Back in March, around 4,000 years ago, the world was ending. Plague swept in from the east like a horde. Clam-tight lockdowns, unthinkable even days before, were announced everywhere. Who could save us?
On March 18 our prayers were answered. An honor roll of Hollywood bluebloods took action. Assembled by Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, they created a video montage cover of John Lennon’s masterpiece — yes! — ‘Imagine’, which she posted — thank goodness! — on Instagram. ‘We’re all in this together,’ said Gadot’s expensive oval face, and, in a sense, she was right. Will Ferrell and Mark Ruffalo, Sia and Zoë Kravitz, Norah Jones and Amy Adams: they were all in this big wet bathful of tears together. The stars were taking a forced break from riding their chariots through the clouds. They were just like you, just like me. ‘Imagine there’s no religion,’ they sang, as every church, mosque and synagogue in two hemispheres was padlocked and shuttered.
Now, on magazine paper, these were some of America’s coolest people. Tasteformers, platinum artists, red-carpeters — a glittering bunch. But this video, which quickly reached 10 million views, was mortifying. The global embarrassment it inflamed could’ve roasted the thigh fat off a regiment of sumo wrestlers. There was nothing to envy. It was tone-deaf, cheesy and, above all, cringe.
It wasn’t a one-off.
Somehow, being Cool blew up in America’s face. Cool became cringe, and cringe is everywhere you look. When the third millennium began, Tom Wolfe could write about ‘American superiority in all matters of science, economics, industry, politics, business, medicine, engineering, social life, social justice, and, of course , the military’.That superiority evaporated, leaving behind large, damp patches of awkwardness. Yes, America is still culturally hegemonic — no doubt there. But it’s limping along on anti-prestigious name recognition. Yes, through Netflix and Disney, Penguin Random House and Apple, Facebook and Twitter, and by a million other means, American mores are broadcast, published, disseminated; stubbornly world- dominating, ploddingly imitated. Yes, the United States still gives off a massive light. But it’s not the hopeful shine of a beacon on a hill. It’s the flickering glare of a dumpster fire.
Unlike the Bush years, when global opinion took a certain vindictive glee in America’s misadventures, there’s no schadenfreude this time around. Just sadness, mild irritation, vicarious embarrassment and the under- ground hope that a mute button can be found for America’s culture of cringe. How did it happen? Will the United States ever be cool again?
Legend, or CIA-funded propaganda, tells us the exact moment that Nikita Khrushchev knew the USSR was finished. It was 1959, and the Soviet premier was jetting out from LA as the sun dropped into the Pacific. Window-adjacent, thousands of feet up, Niki looked down, and there it was: American superabundance. Villa after villa after villa, each with its backyard swimming pool and its own gleaming Chevrolet Bel Air convertible, rolling into a cavernous garage. Our comrade was flattened — how many five-year plans would it take to have comforts like this? Game over, man.
On the margins of this civilization which Khrushchev envied, a diffuse set of heretics, misfits, pariahs, outcasts and hipsters of all ethnicities invented American Cool. Embryonic in the Jazz Age, clumsily developed by the Beats, accidentally incarnate in Elvis and studiously incarnate in Miles Davis, Cool was everywhere, even official, by the early years of the Sixties. It was an ironic attitude, a nonchalant pose, a controlled pout. Largely but not solely a male attribute, Cool was the armor plate worn by JFK and Steve McQueen, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Sidney Poitier and Saul Bellow. By the end of the decade it was seethingly and suddenly teenaged. Cool went mad. Waiting for a rain of hydrogen bombs to close the human era, terrified by the Draft, the privileged children of that American super-abundance embraced sex, drugs, rock and rebellion.
The baby boomers’ struggle against all received wisdom summoned Godzilla-strength antagonists like John Wayne, William F. Buckley and Allan Bloom, each with his own charisma to burn. Depth, cosmic ambition, danger, juice, rigor — American culture was fulfilling its promise. ‘Let us boldly condemn all imitation,’ Herman Melville wrote in 1850, ‘and foster all originality.’ Well, here it was at last. The whole world, as the radicals of the time liked to say, was watching.
America’s cultural machinery jammed in the late Sixties. In the decades that followed, Cool burned itself out in the Culture Wars. This agonizing and often illusory conflict is many things. Cool is not one of them. Before it sprouted liver spots, the Culture War was at least capable of the odd vital explosion. Witness Town Bloody Hall (1979): witness Norman Mailer (in 1971), fresh from writing an essay on the sex war he described as ‘the most important single intellectual event of the last four years’, as he bluffs, batters, bristles and flirts his way through an electric two-hour debate with hardcore gynocrats Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Susan Sontag and Jill Johnston. ‘You are all singularly without wit,’ Mailer snarls, while the libbers hiss. It’s pure theater. The sexual chemistry between Mailer and Greer could have powered USS Gerald R. Ford.
How does the sex war play out today? Agonizingly, like all Culture War battles. Take Cardi B and her porno-rap single ‘WAP’ (the initials stand for ‘Wet-Ass Pussy’). Released in August, it rapidly became the most streamed and most watched single in Billboard 100 history. Miss B, who is shaped like five Hindenburgs stuffed into a fat suit, was the focus of much try-hard celebratory commentary by the femo-hacks who staff so many of our Republic’s prestige publications. Who would defend virtue, propriety and what Roman rapper Cicero called the summum bonum against this delirious filth?
Ben Shapiro, knight-at-arms, that’s who. Seeing the opportunity to start yet another pointless moral fracas, Shapiro devoted a fussy podcast segment to Ms B’s lyrics, which range from the drolly risqué to the uncomfortably gynecological. Shapiro, whose wife is a doctor, suggested that Ms B and her fellow lyricist Megan Thee Stallion bragging about requiring ‘bucket and mop’ for their ‘pussies’ suggested they required urgent medical attention. Ho, ho, ho! Gleefully, thousands upon thousands of Twitter accounts then suggested that Shapiro had never aroused any women, anywhere, poor Mrs Shapiro included.
There was, unfortunately, more. A few weeks later, Ms B, whose entire shtick is boasting about her sexual prowess, was humiliated in turn by the public collapse of her marriage to the rapper Offset. It seemed he’d been bucket-and-mopping behind her back for years. By the end, every participant in this toe-curling saga was diminished, smaller than before. That’s the Culture of Cringe in miniature.
It’s all so tired. The Sixties set the stage, the players and the rhetorical range of cultural life. The counterculture became a co-culture, then a co-opted culture and eventually a co-opting culture. Cool was absorbed by consumerism, and became a manufactured good, like the battle between liberals and conservatives, or fights between the sexes. The old ferocity and subversiveness was bought off, lobotomized and placed in a zoo.
Over half a century, the quality of the animals on display declined. Lenny Bruce became Hannah Gadsby, Joan Baez became Taylor Swift and Malcolm X became Ibram X. Kendi. (Jane Fonda was still Jane Fonda.) The aging boomers became the museum curators, droning tour guides and delighted embalmers of their own nostalgia. When über-boomer Bob Dylan was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 by a pack of bored Swedes, worldwide groans of embarrassment were — trust me on this — the first terrestrial sounds to reach the already bemused alien civilizations clustered around Alpha Centauri.
The climax of American Cool arrived with Barack Obama. Seemingly with-it, above the fray but in control, self-aware and talented, more or less black, Obama manifested every classical attribute of Cool. After his first win, the New York Times called him ‘the pop cultural colossus’. A mania for Obama swept the country, then the world. Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ poster transformed him into a Warholesque pop-art icon. The only hold-outs from this faddish exuberance were original Sixties Cool kids with sleepless bullshit detectors. The late Christopher Hitchens noted that everyone thought Obama was an excellent speaker, while pointing out that nobody could remember anything the guy said. Joan Didion said that the solar myth of Obama was powered by ‘the spirit of a cargo cult’. She warned that ignorance was about to triumph over ironic detachment. Mostly the boomers, like everyone else, lapped it up. Rolling Stone, that generation’s crusty in-house mag, endorsed Obama twice in 2008.
The new president promised, nebulously, to transform America. Well, the wars continued and the economy stagnated. The cost of education and housing continued to sky-rocket. Rates of suicide, depression and loneliness ballooned. China lumbered into view as a competitor for world power, but we were told to look at Russia. With so much at stake, and so much going wrong, the official culture settled into cringing, risk-averse self-preservation, as in the last days of the Soviet Union. There was a marked increase in the number of public intellectuals who were in fact truncated specialists: economists and social scientists. Elites confirmed their biases through Davos-view authors like Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell, or websites like Vox.
The unlucky millennials who came of age during the Great Recession desired security rather than glory. They were neurotic, indigent and as downwardly mobile as a meteorite. With resources growing scarcer, they seemed to be begging for clout, foundation grants, prizes, sinecures, money, attention — but not, weirdly, sex, which they seemed neither to want nor enjoy. There were many young ‘activists’, few artists. Online, where the young lived, they veered wildly between puritanical sternness and emotional quivering. An atavistic pastime, witch hunting, returned. First on Twitter, then in institutions caught in a meritocratic death grip. The young sought to humiliate the old (‘OK, boomer’) and each other.
Obama’s pretensions were enormous, his achievements insignificant. Reading it back, his rhetoric was (Michael) Jacksonian. ‘Make that…change!’ the pedophile Peter Pan of pop squealed in ‘Man in the Mirror’. ‘It’s time for us to change America,’ Obama declared when he accepted his party’s nomination in 2008. ‘We are the world,’ Jackson had sung in the previous century. ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for,’ Obama announced in the new one. The colossus was an empty vessel. The geeks who worked in the Obama White House never stopped worshipping him, just as Jackson’s fans continue, dubiously, to defend the King of Pop. The staffers lived out their fantasy of inhabiting a West Wing episode, then cried when Trump won in 2016. That wasn’t very cool.
Obama’s legacy toddled into view during last year’s Democratic primaries. A series of tiny giants appeared: Mayor Pete, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker. These cringe candidates aped Obama’s manners and rhetoric, without his ability to radiate sincerity. They were bots. By then, the Obama-style had infected the entire managerial class. It prettified failure with celebrity. It distracted attention from inequality with empty appeals to minorities. It muscled out independent thinking with a bland, multicultural ‘diversity’.
This corporate progressivism — Nancy Pelosi draped in Kente cloth, Elizabeth Warren promising to let a nine-year-old transgender child pick her future secretary of education — was an example of what Lenin called ‘bourgeois sentimentality’. If you wanted a cant-free view of the American condition, you noted the box-office dominance of superhero blockbusters in this period. Starting with Iron Man (2008), released the year Obama won the presidency, audiences were thrilled by these simplistic fantasies of absolute power. Gangster movies had performed this function for the depressed audiences of the early 1930s and early 1970s. Black Panther and Captain America flitted across our screens, free to plot their own destinies, as the country outside the cinemas narrowed and unwound. Beset by feelings of powerlessness, Americans invested their politicians with the attributes of the movie Übermenschen they worshipped. It was a bad sign.
There was no Cool left in America by the time the Trump era began, just noise. Part hair shirt, part hollow bombast, every day for four years Americans buried themselves beneath a falling skyscraper of cringe. The rest of the world was collateral damage. This culture had more than a whiff of mental distress about it. Over there: howling patriots, conspiracy lunatics, Nazi bodybuilders, militarized trolls, hustlers and grifters. Over here: brittle liberal worthies, nerds, meritless meritocrats, academic Torquemadas, trust-funded podcasters, pseudoscientific TED speechifiers, hysterical talking heads and way too many lawyers. Not to mention all the creepy racists, the OnlyFans fans, the ‘wine o’clock’ mothers, the whining, weepy- kneeling athletes, the hate-crime fakers, the wannabe Bolsheviks, the acorn-brained influencers, the over-exposed YouTubers, Jerry Falwell Jr’s pool boy, Bret Stephens versus the 1619 Project. It almost sounds dynamic. But two dogs fighting over a pork chop can be dynamic. It almost sounds alive. But dead bodies always release gas.
There was languid talk about echo chambers in these years, about information straitjackets and partisan silos. It was said that the American people were drifting apart from each other. This was wrong. The networks, Facebook and Twitter, were built to surface fresh examples of cringeworthy behavior, consumed through communal derision. They were algorithmically optimized for peer-to-peer surveillance, scapegoating and sacrificial rituals. In fact, all the psychotic grouplets of American life studied each other incestuously, searching for their enemies’ blunders and fails. They called each other cringe.
The particle-collider culture of the Sixties — when ideas could be smashed together to make something new — was a panopticon by 2020. In this arena, this battleground, human dignity could be destroyed in seconds and all authority was transient. No mythology could survive. Cool was an impossibility. Nobody was capable of keeping it; nobody was capable of being it. ‘Seems like when they get started,’ wrote Hemingway, ‘they don’t leave a guy nothing.’ All that remained was cringe. One study found that experiences of embarrassment surged after Trump’s inauguration. Awkwardness and shame brooded over the land.
America had exported Cool to the world. Now it exported its cringey hallucinations, its racial paranoias, its porn and DJ Khaled. The internet, like Coca-Cola, was American. The global language, gracelessly spoken, was Microsoft English. Unlike Chinese culture, American culture could not be ignored, even if you wanted nothing to do with it. This summer saw QAnon demonstrations in Berlin and Black Lives Matter protests in Helsinki. British soccer players started taking the knee like Colin Kaepernick.
In France, an exasperated President Macron, facing his own BLM protests, refused to remove any statues and condemned US-style ‘separatism’. The seeds of the culture of cringe have fallen all over the world. Only a madman can guess what they will become.
This article is in The Spectator’s November 2020 US edition.