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Uniform Stupidity
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Uniform Stupidity

Our institutions are so weak that they cannot tell anyone to grow up and play by the rules.

Jonah Goldberg (back) and Zoë (front). (Photo Credit: TFJ)

Dear Reader (especially those of you who lobbied to get wieners back on wheels),

I’m writing this in the parking lot of a Des Moines Hilton next to my RV in a camping chair that has a leg rest and an extendable umbrella to block out the sun or, in my case, a light rain. I’m smoking a cigar while wearing a T-shirt that says “None of the above” with a checkmark next to it. 

I bring this up for a little travelogue color, but also to acknowledge that I’m a bit of a hypocrite for complaining about other people indulging their bespoke slobbishness. I just recorded a podcast in which I ranted about the Senate becoming a safe space for slobs to make life easier for Sen. John Fetterman, but not enough to fully get it out of my system. 

Then, while looking for something to write about, I saw that I missed Nick Catoggio’s take. I agree with him pretty much entirely, except for his concern about sounding like an old fogey. In fact, I am absolutely positive that I would have been much angrier about this when I was younger. For me, getting older means becoming mellower about such things. But I’m still appalled. 

Nick writes:

One wonders how much the shorts-and-hoodie get-up might be a sort of costume, in fact, something Fetterman believes he needs to be seen in as often as possible to affirm his blue-collar identity. He is dressing professionally, we might say, just as his staffers are. It’s just that pandering to voters is a different profession than working in a Senate office is.

Of all my non-cranky problems with Chuck Schumer’s decision to waive the (unwritten) rules about appropriate attire on the Senate floor, this gets closest to it.

When Fetterman lumbers around the Senate looking like he’s late for a tailgate party or a 1970s Romanian porn shoot, he’s not wearing a costume. He’s wearing a uniform.  

Clothes make the man.

Let me back up. For all of human history, how you present yourself has been a statement of who you are. Perhaps not always in some metaphysical sense, but in a social sense. In prehistoric societies, it might be how you cut your hair or what your tattoos looked like or what parts of your body you pierced. The dudes with blue body paint? Those are Celts. The weirdos in togas? Those are Romans, or people who want to be Romans. 

Such fashions could signal membership in a group as well as status within that group. I’ve always been fascinated by sumptuary laws, which forbade people from wearing certain clothes or objects above their station. Virtually every society had formal or informal sumptuary laws. Some had religious purposes: Only priests could wear this, only nobles could wear that, only the king could wear purple. But almost everywhere, a major purpose was to prevent the rich from flaunting their wealth. In late medieval Europe, rulers created all sorts of rules about what colors, fabrics, or furs you could wear, largely to prevent upstart bourgeois types from looking like nobles. Occupations had dress codes too, dictated by guilds and custom. 

Think of it this way. Imagine we lived in a society where you couldn’t get a loan from a bank, or a meeting with a government official, unless you wore a bandana tied around your arm. But, in order to keep the unwashed from leaching off the privileges of the elite, the aristocrats continually changed the color and which arm to tie the bandana around. You could find out only from a daily email that went to the select members of the privileged class. In other words, fashion can serve as an informal —but no less impassable—barrier to entry for the unwashed. 

That’s how fashion—and language—worked for millennia. You need to dress and speak the right way to be taken seriously. All societies create shibboleths of one kind or another that signal whether or not you’re part of the in-group. 

Still, one of the radical things about American culture was how we rejected so much of this stuff. Intellectuals will often note that socialism didn’t take root in America because we didn’t have the rigid notions of class that came with Europe’s feudal past. But this often leaves out the rigidity of notions of class and social status in Europe. Visitors to the still-young USA were stunned by the inability to instantly recognize social status and rank from a person’s attire. From Suicide of the West:

Thomas Colley Grattan, the British consul in Boston in the 1840s, disdained the peculiar culture of equality in the former colonies. Servant girls, he complained, were “strongly infected with the national bad taste for being over-dressed, they are, when walking the streets, scarcely to be distinguished from their employers . . .” Ferenc Pulszky, a Hungarian politician touring America in 1852, was dismayed to discover that Americans rejected the unofficial uniforms of class. In Europe, there was “the peasant girl with the gaudy ribbons interlaced in her long tresses, her bright corset, and her richly-folded petticoat; there the Hungarian peasant with his white linen shirt, and his stately sheepskin; the Slovak in the closely fitting jacket and the bright yellow buttons; the farmer with the high boots and the Hungarian coat; the old women with the black lace cap in the ancient national style, and none but the young ladies appareled in French bonnets and modern dresses.” But in New York, he complained, “no characteristical costumes mark here the different grades of society, which, in Eastern Europe, impress the foreigner at once with the varied occupations and habits of an old country.”

“Before the end of the nineteenth century,” Daniel J. Boorstin writes, “the American democracy of clothing would become still more astonishing to foreign eyes, for by then the mere wearing of clothes would be an instrument of community, a way of drawing immigrants into a new life. Men whose ancestors had been accustomed to the peasant’s tatters or the craftsman’s leather apron could show by a democratic costume that they were as good as, or not very different from, the next man. If, as the Old World proverb went, ‘Clothes make the man,’ the New World’s new way of clothing would help make new men.”

But just because we threw off the rigid rules of the old system didn’t mean that we didn’t come up with new rules. You know most of them, because there are so few, and most can be covered with the phrase: “Dress appropriately.” People generally understand what this means. Going to a funeral? A wedding? A business meeting? Show some respect and wear the appropriate attire. You don’t wear a suit to a business golf outing and don’t wear golf attire to the boardroom. And if you’re elected to the United States Senate, don’t dress like you’re driving an old fridge to the town dump in your pickup truck. 

In our exceedingly democratic culture, we’ve come to think that dressing appropriately is some form of elitist conformity. But we still have the elitist conformity. We’ve just made it less knowable and accessible for non-elites. Silicon Valley did a lot to destroy the older, more democratic, rules. The Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg “casual” look was a sumptuary signal to distinguish itself from the staid and stodgy rules of the old business culture. It had nothing to do with money—those dudes are rich! —and everything to do with oppositional culture. Despite the casual dress revolution, we still have our sartorial shibboleths. But instead of consulting your grandmother on what appropriate attire is, you now have to consult—I honestly have no idea—fashion magazines or Instagram influencers or something. 

One of the things this often highly cultivated and pretentious anti-snobbery pose misses is that clear rules on how to dress are actually good for the poor and underprivileged. For instance, dress codes for parochial schools decrease class differences. If the rich kids and poor kids all have to wear the same dumb blue blazer, school tie, and khakis, the poor kids won’t have to get into a sartorial arms race. 

Of course, there will always be ways in which the rich will flaunt their wealth (In “Such, Such Were the Joys” George Orwell recounts how the rich kids at his school got a couple extra pennies to get sweets at the dining hall).  

Let’s get back to Fetterman. I’ve long argued that America suffers from a cultural autoimmune disease. The nasty thing about some autoimmune diseases is that the body attacks healthy organs as if they were invasive threats to the body. Any institution that imposes limits is seen as “elitist” as if elitism is always and everywhere bad. Some of this takes the form of populism. Some of it even manifests as literal iconoclasm. Remember the fad of a few years ago where roving mobs of the self-righteous tore down statues? First it was Confederates and other accomplices of slavery, but ultimately they ended up tearing down statues of abolitionists. All those old white dudes look alike, after all. There’s even a movement to “decolonize” architecture because there are too many evil spirits in old concrete. 

All of it is the result of the romantic notion that external rules, particularly old external rules, should not constrain me. I am too much of an individual to conform to your rules. Everyone wants to be a rebel. The plural form of this mindset can be a statue-toppling mob, or a norm-toppling populist movement.  

Regardless, everywhere the rebels go, they push on open doors and think they’re Hercules, heroically bringing down the temple with their courage and strength. The last few years have shown us that our institutions are so weak, so lacking in internal confidence, that they can’t tell anyone to grow up and play by the rules. 

Fetterman didn’t courageously take on the establishment; the establishment folded like the sort of cheap suit Fetterman refuses to wear because Chuck Schumer didn’t have the minimal intestinal fortitude to tell Fetterman to wear a damn tie. He has such an open mind, his brain fell out. 

The reason Fetterman doesn’t want to wear a suit is no doubt in part that he feels like business attire is a costume and he has to be “true to himself.” But, just as important, he needs to signal that he’s the kind of guy who “keeps it real” even in the Senate. I think people who fall for this are idiots. The Senate, by design, is literally an elite institution. There are only 100 of them. That’s one senator for every 3.3 million people. Pretty elite, that.

Fetterman’s attire is the uniform of his populist tribe. It’s a political gesture. Judges have a uniform—a black robe with no insignia—to signal to the court that they are impartial, with no allegiances to any tribe or faction. It’s part of the job. I’m sure some judge somewhere would like to ostentatiously wear a sidearm or maybe a Gadsden flag T-shirt. But we understand that this self-indulgence would signal partiality. 

He says he’s doing the work his constituents elected him to do. But despite the fact that one of the job requirements is to dress appropriately, that’s too much to ask of this tribune of the people. Dressing appropriately is the work. A very small part of it, to be sure. But that should make it easier to comply, not harder. If you’re a funeral director, part of the job is dressing respectfully. If you’re a waiter at Chotchkie’s you have to wear the minimal amount of flair. It’s not a lot to ask, but it’s the price of the job. He’s like the professional athletes who insist they must be able to literally wear their politics on their jerseys.  And woe betide anyone who says, “I’m sorry, but the uniform comes with the job.” 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: It’s been quite a week. After nearly a week on the road with just me, Zoë and Pippa were very happy to be reunited with the Fair Jessica. We finally went camping with our rig. We went to Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming. It was really spectacular. The dogs have not made peace with the van yet. There’s something about it that makes Zoë in particular very nervous. She tries to hide in the foot space under the dash, which is inconvenient given her size for the passenger, but straight up dangerous for the driver. So she spends most of her time sitting up, breathing hot dingo breath on us. This makes her very tired and thirsty—all of that panting. Pippa wants to be up front too, but she’s okay with napping in the interior if necessary. In Nebraska yesterday, we drove through 100 miles of really gnarly weather. There was a tornado warning, which seemed plausible given how scary the skies were. When the hail started coming down in earnest, we had to pull over for a bit. The girls did not like any of that. 

But man do they like camping. Pippa loved digging holes, getting dirty, and going swimming. Zoë, after getting a good night’s sleep, reverted to the hunter she was in her youth. Searching for varmints and patrolling the perimeter for threats. 

We’ve also learned that they really like automatic doors. Pippa in particular thinks all doors should immediately open when she walks up to them. Last night, while I was getting more gas (diesel is expensive!), TFJ took the dogs for a walk, and they went right up to the front door of a Dollar General store next door and just walked in. The owner thought it was very funny, and so did the girls. 

ICYMI

And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.