From a reader:
Oh I LOVE this discussion. I have on my wall at home a framed collection of antique mug shots taken around the turn of the century. Two pickpockets, one vagrant, one fellow arrested for “suspicious behavior,” one peeping Tom, and fellow was running a numbers racket. Every one of them is wearing a suit and tie, and three are sporting hats. These fellows weren’t products of a consumer culture; they were from the street at a time when very few people in society—let alone the bottom rung—had any money. It’s only since the country has grown so supremely wealthy that the rich have taken to adorn themselves with rags purchased at Neiman Marcus for exorbitant sums.
As you know, Theodore Dalrymple writes about this all the time. What must it mean to some working in a factory in rural China who keeps what few clothes they have immaculate to go to work and shred a perfectly good pair of jeans for the racks at Bloomingdales? TD was recently interviewed by a Dutch newspaper correspondent and the subject of tattooing came up. Says Dalrymple, “it represented a mass downward cultural and social aspiration, since everyone understood that tattooing had a traditional association with low social class and, above all, with aggression and criminality. It was, in effect, a visible symbol of the greatest, though totally ersatz, virtue of our time: an inclusive unwillingness to make judgments of morality or value.”
What struck Dalrymple about this well-dressed, well-spoken interviewer was how indifferent he was to the tattooing trend. The interviewer simply said that it was legal and that even Dalrymple didn’t believe it should be illegal, so why give it a second thought? “What I found so odd about the correspondent were his perfect manners and refined tastes. But so little confidence did he have in the value of the things that he valued that he seemed indifferent to the mechanism of their disappearance or destruction. This is the way civilization ends: not with a bang but a whimper.”
Here’s the whole thing: http://www.city-journal.org/html/15_4_diarist.html