Obama's Blow to Hipster Cynicism

When Obama won the presidency on November 4, 2008, hipsters everywhere were ecstatic. The vast majority of hipsters (that is: indie-dressing fashionable young anti-establishmentarians) were Obama fans, and those that were not were mostly anarchists or otherwise apolitical or libertarian. But while Obama’s election was a proud moment for hipsters, it was also a significant blow to their long-term viability.

Hipsterdom blossomed in the George W. Bush presidency, because he represented everything they were against: conservatism, boots, oil, ranches, patriotism, Neiman Marcus. After 9/11, even while many in the media forecast a new era of sincerity, hipsters became more cynical than ever before, retreating into irony and hedonism despite (probably because of) the government’s calls to be patriotic, unified, responsible citizens. Hipsters responded by becoming aggressively apathetic and cheerfully hedonistic. But during his campaign and ultimate victory, Obama unified the youth culture like it hadn’t been unified in a long time, and hipsters were called out in droves from their cynicism. Suddenly there was a reason to care about politics, to think good thoughts about America again.

In his post-election article, “The End of Hipster,” Joshua Errett wrote in Now magazine that following 9/11, today’s jaded counterculture “made a statement by making no statement, because no one was listening anyway.” That is, until Barack Obama started making his way onto T-shirts, posters and YouTube. “At some point during Obama’s presidential campaign,” wrote Errett, “an earnest, productive, engaged youth class was born out of a real desire for change. Hipsters essentially became hopesters.”

The same idea was expressed on the website Street Carnage (the thickly hipster site of Vice magazine founder Gavin McInness) following the election, in a blog post entitled “Obama Victory Renders Hipster ‘Movement’ Obsolete.” In the post, Robert Dobbs Jr., a Brooklyn hipster who writes under the name blogn***er, declared that, a week after the election, hipsters must come to terms with the fact that their affection for irony and “neo-cynicism” now look less subversive than stupid and defeatist:

Guess what - Obama has already changed the world by bringing hope and healing to B-B-BILLIONS of people around the globe. Neo-Cynisism [sic] can’t f*** with that - it’s real.

Elsewhere in the post, Dobbs discredits hipsters who allow themselves to believe, “for even a second, that there’s any deeper ‘meaning,’ or ‘movement’ behind our chosen music-and-t-shirt collective.” He’s just admitting what many gloom-and-doom hipster prognosticators have been pointing out for months: that hipsterdom is devoid of any substantial motivating logic. It’s about partying, being fashionable, being cool, and being cynical. The question is: are these things worth anything anymore? The argument is that, in a post-Obama world, hipsters who continue to proudly display the middle finger to all things establishment and all things idealistic are simply made to look the fool. Don’t they know? Earnestness is the new irony.

Well, we shall see. I’m not convinced that irony will ever really go away. I’m not convinced that Obama’s popularity among hipsters will lead them to throw in the towel on their supposedly countercultural existence. There will continue to be hipsters, if for no other reason than because the human desire to be cool has not and will not go away. Hipsters will just have to re-conceive of “cool” in an era when the word is ever more meaningless. They’ll have to forge a new argument for irony at a time when sincere belief in progress seems to be making a comeback. Hipsters will just have to work harder to establish themselves as apathetic revolutionaries because, well, what in Obama’s glistening new world is there to rebel against? But rest-assured: they will find something to define themselves against.

But even if they do, what if Obama really does bring vast and wonderful change to our country and world—what if the hope and rhetoric are proven correct, and our country comes together and pulls itself out of its malaise? If hipsters stay out of the process and continue their “who gives a f***?” approach to civic culture, they’ll just be digging themselves deeper into the hole of irrelevance. But maybe that’s where the hipster wanted to be all along.

Meanwhile, there is this phenomenon of Christian hipsters that I’ve been tracking (and that I’m writing a book about)—young, earnest, idealistic Christ-followers who look and sometimes act just like your regular hipster. They’ve always believed in things, and while still allowing for irony and bits of cynicism, Christian hipsters distinguish themselves from hipsterdom at large because of their sincere belief that things can change and that they can participate in real transformation.

As hipsters in general find themselves increasingly marginalized for their insistence on sarcasm, apathy, and cynicism, and scrambling to build up a new identity that is a better sell in a post-Obama world, Christian hipsters are perhaps in a better position to push the culture forward. They, after all, know sincerity. They know it sincerely. It matters not who’s in the White House. Hope is not a gimmick or catchphrase to them; it’s a way of life, founded on the reality of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, the ultimate in subversive hipster acts.