The French economist Thomas Piketty's controversial new opus, "Capital in the 21st Century," has set off a somewhat surprising firestorm of vicious criticism and effusive praise. The political right in the United States sees him as an unreconstructed Marxist for the age of Big Data, a revolutionary with reams of spreadsheets, which has made it rather more difficult to dismiss his arguments about a grim and unequal future if global hypercapitalism thrives. The left welcomes him as a wonkish hero, even as a few members of his profession probably recoil in the face of his complaints that the dismal science has foolishly overinvested in math to lend pseudoscientific credibility to its cherished models.
But it isn't entirely Piketty's arguments and analysis that have intimidated friend and foe alike. Instead, it's his uniquely French adherence to a deeply threatening sartorial affectation.
Karl Marx had a giant bushy beard. Thomas Piketty has his shirt buttons.
That's right, Piketty is a devoted practitioner of what I call the "Full Francais." As several profiles occasioned by the publication of his bestselling, 700-page doorstop have hastened to note, Piketty has committed not just the sin of questioning the bounty of capitalism - he has also unbuttoned his shirt just a bit too far.
The American male, regardless of whether he's of a conservative or liberal stripe, is tense about his cleavage. Unbuttoning one shirt button when going necktie-less is acceptable, but unbuttoning two is risky territory, and flirting with three is...well, it's European. It simply isn't done. You'll go to hell. Or the principal's office. Ministers will frown. Wives will nurture distrust. Bosses will label you a gigolo. I mean, it's not like Mark Zuckerberg goes shirtless under his hoodie, and forget about unzipping.
To be honest, Piketty doesn't actually rock the true Full Francais. That's the province of the French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy, who pretty much raised the drastically unbuttoned, Gallic chest-baring mannerism of unfastening his always dashingly white shirt nearly to his nether regions to the level of provocative high art. Every media-savvy intellectual needs a visual signature, and BHL's plunging neckline is his.
Piketty goes for more of the "Half Francais," unbuttoning only two, and from photos what appears to every once in a while three, buttons (publicly, that is - who really knows how far he takes it in private?). The only prominent Anglo-Saxon proponent of this style was the late British-American journalist Christopher Hitchens, for whom even cancer and chemotherapy couldn't contain the routine display of copious hair that Hitch himself called the "toast of two continents." Hitchens of course was a Trotskyite in his youth, which might suggest something of a theme here. When was the last time you saw Tucker Carlson in even so much as a loosened collar?
You can easily understand why the unbuttoning thing -- practical and cooling during the summer months, especially in the swampy Northeastern power corridor that Piketty recently toured to cheers and jeers from supporters and opponents -- would freak out audiences that are seeing Piketty for the first time and have little or no experience with the Full Francais. Everyone on Fox News remains devoutly buttoned-up, and even though MSNBC might be marginally less uptight, Chris Hayes is highly unlikely to start thumbing his second button, much less his third, anytime soon.
Piketty lacks the overtly louche and vaguely disreputable quality that both BHL brings and Hitchens brought to the Full Francais. He is at base a dedicated academic who just happens to have spent the majority of his life in a culture that accepts a little G-rated frontal nudity from its brainiac class. Il fait chaud, n'est-ce pas? I think, therefore I ventilate.
It's already bad enough for Piketty's critics that he's French - even the country's center-right personalities tend to veer too often toward excessive risk-taking in their dress, an obvious socialist affliction (let's not discuss former 5-foot-six-inch French President Nicolas Sarkozy's embrace of two-inch heels to keep up with first lady Carla Bruni's elevated stature at 5'-11"). That he so earnestly endorses the Full Francais makes it all the more difficult to fight through the immediate unbuttoned insouciance, the disregard for convention at the level of the chemise, and tackle the refutation of a book that tips the scales at over two pounds.
Piketty's message on this score is clear yet forcefully unspoken: A man's chest is born free, but everywhere it is imprisoned...by buttons.