The Marxist ideal is at last reached. We live, finally, in a classless society: No one has any class at all.
There is a Gresham's Law in aesthetics as well as in economics, and it works with a breathtaking, ruthless rapidity. Remember the rosy-fingered dawn of the Lewinsky affair, that defining event of the Age of No Class? In those innocent days, we in the news 'n' chat biz worried whether "semen-stained dress" could be printed in a newspaper. Well, the president's precious bodily fluids made their first appearance in the New York Times on Jan. 24, 1998: "the dress contains a semen stain from President Clinton." All in all, the Stain made the Times 24 times in 1998.
Nothing is not fit to print, if not in the Times, then in some public place. The other day, I saw a man wearing a T-shirt in a restaurant. On the shirt were printed these words: "Surf Coed Naked . . ." I choose this example for two reasons: (1) because this particular T-shirt message is actually among the more mild of those that I have seen; and (2) because the man wearing it was a perfectly presentable, otherwise unexceptionable, elderly gentleman, holding in his arms a fat-cheeked toddler whom I took to be his granddaughter.
Grandpa is not alone, and he is not an anomaly. He is representative. Look around. Here, a late-middle-aged man, thick of middle and thin of hair, has wrestled the immensity of his paunch into a pair of leather pants and has tortured the paucity of his locks into a pony tail. He is riding a Harley. There, a woman of perhaps 19 has three tattoos, and she has pierced her ears (many times), her nose, her tongue, her navel and her left eyebrow. And this is only what you can see when she is dressed, which, thank God, she is, more or less.
Louting their way down a suburban street are a group of young men. They are shirtless, and the effect is not beautiful. They are also very nearly pantless; they are wearing trousers that sit so low upon their hips as to expose the upper cleavage of their bottoms. This embarrassment is not the accidental result of poverty-induced sartorial deprivation. It is purposeful and expensive. Incredibly enough, the young men are making a statement of wealth and style.
Yonder is an investment banker, or someone who inexplicably wishes to be mistaken for an investment banker, sitting down to dinner with friends in a restaurant where the entrees are priced at anywhere between four and eight times the minimum hourly wage, which is, as it happens, the wage earned by the busboy who is hovering with the bottled water. The busboy hovers because the investment banker cannot be disturbed right this second; he is arguing, loudly and profanely, on his cell phone, with his interior designer, or possibly his dealer.
What is interesting is that these people are not, to state the obvious, rebels. They are not revolting against society's norms; they reflect society's norms. They are not seeking to epater le bourgeois; they are the bourgeois. This is us. This is who we are. Impressive, ain't we?
The horror of it isn't that the sensibilities of the refined are offended. Americans have been offending refined sensibilities for going on three centuries now, and mostly this has been to the good. The horror is that we are fast approaching a culture where it is impossible to offend. This is a loss of great and innocent pleasure in life, and it affects us all, in one way or another.
I have always been, wherever I worked, among the three or four worst-dressed men. It was a small thing, to go to the office wearing an ill-fitting, secondhand sports coat and no tie, but it was not so small to me. And it was about as rebellious, really, as I cared to get; I never wanted to pierce a thing. In the new culture of no class, I cannot compete. No one can. What is an adolescent to do when even to enter the ranks of rebellion against the conventions of class requires an act of self-mutilation once reserved for the hardier of the Hell's Angels? Indeed, what are the Hell's Angels to do?
And it all marches on. I know that Casual Friday is only a stopping place. When they introduce Boxer Shorts Wednesday, I will have to go out and buy my first three-piece suit. In the end, we will all be driven to this. My sons will wear bowlers, and they will blame me.
Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal.