There’s a certain clothing company that wants to be my best friend. They’re so friendly and attentive, and I know they like me a lot because they write to me many times a day, offering me special exclusive deals that nobody else is privy to. The other day they sent me this message…
Do you see how it is? Dress YOUR way! EVERYBODY in khakis! You can have your own unique style just like everybody else. We’re all individuals! We’re all the same in being utterly original. Here in America we’re a nation of mavericks, we all do what we want to do and like what we want to like. Of course it helps if plenty of other people like it, too. Not everyone of course, but the right people, the cool people, and we can depend on advertising to reliably tell us who those people are. And we can count on the internet to tell us what’s viral and trending, so that we see exactly what everybody else sees, and so that we remember to watch to the very last second, because that is the moment that will astound us!
Oxymoronically, even our most conservative politicians are mavericks. They keep us on our toes, we never know what crazy method they’re going to use to ensure America’s complete homogeneity. They’ll spin a web of stories and lies stretching as far back as America’s earliest days, weaving strong fibers in the fabric of our origin story mythologies: that people who are different are dangerous, and that they want to steal everything that makes us prosperous and happy. They want to steal the jobs we do in khakis, and the settled life that “everybody in khakis” ensures us. These maverick politicians will tell all the same stories that they’re told to tell, to stir the deep, rancid, simmering hatred that these lies have spawned, they’ll stoke the violence that centuries of poverty and frustration have provoked.
Remember Herbert Hoover’s rugged individualism during the depression? Well that’s who we are, we’re all individuals who can take care of ourselves, with no help from the government or anyone else at all. Well, those of us living in poverty should be rugged individuals. Those of us who have never needed to wear a uniform to work can rely on a little government protection and assistance, and surely they’re entitled to it, for doing the important job of saving us from anyone different from ourselves. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us in his speech, “The Other America,” in 1968: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” It’s the myth of the bootstraps. We can pull up our own! We can iron our own khakis, and those of our bosses and their children.
Because there’s no greater marker of distinctive idiosyncratic style than a good pair of khakis. Originally adopted as a uniform for soldiers, so that they were all uniformly dressed, this drab fabric is supposed to stand out nowhere on nobody; you’ll melt seamlessly into the background wherever you may be. And now it’s the uniform of waiters and clerks and businessmen, and an angry racist mob carrying tiki torches, of anybody who needs to be just like everybody else.
I once read an article about American Expats the world over. It had a picture of a little boy with his face painted like old glory, and the caption said something like, “I’m not a gun-toting unthinking patriot,” implying that people were fleeing the country because it was being taken over by gun-toting unthinking patriots. The caption turned out to be a little misleading. In fact most people interviewed in the article had left the country because they fell in love with somebody from somewhere else. Which is why plenty of people leave plenty of countries, and even why many people come to America.
Of course the truth is that despite the fact that advertising agencies are shaming us into looking alike on the outside and conservative politicians are trying to make sure we’re all the same race and religion, despite the fact that we haven’t always had the highest tolerance for difference, America has a splendid history of eccentrics, some celebrated, some obscure and forgotten. Many of the people who first declared America to be America, and then many of the people who forged West on some mad mission, despite the hardships and deprivations, must have been completely bonkers, and not always in a good way.
But we also have a rich history of writers, artists, musicians, and just plain humans who were eccentric in a very very good way. What makes American eccentrics different from any other sort? I think there’s a wildness to the madness, a roughness. We have none of the refined eccentricity of an Oscar Wilde. American eccentrics are ruggedly strange, maybe even ignorantly or naively so, at times. But we’re strange in many languages. We combine the foibles and superstitions of all the different nations that chatter across our land. There’s a freedom to our eccentricity, a freedom of odd speech. American eccentricity knows no class and has no class. Until they try to dress us all in khakis.
And the truth is, that despite what my new best friends at the clothing company and their associates in the advertising division might tell us, you can be completely bonkers in a good way even if you’re wearing khakis. Even if you’re wearing the wrong khakis, which are out of style and ill-fitting and which you were forced to buy to work at some job that is strangling your soul. Even then, you can have a world of weird and wonderful thoughts in your head, which are unique and distinctive and entirely yours.