Saturday, January 21, 2006

The case against cool

My cousin Caroline writes about how anti-Semitism is now considered "cool." I disagree that the success of "Paradise Now" at the Golden Globes is any indication of this (since when do award shows determine or reflect "cool," and couldn't a movie possibly have been chosen for something other than its politics?), and while this does not strike me as news--from Parisian non-Arab keffiyeh-wearers to campus pro-Palestinian activist groups in the U.S., the Palestinian side of the Middle East controversy is typically considered the cool one. Pro-Israeli activists are often seen as whiny dorks, and all the attempts to make Judaism seem "cool," to put a hipster spin on Judaism just make things worse. Because nothing is less cool than trying too hard.*

The height of cool is, of course, irony. And Andrew Sullivan has written a totally sincere ode to ironic, hipster (he calls it "post-PC") humor, the Sarah Silvermans and "South Parks" of the world. The Sullivan reader who writes in that "post-PC" humor is nihilistic is mostly correct. It can't be embraced by anyone for political reasons, because anyone with sincere concerns, left or right or gay-libertarian-right-center, is a loser. While a comedian like, say, Margaret Cho, can simultaneously be hilarious and hold certain political positions, the new set would never do such a thing, because that would be lame. It's unfair to judge comedy's funniness by whether or not it promotes agreeable politics, just as it's not right to attribute the success of a movie about suicide bombers to an affirmation of suicide terrorism. Margaret Cho and Sarah Silverman both have some good jokes. But the problem with "post-PC" comedy is that it has--and this is where nihilism comes in--made a fool of anyone who cares about the world. By "problem" I mean problem for Sullivan, who sees this comedy as somehow indicative of his own politics coming into fashion. I find plenty of comedy both horribly offensive and hilarious ("Annie Hall," much of "Seinfeld"), so for me this isn't especially problematic.

Which puts "cool" into two camps: the humor-cool, who shun politics, and the humorless set, who in all seriousness attach themselves to anti-dorky causes. The former is morally acceptable, as it's equal-opportunity negativity and is not meant to be read as political commentary, while the latter is really quite awful.

While this may not make me a "classic liberal" like modernity-loving Andrew Sullivan, it might make me a classic child of the 1990s: I think PC has its merits, and I am nostalgic for a time when one could be liberal and pro-democracy/pro-Israel without much fuss or confusion. I happen to prefer comedy which preserves a bit of political correctness, albeit in a subtle form, and think--outside the realm of comedy--that the message of tolerance sent by even dippy-sounding jargon is often overlooked and surprisingly valuable. (How often are today's conservatives out-and-out racists or homophobes? And who to thank for this if not the forces of PC?) If Gore had won, perhaps fighting terrorism and supporting Israel would still be respectable, and cool kids on U.S. college campuses would not be so politically aligned with the Paris Metro's most hip.

But mainly, I believe it's really dangerous and idiotic to let what's cool (or, for that matter, what one finds aesthetically pleasing; the two are connected) influence one's politics. This is not to say holding political views means denying taste and preference that conflict with these views. Thus Francophilic Zionism. It is, in fact, nearly as creepy to let one's politics dictate one's taste as vice versa. OK, not as creepy, but still quite idiotic, leading to everything from sweaters with the American flag knit into them to hemp backpacks covered in political buttons to the dreaded Birkenstocks. (Where far-right and far-left meet: bad fashion sense. Yes or no? Discuss.)


*Nothing, that is, except blogging on a Saturday night. But hey, sometimes-co-blogger Molly and I are going to be partying on any minute now. We might even get cupcakes.

3 comments:

Petey said...

"I am nostalgic for a time when one could be liberal and pro-democracy/pro-Israel without much fuss or confusion."

I believe that nostalgic time ended in the late 70's when Israel embarked on its colonial project in the territories.

Colonialism is almost never cool, and finding one's loyalties on the side of colonialists generates fuss and confusion in decent folk.

"But mainly, I believe it's really dangerous and idiotic to let what's cool (or, for that matter, what one finds aesthetically pleasing; the two are connected) influence one's politics."

In one sense, sure.

On an aesthetic level, I found the planes hitting the trade towers to be pretty damn cool. On a political level, I found the event horrifying.

I feel no need to bring the two views into sync.

But in a deeper sense, aesthetics and politics do stem from similar places. I see Democrats as cooler than Republicans aesthetically for similar reasons that I end up liking their politics better.

I'm not sure what exactly separates the two senses, but it's an interesting question.

"to the dreaded Birkenstocks. (Where far-right and far-left meet: bad fashion sense. Yes or no? Discuss.)"

Those so sincere that they are irony deficient are inevitably lacking in style. It doesn't matter where on the political spectrum they lie.

But fergawdsakes, I wish people would stop picking on Birkenstocks. Anyone who is wearing them as a hempy fashion statement is obviously an idiot. But lots of people wear them despite the style problem because they're so goddamn comfy. Really, really comfy. Comfort is often good style even when the style is awful, as long as you're under no illusions about it.

codone said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
codone said...

As a card carrying member of the VWRC
and a young dandy, i couldn't agree more with the seperation of taste and politics.