The Conquest of Cool?

Which of these is the odd one out?

(a) Cargo pants
(b) Mudhoney
(c) John Howard

If you believe the conservative columnists it’s ‘c’. Only John Howard is still cool in 2005. Cargo pants and grunge bands like Mudhoney are hopelessly ’90s. Only decrepit Gen-Xers think it’s hip to shamble around looking like something off the set of Reality Bites and grumbling about how boomers have ruined the environment and taken all the best jobs.

In the Australian last October, Janet Albrechtsen announced that "Conservatism is cool." Radio National’s Michael Duffy used the line as a theme for one of his weekly radio programs (but bizarrely invited Christopher Pearson). And a few months later the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Miranda Devine was explaining that conservatism had become the new counter-culture. Even lifestyle journos think they’ve detected a trend. In a recent issue of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Spectrum lift-out Samantha Selinger-Morris announced that "conservatism has taken its place as the new rebellion" (translation: hipster jeans are out and babies are in).

I suppose I’m supposed to deflate this story with a snarky remark about Alex Keaton or maybe a two line history of the Young Americans for Freedom and their enthusiasm for Barry Goldwater. But maybe there’s something to this – I’m just not sure what.

What is Cool?

Despite what lifestyle writers might say, cool is not just whatever young people happen to be into. If all the kids are into something then it’s almost certainly not cool. According to Dick Pountain and David Robins:

Cool is a rebellious attitude, an expression of a belief that the mainstream mores of your society have no legitimacy and do not apply to you. It’s a self-contained and individualistic attitude, although it places high value on friendship within a tightly defined peer group – indeed it strives to displace traditional family ties, which are too intimate and intrusive to allow sufficient space for self-invention.

Pountain and Robins say that "Each succeeding generation feels that ‘real’ Cool is something pure and existential known only to them – it was founded in their time." I guess this is what makes it so hard for yesterday’s hipsters to accept that what once provocative and liberating is now boring and oppressive. Cool is always relative, never absolute.

When cool is combined with progressive politics the lesson for old hipsters will be particularly hard. The great progressive myth is that every struggle moves history forward – never backwards. The truths revealed today do not become the falsehoods of tomorrow. Once a generation has seen the world in bright sunlight it will never want to go back to the cave of half-truth and shadow. Seen in this way, a youthful counter-revolution looks like the collapse of civilization – not cool at all. Devine is probably right when she says many once-radical boomers are stunned by young people’s attitudes to issues like feminism.

South Park Republicans – cool but not conservative

In the US there’s been a lot of talk about ‘South Park Republicans ‘ -a vanguard of young people rebelling against left wing political correctness. Commentators like City Journal’s Brian C Anderson see the popularity of comedy programs like South Park as an encouraging sign: "Lots of cable comedy, while not traditionally conservative, is fiercely anti-liberal, which as a practical matter often amounts nearly to the same thing."

For the 60s generation the American south and mid-west symbolized everything that was repressive and uncool. Student activists abandoned conservative blue collar politics and proclaimed themselves the vanguard of social change. It shouldn’t be a surprise that educated upper class South Park Republicans rebel against their parents and teachers by wearing trucker hats and eating corn dogs.

In 2003 blogger Andrew Sullivan was writing about young hipsters going to parties dressed up like white trash: "part of the refreshing nature of these trends is exactly their unconcern with whether they’re forms of condescension or not, or even whether they’re ironic or not. They’re just cool and insensitive. It took only one generation of political correctness to fuse the two." The student left of the 60s associated working class mid western manners with racism and support for the Vietnam War. That made them perfect for provocation.

Sullivan also argued that these young people had become enthusiastic supporters of Bush’s war in Iraq:

My theory is that we’re witnessing the emergence of the 9/11 generation – a demographic cohort bigger than the boomers whose defining experience was the terrorist attack of two years ago. They are also immune to the Vietnam fixation of the boomer editors and reporters of the mainstream media. South Park Republicans? We may have a genuine phenomenon here.

In an article appearing on the Wall Street Journal’s online opinion site, Brian Anderson agreed:

Talk to right-leaning college students, and it’s clear that Sullivan is onto something. Arizona State undergrad Eric Spratling says the definition fits him and his Republican pals perfectly. "The label is really about rejecting the image of conservatives as uptight squares—crusty old men or nerdy kids in blue blazers. We might have long hair, smoke cigarettes, get drunk on weekends, have sex before marriage, watch R-rated movies, cuss like sailors—and also happen to be conservative, or at least libertarian."

South Park Republicans may well be anti-liberal but Anderson’s Arizona undergrad is also onto something – they’re not so much conservative as libertarian. There were two strands to the rebellion of the 60s. The first was the militant leftism of groups like Students for Democratic Society while the second was the libertarianism of the counter culture. Sitting around arguing with Shachtmanites about whether communists should be allowed seating rights at meetings was never going to be cool. Nor was the squalid back-to-nature lifestyle of hardcore hippies. But a band like the Velvet Underground was another thing altogether. (One Reason contributor comes close to crediting Lou Reed with the overthrow of communism in

In 2003 the New York Times Magazine discovered the ‘Young Hipublicans.’ John Colapinto took a trip to Bucknell University to meet a new generation of young conservatives. He reported that the founder of the Bucknell University Conservative Club looked to Hunter S Thompson for inspiration, while other members dressed like goths or punks. And while the Young Hipublicans respected ’80 conservative campus activists like Dinesh D’Souza, their views were different. The conservative club’s magazine Counterweight was running articles supporting gay marriage [pdf] A strong streak of libertarianism ran though the club, "a conviction that the government should stay out of any and all aspects of life, including the bedroom."

While South Park Republicans love to outrage their elders with symbols of red state culture and attacks on political correctness, this doesn’t mean that they want a return to segregation, family values, and respect for authority. In many ways they’ve become the heirs of the 60s anti-establishment. It’s the establishment that’s changed, not the rebelliousness of college students.

Boy Scouts and Pentecostals – conservative but not cool

Commentators like Samantha Selinger-Morris focus on a different kind of young conservative – the kind who are desperate for the adult responsibilities of management, mortgages, motherhood. Journalists have noticed that it’s the ‘God wants you to be rich‘ churches who are having the most success recruiting young people. But this doesn’t mean that speaking in tongues and praying for positively geared real estate investments has suddenly become cool. Guy Sebastian may have won Australian Idol but this doesn’t make his music or his lifestyle cutting-edge. There were nice young boys making records in the 60s too.

Selinger-Morris’s Spectrum piece carries a picture of a Young Liberal who looks like he’s been dressed by his grandmother and photographed in her sitting room. Her teenage rebel has memorized "the precise interest rates of the Labor governments from Whitlam to Keating" and wants to buy a house before he turns 23. But nobody with that level of ambition can afford to be too cool. The establishment will be marking their assignments, writing their job references, and checking their credit ratings.

The ideological fallacy

Anderson thinks that being "fiercely anti-liberal" is as good as being conservative. But if that were true then the Ku Klux Klan would be welcomed into the conservative movement along with Murray Rothbard‘s crazy paleolibertarians. Obviously, there’s more to conservatism than hating liberals. And not all the young conservatives Anderson thinks are cool are happy to be labeled ‘South Park Conservatives.’ For example, Michelle Malkin writes:

Well, I’m 34 and no fan of "South Park." I have many good friends who are indeed huge boosters of the show, but I find that the characters’ foul language overwhelms any entertainment I might otherwise derive from the show’s occasional, right-leaning iconoclastic themes.

"South Park" may be "politically incorrect." But "politically incorrect" is not always a synonym for "conservative."

Malkin is right, rebelling against the man is not conservative just because the man is a liberal. Malkin is a real conservative – she doesn’t even like MTV. She’s far more interested in keeping dangerous foreigners under control. And just as youngish conservatives like Malkin don’t find South Park amusing, many young South Park watchers find conservatism hilarious.

Miranda Devine argues that ideological shifts are like a pendulum swinging from right to left and back again. So when young people attack the left leaning elites of the media and culture industries it’s a sign that the 1950s are about to return. But if ideology really worked like that then political philosophy really would be just footnotes to Plato. When did this pendulum start swinging?

For elites, there are conventional ways of packaging political attitudes. Opposition to asylum seekers tends to be packaged along with support for the war in Iraq and enthusiasm about free markets. People like Pauline Hanson who mix attitudes from different packages get attacked as ignorant and confused. It’s as if they’d made char kway teow with fettuccine or served red wine in a champagne flute. The trouble is, many of the conventional attitude combinations are arbitrary. They are byproducts of past coalition building and log rolling. There is no logical reason why, for example, a politician shouldn’t combine support for free trade with high taxes and a large welfare state.

Most ordinary people don’t know and don’t care about the right way to combine political attitudes. They are happy to choose their attitudes issue by issue. In the mid 1960s American political scientist Philip Converse argued that most people just don’t bother having a comprehensive and consistent set of political attitudes. In ‘The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics’ he wrote that "large portions of an electorate do not have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for substantial periods of time." When pollsters ask voters about their opinion on an issue the voter often has no opinion to give. To answer the question they have to make one up.

While ordinary people break with convention out of ignorance, political innovators do so deliberately. Just as ‘east meets west’ cuisine deliberately flaunted traditional food combinations, the political avant garde deliberately mis-combine their political attitudes. There is no ideological pendulum swinging between two eternally fixed positions. Rejecting the status quo does not mean retuning to the past.

When politically sophisticated young people reject political correctness it’s not necessarily a sign that they are about to embrace conservatism. And when politically unsophisticated young people laugh at South Park it probably just means that they think it’s funny.

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61 Responses to The Conquest of Cool?

  1. wbb says:

    A very cool post, Mr Arthur. (I will have to spend more time with it before commenting otherwise.)

  2. Jason Soon says:

    the war on Saddam has created its own strange mix of groups which transcend traditional divisions
    1) ‘invade the world, invite the world’ (coinage by Steve Sailer) is probably the most interesting and can be used to describe the pro-asylum seeker/multicultural friendly but pro-war neocon Right – admittedly a small group in Australia but Greg Sheridan obviously belongs in this group. There are more of these principled types in the US including Dubya himself (note his illegal immigrants amnesty) and possibly Paul Wolfowitz. The best of this lot are sincere true believers in Wilsonian democratic imperiaism in a spirit of misguided benevolence. As a general rule this group also tends to be pro-Israel but not necessarily pro-Likud (again Paul Wolfowitz fits this category).
    2) then of course the polar opposite of this is the ‘leave the towelheads alone but don’t let them in’ group which includes anti-war, anti-immigration isolationists like Pat Buchanan and the bunch of idiosyncratic paleocons who write for the American Conservative. This group also tends to use the word ‘Zionist lobby’ a lot. Our very own Steve Edwards can probably be said to belong here.

    Then there are the more conventional groupings on the right (bomb those Ay-rabs and let them sew their lips) and left (let those wretched masses in but don’t interfere in their countries)

  3. Good article. I dont think Malkin is a conservative however. She is an authoritarian statist. She writes in the NY Post and most of her stuff is incredibly statist. I recall one article where she advocated the San Jose police busting heads at a rally.

    But that may just make your point better, that the young who conservatives want to call their own, are more libertarian than statist.

    It always surprises me that many who call themselves conservative or liberal in Australia are for economic liberty, but not social liberty. Liberty is liberty. You either have it or you dont – and if you dont, it is because government has taken it away from you. Never undertood that dichotamy.

  4. Kent says:

    Great post – your last sentence has it perfectly!

    Anyway, if these journalists want to extract things from popular TV culture, they’re too fixated on South Park. What about the Simpsons?

  5. jen says:

    “In many ways they’ve become the heirs of the 60s anti-establishment. It’s the establishment that’s changed.”

    I guess that’s where lots of those BB educated protest marchers ended up.

    We weren’t ever going to hit some kind of time warp in which only WW1, WW2 and Depression era veterans ran the joint.

    We have a new establishment to rebel against and they ain’t all bad! Just like their daddy’s and gran’pappys before em.

    OMG! I am the new establishment!

    A few vaguely related thoughts follow.

    Single issues are the only way I can make sense of the events around me. ‘east meets west cuisine’ I have no guiding principle other than ‘if I do this, will I feel guilty?’ – a libertarian socialist? –

    My response to an issue can change immediately when a better one is demonstrated.

    The days of left vs right are behind us and M.D’s pendulum is just a very dull old conceit, trotted out by the glib while the dense nod sagely.

    Hate that lot. They make me choke.
    I LOVED reading this post Don.

  6. Rex says:

    Great Post Don.

    Sadly I think they may be right. Conservatism is Cool. Not cool though in the sense that you have defined it, a relellious attitude. But Cool in the sense of teenagers trying on sunglasses and saying ‘that’s Cool’.

    If you define cool not as Nelson Mandela, but as Deltra Goodrem, then Conservatism is definitely cool.

    There can be no question that conservative thought now holds sway over most of the middle ground. George Lakoff puts this down to forty years of conservative think tanks figuring out how to frame the debate, and ensuring that conservative groups stay on-message with their simple catch phrases repeated over and over and over.

    With this continual reenforcement it is no wonder that the middle ground has begun to adopt conservative metaphors. They are simple, well expressed and progressives offer no equivalent simplicity.

    You’re right. Most ordinary people don’t know and don’t care about the correct way to combine political attitudes, but the conservatives offer a simple framework, and thus people find it easier to adopt this, that the poorly framed altenative.

    Yes, conservatism is cool because most people aspire to be liked, Not to be rebels, and most people would like to think of themselves as cool. Conservatism now being the mainstream insists that conservatism is cool.

  7. Ken Parish says:

    I don’t think so, Rex. Don is right. The vast majority (including ‘cool’ kids) aren’t interested enough in politics to bother defining a consistent set of beliefs, and indeed it isn’t ‘cool’ to be politically committed or even especially interested in politics.

    Sadly therefore, none of us ploggers and plog readers are cool. For people in their teens and twenties, there’s no need to debate what or who is cool. You just know, even if you’re not cool yourself (and I certainly wasn’t). But earnest young political apparatchiks, whether of a left or right-leaning disposition, have never been cool, and they still aren’t.

    I guess there might be a difference between ‘coolness’ in the 60s and 70s and coolness now, in the sense that it would never have been cool to be pro-government in those days (coolly disdainful of all of it, perhaps, but certainly not pro-government). Today, at least in countries like Australia, Britain and the US, it DOES seem that cool kids are more prepared in the wake of 9/11, Bali etc to accept the legitimacy of government (which currently means conservative governments at least at national level) and the commonsensicalness of opposing terrorism and so on. In that sense they’re conformist. Their ‘cool’ rebelliousness tends, as Don suggests, to be defined by libertarian social attitudes and an edgy sense of style in fashion, music etc.

    Rex is certainly right that the neocons, and their fellow travellers in the media like Tim Blair etc, are very keen to frame themselves as cool (and therefore rebellious). Hence their obsession with creating a largely fictional left-leaning establishment in the media, academia etc, against whom the beleaguered neocons are bravely rebelling. That conceit has enough of a superficial appearance of reality (at least for the humanities academia and large slabs of the arts community) as to be not obviously laughable to the ‘cool’ crowd who aren’t paying much attention to politics and don’t have coherent political belief systems anyway. Hence the cool crowd are not as instantly scornful of such pretensions as one might expect. But that isn’t the same as saying that conservatism is itself cool. It just allows the conservative uber-establishment to avoid looking so utterly stodgy and dominant and threateningly UNCOOL as to accidentally become a major focus for the projection of the juvenile rebelliousness that largely defines ‘cool’.

    The conservatives have become very good at creating strawman scapegoats of uncoolness to distract the attention of the politically uninterested ‘cool’ kids from the fact that their own attitudes (i.e. those of the conservative uber-establishment) are indeed utterly uncool. Uber-establishment propaganda strategies manage to obscure the fact that their social agenda is profoundly authoritarian/anti-libertarian and socially repressive and therefore fundamentally opposed to much of what appears to define coolness. But coolness involves paying so little attention to politics that this realisation never dawns. In that sense too, Rex is right that the conservatives frame issues and attitudes in glib, catchy, sneering, pseudo-cool phrases (latte left, Howard haters, surrender monkeys) carefully tailored to appeal to the cool and inattentive. I guess social democrats are going to have to learn those skills too, even if it means compounding the dumbing down of public debate at least in the more tabloid mainstream media.

  8. wmmbb says:

    Sometimes, and oddly, there is a difference between marketing and reality, with the acknowledgement that marketing is always cool. Or is it? We now have the red states and the blue states. That seems to be a mistake. Do we conclude that conservative coalition is cool here but not there?

  9. Rex, Delta Goodrem may be many things, but cool is not one of them. Aside from the fact that nobody between the ages of 11 and 35 buys her records, there’s this:

  10. James Hamilton says:

    “Rex is right that the conservatives frame issues and attitudes in glib, catchy, sneering, pseudo-cool phrases (latte left, Howard haters, surrender monkeys) carefully tailored to appeal to the cool and inattentive.”

    On the other hand Ken, Rex may be wrong. These terms may have been framed spontaneously to describe a certain type of high profile (on TV, in magazines, teaching) people and they have been accepted becasue they do a good job. “Carefully tailored”? I don’t think so. The people drive trends, labels and organisations follow.

    Please take the time, just for a moment before dismissing it, to consider the hypothesis that people are rebelling against mainstream cultural ideologies(in the sense of the prevailing ideology of the cultural institutions) because people are tired of the message and extremely tired of the messengers.

    It is far more likely that instead of a group scheming and plotting conservatives manipulating the minds of disengaged youth, disengaged youth are being counter influenced by a breed of preaching lefties who are total pains in the arse.

    If they are are disengaged or inattentive perhaps it is because the parameters and language of political/cultural discussion have been set in such a way and by such people as to find the processs thoroughly unattractive to certain segments of the community.

  11. Graham says:

    Conservatism is about about as cool as Tim Fischer saying he liked Silverchair.

  12. sophie says:

    I agree, James. Far too much preaching and busy-bodying goes on, and people–of all ages but perhaps esp the young– are fed up of it.
    I was amused to read for instance in a recent article in the Oz that young people are disengaged from environmental issues DESPITE schools and the media being so committed to giving them the right message! I mean, please. Is that such a deep dark mystery?
    I have a theory that ‘the Establishment’ is actually split these days–between the Establishment of government, which for want of a better word, could be called ‘conservative’, or rather, ‘post-conservative’; and the Establishment of culture, which generally speaking is almost completely, reflexively, soft-left-leaning. Because the cultural Establishment dominates the media and cultural production, makes a great deal of noise, it gives the impression(and is also under the delusion, itself) that it dominates events, which is why the government Establishment, sneered at and denigrated in the culture Establishment, can, despite the reality of power, portray itself as the underdog, thereby making it and its ideas ‘cool.’

  13. Rex says:

    None of these terms are framed spontaneously James. They develop and grow and are nurtured by constant repetition.

    Politics is the art of convincing and holding the middle ground.

    Think about how the conservative media and the Liberal Party have used the word ‘elite’ over the years. Did this term ever apply to Hugh Morgan, or Kerry Packer or Rene Rivkin? No. It applied to a specific variety of urban, university educated people, often academics. It is cleverly designed to denote a haughty disconnectedness from the the middle ground. But it never included the actual ‘power elite’. They somehow were exempt.

    There are oodles of examples of this.

    Where you say that people are tired of the message, you are implying that there’s only one message – The preachy message of the left.

    The conservative agenda has its messages. The difference is that ist just sold a whole lot better – more polished and simpler. More immedietly attactive.

    Sure most people are disengaged and innatentive, but over time the messages especially the simple oft repeated catch phrases, they sink in. That’s the conservative trick. They’ve managed to create a glossy compelling product as a means of pursuing their agenda.

    The left have failed to do the equivalent and it shows by the very fact that we are even considering equating conservatives with cool.

    PS. Rex is rarely wrong. That’s one of his most likeable chacteristics.

  14. Ken Parish says:


    I think you and I are largely saying the same thing albeit with different emphases. And I agree with James that at least some aspects of yoof reactions towards politics are driven by the tiresome, turgid, preachy condescending attitudes of more than a few of the public faces of the left-leaning arts, academic and political intelligentsia. The neocons are much better at pretending to be “aw shucks” humble, ordinary down-home folks. Not cool, but not wankers either. That’s where Costello misses out. he hasn’t mastered the humility/ordinariness act. If he learnt to fake that, he’d be a winner.

  15. Jason Soon says:

    Libertarianism is cool. Conservatism ain’t. BTW Michelle Malkin is close to being a paleo. Her works are syndicated on the Vdare site (named after the first white baby born in the US) which is a serial Hispanic-Arab basher. She’s one of those ‘let me in but close the gates after that’ immigrants. And a young fogey to boot

  16. Ken Parish says:

    Then again, although I agree with Sophie on a superficial level, on a deeper one I disagree radically. The apparent “preachiness” of much political debate from a social democratic direction is mostly a matter of rhetoric and form rather than substance. Social democrats (and liberal democrats as opposed to conservatives) by and large favour choice, diversity, tolerance and acceptance. They DON’T prescriptively preach in the sense of trying to impose their values on others (although one can think of exceptions to that general proposition, in that there IS a marked intolerance of conservative opinion in parts of the arts and academic establishment).

    By contrast, the conservatives have mastered the rhetoric by framing the lefties as “preachy” etc (i.e. the rhetorical trick James and Sophie just pulled) while simultaneously pursuing policies that ARE prescriptive and preachy in a substantive sense. That is, they DO want to tell you what you can and can’t do in your private life and public choices. They DO want to impose their own religious and cultural values on everyone else, in everything from abortion to sexuality, marriage, what you see and read, and so on. The straighteners and punishers are audaciously attaching the straightener and punisher label to the forces of tolerance, acceptance and freedom. The latter don’t seem to know what to do to combat such radically dishonest rhetoric, and the cool, disengaged crowd neither know nor care enough to realise that it’s a classic three card trick.

    Too many of them think it’s all smoke and mirrors, and that there really isn’t any meaningful practical difference between various political ideological positions. Moreover, arguably they’re right to the extent that the current Labo[u]r Party in both Australia and Britain isn’t markedly less conservative than the Tories. Maybe it IS all smoke and mirrors, and we should just laugh at South Park, and toss a coin and cross our fingers come election time.

  17. Rex says:

    “The straighteners and punishers are audaciously attaching the straightener and punisher label to the forces of tolerance, acceptance and freedom.”

    A stunning and brilliantly accurate sentence Ken, and well spotted also the use of the word ‘preachy’. This stuff is so good it just slips under your guard if you’re not careful. I missed that one!

  18. James Hamilton says:

    “Think about how the conservative media and the Liberal Party have used the word ‘elite’ over the years. Did this term ever apply to Hugh Morgan, or Kerry Packer or Rene Rivkin? No. It applied to a specific variety of urban, university educated people, often academics. It is cleverly designed to denote a haughty disconnectedness from the the middle ground. But it never included the actual ‘power elite’. They somehow were exempt.”

    I don’t deny most of that, Rex. We are all media addicts; it is the disproportiante voice of the media that I’m talking about. The power elite is what it has always been but somehow they learned not to give us the shits like the culture elites do, or more likely by being diverted by the obnoxiousness of culture elites, the power elites are enjoying a period of relatively reduced unpopularity?

    I can take on board everything thing that is being said here but it does not get away from the fact that obnoxious people are in the media spotlight expressing views and attitudes that are being tarnished by the obnoxiousness of the messengers. Honestly, if you can’t sell to the greater public the idea that Australia should have its own head of state or that we should not vote for PMs and a President who went to war against the wishes of the majority – well you’re pretty shit useless aren’t you? Something is really wrong.

  19. Geoff Honnor says:

    I think Andrew Sullivan coined the phrase “South Park Republican” but the redneck chic that Don refers to in conjunction with a link to Sullivan is probably more indicative of the gay subculture (bears) that Sullivan belongs to – hairy, bearded big guys, who chomp on cigars ‘n stuff – than it is of a mainstream phenomenon.

    I think part of the “South Park” appeal is that it takes the piss out of the prevalent goody-twoshoes niceness norm. It’s transgressive in that respect but nearly as much as “Little Britain” which is jeeringly derisive of many social shibboleths from “differently-abled folk are invariably courageous and charming” to “gay people are invariably tasteful” to “Transvestism is not an appropriate subject for mockery.” “Little Britain” is thought to be screamingly funny by most poofs of my acquaintance, including those who claimed to find John Laws comments about Carson Kressley of Queer Eye deeply offensive, ( albeit, “pansy billow-biter” was a thoroughly apt description of him I thought). The savage rendering of Dafydd – “the only gay in the village” – (fat, ugly, unattractively effeminate, misogynist, derisively common, quivering mass of internalised homophobia, etc) makes Laws’ take on Cressley look positively benign. It’s strange….because Cressley is far more deserving of a serve than Dafydd, in my view

    Both these shows kind of transcend politics and, in fact, neither bothers making even vaguely overt political statements. I suspect that part of their “cool” cachet is the hand over the mouth “did they really say that?” shock value they generate amongst those raised to believe in the conventional wisdom that “satire” is always just about taking the piss out of conservatism and that you never make fun of cripples -or Delta Goodrem’s shameless exploitation of her cancer scare. Our own “Spin Starts Here” kind of redefined blog cool by pointing out that you actually can do just that.

    So, far from being a nation of dumbed-down, passive couch potatos awash in a sea of marketing-driven banality, we may be developing even more acute and astute pisstaking skills that allow us to see through the crap with blinding clarity. Just hold the politics. It’s not cool.

  20. sophie says:

    As a lawyer, Ken, I’m sure you can always ‘pull’ much better ‘rhetorical tricks’ than me–as you’ve just proven, in a stunning reversal of your earlier comment.

  21. mark says:

    James, if the current apparent “coolness” of right-wing philosophy is *not* the result of the careful, well-funded campaign of right-wing think tanks and the like over the past 40 years… then what, precisely, have the think tanks been doing?

    “Oh, they were *trying* to do it, but it never worked out. Really any Conservative gains are the result of our youth spontaneously realising that lefties suck.”

  22. Ken Parish says:


    I didn’t mean to imply that the inherent dishonesty of the rhetorical application of the “preachy” label to those whose political philosophy involves the opposite of preaching (i.e. tolerance of diversity and choice) meant that either you or James were guilty of any form of dishonesty or hypocrisy. The dishonesty is that of conservative politicians whose policies involve prescriptive legal imposition of contestable moral values on others, who audaciously label their liberal opponents as “preaching”. You’re not a conservative politician, and AFAIK you’re not trying to impose your own moral values on others.

    As I said, I agree with the distinction you make between the political sphere and the arts industry and academia. The left-leaning arts and humanities academia establishment are indeed markedly preachy, prescriptive and intolerant of dissent and diversity where it doesn’t coincide with their own world view. So I don’t think I was pulling a rhetorical trick in any sense, just failing to make myself clear. I apologise if any offence was taken.

  23. sophie says:

    Apology accepted, Ken. Thanks for clearing that up. I didn’t mean to be thinskinned, but
    I guess what I was saying in my earlier comment does tie in with what you’re saying, though–on both a deeper and surface level, which is why I was confused by your later statement. The govt can only present itself as an underdog/rebel to the majority of the Australian population because of the prescriptive, counter-productive preaching of those in the culture Establishment who think they know best all the time, and who do not take the trouble to even get to know the people they are living amongst and attempting to reach. Being in the arts, I see it all the time. It is really, really tedious.

  24. Excellent post, Don.

    Maybe it’s only the preachy commentators from the soft-left who get space in big media – ie Philip Adams, Clive Hamilton, etc. Let’s not forget that the minority of non-conservative op/ed writers in the papers don’t spring up like mushrooms but are also there to fit in with editorial policy and marketing decisions. It might be the view (certainly borne out in the US by the screaming match tv shows where some strawperson Liberal rants at a Conservative) that dogmatic and judgemental “left” commentators are the best foil for the righties – producing the argy-bargy that’s held to sell papers, and incidentally allowing the Andrew Bolts and Janet Albrechtsens of the world to have a target for their fulminations.

    As to pop culture, most of it is indeed just entertainment. What the conservative right screams about in the culture wars is responsive to the market. Nobody wants to see Greg Sheridan’s movie about a property developer or watch a tv show about well disciplined kids whose parents take them to church and on wholesome family picnics. Shows like the L Word, Coupling, The O.C., etc. are cool – but have about zero political content. They’re going to feature gay or lesbian characters and disastrous relationships and divorce and scandal and sex – because it’s interesting viewing, and drives the plot along. If there’s any political message in cool tv at all, it’s probably a soft libertarianism. The culture warriors only get excited about it because it gives them a convenient platform for conspicuous indignation and to get their preachy values accross – you must live like us.

    Pop culture is not left wing. The irony is that the cult-studies people in arts faculties probably reinforce the right-wing stereotype as they whistle in the wind about consumption being the new politics.

    On the report Sophie refers to about environmentalism, it was done by the Australia Institute. The method and the interpretation of the stats are both rubbish:

  25. The other point I’d like to make is that the myth that every sixties teenager was politically engaged and/or rebellious is just that. Certainly it was a period where activism was very prominent, and mores of deference began to break down. And it has led to a legacy of changing social attitudes – usually in a libertarian direction (the non-traditional family structures, reproductive rights, feminism, all the things that are the betes-noire of the culture warriors). But much of this was just a crystallisation of longer term economic and social trends. It certainly is minimally attributable to some sort of 60s insurrection against “values”. And it’s worth remembering that in the late 60s and early 70s at Queensland Uni at the height of the Vietnam War controversies, lots of guys still wore ties to uni and Liberals controlled the Student Union. Similarly, when I was at Uni in the late 80s, Alex Keatonesque “greed is good” poses were very much in style. Every generation has its conservative kids.

    The phenomenon of Hillsong, Christian rock, etc. doesn’t prove anything about conservatism in youth per se. It’s still a minority of young people who are religiously engaged – it’s just that they’re opting for a different style of worship and one with different theological positions than the minority of young people who were religiously devout in the 60s or 70s were. It says more about changes in religion than about any difference in the appeal of conservatism and stability to different generations.

    I’d be interested in seeing some hard longitudinal data about political attitudes and young people. I suspect it wouldn’t show too much change. Again, the decline in voting support for the ALP among young people reflects broader factors. I doubt that a majority of young people voted for the Labor Party in the 50s or 60s.

  26. James Hamilton says:

    Mark I have no idea what the RW think tanks were doing. Not a member of any of them. I should say that I am not Generation Y or whatever they are called now, I am Generation X by the skin of my teeth and only when the sea breeze is in. So I’m guessing too.

    My position is already over simplified to the gills with out you taking it a step further by calling it “all lefties suck” – did not mean to create that impression.

    I need to make a clarification very similar to Ken’s above. I am talking about a particular type of lefty. Furthermore Ken in my view is perhaps focussing on a particular pew in a broad church (just as I have done too, David Marr is not everybody who votes Labor). The conservatives he describes exist and they may be growing in influence definitely growing in profile. I am not so sure that this particular group is the group lobbing stones at the luvvies. They are more focussed in getting into the corridors of the power elites. It’s my group that is doing the luvvie bashing or squawking about cultural elites and what happened on Media Watch this week and I am not a christian conservative.

  27. James Hamilton says:

    “Being in the arts, I see it all the time. It is really, really tedious.”

    Very very ditto.

  28. James, I take your point and I wasn’t intending to comment just on your contribution but more my sense of the discussion as a whole.

  29. James Hamilton says:

    “The culture warriors only get excited about it because it gives them a convenient platform for conspicuous indignation and to get their preachy values accross – you must live like us.”

    I am a cultural warrior and I give you permission to live exactly how you want. Print this out and keep it in your wallet. When the revolution comes and my fellow warriors are marching though the sociology departments of Australia it may come in handy if they are getting a little conspicuous in their indignation.

    All I ask in return is you don’t write screenplays depicting people who vote like me as warmongering racist homophobes who are plain thick. Is it really too much to ask? Honestly if you stop doing that, the division evaporates. War is over, if you want it.

  30. James Hamilton says:

    No, my apologies, Mark B. I should have been clearer on my Marks. I was responding to Mark’s question. Your two posts appeared in the limbo period while I was doing my job and writing my response.

    I did not find your comments at all confronting.

  31. Rob says:

    Cool is one of those concepts that seems to evade description. Like jokes, it is inherently subversive, and like jokes it evades analysis. You can try to explain ‘why’ a joke is funny, but that kills it: it stops being funny, you’ve somehow missed the point. Same with cool.

    It was probably inevitable that the young would get tired of being preached at, and found some space to rebel. Whether that segues (vile American term!) into real conservatism I’d be disposed to doubt, though. That’s the problem with political correctness. People who ‘rebel’ against it are not embracing sexism, racism or homophobia: it’s more that they’re tired of being told they not allowed to be what they had no intention of being anyway. It’s not the ‘message’ that gets people’s backs up: it’s the preaching itself.

    Mark, I’m sure your description of activism among sixties teenagers is intellectually correct – ‘much of this was just a crystallisation of longer term economic and social trends’ – but as a (very young) teenager at the time, I can tell you it didn’t *feel* like that. It felt like the gates of the world had opened and we were pouring through it in a flood. Like cool and jokes, you had to be there.

    Great article, Don. I’ll need to read it again a couple of times when I get back from work.

  32. As soon as something is labelled ‘cool’, it immediately become ‘uncool’ – Fact.

  33. Thanks, James, and nor am I planning on a career change into screenwriting, so you can rest easy on that score.

  34. jen says:

    ahhhh, so now it is all smoke and mirrors! My, my, how things change! I seem to remember one evening.

    Yes, it was you, lying back smug and boxy on the Jason recliner, lapping up Media Watch and telling me I am wrong about the shifting nature of all information and the futility of developing any kind of world view too far outside immediate and direct experience.

    I do believe I remember the indulgent tone,
    ‘So Jen it’s all smoke and the mirrors is it?’

    And then I did the mad dance and you watched and held your line.
    Parry ‘You CAN know. (puffs himself up a bit)It’s USEFUL to know where information/opinions originate.’
    Me (almost in spasm) ‘What?!!. How can you know? You can’t!

    rising hysteria leaves me and the argument exhausted. The futility of the bleedin bloody obvious, how can you know a source is reliable? Is there even a need to know, if the view suits you and if your personal/moral code is steady. ie ‘can I live with this?’

    existential, Socratic, blah, blah, blah

    You, Parish, convinced me of two things that evening,
    1. You are a boxhead
    and 2. You DO think you can know things and therefore take a coherent and consistent position.

    And now you’re saying it’s all SMOKE AND MIRRORS!!!

    Or are you trying to humour me?

    Or are you talking about holding two or more contradictory ideas, simultaneously? Isn’t that what really gets up the noses of the establishment?
    (Smug imaginary voice I’ve heard a billion times)
    ‘Uh Uh yuo are wrong. You just contradicted yourself’
    (big sarcastic answer)

    ….Back to the Jason recliner
    Parish (very boxy voice)
    ‘Yes. It is partly that. (gulps air) And I think the greater part.(gulps again) May be that I’m learning to play’
    Jen (chaos saint)
    ‘Oh really! Parry! Playing is it? You fairdinkum are a total BOXHEAD. Worse than my Dad.

  35. Rob, I know what you mean. I felt the same about the early 90s though nobody believes me that it was an interesting period at uni – except people I went to uni with.

    The other thing about cool, on your and Russell’s point is that the cycle has speeded up. Not unrelated to clothing and music brands sending undercover agents into ghettoes and clubs to work out what was cool so they could immediately niche or mass market it.

    What was that book by William Gibson on that topic? Is William Gibson still cool?

  36. By the way, I’ve found the perfect exemplars of the Howard cool generation – vapid yoof who work in or study marketing and hang out in cocktail bars:

    Weep for noughties Brisvegas! Generation of swine!

  37. Rob says:

    Russell, it works the other way too. During Hake’s second term (I think) he launched one of those very expensive and ultimately futile ‘wars on drugs’. His message was ‘drugs aren’t cool’. Sting was touring Oz at the time and thought this was a bad idea. It’s really not cool to take drugs, he said, but when the *Prime Minister* says it’s not cool to take drugs, suddenly… it’s cool to take drugs.

  38. Nic White says:

    “Cargo pants and grunge bands like Mudhoney are hopelessly ’90s.”

    Oh dear. Cargo pants make up 90% of my wardrobe.

  39. Zoe says:

    Hey Nic

    Get some shirts.

  40. Very 99 in fact. Not that I’m a frivolous metrosexual follower of fashion, of course.

  41. In global terms, Australia, is a very uncool place. Most trends found here start abroad, whereas the trends abroad are come from youth and counterculture.

    Most Australian twentysomethings (men) seem to be identical clones, with the same random-patterned t-shirt, tsubi jeans, puma trainers and duck’s arse hairstyle. Where’s the cool in that? Everyone’s too white-bread. Everyone looking the same, following the same trend, doing the same thing. There really has to be more urban decay for cool to truly evolve here.

  42. James Farrell says:

    A very enjoyable post, Don. A couple of extra thoughts occured to me while reading it.

    I think the essence of cool is, as the word suggests, being implacable. Like the Scarlet Pimpernell or Fonzie. But to be implacable you need to be in control, not just of your reactions but of your circumstances generally; in short, to be free. This entails a few things. First, you have to be materially self-reliant, which in turn means you have to be really good at something and in demand. Second, you can’t let anything bug you too much, including other people’s attitudes and expectations. This is why cool people are libertarians on social questions. Third, as Don says, you have to be unhindered by authority, which implies being a bit of a rebel (but not too much, because that would suggest you’re in the grip of zealotry and cool people are not in the grip of anything).

    Both left and right cool libertarians defy the predations and unreasonable impositions of the state. But when it comes to corporate power they part company. The cool left saw corporate power and state power as inseparably bound up. Their alternative was altruistic ideology, the solidarity of the little people. By contrast, the cool right, raised in an era of more sophisticated media manipulation, have succumbed to twenty years of corporate propaganda telling them that big corporations are their champions, standing up to governments, giving them what they want. Big corporations were always powerful and unbound by convention, and now that they’ve sold themselves as rebellious, which makes them cool. Thomas Frank got this dead right in One Market Under God.

    So whatever the big corporations stand for is cool, too, and they feed their particular notions of freedom to the cool right. Whereas the cool left enjoyed freedom from prejudice, distrust and greed, the cool right revel in being wise to the whingers, do-gooders and other parasites who want to sucker them out of their hard-earned money.

  43. As an aside, w/r/t Rob’s mention of Sting. I find it unfair that Sting has that name since he is the most un-sting-like person in music.

  44. Or James, as the sociologist Erving Goffman put it in the 50s, for the cool everyone’s a potential mark.

  45. Ken Parish says:

    If anyone is wondering why Don doesn’t participate in comment box discussion on his own Troppo posts, I gather it’s because he gets an error message on his old Apple Mac when he tries to open the comment facility (as opposed to just reading the comments, which apparently he can do).

    I’m wondering whether any other Mac users have experienced the same problem, and if anyone knows how it can be remedied (without junking the archaic, crap MT system that drives this blog, for which I’m dependent on Scott’s good offices). For example, is there a Mac browser that works OK and allows the Troppo comment facility to be accessed and comments actually posted? It’s a serious shame that Don can’t participate in the discussion on his own post, especially when it’s such an outstanding one where there’s so much to say.

  46. Safari works well on the Mac but you have to click on the time stamp and not the comments link.

  47. James Farrell says:

    ‘…it’s because he gets an error message on his old Apple Mac.’

    And we thought it was because he was too cool.

    In any case, Don, until such time as your technical difficulties are resolved, if you’re desperate to comment, you should consider emailing your comments to someone – I’m happy to do it, but I’m sure any of your other fans would be as well – to post on your behalf.

  48. Nabakov says:

    “the cool right revel in being wise to the whingers, do-gooders and other parasites who want to sucker them out of their hard-earned money.”

    Yes, they have corporations for that. I think you have a wonderful career ahead of you James in marketing if you should so choose. But hopefully the force is strong in you.

    The more some pundits bang on about “conservatism being cool”, the more it sounds like they’re to convince themselves more than anyone else.

    And if it’s about each generation rebelling against the attitudes of the previous one, I’d point out that the ranks of conservative pundits are littered with folks saying sure they were rebels against prevailing orthodoxies when they were young but now they’ve seen the light and put childish things away. So what does that say about the future of “South Park Republicans”?

    This whole debate, which would seem quite ludicrious to anyone who is genunely “cool”, is predicated on the assumption there’s some kinda pendulum swinging between left and right.

    But as Geoff pointed out, we ‘re developing a pretty acute nose for bullshit of all kinds and current generations are becoming extremely media-literate and market-savvy as they navigate through the biggest explosion of consumer culture and information access the world has ever seen.

    On top of this there is the argument advanced by Steven Johnson in ‘Everything Bad is Good For You” that TV and computer games are actually developing people’s comprehension skills and providing “cognative workouts” in ways that haven’t been properly studied yet.

    So I’d suggest that what is going on in pop culture is not a change in ideological attitudes along some left-right polarity but an evolution in perception and comprehension of the world. And especially of pollies and pundits of all persuasions try to spin what’s cool and why for their own ideological arguments.

  49. Nic White says:

    lol Zoe. 90% of the pants in my wardrobe that should be.

  50. David Tiley says:

    I will believe that conservatives are cool when John Howard turns up on merchandise.

    Lunch box anyone?

    Pastel coloured tee shirt?

    and (gulp) an action figure?

    ps – error message when you click first time. Then – think like a rat! do it again. On safari, it comes up properly. Fortunately, this is my approach to all diagnostics.

  51. James Hamilton says:

    I have just had an email from a friend who picked up somewhere that sales of the Akubra model, The Pastoralist are declining and retailers are blaming John Howard who wears this particular model in public frequently.

    My own view is that declining sales in The Pastoralist are more an indication of a more “working farmer” vibe that is happening in clothing rather than the “gentleman farmer” vibe that The Pastoralist fits.

    Be that as it may declining sales of The Pastoralist hardly fits in to the John Howard is cool theory we have here. David Tiley’s scepticism is very well placed and apropos.

    I am feeling whimsical enough to suggest that David’s observation and this piece of fascinating hat trivia I have shared with you all would indicate that there is not a mass embracing of the right as cool but a mass exodus from soft left causes now distinctly uncool. My hero alas, remains as uncool as ever.

    We have to do an detailed unpicking of Wallaby tracksuit sales figures to know for sure if David and I are on to something.

  52. James Farrell says:

    Thanks, Jim. It’s always nice to get it straight from the horse’s mouth!

  53. Nabakov says:

    “My own view is that declining sales in The Pastoralist are more an indication of a more “working farmer” vibe that is happening in clothing rather than the “gentleman farmer” vibe that The Pastoralist fits.”

    “would indicate that there is … a mass exodus from soft left causes now distinctly uncool”

    I can safely say Jim H that your future doesn’t lie in marketing. Not even a Nokia account executive on ekkies and Bolivian marching powder at the Mink Bar would embrace such a causal stretch.

  54. Ken, Fine for me. OSX/Firefox.

  55. James Hamilton says:

    Well it’s true it’s a fine line between me being whimsical and a creative snorting goey… but I always fancied myself in marketing and I am deeply hurt to see that dream crushed.

  56. Nabakov says:

    Never mind Jim. There’s always advertising. Or working on a live sheep ship.

  57. meika says:

    mac 10.3.9 safari and (for gawds sake get ) firefox are fine
    (as were 10.0 onwards)

    and I wear an Akubra “Bogart” for formal wear, and an Akubra “Squatter Featherweight” for work in the vineyard

    I enjoyed this thoroughly, except I found that I agree with Ken, too much, this cannot be cool, for I imagine he wears a cardigan even though he live in far to the north of me (top temp at Cascades in Hobart was 4 degrees at 3pm!!)

    Now thats cool!

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