The selection of the loutish Vince Vaughn to play a television role previously performed by James Garner provokes Benjamin Schwartz to contemplate the apparent near extinction in today’s America of what he describes as an “amoral virtue,” masculine charm.
[C]harmâ€”with its emotional, even aesthetic, detachmentâ€”could hardly have retained its social sway after that most overwrought of decades, the 1960s. Any culture that celebrates youth necessarily provides stony soil for charm, which is by definition a quality reserved for adults: the young can be charming, which is an inadvertent attribute; they cannot have charm.
Most men hold charm in vague suspicion: few cultivate it; still fewer respond to it; hardly any know whether they have it; and almost none can identify it.
Of course, all of these social and cultural shifts, which are themselves inimical to charm, are rooted in a more basic changeâ€”the ever-widening infection of social relations by market values. That development, whether good or ill, indisputably makes for blunter and more crudely utilitarian manners. After all, in a way, charm is just small talk.
More important, charm, for all its appeal, isnâ€™t a moral virtueâ€”itâ€™s an amoral one. Americans, especially American men, have always been, for some very good reasons, ambivalent about charm. Itâ€™s an attribute alien to many men because they are ingenuous, a quality that can itself be either admirable or unlovely. Many American military men deserve our esteem; the many I have known indeed do, but I have never met one with an ounce of charm. Indeed, what American hero has possessed it? The quintessential modern American hero, the eternally jejune and earnest Charles Lindbergh, who became a god when not yet a man, was in every way the antithesis of charm. Americaâ€™s entire political history has been in some basic way a struggle between Jeffersonâ€”self-righteous, humorless, prickly, at once intellectually ardent and woollyâ€”and Hamilton, a man foreign-born, witty, stylish, coolly brilliant, generous, possessed of a rare rapport with and an understanding of women. And just as Hamiltonâ€™s political vision triumphed, so did Jeffersonâ€™s political style. To be sure, weâ€™ve always had sports heroesâ€”Sonny Jurgensen, John McEnroe, Jim McMahon, Arnold Palmerâ€”whose sly irony and authority-defining insouciance lends them the adolescent glamour of Peckâ€™s Bad Boy, a posture that, while sometimes winning, can be mislabeled as charm. (Its limits are clear in the persona of a non-sportsman exemplar, Bruce Willis.) Indeed, sportsâ€”youngstersâ€™ games pursued in earnestâ€”essentially lack charm. The seriousness with which American men take sports both confirms and exacerbates their suspicion of charm.