Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Broadsides on both sides

Culture of complaintIf you only read one book this year, Robert Hughes is probably not for you.

Hughes, who died recently is best known for his work as an art critic, but he also launched one of the best known broadsides in the Global War Against Political Correctness, Culture of Complaint, published almost twenty years ago. Nick Cohen praises him as a

prescient voice[s] who had warned at the start of the Rushdie Affair in 1989 that a reactionary alliance was building between the white postmodern left and Islamist far right.

It is not unusual to start by admiring someone’s work and then finding in it whatever it was we were looking for in the first place, but there is some truth to Nick Cohen’s view. So how does the book read now?

Culture of Complaint was based on a series of three lectures given in January 1992: Culture and the Broken Polity, Multi-Culti and its Discontents, and Art and the Therapeutic Fallacy. The first opens with Herod, as written by Auden:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation … Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions

to which Hughes adds:

What Herod saw was America in the late 80s and early 90s. A polity obsessed with therapies and filled with distrust of formal politics; skeptical of authority and prey to superstition; its political language corroded by fake pity and euphemism.

He lists some of the signs of this decay, before coming to the core of the problem, “a maudlin reaction against excellence”, and the need for victimhood, which has reached the stage where “the white American male starts bawling for victim status too.” The then new name for this was Political Correctness, which, Hughes says, is a gift to the right, and gives `some drunken creep of a student who bellows “nigger” and “dyke” into the campus night the opportunity to posture as a martyr to speech-repression”. Unlike most people who attack PC, however, Hughes uses real examples, and not the lies about the cancellation of Christmas and the banning of Baa Baa Black Sheep. His core argument was paraphrased elsewhere by Mark Steel:

`political correctness’ (or `fairness’) in the 80s, [began] as leftist councils were neutered by Thatcher’s government. Since they no longer had any power to change things that actually affect people’s lives, they began spending their money on adverts that said `Are you a racist? You’d be a nicer person if you weren’t’.

In Hughes’ words, “by the eighties the American left was a spent taper in national politics. Its only vestiges of power were cultural.” The gains of the sixties having been exhausted, the left retreated and tried to change the way we talk.

But just when you think Hughes is pointing his broadside exclusively to port, he swings his guns to starboard, at what he calls Patriotic Correctness. There follows a similar list of charges against the right: euphemism (`equity retreat’ for `stock market crash’, `harvesting’ for `killing’ tuna); selective indignation (morals that only apply to sex, but not to business dealings); eventual convergence with the language of the PC left, where the giving of offence becomes a crime.
This convergence in language reached the point where an amendment which would have prevented the National Endowment for the Arts giving government funds to “promote, disseminate or produce” inter alia:

material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion;

was drafted by Senator Jesse Helms, well known for his support for diversity and multiculturalism. Live by the whinge, lose your funding by the whinge.

Hughes turns to the universities, heartland of the PC insurgency, Old Dixie of the Marxist Confederacy. Taking the facts, he notes that the teaching of `culture’ has always been political: Western Civilization courses were designed to produce “thinking bayonets” for the Western Front, and, after the Armistice, to innoculate against the Bolshevik menace; he reports a survey which found that 4.9% of academics called themselves `far left’, while 17.8% described themselves as `conservative’. American universities are not now, and have never been, full of tenured radicals; the notoriety of the left is greater than its influence.

The problem, for Hughes, is the continuing influence of Marxism in American universities, when it has disappeared in the rest of the world, and its stronghold, the Soviet Union, has just collapsed. He caricatures academic Marxism, in a much-quoted sentence:

The world changes more deeply, widely, thrillingly than at any moment since 1917, perhaps since 1848, and the American academic left keeps fretting about how phallocentricity is inscribed in Dickens’s portrayal of Little Nell.

A caricature is an exaggeration, not a lie. As Alan Sokal would demonstrate a few years later, there is a certain kind of academic perfectly capable of floating free of reality and not recognizing nonsense when it is presented to them. Hughes, however, could not have meant that Marxism, as an intellectual current, was dead: he mentions with approval E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, C. L. R. James and Basil Davidson, and thanks Edward Said in his introduction. His view of political Marxism, that:

Marxism lost its main bet at the outset. It wagered its entire claim to historical inevitability on the idea that humankind would divide along the lines of class, not nationality.

also looks a bit shaky after the last five years.

The academic Marxism he attacks does deserve the kicking he gives it. The world had changed, and anyone who considered themselves Marxist or left-wing, had to deal with that fact. Disappearing ironically up your own postmodern fundament is not good enough. Hughes did indeed predict, or track the early stages of, the retreat of the `left’ into identity politics as a way of avoiding class as an issue, later dealt with by Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter with America?

This all, eventually, comes down to culture, and to multiculturalism most of all. Hughes’ main argument with Multi-Culti in the U.S. is that it is neither Multi nor Culti. Compared to Australia, where a government-sponsored television channel broadcast in twenty languages, America’s “cultural fragmentation” seemed a petty thing. Hughes argues for a serious engagement with culture, your own and others’, citing the Jesuit rigour of his own education, and the expectation that books would be read, and read properly.

At the time, one great debate was about the “Canon”, the list of books which “educated” people should read. As Hughes points out, the argument was based on one fact and one factoid. The fact is (was) that “most American [and not only] students don’t read much anyway and quite a few, left to their own devices, would not read at all.”

The factoid is that reading a certain kind of book makes you a certain kind of person. As Hughes notes, if we really believe this, then how do we deal with Celine, Eliot, Sade, Evelyn Waugh, or, for that matter, Yeats, never mind authors from less enlightened, culturally sensitive, times? If books really do form readers in the image of their authors, censorship is a duty: burn everything bar Doctor Seuss.

Hughes returns to the convergence of language between the two battalions of the PC brigade, quoting Norman Podhoretz saying that “the humanities have traditionally instilled a sense of the value of the democratic traditions we have inherited”, before citing Plato, Shakespeare, Dryden, Baudelaire, Nietzche, Pound, Lawrence, and Yeats and their hatred for democracy. UK education policy today seems to be based on the same idea, that if we feed children the right stories, they will turn into mini-Goves and Fergusonetti, all Union Jacks and nostalgia for Empire. On the other side, the New Columbia History of the American Novel finds Harriet Beecher Stowe better than Melville `because she was a woman and “socially constructive”’. Hughes quotes Edward Said writing that

it was never a matter of replacing one set of authorities and dogmas with another, nor of substituting one center for another.

The point of the work of Said, and others, was not to remove books from the Canon, but to expand it, and to deal with them as books, to be read, and discussed and argued about.

The problem is not the idea that books can change us: if no book has ever affected you, you have no business reading. The problem is the neo-Zhdanovism that says that writers are good as a function of how closely they conform to an ideology, usually described as `common sense’. Hughes acknowledges the power of books, the quality of great writers, and, in a sense, the fact that the danger of Eliot’s anti-Semitism, say, comes from his greatness as a poet. If he had been some street-corner fanatic, he would be no more than a pest. The opposing arguments seem to be, in the red corner, that all books are political so best nobble the wrong’uns; in the blue corner, great writers have no ideology, so best keep politics out. Both, of course, are wrong: writers are people and people are political. A great writer can be deeply, perhaps offensively, political, so better recognize that fact and disconnect their greatness from their ideas, rather than fall into agreeing with someone because they can write, or rejecting them because they are nasty.

At the time Culture of Complaint was published, the Piss-Christ controversy was recent memory, but Hughes’ discussion of an exhibition called The West as America is more interesting. The hysteria about Andres Serrano’s image was predictable, but the National Museum of American Art must have thought it was on fairly safe ground. Its exhibition was a collection of images showing what “the painters and sculptors of the time tell us about Manifest Destiny”. As Hughes notes, and as the curators acknowledged, this was not great art, but it was “evidence of ideas and opinions”. It might have been better without the wall-labels, and their “late-Marxist, lumpen-feminist diatribes,” but it set out to deconstruct images which was fair enough, “since if anything in this culture was ever constructed, it is the foundation myth of the American West.”

The response was hilarious, as long as it wasn’t your job that was threatened, and comparable to the hysteria a few years later when the National Air and Space Museum proposed mentioning that some Japanese people had been killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Senator Ted Stevens accused the Smithsonian of “perverted history” because it “mentioned conquest, development and the fate of Indians”, and claimed that it had a political agenda (moi?). The director of the museum was supported by critics and others who believed that whatever the show’s flaws, it was worth doing and looked at important issues.

One month later, the same director banned a Sol LeWitt work from a show visiting her museum. “Good censorship … is therapeutic … Bad censorship is what the pale penis people do to you. Here endeth the lesson.”

So is Hughes a candidate for canonization as a prophet of the disaster of the self-esteem movement, Saint Robert of the Plain Truth, Hammer of the Censors? Sort of. He was wrong about the trend of history, though not as wrong as Francis Fukuyama, and he overstates the power of Political Correctness against Patriotic Correctness, as shown by a Black president in the US making no difference to foreign policy, except to make it worse.

He was right about the principles, though: art is not therapeutic; books are to be judged on their writing, not the politics of their authors; being a victim does not make you right. There is no act so radical as reading; none quite so reactionary as refusing to. The greatest compliment we could pay Hughes would be to read his book, and thousands of others.

Culture of Complaint, Robert Hughes, ISBN: 0-19-507676-1

6 comments on “Broadsides on both sides

  1. Karen
    August 22, 2012

    Yes, if I only read one book this year I doubt it would be this one. I would not have thought twice about Culture of Complaint without this insightful review. I don’t know whether I will read it, but I can at least give it some informed consideration now.
    Thank you.

  2. Jackie
    August 22, 2012

    I beg to differ that President Obama has made foreign policy worse. Aside from that, while I agree with many of the ideas cited by the author, from the review it sounds as if Hughes has an above-it-all attitude that could make him insufferable. I’d like to read the book to see the ideas expanded on, but if he’s that high handed, it might be a constant annoyance while reading the book.

  3. sharonrob
    August 23, 2012

    I read Culture of Complaint many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed Robert Hughes’ plague-on-both-your-houses approach, especially as he had more than two houses to deal with. He is certainly a little bombastic, but I enjoyed that as well; it spiced up the polemic and anyway, it’s hard to be gentle with the sort of rampant stupidity and philistinism he describes. I particularly liked his insistence that art, whether it’s literature or anything else, doesn’t have to be easy, acceptable or relevant, depending on what we mean by all those things. If it can’t stand up under its own terms, how sustainable is it?

  4. sharonrob
    August 23, 2012

    PS Thank you parafinallia for a most entertaining review. Now I’m wondering when I can go back for a re-read.

  5. paraffinalia
    August 23, 2012

    I live to serve. The book made a great impression on me when it came out (I hadn’t really come across the idea of Political Correctness at the time) and it certainly caught the tone. The nice thing about Hughes is that he doesn’t pander to people: you can either agree or disagree, but if you disagree, make an argument. On top of that, behind the straight-talking Aussie persona, there was a very serious intellectual with a breadth and depth of reference that would shame many so-called critics.

    PS: re Obama making foreign policy worse, we need only count the increase in the number of extrajudicial killings, and the open maintenance of a list of people to be murdered.

  6. Jackie
    August 23, 2012

    So Obama made foreign policy worse as compared to say, Dubya, who made it so much better?

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