I’ve been enjoying the last couple of days here near DC, talking about Homeland Security and Visual Net to government people, a lot of them really smart and pretty senior. We Antarcticans are relative newbies in the local culture and language, but have had the advantage of excellent local mentors, people who are part of the culture, have illustrious track records and get things done. I can say without a shadow of cynicism that it’s a pleasure to watch these people work. Weirdly, I’m continuously reminded of Jan Wong’s wonderful writing on the differences between China in Mao’s time and after it.
The Government of the United States has its own culture and language and practices and community. It simply could not be otherwise, given the scope and complexity of the operation. The US Government is (with the exception of the military) smaller, relative to the size of the nation, than that of every other developed country; and yet it is vast almost beyond imagining. It is difficult to get anything done, as it is difficult within any large human organization. Our mentors here know who the people are that can get things done, and how to make contact with them, and what to say and not say, and how to follow up. That this process is political goes without saying, but that doesn’t mean it deserves any less respect.
The process of politics may not appeal to all, but it is substantially better than the alternative, as the briefest glance at most of the more poverty-stricken and war-torn parts of the world reveals. Personally I am entirely without these skills but have a lot of respect for those who practice them expertly; as I have a lot of respect for those who have taken the time and trouble to master any challenging human vocation.
Suits · The idiom of dress here, in particular for men, is confined to a remarkably narrow range of expression. Suits are worn, and these suits are dark in colour but never black; deep navy-blue has a large plurality if not an absolute majority. Brown and (dark) grey may be worn, but rarely tan and never green or anything approaching white. Shirts are white, or if not white pale. Ties are dark, are red or black or blue singly or in combination, and are tied with a smallish rather than large knot. Shoes are formal and highly polished; some of the free-er spirits exhibit tassels or gaudy leatherworking.
It all works pretty well. The fact that the outfits are about the same doesn’t obscure in the slightest that some wear better clothing and some wear clothing better. One of our mentors here in particular wears beautiful suits right in the middle of the comfort zone, and wears them beautifully.
One reason all this works is that the eye soon tunes out the clothes and focuses on the faces (since hairstyles are also conservative, there is little distraction). A little thought reveals that this is highly appropriate in a milieu that is all about politics, because politics is all about individual people and the relationships between them, and a culture tending to uniform dress, perhaps paradoxically, may focus more attention on the individual, simply because there’s less to distract the eye from the face.
I, by the way, enjoy wearing a good suit, I get mine hand-made from Zegna fabrics by Angelo on Commercial Drive. But while fairly conservative, they are perhaps a little out of the Washington mainstream. Since I’m being wheeled into meetings as a technology ornament, this is probably OK.
Mao Suits · These observations are mine, but there is also a strong echo of Jan Wong, a Canadian of Chinese extraction who spent many years in China, before the end of Maoism and since then, and wrote about it beautifully, in real-time for the Toronto Globe & Mail, and in her book Red China Blues, which I’d recommend to anyone. It has perhaps the best first-person reportage on the Tienanmin Square butchery that I’ve encountered. The long story one of whose chapters was written in blood in Tienanmin is of course not over and I predict that chapter will be an imprtant one, in retrospect.
She wrote about her first trip back to China after several years of absence during which Maoist cultural orthodoxy lapsed. When she went away, everyone wore Mao suits and when she came back, people were dressed colourfully in a modern mostly-Western style. Obviously people enjoyed this and dressing up is a basic human right, but Jan Wong can’t quite repress occasionally missing the days when the clothes were all the same and thus the faces stood out, and you looked at the people instead of the clothing they wore.
(Sci-fi buffs may also hear an echo in the back of their heads of a very similar sentiment expressed in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.)
It’s remarkable that here in the world headquarters of power and money, the prevailing sartorial winds blow in the direction of most people wearing very-similar blue suits. But given that this may be the most people-centric town anywhere, perhaps not surprising.