So the U.S. Olympic team's natty new uniforms were made in China. Anybody surprised?
Oh, right. You're outraged. Like Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of the Senate, who thinks the U.S. Olympic Committee needs to start over. "They should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them," he said. Hey, we could even hold a pep rally around the uniform-fueled bonfire. USA! USA! USA!
Assume for a moment that those very same uniforms were made in America, which they certainly could have been (we do still make a few things here, believe it or not). Would everything seem to be just fine, then?
Um, sure, if you send your kids to prep school and summer in the Hamptons. You'd feel right at home amidst people wearing blue blazers, white slacks, and for the women, white skirts and bobby socks. James, fetch me my riding whip.
Ralph Lauren, who designed the uniforms, apparently hasn't noticed, but a lot of Americans are a little touchy these days about the growing gap between the wealthy and everybody else. In the U.S. presidential campaign, one of the controversial subthemes is class warfare supposedly fomented by President Obama, as he lobbies for higher taxes on the rich and calls out his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, as an aristocrat who shipped thousands of jobs overseas while running the private-equity firm Bain Capital.
Romney has responded by calling Obama the "outsourcer-in-chief," because a tiny portion of stimulus money appropriated in 2009 may have been spent on work performed overseas. Both candidates are desperately trying to appeal to middle-class voters who fear for their jobs and know their living standards are sliding.
The political strategy may be questionable, but the economic trend isn't. Median incomes have been falling and there's no doubt that millions of American are poorly prepared for the Darwinian economy of the future.
So along comes the U.S. Olympic Committee with uniforms that represent … the cockiest, showiest members of the one percent, because that's a timely and fitting way to represent America to the rest of the world.
I'm relieved that Lauren didn't try to dress the athletes the way typical Americans might dress, because we'd end up with a parade of gray sweats and formless T-shirts. But double-breasted blazers? Berets? White shoes? A cravat on soccer player Heather Mitts?
I'm still waiting for the funny press release saying it was all a joke, ha ha, and that the real uniforms, assembled by documented workers in all 50 states, will feature jeans or lycra or fleece or something you might at least be able to spot at the local mall. They could hire an actor to play Thurston Howell III in a viral YouTube video, claiming it was all a mixup and poking self-deprecating fun at Ralph Lauren's imaginary America.
Otherwise, who will identify with these American athletes we're supposed to get to know and cheer passionately for in the Olympic Games, which start on July 27? If I were one of the athletes, I'd be tempted to call in sick the day of the Opening Ceremony, lest my friends see me in that Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit and post my picture on Facebook. You'd never live it down. I don't think they even dress like that in real country clubs...anybody know?
Wherever Ralph Lauren lives, meanwhile, he's fooling himself if he thinks it's in America. Forbes pegs Lauren's net worth at $7.5 billion, and he has at least five homes, according to Architectural Digest—a Colorado ranch, a Manhattan apartment, a Hamptons beach house (ah ha), an estate in suburban New York, and a posh retreat in Jamaica.
As long as he travels by private plane and chauffered car, he can pretty much avoid the real America altogether. Good for him. I'm not even going to argue that he should pay higher taxes or close his Swiss bank account.
But the Olympic committee should have picked somebody who mingles with the riff-raff every now and then to design those uniforms. The athletes should represent an America that's proud and ambitious—scrappy, even—not one that's pretentious or full of itself. Not now, anyway. If a single athlete on the U.S. team ever dressed in real life the way the Committee plans to doll them up for the Olympics, I'd be amazed.
Meanwhile, ESPN, the magazine, has just published its annual "body issue" depicting several member of the Olympic team virtually naked, with occasional sporting props in the frame to remind people it's a sports magazine, not Playboy or Playgirl. If you ask me, the athletes look far better in the buff than they do in their Ralph Lauren yachting outfits. And if they marched naked in the Opening Ceremony, there'd be no controversy at all about where the uniforms were made.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.