Robert Hughes’s new book is engaging, quotably witty, never dull; it can easily be read in an evening. As an analysis of what divides Americans, it is less than satisfactory, symptomatic of the moral confusion that it purports to anatomize.
Born in Australia but long resident in the United States, Hughes has been the art critic for Timemagazine since 1970 and has written more than half a dozen books of criticism and art history. In addition, he is the author of The Fatal Shore (1987), a history of the early colonial period in Australia, and Barcelona (1992).
Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America had its origin in a series of three lectures given by Hughes at New York Public Library in January, 1992. As Hughes explains in his introduction, the first two lectures appeared in condensed form as a Time cover story, “The Fraying of America” (February 3, 1992). Later, in preparing the lectures for publication in book form, he expanded them significantly and added references to events through the presidential election of November, 1992.
What does Hughes mean by “culture of complaint”? The phrase follows a formula that has become increasingly popular since Oscar Lewis wrote of “the culture of poverty” in the 1960’s and Christopher Lasch of “the culture of narcissism” in the 1970’s (see Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, reviewed in this volume). Hughes’s title suggests that he will attribute the “fraying of America” to an excessive readiness to complain on all sides, that he will trace the evolution of a culture in which people are climbing over one another to claim victim-status and in which a pervasive sense of entitlement persistently frustrates initiatives for the common good. Hughes makes sporadic gestures in this direction, finding affinities, for example, between “the rise of cult therapies which teach that we are all victims of our parents,” the radical feminist image of “woman as helpless victim of male oppressor,” and the notion that “the idea of ’quality’ in aesthetics is little more than a paternalist fiction” contrived to exclude women and minorities. For the most part, though, Hughes’s title turns out to be merely a gimmick, and for long stretches he abandons the theme of “complaint” altogether.
What then is Hughes’s real subject? In the introduction he promises to address “the clouded issues of ’political correctness,’ ’multiculturalism,’ and the politicization of the arts,” and indeed he does. The explanatory framework in which he treats these issues is neatly laid out in the dust-jacket copy:
PC censoriousness and ‘family-values’ rhetoric are only two sides of the same character, extrusions of America’s puritan heritage into the present—and, at root, signs of America’s difficulty in seeing past the end of the Us-versus-Them mentality implanted by four decades of the Cold War.
There, in a nutshell, is what Hughes’s book is about.
The pattern is established early in lecture 1, “Culture and the Broken Polity” (the longest of the three by a good margin). After deftly dissecting several egregious examples of political correctness, Hughes makes a swift transition. One moment asserting that “the right is as corroded by bankrupt ideology as the academic left” (note that his Critique of the left is modified by “academic,” while the right is simply “the right”), the next he is saying that “The loss of reality by euphemism and lies was twenty times worse and more influential in the utterances of the last two Presidents and their aides than among bien-pensant academics.” A page later, Hughes assures us that “The right has its own form of PC—Patriotic Correctness, if you like—equally designed to veil unwelcome truths. It, too, has a vested interest in keeping America divided, a strategy that bodes worse for the country’s polity than anything the weak, constricted American left can be blamed for.”
Repeatedly in the course of these lectures Hughes follows this pattern. Yes, political Correctness is bad, yes, some proponents of multiculturalism distort history and promote separatism—but the “right” is just as bad; twenty times worse, in fact. After all, Hughes says, Reaganism was responsible for the Savings and Loan scandal that cost thousands of people their life savings. Indeed, Reagan’s maleficent power knew no bounds; “his style of image-presentation cut the connective tissue of argument between ideas and hence fostered the defeat of thought itself.” (Really? Whose thought? Perhaps some were more strongly affected than others.)
That the Savings and Loan scandal involved a widespread betrayal of public trust is clear, but what does it have to do with Hughes’s thesis about the symmetry between left and right, political correctness and the phantom “Patriotic Correctness”? How does it relate to the “polarization” which left and right thrive on, their “vested interest in keeping America divided”? Let us take a specific case. Under the editorship of Hilton Kramer, The New Criterion (which Hughes refers to with scorn) has consistently and forcefully criticized what Jonathan Rauch calls “the new assault on free thought.”...
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