Epistolary Foreword: April Fools!

Painting: Quentin Massys, "Ill-Matched Lovers" c.1520-25
Quentin Massys, "Ill-Matched Lovers" c.1520-25

Dear Readers,

Today is April Fool’s Day, and I am pleased to mark the occasion by presenting to you an April Fools Issue of our humble magazine. We’re not going to use this holiday to tell you jokes; we’re much too serious for that. Instead, in this installment of the Hipster Conservative, we will review books that are foolish, and whose authors might themselves be considered April Fools: everything from Francis Bacon’s Great Instauration to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games.

What is wrong with these books? What makes their authors April Fools? Lots of things. For instance, Sordello argues that The Hunger Games deals with ethical dilemmas by pretending they just don’t exist. I argue that Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius takes the easy way out by abandoning (and perhaps ridiculing) the possibility of communication about grief and tragedy. N. W. Smith argues, quite memorably, that Michael O’Brien’s Catholic end-times novel, Father Elijah, is foolish because it is not really Catholic at all. Foolish works of nonfiction, especially foolish works of theory and history, are even easier to spot: their theories are wrong; and when put into practice, their theories are destructive. Continue reading Epistolary Foreword: April Fools!

When Is a Book Review Not a Book Review? When It’s a Review of Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
by Dave Eggers
Vintage, 2001
485 pages, paperback, $15

Twelve years ago, with his literary debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers may have given us a book that is impossible to review, to discuss, or to criticize. In the long war of author against critic, this is an impressive victory for the author. Everything that can be said about Dave Eggers’s book (which he nicknames A.H.W.O.S.G.) has already been said by Dave Eggers. If I exaggerate, I don’t exaggerate very much: the first paperback edition of the book contains a critical apparatus that’s more on the scale of a Norton Critical Edition than it has any right to be. The front matter—including an “Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors,” a copyright page reminding us that the influence of corporations like Bertelsmann A.G. on our “daily lives and hearts” is “very very small, and so hardly worth worrying about,” and a drawing of a stapler—is 45 pages long. When I flip my copy of A.H.W.O.S.G. upside-down and look at its back cover, it becomes a different book, Mistakes We Knew We Were Making (this under-cover proudly announces not that it is a National Bestseller but that it is a National Curiosity), 48 more pages of “notes, corrections, clarifications, apologies, addenda.”

Apologies, I think, is the most apt of these descriptors. Really, these pages are more in the vein of self-deprecation—but what a self-defensive self-deprecation! You don’t even need to look further than the title to understand this: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius aspires to be just that, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It wears that aspiration on its sleeve (does anyone ever call a dust jacket a “sleeve”? I guess that pun doesn’t really work) in order to protect itself against the charge that it’s trying too hard. “Of course I’m trying too hard,” the book winks at us. “That’s what’s so funny about me.” Continue reading When Is a Book Review Not a Book Review? When It’s a Review of Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

So Long, SOPA; or, Some Days I Really Hate the Internet

Eugène Delacroix, "Liberty Leading the People" (1830)
Eugène Delacroix, "Liberty Leading the People" (1830)

News moves fast, especially when it’s news about the Internet. Between the writing and publication of this essay, it’s possible that the Stop Online Piracy Act will be quietly killed in its House committee. On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-January, as I’m thinking and writing about SOPA in the thick of the web-wide protest against it, the bill seems already bound to fail.

We’ve heard a lot about the costs (e.g., greater security costs; greater potential liability) that would result from adopting SOPA. I won’t deny that those costs exist, that they are probably huge, and that they would put some tech companies out of business or prevent new businesses from forming. As some have pointed out, sites that provide user-generated content (i.e., sites that facilitate the uploading of both copyrighted and non-copyrighted material, such as YouTube or Facebook) would face new, particularly high costs under SOPA, because they would have to ensure that their networks were not being used for piracy.

But there are costs in the present system, as well. Continue reading So Long, SOPA; or, Some Days I Really Hate the Internet

Let’s Go Downtown: What Arcade Fire Is Really Saying About the Suburbs

Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs," 2010
Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs," 2010

I

“When you meet a modern man, he is always coming from a place, not going to it,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote. Arcade Fire is a band that is certainly aware of where it has come from; how else to explain their 2010 concept album about where they came from, which sent them to the 2011 Grammy Awards to collect an Album of the Year trophy on behalf of all the good music that is predictably overlooked year after year by the awards industry? That album’s title character, The Suburbs, is an easy villain to hate. Snobs and hipsters hate the suburbs because they are not authentic, and because they are slow and boring. Agrarians and localists (if I may stereotype) hate the suburbs for perhaps similar reasons: the suburbs are not an authentic place, if by “place” we mean a location that encourages community; a landscape that constrains us and shapes our growth; or, to return to Chesterton’s statement, somewhere we can meaningfully speak of ourselves as coming from—somewhere we can call, if not our home, our place of origin. Or somewhere we are headed towards: a destination.

That’s the simplest view of the album: it’s a systematic excoriation of that peculiarly mundane manifestation of the American dream, the suburbs. Having set up this straw man, I will now boldly proceed to knock it down. I submit that the two broad condemnations of the suburbs, the urban critique and the rural critique (or, the big-city critique and the small-town critique), don’t have that much to tell us about the easily-demonized suburbs. In fact, I think the genius of the album lies in the way that its surface message—suburbs are lame—is revealed to be superficial, as its protagonists grow up, leave the suburbs, and return. Continue reading Let’s Go Downtown: What Arcade Fire Is Really Saying About the Suburbs

Superfluous Book Club: Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Part 2 of 6

Nock, Memoirs of a Superluous Man
Albert Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 1943

Each month, for our publication’s Superfluous (and rather solitary) Book Club, I am discussing a few chapters from Albert Jay Nock’s 1943 autobiographical manifesto of aristocratic libertarianism, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. Last month, I introduced the work and discussed the first two chapters; below, I discuss chapters 3 through 5. Next month, I intend to discuss chapters 6 through 8.

Chapter 3

It is one of my oddest experiences that I have never been able to find any one who would tell me what the net social value of a compulsory universal literacy actually comes down to when the balance of advantage and disadvantage is drawn, or wherein that value consists. The few Socratic questions which on occasion I have put to persons presumably able to tell me have always gone by the board. These persons seemed to think, like Protagoras on the teaching of virtue, that the thing was so self-evident and simple that I should know all about it without being told; but in the hardness of my head or heart I still do not find it so. Universal literacy helps business by extending the reach of advertising and increasing its force; and also in other ways. Beyond that I see nothing on the credit side. On the debit side, it enables scoundrels to beset, dishevel and debauch such intelligence as is in the power of the vast majority of mankind to exercise. There can be no doubt of this, for the evidence of it is daily spread wide before us on all sides. More than this, it makes many articulate who should not be so, and otherwise would not be so. It enables mediocrity and sub-mediocrity to run rampant, to the detriment of both intelligence and taste. In a word, it puts into a people’s hands an instrument which very few can use, but which everyone supposes himself fully able to use; and the mischief thus wrought is very great. My observations leave me no chance of doubt about the side on which the balance of social advantage lies, but I do not by any means insist that it does lie there.—Albert Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, ch. 4, p. 48-49.

Having arrived at the time in his life when he is a consumer of literature, in this chapter Nock denounces what he sees as the scourge of universal literacy. Continue reading Superfluous Book Club: Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Part 2 of 6

The Hipster Conservative: An Introduction

I

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. Continue reading The Hipster Conservative: An Introduction

Superfluous Book Club: Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Part 1 of 6

Introduction

One of the things that sets hipster conservatives apart from their non-conservative, non-hipster peers is their devotion to the printed word. It is only right, then, that our project recognize the pursuit of leisure reading in its rightful place as one of the pillars of living well. Since all true hipstercons are already reading and discussing books, any collective reading project would be unnecessary; as such, it could well be called a Superfluous Book Club.

For this inaugural Superfluous Book Club, I will be reading and discussing an underappreciated classic of proto-libertarian literature: Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, published by Harper & Brothers in 1943. Nock was a man of letters known mostly for being pretentious, elitist, and cynical, so his work should be of particular interest to hipstercons. I believe his attitude of aristocratic libertarianism could be summed up with the creed: “I’m better than everyone else, so just leave me the hell alone.”

And just how elitist is Nock? Not only does he oppose universal suffrage, he opposes universal literacy. Let me repeat that: Nock believes one of the problems with America is that too many people know how to read. Continue reading Superfluous Book Club: Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Part 1 of 6