Remember the sweet, sun-kissed days of the ’00s when all anyone could complain about was bearded hipsters taking over dumb Halloween parties with PBRs and record collections culled from Urban Outfitters?
Well, it’s December 2016, and the greatest threat to American culture doesn’t come from a bunch of Hampshire College dropouts, but white nationalists and the alt-right, two groups who helped move Donald Trump into the Oval Office come January. Still, some media outlets have gone so far to conflate the two”Meet the dapper white nationalist riding the Trump wave,” one Mother Jones headline recently readwhich mischaracterizes hipster culture (no great sin), but moreover, unintentionally minimizes the profound danger sunglasses-wearing white nationalists pose.
Headlines like the one above have been trending for the past few weeks, despite social media pushback. “Hipster or hatemonger? The trendy young face of Austria’s alt-right,” CNN International wrote on Friday. While the story itself clearly identifies the frighteningly xenophobic vision Austria’s “hipster hate-monger” Martin Sellnor has for his country, the language in the headline (often the only part of an article people see) neutralizes him as a threat.
“We see ourselves as patriots, not neo-Nazis . . . But we also don’t want to see the country change and end up minorities in our countries,” Sellnor, the right-winger and “clean cut 27-year-old graphic designer,” says in the piece.
CNN International (@cnni) December 4, 2016
CNN isn’t alone. Shortly after the election, The Los Angeles Times shared their own edgy culture piece, “Meet the new think tank in town: The “alt-right” comes to Washington.” The thumbnail for the story featured Richard Spencer, head of a white nationalist think tank, leaning against a wall dressed in all black, looking more like some bogus curator for the Tate Modern than one of the country’s “most successful young white nationalist leaders,” The Southern Poverty Law Center reports.
Los Angeles Times (@latimes) November 20, 2016
The list goes on.
Mother Jones (@MotherJones) October 30, 2016
“That’s a Nazi.”
*Nazi puts on fedora*
“That’s an international alt-right man of mystery.”
Kashana (@kashanacauley) December 4, 2016
To be fair, each of these authors don’t let their subjects off the hook in the actual body of their stories, and often debunk their own very headlines. The pieces endeavor, sometimes successfully, to juxtapose their subjects’ clean-cut Macklemore facades with their violent ethno-nationalist worldviews.
“An articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a “fashy” (as in fascism) haircutlong on top, buzzed on the sidesSpencer has managed to seize on an extraordinary presidential election to give overt racism a new veneer of radical chic,” Harkinson writes in Mother Jones.
“Ethno-nationalism, hidden behind Warby Parker glasses, suddenly ‘feels’ less threatening, more palatable.”
But headlines limited to 140 characters or less frequently fail to capture the complexity full features allow. “Hipster,” whatever that increasingly meaningless term signifies anymore, somehow still manages to capture everyone’s attention (please do not google: “Buzzfeed + hipster”). And when an average six out of ten people share an article without reading it, the headline trumps the whole story. Hate-mongers morph into hipsters, and ethno-nationalism, hidden behind Warby Parker glasses, suddenly ‘feels’ less threatening, more palatablean ostensibly “fun” and progressive way for hip young white millennials to rebrand themselves.
Dapper,smart, hipster…is how we describe white supremacists/alt-right in Long nuanced pieces, profiles. Didnt see same for BLM,DAPL
Tanzina Vega (@tanzinavega) December 5, 2016
Of course, it’s unclear what the word “hipster” even means anymore, or who still uses the term besides low-grade Facebook trolls. At this point, it’s a catchall for nearly anything: from skinny urbanites in Jack Threads joggers who make $100k a year reviewing anti-establishment pizzas, to the artist who making tiny silkscreened baby beanies out of her tiny home, to the bearded dad, busy making his documentary about a very special homeless man . . . who just loves to write slam poetry. And so on.
But the ever-elusive definition of a “hipster” not withstanding, one variable should at least remain constant: the subculture’s commitment to (some form of) generally progressive politics. Not all hipsters vote alike or think alike. But writers tend towhether consciously or notassume that all hipsters are social liberals. Stories about “racist hipsters” or “sexist hipsters” operate on the assumption that the hipster is typically neither of those things. These racist and sexist subcultures (which very much exist) are measured by their distance from the cliche of the socially progressive hipster.
HITLER: *shaves mustache and time travels to 2016 in hipster glasses and turtleneck*
MEDIA: Who is this cool new voice of the alt-right? https://t.co/XTwiYlmLJU
Freddie Campion (@FreddieCampion) December 4, 2016
And sure, there are plenty of hipster “slacktivists” or members of the community too stoned to vote come election day. But the culture is more than its aesthetic, and hipsterdom is, on paper at least, tolerant. Try as Martin Sellnor or Richard Spencer or any white nationalist might, they don’t get to be called hipsters. Again, who knows what the word “hipster” precisely means anymore? But one thing’s clear: these guys don’t belong.
None of this is to defend hipster culture (god who cares) or to contribute yet another insufferable, of-the-moment hipster trend piece. But journalists and writers should be religiously diligent in separating the two groups. Spencer and Sellnor aren’t coming to your hometown to put on a “cult classic horror movie festival!” or start a farm-to-food-truck movement. They don’t care about your latest Philip K. Dick-inspired short story collection. Their vision of the world couldn’t be clearer, or more antagonistic to freedom of expression. As Spencer himself told VICE in 2013:
“Our dream is a new society, an ethno state that would be the gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence.”
The alt-right and white nationalists have finally found a home in Washington and a leader in Donald Trump. But just because they’ve rebranded themselves doesn’t mean we have to embrace their sleek viral marketing scheme. The success of any form of hate depends not on the advertising or the influencer, behind it but on our willingness to buy it in the first place.