By now making fun of hipsters is far too easy for anyone to bother, so the Canadian magazine Adbusters has taken things a step further. The current issue’s cover story, “Hipsters: The Dead End of Western Civilization,” (over-)written by one Douglas Haddow, spares us the niceties and . . . well . . . simply pins the decline of the West on their collective skinny shoulders. Seriously.
To document the fall of Western Civilization, Haddow did not speak with refugees in Iraq, or visit the melting polar icecaps, or chronicle life in Mexican border towns riven by drug violence—though Adbusters has, to their credit, covered these and other important issues. Instead, he attended a few parties in Vancouver, with the unspoken accusation that everyone around him was far too cool to care about aforementioned crises. His “reporting” amounted to asking people if they were hipsters or not. Naturally, most people said no, or gave him funny looks, or asked to see the pictures he had just taken of them with his digital camera. Haddow keeps his distance, as a trivial cast of characters floats around him: they smoke, make out with strangers, wear outlandish clothing, ride bicycles and like bands we’ve never heard of—oh, the horror! Haddow draws pithy, unflattering portraits of these laconic drunks, contrasting them—vaguely—with their counter-cultural predecessors, those heroic mytho-warriors of movements-gone-by, who “energetically challenged the status quo.” The essay—and it is an entirely speculative essay—is suffused with a treacly nostalgia for the past when young people shook the world. He implores the kids, “to abandon this vain existence and start over,” lest we all hit, “the colossus of societal failure.” Based on Haddow’s observations, these infantile, solipsistic youth comprise, “a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning.”
Then again, they’re at a club. What exactly was he expecting to find?
I would guess that if Haddow had interacted with these people during daylight hours, he might have found them to be not unlike any group of human beings anywhere on the planet. Some are surely annoying, or frustratingly bland, and many probably aren’t. Some of the music is not palatable, some of the clothes look uncomfortable, but a journalist is supposed to dig a little bit deeper. Many of these hipsters probably care about the sorts of things—justice, art, music, love—that Haddow might as well, though when they’re out dancing and trying to get laid, they are probably less than articulate about those core beliefs. But what do I know, I’m just guessing.
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It’s difficult to tell what exactly Haddow is calling for. More sincerity? More political engagement? Looser jeans? It’s almost too obvious to point out that worrying about the decline of Western Civilization is hardly counter-cultural, but, in fact, Haddow wants to have it both ways: a strong and vibrant culture of resistance, he says, is what keeps the mainstream honest. I’m no cultural historian, but this is hardly a given. The mainstream has never been honest. Nor am I particularly concerned if Western culture—whatever that means—collapses. It won’t, by the way; it will change, mutate, blend, because that is what cultures do and have always done. If it becomes less strictly Western, if at some point in the future, historians decide that these changes are of such magnitude that what exists merits another name, then there’s at least a chance that we’ll all be better off for it. If that means white kids wear keffiyahs, well, fuck it. I’ve seen worse things.
I’ve only known one person who admitted to being a hipster. As Haddow accurately notes, it’s not very common to find someone who takes pride in his or her hipsterdom; and nor did my friend. To her, it was just a word that described a demographic that she happened to belonged to—by virtue of having lived in certain cities, worked in certain fields, liked certain music. She was profoundly unaffected by the disparaging connotations of the word.
If this demographic disowns the word, then what are they? A better, more thoughtful reporter would have asked these young people how they saw of themselves, instead of assuming that everyone who looks the part actually is a vapid and mindless consumer of commodified rebellion. He might have noted that he is describing is a small, privileged subset of white youth culture—is it worth getting so upset about? The white kids have failed us! Western Civilization is in peril! Please. The disappointment is reminiscent of a lecture from your high school guidance counselor. Haddow gives post-WWII youth culture far too much credit, as if everyone at Woodstock went on to found a free clinic. (Some folks might have been there just for the music, the booze and the sex.) Isn’t there a built-in frivolity to being young and unattached, having no children, and not being broke, having nothing directly inhibiting your freedom to get drunk on a Tuesday night? It is a rarified sphere of great and mostly unearned privilege; quite understandably, many people take advantage of it for as long as they can.
“It is this ironic lack of authenticity,” Haddow writes, “that has allowed hipsterdom to grow into a global phenomenon that is set to consume the very core of Western counterculture.” I don’t even know what this sentence means, to be honest. I’m all for earnestness and sincerity, but a certain ironic detachment is what will insulate me from heartbreak when Barack Obama does the deplorable things that presidents of powerful countries do. As much as an aesthetic sensibility, it’s a coping mechanism for this modern world; realism, just a step removed from cynicism, I’ll admit, but an important step, one that does not condone passivity.
Haddow shifts in tone toward the end, employing the third person plural. “We are a lost generation,” he laments. “A defeated generation.” Wow. Really? Well then, I’m glad I’m either much older or much younger than Haddow, that we belong to different demographic groupings, whatever they might be. There are plenty of reasons these days to feel depressed. The outlook on almost every front is terrifying and bleak. Thankfully, Haddow’s problems are not so intractable. He just needs new friends.