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Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America.

Robert Hughes' Culture of Complaint is the wittiest and perhaps the most sensible book that has been written on the vexed subjects of multiculturalism and "political correctness." With the notable exception of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s The Disuniting of America, most of the books that have addressed these subjects have confined their analyses to the university. Hughes, however, takes a wider view. Arguing that the multicultural debate is symptomatic of a culture-wide malaise, he issues a freewheeling and acute indictment of America's manners and mores at the close of the 20th century.

Hughes--an expatriate Australian who has been Time magazine's art critic since 1970 and has written Barcelona and The Fatal Shore, among other books--brings to his task the virtues of the amateur: intellectual versatility, a synthesizing vision, and common sense. A polymath dropout conversant with history, contemporary politics, literature, and pop culture, as well as with the plastic arts, Hughes moves easily and with authority from Madonna to Havel, from the 1992 Republican convention to the Visigoths' role in preserving Western civilization.

Any fears that this is just one more formulaic PC-bashing diatribe are dispelled on the book's second page, when Hughes launches a withering attack on contemporary America as "a polity obsessed with therapies and filled with distrust of formal politics; skeptical of authority and prone to superstition; its political language corroded by fake piety and euphemism. Like late Rome . . . in its submission to senile, deified emperors controlled by astrologers and extravagant wives." At this point, liberals who are weary of PC pieties but have not enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the intellectually bankrupt Commentary/Olin Foundation gang may feel like doing a little jig: how sweet it is to watch "their" issue blow up in the neocons' faces. When Hughes' acid pen is finished with the Good Ship G.O.P., "with its twin 400-horse Buckleys, its Buchanan squawkbox, its Falwell and Robertson compass, its Quayle depthfinder and its broken-down bilgepump," nothing is left but a few forlorn bubbles.

The "cultural left" does not get off easily either. Hughes documents its moralistic follies in hilariously excruciating detail, but he does so without rancor or a reactionary agenda. Above all, he puts them in perspective. Like David Bromwich in Politics by Other Means, he argues convincingly that the academy (like the art world) is suffering from misdirected political impulses: "By the eighties the American left was a spent taper in national politics. Its only vestiges of power were cultural . . . . The sense of disappointment and frustration with formal politics has gone down into culture, stuck there and festered. It has caused many people to view the arts mainly as a field of power, since they have so little power elsewhere."

From this perhaps well-intentioned motivation, Hughes argues, spring manifold absurdities: the attack on "quality" in art, the radical feminist view that all sex is rape, quack self-esteem-boosting regimens like Afrocentrism. Language suffers most of all, as a long line of Transcendental Victims use terms like "racist," "sexist," "homophobic," and "Eurocentric" so freely that they lose all significance, and crude pop-Stalinist phrases like "Dead White European Males" (in Hughes' acerbic formulation, "the pale patriarchal penis people") are used to browbeat a quavering academy. Hughes acutely points out that "PC talk really is political etiquette, not politics itself"--the words are empty flourishes, reminiscent of the courtly effusions in Restoration comedy. And while bienpensant professors primly inform students that the expression "a nip in the air" is offensive to Asians, the impulse toward separatism and tribalism--"the fraying of America"--grows.

It is Hughes' deep commitment to a pluralist and tolerant society, his abhorrence of bigotry, that give both urgency and moral authority to his attacks on separatism. Hughes has no quarrel with multiculturalism: indeed, in one of the most powerful sections of the book, he celebrates the exhilarating racial and ethnic diversity of America, comparing it to his native land. "To learn other languages, to deal with other customs and creeds from direct experience of them and with a degree of humility: these are self-evidently good, as cultural provincialism is not," he writes. "American mutuality has no choice but to live in recognition of difference. But it is destroyed when those differences get raised into cultural ramparts." Which is precisely what "bad" multiculturalism--the resentful PC version--does. In a powerful image, he forces the separatists to stare into the nightmarish face of what used to be Yugoslavia: "They cannot know what demons they are frivolously invoking. If they did, they would fall silent in shame."

If there is a weakness in this scintillating performance, it is a theoretical one. Hughes titled his book Culture of Complaint, but "complaint" fails somewhat as a unifying concept. America, he says, is becoming an "infantilized culture of complaint," a sickly-subjective, hypersensitive nation. This may explain PC whining, but not our worship of pop culture commodities. Nor is it clear that the American mania for personal absolution through therapy, another one of Hughes' favorite targets, proceeds from the same impulse as the censorious moralism of political correctness; or what either of them have to do with the anesthetic of Reaganite imagery. The most fruitful theory, perhaps, involves our puritanical predilection for collapsing the esthetic realm into the moral or religious one, which Hughes thinks is responsible for the art world's current ideological convulsions; but this explanation, too, leaves major questions unanswered.

But Hughes, to return to our boxing metaphor, is a jabber. He floats like a butterfly and stings like a very nasty bee, and a Grand Thesis might just have slowed him down. Culture of Complaint is a wonderful handheld-camera tour of the Dumb Zones of American life, and as such provides the reader more than enough intelligent pleasure.

Gary Kamiya is a senior editor of Image, the Sunday magazine of the San Francisco Examiner.
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Author:Kamiya, Gary
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Words:969
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