At the nurses' station in the hospital ward where I work hangs a pinup of British soccer star David Beckham, perhaps the world's most famous sports figure. His annual income is in the region of $25 million.
The picture has him wearing a white T-shirt and a pair of designer jeans, carefully torn at the left knee, with a loose thread hanging down. This hint at rags is a fashion, or affectation, that I find offensive. It is an insult to all those who must wear clothes with holes in them for lack of better ones: of whom, sadly, there are still many millions in the world.
When I think back to the heroic efforts I have witnessed of poor Africans to make themselves clean, smart, and tidy for special occasions—efforts that filled me with admiration—I feel a visceral anger at this frivolous assumption of false poverty by people who have never had to wear rags in their lives. Once, only Marie Antoinette played at being a shepherdess; now, it is a mass phenomenon.
Do the people who affect torn clothes really want to be taken for poor? A vocation for actual poverty is actually quite uncommon. Do they imagine instead that they are expressing solidarity with the poor by wearing pants with holes? At the very least, the assumption of torn clothes suggests an inchoate idea, or complex of ideas, about poverty and the poor.
It implies a residual guilt at not being impoverished, at being rich enough to afford clothes without holes. Yet why should anyone feel guilt about being rich, unless his wealth were ill-gotten? Today, though, as a result of cultural indoctrination, many people, particularly the young, believe that all wealth is fundamentally ill-gotten.
On this view, one can only accumulate wealth at someone else's expense. Therefore, if you wear untorn clothes, you in effect are condemning someone else to wear rags, for one man's wealth is another man's poverty. Best, then, to side (symbolically at least) with the wretched of the earth by wearing rags. Of course, jeans with pre-torn holes are often pricier than jeans without. No doubt, laborers toil somewhere in the Third World to produce these carefully ripped garments. It is an irony that a taste for symbolic poverty provides employment to people who might have to wear real rags.
But the idea behind the affectation—that economies are zero-sum games, that my wealth is your poverty, and vice versa—has done incalculable harm, far greater than any slight economic benefit that it might have brought to the tearers of jeans. One could say, in fact, that a high proportion of the twentieth century's catastrophes resulted from this fundamentally stupid notion.
Gestures are important, of course; those of solidarity and compassion may bring relief, even without material benefit. But cheap, thoughtless, or condescending gestures may enrage. Rich people do poor people no favor by wearing rags, even by famous designers.