James Payne's Reviews > Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America

Culture of Complaint by Robert Hughes
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Feb 11, 12

bookshelves: art, criticism, essays, feminism, nonfiction, politics
Read from February 09 to 11, 2012

Like mainlining 1992 - Afrocentrism, NEA controversies, Jesse Helms, complaints re: political correctness, Andres Serrano, Multiculturalism, ideological battles over canonical literature, etc.

Hughes tries to position himself as the only voice of reason in the room, and, uh, I don't know. For instance, he couldn't have been more wrong about the ability of language to change actions and attitudes. He lost the fight he wages against multiculturalism and P.C. in this book. P.C. is part and parcel of American culture, at least in the public sphere, and rightfully so. European society, for instance, still accepts racist speech as an everyday part of its public dialogue, rarely realizing what is being said and done is intrinsically racist and retrograde (whether that's the author of 120 Days of Simon and his 'edgy' racism, or the government of France mass-deporting Roma, or the endless parade of anti-Islam rules and regulations in Belgium, France, Holland, etc). I don't think multi-culti has changed the systemic racism of America (whether that's the new Jim Crow of our prison system, Arizona's racial profiling law, "self-deportation", the decrepit state of public-schooling, etc), but to say it's not had a positive influence on America is absurd. So, anyways, Hughes often outs himself - unknowingly - as the product of a colonial education and heritage, though he believes he is being self-aware throughout in regards to his position. In general, I value Hughes's voice and those like it - punchy Social Dems, educated and barbed, who vigorously take on the oppressive nature of Monarchs and religious figureheads, not unlike Orwell, Paine, or a young Hitchens, I suppose. But he is unwilling to adopt new modes of leftist thought, which is ridiculous but is also why I like reading him in a sense - he sounds like a relic I like - more like Orwell than anyone who is currently actually alive and participating in society.

So his weakness in his arguments is adopting to the "Shock of the New," and 20 years out, that is quite easy to see. Wrong about Mapplethorpe and that cultural niche, wrong about a lot, etc, but remarkably right about the debates consuming the body politic in America. I was startled by the contemporary quality of so many of these discussions - as they relate to the ongoing Republican primary - the section on leveraged buy-outs being especially prescient. Indeed, abortion, persecution of gays, the hermitage and neutralization of the American left in the caves of academe, etc, all seemed to be ripped from today's headlines. It reinforced something I've been feeling more and more recently, that in so many spheres in American society, so much has stayed the same since Reagan's election in 1980 (not just politics, responsive cultural forms like Indie Rock and Hardcore, etc). It's, well, deeply depressing, but at least it lets this very-1992 book remain forever topical.
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