Saturday, October 6, 2012


April 2004-August 2009-June 2012

            Remember Marshall McLuhan, the pop mass-media guru? To cite him now seems as dated as talk of Swinging London. But his insights - the global village, the medium is the message (or the "massage"), the interchangeability, instantaneity and simultaneity of electronic media - have been so thoroughly accepted and absorbed that they seem like self-evident truths.

            One of the points McLuhan made about television is that it's a "cool" medium, by which he meant passive, pacifying, one-way, noninteractive, the triumph of appearances. The TV emotes and orates, the spectator merely gazes, eyes glazing over. Haskell Wexler's 1969 film "Medium Cool" borrowed McLuhan's terminology to warn against a social order that turns even the most horrific events into "spectacular" entertainment.

            "Medium Cool" was shot documentary style during the riotous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago; at one point the police lob a tear gas canister nearby and someone shouts, "Look out, Haskell, it's real!" The mob chants, "The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!" In the last frames, Wexler films a car crash that abruptly wipes out some of his lead characters. He fixates on the scene, with no move to rush to the rescue, then slowly turns his camera upon the audience as though to accuse us ("Toi! Hypocrite voyeur!") of complicity.

            That same year (the famous Soixante-huit), Situationist theoretician Guy Debord was moved to write a related critique called Society of the Spectacle. Among its many theses:

The basically tautological character of the Spectacle [late capitalist society] flows from the simple fact that its means are at the same time its goal. It is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory. ...

The movement of banalization, under the shimmering diversions of the Spectacle, dominates modern society the world over and at every point where the developed consumption of commodities has multiplied the roles and the objects to choose from in appearance. ... The smug acceptance of that which exists can also be combined into one, with purely spectacular rebellion: this translates the simple fact that dissatisfaction itself became a commodity as soon as economic abundance was able to extend its production to the treatment of such a raw material. ...

The Spectacle is the preservation of unconsciousness within the practical change of conditions of existence. ...

Separation is the alpha and the omega of the Spectacle. ...

The success of the economic system of separation is the proletarianization of the world.

                                                                            (Translation by Black & Red, 1970)

            Had trouble following this typically French effusion of hyperbole and abstract dogmatism/dogmatic abstraction? No problem: I will now try to trace the singular evolutionary history of Cool. For it may well be a "simple fact" that capitalist development inevitably "objectifies" all human existence into falsity and unreality and alienation and living death, but it accomplishes this by material and not by abstract means.

            First, to define our term.

            "Cool" has long been and remains our society's sovereign aesthetic and highest accolade. Back in my grandparents’ day, to say with a certain emphasis “That’s fine” was to confer hearty approval; “fine” has now drifted into meaning “OK.” Many another slang modifier has come and gone - copacetic, peachy, swell, dandy, keen, sharp, neat, nifty, swift, sweet, far out, gone, wild, crazy, outtasight, boss, wicked, groovy, fab, gear, super, right-on, rad, tite, tuff, gnarly, awesome, mad, brilliant, fly, ba-aad, gangsta, phat. But Cool has endured. It has outlasted its old antagonist, "square." Even the venerable "hip" (not to mention hip's once red-hot mama "hep," which predates the 1890s) now comes equipped with quotation marks like a pair of crutches. Only Cool is the timelessly in term for "in," the equivalent of "ideal" as well as the code word for "unbeatable." Cool is the preferred term even in foreign languages, Spanish, French, Italian, German: It is too Cool to need translation. It is the world's coolest word for Cool.

            A person can be Cool, as can a thing or a whole situation: "Hey, it's Cool." One's Cool can be kept, or lost. You play it Cool until you blow your Cool. "Be Cool" is always excellent advice. To be unable to stay Cool is very, very - unCool. Cats, compared to dogs, are Cool. Smoking cigarettes is Cool, even if you don’t smoke Kools.

            Cool has had many deployments over the centuries. The most heated passion can cool off. Revenge has long been a dish best served up cold. Sangfroid was considered a fine attribute by the French, so indispensable a word that the English borrowed it without translation. For “cooler heads to prevail” was a welcome outcome. But the low temperature of cold-blooded murder was not so welcome; better to have been hot-blooded and thus escape the penalty of death.

            In The American Language, H.L. Mencken (who is trustworthy save on the subject of bathtub gin) traced the emergence of Cool's modern connotations to the early 20th-century subculture of gangs and juvenile delinquency. As the ethnic composition of urban gangs shifted, so did the usage of various slang terms. At its earliest, being "cool" apparently referred to "restraint in manner or dress," in contrast to the flashier fashions of the nouveau riche underworld. As a black urban underclass began to grow and take shape, the Cool Cat was born, and Cool came to mean a kind of feigned physical depletion: “[S]ex, it is believed, depletes physical strength and hence many cats affect languorous movements, even to a limp handshake, in order to avoid being classed as [not having had sex recently]," wrote Mencken. He neatly nailed the type:

A cool cat - and all aspire to this temperature - is one who knows he has stumbled on the basic truths and eternal verities and is always well organized within, cautious but not fearful, reserved, inarticulate, and much of the time stoned on wine, pot ... , heroin, or an overdose of Zen Buddhism. [Emphases in original.]

            Cool is pure ideology, a word/idea with perennial power to evoke some enviable, desirable, impregnable state of being. The ultimate fantasy, it has developed a thousand shades of covert, coded meaning that resonate within the modern psyche and its symbols. The secret self-portrait of Cool that emerges is:  calm and collected, Apollonian, poised, unaffected by others, judgment-proof, closed yet loose, relaxed yet vigilant, disengaged, reserved, removed, unmoved, impervious, imperturbable, detached, unattached, unreceptive, nonreactive, unresponsive, uninvolved, disinterested, uninterested, objective, noncommittal, unsentimental, aloof, uncommitted, blank, neutral, immune, sated, languid, unflappable, dispassionate, impassive, passive, evasive, elusive, clinical, incurious, unconcerned, untouched, unreachable, inviolate, self-sufficient, nerveless, unfeeling, emotionless, indifferent, uncaring, ungiving, withholding, withdrawn, distant, remote, superior, skeptical, disillusioned, ironic, agnostic, latent, undeclared, hidden, guarded, alien, separate, asocial, insular, impersonal, opaque, standoffish, unruffled, unsympathetic, unenthusiastic, negative, rejecting, sneering, disdainful, vaguely contemptuous, faintly amused, cruel, cynical, bored, amoral, reptilian, bloodless, heartless, tough, hard, frigid. (Did I mention “cold”?)

            Cool is a stance - of ironic distance, of implied critique, of a kind of paradoxical Outsider superiority. Coolest of both worlds:  untouchable Insider and untouchable Outsider. The face of Cool is a mask of irony. The facial muscles are slack, impassive, the eyes neither fully open nor fully focused (certainly not upon you), the mouth unyielding, unreadable. It is the face of the dominant partner in a social exchange, of one with higher status confronted by an inferior, of the passive-aggressive bully.

            For this is why Cool is so prized: In a world full of people desperate for just one blessed drop of recognition, the refusal to recognize confers and conveys immense power. In any contest, the one who cares least about the outcome has the advantage. To dredge up another hoary old relic, Transactional Analysis, Cool means never having to give as much as, much less more than, you take in a “social transaction.” It is your infallible guide to Okayness: I’m okay, you’re not okay. Beneath the mask, of course, lurks constant wariness: Am I getting over? What can I do to reinforce the message?

            When and where does this attitude first invade Western culture? When does it rise to predominance? It is certainly present in the fatal wit of Oscar Wilde. In the specifically American cultural experience, a Cool sneer becomes detectable among the “social” novelists and poets after the Civil War, most markedly in the biting sarcasm of Ambrose Bierce and the later Mark Twain. The timing of this phenomenon reminds us that war has a vast coarsening effect upon society. Zane Grey lamented this fact after World War I; and post-World War II American society was as unlike its predecessor as the latter was unlike Puritan New England. The Vietnam War mainlined drugs, obscene language and nihilism into the culture as never before.

            One particular poem from the 1890s, assigned to be read by generations of American secondary school students, offers a kind of template of Cool: Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Corey.”

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim ...
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place. ...
And Richard Corey, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

            How different is the tone of this poem from others that treated tragically or heroically of life and death and used to be widely memorized and recited. Collins’ “How Sleep the Brave,” Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” Henley’s “Invictus,” Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young,” Burns’ “Sweet Afton,” Brooke’s “The Soldier,” Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child,” Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.” The tone of “Richard Corey” is callous and contemptuous. It foreshadows the culture of mockery that rules us now. Not all of Robinson’s poetry is like “Richard Corey,” but he is best remembered for it and for the equally mocking “Miniver Cheevy.”

            A similar effect was produced by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915), subtly snide epitaphs of fellow citizens at rest in the graveyard of a small Illinois town. How easy it proved to mock the dead. In 1919 Sherwood Anderson extended the technique to the vignettes of his influential Winesburg, Ohio, with its compulsive, repetitive listing of "grotesques." By 1921 Sinclair Lewis had built an entire novel, Main Street, on a sneering dismissal of Midwestern “boosterism.” And thenceforth in novel after novel (then film after film), as has been noted many times, the Antihero begins to avert his world-weary gaze from the tedious melodrama of the masses. Even when he wants and needs to be a hero - even when the script requires it, as in “Casablanca” or “Shane” - the code of Cool demands that he wrap himself in many layers of reluctance, cynicism, alienation, mixed motives, split decisions and ambivalence.

            Satire and social criticism, of course, are important, valid goals of literature, and irreverent or crusading impulses have animated much great art from earliest times. Rabelais and Cervantes made fun of the human comedy, as had Aristophanes long before them. There are none more unsparingly severe than Hugo, Zola or Dostoyevsky, nor more sensitive to injustice that Byron or Shelley or Flaubert or Dickens or Tolstoy, nor more alive to the absurdity of human beings than Shaw, Shakespeare, Balzac or Moliere. But the stance of these writers was not Cool; it was at worst one of outrage against cruelty, hypocrisy, abuse of power and the tragic waste of human hopes. Humanistic satire has a particular, definable aim, a wrong it seeks to redress, while Cool is fundamentally idle, training its sights on everything indiscriminately. All that Cool seeks is that triumphant “Gotcha!” moment, no matter what it takes to achieve. Cool serves no moral purpose, even as it pretends to a deliberately vague moral superiority.

             (Dostoyevsky, for example, presaged Cool in the nihilism of the Underground Man, whose fate was to be convinced that "Nothing matters." In the great spiritual wrestling match that is Notes from Underground, never resolved is the question "Which is better - cheap happiness or exalted sufferings? Well, which is better?")

            The demimonde of jazz and junk in the 1930s and 40s was a genuine Cool scene, later worshipfully recreated by the small bohemian enclaves of the Beats in their “gone” world. There the slow-developing, mainstream Cool of the Antihero began to join forces with an actual subculture. The ideal became real. Norman Mailer’s bizarre essay “The White Negro” and pulp fiction like Warren Miller’s The Cool World (1959) about black gang life are must reading in order to comprehend how Cool was a sensibility originally copped by burnt-out white “artists” off heroin-numbed black hustlers (shades of Mencken’s original observation). The flat affect and dead eyes of Cool were born right there, among a bunch of losers aping junkies.

            The actor Jon Voight was recently on TV trying to describe how the youth of his generation responded to Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” (1953), and all he could say, gushing like a teenage girl, was “Y’know he was so cool, y’know? Just so cool. And you wanted to be like that - to be cool.” Brando himself, as Johnny in the film, tries to describe Cool to a square: “Now if you gonna stay cool, you got to wail. You got to put somethin' down. You got to make some jive. Don't you know what I'm talkin' about?” Thus another synonym for Cool might be “inarticulate.” In fact Cool joins “like” and “y’know” in a menage a trois of modern incoherence.

            To declare something Cool, however, pretty much ends the discussion. The power to confer Coolness upon something is the ultimate power; once Cool is invoked, there is really nothing more to say.

            Cool recrudesces constantly. Richard Barnes’ book Mods! spots it in early 1960s London, a sighting that fits Guy Debord’s critique of commodity fetishism and the hegemony of appearances to a T:

The Mod way of life consisted of total devotion to looking and being ‘Cool.’ Spending practically all your money on clothes and all your after work hours in clubs and dance halls. ...

...Mods had their own style of walking. They swayed their shoulders and took short steps, with their feet slightly turned out. It was more of a swagger, a walk of confidence. They’d sometimes have their hands held together behind their backs under their coats or plastic macs and these would sway as they bowled along. ...

...They were incredibly vain, a bit snobbish and totally narcissistic. ... [A Mod] remembers, ‘You’d have to look totally relaxed, but right. You’d have to pose, so you sort of slouched, you put your leg against the wall. To look cool, you’d put your hands in your Levi’s or your jacket pocket with your thumbs sticking out.’

            The folk duo Simon and Garfunkel set “Richard Corey” to music in the mid-1960s, but before that, Bob Dylan was specializing in the same kind of cheap and easy, once-over-lightly character assassination, with a built-in vocal jeer that matched perfectly. In song after Dylan song, “she” is pathetic, “he” is clueless, and “you” (the unCool) are just plain pitiable. Meanwhile, “Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Bu we do, Dylan’s initiates could gloat. Of course they didn’t really, but the trick was to smirk knowingly at the right moments. “Now little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously, he brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously.” No moral outlook, nothing at all unifies these random critiques - nothing but idle malice.

            Dylan’s sly, whining method was easily imitated and proved quite addictive to the new generation of pop musicians. Even the warm-hearted Beatles toyed with Cool in such songs as “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home.” Yet those songs were compassionate vignettes compared to the nyah-nyah-nyah of the Dylan tradition. Paul McCartney’s advice to Jude, “Don’t you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool by making the world a little colder?,” will stand forever as the credo of the Beatles.

            Irreverence is naturally corrosive. “Cast a cold eye on life, on death,” and in time looks can kill. In this Current Era of ours, literature, art, film, journalism, comedy, pop music and pop culture are all choking in a poison gas attack of unearned disdain.

            But recent research by psychiatrist Ilan Dar-Nimrod, published in the Journal of Individual Differences (2012), found "that coolness has lost so much of its historical origins and meaning - the very heavy countercultural, somewhat individualistic pose." A thousand respondents to his survey on Cool tended to define it as being "nice to people, attractive, confident, and successful" - not to mention "friendly" and "trendy." Dar-Nimrod contrasted this with the "darker version" of Cool exemplified by the Nowhere Man, the Rebel Without a Cause, the Misfit.

            Cool has continued making massive inroads into youth culture with the Punk movement of the 1970s, up to the present day. One memorable epithet for the aesthetic of Punk was “vacant stranger.” As one early observer of the scene wrote (in Street Art: The Punk Poster in San Francisco 1977-1981):

Going to these gigs is like gathering to inspect the latest output of damaged goods. ... The music functions as a mutagen. It isn’t music - or rather, music is not the point. Nor it is ritual. There is no tribe. Separation is being celebrated here: you bask in splendid, mutually crafted solitude. ...

What happens at these gigs? You learn the etiquette of overcrowding, how to dance with a pronounced Brownian motion. The emotions your parents could afford to buy you have become dysfunctional in a world like this one; what more useful skill to pick up than numbness? Once you have that down you can begin to practice auto-behavior modification. ... The pursuit of happiness has mutated, transvalued into the pursuit of loneliness.

            As with Edgar Lee Masters’ mockery of the defenseless dead, the rule of Cool depends very much upon dodging retaliation, being “judgment-proof.” Cool’s favorite ruse is to be so subtle and deadpan that its victims are scarcely aware they’re being attacked. Comedy, by definition passive-aggressive (“Heh heh, can’t take a joke?, “Hey, just kidding”), is the ideal vehicle for such occult assaults.

            Voted #1 of the “50 Greatest Shows of All Time” by TV Guide in 2002, the late lamented “Seinfeld” was not long ago the utmost depth and outer limit of Cool. Jerry’s underhanded ridicule of everything, especially anything noble, heartfelt or sincere, was not a “show about nothing” but a show about how ridiculously unCool you are for believing in anything or expecting anything but baseness from others. Particularly loathsome was Jerry’s nervous little rictus after each “hilarious” putdown, as if to say “I can’t believe it, I’m getting away with murder here...”

            Keith Haring thought the Coolest thing about people was the little chalk outlines they left behind when they died. Somewhat later anatomist/sculptor Gunther von Hagens discovered that the dead themselves - flayed, preserved and sliced like summer sausage - were the Coolest of all media. Another depth of Cool was reached with the Anna Nicole Smith show - think of all those people who watched in the hope she’d melt down again on camera. And when she actually dropped dead – Coolissima!

            These depths have been exceeded many times in the intervening years. Snark is everywhere. The epithet “fail” is combined with every thing under the sun. What is the cult of “Grey Gardens” but a Cool mirthless laugh at two lonely old dames? Aside from the plethora of reality shows and vampire shows and celebrity-dishing shows and snarky faux-news shows, there is also the phenomenon of “forensic” shows, rivaling one another to revel in their ability to see human bodies as so much dead meat (“CSI,” “NCIS,” “Bones,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Dexter,” “Law and Order,” etc.). Such displays immunize viewers against empathy the same way violent video games inure players to bloody murder. The face of everyday life is already blank and averted; the Lonely Crowd has become the autistic crowd. Cool has chilled the heart of our culture to the point where, to use one of Cool’s favorite phrases, it has “assumed room temperature.”

            John Berger and the deconstructionists and others have made much of the Gaze: the social calculus of who may look at whom, in what way, for how long, for what reason. Berger noted that in “bourgeois” oil painting, objects - rare tulips, food, dogs, horses, women - are arrayed for the viewer’s eye to possess and consume; they are objectified. The painted women gaze forth in response to the gazer/prospective buyer, “betraying” the painted men next to them. But still more objectifying and depersonalizing is the averted gaze of Cool. Most news, fashion and portrait photographs now show the subject(s) with eyes and face turned elsewhere. Because there is something so much more interesting than you are, just outside the frame. ...

            The runway model’s blank puss rivals the “thousand-yard stare” of the shell-shocked Marine for distance and removal and “gone”-ness. The skeletal appearance (what Tom Wolfe called the “social x-ray”) of a Kate Moss has rightly been termed the Auschwitz Look, but her comatose regard emits the catatonia of Cool. It’s the same smug-ugly expression on the mugs of all those hiphop thugs gyrating on MTV and BET and VH1. And more often than not the face is entirely effaced by wrap-around shades.

            Yet even Cool can be subjected to the Cool treatment: the Coolest now spell and pronounce it “kewl.” Variants of Cool are “chill out” and “Just chillax.” Ask America’s youngsters what they’re up to today, and if they answer at all, they’ll mutter, “Just chillin’.” Since our chilled children are set loose to spend what one author has called their “$100 billion allowance,” marketers are being exhorted to create “ever-Cool” products that will magically brand themselves upon kids’ icy little hearts. Today’s “neo-Punk” franchise is so Cool it’s freezing. Although it’s tough to top the L.A. punk band Fear’s 1970s lyric “Let’s have a war! So you can go die!,” the new bands are still grimly trying. The few that don’t try, that manage to slip in a bit of warmth, are branded “emo,” and you’d swear the term was lifted from A Clockwork Orange until you realize no one’s read it.

            (Actually the latest wrinkle on Cool is not “chill” but “sick.” If something’s sick, it’s, like, soooo Cool.)

            Any Punk emporium in any shopping mall in America today sells shirts, decals, posters, pins, tattoos and patches with messages like:

“I don’t mean to be rude. Actually, yes I do.”

“Love sucks.”

“You suck and that’s sad.”

“I’m not antisocial. I just don’t like you.”

“You forgot to ask if I care.”

“I’m sorry. My fault. I forgot you were an idiot.”

“It’s funny till someone gets hurt - then it’s hilarious.”

“When I grow up I want to be the exact opposite of you.” (Dylan said it first, in “Positively 4th Street”: “Yes I wish that just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/You’d know what a drag it is/To see you.”)

“Rejoice for we have horrified and repulsed them.”

“If I looked like you I’d have to kick my own ass!”

“Oh crap. You’re going to try and cheer me up, aren’t you?”

            Most of these messages (add your own favorites here) are preemptive strikes of the You-can’t-fire-me-I-quit type, but the last one gives the game away a bit. A lot of those Cool kidz would like to be cheered up - they just don’t think it’s possible any more, or that anyone would care to, and they’re steeling themselves to endure that eventuality. An understandable precaution. Cool is a “self-esteem” so armored that nothing can hurt or even touch you any more. It’s what the world would be like if high school never ended and no one ever grew up, a world run by soulless adolescents where fewer and fewer adults emerge to light the way out of the endless night of jive and screwups.

            What Cooler world could there be, then, than one full of zombies, vampires, robots or mummies? The mounting craze for these ultra-Cool customers - “undead” or “living dead” - extends the Cool aesthetic about as far as it can go. There are now actually rival camps of followers: Some get off only on vampires, some are unmoved by anything but zombies. And there are “slow” and “fast” zombies to choose between. Slow ones are the traditional sort that starred in George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” The fast ones are more recent, and are typically produced by toxic or nuclear means (“28 Days Later,” “I Am Legend,” etc.). Girls prefer vampires, boys prefer zombies, and nerds prefer robots. The novel Pride, Prejudice and Zombies makes the craze retroactive to the era of Jane Austen, and History Is Dead: A Zombie Anthology (“a vicious timeline chronicling the rise of the undead”) is even more ambitious. It won’t be long before the entire past has been cannibalized by Cool.

            Don’t laugh. Barack Hussein Obama was elected almost solely on the basis of what a “cool customer,” in Charles Krauthammer’s words, he was perceived to be.  JFK was also perceived as upping America’s Cool quotient, although he seems a titan of statecraft compared with the current regime. Cool, and therefore also a Cool candidacy, need have nothing to do with truthfulness, tough decision-making, fairness, effectiveness, practicality, reason, logic or any of that stuff, and everything to do with style, perception and vicarious pseudo-membership in the In Crowd.

            Cool tactics, derived chiefly from the 1971 handbook Rules for Radicals by “community organizer” Saul Alinsky, propelled Barack Obama to power. In addition to the famous “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it” [emphasis added], Alinsky’s manual for overturning society features Rule #5: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counter-attack ridicule. Also, it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.” Alinsky and his acolytes understand the unnerving psychology of Cool ridicule, its maddeningly “untouchable” underhandedness.

            Rule #10 notes that “All effective action requires the passport of morality. ... You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments ... Moral rationalization is indispensable at all times of action whether to justify the selection or the use of ends or means.” Simulating the “warm” attributes of faith, liberality, generosity, idealism, compassion, altruism and so forth, the Cool candidate can always appear morally superior to anything; he doesn’t have to worry about the real-world consequences of his ideas or actions; he is free to wag his finger and purse his lips at the least flaw in his opponent without fear of hypocrisy or self-contradiction. Traditional types just don’t get this; they’re playing by the old pre-Cool rules. They still think their opponent cares about something. Caring is the Achilles heel of the unCool.

            Victor Davis Hanson in his column “The Power of Cool” (National Review Online, 5/23/12) nails this political usage right on the head:

We simply don’t mind that Google and Amazon rake in billions, but we despise Exxon and Archer Daniels Midland for doing the same. It is not that we need social networking and Internet searches more than food and fuel, but rather that we have the impression that cool zillionaires in flipflops are good while uncool ones in wingtips are quite bad.

            Ridicule is a double-edged sword, though. There is only one thing to which ever-ridiculing Cool is vulnerable, and that’s ridicule itself. This is why it is so important to Obama’s aggressively humorless handlers that he (and his wife) never be seen in even the most slightly ridiculous light. Once laughter other than the type permitted (proactive, self-deprecatory, controlled, silkily arrogant) bubbles forth, there’s no telling where it will lead, how loud it will get, what might become visible. The worst enemy of the Big Lie is the Big Laugh.

            They who live by Cool, die by Cool. Since one of the synonyms of Cool is “fickle,” it comes as little surprise to read in The New York Times, a mere nine months after Obama’s election, the following:

Last week, if you wanted to use the latest slang to tell a friend he was cool, you could have called him ‘Obama,’ as in: ‘Dude, you’re rocking the new Pre phone? You are so Obama.’

This week? Best not to risk it.

The sudden shift in meaning has nothing to do with the fortunes of the president [really?], regardless of what the health care debate may do to his cool factor. The fault rests entirely with what has happened to the life span of slang, which seems to shorten with every click of the mouse.

... [Jonathon] Green said that, when he was a hippie in England in the 1960s, ‘the language that we were using was in fact the language of 1930s black America, though very few of us were aware of this.’

Back then, ‘it took 20, 30 years to cross the Atlantic,’ he said. ‘The difference now is it takes 20 to 30 hours.’

            Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street “veteran” Rami Shamir lines up outside Apple’s Fifth Avenue store, not to buy the new iPhone, but to protest: “Apple sells cool,” charges Mr. Shamir, “but there is nothing cool about how Apple treats its workers overseas.”

            Yet Cool glides on, unchanging as Dorian Gray, impervious to shifting fashions, a living contradiction of the “accepted wisdom among linguists that once a word actually shows up in a slang dictionary [of which there are now dozens], it effectively ceases to be slang,” as the above Times article notes. Perhaps this is because its very name states so clearly what it means. In the end, Cool is a strain of the Cult of Death – Thanatos - that reappears throughout human social history. But that is a topic beyond my focus here.


            After such an indictment of our world’s infantile idolatry of Cool, it comes as a shock to realize there is a state of being beyond the frozen pose of Cool that might be called, for lack of a better word, True Cool. But of course there is no lack of a better word, because this venerated state of being long predates the cult of Cool. Integrity, perhaps? Thumos? Which the Greeks defined as "anger" or "spirit," and Plato symbolized as "the lion among men" who "confronts misfortune in all cases with steadfast endurance" and "holds fast to the orders of reason about what he ought or ought not to fear, in spite of pleasure and pain"?

            Valor? Virtue? Mettle? Guts? Heart? Character? What the Scots call “feck” or Northern Brits call “gorm”?

            We see an extended treatment of this state of being in Tom Wolfe's study of The Right Stuff. Astronaut Cool is an “ineffable quality” that Wolfe nonetheless tries to “eff”:

As to just what this ineffable quality was . . . well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God. Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were on of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even — ultimately, God willing, one day — that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men's eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.

            As one fan of the book put it, "[Wolfe] has extracted this mysterious quality - guts, machismo, the it factor, coolness - from certain historical personages and events, and has portrayed it simply and beautifully as if he were a poet sociologist from another planet."

            This quality also forms the beating heart of the Western genre: Cowboy Cool, the code of the West. It appears in the first Westerns, such as Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1903):

            "Your bet, you son-of-a--."
The Virginian's pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas:

‘When you call me that, smile!’

And he looked at Trampas across the table. Yes, the voice was gentle. But in my ears it seemed as if somewhere the bell of death was ringing; and silence, like a stroke, fell on the large room.

            The greatest of all Western novelists, Zane Grey, created a character in one of his earliest books who’s the granddaddy of all cowboy heroes – the “gun-man” Lassiter:

‘Easy--easy--I ain't interferin' yet,’ replied the rider. The tone of his voice had undergone a change. A different man had spoken. Where, in addressing Jane, he had been mild and gentle, now, with his first speech to Tull, he was dry, cool, biting.

‘I've jest stumbled onto a queer deal. Seven Mormons all packin' guns, an' a Gentile tied with a rope, an' a woman who swears by his honesty! Queer, ain't that?’

‘Queer or not, it's none of your business,’ retorted Tull.

‘Where I was raised a woman's word was law. I ain't quite outgrowed that yet.’

                                                            (from Riders of the Purple Sage, 1912)

We also sense this higher concept of Cool in Paul McCartney's recent formulation: "Be cool and you’ll be all right. That’s rock & roll religion” (Rolling Stone, 3/1/12). McCartney is one rock star who has never brought shame upon himself, and whose style is not to act out Cool decadence but to endlessly create (mostly) good music, “silly love songs” included.
            The single greatest cause for the veneration of Cool? Its scarcity. The more people are obsessed with something, the less of it there must be.


            How can young kids be turning into jaded connoisseurs of cynical boredom? It’s certainly not due to traumas like plague, famine, locust horde, grinding poverty or civil war. Cynical boredom has been force-fed them by mass culture’s state-of-the-art operant conditioning. This is ressentiment’s greatest triumph: to have turned the Outsider into the arbiter of our civilization’s very future.

            But the cultural elite that sold us Cool will only savor a Pyrrhic victory, having groomed subjects who will neither overthrow nor uphold their own society, who would not lift a finger to save the world as they have been conditioned to despise it. Mainstream nihilism is not a philosophy that breeds warriors for the “cause” of corporate globalism (or is it global corporatism?). The nightmare of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man has come true: The kids have discovered (with a little help from MTV) that “Nothing matters.” They can’t just be bidden to rise up against the enemy du jour. That would require far too much hot-blooded ardor. Patriotism, like any other emotional certainty, is way unCool. For this reason, reinstatement of the military draft - this time for both or rather all “genders” - must be part of the elite’s game plan.

            Perhaps there is still hope, the dawning of a new idealism among our youth as Western Civ faces its greatest challenge yet. Perhaps they can shake off the miasma of Cool long enough to see what they stand to lose if they can’t defend the traditions they hold in such bored contempt. Perhaps “emo” is even now quickening in their hearts, primed to start functioning like a proper countertendency. Then again, perhaps not. But isn’t it pretty to think so?