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Liberal identity and hipsterdom

Inclusiveness tells us that characteristics that traditionally define personal identity have no legitimate social role. If my specific identity as a man or member of a particular people is connected to my position in the world, that’s intolerable and something has to be done about it.

That can’t be the end of the story. We are social beings, and we identify ourselves by our social position. We need to know who we are so we can know how to act. For that reason suppressing traditional identities by enforced equality only brings in new forms of identity that are allowed to be functional and unequal.

From an egalitarian standpoint, it’s all a pointless exercise.

Putting that aside, though, what are the new forms of identity? A progressive might say that we are autonomous so each can invent his own, but it is not clear what that would mean. How does an identity I invent for myself become my identity? How does it identify me? If I say I am Napoleon does that make me Napoleon? If it does, what does “Napoleon” mean?

As always, the new identities have to do with our relationship to the social order and the goods it recognizes. Multicultural society is consumerist, careerist, and credentialist, and those are the basic forms of identity it accepts. I shop, therefore I am. I am who I am because I went to this college, work in that job, and live this lifestyle. Instead of the Catholic husband and father we get the politically-correct careerist and consumer, instead of white people we get stuff white people like.

The new identities have severe disadvantages. They are external and easily lost, and for that reason make people insecure and subservient. They tend to be content-free and purely comparative, so what one gains from his identity others lose. And they deaden the imagination because they relate to an absolutely quotidian world. There’s no glory in them.

So people rebel, and the rebel without a cause becomes a major social type that manifests itself in various forms of alternative culture that go nowhere. Again, why bother? Something more is needed—something that infuses life with a principle that transcends particular needs and desires and makes us part of something large and open-ended.

One answer to the problem is support for the liberal order itself. To give your support to the official views and have correct attitudes on political, social, and moral issues is to identify yourself with the highest standards socially recognized and so give your life a significance beyond itself. Liberal social views have therefore become part of yuppie identity.

Problems remain, however. The liberal order is irretrievably prosaic and boring. It turns everything into a consumption good or productive resource and so effaces distinction and individuality. Its ideals are unsustaining, and it has no room for the soul. Hillary Clinton is perfectly liberal, perfectly unimaginative, and perfectly boring. Who wants to be Hillary Clinton?

A makeshift remedy, but the best available within the liberal order, is provided by “coolness.” It seems trivial, but people take it much more seriously than they will admit because there’s nothing else on offer.

Coolness started with jazz musicians, and still has something of the spirit of the night, of unconditioned freedom, of improvisation without a goal. It is the liberal equivalent of the divine grace that bloweth where it listeth (John 3:8) and none can define.

It therefore has something in common with sanctity. The cool are in the world but not of it. They possess a certain disengagement, so that they are independent of their surroundings and not easily flustered or excited. They are not conventional, and recognize immediately whatever they are presented with. That gives them a sort of perfect pitch in matters of perception, expression, and practical decision.

Of course, coolness is also very different from sanctity. Sanctity is about eternity, coolness about what is current. It has religious aspirations, but hedonism and individualism mean they go nowhere. The lives of the saints have enduring interest because they point to something beyond themselves, the lives of the hipsters mean nothing special.

Its lack of substantive content allows coolness a place in the spiritual world of liberalism, but is otherwise a radical defect. It makes it a matter of style: that is why a clumsy attempt to be a saint is admirable, while a clumsy attempt to be cool is ridiculous. It also means it is unable to maintain standards. Miles Davis is dead, hipsterdom is mass-market, and grade-school children now have as much right to be cool as anyone.

At bottom, coolness is as silly as people think. It is notoriously unsustaining. It is completely obscure what it wants us to do. Those who try to live by it either crash and burn, fall into gross hypocrisy (“sell out”), or grow out of it. Within the liberal order, though, growing out of it means growing out of the only thing, other than sex, drugs, celebrity, or lots and lots of money, that redeems life from quotidian dullness. It means turning into a boring, conventional, older person, just like Mom and Dad. And that would be intolerable.

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Comments

The habits that make up coolness are something like the habits that make up fairness. I don’t mind borrowing from them to an extent. I might be “cool” in certain senses—I wear clothes that have a degree of fashionability and mostly make sense to people of my time and age, for example—but it doesn’t mean I strive to make coolness into something more ultimate and authoritative, the same way that fairness in and of itself can’t function that way.