Rebirth of the Cool

In his The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Christopher Lasch wrote that “the rise of mass media makes the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant to an evaluation of their influence. Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that … Read More

By / November 6, 2008

In his The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Christopher Lasch wrote that “the rise of mass media makes the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant to an evaluation of their influence. Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information.” Lasch’s examples include “statements implying that a given characteristic belongs uniquely to the product in question when in fact it belongs to its rivals as well.”

Remind you of anything? The presidential candidates between whom we just chose are, as even my most liberal friends freely admit, similar in important respects. Both men spoke frequently of “change,” though only one’s followers reduced it to a creepy mantra, less David Bowie than Spahn Ranch. Both argued for clean energy, Obama tilting at windmills and hybrid cars, McCain asking us to accept the powerful and much-maligned technology already at our disposal. Both sought to address the financial crisis by pouring tax dollars into it.

The differences in their prescribed means were significant but technical, and I hope I won’t sound terribly “elitist” if I speculate that many voters focused on the ends and made their choice on the basis of another factor: marketing strategy. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are made with different “secret formulas,” comprehensible only to chemists, but they end up tasting similar to the casual consumer. Americans are not casual consumers, however, and the ad campaign is all.

What are ad campaigns about if not which of two similar things is cooler? John “Mac Is Back” McCain is undeniably the PC to Barack “Politically Correct” Obama’s Mac. Both function most of the time, crash occasionally, and seem “cool” to radically different demographics. That Obama’s brand of cool has so completely outstripped McCain’s is, at the risk of sounding fuddy-duddyish, worrying.

A friend of mine put the dichotomy well: “I’ve got to say that ‘congressional law professor’ has a better ring to it than ‘shot down five times.’”

No, not to these ears. The corollary of having been shot down five times is having climbed into a ground-attack aircraft five times, despite the risk that, with apologies to Randall Jarrell, you will be washed out of it with a hose. Then there’s the unpleasant matter of what happens when you crash alive behind enemy lines—we’ve heard all about that, though many found it unworthy of consideration—and how you comport yourself in captivity.

Combat vets may snicker at McCain’s “incompetence,” but the rest of us ought to keep in mind that we’d probably pick the toughest law school over a hail of anti-aircraft rounds. As Evan Wright memorably wrote in Generation Kill, “In my civilian world . . . half the people I know are on anti-depressants or anti-panic attack drugs because they can’t handle the stress of a mean boss or a crowd at the 7-Eleven.”

This is not at all to disparage Obama’s impressive educational background, only to argue that courage, honor, and self-sacrifice remain more impressive than educational credentials. The former, by the way, played a large part in John F. Kennedy’s brand of cool, but how much of the “youth vote” has seen PT 109? Obama has a few things in common with JFK. (How much of the “youth vote” knows that Frank Sinatra sang about “High Hopes” for Kennedy’s 1960 campaign? At least that had the audacity of a melody—change you can hum, you might say.) The traits that spring to mind are suavity, a silver tongue, a 10-gigawatt smile, and, yes, credentials.

How did Americans do a 180 on what they find admirable? I place the blame on the marketing geniuses hiding in plain sight: the media. Writers and commentators have aggressively devalued what they either aren’t capable of or can’t demonstrate: courage in extremis. Dissent is patriotic because it’s what we laptop jockeys can pull off without any real risk; risking life and limb can be reduced with a rhetorical flourish to “getting shot down five times.” I have harsh words, too, for those conservative pundits who fawn over the troops or “define torture down” solely because they think it makes them sound tough—if they only knew how transparent that strategy is! Then again, at least it shows that they respect toughness.

It would have been a simple matter to say one prefers Barack Obama but respects John McCain’s bravery and service. But it was difficult to say how many of Obama’s supporters did respect McCain’s bravery and service. N+1’s Mark Greif claimed that the “core conceit” of the GOP convention was that “McCain is already dead,” when in fact its core message was that he’d survived an unthinkable ordeal. Many others pretended to ponder why being tortured was a qualification, shutting their minds to the inconvenient fact of McCain’s superhuman loyalty to his fellow prisoners.

Of course: They knew they wouldn’t have been capable of it. “Just as heroism differs in subtle ways from celebrity,” Lasch wrote, “so hero worship, which esteems the hero’s actions and hopes to emulate them or at least to prove worthy of his example, must be distinguished from narcissistic idealization.” Coolness is no longer a function of what you can scarcely imagine being. It’s an outsize version of what you think you already are.


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