Culture of Complaint

by Robert Hughes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2184

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.

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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.” Is Hughes suggesting that the validity of The New Criterion’s critique of campus speech codes, or of the theft of virtually the entire print run of a campus newspaper by black students who objected to an editorial therein, is in some way compromised by the Savings and Loan scandal? For the purposes of argument, let us suppose that President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton were culpable in the Whitewater scandal. Then, by Hughes’s logic, would left-of-center critiques of Patrick Buchanan’s divisive rhetoric concerning immigration somehow be invalidated?

Equally suspect is the logic of Hughes’s claim that the polarization of contemporary American society is best understood in the context of the Puritan heritage and the aftermath of the Cold War. Throughout these lectures, Hughes uses the term “Puritan” as others might say “fascist.” (This makes for some perplexity when, in his last lecture, “Art and the Therapeutic Fallacy,” he tells us that to understand the current controversy over the arts “we have to go back to the very foundations of Protestant America, and not in some facile spirit of ridiculing the Puritans either.”) He gives no evidence of knowledge of the Puritans beyond the familiar caricature, nor does he substantiate his assertion that political Correctness is rooted in Puritanism. (Some commentators, such as the Slavist Gary Morson, have been struck instead by parallels between political correctness in American universities in the early 1990’s and practices that flourished in the Soviet Union and its satellites for decades.)

Still, if it is difficult to establish the distant antecedents of this or that contemporary phenomenon in Puritanism, it is almost as difficult to disprove conclusively their existence—which is one reason that the Puritans remain such a popular scapegoat. With the Cold War, though, we are in the realm of recent history—so recent that we may be brought up short when we read: “Meanwhile the sense of common citizenship dissolved in a welter of issues that enable Americans to take unnegotiable stands on smaller things, now that they can no longer define themselves against the Big Thing of the Cold War.” Meanwhile? Since all the issues that Hughes discusses were being hotly debated well before the Cold War ended, it is hard to know what he is talking about.

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Before long, Hughes provides some examples: “With Communism gone, the politics of division needs other ’outsider’ and ’deviant’ groups to batten on, such as homosexuals. It also needs people or symbols to idealize.Hence… the bizarre politics and imagery of the new Sacrificed Body of American conservatism, the fetus.” Here Hughes displays a notion of causality and a sense of chronology that merit his own appellation, “bizarre.” Is there a shred of evidence to connect the intensity of public debate over abortion with the end of the Cold War?

Hughes goes on to make the same point in regard to multiculturalism (“There is no Marx left to fight, so forth we go in knightly array against the vague and hydra-headed Multi”) and controversies over obscenity and public funding of the arts. Is it necessary to note that Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, two of the most-often-cited titles in the multiculturalism debate, were published in 1987, well before the end of the Cold War?

Indeed, there is an incoherence at the heart of Hughes’s vision of what ails America and how it might be fixed. “America,” he writes, “is a collective work of the imagination whose making never ends”—a powerful image!—“and once that sense of collectivity and mutual respect is broken the possibilities of Americanness begin to unravel. If they are fraying now, it is because the politics of ideology has for the last twenty years weakened and in some areas broken the traditional American genius for consensus.” This is the classic liberal response. The problem, Hughes would have us believe, lies with extremists, those purveyors of the “politics of ideology,” the “politics of division.”

Alasdair Maclntyre has observed that “Where the standpoint of a tradition involves an acknowledgment that fundamental debate is between competing and conflicting understandings of rationality, the standpoint of the forums of modern liberal culture presupposes the fiction of shared, even if unformulable, universal standards of rationality” (Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 1988). This describes Hughes’s stance perfectly. He positions himself as a bluff, no-nonsense man of the Enlightenment (and not an academic, but rather a “practising writer”). From this standpoint he slashes about, making short work of fools and knaves. But when he is done, who is left standing?

That is why something rings hollow about Hughes’s invocation of “the traditional American genius for consensus.” A gloss on what Hughes means by “consensus” is provided by an op-ed piece by the historian George Marsden, “Religious Professors Are the Last Taboo” (The Wall Street Journal, December 27, 1993). Marsden notes that in the academy today it is generally deemed unacceptable for a professor who practices a particular religion to teach about it. “We might think of some analogies,” Marsden muses. “Perhaps no feminist should teach the history of women, or no political liberal should teach American political history.” Indeed, the “compromise” which professors with religious convictions are expected to make is quite simple: In exchange for the privilege of teaching at the university, they are expected to give up freedoms which their colleagues enjoy as a matter of course.

While ideologues often exaggerate and exploit conflict to their own advantage, the “fraying of America” so vividly described by Hughes cannot—contrary to his repeated assertions—be attributed primarily to such manipulative strategies. Rather, it reflects genuine disagreement across a wide spectrum of issues.

Precisely because the divisions between Americans are real and often fundamental, men and women of good will must seek common ground wherever they can find it. Here is where a “sense of collectivity and mutual respect” must come into play. Hughes pays lip service to this principle, but he does not practice it very well. Consider his contemptuous treatment of Charles Colson, “one of the minor Washington villains of the Watergate years.” Hughes recalls his skepticism when “Colson announced at the very gate of the minimum-security prison that he had seen the light of Christ and been born again. Surely Americans won’t swallow this? But they did.”

In the midst of this bit of good fun (the quoted passage is followed immediately by a reference to David Duke), Hughes never pauses to ask the question that would seem to be required of anyone presuming to judge the genuineness of another’s conversion:

what has Colson been doing in the twenty years since? During that time, Colson has devoted himself to Prison Fellowship, a ministry to prisoners that he directs. In 1993, this organization had more than fifty thousand volunteers visiting prisons throughout the United States. Colson has called for a total overhaul of the American correctional system, with an emphasis on restitution rather than incarceration except in the case of dangerous criminals. For his work with Prison Fellowship, Colson received the 1993 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion—the equivalent of a Nobel Prize.

Prison Fellowship provides a model for the kind of limited consensus-building that is badly needed in our increasingly divided society. Colson’s recommendations for prison reform are endorsed by other activists who do not share his religious convictions but who agree that the present system is inhumane and utterly counterproductive. Here is a real example of what Va’clav Havel, in a passage approvingly cited by Hughes, calls “politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans.”

Sources for Further Study

Artforum. XXXI, Summer, 1993, p.100.

Business and Society Review. Spring, 1993, p.67.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 28, 1993, p.6.

The New York Review of Books. XL, April 22, 1993, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, April 11, 1993, p.1.

The New Yorker. LXIX, April 19, 1993, p.113.

Newsweek. CXXI, April 26, 1993, p.67

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, February 15, 1993, p.220.

The Times Literary SupplemenL May 21, 1993, p.8.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, April 4, 1993, p.3.

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