Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ben Stein Gives Fashion Advice

Ben Stein — the guy from the Clear Eyes commercials — went on an angry rant on his semi-regular CBS Sunday Morning editorial, complaining the usual conservative complaints about how much better things were in the olden days. What's destroying society this time? Neckties — they're headed the way of the ruff and cravat, and the percentage of American men wearing ties regularly is at an all-time low. I'm still waiting for the day when I can walk into work in my little footie pajamas, but it's a step forward, no longer having an arbitrary piece of fabric choking you all day long.

When I was a lad and a younger man, men wore these to show they did not work with picks and shovels and pitchforks.

Ties were a symbol of white collar status, although even some workmen wore them under their leather aprons.

If you had on a necktie, it showed you had some sense of organization, some sense of dignity about yourself.

Even schoolboys wore them. At fabulous boarding schools like Cardigan Mountain in New Hampshire, where my handsome son went, boys still wear them. It showed, to use a word that you rarely hear, class.

And what, Mr. Stein, is wrong with working with picks and shovels and picthforks? Someone's sounding awfully elitist, with his Hollywood connections, Ivy League education, son at a "fabulous" (read: gay?) boarding school, and silk strip dangling off his collar for no reason other than to show off his "class." The cultural shift — lagging behind the cultural shift — must be a little humbling for Ben. Back in his Nixon-speechwriting days, Ben and his tie lived with presidents and CEO's in the moneyed elite, the people who could do their jobs while sitting in a thick leather chair. They left our cranky old fogeys behind with the junior associates, assistant managers — the subordinates who don't get a say in the matter.

"Power is being able to dress the way you want," argues a Joseph Abboud executive. Save for casual Fridays, I am more powerful than any lawyer, banker, or trader in New York. Ah, it seems the tables have turned.

What Ben needs is a Xanax and an invitation to the twenty-first century and away from his Eisenhower-age nostalgia. He's looking to his comfort zone, where "men were there to work, not to play," as the very thought of Ben Stein playing boggles the mind. I bet he wears his tie and loafers to the beach and has no clue why that "Bueller, Bueller" was funny coming out of his mouth. Back in the day, Stein's nameless economics teacher character would've been able to punch any insolent student who laughed at his monotone, in the eighties we could mock him and now we just exploit him to sell eye drops and Creationism. Pushing the status quo must be a relief for the poor man.

It's as if the tie makes the man for Stein, and our supposed progression towards a slacker culture could be reversed not by reinvesting in our infrastructure or education — that would be expensive — but just wrapping our necks. But why is Stein moaning in the first place: he and his whole tie rack will do just fine no matter where the culture strays — rich people just enjoy that privilege. It's from that privilege that blinds Stein to the real forces shaping the zeitgiest. There was opportunity back in the fifties, hence some reasons to not slag off. By the Ferris Bueller days, with the birth of elitism and the expansion of our class stratification, the payoffs of hard work only went to the power-suit elite, or to the lucky, undeserving asshole who skips class and somehow winds up leading a parade down Michigan Avenue.

These days, hard work on its own gets you nowhere and the tie is a key to a door that might or might not exist. Ben tries to reach the young'uns' demo almost name-dropping Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as guys who wear ties on TV, "It will probably come as a shock to all of the network newscasters and the late night talk show hosts. They're the coolest guys on the planet, and they wear neckties." (That "coolest guys on the planet" thing: I'm pretty sure he ain't talking about Craig Ferguson there.) They're a great example of how out of touch Stein is, with the youth, with logic, and with reality. Ben chastises us, "Start dressing like grownups and acting like grownups. The necktie is a start," as if dressing like grownups isn't merely the most superficial means of acting — pretending — like grownups. Thanks, Dad! I know I'm grounded but I'm gonna sneak out my bedroom window at midnight, too. Me and the gang are gonna smoke some cigarettes, then shoplift.

Stewart and Colbert don't sit us down for talks about being grownups. They treat us like adults, and that's why they don't have to ask for our maturity and energy, and that's why they're the coolest guys on the planet. They really are like the neighborhood cool parents who you can rebel with, against the tie-fanatic monotonous Ben Steins of the world.