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The Fraying of America
By Robert Hughes
Oxford University Press, 1993, 223 pages

Prior to the publication of this book, Robert Hughes was perhaps best known for his cultural criticism in Time Magazine and his bestselling history of Australia, The Fatal Shore. But after The Culture of Complaint came out amid a flurry of attention in the autumn of 1993, Hughes and his book became the topic of conversation everywhere — from op-ed pieces to cocktail parties to late-night talk shows. The writing is superb, the topics timely and interesting, and Hughes's ascerbic wit and trenchant insights on American culture and politics are consistenly engaging, sometimes brilliant, and often hilarious.

Hughes describes what he sees as "a hollowness at the cultural core" of contemporary American life, and a "pervasive sense of entropy" as we approach the end of the millennium. The polity has become "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." It conjures up images of Rome in the final stages of cultural and political decay, he observes. As ambition and ingenuity are left behind, what remains is a sickly Culture of Complaint.

"The fraying of America" has come about as a result of excessive polarization and politicization, according to Hughes. "Polarization is addictive. It is the crack of politics — a short, intense rush that the system craves again and again, until it begins to collapse." During the 1960s, liberals tried to label every conservative a fascist. Then during the Reagan years conservatives managed to conflate all government intervention in economics with creeping Marxism. Over the past fifteen years, conservatives have succeeded, virtually unopposed, in depicting as left wing, agendas that, in a saner polity, would be regarded as ideologically neutral. This trend has been only exacerbated by the political correctness movement which has given them ammunition by reducing the pragmatic issues of the day to a war of words.

The linkage of political correctness with multiculturalism is unfortunate, according to Hughes. As a result, the discussion about genuine multiculturalism, which involves caring about "differences of culture, aspiration and history between societies and groups" has dissolved into a politicized controversy between left and right. The multicultural curriculum is a good and necessary thing for, among other reasons, national self-interest. In a global economy, success will come to those who can "think and act with informed grace across ethnic, cultural, linguistic lines." Moreover, leaving minorities out of American history would be intellectually dishonest since the "very nature of its narrative enfolds them all." America's "cultural reluctance" is paradoxical since the nation's unique strengths have always been born from its extraordinary diversity. Hughes sees conservative "crisis-talk" about multiculturalism creating "a cultural tower of Babel" as nothing more than "obsolete alarmism of a fairly low order."

The debate over multiculturalism reflects a much deeper and more widespread cultural malaise at the center of which is the modern American university, according to Hughes. The narrow specialization and intrepid careerism of today's academics borders on the ridiculous, he asserts, comparing today's university with Swift's "Royal Academy of Lagado" in Gulliver's Travels, with its solemn "projectors" laboring to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and to build houses from the roof down. "Within the lit and humanities departments of the modern American university the angle of specialization ... has become so narrow, so constipated by the minutiae of theory, so pinched by the pressure to find previously unworked thesis subjects, that it can't extend into a broader frame."

Hughes also touches on the debate over the "canonical" Great Books. The whole argument is misguided, he says, for "the idea that one can construct a hierarchy of Timeless Values, and maintain it against the vicissitudes of the present ... is wrong." A fixed curriculum of great works can never be complete, he suggests, and, moreover, it would soon become stale and ossified if it were institutionalized. The true value of great literature and art is that it emboldens and inspires us to go beyond the works themselves in search of their meaning.

The book concludes with an entire section on "art and the therapeutic fallacy," much of which is devoted to the attempts by congressional conservatives such as Sen. Jesse Helms to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and PBS.

Copyright 1995 by Scott London. All rights reserved.