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The Big Answer

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Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America

a book by Robert Hughes

(our site's book review)

In this literate lecture on the victim trend, political correctness, patriotic correctness, multiculturalism, bigotry, danger from right-wing radicals, and the politicization of the arts, Robert Hughes—an Australian citizen—looks at the fraying of our nation in mostly clear, accurate ways that reflect lots of education and thinking.

On the plus side, he takes right-wing and left-wing excesses to task: McCarthyism, evangelical bigotry, patriotic correctness, and the trend towards oppression of all forms of art—including the best works in the best museums—with the curse of censorship from special interests. He criticizes the abdication of personal responsibility, rightly calling the victim trend a big social error, and the imbalance between rights and responsibilities a serious condition needing fixing. He says that: “. . . the politics of ideology has for the last twenty years weakened and in some areas broken the traditional American genius for consensus.” In the 80s and 90s, there were demagogues whose divisive speech were mostly Culture War volleys. Unable to cope with America’s diversity, they helped polarize and dichotomize all rhetoric into the black and white of the boisterous, obnoxious, sound-bite wars.

The sound-bite wars
The sound-bite wars

What has worked in the past in America has been the American spirit of accommodating differences as part of our cultural richness. What has not worked recently is the new trend of elevating cultural and ethnic differences into impassible barriers—into fetishes. Intolerance and victimhood go hand in hand and litigation is waiting for many of us around the next corner, more often because of neurotic confusion than because of injustice. There’s a “. . . frenzied search for scapegoats; hysteria over feminism, gay rights and abortion has filled the discourse of politics with a rancor that has few parallels in other Western democracies.” Voters began to suspect that all “. . . the talk about moral values may be a cover-up for the lack of practical social policy.

A scapegoat
A scapegoat

He warns that the: “fundamentalists drive to annul the constitutional separation of Church and State, to spread theocracy on the land, must be resisted by anyone who cares about democracy in America.”

The fundamentalists want to dump the constitutional separation of Church and State
The fundamentalists want to dump the constitutional separation of Church and State

He points out that in 1991, 60 percent of American households did not buy a single book. And TV is, of course, the major culprit. But the meaning is especially clear, in the Information Age: not only are kids learning to dislike books in school and to ignore them at home, the adults these kids turn into are doing many things sloppily (parenting, discipline, communication, listening, relationship, fathering, mothering, friendship, exercise, diet, preparing for the several careers most Americans expect to have, saving for the future, keeping up with what’s going on in the world, learning new things, thinking, and maintaining self-esteem), and they haven’t trained themselves to consult the wealth of human knowledge available in order to transform the dysfunctional into the functional. How can we evolve and grow as a people, a nation, a world or a species if we neither learn from the mistakes of the past nor utilize the wisdom of the present? (Like this site, for example, which is brim full of the best wisdom of the present.)

People no longer read, and TV is the major culprit
People no longer read, and TV is the major culprit

On the minus side, Hughes does what he himself calls: “speculating in areas that are not my specialty,” which leads to incorrect guesses and inappropriate attitudes in a few areas. He puts down John Bradshaw’s self-help therapy as part of the victim game American’s play in spite of the fact that it’s about the important task of transcending the traumas of the past; Bradshaw’s record of good works in this area is stellar. Bad guess, Hughes. And just because the tales of early abuse and the personal searches people are embarking upon to find themselves or get well seem weak or ignoble to Hughes’ sense of macho, he calls it trivial and narcissistic. Another bad guess.

Hughes’ utter noncomprehension of this area is made apparent when he advises a search for the Inner Adult as a replacement for the Inner Child search. A fact of life that escapes him is that mature-acting adults evolve naturally from well-nurtured children, and the people that deal with child first and adult second are merely following the ineluctable laws of human nature. To say that the author was in over his head in this area is to seriously understate. But one of the things he meant to do by his attempt to address this area was to reprimand those who choose to engage in psychobabble and cults and fads and trips and encounters to no other than narcissistic ends, as a plea for attention, as escapism, and as a way to avoid facing themselves. With this particular reprimand we can find no fault.

A narcissist
A narcissist