-subtle symbol of racism, the rebel battle flag.
As a colony, Massachusetts spearheaded the armed rebellion against British rule. Perhaps, the often-groundbreaking commonwealth could lead the way back to a simpler, no-nonsense license plate – one that does not shout for attention or shill various political causes. And as nod to those folks who believe that license tag has to have some signifier, how about resurrecting the cod plate of 1928 – no motto, no flag, no credos, just the sacred fish.
William Morgan is an architectural historian, author and commentator on numerous design matters.