You may have heard of the recent ad that Levi’s pulled from British markets. The ad features models without any impulse control worshipping themselves. In order to add a feeling of depth, they have what sounds like a Native American man reading a silly poem in restrained unemotional tones. They also threw in a meditative soundtrack–the sort of sustained slow building piano music that can make images of a guy crushing a beer can against his forehead seem as melancholic and profound as a child praying in a field. The ad was pulled because it included images of 20 somethings in Levi’s provoking riot police. This is probably the sort of thing Neil Postman had nightmares about. There is no context to the riot, merely romantic images of generic protest. The cool shots of drifting smoke and riot police serve to to ennoble riots in such a way that privileged kids across the civilized world mentally pull up their college checklist-of-things-to-do and add “riot.”
So here’s what I gather. Levi’s feels embarrassed when they show a young man provoking police and underscore it with narration that says, “You’re marvelous.” Self-worship seems a bad thing for Levi’s to encourage in rioters. But if it’s bad for Levi’s why isn’t it bad for militant secularists?
The Atheist Society of Britain took out a bunch of bus advertisements that said, “There’s probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This seems at least as offensive as the Levi’s ad. It’s not unfashionable to say this in Britain, but the philosophical bankruptcy of “worship yourself” grants little authority to oppose violent rioters who worship themselves by stealing alcohol and tennis shoes.
Stephen Fry, who is funny and smart and a bit of a celebrity in Britain is guilty of saying things that are fashionable but that lack intellectual rigor. For instance he said that man has justifiably progressed from a belief in Genesis to a belief in himself. He goes on to conclude that the true offense of Genesis (to Fry) was that Adam expressed shame at his broken humanity after he disobeyed God. According to Fry: “Our impulses, our appetites, our drives, our desires, are not things to apologize for.” Maybe he should write copy for Levi’s. Fry does irrationally conclude, “Our actions sometimes we do apologize for and we excoriate ourselves rightly.” But this is mere assertion. How can someone who professes to be wearing the latest intellectual fashion conclude that our impulses are sacred because they’re human and also suggest that our actions are less sacred but every bit as human. The tragedy is that Fry and other Atheists in Britain are promoting an intellectual fashion which is non-intellectual. They also simultaneously label those who disagree as non-intellectual. Because they are boating in the currents of popular fashion, nobody notices the engine isn’t working.
Stephen Fry once remarked to a round of applause on his program QI that people believed in God because they were “foolish and ignorant and scared.” He maintained that people should hold whatever religious beliefs they wanted except for beliefs that touched on other people. He said, “When it gets to telling people how to behave [that] is where we draw the line.” But when did the proposition “‘Thou shalt not’ say ‘Thou shalt not’” become anything but a contradiction? He might have just as easily said, “We draw the line at drawing lines.” That’s the great thing about fashion (I speak as a fool); you can be fashionably intellectual without being intellectually intellectual. It’s a shortcut that we in the States know something about (See: Jon Stewart).
Still, I think Britain might have more to fear from fashion than Americans, because while Americans are unembarrassable (to steal a phrase from Martin Amis), British people have a strong fear of embarrassment. Few things are worse to the easily embarrassed than to seem unfashionable. But if we stopped assuming the value of fashion, we might be able to stop its corroding effects.
Perhaps we would be wise to import a caution from a former era. The May edition of The New England Magazine May, 1833 suggests
“… [F]ashion, which so absolutely controls the human family, should be itself controled by reason, morality, and good taste. But the case is far otherwise, as daily observation and fatal experience evidence. Fashion is much more the growth of our animal nature, than of our moral or intellectual.”
I guess what I might be getting at is this: One who is more able to resist fashion in clothes is probably more able to resist the impulse to smash a window and steal designer jeans. One who is more able to resist fashion in thought … might equally be able to resist the impulse to smash a window and steal designer jeans.
The fashion of Levi’s or of Fry both seem equally in bad taste this season.