The Death of the Cool

“Cool,” as it came to be known in the 1950s and pre-hippie ’60s was always a facade; a mask against letting honest feelings and emotions show. A decade ago, the late Michael Kelly provided an exceptional definition of the early days of cool:


Sinatra, as every obit observed, was the first true modern pop idol, inspiring in the 1940s the sort of mass adulation that was to become a familiar phenomenon in the ’50s and ’60s. One man, strolling onto the set at precisely the right moment in the youth of the Entertainment Age, made himself the prototype of the age’s essential figure: the iconic celebrity. The iconic celebrity is the result of the central confusion of the age, which is that people possessed of creative or artistic gifts are somehow teachers-role models-in matters of personal conduct. The iconic celebrity is idolized-and obsessively studied and massively imitated-not merely for the creation of art but for the creation of public self, for the confection of affect and biography that the artist projects onto the national screen.

And what Frank Sinatra projected was: cool. And here is where the damage was done. Frank invented cool, and everyone followed Frank, and everything has been going to hell ever since.

In America, B.F., there was no cool. There was smart (as in the smart set), and urbane, and sophisticated, and fast and hip; but these things were not the same as cool. The pre-Frank hip guy, the model of aesthetic and moral superiority to which men aspired, is the American male of the 1930s and 1940s. He is Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep or Casablanca or Archie Goodwin in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. He possesses an outward cynicism, but this is understood to be merely clothing; at his core, he is a square. He fights a lot, generally on the side of the underdog. He is willing to die for his beliefs, and his beliefs are, although he takes pains to hide it, old-fashioned. He believes in truth, justice, the American way, and love. He is on the side of the law, except when the law is crooked. He is not taken in by jingoism but he is himself a patriot; when there is a war, he goes to it. He is, after his fashion, a gentleman and, in a quite modern manner, a sexual egalitarian. He is forthright, contemptuous of dishonesty in all its forms, from posing to lying. He confronts his enemies openly and fairly, even if he might lose. He is honorable and virtuous, although he is properly suspicious of men who talk about honor and virtue. He may be world-weary, but he is not ironic.

The new cool man that Sinatra defined was a very different creature. Cool said the old values were for suckers. Cool was looking out for number one always. Cool didn’t get mad; it got even. Cool didn’t go to war: Saps went to war, and anyway, cool had no beliefs it was willing to die for. Cool never, ever, got in a fight it might lose; cool had friends who could take care of that sort of thing. Cool was a cad and boastful about it; in cool’s philosophy, the lady was always a tramp, and to be treated accordingly. Cool was not on the side of the law; cool made its own laws. Cool was not knowing but still essentially idealistic; cool was nihilistic. Cool was not virtuous; it reveled in vice. Before cool, being good was still hip; after cool, only being bad was.

Quite a legacy. On the other hand, he sure could sing.


And Miles Davis (before he cracked up and started wearing outfits that M.C. Hammer would think were simply too out there) was another avatar of cool in the 1950s. Davis titled his breakthrough early 1950s recordings The Birth of the Cool, and for instrumental jazz, still fighting the bebop/swing wars at the time, it was a sonic breakthrough.

As Roger L. Simon writes in a great post today that bookends Kelly’s take from a decade or so ago:

Cool depended on liberalism. In fact, it was an offshoot of it, suckling on the mother’s milk of Keynesian economics. As long as there was plenty of deficit spending to go around, we could all be cool. Life would be one long evening at Max’s Kansas City.Of course, it’s not. In today’s pay-as-you-go world, being cool is a luxury few can afford. This accounts for the extreme discomfort we may be seeing in our media and, to a lesser extent — they still have more money — Hollywood. Our media, our journos, depend on being thought cool and, consequently and perhaps more importantly, thinking of themselves as cool. When they suspect they are not, they begin to behave like worker bees when the queen is killed. They tend to run around and act out. After a while, they seem lost. Their numbers dwindle.

This is just because cool depended on a hive mind in the first place. It was little more than fad. We are well rid of it.

And in part because cool is gone, the remaining liberals are the new reactionaries. They are the ones trapped in the past, the enemies of the future.

And they’re dropping the mask of cool themselves; which helps to explain why their anger (and rage! — but non-violent rage, please! as this parody video spotlights) is so palpable these days: there’s a lot of emotion that’s been kept bottled up over the years.


In a way, it’s the a repeat of Charles Krauthammer’s Pressure Cooker Theory from 2004:

The loathing goes far beyond the politicians. Liberals as a body have gone quite around the twist. I count one all-star rock tour, three movies, four current theatrical productions and five bestsellers (a full one-third of the New York Times list) variously devoted to ridiculing, denigrating, attacking and devaluing this president, this presidency and all who might, God knows why, support it.

How to explain? With apologies to Dr. Freud, I propose the Pressure Cooker Theory of Hydraulic Release.

The hostility, resentment, envy and disdain, all superheated in Florida, were not permitted their natural discharge. Came Sept. 11 and a lid was forced down. How can you seek revenge for a stolen election by a nitwit usurper when all of a sudden we are at war and the people, bless them, are rallying around the flag and hailing the commander in chief? With Bush riding high in the polls, with flags flying from pickup trucks (many of the flags, according to Howard Dean, Confederate), the president was untouchable.

The Democrats fell unnaturally silent. For two long, agonizing years, they had to stifle and suppress. It was the most serious case of repression since Freud’s Anna O. went limp. The forced deference nearly killed them. And then, providentially, they were saved. The clouds parted and bad news rained down like manna: WMDs, Abu Ghraib, Richard Clarke, Paul O’Neill, Joe Wilson and, most important, continued fighting in Iraq.

With the president stripped of his halo, his ratings went down. The spell was broken. He was finally, once again, human and vulnerable. With immense relief, the critics let loose.

The result has been volcanic. The subject of one prominent new novel is whether George W. Bush should be assassinated. This is all quite unhinged. Good God. What if Bush is reelected? If they lose to him again, Democrats will need more than just consolation. They’ll need therapy.


But the therapy never came. Instead, the left attempted to reconstitute Kerry’s radical chic past and far left economic views into a slicker package, one that was initially much easier to defend against attacks, and then convinced themselves at the end of 2008 that the singularity had arrived, and the forty year leftwing nirvana would now commence. (Life would be measure pre and post-PBO, Spike Lee had assured us, echoing Kelly’s BF and PF calendar above.) And that peace, prosperity and four percent annual growth would magically arrive, even as business owners were being demonized, Alinsky-style. For almost four years, from late 2007 when Obama was on the ascendency until last year’s midterms loss and this summer’s cluster-fark of the pathetic Darth Vader Battle Bus tour, the yet-another-jobs-speech, and the electoral losses last week, the left was sure it will all eventually work. While no one knows what will happen next November, at the moment, the left’s frustration with Obama is palpable.

But really, what’s the problem?

This time, unlike in 2009 when the left controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress, it will all totally work. Right?


Barack Obama’s team seems to think that demonizing the wealthy will win him back his base and let him roll to re-election.  Not so fast, says Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton adviser Mark Penn at Huffington Post.  Obama’s plan makes for great strategy, Penn says, only if the President wants to pattern his next election like that famous Democrat, Walter Mondale:

Obama’s team actually believes that in the last six months they have courted independent voters and that didn’t work, so now they are turning to activating the base with higher taxes on the wealthy. However, he never made any meaningful appeal to those voters in terms they would understand. He supported extending the Bush tax cuts, temporarily zoomed up in the polls, and then promptly repudiated what he had done, only to then fall back down.

The 2010 mid-term elections were fought over Obama’s healthcare plan and on his plan to raise taxes on the wealthy by ending the Bush tax cuts. The results were, in his own words, a “shellacking.” After his most recent speech to Congress, voters in New York City’s Ninth Congressional District just elected a Republican for the first time since 1920.

And now, Obama is pressing the case for higher taxes, following in the footsteps of Walter Mondale. Higher taxes always seem to poll well, but in reality the country sees that as a last resort.

Voters see it as a last resort because the call for higher taxes always seems to follow a rapid increase in spending.  That was certainly true in 2010, when Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and nearly lost the Senate as well.  Penn reminds the White House that the anger over spending hasn’t yet dissipated from the midterms, and Obama is now stoking even more discontent by positioning himself as a typical tax-and-spend liberal — exactly as Mondale did in 1984.

That’s not the only historical parallel, either.  Penn thinks that Al Gore had the 2000 election sewed up until Gore went to his left and tried to run as a firebreathing populist.  John Kerry did the same thing in 2004, Penn says, with the same result.  Even in good times, voters don’t respond well to class warfare.


“Cool was oppressive,” Roger concludes, “It told you how to be and what to be. In some ways cool was the inverse of itself. It was the enemy of freedom while pretending to be its apostle. Nowadays there is nothing more square than to be cool. So feel free to be whatever you want to be.”

Even if it means putting up new construction in Woodstock.

Related: Speaking of establishment hipster-poseurs, Jon Stewart is disappointed that Obama “Deferred to the legislative process.” Am I misreading that quote, or does it sound very much akin to Thomas Friedman’s pining for the one party rule of China?

Stewart adds:

“He feels like the only president who begins every press conference with a heavy sigh. I think he was already kind of over us by the time he got into office. And now he’s like, ‘What the f*** is wrong with these people?’”

Let’s ensure that he’s really asking himself that question at the end of next year.


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