I am a conservative metrosexual.
As most people know, a metrosexual is a heterosexual man who has good taste in art and music, and likes to pamper himself with nice clothes and expensive grooming. There’s only one drawback: I can’t stand much of the so-called common-man culture celebrated by the Right.
I fully realized I’m a conservative metrosexual — let’s call me a metrocon for short — a few weeks ago. The Gretchen Wilson song “Redneck Woman” came on the radio. This tune, a hard-charging boogie-woogie number, is a celebration of crude behavior, a kind of red-state aria of defiance against the staid, snobby, and civilized. The woman in the song boasts about shopping at Wal-Mart, keeping the Christmas lights on the house all night long, and standing in the front yard barefoot “with a baby on my hip.”
I had an immediate, visceral hatred of the song. It represented the one thing I truly cannot stand about modern conservatism: its defense of anything dumb, tacky, and second-rate, as long as it comes from “the people.” The common man is deified by the right. NASCAR, an absolutely idiotic “sport” which consists, as the joke goes, of “a bunch of rednecks makin’ left turns,” is hailed as red state America’s favorite pastime — and ipso facto comparable to the Olympics of ancient Greece. Actually, scratch that: NASCAR is not treated as something grand and noble, which makes it all the worse. To populist conservatives, the simple fact that Bush country embraces the sport makes its aesthetic quality quite beside the point. This is the sport of people, we are told ad nauseam by folks like Laura Ingraham, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity, who “work hard, go to church, and play by the rules.” They are the ones who watch the WWF — a “sport” even apes laugh at — and who read the Left Behind series of books, which should probably be called Theology for Dummies.
This attitude would be less irritating if it were an acknowledgment of reality rather than a celebration of the mediocre. When Bill O’Reilly goes into his just-an-average-Joe-from-Levittown riff, he doesn’t come across as a man who aspires to lose some of the provincialism of his upbringing, much less expand into different areas of knowledge and artistic appreciation. He’s proud of being a blockhead. Yet — of course — the liberals are worse. Baby boomers still dress in jeans and T-shirts (like their NASCAR counterparts), listen to music that’s 40 years old (the Stones anyone?), and try to sound like teenagers to impress their kids. Whereas JFK — one of the great American metrosexuals of all time — looked great even on vacation, with his Ray-Bans and khakis, Al Gore just looked silly when he tried to reach the common man by wearing “earth tones.” It’s the difference between Brooks Brothers and the Gap.
WHAT MAKES THIS SO SAD is that I firmly believe in the common sense, decency, and wisdom of the American people. I just wish that the attempts at self-improvement common among the masses up until the 1960s hadn’t gone out of style. People once read Reader’s Digest to keep up with the best books and thinkers. They felt guilty about not understanding classical music. They shamed those who dressed like pigs. In his masterpiece Transformation in Christ, the great theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand claimed that there are two phases of growth for the human person. The first is physical, and the second spiritual. After the physical growth stops, the human person starts to grow towards God. This, in Hildebrand’s view, entails a growth in appreciation of, among other things, aesthetic beauty and the arts. It means going from pop music tunes to symphonies, from blue jeans to slacks, from Old Spice to Polo. It means trying to improve yourself.
This is really how I became a right-wing metrocon. As a young socialist my uniform was studied rock and roll grubbiness — mullet (hey, it was the '80s), ripped jeans, rock band T-shirt. Yet when I sobered up and became a conservative — which also meant a return to Christianity — I began to experience the second growth that von Hildebrand speaks of. I went from Levis and punk rock to Saks and swing dancing. I poured out the Old Spice and went to Nordstrom’s for a bottle of Truefitt and Hill of London (founded, the bottle reminds us, in 1805, when Lord Nelson won the great battle at Trafalgar). I stopped wearing sneakers and white socks. Like George Will — a Hall of Fame metrocon — I began to prefer baseball to football. And I never stopped liking Woody Allen films — yes, I call them films. I didn’t stop growing — in fact, this was when I started growing. Soon, “Red Neck Woman” seemed like an embarrassing Bible Belt banshee wail.
Yet very few of my new right-wing brethren made their trip with me. There’s William F. Buckley, the pluperfect conservative metrosexual. Buckley, whose National Review turned 50 last year, is the picture of style, erudition, dignity, and grooming. He’s more Polo than Gillette, goes to the symphony, and would look lost at a rodeo. Buckley is representative of the older conservative order, people like Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol who can speak about Beethoven and Brahms more than Alan Jackson and Jeff Foxworthy. They read the New Criterion — a kind of Bible of the metrocon — and buy Christmas presents at Brooks Brothers instead of Wal-Mart. There hasn’t really come up a younger generation of metrocons to take over.
Sadly, in America being a metrocon is just too close to being a snob. Here snobbery is considered about one notch above child molester. Endless sitcoms are plotted around the idea that someone who is well-dressed, fussy, or otherwise “uptight” needs a shellacking from the mouth of some working-class hero like the “King of Queens.” The star of that show is a man parading around wearing a football jersey like the one his 14-year-old son owns, delights in gas and other vulgarity, and couldn’t identify a single piece of classical music. The smash one-man show Defending the Caveman is a celebration of the common man, a creature who grunts, chows on Doritos, and ceases all brain activity when pro wrestling is on. Yet this dumbing down doesn’t respect sex: In her new film With the Family, Sarah Jessica Parker plays a coifed, polite, and urbane woman who marries into an earthy red state family. The entire film is a kind of dressing-down of Parker, a thawing of her pretensions. How dare she strive for beauty, dignity, art, and knowledge.
As it stands now, things don’t look good for the metrocons. George Bush is the antipode to our kind — unlike Ronald Reagan, an actor used to cleaning up well and who looked as comfortable in a suit as he did on a horse. But he’s a good man who’s perfect for the job at hand — the War on Terror — so he gets a pass. Here’s hoping that in 2008 we conservatives put forth someone who is for low taxes, the War on Terror, and no white shoes after Labor Day.
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