What do you think of when I say “conservative fashion”? Do you think of power suits for men and knee-covering skirts for women? Do you think of Sarah Palin’s bump-it and bedazzled denim? Dad jeans? Comb-overs and cowboy boots? The Duggars’ prairie-style burkas?
You probably don’t think of bearded lumbersexuals, charmingly dented Christmas ornaments, artisanal men’s grooming products, throw-back replica basketballs and footballs and you certainly don’t think of an obscure British travel zine whose latest issue includes a meditation on “the influence of mid-century chairs.”
Yet, all of those things and more is what you will find on 1791.com, the latest spin-off from Glenn Beck’s delightfully schizophrenic and sporadically self-aware media empire.
1791 began its life as many of Beck’s commercial campaigns do, an offshoot of an apparently off-the-cuff rant against crumbling American virtues and values. In 2012, Beck took aim against Levi’s and its “Go forth” campaign. He branded it a fifth-column invasion into popular culture, normalizing radical, even communist ambitions. That Levi’s makes the majority of its jeans in China of course added salt to the wound and Beck set out to create and sell American-made blue jeans that were the real heirs to the America Levi’s used to represent. Thus, Beck’s $160 jeans were born.
Two years later, Beck’s extrapolated vision of an alternative to alternative style looks even more like alternative style, right down to its romancing of the hand-to-mouth existence that brought organized labor into being. You can buy a $200 “Lincoln [as in Abe] ax” and ancient first-aid kits, beard oil (BEARD OIL!), teepees (labeled “ranger tents”), and a variety of artfully distressed t-shirts bearing sentiments whose subversiveness lies in just how widely shared they are across the political spectrum. “Unplug from the system” would be just as suitable for Ferguson protesters as NRA members. “Stay wild. Stay free.” would find buyers among PETA supporters and Ron Paul relatives. And “Just Another Stubborn Dreamer”? Imagine if they sold that in Spanish.
Even “Gun Debate Settled Since 1791” works for me. I just happen to believe it was settled in a different way than Beck does.
“Resist Conformity” is the most obvious mindfuck going on here, but “Hard Times Made Us” is the one that could drive you insane. That’s the #humblebrag at the heart of any impulse to appropriate style from the margins of society, whether it’s done out of a misplaced affection for “otherness” (the hipster rationalization) or because you are so genuinely blind to your own privilege, you don’t realize that the “hard times” that made you were suffered by others. Because here’s another thing that 1791.com has in common with most hipster catalogs: There aren’t any black people in it.
The vertigo your coastal sophisticate might get from perusing 1791.com isn’t really due to the distance between Beck’s conservative personal politics and the store’s hipster visual cues. If you feel weird about liking the feel and sensibility of 1791, may I suggest that’s not because you don’t have anything in common with Beck—it’s because you’re more alike than you want to know.
Modern conservatives rightly (as it were) define themselves against the culture at large; hipsters seek to do so as well. That we’ve reached a moment where the signifiers for both groups are the same isn’t just unexpected, it’s overdue.
The two groups have brushed up against each other in the dressing room before, whenever hipsters reach into the retro clothing bin for a costume, there is always going to be someone who is simply pulling out his or her everyday uniform. Hipsters have appropriated trucker hats, “wife-beater” undershirts, gas station attendant jackets and countless other symbols of working-class America... but until somewhat recently, hipsters donned the uniform of the working class with a protective layer of irony between themselves and the actual worker. The irony has thinned with the economy, perhaps: Who can really afford just to pretend to DIY today?
That today most of us are, literally, working-class is only an explanation of stylistic convergence, however. It does not explain who, exactly, Beck expects to buy his $155 vintage Christmas ornaments and $25 waxed canvas lunch bags—it only confuses us further. Presuming his demographic is largely the same as what it was when he was at Fox, they are not wealthy people. A third of them make less than $30,000 a year. Beck is in the same position as any post-industrial capitalist entrepreneur. Paper and cloth are cheap, what people are paying for is the story.
Beck is enough of a propagandist and showman to realize that even died-in-the-Woolrich Tea Partiers won’t buy $160 jeans on purely economic, or even political, grounds. He needs to tell a story that compliments, or distracts from, the price just as much as Levi’s story does. That he’s settled on lumbersexual wilderness fetishization may strike you as hilariously ironic in the classic sense of the word: a mismatch between Beck’s true nature and the political (or sexual, for that matter) orientation implied by the imagery.
(I doubt that 1791.com’s designers intended to be quite as ambiguous as all that, though there is this in the description of those throwback sports objects: “We’re often asked if these balls can be played with.” I bet you are!)
One of things that set Beck off about the Levi’s campaign was its appropriation of American iconography in the service of a message he saw as anti-capitalist. He called out the conformism hiding in the pose of rugged individuality. It’s metastasized irony that Beck has now appropriated that imagery, and that self-serving myth himself—for reasons that ultimately the same as Levi’s were: to sell shit.
There is no difference, functionally or stylistically, between the two campaigns. The only differences, as far as I can tell, are locations of the pockets being picked and the wallets being lined. Different demographics buying, different owners profiting.
We think of “conservative” and “hip” being inherently contradictory words, whether you’re talking about the stylistic definition of “conservative” or the political one. This isn’t even really up for debate: Conservatives themselves routinely make this distinction, proudly comparing their (self-proclaimed) “timeless” values and beliefs against transient and “cool” moral relativism. Liberals either boast or comfort themselves that their own beliefs push humanity forward. (They’re progressive, even!) I am personally guilty of thinking that the culture war can be at least partially won on style points.
Beck is a close student of history and propaganda, and especially the history of propaganda. Core to his conspiracy theorist savior shtick is his promise that he has studied the past and found the Rosetta Stone artifacts that decode today’s confounding events. (“Rules for Radicals”! The Overton Window! Philip Dru: Aministrator!) To an audience destabilized by seismic changes in the culture, he brings the assurance (and the threat) that Obama et al. HAVE A PLAN, and he knows what it is. So, it’s hard to believe that anything on this site is an accident. If Michelle Obama’s healthy food initiative is part of a conscious effort to drive a wedge between parents and their children (all the better to brainwash them in Common Core), then how is a $275 sled not also part of a master plan? If all Beck wants is to separate his listeners from their money, couldn’t he have done it without Stumptown barista doppelgangers and dented tchotchkes?
“You are part of something older than yourselves,” is what the site says. “You have the weight of tradition on your side.” It’s expensive because it’s valuable. It needs to be protected.
His advertising tells a story, but so do the objects themselves. If we really want to delve into the real history of what Beck’s selling, start with those jeans. Beck boasts that the denim comes from the looms of Cone Mills, a turn-of-the-century textile plant in Greensboro, N.C., founded by two Jewish brothers and which was, in 1908, the largest denim manufacturer in the world. Writ in its history are all the ills and passions of the past century.
After the Civil War, the Cone brothers oversaw segregated “mill towns” that blurred the transition from plantation life to nominal “freedom” for African-American workers. After World War I, unions began their losing and lethal battle with textile owners across the South. That line of murderous, racially charged clashes began in 1929, with the unsolved shooting of organizer Ella May Wiggins, and continued through the Greensboro massacre on Nov. 3, 1979, when five Communist party protest marchers (four white, one black) from Cone Mills were shot by Klansmen and Nazis firing from the back of a Ford Fairlane. Sixteen men were arrested, nine indicted for the murders; none were found guilty.
Cone Mills features in all the major chapters of the 20th century. There was an attempted hostile take over in the 1980s; bankruptcy in 2003, only to be brought back to life as a boutique industry in 2004.
But it’s the Greensboro killings the city remembers, though the picture has been tinted by the civil rights victories that came after it. It’s mostly the “Greensboro massacre” today, a symbol of textile mills’ power and the collusion of authority with radical racists. What often is forgotten—and what Beck could probably stand to remember—is that the massacre was, technically, a firefight. After they were fired upon, the communists shot back. Beware glamorizing rugged—and armed—individualism too much. Someone might actually listen.
Of all the tragedies that come with commercialized authenticity and mass-marketed stylistic contrarianism, it’s off-the-rack aggrievedness that can cause the most damage. When you buy your outrage ready-made, that anger, by definition, is not an expression of personal experience, it’s just protective coloring within a mob. You cease to have individual expression and can’t make individual connections. You become “us.” Everyone else becomes “them.”
And it’s getting harder and harder to tell the teams apart.