Wednesday, September 3, 2008

In the eye of the beholder

Before I got sidetracked by our local school board's shenanigans, I noticed that Jim Kunstler's "eyesore of the month" for August was a tattoo studio. I've noticed the dude's snide comments about the increased popularity of body art among those of us belonging to Gen X and younger, but largely chalked it up to generational differences in aesthetic preferences. However, given the commentary accompanying the alleged eyesore, I realized that something deeper is involved:
The activity taking place here, however, is a symptom of the growing barbarism in American life. Tattooing has traditionally been a marginal activity among civilized people, the calling card of cannibals, sailors, and whores. The appropriate place for it is on the margins, in the back alleys, the skid rows. The mainstreaming of tattoos (on main street) is a harbinger of social dysfunction.
Now, I'm not going to pass myself off as a scholar on the history or sociology of tattooing, but I do know enough to state vehemently that he's made some statements that are factually in error, and that reveal a serious prejudice regarding what constitutes a "civilized" culture. Even a cursory scan of tattooing's lengthy history would suggest that contra Kunstler, tattooing has been quite mainstream throughout much of the world, and acceptable in many great civilizations (including Egyptian, Japanese, and Mayan to name a few). Tattoos sometimes have been used in the course of medical treatment (the earliest preserved tattoos seem to have been for such purpose), sometimes for aesthetic reasons, sometimes used in religious rites of passage. Tats, like piercings, have been taboo in much of what I suppose would be Kunstler's idea of "civilization," namely European (and later white American) culture since the early Medieval period until perhaps the last couple decades.

What's happened in the last few decades? Part of the story almost certainly has to be the increased level of individualism that has characterized the US from the 1960s to the present. What exactly caused an increase in individualism is still largely unknown, although I suspect some of it has to do with changes in living patterns and technology that occurred in the mid-20th century. Concurrent with that trend has been a trend for members of previously silenced minority groups and cultures to assert themselves, to become much more visible than had been the case previously. I suspect that for someone like Kunstler, both trends have caused a certain amount of anxiety as the previously "safe" world of sundown towns, Ward Cleaver, and Stepford Wives has receded into a distant memory. What I get from his writings is the sense that he's yearning for some return to a monocultural existence - even if only a provincial one that would presumably be possible in a post-peak oil world. At that point, in his fantasies, he and those who uphold his narrow view of "civilization" can run all those "scary" brown people and tattooed people out at sundown, and he can live happily ever after on organically grown sunflower seeds or something to that effect.

Although I bookmarked all of this for a later date, it occurred to me that there was a connection between Kunstler's periodic musings on tattoos and our school board's attempts to turn our community's kids into little carbon copies of the sorts of kids you'd find on those corny 1950s sitcoms and hygiene films. That connection can simply be summed up as one that is culturally conservative (idealizing a narrow vision of white Euro-American civilization as the standard against which all else is judged) and in which its adherents feel threatened by changes over which they largely have no control. In Kunstler's case, about all he can do is to write "clever" missives about hordes of tattooed young barbarians storming the gates of civilization and bringing about the end of the world as we know it. I imagine that if he's been gracious enough to stay away from his locality's school board or town council, his neighbors should consider themselves blessed. Those holding somewhat more tangible positions of power, as my kids are learning the hard way, can do considerably more damage.

And yes, Kunstler would just love our district's new grooming standards, which govern not just hair length and facial hair, but also forbid visible tattoos and body piercings (the latter include exceptions made for ears). These culture warriors mainly seem to be resorting to insult and coercion as their primary tactics - to me a harbinger that they wouldn't be taken seriously otherwise. Of course once these folks start resorting to coercion, I'd suggest to deal with them the way one deals with bullies: fight back and fight hard. Oh, and yes, it is incumbent for those of us who are "different" to stay as visible as possible.

As an aside, I think it should go without saying that the above tattoo studio looks quite nice, and its visitors should say that Jim Kunstler sent them (just kidding, kind of).

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