Editor's Note: Jim's last two books "World Made by Hand" and "The Long Emergency" are now available at deep discounts via Amazon. The following article was originally published on July 2nd, 2007. It was one of his most popular/controversial pieces throughout the blogosphere and one of my personal favorites. If find it as illuminating as I did, allow me to recommend the book "King, Warrior, Magician, Lover" which has really helped me better understand and map out the current state of American men. -Matt
As someone who spends a fair amount of time in airports, I marvel at the way my fellow citizens present themselves in public. I see middle-aged women who appear to have left home in their pajamas. But it's the costume and demeanor of American young men especially that raises interesting questions about who we have become.
The fashion and body language of male youth in 2007 comes from three sources: prison, the nursery, and the pimpmobile. It's an old story now that many conventions of gangster fashion come out of the jail experience, where they take away your belt and shoelaces so you won't hang yourself. Apparently, at some point in US history, they stopped giving the belts and shoelaces back on release, and it became stylish to wear your trousers falling down below the top of your underpants (or butt crack as the case may be). Jail being a kind of accreditation device these days, the message may be: I passed the entrance exam.
Less obvious is the contribution of the nursery. Pants that are ambiguously neither long or short, worn with XX-large T shirts, tend to make grown men look like babies. Babies have short legs and large torsos compared to grown men. They also make big awkward gestures and touch their sex organs a lot. Add a sideways hat and unlaced sneakers and you have the complete kindergarten rig. Why a 20-year-old male would want to look five years old is another interesting question, but it may have a lot to do with the developmental failures of boys raised in households without fathers. They simply don't know how to be men. They only know how to behave like five year old boys. They even give themselves nursery school nicknames. But they are men, and what could be more menacing than the paradox of a child bent on homicide.
Tattoos used to be pretty much the sole fashion statement of merchant seamen or people who have served in the armed forces (or people who live in jungles). Now they are common among career girls. The tattooed guys I see down at the gym are ordinary young men who work in cubicles. Tattoos on sailors used to celebrate places they had been or people they had loved. The tattoos I see now are meant to convey fierce and barbaric statements of superhuman power: look at me, I'm a Power Ranger! It's understandable that someone who spends most of his waking hours in a cubicle wearing a telephone headset in order to swindle old people out of their savings might fantasize about rising above all that. But the tragic thing, of course, is that getting tattooed is not quite the same as accomplishing something with your life. In the end, you're just another loser with a grandiose and ridiculous tattoo.
The pimp connection is too obvious to belabor -- meant to mock normal executive attire while signifying an existence of total leisure and the enjoyment of unearned riches. The trouble is that the worship of unearned riches -- based on the belief that it truly is possible to get something for nothing -- has now become normal at all levels in American life. Everybody from the lowest whoremonger on Hollywood Boulevard to the Wall Street hedge fund managers believes in unearned riches plucked from "suckers." The catch is that men who live by this code almost always come to a bad end. They get their throats cut with razors, or go to prison, or manage to lose all their unearned riches (and the investments of many strangers, too).
The portrait of the young American male in 2007, therefore, is of an impotent, infantalized being lost in grandiose fantasies of power and importance. It's a picture of men without real confidence, and no idea how to achieve it, who wish to project a transcendently ferocious image complete with odds-and-ends of manner taken from comic books and movies based on comic books, in order to be taken seriously.
The rest of the world must tremble to contemplate the picture we present. The Nazi soldiers of 1944 were glamour boys compared to the riff-raff that American young men have become. As for those who actually do make it into the army, you wonder how they appear to the locals overseas -- they're probably taken seriously as exactly what the present themselves to be: manifestly evil beings who really need to be blown up. Back home, I look around at the thugs and sluggos at my gym, and I'm ashamed to be a citizen of the same country they live in.