The Culture of Complaint – Robert Hughes

Oxford University Press, 1993
Originally subtitled “The Fraying of America” for the hardbound first edition
that I just read (the one currently is called “A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America,” and I’d be curious why and when this changed.) Ten years later, how does Hughes criticism of America hold up?
The Victimhood Culture is still with us, though as it applies to feminism and on campus, I think this has mutated into what Hughes would probably term “un-PC.” Debates over what to call people, places, and things don’t really exist now. Either they’ve been accepted and subsumed into culture (gender based job titles seem a thing of the past) or they’ve been dropped from simple unweildiness. Yet, America is full of victims, and from out of that comes costly litigation. The current lawsuits against big tobacco for causing cancer and against fast food chains for causing obesity are just two examples. (Myself, despite my distrust of big business, consider most of these suits completely frivolous. I still believe in free will, and I don’t believe that people 50 years ago had no ideas of the dangers of smoking. Maybe they didn’t know all the dangers, but I don’t think they thought it was good for you. Still, those same people no doubt thought alcohol was nothing but trouble, yet here’s doctors telling us today a little tipple keeps you healthy.) Victimhood is tied into exploitation and big business (drug companies) and shows no sign of going away.
Many of the worries that Hughes was concerned about were based upon a country where the concept of free speech was being debated in context to art movements (his chapter on Mapplethorpe, Serano’s “Piss Christ”, and the NEA scandal seems so very long ago; when was the last time art made headlines except for earning milllions at auction?). Now free speech itself is threatened by Christian fascists such as Ashcroft, nobody’s really worried about whether a photograph is rude or not.
Hughes wrote and published this just as Clinton was being inaugurated, and part of the book is taking stock of 12 years of Reaganism. He’s not too sure about Clinton, but he has little of anything good to say about Bush. Again, how long ago it feels.
Hughes also sees the dumbing down of American education as a result of anti-elitism, cultivated by the Right, enacted by the Left. Here I think he’s still correct. The basics are not being taught, and students are coming to college knowing nothing (and this is based on my experience working with them). On the other hand, there’s free will: if you really want to learn more and keep on learning, you can do it.
There’s a nice section where Hughes talks a little bit about his education and life growing up in Australia, which taught me a thing or two. It wasn’t too long ago, either.

In those days we had a small, 95 percent white, Anglo-Irish society, in whose public schools you could learn Latiin but not Italian, ancient but not modern Greek. What we learned of the world in school came through the great tradition (and I use the word without irony) of English letters and English history. We were taught little Australian history. Of the world’s great religions other than Christianity–Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam–we were as perfectly ignorant as a row of cats looking at a TV set; or would have been, if Australia had had television in 1955, which, luckily, it did not.

His defence of multiculturalism as an addition to culture, not as a separate or “better” culture is particularly well argued and written, and says what I’ve always thought. Increase knowledge, not replace it.
His last chapter on art makes the case against people who believe art shoud somehow been “good” for you, like a curative. Hughes traces this thought back to the Puritans, and the early Americans first shocking encounter (a few generations on) with European culture. (This brought me back to a SBCC class I had years ago (maybe it was just a onetime lecture) about American art, pre-20th century. Oh, how achingly dull I found it.) If America had been founded by Catholics who somehow had broken from Rome, but kept all the artistic stuff (painting, architecture, the lot), how different America would have been…perhaps.
Anyway, 1993 sounds like a time when the culture was being debated. Now we’re watching our entire country be destroyed and petty artistic or linguistic squabbles are not on the table. Still, it’s a worthwhile book. Hughes is certainly no friend of the ultra-left, and he loathes the right, yet he isn’t a middlebrow. He’s just an independent thinker who calls America his home. I wonder what he’s been thinking recently?
Lastly, while reading the book I sent this thought to my friend Chris a week ago.:

“The situation that Hughes writes about in the CofC, esp. on the Left, has
largely disappeared. I don’t think there’s a hysteria anymore on what to
call somebody or something (even if the hysteria was media created,
perhaps). What *has* happened, and what Hughes and the Left didn’t see
coming, was that PC talk, and the things it tries to hide, has been taken
and adapted by the Right. How else could they use the phrase “class warfare”
and get away with it?”

All right, class, now discuss.

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