Magazine | May 29, 2017, Issue

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Modern life, for the socially aware, consists of a million filaments that constrain your every thought and action.

You have been dragooned by friends to go to McDonald’s, because they want coffee. You are concerned: Is it fair trade? The only other possible option being coffee commandeered at gunpoint by grinning goons from United Fruit, who have already shot some burros to get the grower’s attention.

Does the McDonald’s pay a living wage? The only other possible option being a convoy of tumbrels that take away the employees who drop dead on payday.

Are the uniforms made of organic cotton? The only other type being some strange, lab-grown inorganic cotton spun from sludge pumped out by Dow Chemical’s dioxin factories.

Are you using the drive-thru, which means you will be fuming because the cars ahead of you are fuming out exhaust that will produce lethal hurricane seasons in Florida any year now — although serves them right, when you think about whom they voted for. It gives you a moment of pleasure to think about those inbred yokels choking on their chaw-juice when climate change whips their satellite dish off its stick and decapitates the statue of Jeeeeeezuz they have in the front yard. But then you think about polar bears and you’re mad again.

The easy answer to these vexing anxieties: Throw a brick through a McDonald’s window during an anti-free-speech protest, because Trump likes Big Macs. Or, if you can’t be there, at least share or like a video of someone who did. You don’t want your kids to ask what you did during the Resistance and feel a blush of shame because you didn’t retweet that meme.

Not that you’d have kids. The carbon impact! Might as well set an oil well on fire!

If you are such a person, everything is political. And that’s great! It means you can judge other people for absolutely everything — including whether or not their pants are non-ironically nostalgic.

Confused? Here’s an example. The New Yorker is concerned about whether people might be wearing the new J. Crew collection for the wrong reasons:

When I contemplated those dresses, what struck me was their willful nostalgia; preppy clothes may be inherently nostalgic, but the whimsy of these items seemed over the top. During the Obama years, nostalgia might have seemed harmless, even admirable, but today it feels like a troubled and doubtful impulse. Does it make sense for young, urban men to dress up like Rust Belt factory workers, or for women to embrace the style of Hyannis Port in the nineteen-sixties? The answers to those questions have changed over the past six months.

If Hillary Clinton had won, it’d be jack-dandy if young, urban men dressed up like Rust Belt factory workers. It’s not okay now, because those are the uniforms of the deplorables, and to adopt their mufti validates racism, sexism, xenophobia, and uncritical enjoyment of Billy Joel songs.

Nostalgia: Now it feels like a troubled and doubtful impulse. Nostalgia was permitted under Obama because the past, which was of course awful, nevertheless produced — or failed to prevent — the shining present. For all its sins and fits and fights, the past had birthed our world, which was pointing in the right direction.

Now it’s back to being problematic. Because it should be! Anyone who says he likes cars with tail fins ought to be asked whether he also likes segregated lunch counters.

Another question that has changed over the past six months:

“Does it make sense for women to embrace the style of Hyannis Port in the nineteen-sixties?”

In other words, because of policies shoved down the nation’s throat by a stubby-fingered misogynist, suddenly it’s worrisome to adopt the styles of an era when women had fewer rights. But wearing the uniform literally associated with Hyannis Port, the residence of a man who treated women like chewing gum — well, that would be okay if the election had gone the other way.

Anyway. The author says J. Crew is failing because no one wants to be a J. Crew person anymore, or wants to have a predetermined store-bought persona into which they can pour themselves. He notes what Internet clothing ads look like and says:

The ads rejected, or claimed to reject, the whole idea of “life style.” In many cases, they showed products without models, just floating in space. The implication was that I was a self-defining, self-sufficient person. I didn’t need to aspire to some other life; I could build one myself, without entering some bubble-like subculture.

And this is news to a grown-up, I guess.

Who wants to live like this? Who wants to be constantly exhausted by subjecting every anodyne act to the scrutiny of the groupthink’s consensus du jour? Today boxer shorts are okay because they hark back to the honest proletariat bloomers of the ’30s, when unions were strong. Tomorrow they’re bad because underwear has been historically gendered, and wearing it perpetuates a system of oppression. The classic men’s Y-front assumes the wearer has a penis. Seriously. Like this is 2007 or something.

The end result of all this isn’t changed behavior on the part of the perpetually worried. The end result is just blog posts and tweets and shaming campaigns to keep everyone else in line. Sure, that J. Crew top might be incorrectly nostalgic, but it’s cute and it’s on sale. Besides, it’s organic cotton.

And the clerk looked biracial! So it’s totally okay.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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