Burke and Burkinis

Albert Camus adored swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. It would be fascinating to know how this great philosopher, who was acutely aware of France’s complicated relationship with the Arab world, would have reacted to the burkini ban on the French Riviera.

It’s a controversy that has brought rashness on both sides. Witness the jarring images of police on the beaches ham-fistedly trying to impose the ban, and also the patently false words coming from the Muslim head of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that the burkini has nothing to do with matters of “public order.” No one in fashion can accept that clothes and how you style yourself has no meaning or is a matter of cultural indifference.

I do want to offer a few comments about sumptuary laws, however, and at more length, about whether Marks and Spencer is right to sell the burkini. Stated more broadly, is there such a thing as a national brand and, in consequence, is such a business morally obliged to support its particular civilization? France’s Socialist government, believing the answer is yes, has criticized the venerable English retailer.

“In her view what she wears is her own business—and no one else’s, a right she thinks that should be enjoyed by all women everywhere.” This statement ends a recent New York Times article on the burkini and expresses the view of a Muslim woman wanting to wear a burkini.

Let us try to put religion to the side and assess the truth of this statement. Were I to walk into a new class wearing a Star Trek bodysuit and in all seriousness start to teach, that would be an issue. I’d look awful; but even if I looked just like dashing James T. Kirk, it would still be an issue. Students would rightly think I was not serious-minded and likely would even feel that I was imposing upon their generosity far too much. Quite apart from food and safety regulations, the costumes for the games we play, the professions that require dress-ups, and modesty laws, there is a large array of social norms requiring dress compliance. Consider funerals, events that are “Black Tie,” girls’ night out, First Communion, or meeting the in-laws for the first time.

There is a hideous song by Miley Cyrus containing the line, “It’s my mouth, I’ll say what I want to.” This is as false as what the woman said to the New York Times reporter. And its falsity is the same whether you are on university grounds or in a local car parts shop.

What about the owners of a business saying we’ll sell what we want to—does that ring any more true? Marks and Spencer has recently been criticized by the French government’s women’s rights minister for investing in the “Islamic garment market.”

Pierre Bergé, longtime partner of legend Yves Saint Laurent, has this to say:

Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion. Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.

This dense statement makes reference to a number of values and disvalues. A full unpacking of both would take some time but suffice it to say here that Western fashion defers to beauty, liberty, visibility, and mobility. Let’s take this from Bergé’s statement: the burkini is no part of the trajectory of Western fashion.

Let’s also take it as uncontroversial that there are national brands: James Bond, Aston Martin, Burberry, Mulberry, Ferrari, Hermès, Cucinelli, and, amongst so many others, that staple of the British high street, Marks and Spencer, affectionately known as M&S.

Now, the trickier part: Is a national brand obliged to affirm the values sustaining its own civilization?

It’s likely libertarians and conservatives who would struggle most with this question. The liberal humanitarian would immediately say that Marks and Spencer must sell the burkini as part of its CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) obligation to globalism, and specifically to British multiculturalism. For the liberal humanitarian, national obligations makes no sense.

Libertarians, in contrast, are allergic to CSR. They would deny that social justice obligations are implied by property-holding, preferring the claim that holding property in business is for the sake of making money and it would be entirely at the discretion of property owners how they then spent that money. However, many libertarians would also recognize that this view of property is a legacy of long philosophical and legal meditation, and might be nervous about a staple of the British high street like M&S departing so significantly from Western fashion. Libertarians are not insensitive to the idea that a culture broadly committed to riches, vanity, fashion, and autonomy helps sustain a robust account of property rights.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are faced with a very sticky wicket. They don’t much care for CSR as typically expressed but do have their own variants, linked perhaps to virtue theory (Alasdair MacIntyre), distributism (Max Scheler), or CST (Catholic Social Thought), and so unlike libertarians would hold strongly to the view that businesses have all manner of ethical obligations. Unlike the humanitarian liberal, however, they would think M&S has an obligation to support those values that have long sustained the company. Moreover, the appeal of the burkini to the value of modesty would not be lost on the conservative. The puzzle is whether a modesty claim quite outside the trajectory of Western fashion would be acceptable.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) can help here. Burke was an Anglo-Irish political philosopher during the latter part of the 18th century. His Reflections on the Revolution in France is a classic and viewed as the bedrock of contemporary conservative thinking. It is a magnificent read. He argues that the institutional life of a nation must follow the “method of nature” if it is to be happy and successful.

The method of nature expresses “the spirit of philosophic analogy” and works along the lines of a “family settlement.” Institutions change; they have a history, but they also have stable coordinates in space and time. Like a family, an institution will have a past (history), present (place), and future (trajectory). In the natural world, creatures thrive by balancing inheritance, territory, and reproduction. Families and institutions are no different.

Under this way of thinking, the very idea of a brand, especially a national brand, expresses an inheritance (in business-speak, its “DNA”). This inheritance is also a place: a brand has a geography. Companies need to think about logistics, risk, environment, materials, personnel, capital, and design for that very reason. They have geographical identities. Founded in Leeds in 1884 by Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer, M&S is Western, and as Pierre Bergé points out, being Western means to defer to a particular cluster of values—aesthetic, political, moral, and technical—these being the inner bearings of a brand’s trajectory.

Brands have become unstuck before, precisely by losing sight of their value geography. Just ask Gucci. M&S might want to re-check its coordinates.