How Hipsters are Like Christopher Columbus

It might seem odd to compare a constantly-mocked social group with a 15th century ‘explorer,’ but the similarities are closer than you think: Both seemed to specialise in charging rampantly into territories they boldly claimed were unchartered, stumbling around in the woods a while when they hit land, and then declaring that they had discovered something. Along the way, both refused to acknowledge that people were already there, and presumably had been a bit ahead of the curve in the discovery department, and both staunchly ignored the harm they were causing to other groups of human beings. There’s a reason people developed the term ‘Columbusing.’

Perhaps it feels over the top to compare sweet, innocent, unknowing hipsters with one of the most infamously destructive people in North American history, but the comparisons are real, and they still stand. Columbus set out to find something, and hipsters, too, seem to be on an eternal quest to seek some kind of deeper meaning in their lives, but also, the next big thing. Columbus wanted to increase power and control over highly profitable regions of the world that yielded spices and other valuable products. Hipsters, meanwhile, want to discover the next ‘it’ thing so they can, themselves, become social commodities, in which commodity is measured in coolness.

Both also happened to run into a number of interesting things along their journeys, even if they didn’t end up quite where they were supposed to. And while it wasn’t inherently bad to get interested in things like cacao, or kale, the fact that these things did get picked up changed the world forever. For Columbus, of course, these ‘discoveries’ ushered in the conquistadors and the subsequent pain, misery, and horror they inflicted on indigenous Americans. For hipsters, they just meant that suddenly every restaurant had to carry said items or risk the ire of trendsters, and, of course, the sudden demand for given foods (or products: see Mason jars, twine, burlap, fixies) radically changed the economy, particularly for poor people who had been using them all along and suddenly couldn’t afford them.

Likewise, Columbus of course had absolutely no interest in the fact that he created a swath of destruction that ruined entire civilisations, destroyed communities, and led to fundamental changes in the landscapes and societies of the Americas. He brought disease, famine, and other unpleasant things with him, because the people who had existed before, those who had actually discovered the things he found so novel, were nothing more than playthings, toys, people to be used (literally, as indigenous Americans were enslaved alongside Africans) and then discarded. While hipsters are not nearly this extreme, there are some parallels. They ignore the poor communities they’re appropriated things from, and those they’ve exploited, the armies of people who must work to feed and clothe them, to keep them in trendy goods and foods. While it might not be as direct as it was with Columbus, hipsters do contribute to exploitation, and they contribute to the destruction and destabilisation of communities.

A painting of Christopher Columbus, looking smug.

Look. This dude was a pretty smug guy. He was convinced that he had everything going for him after ‘discovering’ the Americas and basically completely upending two entire continents, which is no mean feat for a single man. Of course, aside from the indigenous people who already lived there, there’s pretty solid evidence that other Europeans were also aware of the existence of North America before or at the same time he was, so it’s not exactly like he was a cutting-edge revolutionary in that area of things. But he was convinced that he was, and the legacy handed down to many whites in North America is that of discoverer, conqueror. We have a holiday named for the man, along with scores of rivers, forests, institutions, and so on, since this is apparently how we like to honor genocidal Europeans.

I’m not saying that hipsters are on par with Columbus, or that they’re genocidal monsters consumed with conquering and destroying the world. Because obviously they’re not. But they do very much want to own and control their own corner of the world, and to ‘discover’ and ‘introduce’ things that they claim are entirely new, thereby profiting, while others suffer. It’s not as though kale, and quinoa, and bacon, and who knows what else at this point, magically sprung into being or were carefully bred and developed by hipsters. They’re all things with a long and established history, particularly in poor communities.

Hipsters have appropriated the ‘poor’ aesthetic and culture, without any of the experience. They may believe that no one is observing, that the theft of culture, tradition, and heritage is acceptable, but people are watching, and people are tired of it — though it seems some people feel the need to rise to the defense of hipsters anyway. This isn’t, however, about a recursive phenomenon where we all mock hipsters and talk about how terrible they are because it’s the new hip thing to do. It’s about a larger social issue, and one that often gets elided, just as the horrible history of how Europeans crashed into North America is also elided.

Some hipsters are awfully smug about what they have taken from low-income and marginalised communities in the US. Perhaps that doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth, but it leaves one in mine, and it makes me fervently dislike their stolen, expropriated culture and all that comes with it.

Image: Kale & Mushroom Quinoa, Jennifer, Flickr