The Power of Cool
When Barack Obama two years ago joked at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that potential suitors of his two daughters might have to deal with Predator drones (“But boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words for you: Predator drones. You will never see it coming.”), the liberal crowd roared. That failed macabre joke would have earned George W. Bush a week of headline condemnation from the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Obama, in fact, has increased those judge/jury/executioner targeted assassinations tenfold during his tenure. But apparently, the combination of Obama’s postracial “cool” and the video-game nature of such airborne death — no CNN clips of charred torsos and smoldering legs, no prisoners with their ACLU lawyers in Guantanamo, no Seymour Hersh exposé on a Waziristan granny who was vaporized for being too near her terrorist-suspect grandson, no American losses for Code Pink and Moveon.org to demonstrate against — earned general exemption for that new liberal way of war. What bothered us about the Predator strikes in 2006–2008 was not the kills per se but the uncool nature of twangy Texan George Bush, who ordered them.
Last week 28-year-old, $17 billion–rich, jeans-clad Mark Zuckerberg took Wall Street for a multibillion-dollar ride, making his original buddies instant billionaires and his loyal larger circle millionaires. Note that there is no Occupy Wall Street protest at Facebook headquarters. Just as there are none at Oprah’s house or the residence of Leonardo DiCaprio, despite their take each year of between $50 and $100 million.
No one has suggested that Hollywood lower movie-ticket prices by asking Johnny Depp or Jennifer Lopez to walk away with $10 or $20 million less a year. Steve Jobs found ways to dodge taxes comparable to those deployed by any Wall Street fatcat, but he was iPad cool, and so his iPhone billions were exempt from the Occupy nonsense. Cool capitalists are immune from the neo-Marxist critique of capitalism — a racket that $40 billion–rich Warren Buffett learned late in life, but well enough, with the “Buffett Rule.”
We simply don’t mind that Google and Amazon rake in billions, but we despise Exxon and Archer Daniels Midland for doing the same. It is not that we need social networking and Internet searches more than food and fuel, but rather that we have the impression that cool zillionaires in flipflops are good while uncool ones in wingtips are quite bad.
I am sure that the tax lawyers who help Richard Branson and Mick Jagger are no less skilled at shorting the Treasury than those who work for Rush Limbaugh, but the profits of the former are okay while the latter’s are obscene. Limbaugh is a misogynist for using the word “slut” and apologizing for it; Bill Maher is a feminist for using slurs we cannot print and for which he did not apologize. One is uncool, the other very cool — as was a cynical and sarcastic David Letterman, who implied that the 14-year-old daughter of Sarah Palin had snuck into the Yankees’ dugout for quick sex with Alex Rodriquez.
The power of cool is evident also in politics. State quite correctly that you can see Russia from parts of Alaska, and you are ditzy white-trash Sarah from Wasilla; state falsely that Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation on television in 1929, and you are just “good ol’ Joe Biden.”
John Kerry’s second married-into fortune probably dwarfs the one that Mitt Romney made himself, perhaps by a factor of ten. While we heard in 2012 that Romney wanted a car elevator in one of his many houses, we never heard much in 2004 of presidential candidate Kerry’s various mansions, boats, or assorted playthings, or how he proved to be a keen investor as a senator helping to set U.S. financial policy.
Kerry, you see, was cool. He windsurfed and wore spandex as he cycled, and found his exemption by championing the poor he rarely saw. The same was true of John Edwards of “Two Americas” fame. Do we now recall how he ran to the left of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, despite the $500 haircuts and the self-indulgent mansion, replete with “John’s room,” a hideaway with all sorts of adolescent toys? Edwards, remember, earned those spoils by charming juries in his smarmy style, and nearly destroyed the practice of obstetrics in North Carolina through his flurry of malpractice suits. No matter, Edwards was liberal, Kennedyesque, and cool — and he earned prophylaxis in the manner of JFK himself, of whose White House orgies we did not learn until a half-century later. Likewise we have been taught that there is no “power imbalance” or “insidious asymmetry” when a “mentor” has sexual relations with his young intern — as long as he is a feminist like Bill Clinton.
What, then, exactly, is this cool that allows you to earn whatever you like without censure, and then to spend it as you please without fear of public scorn?
It would seem that the disconnect is liberal politics, the coin by which one buys a sort of medieval indulgence from liberal gatekeepers in the media, academia, the arts, and the foundations that permits one to continue the pursuit and enjoyment of lucre and to indulge the baser appetites without harassment — in the manner that the medieval moneylender or sexual zealot still got to heaven by buying marble for the cash-strapped cathedral. That $20 billion–rich George Soros was a money speculator who almost destroyed the small depositors of the Bank of England and was convicted in France of insider trading matters not at all: Without his roulette-wheel billions we would not have Media Matters. Jon Corzine of MF Global cannot explain what he did with $1.2 billion of other people’s money. But there will never be a “Corzine Law.”
Who cares what George Clooney makes an hour, or how exactly his close friends can afford to pony up for a $40,000-a-plate dinner — when the takings will help Barack Obama feed the children? If Halliburton were wise, it would buy the shut-down Solyndra plant, make solar panels at a loss, and write the cost off as a lobbying and public-relations expense.
So cool is not obtained just through liberal politics. Images and intent are critical too. The stuffy tea-party crowd looks like the plain suburban guys and gals who sell us houses, cars, and insurance. And so, of course, they must be racist, even though their demonstrations give no proof of any such fetish. Their only oddity would seem to be a certain desire to ensure that they leave no litter in their wake for poorer custodians to clean up.
But Occupy Wall Street? That movement has produced thugs, thieves, rapists, would-be bombers, rioters, and street urchins who pollute their surroundings and cause mayhem. They act pre-modern but earn no scorn because they are cool – they sport a sort of elite grunge that suggests that the environmental-studies major at Brown empathizes with those poor for whom grime is not makeup.
Identity is key here. In general, to win exemption from the left-wing critique of America, the affluent must construct cool identities as far distant as possible from the white Christian heterosexual male, who is most culpable for creating our present affluence from ill-gotten gains. The multimillionaire Elizabeth Warren and her husband make nearly $1 million a year. They live in a home beyond the reach of 99 percent of America. And she may well have plagiarized and been dishonest about her own heritage. No matter — Warren washed away both her privilege and her sins by reinventing herself as a “Cherokee” who fights Wall Street oppressors.
So too Barack Obama. It was Obama himself, not the fringe Birthers, who first made the case that the president was born in Kenya — not because he was, but because to say now and then that he was added an exotic touch of cool to Barack Hussein Obama — a cool that a Barry Dunham born in Honolulu and prepped at Punahou would have lacked. Poor George Zimmerman — had he only called himself Jorge Zimmerman he might not have been written off as a “white Hispanic” vigilante.
Network news anchors anguished over whether George W. Bush had tried coke while thousands of African-Americans languished in jail for doing the same — but they snored when Barack Obama boasted that he had done that and much more. Push down a gay student fifty years ago as a teen, and if you are straitlaced Mitt Romney then you always were a homophobe; push away a little girl decades ago, and if you are Barack Hussein Obama, then you were struggling with identity and coming of age.
In short, millions of well-off Americans, from the entering college student to the full professor of law, from the billionaire thief to the president of the United States himself, endlessly chase cool.
And why would they not? Cool is now America’s holy grail that allows the elite and the rich not just to pursue and enjoy nice things, but to damn others who do the same.