Johnny's Reviews > Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America

Culture of Complaint by Robert Hughes
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Dec 09, 08

bookshelves: philosophy
Read in November, 2008

Although written during the Clinton Administration, this compilation of three very seminal essays is as relevant today as when they were first published. Hughes is a historian and art critic, but Culture of Complaint qualifies as a philosophical counterbalance to Allen Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind To be sure, there are some points where Bloom and Hughes might find agreement. Both would agree that our current culture has sold out to some inconsistent ideals of multicultural idealism, but they would have very different means of righting the ship of culture. Bloom would have us return to a purely classical monoculture, what the apostles of multiculturalism call Eurocentric. Hughes would have us celebrate our multiplicity of backgrounds without neglecting our foundation of western tradition.

“In society as in farming, monoculture works poorly. It exhausts the soil.” (p. 14) But Hughes doesn’t follow the fetishists of ethnicity and pseudo-nationalism, recognizing much of the academic talk around multiculturalism for what it is—hot air (p. 15). As he notes: “A student can be punished under academic law for verbal offences and breaches of etiquette which carry no penalty off-campus, under the real law of the land. …But in practice it may impede the student’s progress from protected childhood to capable adulthood.” (p. 26).

One of the things I enjoyed about the book was that Hughes spent equal time between cautioning concerning the PCs of political correctness and the PCs of patriotic correctness (p. 28). But the most horrifying part of the book and the most topical was how he demonstrated what prostitutes the media has become since the era of Reagan.

“In the 80s, as never before in America, we saw statecraft fuse with image-management. Too many things in this supposedly open republic got done out of sight of the citizens. Or they were presented in terms that mocked public intelligence by their brevity and cartoon-like simplicity. This was known as ‘Letting Reagan be Reagan,’ and it accorded perfectly with the dictates of TV.” (p. 40) He went on to call Reagan “the world’s most successful anchorman.” (p. 41) He noted how Reagan “educated America down to his level” and “left his country a little stupider in 1988 than it had been in 1980,” as well as “a lot more tolerant of lies, because his style of image presentation cut the connective tissue of argument between ideas and hence fostered the defeat of thought itself.” (p. 41)
“Celebrity politics for an age of celebrity journalism.” (p. 42)

Well, that’s what we had in the 80s and it seems to have reappeared on the other side of the aisle in the 00s. Personally, I despised it then—calling Reagan the Anti-Christ (supporting my illogical rhetoric with the 6 letters in each of his names)—and I despise it now, finding myself emotionally resonating with Rush Limbaugh for the first time as he refers to the current President-Elect as “The Chosen.”

I enjoyed a lot of Hughes’ metaphorical riffs in the book. He quotes Dinesh D’Souza as describing academic leftists as “Visigoths in tweed.” (p. 58) and waxes eloquently when he states that “Marxism is dead; …Its carcass will continue to make sounds and smells, as fluids drain and pockets of gas expand; …” (p. 73) Or check out this terrific bit of wisdom, “In the literary zero-sum game of Canon talk, if you read X it means that you don’t read Y.” (p. 104) Or quoting Baudelaire: “We have all of us got the republican spirit in our veins, a we have the pox in our bones: we are democratized and syphilized.” (p. 106) He really pounded the point home with “The first trouble with a rigid, exclusionary canon of Great Writing is that it can never be complete: it is always in some sense a prosthetic device, …” (p. 107).

Perhaps, one of the most profound sections in the book was when he explained the development of Western Civilization as a college course by starting during WWI as a course in “war issues” designed to turn young students into “thinking bayonets.” (p. 61) After the war was over, the course was adapted into Contemporary Civilization for the purpose, not of making “thinking bayonets,” but of making students “safe for democracy.” In short, one of the courses considered foundational for college students was designed as propaganda. (p. 61)

I was also intrigued by another section where he touched on a supreme irony regarding the Portland Baseline Essays. Here, Afro-centric “scholars” actually states that black children are “impelled by their genetic heritage to ‘process information differently’ from white ones—a claim which white supremacists, from their side of the fence, have been making since before the Civil War.” (p. 148) Another provocative section was when he demythologized Mapplethorpe as an artist (p. 159) , the Helms amendment (on the NEA appropriations bill) as ludicrous (p. 162), and how neo-conservatives attacked the NEA on moral grounds because, “Having lost the barbarian at the gates, they went for the fairy at the bottom of the garden.” (p. 171).

What was most appreciated was the fact that Hughes deflates the egotistical posturing on both sides of the multicultural politically correct versus patriotically correct issue. What was saddest about the book was that he tends to blame evangelicals of all stripes, not just right-wing extremists, as adding to the polarization of the U.S. Regardless, Culture of Complaint is a fascinating work that is as relevant today as when it was initially published.
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