Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mohawks, Tattoos and the West

Mohawks are all the range.  Teenagers, adults, World Cup footballers and even small children are revisiting a fashion statement mostly absent since the days of President Carter.

As for tattoos, it seems that everyone but me has one.  From the elegant blue heart etched on the shoulder (polite and discreet) to the full-body multicolored monstrosity, wearable graffiti is now an acceptable norm. These days, as I sit across from middle-aged Wall St bankers I sometimes wonder what hides under the padded shoulder of their single-breasted suits? A tattoo of their pet chihuahua? A winged angel? Skull and crossbones?

The recent revival of 1970s fashion is cute but fairly meaningless.  However the reappearance of Mohawks and tattoos are a notable cultural moment.  That is because they both draw their roots from a distinctive 1970s subculture that most would rather have forgotten. Punk.

Punk in the 1970s was the voice of a dissatisfied youth. It was a full frontal rebellion against societal norms. Punk took the 1960s hippy culture to a dark place.  Rebellion with a mean streak.  Less free love, more free hate.  Punk was unpleasant, its music inaccessible. The fringes of the punk movement blurred with scary outsider groups like the Hells Angles and white supremacists.

Today's punk revival is not simply a fashion statement, it symbolizes a repeat of history.  Take two examples.

First, we are witness again to an exhausted and demoralized America. In the 1970s it was post-Vietnam syndrome while today it's post-Iraq syndrome.  ISIS rolling through Iraq is eerily reminiscent of the chopper on the rooftop in Saigon.  Punk was a distorted reflection of a sense of a failed mission.  Today that feeling of failure is again palpable.

The second is youth unemployment. 1970s punk arose at a time when Britain was mired in economic malaise and Americans were learning the meaning of stagflation.  Then, like today, unemployment was way too high throughout the West. And then, as now, young people bore the brunt.  Today, in the US, youth unemployment stands at 13%. In France it's 23%.

When our economy doesn't provide its citizens with an avenue to be productive, our society looses it sense of self-confidence and extreme individualism replaces the collective mission, the fabric of the West begins to fray. Citizens disconnect from society.  Instant answers are demanded.  And into the intellectual vacuum stride extremists.

In today's Wall Street Journal, columnist Gerald Seib argues that three forces are disrupting the US political order - globalization, alienation and populism.  I'm not sure about globalization, but on alienation and populism he's right on point.  Not only is the US political order being disrupted, we are at risk of undermining the very foundations of liberal democratic society.

The citizens of the West are broadcasting their frustration and alienation on their bodies.  And unlike in the 1970s this is not limited to a small youth subculture, it is a widely spread phenomena reaching across all stratum of society.

The good news is that just like in the early 1980s this situation can be quickly salvaged.  But it is going to require the clear-sighted leadership of a Reagan or a Thatcher.

We can only hope.

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