Some close reading of the breathtakingly superficial David Brooks column today on hipster parents:
Can we finally stop reading about the musical Antoinettes who would get the vapors if their tykes were caught listening to Disney tunes, and who instead force-feed Brian Eno, Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens into their little babies’ iPods?
Somehow I get the sneaking suspicion that Brooks has never listened to Sufjan Stevens. Christian orchestral pop about the fifty states -- why isn't that perfect kid music? I mean, the guy recorded an album of Christmas songs for crissakes.
I mean, don’t today’s much-discussed hipster parents notice that their claims to rebellious individuality are undercut by the fact that they are fascistically turning their children into miniature reproductions of their hipper-than-thou selves?... It’s been nearly three years since reporters for sociologically attuned publications like The New York Observer began noticing oversophisticated infants in “Anarchy in the Pre-K” shirts. Since then, the trend has exhausted its life cycle.
You have to be seriously tone-deaf as a sociologist if you think that these parents believe they're fighting the man by putting their kids in "Anarchy in the Pre-K" t-shirts. Obviously, obviously they're making a joke.
A witty essay by Adam Sternbergh announced the phenomenon in an April 2006 New York magazine. Sternbergh described 40-year-old men and women with $200 bedhead haircuts and $600 messenger bags, who “look, talk, act and dress like people who are 22 years old,” and dress their infants as if they’re 16. He called these pseudo-adults “Grups,” observing that they smashed any remaining semblance of a generation gap.
A side note: I love how two weeks ago, the very same New York magazine announced that the "myspace generation" gap was the biggest one in fifty years. The gap went from nonexistent to Grand-Canyon-sized in less then a year. Hmmm....
Let me be clear: I’m not against the indie/alternative lifestyle. There is nothing more reassuringly traditionalist than the counterculture. For 30 years, the music, the fashions, the poses and the urban weeklies have all been the same. Everything in this society changes except nonconformity.
This is a case of not being able to see the forest for the t-shirts. Brooks seems to genuinely believe that all the counterculture has produced in the past thirty years is fashion trends. But of course that's nonsense. Think of the environmental movement itself -- which runs through a lot of those Urban Baby and Babble conversations about disposable diapers and organic baby food. Maybe David Brooks thinks that environmentalism is just a bunch of t-shirt slogans too? Are some of those folks into the green, Slow Food lifestyle because it's fashionable? Of course. People are into all sorts of things -- neo-conservatism and suburban PTA meetings -- because they're fashionable in their communities. The question is whether the underlying values and consequences of that lifestyle are better or worse than the alternatives.
Brooks' obsession with the surfaces of hipster parenting ends up blinding him to the real trend here, which is central to almost all the examples he cites: young parents choosing to raise their children in the city, not the suburbs. That is a decision with real consequences, not an empty gesture. It has material effects on children and parents -- and the cities they live in. It's a decision with political and environmental implications, and also one with some surprisingly old-time Americana values. (Brooklyn parents can be cloyingly sentimental about the small town friendliness of their neighborhoods.) It has almost nothing to do with non-conformism, and everything to do with the kind of community -- diverse, sidewalk-based, public, culturally-rich -- we want to raise our children in. It's striking that Brooks doesn't even find that trend worth mentioning in the piece -- much less taking it seriously. Perhaps he might have picked up on it if he'd spent a little less time obsessing about what the kids are wearing these days.