On Irony and Hipster Leftism

There is a disappointing, scathing and toxic mix of ironic leftism permeating discourse at Amherst College.

The discourse of our age is a pessimistic one, demoralizingly saturated with irony and preemptive disavowal of Serious Ideas. But irony is employed most fervently in reference to leftist ideas of workers’ revolution, racial justice and gender justice. Jokes about “false consciousness” mix with declarations that the “revolutionary Marxist college students are going to end up as attorneys.” Amherst students love to escape discomfort by taking a heavy dose of irony: Sure, capitalism causes all sorts of problems, but we’re not going to take down Wall Street anytime soon. Besides, anyone who thinks they found the divine solution to inequality and exploitation in Volume 1 of “Capital” is a fool. Right?

In the three years since Meghna Sridhar ’14 published an essay in the Student decrying the dearth of public leftists on campus, the frequency with which Amherst students discuss Marx or critique liberalism and capitalism has certainly jumped. Perhaps this is due to movements like Black Lives Matter and Amherst Uprising, which pulled discourse sharply to the left. Perhaps it is due to curricular changes: courses on critical theory, postcolonial theory, indigenous peoples and neoliberal critiques have changed the tone of campus discourse. Perhaps Bernie Sanders’ marketing of himself as a “democratic socialist” — whatever that might mean — is responsible for the shifting awareness. None of these changes to the intellectual situation have made a dent in the self-aware and smug postures adopted by Amherst students toward leftism.

This new awareness of leftist alternatives to liberalism has ledto a worrisome dissatisfaction. I hear Amherst students say, “No one really thinks socialist society is a workable solution.” I hear Amherst students discuss how learning about race and American capitalism is intellectually interesting but useless because there’s simply nothing to be done. I’ve heard well-read and intellectual Amherst students argue that anti-capitalism is just a fleeting fashion of the 21st century academy that will soon pass.

We are, in general, a college of timidity and uncertainty, the precursors to irony and cynicism. Our peer institutions — schools like Wesleyan, Swarthmore, Reed and Williams — have definite identities, whether activist, brainy, alternative or superior. Amherst has an empty center where an identity should go, and I don’t mean the open curriculum. I am referring to the culture of irony, cynicism and sarcasm that has distanced Amherst students from any discernible shared conviction or value. The students who led the Uprising should be credited with creating possibilities for the articulation of new and sincere community values around racial justice. But even with their hard work and bravery, I notice even greater degrees of racial segregation among underclassmen this semester than I have in previous years. The formation and growth of the Amherst United Left over the course of the past couple years provided hope for serious treatment of leftist ideas, and the publication of the Disorientation Guide introduced students to cultural and institutional criticism. But the energy to build durable leftist consciousness faltered in the face of irony and hipster leftism. These are easier and more convenient postures to strike, especially at a college with a history of graduating future politicians, financiers, lawyers and other members of the American liberal-capitalist oligarchy.

I don’t claim to have empirical proof of Amherst’s cynicism and irony, but I do think that what I am identifying runs both deeply and diffusely through the culture of our college. Irony is the safe alternative to taking a stand: Why espouse a conviction when you could instead smirk at the very idea of convictions? Irony is there wherever students acknowledge the Uprising but say that it was “too emotional.” Irony is there wherever students pursuing lucrative careers argue that those committed to activism or social justice “just don’t seem capable of having any fun.”

Here, I have to make a distinction. Activist fatigue is a legitimate concern. Leftists need to make time for fun. The irony I am talking about is not the reparative kind of joking in which leftist activists engage as therapy. The irony I want to discuss is the irony that takes place when leftism is reduced to stereotypes and caricatures. Both kinds of irony exist in the behavior of thoughtful Amherst students who take critical courses in various departments. Regardless, there is a distinction to be drawn between the act of complementing political action with fun and the act of replacing political action with disparaging humor.

In any case, ironic leftism’s hold is still evident on this campus. Amherst students could not extend the spirit of the Uprising further. I see and hear every day signs that students of color on this campus are still not at home here. Amherst students could not bring the institution to divest from fossil fuels. Amherst students could not even maintain a respectful and prolonged discourse about the tragedy of gun laws in this country when an armed person threatened the University of Massachusetts, Amherst campus. Only on a campus that outwardly espouses criticality while maintaining a studied ironic stance toward critical ideas could such anti-leftism prosper. Amherst College continues to be a bastion for the neoliberal arts, preparing us for careers in the capitalist social machinery. But in the age of irony, Amherst also teaches us how to stomach our own complicity in the damaging of our world with a big gulp of irony each day to wash down the difficult political convictions that stick in our throats.