Friday, March 13, 2009

What Does it Mean to be Cool, Anyway?

What does it mean to be cool? I confess it’s a schoolyard question, but apparently, it’s one that matters politically. A lot. I remember thinking to myself “So what?” every time a political commentator mentioned how cool then-candidate Barack Obama was during the presidential debates. “It’s his ideas that matter,” I kept thinking, but no one seemed to agree. Not that McCain had great ideas (he never was able to mount himself as a viable option, as one appearing to have better ideas or a better economic philosophy), but Obama was scarce on details and a proponent of populist drivel when he did divulge. It wasn’t about ideas at all, I guess. Maybe it never has been. Maybe the schoolyard goal of “being cool” has smoothly transitioned into the most important issues and places of our time, to the point where actually debating an issue at length is no longer worthwhile. I find that alarming. Does anyone else?

Of course, being cool under pressure is an absolute necessity for any leader, especially the President. The pressures must be unbelievable, at least for a serious thinker, which I’m not convinced Obama is. Everyone aims for the top, and you have to balance hundreds of relationships and the finicky public. Being cool can help to get an agenda passed, ease tensions with rival nations, and calm the nation if and when the government turns a crisis into a catastrophe. My fear is that we have mistaken aloofness for coolness and arrogance and laziness for confidence. From a moral point-of-view, this article speaks to this perfectly. From a political point-of-view, read this.

But in the midst of lackluster performance and falling approval numbers, is this the right time to start re-evaluating the value of being cool? Are there other values that equally matter, maybe even matter much more? To my recollection, the cool kids were never particularly impressive. (Admittedly, I wasn’t the cool kid. Far from a brainiac, I was reserved, lanky and more focused on theatre and music. I was an average athlete and socially insecure. So perhaps I write from a place of envy.) But in an effort to be intellectually honest, can we agree that while everyone liked the cool kids, it was rarely for their achievements? It was for their persona, even if they couldn’t manage to actually accomplish anything significant or unique. Only later do we appreciate the deeper thinkers, the quiet and the awkward, especially as they build businesses, employ others and consume our products. We end up reading their books, watching their movies and being inspired by the visions they often kept to themselves.

In the short run, what is cool is often what’s rebellious, what’s confident, and what’s independent. Cool art pokes fun at the establishment. It’s violent and edgy, often in form as well as substance. It is at times vociferously anti-religion and anti-American. In many circles, if art isn’t rebelling against the perceived “status quo,” it’s not worth creating. To follow up on corbusier’s previous post, perhaps this is why conservative artists have a difficulty conveying their values and making it interesting, and why too much Christian art has become boring.

But here’s the irony: the conservative persona often defends the most artistically viable ideas. Oh, they may not be controversial and hence, they may not be as cool, but isn’t liberty the ultimate artistic value? Aren’t honor and perseverance and the quest for the truth all perfect subjects for art? Does no one sense the irony that since the 1960s, popular art, from Warhol to the Sex Pistols and everyone in-between, railed against centralized power, yet cheer it on when it grows right in front of their face? Meanwhile, the very values they should applaud – intellectual diversity, freedom and being true to oneself – are scoffed at every time talk radio becomes the subject of debate. Art galleries, recording studios and movie sets are full of the very people who thrive in a free society and the virtues that make it work, yet crave this version of “coolness” even though it will ultimately imprison the minds and property of many.

On occasion, some conservative art gets through. I am always struck by the deep themes of honor, faithfulness and republicanism that drive Gladiator. Maximus isn’t cool because he knows it all; he’s cool because he’s strong, yet humble. Gran Torino also thrives on deeply conservative themes. Service to nation, economic and urban diversity, personal responsibility and sacrifice all play critical roles to the film. Both films are art that don’t require gratuitous sex or anti-establishment sentiment to be cool. Where are the artists, the politicians, and the thinkers that are every bit as cool as the current president? Or does he have the monopoly?

I accept the reality that in 8th grade we like the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Do we do the same as voters? I’m continually struck by the incongruence between the values of Obama’s voters, and his own values. How many would claim to support such reckless spending on credit, to the tune of trillions of dollars? How many would encourage him to increase the taxes of their employers and to discourage private charity? How many appreciate the copious examples of double-speak, with plenty of examples to be found here. Is he so cool to transcend all of that? I guess so…for now. But in the long run, isn't it better that the most liberating and proven ideas win the day, not the coolest candidate?

Corbusier comments: For a good dose of 'liberating and proven ideas' that win the day, I suggest taking the time to read a superb lecture given by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. Murray's pioneering sociological research on education, the welfare state and human accomplishment offers insights that are quite disturbing to many of those consumed by leftist assumptions even as it describes society far more realistically. While his speech is generally directed at America's elites needing to rediscover the roots of American exceptionalism, he points to our contemporary elite class being more preoccupied in seeming cool and posing as Europeans rather than reexaming fundamental ideas that we inherit from a long and rich historical tradition. The socialist political experiments of the twentieth century seem to inspire many of our elites, since they entertain notions of remaking humanity and recalibrating natural social inequalities. Yet it's a fundamentally adolescent conceit as Murray remarks:

The twentieth century was a very strange century, riddled from beginning to end with toxic political movements and nutty ideas. For some years a metaphor has been stuck in my mind: the twentieth century was the adolescence of Homo sapiens. Nineteenth-century science, from Darwin to Freud, offered a series of body blows to ways of thinking about human beings and human lives that had prevailed since the dawn of civilization. Humans, just like adolescents, were deprived of some of the comforting simplicities of childhood and exposed to more complex knowledge about the world. And twentieth-century intellectuals reacted precisely the way that adolescents react when they think they have discovered Mom and Dad are hopelessly out of date. They think that the grown-ups are wrong about everything. In the case of twentieth-century intellectuals, it was as if they thought that if Darwin was right about evolution, then Aquinas is no longer worth reading; that if Freud was right about the unconscious mind, the Nicomachean Ethics had nothing to teach us.

The nice thing about adolescence is that it is temporary, and, when it passes, people discover that their parents were smarter than they thought. I think that may be happening with the advent of the new century, as postmodernist answers to solemn questions about human existence start to wear thin--we're growing out of adolescence. The kinds of scientific advances in understanding human nature are going to accelerate that process. All of us who deal in social policy will be thinking less like adolescents, entranced with the most titillating new idea, and thinking more like grown-ups.

As Relieveddebtor has written above, part of being cool is to reject the status quo and being completely confident in rejecting the wisdom of the past. Speaking as an architect, it's safe to say that the appeal of modern architecture is that it looks 'cool' compared to the 'stodgy' traditional styles. The problem with being cool is staying cool, since it is such an ephemeral thing. It is supremely difficult to achieve timelessness in the modern idiom, but relatively simple when following traditional design rules. Despite this temporary luster that supposedly 'cool' modern architecture brings, it exacts tremendous permanent costs by ruining our cityscapes and impoverishing urban life. There is a huge price to pay for adolescent experiments and the refusal to govern as a grown-up.

UPDATE: Peggy Noonan hints at these themes here

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for the piece. An observation: The title of your piece is "What does it mean to be cool, anyway?". However, in the body the words "cool" and "coolness" are used as if your query already has an assumed consensus of the meaning of the word "cool". Perhaps you might consider exploring the subject (or any subject) at deeper levels that go beyond tacit assumptions. How can we search for an enlightening, more complete, less stereotypical understanding of a label/cliche while using the very label/cliche to describe itself?

All the best!