Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America
by Robert Hughes
Oxford University Press, 210 pages, $19.95
This book immerses us in the discontents that derive from our sexual, ethnic, racial, economic, political, moral, and religious differences. Yet again we are taken over the familiar and complaint-rich subjects: political correctness, multiculturalism, affirmative action, the expectations and failures of equal opportunity mandates, the conflict of liberals and conservatives over the literary canon, the effect in the academy and the larger community of Afrocentrism, deconstruction, radical feminism, and the conflict of art and morality. So frayed are we as a nation that we have become a powerful factor in what might be called the “New World Disorder.”
Given our democracy's capacity to breed complaining victims, the wonder is that Robert Hughes' book is so short. “Complaint gives you power,” Hughes observes nicely, “even when it's only the power of emotional bribery, of creating previously unnoticed levels of social guilt.” There are times now when one might think that a close observer of the American scene could go on forever from this point. No doubt the fact that the book was developed from three lectures, given under the auspices of the Oxford University Press and the New York Public Library, was a restricting factor.
The terms Hughes works with are the conventional ones: liberal, left-liberal, neoliberal, conservative, neoconservative, fundamentalist, etc. If it is sometimes hard to locate him in the sociopolitical spectrum as he takes on the always controversial ramifications of his subject, this may be not only because he has seen a great deal of the world but because before his twenty-two years in America he was a Jesuit-educated Irish Australian who became an ex-Catholic. Perhaps this background helps to explain his thematic preoccupation with the extremist tendency in American discourse, which has often enough been seen as a kind of provincialism by those born and bred in lower-keyed and less diversified cultures. He is struck with how habitually in complex situations we insist on an either/or when communal well-being demands a both/and. Andrea Dworkin, for instance, is typically simplistic when she reduces all heterosexual intercourse to rape—a simplification that goes along with “the lumpen-feminist assault on all words that have ‘man' as a prefix or suffix,” and with our capacity to be as obsessed now with the manufacture of victims as in the nineteenth century we were with the production of heroes.
In fact, Culture of Complaint is itself a complaint about American immoderation that is not above covering a lot of territory quickly with its own immoderate generalizations. We read, for instance, that “Reaganism did more to uncouple business from its traditional moorings than any political ideology in the country's history.” There are economists, not all of them Republican, who might suggest that it isn't that simple—that, in fact, such an assessment edits and diminishes the past just as effectively as the American habit of euphemism and circumlocution that Hughes deplores.
Writing about the politicization of the American campus, Hughes says that “universities must expose their students to debate, and genuine debate should include the left, the right, and the center, particularly in times as conservative as these.” The absence of such genuine debate, both in the academy and outside it, results in the extremist reductionism that marks our thinking about political correctness, multiculturalism, and the academic canon. What he has to say as he goes over this well-trodden ground is not especially new, but he writes knowledgeably and in a style that combines wit with a controlled indignation at the palpable follies of the contemporary scene. On the subject of those academic intellectuals who refuse to give up on Marx and Lenin he says: “Marxism has passed through the fires of its own dissolution and is reborn as a ‘hero with a thousand faces'—multiculturalism.” On the subject of the 8,000 Dutch artists whose useless work a pampering government collects he has this: “So there it all sits, democratic, non-hierarchical, non-elitist, non-sexist, unsalable and, to the great regret of the Dutch government, only partially biodegradable.” With sentences like these—and there are quite a few of them—it's not hard to understand why the book, now in its third printing, has made the best-seller list. Among other things, it is an entertainment.
This is to question neither the author's seriousness nor the possibility of combining effective criticism with entertainment, but it is to say that Americans can take an awful lot of critical abuse, and even enjoy it, if the critic will also entertain them. This is why among Hughes' respected and successful predecessors have been scolds like Mark Twain, Finley Peter Dunne, Ring Lardner, and H.L. Mencken, to say nothing of beatnik poet-critics like Allen Ginsberg, nightclub performers like Lenny Bruce, and now radio critics like Rush Limbaugh. The perspective of humor (and one must include irony) has a capacity to dispose of an issue by placing reader or audience in a position that promises to be invulnerable to further questioning: his or its being amused is itself sufficient proof of good faith. Consider Twain's amusing depiction of a redneck racial extremist in chapter 6 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Here Huck's “pap” launches into his diatribe against the “wonderful govment” that wants to give the Negro the vote. He sounds as absurd, perhaps to many who in their hearts will never stop agreeing with him, as Hughes makes Senator Jesse Helms sound when, with “the dewlaps of his wrath” shaking, he fulminates against the obscenity and filth of the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective. As Hughes sees him, Helms is as much a threat to the American polity as are those complaining Afrocentric extremists who counter Eurocentric bias with anthropological absurdities.
Hughes, art critic for Time, is good on the consequences for art when our cultural supervisors try to sell it to the public on the basis of its therapeutic value. One may wonder too about the culturally therapeutic value of entertainment. Is our dependence on amusement as a means of realizing the threats to the American promise an indication of our cultural triviality, as if all we need to counter Huck's pap are more TV programs like “All in the Family”? God knows, the vein of triviality in the polity is a thoroughly familiar subject of complaint. Hughes sees it vigorously and passionately on display wherever the academy is trying to be multiculturally and politically correct. In the abortion debate he finds the pro-life position just as reductively trivial as he finds the Afrocentrists' claim to their new kind of cultural hegemony, or the religious right's resistance to gay liberation. Indeed, Hughes' own witty complaints about the complaining culture can distract the reader's attention from the system's capacity to encourage commonsense rejections of its own excesses by putting them on display as if in a freak show. So in Texas recently we had the “potty parity” issue as the National Coalition of Free Men complained that men were being denied the lavatory conveniences that women have. So in a recent Rolling Stone we learned that the social critic, Ice-T, whose rap song “Cop Killer” had been censored out of his album Body Count because of public pressure, had, like Huck's pap, lost all respect for the First Amendment and the Constitution as well.
In any event, it is not hard to see why a concentration on the absurdities, contradictions, and immoderations of American culture can be so frustrating for the critic. The culture in its normal operations has a perverse and self-protective capacity to beat him to the punch, so that his only escape from irrelevance often seems to be the way of the entertainer—who is doomed to leave the stage after a successful performance with the sense that nothing has changed. In Culture of Complaint one can find the same undercurrent of discouragement, especially in the first lecture, that one has already found in Mencken and Twain. It is the familiar dilemma of the satirist: the more successful he is as an artist the more he is likely to be valued as a showman than as an advocate for needed change. Ultimately he may have to rest on the same act of faith that Hughes' readers do: that without him things might get worse. This, as always, could be no mean accomplishment, especially now when we have to live with the doleful predictors like Paul Kennedy, whose Toward the Twenty-first Century suggests that before long we may have more to complain about than ever.
Unfortunately, the cybernetic and too often freakish process of American democracy is only helpful, not infallible. Ultimately we have to discriminate among the clamorous complainants. As the National Right to Life Committee knows too well, the complaint of the unborn against denied life is now as hard for some (including Hughes) to hear as a century ago the complaint of the black man was. Now as always the polity's rough-and-ready practice is to counter faction with faction, with the consequences that James Madison feared. In The Federalist No. 10, expressing his fear of “the cabals of the few,” he writes as if he is all too aware that he is addressing a culture of complaint that will always have a hard time discriminating between what Hughes calls “informed multiculturalism” and a “wildly polemical separatism.” Being a practical man, Madison offers two methods for removing the causes of the disease of faction: “the one by destroying the liberty that is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinion, the same passions, and the same interests.”
Within recent memory, attempts have been made to use Madison's first method as a way of guaranteeing that the second will work, and the results have been anything but harmonious communities: once the pressure is off, the liberated complainants often prove harder to live with than ever. Since democracy is a complaint-generating facilitator for all those committed to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, it may be that it is threatened less by the noisy number and variety of complainants than by a loss of nerve that would prompt it to put peace and quiet first. In this book, to cite a typical instance, there is little peace and quiet as Hughes, the art and social critic, encounters Helms, the defender of public morality, on the subject of Mapplethorpe's X portfolio. But it is worth noting that the antagonists agree that the photographs are disgusting; Hughes, in fact, refused to write a catalogue introduction for the retrospective. But he also levels against Helms a statement on the necessary distinction between the realm of art and the realm of morals made to the House subcommittee by the Jesuit Timothy Leary, the late president of the New York Public Library. So again there was the clash of extremes that so preoccupies Hughes.
It was, however, a clarifying clash. Here one might recall a remark made by Madison's contemporary, the English poet William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Without Contraries is no progression.” There is little reason to believe that this particular clarification will survive untended. As with all the clarifications we have won through to, it will have to be argued for over and over again in ever new contexts of complaint. The determination to keep on making the effort to do so a part of our national life, even when we only manage to keep things from getting worse, may be one of the surest signs that our democracy is progressing.
John P. Sisk, a frequent contributor to First Things, is Professor Emeritus of English at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.