Comment February 2002

Getting Hip to Squareness

We want our virginity back
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Can we be square again? We were last square half a century ago. Then we were, more or less successively, hep, hip, cool, wild, beat, alienated, mod, groovy, radical, turned on, dropped out, camp, self-actualizing, meaningful, punk, greedy, ironic, Clintonian, and, finally, postmodern, which is to say exhausted—and who can blame us? In all these states we were, first and above all, not-square. Everything was a variation on that; to be seen as clever and even profound you had to be not much more than not square.

From the archives:

"The Last Roundup" (August 1996)
Merle Haggard's sandblasted truth has been eclipsed by the twinkly perfection of today's country music. By Tony Scherman

Now we are supposed to be square again. No one puts it that bluntly, because square remains the condition that dare not speak its name. Even country music gave up on square, Merle Haggard's 1969 great anthem of square, "Okie From Muskogee," being more on the order of a last defiant gasp than a call to arms. Nevertheless, post-September 11 we are, the surveys say, patriotic, prayerful, serious, and determined. We love our country. We support our President and our armed forces. Our heroes are police officers and firefighters. Our first official war hero was a CIA agent. Well, beat me, Daddy, eight to the bar, as Mamie Eisenhower used to say, this is squaresville.

From the archives:

"On the Playing Fields of Suburbia" (January 2002)
"We seem too affluent and comfortable to be tough-minded, too cosseted by our own peace and prosperity to endure conflict." By David Brooks

From Atlantic Unbound:

American Graffiti: "Suburbia" (April 2, 1997)
"Is it so bad to be banal?" By James Surowiecki

But is it sustainable? Returning to square seems like re-virginizing. The problem is knowingness. All anti-square postures stand on a base of superior knowingness: Suburban life may look wholesome and sweet, but it is really one vast snake pit tarted up as a gunite swimming pool. George Washington may look like the star of Founding Father Knows Best, but really he was a false-toothed real-estate speculator. Woody Guthrie carries a nice tune, but this land is not your land, unless you are a Trump or a Tisch.

Knowingness, of course, is not knowledge—indeed, is the rebuttal of knowledge. Knowledge was what squares had, or thought they had, and they thought that it was the secret of life. Knowingness is a celebration of the conceit that what the squares knew, or thought they knew, was worthless. In The Graduate the career advice ("Plastics") of a family friend, Mr. McGuire, to Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, is classic square knowledge. Benjamin's mute disdain toward that advice—and his elaborately played out disdain for all that McGuire and the Robinsons represent—is classic anti-square knowingness.

You can see in this example the problem that a return to square poses: anti-square is so much easier and more fun. Knowledge, even on McGuire's level, is notoriously difficult to acquire. Sixteen years of hard, slogging schoolwork, and what do you know? Not enough to carry on ten minutes of intelligent conversation on any subject in the world with any person who actually knows something about the subject. Knowingness, though—a child can master that. (Can and does: there is an obvious inverse relationship between age and knowingness; the absolute life peak of knowingness generally arrives between the ages of twelve and sixteen for females, fourteen and eighteen for males—whereas, as these cohorts can attest, grown-ups don't know anything.)

This is why Benjamin Braddock had to ignore, with prejudice, Mr. McGuire. McGuire may have been a fool, but he was, in the limited area of business and economic trends, probably a knowledgeable fool. Had Benjamin been obliged to respond to McGuire's advice in terms of knowledge, he would have been utterly lost—he would have been the one exposed as a fool. But for Ben—and more to the point, for the movie's audience—knowingness offered a lovely way to not only counter McGuire's knowledge but also trump it. Ben didn't have to know anything about McGuire to show himself intellectually (and aesthetically, and even morally) superior to McGuire. He only had to know that what McGuire thought he knew was a joke and McGuire was a joke because—because the McGuires of the world are definitionally jokes, and if you don't understand that, I can't explain it to you, because you are a McGuire. That's knowingness, and for no-sweat self-satisfaction you can't beat it.

The hard-easy dynamic that obtains with knowledge and knowingness covers other aspects of square and anti-square. Square: virtuous, chaste, modest, honest, brave, industrious, tough, kind to children and waiters. Anti-square: vice-tolerant, promiscuous, boastful, honest when it suits, don't-get-mad-get-even, sharp, retains a tough attorney, kind to Kennedy children and waitresses who look like supermodels. Square: proper dress required, also proper manners, proper morals, and proper language. Anti-square: Jack Kerouac. Square is not overly concerned with comfort. My father, who is seventy-eight, will sartorially relax to the point of allowing, on occasion, corduroy trousers and a tweed jacket instead of a suit, but he doesn't venture much beyond that. His father's idea of unbending was to appear on his front stoop of a Saturday without coat and tie and stiff detachable collar, and with the sleeves of his washed, bleached, starched, ironed white shirt rolled up nearly to his elbows. And this, mind, was the relatively relaxed standard of the working classes.

When America was square, even being anti-square was hard. Take, for example, the issue of courage. A man could be manifestly courageous or not, but if he was not courageous, he was well advised to hide that fact. In square America other men and even women made life hard for men who clearly failed the minimal (and, it should be noted, they always were minimal) requirements of manliness. Likewise with other social conventions. In square America you could choose to be a seducer of women, a drunk, a gambler, a layabout, a sartorial disgrace. But this would not be a respectable life; indeed, it would be, to a degree now hard to imagine, a harried life. The Beats were the first figures to rebel openly against the social conventions of post-World War II America pretty much across the board. Reading what they wrote in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you are struck (apart from the generally third-rate quality of their thoughts and words) by the rigor it took to lead the anti-square life then.

After all that went away, we ended up with a culture in which the anti-square values achieved their natural status as the default positions of life. Not terribly inclined to painful honesty? Not to worry: learn from Seinfeld that honesty is for people who live in Duluth. Inclined to sharp practices in your business dealings? Relax: nobody pays retail anymore, why should you? Not terribly brave? Oh, well, who truly is?

It is some distance from this territory to Mayberry, RFD. But you never could get there from here anyway. The idea of America described in The Andy Griffith Show and other programs of the fifties and sixties that have come to stand for the collective cultural sense of square was never intended to be taken as real. These shows were a camp take on a cartoon fantasy of American life and values, and they amounted to a running inside (and fairly cynical) joke on the part of the un-square people who made and marketed television. Their America never did exist, and that America is not what returning to square means.

What did exist, and what perhaps could be returned to, is the modern, hip urban America of the thirties and the forties. This is the America fictionalized and idealized in Hollywood's Humphrey Bogart and Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin and Stephen E. Ambrose's Band of Brothers, but it was not at root a fiction. It was real, and it was a time and a place that no one could ever mistake for square. Indeed, this was the America that defined American style so absolutely that every evocation of cool since has been in imitation of it or in reaction to it.

Yet the values of this America were values that came to be associated with square: courage, bravery, strength, honesty, love of country, sense of duty. Then, though, these values were not seen as square. Nor were they seen as square's political analogue, conservative. There was then no necessary disjunction between cool and patriotic, or cool and strong, or cool and conservative, and no understood conjunction between square and patriotic or strong and liberal. (See Bogart in Casablanca for the ultimate expression of all of this.) This seems to me a cultural state that might again, finally, be attainable. And I think people might like it, too—especially if we got to wear fedoras again.

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