We All Have Our Uniforms to Wear

Terrence Moore

February 1, 2004

Unfortunately, some young people these days take offense at other young people who demonstrate propriety in speech, decency in dress, or diligence in their duties. They are apt to display their disapproval in a predictable verbal attack.

Among the great variety of students who lived in my college dormitory, there was a young man, call him Mr. Leech, who rejected any sort of order or decorum or virtue in his own life. He never studied. He rarely shaved and kept up a self-consciously disheveled appearance. He stayed up until two or three in the morning listening to alternative music and smoking Camels down to a size where they almost burned his yellowed fingers. He also bragged about getting drunk before noon. His view on politics was straightforward. He hated all forms of authority, whether the federal government, the university administration and faculty, or old people. This young man, of course, flunked out of the university some time during his first year. Once at dinner Mr. Leech noticed a couple of R.O.T.C. students walking past the table in their uniforms. “Nazis,” he sneered to those around him after the two were safely out of earshot. Notwithstanding my desire to give this lowlife a thrashing, I simply replied, “We all have our uniforms to wear, Leech.” Mr. Leech certainly had his.

Caricature has always been the refuge of the weak-minded. Thus the many, not to say all, undisciplined young people of today, whose great model of behavior is Eminem, refer to their more straight-laced counterparts as either geeks (when they can beat them up) or Nazis (when they cannot beat them up). The latter is a particularly revealing designation. Often I hear even decent people self-consciously calling themselves Nazis. In this lexicon, teachers who enforce standards of appearance render themselves “dress-code Nazis.” Parents who get their children and others to school on time become “car-pool Nazis.” And so on. This tendency to Nazify any act of keeping order or upholding standards reveals either an impoverished sense of history and of moral judgment or an apologetic tendency on the part of the good and the disciplined who find themselves very much on the defensive these days.

History teaches us that Nazism was a political movement in Germany that merged with fascism in other European countries in the twenties and thirties. Fascism was not part of a political tradition but belongs to a particular moment in time. There were no Nazis before the First World War, and there are no Nazis today except for a few discontented and lunatic young men, losers basically, who need to blame others for their own personal failures. They lack political power. History also teaches us that fascism and Nazism were defeated on the field of battle not by an ill-bred, ill-dressed, pot-smoking rabble, but by a disciplined and uniformed military force fighting under the banner of freedom.

So rather than stamping a swastika on anyone who cultivates a seemly appearance or answers with “Yes, sir” and “No ma’am,” we should encourage young people in their practice of good manners. Adults should express approval of young people who dress neatly, carry themselves with conspicuous grace or bearing, and adhere to standards of politeness. For the adolescent culture of today urges young people to adopt an attitude of feigned carelessness that ranges from nonchalance to irresponsibility to open rebellion under the guise of being cool, rad (as in radical), or, more recently, chill.

The old way of expressing approval of propriety was through the simple words modest, proper, and ladylike for girls, and clean-cut, decent, and upstanding (literally, standing up straight) for boys. The adjective fine could refer to either. “He is a fine young man” and “She is a fine young lady” were the parental seals of approval that used to precede any attempt of young people to venture out on the town on their own. Ostensibly describing outward appearances, these words point to an inner, moral rectitude whose cultivation is the best guard against the irresponsible antics of the Leeches of the world.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is the Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.