Before Vice was from Montreal, it was from Ottawa. Before it was cool, it wasn’t.
Everybody likes to hate hipsters. Maybe because nowadays, everybody can be called a hipster – just as long as they have a beard. But back in the days, we secretly knew who the real hipsters were. They were the cool kids from the immigrant, queer, Portuguese-Jewish neighbourhood, children of rock’n’roll and fathers of the electro scene. They were the urban, vegan-friendly, music-savvy, drug-inspired and sexually ambiguous amateurs of art, beauty and everything vintage, those who escaped the mall-filled suburbs of North America to bike their way to ‘Berlinesque’ Montreal. They were poor sometimes by indifference, sometimes by choice (rejecting their families’ lucrative agendas), sometimes as a result of destiny.
They were those who taught me how to dress (better), when not only able to afford black t-shirts from H&M, made in Bangladesh by modern slaves – guilt-loaded additions to the non-walking closet of my apartment, shared with five other roommates. They were the ones who taught me how to party, in bars and clubs and buses and alleyways, on rooftops before rooftops were even cool in Paris. When my friend Laura introduced me to the hipster scene, it was like I lost my virginity again.
It was a scene united enough, one where judgment seemed suspended. On the dance floors of the Mile-End, you could find a spiritual hiker from BC, a corn-fed knitter from Saskatchewan, a bored accountant from Toronto, a wasted musician from Newfoundland, twins raised in a cult, a carpenter from Florida with alligator stories, a sexually confused photographer from California and a Colombian barista whose good looks were only matched by grand symptoms of depression. But as a young man raised near a capital, I knew that one thing had the power to divide the room: politics.
Politics were to be avoided, but difficult to avoid in a politically charged nation like Quebec, and even more difficult to avoid for me. I grew up close to Parliament Hill, and my grandfather was a political journalist. He was also a hero to me. Raised in a family of ‘peasants’, my grandfather was the only one out of fourteen children to get an education, and he certainly made something out of it, ending up on a plane with the Prime Minister. My grandfather was a Conservative, which is everything I’m not, but also quite surprising for such a compassionate man (with ideas of his time, but compassionate still) who had a resolutely open-minded vibe, so to speak. Then again, former Conservatives are the kittens of modern ones.
Early on, I detected some “politically dubious positions” in the hipster scene, potentially inherited from less free-spirited parents. There was the usual “Quebec is racist” (not a false sentence but an incomplete one), often said by people who taught Quebeckers didn’t speak real French (like their colonial ancestors) and glorified France without ever mentioning Marine Le Pen. The “Pauline Marois is a cow” said by people who would never condemn Richard Bain, the “taxes are too high” said by people whose parents paid for their school and the “why would I learn French, this isn’t France” said by people who were not living in England, just saying. But how could I be mad at such comments as an older man who knows about the bittersweet taste of exile: gratitude for the opportunities but confusion in the cultural madness.
These quiet tensions were not completely new to me, since I’d spent my teenage years in Ottawa during the second referendum. The city was still a remarkably ‘cumbaya’ place with a spiritual vibe and friendly neighbours all around, but not everything was 100% Justin Trudeau. Sure, Ottawa was Alanis Morissette, the heartbroken rocker from a Franco-Ontarian lineage who went from awakening to awakening, in a white t-shirt down the streets of L.A. or naked on a Toronto streetcar after a trip to India. But Ottawa was also Gavin McInnes.
Back then, no one knew what it meant. A fascinating piece written by Claire Levenson just taught us a little more about the character, who spent most of his childhood and teenage years in the Ottawa region, studying at Carleton before heading to Concordia and co-founding Voices of Montreal: what would become VICE.
Gavin McInnes is a man of many ‘jokes’. He once celebrated the fact that most Williamsburg hipsters were white. He said that “people would be happier if women would stop pretending to be men”, and that feminism caused women to be sad, “feigning toughness, they’re miserable.” To him, “Transphobia is Perfectly Natural” and all Muslims should be banned from the Unites States, a statement that comes as a surprise for someone who founded Vice with a Pakistani-Canadian friend (who we won’t automatically assume is a Muslim, but who has certainly become a lot more inspiring).
McInnes thinks that people should assimilate to a westernised, white and English-speaking lifestyle, and that women and minorities are too emotional to be rational – something reserved to white “daddies”. He once dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member for a party. He is pro-guns, collaborates with Fox News and openly supports Donald Trump.
Not surprisingly, VICE has evolved without him for years: “it’s a long story”, said McInnes. You bet. VICE somewhat stated that he was not ‘their thing’. If McInnes gives us another reason to hate the ‘cool’ kids, VICE certainly gives us more and more reasons to like them. Gone are the days of ignorant Québec-bashing as VICE has become a ballsy, quality-certified media addressing our era like no other medium, even sending Ellen Paige to the Brazilian ghettos of homophobia.
That’s for the good news. The bad news remains. Gavin McInnes might not be the world’s most dangerous man, but he is one of his many faces. Another one is Trump’s. That man has faces all over the Internet, even among my Facebook friends – that Torontonian colleague who hates feminists, that Catalan friend who compares refugees to animals, that French acquaintance who openly celebrates fascism. He becomes an extremist in a surprisingly short time. He is often good looking but slightly ageing. Not getting the sex he thinks he deserves. Not getting the love he craves, because he doesn’t understand that love is like fame: a lottery. Even when he has a girlfriend, there is a certain sadness in his eyes. He is still not convinced of his worth, maybe because of repeated childhood humiliation. He is often jobless and in need of a purpose. Hate becomes the purpose, and difference becomes the motive of despair. Most importantly, he is nostalgic of a time when things were better – better for people like him, that is. He is a little bit of you, and a little bit of me in our darkest hours. He is white, but might as well have been different if born in another country. The world’s most dangerous man is everywhere. We can no longer escape him, no matter how trendy his clothes, or how tall his tours and walls. It is now time to face him.