Oh, dear. George Will is back in curmudgeon mode. High dudgeon mode.
Untouched by global warming, he’s stuck in a personal winter of discontent. These days new life is emerging in Washington, “where flowers [are] springing, gaily in the sunny beam.” But Will sees only “more clouds of grey than any Russian play could guarantee.” Unable to “drop that long face” and prone to “nursing the blues,” Mr. Will nevertheless keeps up his prodigious output, slogging “o’er the swelling drumlie wave” to offer readers his latest column, one entitled “Demon Denim” (or, “America’s Obsession with Denim”). It can be found in the Washington Post, here.
[Note: the preceding paragraph features a mash-up of Robert Burns and Ira Gershwin. Specifically, quotations from “I Dream’d I Lay Where Flow’rs Were Springing,” (a Burns poem I’m memorizing for reasons later to be discussed) and the songs, “Shall We Dance” and “But Not For Me” (which, as interpreted by Ella Fitzgerald, I’m listening to in the car). In other words, I came upon this material myself, wholly unreliant on a “Quote Boy.” You remember “Quote Boy”? He was the apocryphal, wild-eyed intern who, at Will’s command, excavated obscure quotations and erudite allusions, the overuse of which provides a signature tang to Will’s columns. (“Quote Boy” appeared in Garry Trudeau’s satiric Doonesbury comic strip during the 1980’s. Decades later, Google has become everybody’s always-available quote boy.) . . . I could go on and on, but for now, as the frustrated fifteenth century Judge cried in La Farce de Maitre Patelin, let us “revenons a ces moutons!” Let’s return to my sheep, to our topic, to the subject at hand.]
Mr. Will dislikes blue jeans. Hates them, actually. He says so over and over and over again in the column. Fathers and sons dressed in blue jeans are “a sad tableau.” Wearing jeans is “an obnoxious misuse of freedom.” Espying a jeans-clad person, Will is inclined to think: Shabby! Infantile uniform! Discordant! Blight!
Mr. Will, whose tenure on this mortal coil is approaching 68 years, confesses he’s worn jeans only once in his life. The sin was committed under duress: donning denim was a prerequisite to his entering a very informal birthday party for former Senator (and ordained Episcopal priest) John Danforth. Fresh with guilt from that dereliction two years ago, possessing little or no sense of irony, Will now lashes out at the rest of us sinners. Do you find yourself rising from bed and reaching for your jeans? You are, according to Will, putting on a “carefully calculated costume.” (Alliterative appeal aside, the idiocy of this remark is breathtaking.) When Will’s temper reaches a climax he borrows from Lord Salisbury (no surprise there) to describe the only legitimate wearers of jeans as “horny-handed sons of toil.”
Here’s hoping the comedy team of Rachel Maddow and Ana Marie Cox, who recently giggled through a teabagging skit, discover Will’s column and decide to riff hysterically on that juicy phrase.
Some wags say Will was born old, that “senioritis” afflicted him from the very outset of his public career. I have read his columns, and from them been informed and enlightened, for a very long time, all the way back to the 1970s when his columns appeared regularly on the back page of Newsweek. A notable high dudgeon moment of that era, that I initially mistook as a spoof, was his movie critique entitled, “Well, I don’t love you, E.T.” (Newsweek, July 19, 1982). Over the years I’ve harbored a hope of catching in his writing a tiny sign, some wee bit of evidence, some small sunny beam that might auger the start of a Benjamin Button-like process of reverse aging. Not of body, mind you, but of spirit. Just imagine if George Will were to retain verbal command even while freshness inspirited his perspective. Imagine the touch of a goddess, her hands on the writer, intoning this blessing: “I engraft you, new.”
[Two-word hint: The Bard.]
One objective statement in Will’s diatribe is the unoriginal observation that blue jeans trace their origin way back to practical workingmen’s gear, specifically, sturdy duds favored by miners treasure searching during the 1849 California gold rush. And Will’s point? Beats me. Is he saying that today’s denim wearers are not mining for gold? Well, ya’ got us there! Is that any reason not to adapt/adopt the fabric to contemporary uses, life styles, and preferences? Of course not. Spend a minute mining through Google Images and your pan will contain countless tiny, shiny photos of Mr. Will wearing a button down shirt. He wears them on every sort of occasion, even at baseball games. Now, it is widely believed button down shirts trace their origin to a practical solution demanded by polo players whose rowdy movements atop quick acting horses caused loose collars to go a-flapping, interfering with lines of sight. Well. Is Mr. Will qualified to sport that attire?
Citing “original intent” as an argument to freeze sartorial evolution, to veto adaptive reuse, is just plain silly. Foolish, too, in Will’s case.
Another irony apparently lost on the author is how, notwithstanding his justified appreciation of Fred Astaire, Will’s elevation of the actor, dancer, and singer as a fashion roll model for all time does a grave disservice to the man. Astaire had an easygoing, carefree, non-judgmental, practical, fun-loving, at times smart-alecky, live-and-let-live demeanor. He liked to wear, instead of a belt, an old tie to hold his pants up. Let’s say it out loud: Astaire had a quintessentially American demeanor. His persona was a perfect match for a Gershwin tune — two dozen of which he introduced to popular culture, largely through Hollywood movies. And speaking of the Gershwin brothers, consider Ira’s satirical lyrics from 1938:
“The radio, and the telephone, and the movies that we know, may just be passing fancies, and in time may go.”
Back then one imagines a coterie of literal-minded George Wills being heartened by the song’s prediction. But I think an optimistic band of Americans sensed the passage of time would prove the wonderful irony of those words. Happily, both Ira Gershwin and Fred Astaire lived long enough to confirm just that. And now, in the year 2009, with Rushbo on the radio, a few billion people holding a telephone in their hands, and movies a worldwide passion, maybe it’s time to celebrate the fact that denim, too, is here to stay.
Blue jeans are American. Detractors, get over it.
I have never met Mr. Will. I value his writing. He often says first and best what others need to hear, as he did with great force during the most recent Presidential campaign. It would please me very much if I were to bump into him (no graceful Astaire, me). But there’s a good chance any chance encounter with Mr. Will, who lives not very far from me, would occur in informal environs — at a hardware store, say, or a CVS. This means that, if he turned in my direction, he’d be scutinizing me as some blue jeans-clad stranger, suppressing his distaste and, gentleman that is is, keeping his thoughts (My, what a shabby, discordant, infantile uniform that fellow is wearing!) quietly to himself.
Yet I would know what’s on his mind.