The Fraying of America

When a nation's diversity breaks into factions, demagogues rush in, false issues cloud debate, and everybody has a grievance.

Just over 50 years ago, the poet W.H. Auden achieved what all writers envy: making a prophecy that would come true. It is embedded in a long work called For the Time Being , where Herod muses about the distasteful task of massacring the Innocents. He doesn't want to, because he is at heart a liberal. But still, he predicts, if that Child is allowed to get away, "Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions...Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old...Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish...The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire."

What Herod saw was American in the late 1908s and '90s, right down to that dire phrase "New Age." A society 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. A nation like late Rome in its long imperial reach, in the corruption and verbosity of its senators, in its reliance on sacred geese (those feathered ancestors of our own pollsters and spin doctors) and in its submission to senile, deified Emperors controlled by astrologers and extravagant wives. a culture that has replaced gladiatorial games, as a means of pacifying the mob, with high-tech wars on television that cause immense slaughter and yet leave the Mesopotamian satraps in full power over their wretched subjects.

Mainly it is women who object, for due to the prevalence of their mystery-religions, the men are off in the woods, affirming their manhood by sniffing one another's armpits and listening to third-rate poets rant about the moist, hairy satyr that lives inside each one of them. Meanwhile, artists vacillate between a largely self-indulgent expressiveness and a mainly impotent politicization, and the contest between education and TV--between argument and persuasion by spectacle--has been won by TV, a medium now more debased in Americ than ever before, and more abjectly self-censoring than anywhere in Europe.

The fundamentalist temper of America tends toward an existential ideal that can probably never be reached but can never be discarded: equal rights to variety, to construct your life as you see fit, to choose your traveling companions. It has always been a heterogeneous country, and its cohesion, whatever cohesion it has, can only be based on mutual respect. There never was a core America in which everyone looked the same, spoke the same language, worshipped the same gods and believed the same things.

America is a construction of mind, not of race or inherited class or ancestral territory. It is a creed born of immigration, of the jostling of scores of tribes that become American to the extent to which they can negotiate accommodations with one another. These negotiations succeed unevenly and often fail: you need only to glance at the history of racial relations to know that. The melting pot never melted. But American mutuality lives in recognition of difference. The fact remains that America is a collective act of the imagination whose making never ends, and once that sense of collectivity and mutual respect is broken, the possibilities of American-ness begin to unravel.

If they are fraying now, it is at least in part due to the prevalence of demagogues who wish to claim that there is only one path to virtuous Americanness: paleoconservatives like Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson who think this country has one single ethic, neoconservatives who rail against a bogey called multiculturalism--as though this culture was ever anything but multi!--and pushers of political correctness who would like to see grievance elevated into automatic sanctity.


Americans are obsessed with the recognition, praise and, when necessary, the manufacture of victims, whose one common feature is that they have been denied parity with the Blond Beast of the sentimental imagination, th heteroexual, middle-class whiet male. the range of victims available 10 years ago--blacks, Chicanos, Indians, women, homosexuals--has now expanded to include every permutation of the halt, the blind and the short, or, to put it correctly, the vertically challenged.

Forty years ago, one of the epic processess in the assertion of human rights started unfolding in the U.S.: the civil rights movement. But today, after more than a decade of government that did its best to ignore the issues of race when it was not trying to roll back the gains of the '60s, the usual American response to inequality is to rename it, in the hope it will go away. We want to create a sort of linguistic Lourdes, where evil and misfortune are dispelled by a dip in the waters of euphemism. Does the criplle rise from his wheelchair, or feel better about being stuck in it, beacuse someone back in the early days of the Reagan administration decided that, for official purposes, he was "physically challenged."?

Because the arts confront the sensitive citizen with the difference between good artists, mediocre ones and absolute duffers, and since there are always more of the last two than the first, the arts too must be politicized: so we cobble up critical systems to show that although we know what we mean by the quality of the environment, the idea of quality in aesthetic experience is little more than a paternalist fiction designed to make life hard for black, female and gay artists.

Since our newfound sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero, the white American male starts bawling for victim status too. Hence the rise of cult therapies teaching that we are all the victims of our parents, that whatever our folly, venality or outright thuggishness, we are not to be blamed for it, since we come from "dysfunctional families." The ether is jammed with confessional shows in which a parade of citizens and their role models, from LaToya Jackson to Roseanne Arnold, rise to denounce the sins of their parents. The cult of the abused Inner Child has a very important use in modern America: it tells you that nothing is your fault, that personal grievance transcends political utterance.

The all-pervasive claim to victimhood tops off America's long-cherished culture of therapeutics. Thus we create a juvenile culture of complaint in which Big Daddy is always to blame and the expansion of rights goes on without the other half of citizenship: attachment to duties and obligations. We are seeing a public recoil from formal politics, from the active, reasoned exercise of citizenship. It comes because we don't trust anyone. It is part of the cafard the '80s induced: Wall Street robbery, the savings and loan scandal, the wholesale plunder of the economy, an orgy released by Reaganomics that went on for years with hardly a peep from Congress--events whose numbers were so huge as to be beyond the comprehension of most people.

Single-issue politics were needed when they came, beacuse they forced Washington to deal with, or at least look at, great matters of civic concern that it had scanted: first the civil rights movement, then the environment, women's reproductive rights, health legislation, the educational crisis. But now they too face dilution by a trivialized sense of civic responsibility. What are your politics? Oh, I'm antismoking. And yours? Why, I'm starting an action committee to have the suffix -man removed from every word in every book in the Library of Congress. And yours, sir? Well, God told me to chain myself to a fire hydrant until we put a fetus on the Supreme Court.

In the past 15 years the American right has had a complete, almost unopposed success in labeling as left-wing ordinary agendas and desires that, in a saner polity, would be seen as ideologically neutral, an extension of rights implied in the Constitution. American feminism has a large repressive fringe, self-caricaturing and often abysmally trivial, like the academic thought police who recently managed to get a reproduction of Goya's Naked Maja removed from a classroom at Pennsylvania State University; it has its loonies who regard all sex with men, even with consent, as a politicized form of rape. But does this in any way devalue the immense shared desire of millions of American women to claim the right of equality to men, to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace, to be accorded the reproductive rights to be individuals first and mothers second?

The '80s brought the retreat and virtual disappearance of the American left as a political, as distinct from, a cultural force. It went back into the monastery--that is, to academe--and also extruded out into the art world, where it remains even more marginal and impotent. meanwhile, a considerable and very well-subsidized industry arose, hunting the lefty academic or artist in his or her retreat. Republican attack politics turned on culture, and suddenly both academe and the arts were full of potential Willie Hortons. The lowbrow form of this was the ire of figures like Senator Helms and the Rev. Donald Wildmon directed against the National Endowment subventions for art shows they thought blasphemous and obscene, or the trumpetings from folk like David Horowitz about how PBS should be demolished beacuse it's a pinko-liberal-anti-Israel bureaucracy.


The middle-to-highbrow form of the assault is the ongoing frenzy about political correctness, whose object is to create the belief, or illusion, that a new and sinister McCarthyism, this time of the left, has taken over American universities and is bringing free thought to a stop. This is flatly absurd. The comparison to McCarthyism could be made only by people who either don't know or don't wish to remember what the Senator from Wisconsin and his pals actually did to academe in the 50s: the firings of tenured profs in mid-career, the inquisitions by the House Committee on Un-American Activities on the content of libraries and courses, the campus loyalty oaths, the whole sordid atmosphere of persecution, betrayal and paranoia. The number of conservative academics fired by the lefty thought police, by contrast, is zero. There has been heckling. There have been baseless accusations of racism. And certainly, there is no shortage of the zealots, authoritarians and scramblers who view PC as a shrewd career move or as a vent for their own frustrations.

In cultural matters we can hardly claim to have a left and right anymore. Instead we have something more akin to two puritan sects, one masquerading as conservative, the other posing as revolutionary but using academic complaint as a way of evading engagement in the real world. Sect A borrows the techniques of Republican attack politics to show that if Sect B has its way, the study of Milton and Titian will be replaced by indoctrination programs in the works of obscure Third World authors and West Coast Chicano subway muralists, and the pillars of learning will forthwith collapse. Meanwhile, Sect B is so stuck in the complaint mode that it can't mount a satisfactory defense, since it has burned most of its bridges to the culture at large.

In the late '80s, while American academics were emptily theorizing that language and the thinking subject were dead, the longing for freedom and humanistic culture was demolishing European tyranny. Of course, if the Chinese students had read their Foucault, they would have known that repression is inscribed in all language, their own included, and so they could have saved themselves the trouble of facing the tanks in Tiananmen Square. But did Vaclav Havel and his fellow playwrights free Czechoslovakia by quoting Derrida or Lyotard on the inscrutability of texts? Assuredly not: they did it by placing their faith in the transforming power of thought--by putting their shoulders to the immense wheel of the word. The world changes more deeply, widely, thrillingly than at any moment since 1917, perhaps since 1848, and the American academic left keeps freting about how phallocentricity is inscribed in Dickens' portrayal of Little Nell.

The obsessive subject of our increasingly sterile confrontation between the two PCs--the politically and the patriotically correct-- is something clumsily caled multiculturalism. America is a place filled with diversity, unsettled histories, images impinging on one another and spawning unexpected shapes. Its polyphony of voices, its constant eddying of claims to identity, is one of the things that make America America. The gigantic, riven, hybridizing, multiracial republic each year receives a major share of the world's emigration, legal or illegal.

To put the argument for multiculturalism in merely practical terms of self-interest: though elites are never going to go away, the composition of those elites is not necessarily static. The future of American ones, in a globalized economy without a cold war, will rest with people who can think, and act with informed grace across ethnic, cultural, linguistic lines. And the first step in becoming such a person lies in acknowledging that we are not one big world family, or ever likely to be; that the differences among races, nations, cultures, and their various histories are at least as profound and as durable as the similarities; that these differences are not divagations from a European norm but structures eminently worth knowing about for their own sake. In the world that is coming, if you can't navigate difference, you've had it.

Thus if multiculturalism is about learning to see through borders, one can be all in favor of it. But you do not have to listen to the arguments very long before realizing that, in quite a few people's minds, multiculturalism is about something else. Their version means cultural separatism within the larger whole of America. They want to Balkanize culture.


This reflects the sense of disappointment and frustration with formal politics, which has caused many people to look to the arts as a field of power, since they have power nowhere else. Thus the arts become an arena for complaint about rights. The result is a gravely distorted notion of the political capacity of the arts, just at the moment when--beacuse of the pervasiveness of mass media-- they have reached their nadir of real political effect.

One example is the inconclusive debate over "the canon," that oppressive Big Bertha whose muzzle is trained over the battlements of Western Civ at the black, the gay and the female. The canon, we're told, is a list of books by dead Europeans--Shakespeare and Dante and Tolstoy and Stendhal and John Donne and T.S. know, them the pale, patriarchal penis people. Those who complain about the canon think it creates readers who will never read anything else. What they don't want to admit, at least not publicly, is that most American students don't read much anyway and quite a few, left to their own devices, would not read at all. Their moronic national baby-sitter, the TV set, took care of that. before long, Americans will think of the time when people sat at home and read books for their own sake, discursively and sometimes even aloud to one another, as a lost era-- the way we now see rural quilting bees in the 1870s.

The quarrel over the canon reflects the sturdy assumption that works of art are, or ought to be, therapeutic. Imbibe the Republic or Phaedo at 19, and you will be one kind of person; study Jane Eyre or Mrs. Dalloway, and you will be another. For in the literary zero-sum game of canon-talk, if you read X, it means that you don't read Y. This is a simple fancy.

So is the distrust of the dead, as in "dead white male." Some books are deeper, wider, fuller than others, and more necessary to an understanding of our culture and ourselves. They remain so long after their authors are dead. Those who parrot slogans like "dead white male" might reflect that, in writing, death is relative: Lord Rochester is as dead as Sappho, but not so moribund as Bret Easton Ellis or Andrea Dworkin. Statistically, most authors are dead, but some continue to speak to us with a vividness and urgency that few of the living can rival. And the more we read, the more writers we find who do so, which is why the canon is not a fortress but a permeable membrane.

The sense of quality, of style, of measure, is not an imposition bearing on literature from the domain of class, race, or gender. All writers or artists carry in their mind an invisible tribunal of the dead, whose appointment is an imaginative act and not merely a browbeaten response to some notion of authority. This tribunal sits in judgement on their work. They intuit their standards from it. From its verdict there is no appeal. None of the contemporary tricks--not the fetishization of the personal, not the attempt to shift the aesthetic into the political, not the exhausted fictions of avant-gardism--will make it go away. If the tribuanl weren't there, every draft would be a final manuscript. You can't fool Mother Culture.

That is why one rejects the renewed attempt to judge writing in terms of its presumed social virtue. Through it, we enter a Marxist never-never land., where all the most retrograde phantoms of Literature as Instrument of Social Unity are trotted forth. Thus the Columbia History of the American Novel declares Harriet Beecher Stowe a better novelist than Herman Melville because she was "socially constructive" and because Uncle Tom's Cabin helped rouse Americans against slavery, whereas the captain of the Pequod was a symbol of laissez-faire capitalism with a bad attitude toward whales.

With the same argument you can claim that an artist like William Gropper, who drew those stirring cartoons of fat capitalists in top hats for the New Masses 60 years ago, may have something over an artist like Edward Hopper, who didn't care a plugged nickel for community and was always painting figures in lonely rooms in such a way that you can't be sure whether he was criticicizing alienation or affirming the virtues of solitude.

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