George Won’t wear it

16 July 2009

I don’t mean to make fun of conservative commentators more than liberals (or progressives, if you’re a wet).  I am a liberal, and an unashamed one – but for some reason I don’t actually read the liberals.  I read the conservatives.  Perhaps it’s a bias against reading what I already believe – perhaps it’s a bias against seeing it badly framed and ham-handedly put.  Perhaps I have too many conservative friends.  I don’t know.

But in the vein of David Gregory’s recent attack on egalitarianism comes George Will.  (Courtesy of my friend Rich via an apoplectic rant at Kissing Suzy Kolber.)  Now I actually like George Will.  His articles are generally well-formed and thorough, if not plausible.  Generally.  Not today.  The target of his wrath?  Let’s find out together.

On any American street, or in any airport or mall, you see the same sad tableau: A 10-year-old boy is walking with his father

I think it’s a generational thing, but my first thought was “pedophile.”  Is that bad?

whose development was evidently arrested when he was that age, judging by his clothes.

Not another Michael Jackson article.

Father and son are dressed identically — running shoes, T-shirts. And jeans, always jeans. If mother is there, she, too, is draped in denim.

The enemy within.

See, I wish that was a witty joke.  But in addition to only being so-so, it’s also true. He’s writing about jeans.

Apparently a writer noticed this first (necessitating, in Will’s mind, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which we usually reserve for failed foreign leaders or people who have better but probably don’t mind the trip), and “denounced denim in the Wall Street Journal,” (of course)

summoning Americans to soul-searching and repentance about the plague of that ubiquitous fabric, which is symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche.

Will you please?

Will you please?

Apparently denim is the latest manifestion of an egalitarianism where we all look “equally shabby” and represent a sort of cultural lie.  The description is strangely Marxist, all about (as Will describes it, anyway – my eyes might bleed if I read the original) how it’s symptomatic of a desire for an agrarian past, hence McMansions, and how bizarre it is to have denim on the bourgeoisie.  Then again, I suppose this is not the sort of upper class Will wants to defenestrate for their capitalist crimes.  Eh, comrades?  Eh?

It’s here that Will starts to froth rather embarrassingly.  In a country where “[s]eventy-five percent of American gamers… are over 18 and nevertheless allowed to vote,” blue jeans have become the “clerical vestment for the priesthood of all those who believe in democracy’s catechism of leveling.”  This, of course, means that everybody should dress as poorly as everybody else.  (Though, to be fair, hobo chic has not quite caught on.)  That means blue jeans, lest people believe that we care about our appearance.

How should we dress instead?  One simple rule: if Fred Astaire or Grace Kelly wouldn’t have worn something, you shouldn’t.  Seatbelts, for instance.

Now there’s a strange concurrence here between what Brooks wrote a week ago and what Will did in April.  (Washington’s “dignity code”… Could I have stumbled upon a developing meme?)  It is this sense that a) dignity as a social concept is under attack and b) the cause is, in descending order of seriousness, egalitarianism, declining class consciousness and, why not, socialists.  (I don’t merely say that as a joke – this whole “Obama’s march to socialism” idea is rooted in much the same fear of an undifferentiated civil polity.)  It’s complete rubbish, of course, and I think there is something to be said for the fact that it’s mostly older white men complaining about it.  I don’t mean at all to suggest that Will is racist, or David Brooks, or anybody else.  But they remember an era where being born a white American male was pretty much the apotheosis of history.  It couldn’t get better.

The simple point seems to be one about fashion.  The Beefeaters who guard Buckingham Palace aren’t dressed that way because Britain is one big gay costume party – this used to be quite permissible and sensible social dress.  The fact that soldiers wore it would probably mean it was even a bit lowbrow.  Medieval dress gave way to early modern, where white tie and black tie first diffused across the classes and then was reserved to only the most rigidly formal of occasions (state dinners, weddings, and presumably mitzvahs).  That gave way to the business suit, which seems to be on the same declining slope – it became so widespread that it was no longer special, and so will eventually be reserved for occasions of formality.  (At my last couple DC internships, only one guy wore a suit on days when he didn’t have a donor meeting, and he only infrequently.)  Eventually dress pants and dress shirts and even blue jeans themselves may go that way.  It’s how fashion works in an era of mass consumption – it’s fancy (or niche), then common, then anachronistic.  Don’t like it?  Wait awhile.

But then what is the problem with all of us wearing the same clothes?  And why are blue jeans specifically bad?  If everybody wore plus-fours instead, would that be more acceptable – or is it still too egalitarian?  But of course this isn’t the point.  Not everybody can afford plus-fours, or nice suits, or tasteful evening gowns.  And that’s the point.  Clothing should be about self-segregation into appropriate socioeconomic classes.  When white suburban kids sag their pants and drug dealers and rappers wear diamonds, this muddies the waters.  It makes it harder to tell who’s from a good family, who’s doing well.  Will knows appearance doesn’t really matter in and of itself – it’s what it says.

Which is why Will’s solution, like David Brooks’, is to throw back to some mysterious wonderous past where everything was better and more decent and most importantly defined by a certain small set of apparently-rigid codes.  (With class determined by adherence to them, and knowledge of them… and ability to afford them.)   At least in Brooks’ case everybody could theoretically follow his “dignity code.”  In Will’s world this is impossible.  Those who can’t do this will mark themselves – and the problem will be solved.  “Good” people will associate with “good” people.  “Bad” people won’t. Listening to him tut I’m reminded of the Duke of Wellington’s reaction after a new Parliament enfranchised and elected the first of the masses of the British people: “I’ve never seen so many shocking bad hats in my life!”  Desperately quoting Edmund Burke MP as he does (pleading against the French Revolution for, of all things, assaulting the “decent drapery of life”), Will would surely appreciate the comparison.

Of course if blue jeans are the problem, there is one group who can solve it.  But Levi Strauss is the only person/group to be singled out without being blamed.  Such is the nature of capitalism, apparently – you can’t expect the market to be moral, only the people dealing with it.  And even that didn’t stop Will from buying a pair of blue jeans “because he had to” – for a Senator’s party.

Whatever.  Tell it to Edmund Burke.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: