The Great God Fun and His Consort, Cool

Mar 1, 2024 | Uncategorized

Arriving in the U.S. in 1970, a missionary kid coming “home,” I missed the Sixties completely. But I had a front-row seat for the sequel, the Seventies. Plunged into sudden immersion in an alien culture, I witnessed firsthand the colonization, commodification, and commercialization of Cool. The cult of Cool, however, was only the latest incarnation of a culture-wide devotion to the Great God Fun – and we have now come to a crossroads where our addiction to distraction could prove our undoing.

“Cool” is a Conspiracy!

If you want to be cool, you’re disqualified. True cool can only be achieved by not even trying. Like the Tao that cannot be named, the particle that is also a wave, or the vivid colors of a rainbow, try to capture it in a specimen jar and it’s gone.

But “Cool,” as manufactured, labeled and marketed in the U.S.A., is just a new and improved American Dream: that old delusion that Americans are better than other folks. The American Dream, in turn, was just an update of Manifest Destiny, the delusion that white skin is superior to those other colors. “Cool” is the delusion that people who [fill in blank with latest fad] are better than the rest – God’s newest Chosen People.

Ironically, what’s new and trendy among whites, and therefore the hottest of the Cool, is usually something Black people have invented and passed around and polished and perfected and are already leaving behind when the coolest of the white folks begin to catch on.

“Cool” is all about the universal human need to feel included. It’s an ideal marketing tool, because as soon as mass culture latches on to hula hoops or Humvees, they cease to be Cool. As sales of one Cool thing drop off, the fashion masters simply inform the masses what the next Cool thing will be, and the cash registers never stop ringing. These days, corporations actually hire Cool teenagers to keep them abreast of where their prize demographic is headed.

As a teenage outcast amid the adolescent cliques of suburbia, I experienced enough exclusion to last a lifetime. To this day when I see anyone excluded from the “in-group” for any reason, I identify. Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you have done unto me.” Socialist Eugene Debs said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” To me, these are examples of true cool.

A third example I admire is the Rainbow Gatherings and their vision of a non-exclusive tribe that anyone can join. The Gatherings grew out of the subculture that accidentally invented Cool by not even trying: the Sixties “counterculture.” When the merchandisers and advertisers caught on and started counterfeiting Cool, these visionaries headed for the woods and created an annual weeklong summer Home for society’s outcasts, where it costs nothing to belong and all are welcome. Though some will always show up thinking it’s the Cool place to be, 50 years later it’s still a refuge for the truly cool.

“Fun” is a False God!

The roots of counterculture go back to the Lost Generation of the 1920s, which burst free of the Victorian moral straitjacket in reaction to the horrors of World War I. Its hallmark was a liberating, self-destructive hedonism – Fun. Fun had always been around, subverting conventional morality, but in a new era when science, technology, war and revolution were busily tearing down the old structures of meaning, musicians, artists and writers were busy building new structures made of meaningless beauty. Unconsciously searching for new spiritual truths to replace the old, as a starting point they chose the honest pleasures of Fun.

Of course the flappers and speakeasies and wild parties of the Roaring Twenties all vibrated to the revolutionary new sound of African American jazz, giving the era its other name: the Jazz Age.

After World War II, a similar reaction spawned the Beats, a tiny group of outcasts who inspired one of the first mass-media feeding frenzies back in the Fifties. They too specialized in uninhibited partying, and their music, art and literature were even more obsessed with sex, alcohol, and something called “marihuana” they got hip to in the jazz clubs of the ghettos. Their musical idols played a wilder and more improvisational brand of jazz called Bebop.

But the Beats were more consciously spiritual in their rebellion, exploring Buddhism, mystical Christianity, even shamanism in a quest for something deeper than Fun. They could see that the postwar economic boom was creating a newly affluent middle class, but beyond a lifestyle rich in material “goods” they saw nothing of real substance.

As portrayed in the media, of course, they helped to sell a lot of beer. But by then, thanks to Elvis and the colonization of rhythm & blues, a.k.a. “race music,” the media were hot on the trail of Cool.

Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Anti-War Rallies

Then came the Sixties. The Baby Boomers had grown up on a steady diet of Fun – hot rods, surfboards, rock ‘n’ roll and TV. But when they rebelled against the moral straitjacket of their own time, responding to yet another meaningless war, instead of retreating into alcoholism and alienation they took to the streets. For the first time, the Boomers gave youthful rebellion a moral foundation.

Like the Beats, the Boomers’ rebellion also had both a spiritual and a hedonistic side, which eventually split them in two. Some, following Ram Dass to India, graduated from LSD to yoga and meditation and New Age spirituality. Others, following Tim Leary’s lead, graduated to an ever-expanding pantheon of mind-and-body-altering substances, and the drug culture was born.

Of course it was the drug culture that got all the publicity, all gloriously bad. Only much later did the media decided that yoga and meditation were the next trendy thing. But thanks to its underground reputation as dangerously Cool, the more bad press the drug culture received, the more it set the compass for all of society.

Trained from birth to expect Fun as their natural due, the Boomers and the generations that followed couldn’t resist following Cool wherever it led. And where America’s advertisers wanted to lead us was into a magical land where nothing matters but Fun.

They have largely succeeded. Though protest movements still pop up from time to time to oppose the latest meaningless war, racist policing, ecological destruction, the One Percent and other offenses against morality, mainstream America remains hopelessly addicted to material “goods.” Fun is the modern “opiate of the people.”

To millions, celebrity entertainers are more real than the neighbors next door. TV channels multiply like invasive weeds, and far more Americans tune in to fictional fantasies than to the news. Too many are mesmerized by shiny high-tech toys and blind to the mining, logging, drilling and burning of fossil fuels it takes to mass-produce them. Sports, movies, and video games overshadow the rising fury of climate change and the reckless reboot of the nuclear arms race. And the global economy would probably tank without the sale of alcohol.

The Return of True Cool

Fun isn’t evil, as the Puritans of colonial America, the 19th-century Victorians, and today’s Christian Right would preach. Celebration is an integral part of any living, breathing human culture. Esthetic enjoyment is the foundation of art. Mixing work with play is the key to psychological health.

But as a national ideology – a surrogate theology – Fun can eclipse the responsibility we owe as adults and citizens to the Earth and our children. By definition, an adult knows how to keep Fun in balance with other priorities. At times of disaster or emergency, Fun may even have to wait its turn until all manner of unpleasant but necessary tasks are done.

To pick a random example, the unpleasant but necessary task of wading into the political fray to defeat Donald Trump. It’s going to take grit and commitment to rescue our democracy, such as it is, from those who would disenfranchise everyone who doesn’t belong to their white, Christian in-group. “Make America Great Again” is only the latest coded catch-phrase for Manifest Destiny.

The future of human civilization quite literally depends on turning around our century-long assault on the Earth’s benign, nurturing climate. Trump has pledged not only to cancel the rule of democracy in the U.S.A., but to scuttle Joe Biden’s timid attempts to stand up to Big Oil and Gas.

This election year we face not just a choice between two drastically different futures, but a choice between two different versions of ourselves. Will we cling to an infantile obsession with Fun, as the ads that constantly pop up everywhere insist? Or will we shake off our cultural conditioning and step into our responsibility as adults to put the needs of the children first? Will we put away our trendy toys and take on the challenge of true cool?

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  1. Maletia Ward

    I really ENJOYED reading this! Thank YOU Wing!

    • Judy Colllins

      Thanks much, Wing for the truly cool piece.
      Congratulations on Washed in the Hurricane!
      Did you hear/see the song/video, “Life on Earth, So Amazing. . . .”(Handel with Jeff Vogel’s revised words)
      We hope to be hearing/ seeing you soon!


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