This was written a few months back, the week after Justin Trudeau met with Trump and 'defied' him with a handshake, or something. I wrote it for a certain publication, but they didn't get round to using it for whatever reason, so I thought I'd post it here as it has a few potentially useful ideas in it given we're thinking about the 'militant centre' this week.
Earlier this week I was killing time on Twitter between more useful and rewarding tasks. It was the day of the meeting between Donald Trump and the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, an event much of the English-speaking media chose to portray as an encounter of incontrovertible opposites. The likes of the Guardian and the New York Times have spent no little energy over the last few months casting Trudeau as Continuity Obama, a youngish, copiously photogenic politician who no doubt possesses a This Is What A Feminist Looks Like t-shirt and all the important HBO box sets. For many, he’s been the sticking plaster on post-Barack, post-Brexit, melancholia, so it was no surprise when I found myself watching social media light up with images of the mooted saviour of bruised latter-day liberalism facing down Trump as the latter attempted his signature, pecking-order-asserting handshake. Instantaneously, Trudeau was declared to have struck a crucial, tide-turning blow for his cause by refusing to allow the man his fans regard as his natural nemesis get one over him.
A liberal penchant for perceiving isolated, largely trivial events as decisive political watersheds, and for miscasting the mediocre and cynical – Trudeau’s attic surely contains a parched, withered portrait of Tony Blair – into noble moral cavaliers is increasingly obvious. Whether it’s in the shape of responses to Trump-‘eviscerating’ TV anchors like Trevor Noah and Jon Stewart, or to those fighting, in their own peculiar and passive-aggressive ways, for the maintenance of Blair- or Obama-era norms, there’s no scarcity of willingness to make a fetish of the deeply average. Nick Clegg and Tim Farron have been transformed into anti-Brexit partisans, David Miliband is stylised as a New Labour Aragorn biding his time in Transatlantic exile, and Hillary Clinton continues to be represented as Joan of Arc-cum-Boadicea-cum-Daenerys. In every case, there’s a narrative which looks to confect messianic significance from the merely gestural.
Such stories about politics belie a mistaken faith in reality’s amenability to cinematic punctuality. In the kinds of films which give liberal metaphor its vehicles in these pernicious times, no events are allowed to wilt out of significance, nothing can be superfluous. Where life scuds with detritus, modern Hollywood places any given event upon a solitary axis reaching between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Undoubtedly, it frequently works between those poles: all modern superheroes must be compromised, grittified, suspended in grey edginess for their authenticity’s sake. But everything must also mean, must have a point, must occur at precisely the right moment to be recuperated into an emphatic structure of cause and consequence. What follows, if you’re using this as a lens through which to make sense of political reality, is that the merest utterance by HRC, or Trudeau, or some specious nonentity like Farron, gets imbued with the frisson of urgency.
Interpreting the news as if it were a film is to read the world wishfully according to what the problematic, but addictive, and frequently useful, pop culture wiki TV Tropes calls ‘The Rule of Cool’. TVT defines this law as the one governing the inclusion of the more bombastic or spectacular aspects of works of fiction, those scenes or actions which find their way into films or novels or TV shows for no reason other than that they are striking. To take an example, it’s unlikely that a real-life James Bond would need to ski-jump from a mountain in order to complete his mission, but it’s impressive on camera, and so the writers find a way of making such a ski-jump necessary to the plot. Consequently, (popular) culture is full of inane lights and tinsel which don’t really stand up to intellectual scrutiny, but feel important thanks to their sheer explosive chutzpah. As this is normalised, culture becomes a splurge of napalm, spaceships, Batcaves, uplifting speeches, ghostly buccaneers, stunty audacity, Marlboro-voiced rebels in fedoras and trenchcoats machine-gunning from both hands; subsequently, we start to look for two-dimensional cool everywhere. Then we stop asking what ‘cool’ even is, and then we enter ‘Jedi’ on the ‘religion’ section of the census, or get excited about Speak Like A Pirate Day.
Plenty has been written, not least academically, about the commodification of cool, especially the racialised aspects of that commodification, since the 1950s and Norman Mailer’s invention of the white hipster. By contrast, little has been said about the palliation of the notion so that it becomes interchangeable with a generic impressiveness. Perhaps we can peek back at the nineties if we’re looking for a decade which can bear the responsibility of forcing upon us this ideology of context-free coolness, or ‘coolness’. The era gave us Quentin Tarantino’s improbably sharp-suited murderers and their Royales with cheese, the totally unnecessary resuscitation of Star Wars, the beginnings –in games like Doom – of a thirst for guiltless ultraviolence that would lead to the sprawling, networked killing zones of Call of Duty and its analogues. In an almost demonstratively apolitical decade, it was pretty much encouraged to elide the impressive with the interesting, the correct and the valuable. This has morphed more recently into a general nerdification of culture, by which every second release at the cinema is another superhero movie, by which the completely Rule-of-Cool-dictated Sherlock and Doctor Who are contemporary Britain’s most cherished, and most gratingly thoughtless and infantile, television shows, by which politicians are constantly reimagined as Spiderman or Voldemort.
Pointedly, the Rule of Cool also played no small part in the composition of a fundamental aspect of Donald Trump’s ideological coalition. Call them the alt-right, MRAs, or whatever, the newly prominent nerd-Nazis seemed to be galvanised into their allegiance with Trump by the threat supposedly posed to their consequence-free safe spaces by political content. Gamergate was an outbreak of wailing misogyny without any doubt, but it was also driven by a connected anxiety about how games operating in a zone of supposedly ‘unpolitical’ cool might be held up to political scrutiny. Politics was therefore experienced as an illegitimate intrusion on dank bedroom escapism, as it was on the world of bro comedy – ‘it’s funny, so it can’t be political!’ – when Ghostbusters got remade with an all-female cast. Looking at the online self-presentation of the alt-right – wan boys in fedoras threatening to cut their foe down, Sherlock-style, with dizzying ‘facts and logic’ – the imprint of the Rule is absolutely clear.
The culty satirical Twitter account Simon Hedges, which parodies the tropes of Blairite journalism, recently hit the nail on the head of this weird link between notionally opposed political tribes when its Partridgesque protagonist described ‘geeking out’ with the new right’s shit-stirrer du jour Milo Yiannopolous ‘over our favourite comics and video games’. Without wanting to over-explain a pretty good joke, the point is that some fundamental aspects of contemporary politics are dominated by a conflict between two groups who define themselves through their opposition to cultural seriousness and believe that the ‘cool’ should just be left to do what it wants. A difference perhaps lies in the fact that liberals see in this version of cool a mirage of how things can be brought back to a state they regard as ‘normal’, whereas the alt-right are willing to go to any length to insist that this cool stays separate from politics. The former group are made passive by their reliance on heroic intervention; the latter are activated, made militant, in defence of consequence-free alt-realities. In either case, though, there’s a wilful self-infantilisation involved: either you’re insisting that the good guys will Gandalf onto the scene and sort everything out, or that playtime should extend indefinitely so long as you find it fun. At such a historical juncture, then, it makes sense, if you’re looking for some meaningful alternative beyond this compromised opposition, which looks increasingly like a narcissism of small differences, to stop accepting the Rule of Cool and to admit that it’s a form of bad faith, an escapism that can no longer be afforded.