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Hail the Hipublicans

Media coverage of so-called 'cool conservatives' reveals a disturbing inability to differentiate between politics and style.
 
 
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It's a slow news season. The election is seven months away, summer has yet to bestow its blockbusters and the possibility that John Kerry will do something as exciting as have an affair with an intern are as slim as the chances he'll name John McCain his running-mate. It is at times like these that a feature writer's thoughts turn to a time-honored trend story: The possibility that not all Republicans dress like Jehovah's Witnesses and sound like George Will.

Articles that purport to have discovered some strain of "cool" conservative -- or that proclaim that "conservatism is cool" -- appear all over the mainstream press, from the San Francisco Chronicle to Patrick Buchanan's magazine, The American Conservative. But The New York Times' word processing program must have some kind of macro for them -- in the past year alone, three front-page stories have informed readers of the Times that the conservative movement in America is not a Borg-like monolith made up of cloned Christian Coalition members. Last May, in a Times Magazine cover story on "Hipublicans," we learned that a college student who looked like she "could have stepped out of a 1970's campus sit-in," with "shoulder-length blond hair, faded jeans and rock T-shirt," also could be "one of the most combative and hard-core conservatives" on her campus.

This astonishing proposition -- that a young person's appearance was not necessarily indicative of political ideology -- apparently merited further investigation, for September 2003 brought another shocking expose, this on the front page of the Times' Sunday Styles section: The editors of New York's Vice magazine, which "nails hipster culture on the head," also supported the invasion of Iraq and adore George W. Bush. What? Didn't these hipsters get their voting instructions when they picked up their trucker hats? Conservative young people who dress cool? The cognitive dissonance is making my head hurt!

The latest entry in the Times' attempt to grapple with post-adolescents who refuse to conform to a Boomer stereotype also appeared on the front page of Sunday Styles on Mar. 21. The story's thesis was laid out in the first paragraph:

With his mohawk, ratty fatigues, assorted chains and his menagerie of tattoos -- swallows on each shoulder, a nautical star on his back and the logo of the Bouncing Souls, a New York City punk band, on his right leg -- 22-year-old Nick Rizzuto is the very picture of counterculture alienation. But -- Mr. Rizzuto is adamantly in favor of lowering taxes and for school vouchers, and against campaign finance laws; his favorite Supreme Court justice is Clarence Thomas; he plans to vote for President Bush in November; and he's hard-core into capitalism.

Can you feel your mind being blown yet?

These articles betray the intractable Boomer sentimentality of many mainstream journalists, who clearly can't imagine a youth that isn't about not trusting people over 30.

Close examination shows there are really two threads of culture under the Times' blurry microscope. First, there are the young conservatives who are not total freaks: The Hipublicans. Or maybe they dress like freaks but also are conservative: The Repunklicans. Those folks over at Vice magazine, along with a certain strain of right-wing punkhood, namely, skinheads, actually represent the inverse of a conservatism somehow becoming "cool" -- these groups show how easily a hipster attitude can be exaggerated into conservatism.

What is "cool," after all? We're not talking about bohemianism or the avant-garde, but cool. The popular people in high school cool, the pages of the Times Sunday Style section cool. That sort of cool is about elitism, conformity, cliquishness and a dislike of those who are not like you. Hipster attitude can become right-wing jingoism by simply becoming more extreme. True, Vice magazine's editors probably think of skinheads as being passé, but Vice editor Gavin McInnes' ironic racism and in-your-face nationalism echo the sentiments of young white supremacists everywhere: "I love being white and I think it's something to be very proud of," he told the Times. "I don't want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life."

This is a disturbing sentiment, of course. But it is all the more disturbing for being a part of a story featured in the puffiest, fluffiest section of an already lifestyle-driven Sunday newspaper. Think about it: Racism is bad, but racism treated as a trend piece, next to features about hot new bistros and nifty trinkets? It suggests that this offensive worldview can be put on and cast off like last year's sneakers, or played for effect, like the most obscene new album.

This juxtaposition points to how all stories about "cool conservatives" -- no matter what thread they examine -- fail us: Honest political beliefs are the opposite of trends. They are sincere, thought-out and deeply held. And if they're wrong or offensive, they should be argued against, not simply declared out of style.

Ana Marie Cox is a columnist at In These Times.