July 30, 2017

THE COLUMN THAT ALL AMERICA WANTS. THE COLUMN THAT ALL AMERICA NEEDS: Who else but David Brooks, the man, the myth, the sandwich shop legend, the Fonzie of Fifth Avenue, can explain to the readers of the New York TimesHow Cool Works in America Today”?

Cool had other social meanings. It was a way of showing you weren’t playing the whole Horatio Alger game; you weren’t a smarmy career climber. It was a way to assert the value of the individual in response to failed collectivisms — to communism and fascism, to organized religion. The cool person is guided by his or her own autonomous values, often on the outskirts of society.

To be cool was to be a moral realist. The cruelties of the wars had exposed the simplistic wholesomeness of good and evil middle-class morality. A character like Rick Blaine in “Casablanca” is trying to live by his own honor code in an absurd moral world.

Until he realizes that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” and joins the effort defeat Hitler. Having taken an interest in the horrors of the world beyond his café’s doors, does that mean that Bogey’s Rick is no longer cool? Brooks goes on to explain to his readers at the Times the difference between “cool” and “woke:”

Cool was politically detached, but being a social activist is required for being woke. Cool was individualistic, but woke is nationalistic and collectivist. Cool was emotionally reserved; woke is angry, passionate and indignant. Cool was morally ambiguous; woke seeks to establish a clear marker for what is unacceptable.

But earlier in his column, Brooks wrote that “You can [still] see cool figures like Kendrick Lamar…” But if “cool was politically detached, but being a social activist is required for being woke,” how does that explain this album by Lamar and its cover, as Victor Davis Hanson noted last year:

A few hours before delivering that State of the Union, President Obama met with rapper Kendrick Lamar. Obama announced that Lamar’s hit “How Much a Dollar Cost” was his favorite song of 2015. The song comes from the album To Pimp a Butterfly; the album cover shows a crowd of young African-American men massed in front of the White House. In celebratory fashion, all are gripping champagne bottles and hundred-dollar bills; in front of them lies the corpse of a white judge, with two Xs drawn over his closed eyes. So why wouldn’t the president’s advisors at least have advised him that such a gratuitous White House sanction might be incongruous with a visual message of racial hatred? Was Obama seeking cultural authenticity, of the sort he seeks by wearing a T-shirt, with his baseball cap on backwards and thumb up?

To play the old “what if” game that is necessary in the bewildering age of Obama: what if President George W. Bush had invited to the White House a controversial country Western singer, known for using the f- and n- words liberally in his music and celebrating attacks on Bureau of Land Management officers?

For a much better definition of how “cool” changed American society, it’s still tough to beat the column the late Michael Kelly wrote on the topic 20 years ago, after Frank Sinatra passed away at age 82:

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.

Spot on. (Which isn’t to say that Sinatra didn’t have many brilliant moments in his career as both a singer and actor.) To be fair to Brooks, not all of his takes are completely wrong in this column. As Mediaite notes, “David Brooks Tackles ‘Cool’ in New Column, Declares Kurt Schlichter ‘Woke.’”

Heh. OK, we’ll give him that one.