From the title of Hughes' book you might think this is a tale of woe; a malady of national discontent. Not so. It's too concise, humorous, and ultimately, optimistic, to be a Jeremiad. Nevertheless, Mr Hughes does spend a lot of time lamenting what's wrong with American culture, politics, and the society at large. His focus, and some of his wittiest criticisms are directed at the political ideologues; in academics, the arts and sciences, journalism, and of course party politics. He is dismissive of both extremes; the politically correct left and what he calls the patriotic correct right. He disabuses both sides of any idea that we are enthralled with their message. "One would rather swim than get in the same dinghy as the P.C. folk. But neither would one wish to don blazer and top-siders on the gin palace with it's twin 400-horsepower Buckleys, it's Buchanan squawk box, Falwell & Robertson compass, it's Quayle depth finder and it's broken bilge pump, that now sits listing on the Potomac..." Mr Hughes trains his critical spotlight on dogma, hypocrisy, biases, and bigotry; the opinion makers, spin-doctors, jargon generators and euphemists that have obfuscated the issues, and worse, have sacrificed consensus on the altar of ideology.
He is ultimately optimistic as the problem does not lie with citizenry, as we are 'America' The problem remains squarely with ideologues. "The fact remains that America is a collective work of the imagination whose making never ends, and once that sense of collectivity, and mutual respect is broken the possibilities of Americanness begin to unravel. If they are fraying now, it is because the politics of ideology has for the last 20 years weakened and in some cases broken the traditional American genius for consensus, for getting along by making up practical compromises to meet real social needs". In a word - balance! Exactly the approach we need, and precisely the type of analysis in this well written and incisive book.
Robert Hughes is one of my favorite writers on history and art, and I also enjoyed his book, The Fatal Shore, a history of the Botany Bay colony in Australia. Hughes has always had an interest in modern art (many of you may recall his great TV series, "The Shock of the New," back in the 80's), and since much of modern art has come out of America, perhaps it's no surprise he wrote this book, which takes a broader look at American culture.
Hughes's devastating critique of the foibles of modern American politics, political correctness, racial and gender issues, pop culture, post-modern criticism, and graduate liberal arts education, to name a few of the things he takes aim at, is articulate, entertaining, and deadly accurate. Unlike the post-modern critics whose obscure and turgid prose he skewers, Hughes knows how to write, and he puts that to good effect in this book. Cultural ideas, icons, and events, both high- and lowbrow, don't fail to escape his purview and his petard. (He even has an entertaining discussion of religion and masturbation on pages 56-57).
Hughes's book reminds me of another important work, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, by sociologist Daniel Bell, in which he noted America is a country where seemingly paradoxical cultural traits often find happy marriages and perhaps even happier divorces. And as Hughes points out, our increasingly politically correct Zeitgeist threatens to underwhelm us all with the ever more blanched and bloodless cornucopia of American pop culture.
Overall, this is a fun romp through the cultural minefield of modern America, and I'd actually give it 4.5 stars if I could. If we listen to Hughes, perhaps it won't become the sterile, cultural necropolis full of the "stuffed and hollow" men that T.S. Elliot wrote about in his famous poem, "The Wasteland."