YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

BOOK REVIEW : The Left and Right May Cheer Witty Debate on Culture : THE CULTURE OF COMPLAINT: The Fraying of America By Robert Hughes ; Oxford University Press; $19.95, 210 pages


To the debate over culture and the university waged between our intellectual Left and Right, what does Robert Hughes have to contribute?

Exuberance in a deadly dry season, a sane wit and a splash of polychrome in a battle usually fought under the whited colors of its sepulchral extremes. And, finally, an unhesitating pleasure in making points for and against both sides.

Should the Western classics, the dead-white-male stuff, be universally taught in our schools and colleges?

Of course, says Hughes, art critic for Time magazine, author of books on Catalonia and his native Australia and high-spirited busybody in the affairs of his neighborhood, his neighborhood being pretty nearly any place in the world where people tussle with their culture.

Obviously, the Western tradition enlarges, Hughes says in these lectures collected in "The Culture of Complaint." Is he making a point for the Right? Well, yes, but Toussaint l'Ouverture, the Haitian who was our first African-American insurgent, studied Rousseau. Ambiguous point for the Right? Well, yes, but to deprive the minorities of Toussaint's Western culture, in the name of no matter what trendy multicultural battle, is to emasculate them in waging that battle.

Point for whom?

Suddenly he shifts to the other side. It is the very heart of the Western heritage to be multicultural, he argues. We may think of Australia as still a super-white sort of place where your normal Saturday entertainment consists of making strangled noises while swigging gallons of beer and jeering at the Abos.

In fact, one of its public television channels broadcasts programs in 20 languages, each subtitled, to bring a sense of the real world into this no-longer insular continent.

"No Utopia but a less truculent immigrant society than ours," Hughes writes of Australia. And he goes on to protest that most American children are taught about the Pilgrim fathers with not a hint that, by the time these were scrabbling for a boot hold on Plymouth Rock, Santa Fe was 10 years built. And he insists that African-American, Hispanic-American and Native-American cultures must be present, live, in our schools and colleges.

Point for the Left? Well, yes, but he is not enthusiastic about the term Native-American, although it doesn't especially exercise him: What about a Jones whose great-great-great grandfather lived here? He is appalled, though, by the extremists who want, not a general multicultural curriculum for all, but separate, ghettoized programs for each minority.

Unlike The New Criterion and its extreme PC opponents, Hughes knows the difference between the sky falling and a chair hurled out the window in a domestic dispute. He is irritated, but only moderately, by the inflated attack words of politically correct extremists ( racist and homophobic ) and by their shrunken defense words ( underachieved for failed --and would a fat corpse be a differently sized non-living person? ).

Point for whom?

This last one is not among his sharpest; he can be far more cheerfully original and corrosive. And taking together the exuberance, the corrosiveness and the "for whom," we have something valuable.

Hughes, in fact, gives a badly needed touch of Jonathan Swift and George Bernard Shaw to a cultural war that resembles nothing so much as Alice's Lion and Unicorn chasing each other around the town for a crown that--when they stop chasing it and climb back to their appointed places in the Royal Coat of Arms--would instantly topple were they not there to hold it up.

Shaw more than Swift, no doubt; though there is Hughes' scathing rejoinder to Karen Finley, the performance artist who wonders why she isn't the Pope. By Church doctrine, popes possess only occasional infallibility, and no institution could stand more than an occasional touch of it, Hughes writes. Whereas "the radical performance artist, in her status as victim, is infallible all the time."

Perhaps that is as Swiftianly mean as it is Swiftianly acute. The claim of all sides to be victims, both Left and Right, drives Hughes up the wall. It provides his "Culture of Complaint" subtitle.

Even so, his brush can be too broad. He lumps Susan Estrich's reasonable warning that a "yes" does not necessarily rule out rape (no doubt it is to his credit that he has never heard a fear-muffled "yes," but has no bigger brother ever forced him to squeak "uncle"?) with Andrea Dworkin's insistence on using rape for heterosexual intercourse in general.

But Hughes' wit is usually as discriminating as it is sharp. In the course of the three lectures in this book, the reach of his curiosity sometimes is greater than the grasp of his acuteness. What we have by and large, though, is a gloriously embattled middle.

Like Shaw, he will annoy those who think they agree with him and comfort those who think they don't. Or, he would if our cultural lions and unicorns were capable of comfort. It is not true, in any case, that the devil has all the best lines. Feinting and weaving down his broken-field center run, Hughes has quite a number himself.

Los Angeles Times Articles