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War Babies

A generation reared on cynicism suddenly discovers political earnestness.

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Throughout the nine-ties, and especially for young Democrats who were both embarrassed and deeply amused by Bill Clinton’s dalliances, being active in politics seemed a rather naïve pastime.

Taking a principled, impassioned stand on just about anything felt wrong. Not to mention uncool. “Protesters became dorks,” says Chris Fahey, 31, a partner in an interactive-design firm.

Those were the years of unseriousness, when, as Rufus Griscom, the 35-year-old CEO of Nerve.com, puts it, “There was nothing worse among many of our contemporaries than being earnest. All serious statements became setups for acerbic humor, and therefore socially risky.”

"The end of irony may have arrived for the most cynical people in history."

But the end of irony, declared after September 11, may have finally arrived, even for the most frivolous, cynically inclined people in the history of the world—the hipsterati of New York. Last month’s U.N. march and last week’s follow-up protests have been the great shakeout of the ironists, who finally have had to see themselves as somehow aligned, however uncomfortably, with the puppet-toters in army pants who think breaking the windows of a Starbucks is an effective deterrent to global banking practices.

“The political causes I embraced in college were all about identity politics,” confesses a 28-year-old editor. “The politics of the self and self-absorption—until that seemed worth outgrowing.”

“Protests seemed so hippie, so much a part of our parents’ youth that it seemed sentimental and ultimately too idealistic,” adds Christopher Bollen, the 27-year-old features editor for the style magazine V.

But now people like Joseph Patel, a 31-year-old freelance writer, and his stylist-girlfriend have found themselves holding “political brunches.”

“For me, the possible war definitely awakened a sense of responsibility,” says Stuart Lewis, a doctor who, much to his surprise, marched. “It was cold, but I felt great!”

And for some with liberal parents, there’s a certain Manchurian Candidate effect. “I think a lot of people I know have had their childhood programming ‘reactivated,’ ” says Tomas Clark, a video-game developer. “One typical form of rebellion for my generation is to turn your back on ‘serious’ professions and go into cultural production, where in theory we are apolitical. But really, we were taught as kids to have a deep revulsion when something like a war or a violation of civil liberties starts to happen.”

Yippie-ish tendencies are also developing. The Glamericans, a group of downtowners formed to “sex up activism,” in the words of its co-founder, Erik Mercer, went to the candlelight vigil last Wednesday at Senator Hillary Clinton’s Third Avenue office “dressed in black with black candelabras.” Not that they’ve given up irony entirely: The Glamerican manifesto is: “We believe that war is bad for our country, bad for our environment, and bad for our travel plans.”


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