Bohemian chic is the cultural orientation predominantly held by upwardly mobile, educated white progressives of an urban secular mold, and is characterized by a tension between expressive individualism and egalitarian collectivism: between a desire to be an authentic, unique individual, on the one hand, and for everyone to ultimately be equal, on the other. The term describes the synthesis of Rousseauian Romanticism—bohemian—and bourgeois refinement—chic—the intersection of hippie élan and cultural elitism that Daniel Bell explores in his 1976 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Although bohemian chic refers to a cultural identity with a specific lineage, it also describes a broader tendency to appropriate the adversarial spirit of the counterculture, at a time when such attitudes have become so commonplace as to be banal.
Sociologist Orlando Patterson has described culture as what we must know, in order to effectively move through our environment: a set of expressed symbols around which we organize to signal and maintain identity. Bohemian chic has its own attitudes, norms, ideas, aesthetics and customs—ranging from a style of dress to vocal affectations and artistic taste—that form a system, which can be reproduced independently of its original context. An identity is invariably formed in reaction to something else: bohemian chic emerged in reaction to Anglo-American traditionalism, its WASP archetype and the puritanism of middle-class life: it is a reaction to whiteness. Although bohemian chic is primarily a social, rather than a political identity, its cosmopolitan ethos and rejection of established hierarchies fit snugly into the social justice narrative of the modern left, particularly its privileging of identity over class. Indeed, bohemian chic is an adaptation to, rather than a renunciation of, modern day capitalism.
But, in addition to providing a sense of identity to many people (including myself), the excesses of bohemian chic contribute to the broader culture war in the US. For some, the valorization of individual expression and social egalitarianism is accompanied by underlying, unacknowledged guilt at their relative social advantages—their unearned privilege—which can manifest as self-flagellating anti-white rhetoric, condescending deference towards minority groups and both bitterness about other people’s privilege and blindness to their own. Instead of considering how such privileges could be expanded, many attack privilege itself. They attempt to exculpate themselves from the historical crimes of white racism by disparaging a retrograde white Other.
But what are the origins of bohemian chic? And what is its larger role in the drama of our charged political moment?
Bohemian chic is an outgrowth of the cultural radicalism that took root in Greenwich Village from 1912–1917, with the anti-WASP ethos of the young intellectuals, the ideological antecedents of modern day multiculturalists and Social Justice leftists. Also known as the lyrical left, these Anglo-American artists and writers rebelled against their protestant backgrounds and sought to liberate society through melding radical politics and modern culture.
Perhaps the most influential was Randolph Bourne, an eccentric, disfigured polemicist whose 1916 essay “Trans-National America” celebrates immigrant ethnicities, while urging his countrymen to become citizens of the world. As Eric Kaufmann puts it, Bourne encourages ethnic minorities to preserve their identities, while the majority dissolves its own, an asymmetry that characterizes today’s notion of cultural appropriation. This is the central paradox of western multiculturalism: it seeks to transcend ethnic categories, while embracing diversity, which requires attachment to group identity and the recognition of difference.
Although the lyrical left disintegrated after the onset of World War I in 1914 and Bourne’s death in 1918, their ideas influenced cultural critics of the 1920s, such as H. L. Mencken, and the “Lost Generation” of bohemian writers, with their anti-majority ethos. In words reminiscent of a modern whiteness studies class, Mencken writes that,
the normal American of the pure-blooded majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed … His political ideas are crude and shallow. He is almost wholly devoid of aesthetic feeling. The most elementary facts about the universe alarm him, and incite him to put them down. He fears ideas almost more cravenly than he fears men.
This tendency to criticize white society, while eulogizing other identities, was further popularized by the Beat generation of the 1950s, through writers like Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer. Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro” calls upon readers to reject classical liberalism and culture of conformity it fosters, in favor of the rebelliousness, violence and sexuality that he associated with black American culture.
These sentiments remained restricted to niche bohemian circles, until the success of the Civil Rights Movement brought the full horrors of white racism and segregation to the forefront of the national conscience. The white population was now forced to repudiate these practices and acknowledge the plight of the oppressed. This cultural shift was quickly followed by a sweep of political reforms—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968—that altered the moral fabric of the country. In 1944, 52% of whites agreed that “white people should have the first chance at any kind of job.” By 1972, only 3% did. In 1958, only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage. By 2013, it was 87%. The left had won the culture war and white supremacy was no longer respectable.
The ideas that had once animated a small group of radicals had by, the late twentieth century, penetrated elite institutions. Shelby Steele, an African American who grew up in segregated Chicago, sums up this transition:
In the 1960s, America underwent what can only be described as an archetypal “fall”—a descent from “innocence” into an excruciating and inescapable self-knowledge. This innocence had always been a delusion. It was far more a cultivated ignorance of America’s sins than innocence of them, and this ignorance was helped along by a culturally embedded pattern of rationalizations, bigotries, stereotypes, and lies. But all this came under profound challenge in the 1960s, as one form of American hypocrisy after another—everything from racism and the second class treatment of women to Vietnam and our neglect of the environment—came to light and further cracked the veneer of American innocence.. Thus, the reinvention of America as a country shorn of its past sins became an unspoken, though extremely powerful, mandate in national politics.
This is how a counterculture transformed into a cultural hegemony, setting the bounds of public discourse in the US. Cultural radicalism had become bohemian chic.
The subtle anti-white sentiment that has been normalized in high culture—from New York Times op-eds to Ivy League classrooms and corporate anti-bias workshops—has contributed to the rise of populism and the breakdown of civil discourse. As I’ve written elsewhere, political polarization is occurring in a context of rapid demographic change, as the white share of the population declines through immigration, intermarriage and low fertility. Many whites feels increasingly threatened both by the pace of ethnocultural change and the expansion of anti-racist norms among cultural elites who equate conservatism with racism.
When whites were an overwhelming majority, anti-whiteness could be brushed aside. But, as white populations decline, racialized insults increasingly fuel partisan rancor. The percentage of white Americans who strongly identify with their race has roughly doubled since the 1990s, as immigration rates have skyrocketed and politics has degenerated into mayhem. The result is a perpetual motion machine of racial grievance and political tribalism between anti-racists on the left and populists on the right.
The recent “Hidden Tribes” study by nonpartisan organization More In Common found that the more radical views on both ends of the spectrum are held disproportionately by whites. As Yascha Mounk comments, “progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. With the exception of the small tribe of devoted conservatives, progressive activists are the most racially homogeneous group in the country.” Why?
In his book Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities, Eric Kaufmann outlines the various reactions to the speed of ethno-cultural change and the degradation of white American identity. Some respond by voting for right-wing populists, and calling for restrictions to immigration. Others repress their anxieties and stigmatize all those who do not subscribe to the politically correct view. White progressives and white conservatives are reacting to globalization and its social implications in accordance with their respective dispositions and cultural values. The symbolic pressure on white identity engendered by demographic change and changing attitudes is a major factor underlying what David French has referred to as “the Great White Culture War.” To move beyond this impasse, we will need a more honest conversation about the meaning of white identity in the twenty-first century.
The problems begin with the idea that whiteness is a transcendent force for good or ill. If the social justice movement is a response to the monoculture and horrifying racism of the past, then the idea that being white is uniquely evil—an idea that would be considered racist if applied to any other group—rests on the same assumptions as white supremacy, the same misguided belief in our own innocence. As Thomas Chatterton Williams writes,
Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. [Ta-Nehisi] Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early twentieth-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path.
In reacting against the sins of the past, the cultural left remains trapped in history. The far-right has responded by identifying with a mythological golden age, which they claim as their heritage. But, as the world becomes increasingly complex, neither the shames nor the triumphs of the past can help us solve the problems we face today. Instead, we need a sober understanding of our history, which doesn’t use it to determine identity.
We must recognize whites as an ethnic identity group like any other, and view whiteness neither as a symbol of oppression or a source of entitlement, but a set of collective memories and archetypes to which people feel attached. It is unsustainable to encourage minority groups to celebrate their ethnic identities, while stigmatizing whites from doing the same, in a country in which whites will be a minority in the near future; in which numerous dark-skinned ethnic groups already outearn white Americans; in which is no obvious through line between a strongly white identity and antipathy towards minorities; in which 40% of people living in poverty are non-Hispanic whites; and in which there are enough universal problems that viewing social ills through an exclusively identitarian lens is beginning to look outdated. We need to reject depictions of whites as either uniquely guilty or uniquely innocent, in order to move beyond the racial and partisan enmities that have engulfed modern life.