The same people who failed to take Bush seriously in 2001, and still sneered their way to defeat in November, are back sneering again at the new America. Argument by and about one example: in a recent column, Maureen Dowd uses a proposed Virginia law to ban low-riding jeans and the exposure of thongs as an example of the Republicans’ hypocritical drive to curtail the very American freedoms they vaunt as a mandate for global hegemony. Hypocrisy, sure: after decades of oppression, the Shiite women of Iraq should be able to wear thongs if they want. But what’s really interesting here is not Virginia’s new law, but what Dowd’s column makes of it.
Rhetorically Dowd addresses herself not to an imaginary general public, but to a group of implied readers. These are not just post-feminists who find the prospect of dress legislation in America an amusing paradox set against our war against Islamic fundamentalism. There’s another group of implied readers: the bien-pensant classes and professional elites the conservatives love to make fun of. Such people are meant to find the very idea of “turning back the clock” ridiculous, and they are meant to think that “You can’t stop progress” still counts as a thoughtful or even intelligent response to certain populist wishes.
That saying contains the fossil of an old 19th century idea, both Marxist and liberal, and it is now as complacent as “Whatever is, is right,” the conservative slogan it replaced. You can’t refight the sexual revolution, these people think, because the sexual revolution is history. If you believe this, however, you are not a revolutionary but a fatalist, a Hegelian or a Marxist without the physical and intellectual energy of the generation of 1968. Revolution, as suggested by the prefix, means precisely the return to an earlier point, even if that point is imaginary. The Democrats and the rump of the mainstream left still think that progress and revolution are synonyms. This is one more reason why the revolutionary energy of America has all drifted to the right. Progressives had a laugh about one of the Bush administration’s terms of contempt for the media elites and thinkers, “the reality-based community.” But why did we laugh? Don’t we want to emulate them? Their sneering is the sneering of the true revolutionary. Journalists and scientists have only observed the world, the point is etc.
Maureen Dowd is now our Marie Antoinette, or rather a chamber maid of the ancien régime, loyal to her mistress, uncomprehending of the changes around her. But what should the rest of us do in a revolutionary situation in which we are considered, like it or not, the members of an old aristocracy whose heads are ripe for the tumbrels? For one thing, we should pick our battles with more intelligence. (This is not a code for ceding gay marriage. Gay marriage is precisely where there should be no compromise.) What we should give up instead is the defense of indefensible social excesses and corporate culture in the name of equal rights and free speech. Our popular culture sucks, and there’s no reason to spend our breath to helping it to suck that much harder.
Take clothing. Clothing really has become indecent, and there’s little harm in passing an unenforceable law acknowledging this. In the library where I’m writing this piece, I count ten women with visible midriffs and two with “ass cleavage.” Among the men, fewer in number, two wear close-fitting tank-tops. This is to go to the library? Of course almost all students and some professors would, if pressed, say that the parade of fine young bodies, all wearing their invisible noli me tangere diamond chokers, remains one of the few charms of the present-day university. So many are beautiful between 18-22: youthful beauties haven’t lost their youth, and those who will become sexy in middle age begin to grow into their features. The ubiquity of the gym has made it possible for anyone to show off the results of their work. Some students boast 4.0s, but what are these to buns of steel? Who does not appreciate the indecency that makes the working world into a Brazilian beach? Perhaps these people dress for themselves? Perhaps for others or the others in themselves? Perhaps they are all so wonderfully well-adjusted that they’ve achieved the Augustinian nirvana of willed indifference to sexuality? It doesn’t matter. (I should be thinking about more important things. We all should.) Fashion has become a parody of the hopes of the 1960s. Instead of liberation, we get ass-cleavage. The Republicans are right to want to do something about it. Up against the wall, fashionistas!
Of course the Republicans are right in the wrong way. It’s not about decency or indecency, nor is it about respect. We should dress more conservatively because we live in sad and dangerous times, and it’s important to remember that. Victorian England wore mourning for decades because of one dead prince. When there’s so much more to mourn, should we do any less? How one answers this question is a matter for individual judgment, unaided by the state, just as it should be unswayable by Britney Spears. However, if you are serious about left-wing politics, you should be in mourning and ready for battle. The earnest left and the earnest right do meet in the dislike of the frivolous. Let’s have the courage to say that too many women dress like dominatrices and sex-slaves, that too many men flaunt their wish to be bimbos, and that this is a sign, not of liberation, but of a deep perversion of eros and also of our ideas of justice. In Plato’s imaginary Athens, the worship of perishable beauty led you on to durable wisdom. All that counts as wisdom now is advice on staying beautiful.
Laws governing dress may very well be unconstitutional, and any individual may challenge them all the way to the Supreme Court, perhaps backed by volunteer lawyers from the Gap and Tommy Hilfiger. But whoever sues should reap no sympathy from liberals and feminists. There are bad laws, but also bad causes. The Republicans have mastered the strategic art of passing bad laws aimed at suppressing things most of us despise in order to trap the liberals into supporting bad causes. We rise to the bait again and again.
Corporations have destroyed liberalism and feminism in so many ways, including morally. Their fashions (sold with sex since they lack other selling points) do not deserve a liberal’s hard-earned political capital. The injudicious defense of Hollywood violence, mainstream pornography, and bad art, along with the intellectual supervaluation of these same phenomena by people and institutions self-identified with the left has helped bring us to our current pass. Ah, when one’s political fortunes ride as low as one’s jeans! “Let them eat cake,” became the epitaph of France’s ancien régime. “Let them wear thongs,” might be ours.