While many conservatives are unwilling to back Donald Trump, few conservatives of any stripe are willing to openly support Hillary Clinton.
Enter Rachel Held Evans, a pro-life Christian, ex-evangelical and current Episcopalian. (As are a number of us here at The Hipster Conservative.) As a popular blogger, Ms. Held Evans made a name for herself as an in-house cultural critic of evangelical Christianity. Now she takes up the unenviable task of making a pro-life case forHillary Clinton.
Her case is simple and clever, if ultimately unconvincing. She argues that to be pro-life is to have a consistent life ethic. Therefore, she says, we must not simply outlaw abortion but also, “. . . create a culture with fewer unwanted pregnancies to begin with.” So far, so good. She argues progressive policies are more likely to create this culture. Ms. Clinton is more progressive than Mr. Trump, ergo Clinton is the more pro-life of the two candidates. Lastly, she claims that outlawing abortion would simply be a Pyrrhic victory, the GOP is really just being cynical in its attempts at abolition, and that Democrats are actually the better choice if your goal is fewer abortions.
Whew. That’s a heady brew. Where to start?
Do Progressive Policies Help?
A big part of the essay is based on the assumption that progressive policies exclusively help the poor. While neither Ms. Held Evans nor I are economists, I’m far less willing to pretend that the economic debate is closed. For starters there is decent evidence that progressive taxation and welfare policies have a negative, not positive, impact on economic inequality and poverty. Even in Scandinavia, long honored by American progressives as a social democratic paradise, has a persistent inequality problem.
Further it’s extremely arguable that Democratic education policies hold back the education of poor children in the inner city, arguably one of the most direct causes of urban poverty and misery. The most direct is probably our government’s disastrous war on drugs, in which Ms. Clinton was a fervent soldier.
Ms. Held Evans’ strongest case probably comes from the expansion of birth control and how it reduces the overall abortion rate. However in this she assumes too much. While it is true that abortion rates have decreased during the Obama administration, her piece leads you to assume that this decline began during Mr. Obama’s years in office. It did not. The abortion rate has dropped consistently since its peak in 1980. Lastly, she forgets that Republicans are the ones who propose making contraception available over the counter, which would probably be the single largest barrier reduction to contraception since the 1960s. Bizarrely, it’s largely been the left who opposes OTC contraception.
Ms. Held Evans believes the GOP is foolish to pursue an end to abortion (she even implies that this is a merely cynical position). She provides studies on how abolition can increase abortion-related deaths but fails to mention on how all of these studies are of developing countries without widespread access to quality healthcare, not a nation like the U.S.
Ms. Held Evans is a progressive Christian, both politically and theologically. That’s fine, but too often her piece seems to assume that a panel of experts in white coats somewhere has ruled that progressivism just works and the intellectual debate is over. It’s not over, and Ms. Clinton’s policies are not some kind of pro-life panacea.
Can a Pro-Life Person Vote for Clinton?
Ms. Held Evans spends a lot of time arguing that Donald Trump isn’t pro-life, either respecting abortion or, really, anything else. This is almost certainly true, but it doesn’t exculpate Clinton either.
Which takes us to the crux of the matter. I take Ms. Held Evans at her word that she’s pro-life (though she engages in some ridiculous, “Who am I to force my beliefs on someone?” sophistry). Let’s really back it up and ask, “What is abortion to a person who is pro-life?” That’s very simple.
On a medical, scientific level abortion is the process of ending the life of a living individual, genetically distinct, member of the species homo sapiens. We end these lives by killing them with chemicals, dismemberment, and lethal injection.
To the pro-life person, whether secular or devout, this practice is infanticide. To put it simply we kill the most physically vulnerable class of human beings by poisoning them and cutting them to pieces. To the pro-life person like myself or Ms. Held Evans this is a monstrous injustice. For this to happen to just one child would be grossly wrong. In the United States, where it is firmly legal, it occurs more than a million times, each and every year.
The legality of this practice is one that Ms. Clinton strongly defends, though she claims to takes umbrage at the occasional exculpatory circumstances such as some late-term or sex-selective abortions in the People’s Republic of China (no word on the American girls who find themselves so unneeded).
Ms. Held Evans’ chosen candidate not only backs the legality of this practice, but openly calls for the use of Medicaid funding to directly subsidize it. Her candidate’s party’s platform functionally opposes any limits on the practice.
Let’s sum this up. In the United States, every year, over a million human beings are eliminated, usually by physically traumatic and violent methods, the vast majority of whom are Latino or black. Ms. Clinton not only wishes to allow this practice to continue legally, but perversely defends using funds designated for the poor to subsidize the death of their children.
Much of Ms. Held Evans’ essay rightfully highlights her passionate concern for social justice, a concept too often reserved to the secular left. She spends a good deal of time discussing her concerns that Donald Trump’s candidacy reflects a threat to marginalized populations. No doubt, if Mr. Trump openly called for the violent liquidation of Muslims, Hispanics, immigrants, and the disabled, she would recoil in horror. She would extend this horror if Trump floated the idea that, while he himself wouldn’t pursue such a policy, he would be loathe to use the power of the government to keep others from murdering them. Even if Trump simply winked at such a future, no doubt she would find a Trump vote to be morally unthinkable.
Yet she has no such qualms about using her voice to endorse Ms. Clinton.
To the pro-life there can’t be a difference. A pro-life person, opposed to the practice of killing human beings in utero, can’t distinguish between human beings in or out of the womb.
I think part of Ms. Held Evans’ disconnect is due to the banality of evil. Hillary Clinton isn’t some grotesque. She isn’t even a crass, demagogic buffoon. She looks like a respectable, boring, American politician. In another life, she looks like she would’ve made a typical PTA president. This doesn’t make her policies any less unjust. One wonders if Held Evans’ belief in Clinton’s pro-life life ethic extends to those killed at wedding parties struck by American drones, dead Libyans, or Syrians. Another part of her disconnect likely comes from the ease with which our mind can gloss over mass violence. A good (though imperfect) comparison can be made to the judgement in the Einsatzgruppen trial.
That verdict is asobering reminder of evil and our limitations;
[O]ne million is but an abstract number. One cannot grasp the full cumulative terror of murder one million times repeated. It is only when this grotesque total is broken down into units capable of mental assimilation that one can understand the monstrousness of the things we are in this trial contemplating. One must visualize not one million people but only ten persons falling before the executioner . . . . If one million is divided by ten, this scene must happen one hundred thousand times, and as one visualizes the repetitious horror, one begins to understand the meaning of the prosecution’s words, ‘It is with sorrow and with hope that we here disclose the deliberate slaughter of more than a million innocent and defenseless . . . children.’
If one describes oneself as pro-life, if one believes that the poisoning and dismembering of human beings in utero is unjust, then we cannot give our votes to those on the Right or Left who wink at those who engage in such practices and at those who wish to use public funds to directly subsidize them. To do so it to be complicit in a great evil, no matter how banal and boring it appears. I’ll let C.H. Spurgeon, a more eloquent Christian than either Ms. Held Evans or myself, play us out:
This is one of the most specious of those arguments by which good men are held in the bonds of evil. As an argument, it is rotten to the core. We have no right to do wrong, from any motive whatever. To do evil that good may come is no doctrine of Christ, but of the devil.
Near the end of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, the eldest brother Dmitri is wrongly accused of his father Fyodor’s murder. Spectators at the trial had mostly assumed Dmitri’s guilt, and many in the crowd felt that Dmitri’s personal wrongs against them were being avenged. Only the reader has witnessed the scene in which Dmitri, seething with rage at his wretched adulterer of a father, grasps a pestle in his pocket—and then, mastering himself, swallows his anger and backs out of his plan to kill his forebear. Only the reader has seen Fyodor’s illegitimate son Smerdyakov admit to the murder.
The Brothers Karamozov concludes, some months after Dmitri’s trial, with the funeral of a peasant boy named Ilyusha. Earlier, Dmitri had learned that Ilyusha’s impoverished father, the “Captain,” was involved in Fyodor Karamozov’s illicit business dealings. Dmitri, who had been swindled by the Captain, exacted a humiliating revenge, dragging him through the street by his beard as his son and neighbors looked on. Ilyusha’s schoolmates teased him violently for the incident, throwing stones that hit him hard in his chest. Ilyusha died from his wounds two days after Dmitri was found guilty for a murder he did not commit.
No court could ever convict Dmitri for Ilyusha’s death. The legal system can only sentence the person immediately responsible for a murder. But Dostoevsky’s genius shines a floodlight on the intricate and thorny web of moral cause and effect. Continue reading Conservatism and progress
“Peace is a good thing, but a glass of beer is a good thing as well.” —Fragment of conversation
Thomas Hobbes described the natural political state as a “war of all against all,” waged by solitary people who live poor, ugly, brutish and short lives until, guided by self-preservation, they come together to form political bodies. These bodies deliver us from the state of war and, in exchange for our obedience, promise a peaceful and orderly life. For all of us, our desire for peace is associated primarily with security, a life that can be lived aesthetically and without continuous stress. However, does peace sometimes have a price too high to bear? Can perpetual peace be easily achieved? And can our idealism about peace blind us to its weaknesses and costs?
Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of the Enlightenment, successfully persuaded Europe that perpetual peace was a goal worth trying to reach. Until Kant, no one imagined that peace could be a sort of normal and unchangeable condition.
The pre-Kantian perception of peace as a fragile state between wars is best embodied by a saying of the Roman writer Vegetius: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
The European Union can be perceived as a materialization of Kant’s idea of a perpetual peace union. After two bloody world wars, the wisdom of Vegetius was rejected in people’s minds and the center of geopolitical thinking was occupied by an idea that is best described with a quote from the ancient Greek poet Pindar: “War is sweet to those that never have experienced it.” Pindar was not so banal, but the popular community tends to take quotes out of context in order to justify their conformism to the spirit of the age.
In Perpetual Peace, Kant claimed that standing armies must eventually disappear. This is because the existence of armies in permanent combat readiness is disturbing to other countries and encourages them to compete in an unlimited arms race, leading to destabilization of the peace. (Kant offered as an alternative to a permanent army, a voluntary period of military exercise for citizens.) Kant also stated that the threat of war is also increased by political unions and the phenomenon of lending one country’s army to the other in order to fight an enemy that is not a threat to both countries.
Kant also affirmed that “no state has a right to interfere in another state’s affairs and government.” Kant created an illusion that relations between states can be perceived in terms of interactions between individuals. Supporting this illusion is the belief that nature leads people and, along with them, states toward peaceful coexistence—that just as civil law protects individuals, international law should protect rationally disputing states. Kant believed that international law would be a better shield for national sovereignty than treaties of mutual belligerency.
Kant, who died in 1804, would seem to have been proven right by the breakdown of mutual alliances that plunged Europe into 30 years of devastation. After World War II, European politics began to be rebuilt after the pattern in Perpetual Peace. The European Union is the fullest development of these ideas so far.
When we recognize that the European Union is built on Kant’s framework, we can begin to understand the real nature of the Ukraine crisis. Ukraine is not an EU member state, but all its troubles began precisely when its citizens decided not to put up with the political course swaying towards the East. In Kiev, masses of young people waving EU flags demanded that their county become a member of the peaceful union.
However, from a Kantian perspective, no country in the peace confederation could really legitimately interfere in the Ukrainian state’s affairs. It sometimes seems that the West thinks there is no need to seek perpetual peace—as if it is already here. The response of Brussels suggests this view. Publicly expressed concern and minimal humanitarian aid, which in no way offered a significant advantage in a crisis situation, was the maximum help they provided.
There is a dual problem. In the beginning of the crisis, Ukrainian civil society was expected to reshape domestic politics according to their needs, convincing their fellow citizens in public bodies (for example, local militias) that they should contribute to the stabilization of Ukraine’s peace. But the effort to exit the natural Hobbesian state of war failed because of the “green men” found in various places, meaning Russian forces wearing the uniforms of local security organizations, and Russia-supported political fronts.
The same thing happened later when the eastern border of the country was overrun by strange “Ukrainians” who became the entourage of self-proclaimed regional leaders, and of the waves of Russian “humanitarian aid convoys” that were led by neither a humanistic desire for good, nor an inclination to help. Nevertheless, Western lawyers did not dare to publicly express their position because there was not enough evidence that would oblige the European peace union to introduce warlike measures in a foreign country.
Today’s Kantian international law has become a victim of the simulacra. Russia today has mastered the art of juggling simulacra to the detail—not only in its domestic affairs but across the world. The Kremlin has long been aware that dirty deeds can be carried out under a mask that removes legal responsibility. Legally it is hard to positively prove Russia’s direct interference during the Ukraine crisis.
The peace union faces a moment of conflict for which Kant’s theory is too normative. It is naïve to think that all citizens will unanimously want the same thing, but even when the majority is asking for peace and wants to become part of the peace union, the Kantian theory does not offer any mechanism that would protect one country’s process of becoming part of the peace union from interference by another country that is against it.
Kantian trust would suggest waiting until the aggressor state realizes that it is useful to seek the same good. It assumes that this country actually seeks peace and that if it opposes the peace union it is because it sees itself as a guarantor of a higher level of peace.
It is as if international law regulates everything except when a state with significant power becomes the offender! Then the interpretation of international law degenerates into a giant process of politicking and questioning the foundations of legal competence. The Westerners are now defenseless against Russia since they created this system themselves and cannot suggest anything more advanced, and within their system they have no idea how to react to such questioning and Eastern simulacra.
It is not surprising that Poland and Lithuania have become the only countries that are acting like they understand that the peace held by the European Union is not a perpetual peace. These countries are not only related to Ukraine in terms of common history but are also familiar with the Russian style of politics that spread with Marxist-Leninist communism. Although Lithuania should be more familiar with it because of its former existence in the U.S.S.R., Poland is able to act much more decisively thanks to its greater intellectual and sovereign power. It is only through this power that EU mechanisms can be changed.
The democratic mechanism of the European Union is saturated with checks and balances that are supposed to guarantee proportional participation in evaluating and planning the response to geopolitical situations. This proportionality does not take into account the fact that the EU does not have any real military opponents in the West and in the South. A country in the far west of Europe is not willing to waste its resources against a threat it does not feel. Realpolitik has undermined the EU’s successful positioning in the case of Ukraine.
It is not possible to simply paper over Hobbesian pessimism with pages of Kant. A “state of nature” always exists between countries, even if it does not feel like a “war of all against all.” Insecure Eastern European states have to fight for a new revision of the “perpetual peace” that would be less normative and idealistic, and would critically analyze the principles, phases and external hostile forces of peace development. Otherwise, a great price will have to be paid when this overstretched period of artificial peace collapses and destroys all mutual trust and peace in the union. It is necessary to recognize the painful truth: peace and a glass of beer have one thing in common—they both inevitably come to an end.
A version of this article first appeared in “Eastern Partnership Countries Close-Up,” a publication of the Institute of Democratic Politics and Wilfried Martens Centre. It has been edited for publication by The Hipster Conservative.
Every election season, I am newly confounded by those garish bi-colored maps that saturate every media outlet’s coverage of events. You know them well —those “red state, blue state” maps that so neatly divide our country’s political differences into digestible, candy-like nuggets. My confusion lies in the fact that these colors, red for Republican and blue for Democrat, are so obviously wrong. They defy the long-standing tradition, found among numerous modern countries, of red’s association with political leftism and blue’s with conservatism.
Red is, of course, the official color of Communist states—Soviet Russia, Red China, and the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, to name a few examples—and it is the color for labor and social democracy. It is also the impassioned, incendiary color of revolutionary violence, seen in the likes of the Bolsheviks, or Garibaldi’s redshirts. Is it surprising that it was also Marx’s favorite color? Continue reading What’s red and blue and all screwed up?
Part 3 of Will Barrett’s series on “The Intra-Evangelical Culture War.”
The X could be any number of good and important things the church ought to be doing. Most likely, it means feeding the poor, healing the sick, promoting racial reconciliation, or agitating against economic injustice. It it is possible that some churches neglect their part in these activities, but to point this out in a dialogue about sexual morality serves no purpose but to divert attention away from the question at hand with an irrelevant attack on the credibility of the opponent.
Imagine a formal debate in which one speaker declares that both sides would be better served by calling off the debate in favor of doing something more constructive. Then, after his opponent leaves the room, he proceeds to stump for his own point of view on the issue. This is precisely the tactic some progressive Christians use when faced with conservative arguments about the morality and theology of sex. Although they may complain that conservatives are taking too much time away from works of justice and mercy to preach about sex, I have yet to hear of any sexually progressive Christian commentator hold his own advocacy to the same standard. Continue reading “The church ought to be doing [x] instead of obsessing over sex.”
Part 2 of Will Barrett’s series on the intra-evangelical culture war. Part 1 is here.
To have a decent argument that ends with a bow and a handshake, or maybe even a beer after the crowds have cleared, the parties involved must assume that both sides have come to the debate earnestly and with the best of intentions, even if they haven’t. In other words, both sides need to refrain from blaming the others’ motives for having the discussion in order to focus on the terms of the discussion itself. This limitation is even more important when one or both sides has reason to suspect that the other’s motives are rascally or base. To keep the conversation from devolving into tiresome defenses of honor, the arguers must agree to bracket out questions of motives.
New Atheist debaters like Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris regularly betray either their blissful ignorance of this guideline, or else an amusingly wilful disregard for it, when they regularly open debates over cosmology and first causes with charges that their theistic interlocutors just want to convert the audience to their chosen religion instead of helping them think for themselves. They probably do, but that is beside the point.
The larger culture too often mistakes evangelical Christians for an unfractured conservative bloc. Many would be surprised to know about the culture wars that rage between liberal and conservative evangelical Christians. For instance, the advocacy of left-leaning evangelical groups is often reported as “a shift in evangelical culture” when in reality the same people have been saying the same things for a long time.
One would think that arguments between Christians about hot social topics would be more gracious and constructive than the venomous contest between the religious right and the secularist Left.
But is it? Evangelicalism’s internal culture war, between bloggers and authors like Rachel Held Evans and pastors like the recently ousted Mark Driscoll is lamentably hobbled by sloppy logic, red herrings, and an even firmer commitment to never having anything but an exchange of insults. The fond idea that the culture wars would not be so nasty if folks just got to know each other does not hold up in the case of the evangelical community, where the venom is even more poisonous for its thin coating of sentimentality. In fact, the culture wars rage within the evangelical world with a special viciousness, and this is probably to be expected. As anyone with siblings will attest, intimates tend to fight more often and with deeper malice. Continue reading Clearing the air in the intra-Evangelical culture war
All-Inclusive Disclaimer: In this essay I do not necessarily use philosophers’ thoughts as they intended. Any reference to a philosopher will probably be a heterodox or downright incorrect interpretation. I do not use Hegel as a “hipster” would, nor do I claim that Hegel is himself a hipster. His great critic Søren Kierkegaard might have something to do with hipsters, especially since he was into the whole irony thing, but I do not have the purity of heart to elucidate this connection…
G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx are known as philosophers of History. That is, they focus on the process of man making himself and focusing on himself in such a way that he betters the world through technology. Alexandre Kojéve, the French philosopher who created the European Union, synthesized Hegel and Marx to argue that society lives at the “end of history.” For Kojéve, we live in a time where man has evolved to the point where all political, philosophical, and cultural developments have reached their highest apex and man lives as truth.
This “end of history” appeared with the advent of liberal democracy, given that democracy has found a way in which everyone’s rights can be respected so that each person has the freedom or liberation to pursue satisfaction as he sees fit. The dialectical processes that fueled the movement of history have ultimately negated themselves and history has entered a “void of nothingness.” We see this happening tangibly in the ways that man has gained an understanding of nature, made technology, and used technology to counteract or negate nature. This led to a synthesis of the natural and contra-natural that causes man to live in “nothingness,” a realm that is beyond the demands of nature. Continue reading The End of Hipstery and the Last Culture
I thought the tautological slogan “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” beaming with solid platitude and platitudinous solidity, had been put under the sod for good. However, while I was browsing the Internet, a fairly well-done minimalistic poster caught my attention. It carried two slogans in black and white: “Lithuanian women for Lithuanian men,” and “Lithuanian men for Lithuanian women.”
Beneath these slogans in smaller text the legend read: “NATIONIA – the movement for the survival of nations.” On the official website of the “movement,” this legend is accompanied by an English caption explaining that Nationia is a movement of peaceful nationalism. Going to the main page, I found a construction that interested me because of its first three elements: “Nation diversity → Human diversity → Abilities diversity → Mankind progress, essence” [sic]. The suggestive interplay of these ideas enticed me to spend more time investigating this nationalist movement.
Nationia‘s “philosophy” features some random rallying cries for nations and patriots to act to forestall national disappearance. In parallel, they propose that “diversity” is a prerequisite to discussion and progress. A group of people with diverse abilities can solve problems more quickly. So far everything looks nice, right? But then comes a new proposition stating that human diversity is determined by internal and external factors.
The “external” ones include social, cultural, and political elements, while “internal” ones are of an anthropological, mental-psychological, and physical nature. The internal factors are illustrated by three samples of dominant features, including hair, eyes, physical, and character features. A parallel is drawn between these samples and nations. [Ed. note: For any reader unfamiliar with European politics, this is none-too-subtle code for 20th-century race ideologies, which still fuel various European far-right wing political parties.] I set aside the reading at this point, as footnotes from the tracts of Nazi eugenics started running through my mind.
To preserve “diversity” as described above, Nationia suggests the collaboration of nations without mixture, i.e. avoiding the formation of “mixed marriages.” They base this prescription on the premise that a child born in a “mixed” marriage, i.e., one of spouses from different national backgrounds, would be unable to choose either of four potential identities.
The proponents of this idea claim that such a person might be the citizen of one country, but his “national” identity is not based on language, choice, or opinion. According to Nationia, nationality is “a fusion of human behaviour, physical features, temperament, and outlook, inner and uncontrolled, natural reactions to the surrounding world and which are characteristic to a particular group of people who evolved alongside.”
Why am I so concerned with such a marginalized, outdated race ideology? The reason is that it offers a perfect illustration of what I call failed nationalism. The real, ugly face of this nationalism, concealed under archetypal symbols and historical tracts, may be familiar to American readers as it is portrayed in the emblematic movie “American History X.”
For adherents of failed nationalism, the fetish of a blond blue-eyed girl dressed in the national costume, something that has turned into a barely attainable ideal, is the only thing that protects our Lithuanian identity. Yet Lithuania is in the heart of Europe. Thousands of years of European turmoil saw many peoples, cultures, and nations meet and mingle in what is now the Lithuanian territory. It is no wonder that my mother is brown-eyed with dark-hair, I am green-eyed with brown-hair, and one of my cousins is the ideal blue-eyed blonde — although for more than four generations the names in our family have been entirely Lithuanian.
Now, we can hardly be surprised to see a representative of another race on the streets of Vilnius. From early childhood, we were accustomed to seeing a variety of facial shapes, the absence of which was utterly shocking to me when I traveled in Hungary. Yet, despite Lithuanians’ easily observable diversity, people interested in phenotypology usually assign most Lithuanians to the “Baltic” (blue-eyed, blond) phenotype.
The question of what makes us a nation, given the variety in our physical appearance and character features, can be answered with the simple description by the theoretician of nationalism, Anthony D. Smith, whose basic theory remains unchanged despite being rewritten a thousand times: The nation defines and perceives itself as a community, with common myths, common collective memory, values, and traditions, which resides in a territory to which it feels specific historic attachment, creates its own public culture, and shares common laws and duties.
This definition is valid in most cases, and Lithuania is definitely not the most extreme case. Hence, it is easier to describe a Lithuanian by answering several relatively basic questions, rather than by a person’s appearance or behavior.
There is another issue that the self-appointed guardians of Lithuanian identity confront. Who is a more legitimate Lithuanian: a Vietnamese child adopted and raised by a family of Lithuanians, or a blonde, blue-eyed offspring of a Lithuanian couple who learned his/her first words from a South African couple? Because of their physical appearance, both children are aware of their external differences, but the essential attributes of a community (and, as stated, a nation is a community), such as the language, morale, and aesthetic perceptions, will be assimilated from the environment in which the child grows up.
Despite painstaking efforts, these children will hardly be able to identify themselves as part of their nation of origin. It is likely that a biological Lithuanian may be fond of her country of birth, or that a Vietnamese person shall nurture affection for the people and culture of Vietnam. Yet these affections are themselves culturally mediated and developed, like the respect of a second-generation Greek-American for his grandparents’ culture. The phrase from the movie Gattaca sums it up: “Blood has no nationality.”
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the concept of a “pure nation” is permeating our streets and courtyards through the subcultures of skinheads and mobs of the 1970s, reaping their share of Hitler’s gleanings. One way or another, we are all the products of a mixture of different genes; but genes, as depicted in the movie Gattaca, are not a factor that determines the rest of our lives. Much more depends on external factors, proper education and, in particular, our own wills. We should protect our traditions and national culture instead of forbidding an ash-haired girl to start a family with a Brazilian who is resolved to stay in Lithuania in pursuit of love.
Nations cannot be conserved as they resemble continuously evolving unicellular organisms: they mutate, change, vanish, and separate into two similar but different particles. Looking through the time prism, this interplay of influences is fascinating. Let us not embrace an artificial history, for fate tends to play tricks on us. Furthermore, the “diversity” Nationia claims to value will never bloom if it is root-bound by the constraints of failed nationalism. The result would be too many people thinking only within the restrictive limits of the same national pattern.
National identity is important; let us not forget the great Lithuanian interwar philosophers, including Maceina, Girnius, and Šalkauskis, who never sought to sacrifice an individual’s freedoms for the prosperity of a nation or the unity of the state.
Finally, and quite patriotically, I am certain that the Lithuanian nation is prudent enough to sift through the multitude of nationalistic concepts and choose the most rational and morally-correct way.
Mr. Skarolskis is a young Lithuanian columnist. A previous version of this article appeared in the iconic though now defunct Atgimimas, as well as the Lithuania Tribune.
It is about 11:30 p.m. and I have mistakenly revealed my fascination with existentialist philosophy. I immediately stare into my drink. My blurred reflection reveals one eyebrow and a semi-shiny eyelid masked with a greenish film. PowerAde on the rocks. The figure before me is male, about six foot, and lanky. He sports a saggy maroon beanie and an expensive olive utility jacket. He begins, his voice purposefully sounding sedated,
“You like existentialism? Cool.”
“Yes, it is.” I gaze to a far corner of the room.
“Awesome. Like Camus . . . dude’s the shit.”
“I guess so.”
“Yeah . . . you know, Sisyphus? Crazy shit—”
Suddenly he turns—caught by a friend’s beckon. His dissertation on The Myth of Sisyphus would sadly, I believe, have amounted to something as meaningless and periphery as his beanie. Because, with my extensive experience basking in its presence, I’ve found that everything about the contemporary hipster amounts to just another borrowed signifier or identifier. The problem with hipsters today isn’t what they are so much as what they aren’t. They aren’t thinkers, nor are they individuals.
The beatniks of the ‘50s and ‘60s, were signified by ideology, thought, and literary zeal. The antiwar movement was alive. People read things in retaliation, said what they believed, and wore what they did because they were broke or simply liked it. The purity and practice of the original hipsters died with them and their memory remains only in clothing styles, empty references, and “that one time I read Ginsberg’s America in high school.” Idiosyncrasy has been put to bed—there is, really, no such thing any more; and in its place is the mass-marketed “counterculture.”
Like a page of Where’s Waldo, but it’s all Waldo, the hipster herd is a magnificent display of banal aestheticism—metaphorical murals that often assume the shape of a restaurant, bar, neighborhood, or even an entire city. Fashions represent large-scale identities, and identities are fashions. Face it: the beat died with the beats. The hipster is dead, and we are his murderers.
Saturday, March 9, 2013. Le Bain, The Standard, High Line.
The meatpacking district does not live down to its name. Several windows display cowhide dress forms; some totally bare or even tipped over, others sporting taupe frocks with studded cowl necks, or large fringe circle scarves worn atop animal-spotted denim. The Standard, too, is oxymoronic in name. From its entrance, I note that the corridor is lit in sepia. The building itself is a characteristic byproduct of modern architecture. Its eastern wall straddles the High Line Park. A living testament of recycled genius, the High Line is essentially an aerial greenway constructed to preserve the century-old railway. It is urban greening at its finest, but in the summer months, when the West Side becomes an amplification of year-round Manhattan squalor, it is like Le Bain at the Standard Hotel.
I first notice the men. I say this because, as a woman guilty of measuring myself to the smells, curls, waistlines, and posh of other women, I am not typically attuned to men when anywhere. But here the men are extraordinary. They give more kisses than my dog. They come in two dispositions. One is revved-up, chattery, pocket-scarfed and jacketed. The other is dark, small-eyed, hands-in-pockets, ear-ringed, dead-beat and windowed with bold glasses frames. Inwardly, though, they do not seem to lack many similarities. They all eye me, as we staggeringly join one another on a baseboard-lit elevator. The lighting is ideal: dark as hell, so everyone looks sexy, if visible at all. The women are taller than me and it is perhaps the single moment of my semi-adult life that I am most aware of my own height.
I am accompanied by a friend, who we’ll call Stef. To ensure that our transfer from sepia corridor to 18th floor is nothing short of expedient, she has enlisted the company of her friend, who we’ll call Ramón. His hair is combed over and visibly moussed into a perfectly side-swept, coiffed creation. His crisp and skin-tight clothing emits stale fumes of vodka and marijuana. Ramón zigzags through hordes of women clad in black and animal fur, fingers, knuckles, and cartilage decked and pierced with gemstones and other platinum or brass-colored obscenities. As we enter the room adjacent to Le Bain’s main vortex of drink, dance, and revelry, Ramón begins kissing cheeks and greeting public relations types with sing-songy darlings and dears. This new room, formally known as the Boom Boom Room, brims with swanky cocktail servers in white tuxedos and crisp gowns.
The bar is like a Roman bath, a gold-walled oval implanted in the floor. Flanked by crackly gold columns and embellished with an ivory marble backsplash, it is a fermented tub fit for Caesar. I suddenly realize that someone is buying us a round. I am shaking hands with French girls, French guys, someone named Ivan. Meanwhile, I am handed a translucent lime-colored beverage, a far cry from the smooth, un-iced ochre I prefer. Ramón pulls Ivan into him, his arms wrapping round the front of Ivan’s waist. Sticking his hands into Ivan’s pockets, Ramón snickers. It is the hour of unbridled laughter. Women and men alike are laughing all around me. These laughs are accompanied by empty gestures, mindless hair twirls, and “I’ll have another Tanqueray and Tonic”s.
My self-confidence has plummeted and I am beginning to wonder whether my inability to sway my hips and swirl my tumbler about in mid-air is marking me incapable of living the Dionysian. What am I doing wrong? It dawns on me then, with an overwhelming sense of metanoia. The tyranny of self-awareness is too evident in situations like this. I am myself far too self-conscious, even as I am acutely and frighteningly in tune with the self-conscious tendency of those around me. What am I doing here,or anywhere if I can’t seem to make myself fit?
Perhaps half a century ago, when mainstream society was a force to be reckoned with—when good little soldiers “pinned” their gals and spun them around down at the town rec center and no one thought about why—people really did reckon with it; they really said no to it, and they became the counterculture. Now, the dominant “counterculture” resonates with about as much authenticity as Bob Dylan’s shades or Ginsberg’s suspenders, divorced from the men who turned these objects into icons. And here I am, thinking about it, and somehow that too feels out of place. What is presented now as “counter” or not the norm now involves submission to a Nietzschean “slave morality,” a moral blueprint that requires denying one’s own free, individual will and submitting to the scene.
At the bar, I am totally enveloped in the celebrity-seeking agendas of my company, most of whom I do not know. This does it for me. The babbling chorus has completely unraveled and I am actually thinking about things now—thoughts I cannot abate . . .
In a standstill moment of total situational rebirth, my inner loathing of all around me is vindicated. Something is wrong with this Instagram™-filtered sea. Then again, a sea is more forgiving to diversity. Here, I feel like a salmon, trapped in a school of trout. Moreover, here at Le Bain, diversity is muffled not only within the group, but even within the person. For instance, let’s take the girl beside me with the Rosie the Riveter bandana, chunky cat-face sweater and ripped nylons, raving about how she spent her first six months out of college following a band called Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head* from Seattle to Audubon. The self-conscious scene of contemporary hipsterdom dictates a very one-dimensional profile by which she must abide.
I would bet she’s an atheist (a clairvoyant at best), her rusted (and she likes it that way) vintage Volkswagen Rabbit is stamped with the Human Rights Campaign logo and SUPPORT LOCAL FARMS, she has 26 canvas tote bags for grocery-stowing purposes, she lives in an old bungalow in Williamsburg which she shares with a watercolorist and a couple who conducts in-home sex therapy and sells pickled things at the Sunday farmers’ market, and her favorite film is Wet Hot American Summer. When you pay the membership fee, you receive the starter package, or perhaps, the starter package receives you—that’s contemporary hipsterism. As I stand atop the covered ‘70s style cruise ship swimming pool, I feel, more than ever, a strong connection to my literary brother Sal Paradise. We are two tramps under the same night sky, crying for our brothers and sisters:
Somebody had tipped the American continent like a pinball machine and all the goofballs had come rolling to LA in the southwest corner. I cried for all of us. There was no end to the American sadness and the American madness. Someday we’ll all start laughing and roll on the ground when we realize how funny it’s been.
Except I wasn’t laughing—not yet. My eyes welled with tears as I stood, back to a wall, trying not to incur platform shoe-induced contusions to the feet. But before a single tear could break loose, I was released. We were going.
Le Bain taught me everything about social class I never wished to learn. The dustiest and most decrepit corners of this metaphysical world opened up to me, but I was too small to complete the remodeling job myself. If this was what the ‘50s and ‘60s intellectual rebel—the questioner, the writer, the creator—had become, then what really was the sociology of the contemporary hipster if the new homogenous herds assumed the old name and trashed the meaning? They are like the mannequins: identical; naked, yet festooned with gaudy signifiers. This is why I retreated. I cried for all of us.
Kerouac’s post-war literary dominance stood as a totem for counter-culture. To create a culture in retaliation to war was a raw representation of disciplined harmonization of life with one’s individual will. Kerouac’s hipster was a far cry from today’s Dionysian herd of the same name. In an interview on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show in 1959, a mere two years after the publication of the Beat Generation’s Holy Bible, On the Road, Kerouac is asked by the goofy-eyed, hook-nosed, piano-playing Plymouth, “How would you define the word beat.” Kerouac is quick to reply, but rather than providing a definition, he reads from his holy novel. And, aside from Plymouth’s wildly incongruous swanky cocktail parlor-esque accompaniment, it is beautiful. He reads with vigor, then comments, “Anyways I wrote this book because we’re all gonna die.” It is a curious statement, loaded with purpose.
In a 1968 episode of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, a drunken Jack Kerouac discusses the hipster and the post-beat insurgence of pre-apocalyptic art, writing, and music. Buckley (who, it must be acknowledged, is sporting a seersucker suit jacket) opens the episode with jolly raillery:
“The topic tonight is the hippies—an understanding of whom we must, I guess, acquire or die painfully.”
When first introduced, Kerouac is sweaty, evidently drunk, and smoking a cigar in drawn-out inhales, followed by frantic, yet erudite puffs. It is at first a sad scene, like the fallen Christ. He is a goddamn mess, but still, a goddamn mess that is not afraid to state beliefs and take sides, even if those sides seem to contradict or fail to align with a particular prototype. He blurs his brilliance with infantile displays as he verbally flips-off his intellectual counterparts, Ph.D. and author of The Hippie Trip Yablonsky, and artist and pacifist Sanders, by correcting their pronunciation of foreign words and emitting a disruptive slew of moans and “Hah’s!” Yet, drunk as he may be, Kerouac exudes brilliance amid hiccups and facial twangs.
Buckley: Now Jack—Mr. Kerouac—to what extent do you believe that the Beat Generation is related to the hippies? What do they have in common? Was this a revolution from one to the other?
Kerouac: It’s just the older ones. See I’m 46. These kids are 18. But see, it’s the same movement, which was apparently some kind of Dionysian movement in late civilization and which I did not intend any more than I suppose Dionysius did, or whatever his name was.
Although the last two minutes of the episode are almost solely devoted to Sanders’ vehement profession of the hippie’s inclination toward non-violent forms of protest in a war-immersed society, it is Kerouac who gets the last word. Quoting the Bible. Kerouac, was, self-professedly, a devout Catholic. As described by fellow Beat Generation originator, Allen Ginsberg, he was “a very unique cat—a French Canadian Hinayana Buddhist Beat Catholic savant.” Kerouac, like many original beats, was a wild, motley mix of ideologies. His identity was not handed to him, there was no Wikipedia page outlining his habits or institutionalized behaviors, nothing really was institutionalized. He just was. At the close of the interview, Kerouac turns to Sanders, eyes three-quarters of the way closed and mouth perfectly puckered and rounded, aping unbeautiful Lowellian semantics: “Beware of false prophets who come unto you dressed in sheep’s clothing, but underneath, they are ravening wolves.” It is a wild, uncontained display, but a great one, nonetheless.
Now Ginsberg, who called Kerouac “a unique cat,” also exuded idiosyncrasy. Though like Kerouac he was not always a charmer either in or out of the limelight, he assumed a multi-faceted identity that seems to be exactly what’s been lost among contemporary hipsters. In a 1994 interview with BBC, Ginsberg stops the interviewer to correct his opening inquiry: “Now, the beard and the hair are trimmed, you wear a suit, a collar, and a tie, but is the REAL Allen Ginsberg still in there?” (Note: “realness” is presumed to be something that can be lost through a simple change in grooming and dress). Ginsberg, unperturbed, interjects:
Though, I’m a Buddhist and I think the Buddists would say there is no real, permanent self. In any case, there are many appearances of self, so I am certainly a Beat poet, and I’m certainly Jewish, and I’m certainly gay, and I’m certainly Jewish, and I’m certainly a meditator, and I suppose a part of the counter-culture in America which is now under attack by the neo-conservative, theo-political televangelists . . . So, I don’t know if there is a real Allen Ginsberg.
The hipster Ginsberg posits, then, is one whose most revolutionary feat was the reshaping of identity. The mass movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s did not invent nor market the countercultural identity of the beats. The mass movement was in place as a comfort zone, an antinomian framework which enabled young, confused, questioning men and women to learn, be, and create whatever the hell they wanted in whatever way they wanted.
Kerouac’s hipster, his beat movement-er, had faith, a strong political opinion that wasn’t tied to anything mainstream, and was always aching to lend an ear or a word to a any such riveting, thoughtful conversation. The bars were a place for drinking, yes, but they were also for the intellect—a place to exchange ideas and theories. And people wrote. Yes, in On the Road and The Dharma Bums, it is difficult not to notice all the writing that happens. It was admirable and talked about; it was more than a fad. But now, even if our ideas and our styles feel and seem to ourselves to be wholly invented, we must fear that they will soon appear in Cosmopolitan or on that postmodernism readers message board—right there, yes, we know the word: TREND. In Rob Horning’s acclaimed 2009 Pop Matters blog post, “The Death of the Hipster,” he writes:
In always pushing ourselves to repudiate hipsterism, we may drive ourselves to new ways to conceive of our identity—but what good are these if these are always ripe for becoming the new modes of hipsterdom? . . . How do we stop running that race, stop worrying about the degree to which we are “hip,” the degree to which our treasured self-conceptions can be made into clichés against our will?
Today’s hipsters are the wolves in sheep’s clothes, no doubt. Or rather, vegan clothes—but they are certainly wearing clothes nonetheless. And oh, the clothes!
Urban Dictionary’s definition of the modern hipster is a characteristic representation of customary hipster dress, where to find a hipster on a map, and social conformity to hipster norms. A condensed version of the panoply of definitions on the site would look like this:
A composite of individuals with a certain bohemian life situation and lifestyle.
Lives in a young, artsy neighborhood of a major city such as Wicker Park in Chicago, Greenwich Village in Manhattan, or Williamsburg in Brooklyn. [ . . . ]
Favorite band is likely Bright Eyes, The Arcade Fire, The Arctic Monkeys, The Libertines, The Strokes, or something of that nature.
Watches independent and foreign films and reads independent books, magazines, and periodicals.
Dresses in progressive yet retro fashion that is often changing.
Eats chic ethnic food and prefers organic and Fair Trade fruits and vegetables.
Favorite beer is Pabst Blue Ribbon.
One must understand that intellect rarely factors into these remarkably superficial definitions One must also understand, at a very existential level, that this is a definition:a remarkably un-beat mechanism; a marketed identity. Club-going, Nylon-reading hipsters are ravenous wolves. Like many of those who surrounded me at Le Bain, they stand for chunky sweaters, beer labels, and neighborhoods. They are also the reason why my own chunky sweaters and love of local produce falls under suspicion, making it necessary for me to apologize for my tastes. And though they may be spotted reading an old battered copy of The Dharma Bums, they are not Kerouacian beats. No, they are the herd.
I can’t help but ask myself when this paradigm shift occurred; when counterculture became trendy. What began as a rough-and-tough rebuttal to pastel-painted kitchens, Kenmore appliances, and Joe Shmoe mercenaries has become an unsubstantiated façade. The hipsters of today go to Le Bain. They do their best to appear as floral-printed paupers. What is wrong with this? Well, it’s plainly written right here: THEY DO THEIR BEST. Doing one’s best and breaking a buck—bending over backwards—to appear as a hitchhiking, reclusive poet is an inherently flawed act. Hitchhiking Sal Paradise wore the same shoes till the soles fells out. His patchy jacket withstood exhaust smoke and booze stains. It was not bought that way. He did not “do his best” to look, to act.
The herd is a transcontinental mass movement. Individuals everywhere are sporting ripped, stained, tribal-looking, baggy, hooded uniforms. Everywhere there are club-goers who, like schoolgirls, turn to their neighbor, marking their straggly hair, suspendered satin trousers and tousled chemises. Does it ever dawn on them that they are facing their own mirror image—the image of the American boy or girl whose compass is always pointing toward regularity? At Le Bain, all the pretty kids stand, swaying, in a shameful sort of homeostasis.
This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.