March 29, 2008

The War on the Unique and the Unexpected -- and on Tall Top Hats

I recently wrote about the refusal of the United States government to allow Sebastian Horsley into our nation's sanctified realm, where our every thought and action are so astonishingly pure that Jesus would weep with envy. The United States launches criminal wars of aggression, it commits genocide, it tortures as a matter of national policy, yet the United States remains the sole salvation of the world, the last, best something or other of all that stuff in God's creation. Mr. Horsley, with his history of personal behavior that is not criminal by any reasonable measure, is not "our kind," he is not anywhere close to good enough for us.

The NYT has a followup piece about the U.S. rejection of Horsley, who may be debauched but isn't debauched in quite the right way. A few excerpts are worth noting:
To Mr. Horsley, who has in the past entered the country without incident, the recent fracas arose less from his past indulgences than a current one. In short, his very tall top hat.

"It’s a stovepipe," he said, referring to the subspecies made famous seven score and seven years ago by Abraham Lincoln. "They asked my girlfriend, ‘Why is he wearing that hat?’ And she told them, ‘Because it wouldn’t fit in his suitcase.’"

Back home in England, he noted dryly that he had refrained from wearing his usual makeup and nail polish on the flight so as not to attract undue scrutiny — merely a three-piece suit by the Savile Row tailor Richard Anderson, a pink-and-gold-braid tie, a black velvet topcoat and fur-trimmed black leather gloves.

"One of the first questions they asked me was, ‘What have you got inside that hat?’ I said, ’My head.’"

One suspects this might be all that would fit. By turns self-deprecating, self-aware and self-glorifying, Mr. Horsley can give the simultaneous impression that he is not as clever as he thinks and smarter than he realizes.

"I don’t see things as good or evil," he said. "I just see them as either witty or boring." As the remark suggests, he is so quick with a Wildean epigram that a reporter’s real worry is not whether what he says is true but how many times he has said it. In either case, as he would doubtlessly point out, the way to make a stand is by striking a pose.

"Dandyism to me is being real in an artificial way," he said. "I have everything tailor-made: my shoes, my clothes, my personality."


What attracts him about the hat is how it tips its brim to both respectable gentlemanly style and ostentatious showmanship. "It has an air of spurious nobility and an air of the magician," he said. "That’s what I love about the dandy: he kind of makes you believe in something that doesn’t exist. That goes with the hat."


"There are two ways of living," he said. "Either you conceal who you are and get acceptance, or you reveal yourself and risk rejection. I think it’s better to be hated for what you are than loved for what you’re not. I do want to join the world, but without beveling down my individuality."

Given how eccentricity is generally received on this side of the Atlantic, perhaps the Customs officials really did do him a favor.
This is a laughably, lamentably pathetic state of affairs for the United States, that paragon of freedom and of The Individual. Yes, we love the individual -- just so long as he is an individual like most others. I am compelled to note this is hardly a new development in our history. America has long used its particular version of liberation to cover a deadly, puritanical, soul-crushing conventionality. We staged a revolution only to head straight into aggressively moralizing evangelical pietism, of both the avowedly religious and the secular kinds.

I am reminded of a Bruce Schneier article that James Benjamin recently had occasion to note again. It is obvious that nipple rings and top hats are among the greatest of threats to national security. C'mon, this is deadly serious.

In fact, it is deadly serious in one critical respect, as Schneier discusses:
We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it's a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.

This isn't the way counterterrorism is supposed to work, but it's happening everywhere. It's a result of our relentless campaign to convince ordinary citizens that they're the front line of terrorism defense. "If you see something, say something" is how the ads read in the New York City subways. "If you suspect something, report it" urges another ad campaign in Manchester, UK. The Michigan State Police have a seven-minute video. Administration officials from then-attorney general John Ashcroft to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to President Bush have asked us all to report any suspicious activity.

The problem is that ordinary citizens don't know what a real terrorist threat looks like. They can't tell the difference between a bomb and a tape dispenser, electronic name badge, CD player, bat detector, or trash sculpture; or the difference between terrorist plotters and imams, musicians, or architects. All they know is that something makes them uneasy, usually based on fear, media hype, or just something being different.
Of course, this problem is also not unique to the United States. The war on the different -- on anything that challenges the status quo -- is one of the longest and saddest stories in human history. Yet it is almost always those who are different and unique, those who reject the accepted ways of thinking and acting, who provide humanity with the greatest discoveries and achievements in every field, from science, to literature and all art and, yes, even on rare occasions, in politics. Once a suitable period of time has elapsed and the perceived threat has dissipated, and once those who so zealously guard our morals and our culture grasp that the world has not in fact come to an end, it is safe to herald these unique individuals as deserving of great praise. They are frequently called geniuses, long after they are dead and can no longer pollute our pure souls with their dangerous thoughts.

Will we ever learn to apply the lesson next time, so as to spare those who have dreams and visions the rest of us usually cannot even grasp the immense pain and suffering we cause them? Until our species evolves through several more stages, and if we don't destroy ourselves in the process, no, we won't.

Nonetheless, on we go. Careful what you dare to think, and careful what you wear. You wouldn't want to be too threatening to the complacency that envelops most people, a complacency of such depth and pervasiveness that it becomes indistinguishable from death. On the other hand, the death of the spirit which usually precedes that of the body by several decades is remarkably unattractive, and completely uninteresting.

So I say, without apology to the fainthearted in our midst: fuck 'em. Toughen up, kids. It's cold out there.