The phrase “hipster conservative,” supplemented by the clever contraction “hipstercon,” has been used occasionally by commentators both large and small to dismiss young conservatives whose ideas are outside the conservative mainstream and who are therefore perceived to be “too cool for school.” It might be because I am a contrarian, and it might be because our publication is called “The Hipster Conservative,” but I think this insult is a little too smart for its own good, implying, as it does, that hipstercons are not truly cons.
In this essay, I will talk about some things that “hipster” can mean, and about how those things can inform conservatism today. Hipsters are obsessed with authenticity; hipsters express themselves through ironic detachment; hipsters prize aesthetics over ethics. We can learn from all three of these attributes, and a conservatism that in some ways emulates each of them will be a better conservatism.
I used to think that a hipster mentality was primarily defined by the search for authenticity. For example, a good hipster dislikes Coldplay not because of the qualities of the music itself, but because the music was created by a band which represents the triumph of cultural uniformity; similarly, he or she likes Radiohead not because Radiohead is fun to listen to, but because Radiohead is more real. Radiohead was not invented by guys like Don Draper as a way to sell nylons. The more popular a band is, the less likely they are to be authentic. This is probably the source of the inchoate suspicion with which many of my friends regard Mumford & Sons. This is why Arcade Fire became less cool by winning too many Grammy Awards. Call it the indie rock principle: “nothing is any good if other people like it.”
Now I realize that when I talk like this I am overstating the case. Authenticity and popularity are poor proxies for ultimate quality. Really, Coldplay is not that bad. Maybe hipsters still think that Casablanca is a worse movie than Citizen Kane, or that The West Wing lacks the integrity of The Sopranos because one is a broadcast network drama and one appeared on cable, the chosen marketplace of today’s brilliant auteurs. In either example, I don’t think the more authentically artistic creations, despite being less bound by commercial constraints, are better works of art.
So authenticity is not positively correlated with the quality of an album, a television series, or an idea. On the other hand, authenticity and quality are certainly not negatively correlated, either; even if being popular does not automatically make something bad, it certainly does not automatically make it good. And I suspect that our minds are wired to incline more towards the latter error than the former; at some level, everyone is more disposed to join the crowd than to question it. To be sure, we (the hipster conservatives) distrust the marketplace, as we distrust pure and unchecked democracy, to the extent that we distrust all kinds of undifferentiated aggregation and homogeneous mass. But this is not so much because crowds are always wrong; it’s more that people tend to assume that crowds are right, and that someone should do what he can to push back against this cognitive mistake. That someone is, or ought to be, the conservative.
The most passionate criticism levelled against hipsters might be that they lack passion. Hipsters are unable to be earnest or genuine about anything, instead adopting a continuously smirking mien of ironic detachment that says “I couldn’t care less.” Ironic detachment came into its own with the 2000 publication of Dave Eggers’s Pulitzer-nominated memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers wrote about the deaths of both of his parents within the space of a few months, and about his attempts to deal with this loss while raising his younger brother. One would think these would be the most earnest of possible subjects for a memoir, but the book owes its fame more to its unexpected hilarity than to its pathos.
Much of the genius of Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work springs from its juxtaposition of ironic detachment and literary modernism; neither chooses to say what it means. Literary modernism’s irony stems from literary modernism’s recognition of the limits of communication and its reckless attempt to communicate within those limits anyway. The problem with ironic detachment is that it gives up when it runs into those limits, because nothing is worth that much effort to communicate; it cloaks its apathy with irony. Eggers’s ironic detachment is almost Socratic in its self-awareness; he can’t help pointing out that he’s being ironic, which might be its own kind of earnestness, highlighting a troubling question: are hipsters truly being ironic, or are they ironically being ironic? This might be the most annoying thing about hipsters.
When the charge is ironic detachment, instead of Eggers’s self-aware literary irony, the hipster conservative must plead guilty. To the extent that “patriotic American culture” is held out to us as something manufactured and offered for sale as part of the GOP brand—something inauthentic, as discussed above—we will tend to be ironically detached from patriotic American culture. To the extent that we take a long view of political and cultural history (and a realistic view of how much influence politics exerts over other areas of life), we find it difficult to be earnest about the political trends of the moment, and we will indeed be ironically detached from politics. The world has been around longer than we have, and it’s not going to end tomorrow if that heroic/abominable Republican/Democrat is/is not elected today. We are not Leninists, perhaps the most earnest of all revolutionaries; for us, everything is not political.
An ideology is powerful. It can be used for good or for evil, but more likely for evil, because there are a lot of things that can be used for good but only a few things (such as ideologies) that can be used for evil. Besides which, it’s all too easy to say to yourself, “Here is an internally consistent way of thinking about the world that will produce a correct answer as long as the system is applied correctly.” When it comes to ideologies, just like when it comes to popularity, we have a cognitive bias that each of us must recognize and overcome.
Hipsters have successfully overcome this bias, and I admire them for it. Kierkegaard might say that they have substituted aesthetics for ethics (in the neutral, philosophical meaning of “ethics”). The likes and dislikes of hipsters, what they think is cool, have become their rules of action. Conservatives should not go quite so far. We’re not quite Romantics, after all. But it’s always good to remember that cold, calculating reason is not the only principle that should guide us. For hipsters, as I’ve said, this other-than-rational method is primarily aesthetics. For conservatives, it’s usually something more specific: our regard for tradition, which I would argue is a more particular kind of other-than-rational method, is a more precise and more normative aesthetic. When using a purely rational method, all that is needed to describe accurately one’s position is the terms of one’s syllogisms. If instead we adopt an other-than-rational method, our method can only be accurately described if we are honest about our likes and dislikes, our aesthetic as well as our intellectual commitments. Maybe that is narcissistic, but narcissism is sometimes a necessary companion of honesty, and thus a necessary early step on the search for truth, beauty, and the American way.
In that spirit of honesty, here are a few words about our aesthetic disposition as hipster conservatives. We are arrogant. We are pretentious. We are cynical. We believe, perhaps as a matter of faith or intuition, that there are things in this world which are worth being arrogant about, which are worth pretending to, and the absence of which is just cause for cynicism. Maybe we think we’re better than you; maybe we are better than you; maybe you can be better than you, too. We stand athwart history yelling “stop,” not just because history is moving in the wrong direction (it is), but mostly because, honestly, we really enjoy yelling “stop.”
And so we present to you, at the dawning of A.D. 2012, a new web magazine that will make no apologies for its unfashionability. In these virtual pages we intend to praise and denounce all manner of things, from old books to tiresome politicians. We are aware of the danger in choosing so much of life and literature as our theme, and that the subject matter of our monthly publication may consequently be ragged and inconsistent. All our researches, however, are aimed at the goal of discovering things which are better than the things offered by the mainstream (both temporal and cultural), and we ask your indulgence in advance for the times when this goal proves impractically overbroad.
If you think all of this sounds like fun, we invite you to join us. If you think all of this sounds like fun, but that it might not be worth the effort, and you decide to approach it with an appropriate spirit of apathy, congratulations: you’re probably a genuine hipster conservative, and we welcome you to what we are ironically calling the club.