George Will, who once upon a time long ago was capable of making truly thoughtful and important contributions to discussions over liberalism and conservatism in America, but who has, unfortunately, long since become comfortable simply defending the Republican party line, has deigned to weigh in on the matter of American dress styles. Specifically, our miserably unconservative (so he alleges) addiction to wearing blue jeans:
Denim is the infantile uniform of a nation in which entertainment frequently features childlike adults….In their undifferentiated dress, children and their childish parents become undifferentiated audiences for juvenilized movies….Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy’s catechism of leveling — thou shalt not dress better than society’s most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism — of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste. Denim is the carefully calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances. But the appearances that people choose to present in public are cues from which we make inferences about their maturity and respect for those to whom they are presenting themselves.
As Front Porch Republic has itself hosted at least one serious consideration of American dress habits, you might think that Will’s jeremiad would go over well with this crowd. And perhaps it will–certainly those of us looking to preserve elements of localism in our lives usually want to preserve other deeply rooted standards as well. But then, at what point does a standard become “deeply rooted,” anyway? And when and to what degree is exalting one standard as mature, and another as infantile, sometimes simply a matter of protecting privilege…a particular, well, dare I say “cosmopolitan” privilege at that? As Jonathan Chait notes, Will is rather lacking in self-awareness here: a year ago, he was condemning Obama and the Democratic party for their “condescension toward [working] people and the supposedly coarse and vulgar country that pleases them”….and now he looks to those same people, and sniffily tells them to dress like Fred Astaire? Exactly what kind of conservatism (if any) does Will want?
To be sure, jeans (along with t-shirts and baseball caps worn backwards) can be a sign of slovenliness and collapse of appropriate social distinctions. But one can’t help but wonder from what bearings Will takes his distinctions from: he talks about Silicon Valley billionaires wearing jeans, indulging in “nostalgic and destructive agrarian longings,” yet he seems completely unaware of the fact that there are yet in America people who work in gardens, mow their lawns, feed their animals, fix their wooden siding, cut tree limbs, lay cable wiring, wash windows, and do hundreds of other jobs–and, in the midst of those jobs, sometimes have to run to Lowes for a PVC pipe coupling–for which wearing jeans is perfectly appropriate. Sometimes they even take their kids along to the mall with them when they pick the stuff up. For this, we deserve the condemnation of Edmund Burke?
I’m a college professor, and I’m proud to say that I never wear jeans to class–as a teacher, I have a place and a role, and I have decided that said place and role is best maintained by me wearing dress pants, a jacket, and a tie. But on my front porch, here in Wichita, KS, I wear jeans. They’re comfortable, and you can wash the BBQ sauce out of them. But since I sincerely doubt Will ever does his own laundry, he probably doesn’t know that.