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The Tao of The Fonz

The importance of being cool.

by James Leroy Wilson
July 11, 2001

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The Tao of The Fonz_James Leroy Wilson-The importance of being cool. One notable development of the English language in the past few decades is the expanded usage and meaning of "cool." It is a positive development because it cuts down on syllables and checks the tendency to use superlatives. "Cool" suggests objectivity, rejecting emotionalism.

"He was cool to it" means he was ambivalent at best; "He was cool with it" meant he assented. That is often sufficient. "He dismissed it," "he thought it was dreadful," or "he hated it" all may come across as exaggerating the person's true feelings and intent. So would "He agreed," "He thought it was great," or "He loved it!" Instead, just thumbs up, thumbs down, like the Fonz.

I think there are positive connotations with the word because it brings a comfortable feeling in an atmosphere that is all too warm. There are never cool breezes on a cold day; those are chilly breezes. A cool breeze comes on a hot day. You want the warm pop to cool, not to freeze. You want people with hot tempers to cool off.

And at a party, you want the dull, superficial warmth of politeness to be, not destroyed, but transcended, by a cool person. Cool people, by their presence, make the place exciting and fun. Cool people are those you'd like to be with and be like. Cool people bring a certain joy and levity, yet also mystery because they don’t talk too much. They bring some degree of wit and/or insight without seeking to impress anybody or dominate the proceedings. In the way they dress, they way they walk, and the way they talk, cool people come across as always being where the action, where the fun is.

Coolness isn’t adopting a set of trends, it’s a reflection of a personality type that is self-confident and irreverent. People who “want” to be cool can’t be, by definition, because what makes cool people cool is that, if they think about it at all, they know they’re cool without even trying, and don’t even care. That’s what puts them on the cutting edge of social conventions. Trend-followers will never be as cool as the trendsetters, because trendsetters don’t seek popularity.

Not everyone is, or can be, cool. And that’s fine. Cool people do dumb things like everyone else. But the virtues of coolness are all too lacking in the present day. Civil society works best when there are zones of privacy, or degrees of intimacy, separating individuals. The anxieties you might express to a spouse, pastor, or best friend should not necessarily be published in your autobiography. Coolness means a certain detachment to the goings-on in social circles and public life, whereas the media culture encourages the complete baring of souls. Obvious examples: tell-all biographies; confessing adultery to one’s spouse on daytime talk shows; “Real World” and its game-show copycats provoking conflict between participants for all to see.

The public is entitled to see the best in us, not our weakest and worst parts. Positive examples of conduct and demeanor motivate others, especially the young, to do likewise. Programs that promote embarrassments and confessions for the amusement of the television audience, on the other hand, seem to me to be the equivalent of freak shows or pornography. We do not need to see this. A culture that encourages exchanging privacy for a little bit of fame and money is a culture that will tolerate encroaching totalitarianism. As new surveillance technologies develop, as confidential records can mischievously (or deliberately) be posted on the Internet or reviewed by the government, we require cultural norms that esteem privacy. That makes distinctions between the public and the private, the social and the personal.

Cool people, with their independent spirits, their refusal to expose their souls for others’ amusement, their aloofness, and their willingness to subvert absurd conventions and commit victimless crimes, are therefore of inestimable value to our republic. (Smoking is cool, after all!) As institutions such as family and church continue to weaken, we need the example of cool people to inspire us to mock the moral arrogance of government and, ultimately, to limit its power.

We’ve seen coolness before. The Happy Days shows with the “Rock Around the Clock” theme song featured Fonzi in a supporting role, and he was really, really cool back then. Another star who was really cool was Joe Montana, who, unlike other great quarterbacks who made plays with guts, daring, and strength, would coolly pick apart his opponent. Tiger Woods might be so popular now because, not only is he good, he’s cool. Covering his face behind his cap so that the public wouldn’t see him cry after winning a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title – that was a nice touch.

But we need more like him, particularly in entertainment. In rock and rap, those who think they’re subversive are usually just malicious, and actors who go against convention are still all too willing to cry on Barbara Walters and be preachy in their political beliefs. We need more Johnny Depps in movies and more Tom Pettys in music. They do their thing, look cool doing it, and go home. No more be expected; any more is undesirable.

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