What Is Hip?
America has always been a country of self-invention. Yet there used to be some correlation between the life that one lived and the life that one professed. It was hard to be a phony in the grimy reality of the coal mine, the steel mill, the south 40 acres, or atop a girder over Manhattan.
No longer in our post-modern, post-industrial, metrosexual fantasyland. The nexus of big government, big money, and globalization has created a new creed of squaring the circle of being both liberal and yet elitist, egalitarian-talking but rich-acting, talking like a 99 percenter and living like a 1 percenter. And the rub is not that the two poles are contradictory, but that they are, in fact, necessary for each other: talking about the people means it is OK to live unlike the people.
In short, we can all be just what we profess to be. The key in our world of blue-jeaned billionaires is being hip — or rather at least professing to be hip.
But what is hip? Mostly it is a state of mind, a religion, a talk, a look, an outward persona that is the key that unlocks you from the ramifications of your ideology.
Hip is like “cool”, whose power I wrote about not long ago: a general sense of tapping into the popular youth culture of music, fashion, food, electronics, easy left-wing politics, and adolescent habit. Hipness is a tool designed to justify enjoying the riches and leisure produced by the American brand of Western market capitalism by poking fun at it, teasing it some, dressing it up a bit to suggest ambivalence over its benefits without ever seriously either understanding their source or, much less, losing them. We feel hip at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, but not so much in the organic section of Safeway.
Hip also plays out as professed caring — worrying in the abstract about all sorts of endangered species, starving peoples, or degraded environments. It is being loudly angry at retrograde forces — white males, the rich, gun owners, Christians, family types, and suburbanites, the sorts who ostensibly crafted the toxicity of Western civilization that you are forced to use and enjoy. Yet embrace hip, and all things become possible. A Martian would see the modern university as an elitist enclave, where life-long tenured professors make lots of money overseen by hordes of even better-paid administrators, that together cause tuition for cash-strapped and indebted students to rise faster than the rate of inflation without any promises that their eventual certifications will result in commensurate good jobs. A non-Martian would instead appreciate the hip nexus of diversity, eco-caring, and gender-neutral inclusivity.
Hip is a sort of Neanderthal mentality that is terrified of serious thinking, and thus substitutes the superfluous for the profound.
Palestinians are hip in a way that Israelis are not; but pro-Palestinian reporters stay in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv without a clue why the two cities are different from Ramallah. Hip is loud support for the Dream Act, but avoidance of places like Mendota or San Joaquin, or any serious contemplation about why millions of Mexican nationals wish to cross their northern but not their southern border. Hip is shopping at Whole Foods, but supporting more food stamps for those who shop at a distant Food 4 Less and weigh more than you do. Hip decries school choice and vouchers, but means Sidwell Friends is under armed guards for your own progenies.
Tell an uninformed hipster that Obama wants to outlaw abortion, and abortion can suddenly become very unhip.
Hip is furor over Cheneyite Scooter Libby — tried for an Orwellian crime that didn’t exist, and if it did exist, it was committed by someone else — while snoozing through Fast and Furious and Benghazi.
Hip is certainly not Halliburton, but most certainly is Solyndra. The unhip Patriot Act, renditions, and Guantanamo are suddenly now kind of hip; so are drone targeted-assassinations — a sort of “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Predator.” If we bomb Iran, we will be OK — if only Snoop Dogg high-fives the mission, the pilots are gay, the bombers run on biofuels, and the shrapnel is recyclable. Let us hope that the outgoing F-22s have a Che logo painted on the side as they blow stuff up.
Take also finance. America loves — and loves to hate — Wal-Mart, the cut-rate discount store that draws in millions in the concrete and repulses them in the abstract, perhaps because it originated in Arkansas and is unimaginatively named after the late Sam Walton, a scheming, up-from-the-bootstraps self-made zillionaire. Could Sam not have been Jacques Cartier — and thus Cartier-Marqueé? The chain, so the writ against it goes, supposedly drives out local small businesses, treats its employees unfairly, and represents the worst of crass American hucksterism.
But if Wal-Mart were just hip — in the sense only of a hipster veneer — it would be mostly exempt from such criticism. Starbucks, for example, is a similar global franchiser. It, like Wal-Mart, has been hit with charges of European tax avoidance, and accused of dodging local planning procedures and of operating at a loss to drive out small competitors. It is also at odds with various unionizing efforts. But Starbucks, in our shallow public imagination, remains hip and thus gets a public pass in a way Wal-Mart does not. Kids brag that they work at Starbucks, not at Wal-Mart. Maybe it is the literary name taken from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (could not Wal-Mart be renamed Gandalf’s, Sherlock’s, or Lancelot’s?)? Or does its hipness derive from the literary quotations that it slaps on products, or its sales of “Ethos” water?
Could not Wal-Mart put memorable lines from Shakespeare on its plastic bags, or a Greek hexameter from Homer, or sell vitamin water called Sophos, Kalos, or Logos, or pipe in John Lennon’s “Imagine”?
Would Google have had more trouble for all its outsourcing and overseas tax avoidance had it been named American Internet, Inc., or if its founders had grown up together as good ol’ boys in Mobile, Alabama, who still had a nagging propensity for putting patriotic slogans under the Google logo when the browser pops up each morning? Imagine waking and hitting the American Internet, Inc. logo — and then reading “Live free or die” before your search. (How odd that liberals — e.g., “the medium is the message” — always lectured us about advertising-driven false demand, and then became past masters of deceptive branding.)
Warren Buffett and George Soros are apparently hip; the Koch brothers are not.
How did that come about, given that there is not much difference in the capitalist modes in which they all became billionaires? After all, a Koch brother did not try to break the Bank of England, or get convicted of a crime in France. Warren Buffett’s choice to leave much of his estate to the Gates Foundation will cost all of us billions in lost federal estate tax revenue. And his efforts to hike estate taxes on the upper middle class would mean that a keystone of his empire — life insurance — might profit handsomely. Could Obama just jet to Omaha and say: “Warren, HHS and HUD have a funding problem; could you steer a few billions their way in your estate?”
The difference is that Buffett and Soros espouse liberal causes and progressive politicians. CEO Jeffrey Immelt not only won lots of tax concessions for GE, but also did so without much public rebuke. You see, he was a loud proponent of Barack Obama and once bankrolled MSNBC. (Did Eugene Robinson ever blast on the air his patron for not paying his fair share?). That in and of itself provided exemption from charges of crony capitalism and insider influence peddling — and the fact that GE paid no income taxes in 2010.
If the executives of Solyndra had been coal-company CEOs, they would now be in deep trouble for squandering public funds obtained through rank cronyism.
We don’t worry much when Facebook or Google invades private lives; we worry a great deal when frackers produce oil without polluting the environment. BP had it right — keep the familiar abbreviation and green color and just say the logo now means an eco-friendly “Beyond Petroleum” (rather than the neo-colonialist British Petroleum) as you pump more gas and oil than ever. Government Motors will soon not be a parody; but Green Motors would be even better.
What’s in a Name?
So: hip is often as easy as changing one’s name. Had Mitt Romney only reminded us of his family’s Mexican ancestry and ran as Zarpa Romneo, and against Barry Dunham. We do not associate the billion-dollar couple — rapper Jay-Z and singer Beyoncé — with the one-percent elite who made zillions through music, endorsements, and scores of cutthroat capitalist subsidiary companies. Would Barack Obama dare lecture them: “You did not build those businesses”? Or “Come on — at some point you made enough money”? Or,“Hey, you two, now is not the time to profit”?
Would the two seem different to the public had they been known as Beyoncé Knowles and Shawn Carter? Would a Barry Dunham or even Barry Obama have quite found the hip resonance of Barack Obama?
Why did we agonize over George Bush’s purported cocaine use while a youth, when Barack Obama, of Choom Gang affiliation, openly bragged in his memoirs of using “blow”? One was a seen as a pampered frat wastrel, the other a literary and confused man “coming of age” in an uncertain world, turning to Niebuhr for solace.
Hipness can be especially hard to acquire for old white guys who have tons of money and will do almost anything to increase it — like a stingy John Kerry who tried to avoid $500,000 in property taxes by moving his $7M yacht to Rhode Island, or a conniving green Nobel Laureate Al Gore who just sold his $100 million interest in Current TV to the anti-American al-Jazeera funded by the fossil-fuel burning royal family of Qatar, and attempted to beat the new 2013 tax hikes in the process. (What a liberal trifecta!) But as exemption for not buying a $5 million dollar yacht and paying his taxes with the savings, Kerry often harangues for high taxes on others. And we remember his passionate 1960s protest career. (Ghhenzzzis Khan made far better senatorial drama than Genghis Khan). For dessert, Kerry wind-surfs and wears spandex while bike riding. Add all that up and Kerry is exempted from the Occupy Wall Street disdain of one-percenters. He is one of the good guys, mansions, yachts, and all.
Al Gore — aging, rotund, white, male, and southern-accented — made nearly a billion dollars. By any classical definition — the house in which he lives in, the transportation that he prefers, the accusations of sexual harassment he has incurred, the modes in which he made his money — Gore is an abject hypocrite. But we do not live in a classical society of reason and logic, and so Al Gore is hip and therefore exempt from such charges. He has become more associated with worrying about poor stranded polar bears trapped on melting ice flows than junketing to his next corporate, profit-maximizing conference on a carbon-spewing Gulfstream V.
Bill Clinton gave us the notion of offsets — one nod to a piece of feminist legislation and, presto, one piece of a young intern subordinate becomes OK.
Do we care that Andrea Mitchell and Chris Matthews are multimillionaires, live in exclusive districts, or embrace a lifestyle unknown to most Americans, when they so loudly each week warn us about racism, sexism, and the pathologies of the rich white male establishment of which they are such a part? Apparently Ms. Mitchell climbs on her soapbox haranguing about “rednecks” from 9-5, and then goes home to her Ayn Rand-reading, uber-capitalist, stock-buying and selling husband Alan Greenspan without a blink in between.
Again, the one is not so much at odds with the other as explains the other.
If Katie Couric were a spokeswoman for GM or Chrysler, would we resent her $15 million salary, and cite it as an example of the growing divide between the relative compensation of management and labor? But trash Sarah Palin, and Couric is no longer an overpaid one-percenter. Is CBS hip and therefore exempt in the way the New York Times fights tooth and nail against unionization, or Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio are not dubbed parasites for raking in $30 to 50 million per year?
How did David Letterman survive serial affairs with subordinate employees, after creating the classic “hostile workplace environment” that feminists are otherwise so quick to pounce on? Apparently, he is hip enough to be able to slander 14-year-old Willow Palin as a veritable prostitute.
In the Obama world of zero-sum economics, does LeBron James’s $15 million a year come at the expense of an extra dollar or two on the ticket of the hard-pressed fan? Or does the fact that LeBron is hip exempt him from association with his fellow fat cats? Could the Tea Party just change its name to Occupy Washington?
Barack Obama baffles his detractors. How can one who golfs so frequently, or who vacations in only the most tony resorts, keep haranguing the nation about the transgressions of the one percent? When he sees them stroll by on Martha’s Vineyard, does he jump up and shout out at their mansions: “You didn’t build that!”?
How did corpse-man not win the NPR vitriol that nu-cu-lar had in the past?
How could Obama in 2006 vote against raising the debt ceiling, in 2008 call Bush unpatriotic for deficit spending, upon entering office promise to halve the deficit by the end of his first term, and then oversee some $5 trillion in new borrowing? Hip: borrowing became “stimulus”; entitlements, “investments”; and paying it all back became “paying your fair share.” In Obama’s case, he is not just black, but black with an exotic name and a liberal ideology, unlike a Clarence Thomas, who is most unhip — being right-wing, not of mixed race, with an ordinary American name (Clarence?), veteran of the prejudices of the pre-Civil Rights south. Could not Thomas shorten his name to just the single Tomré? Or perhaps go the Van Jones made-up route — Van Thomas?
In a shallow and superficial America you can make all the money you like without being dubbed selfish or greedy, frequent all the most exclusive resorts without being a one-percenter, and commit all the politically incorrect sins you wish without being tagged a reactionary — but you better try to be hip first.