After reading Robert Hughes' "Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America," I thought, wow, what a tonic. What good sense. How bracing. How cathartic. This guy is getting mad at all the people who were getting mad at me. A moment later I had the guilty thought that this was probably the way Rush Limbaugh fans feel when they finish "The Way Things Ought to Be."
I could congratulate myself because my preferred author received a classical education from Jesuits and wrote an epic history of Australia and a graceful appreciation of Barcelona. He's nothing like Rush Limbaugh, a non-academic who used to work at KFBK in Sacramento before his radio show went national. Then I read the Limbaugh book and saw that these two, whose books in reaction to political correctness and multiculturalism appear together on the bestseller list this week, are brothers under the skin. They're two burly, pink-cheeked garrulous mid-lifers who live in New York. They both write entertainingly and they stick up for Christopher Columbus and deny that the Iroquois had any influence on the Constitution.
Of course Hughes writes like George Bernard Shaw on a good night and Limbaugh begins paragraphs with "I want you to pay attention" and ends them with "Heh, heh, heh" or "Yah, right." Both believe in good old American common sense (though Hughes is Australian, he has lived here 22 years) and good old American pragmatism. Stop whining, pull up your socks and get on with the job. The forceful, punch-packing quality of both books brings to mind the old movie cliche slap across the face to which the formerly hysterical person replies, "Thanks, I needed that."
Hughes' book is aimed at liberals, with the message, don't be scared to criticize paintings by gay men if the paintings are lousy. Don't be afraid to object to Afrocentric history when it claims that European Jews were responsible for the slave trade. Feel free to care about what's good and what's true, feel free to discriminate.
Limbaugh's book is addressed to every potential book buyer on the Fruited Plain (his term for the United States) except a few of what he calls "feminazis." His message to the reader is that not one iota of what those people out there are complaining about is your fault--not the homeless, not South Central Los Angeles, not the gay kid in the Navy who was beaten to death by a shipmate--so feel free to go ahead and be a conservative Republican.
Hughes and Limbaugh certainly come from opposite sides of the political fray. They hold very different visions, for example, of the Reagan years. Limbaugh adores Reagan and thinks the President's critics--feminists, environmentalists, disarmament nuts, secular humanists--were part of a plot to cripple capitalism. Hughes sees the Reagan years as a disaster--crooks made zillions on Wall Street while the Brooklyn Bridge started to crumble--"a pervasive sense of entropy in the midst of shocking disproportions of wealth." Limbaugh is all for disproportion as long as everyone gets a chance to be shockingly wealthy. In fact Limbaugh thinks the purpose of every man and woman on earth is to make money; Hughes thinks we should each exercise maximum skill and imagination, or at least revere these qualities in our artists and leaders.
The two are in complete agreement when it comes to politics that spring from emotion. Hughes complains about new ways of thinking: "The emphasis is on the subjective: how we feel about things, rather than what we think or can know." But emotion, more than political philosophy, underlies both these books. Each of these authors yearns to be seen as a good guy, and would like other people to be nicer to him. Limbaugh is nearly plaintive when he writes, "I want people to get along with one another, without making a legal case out of everything." (In the next breath, some devil makes him add, "I love the women's movement . . . especially when I am walking behind it.")
Limbaugh concludes by asking his fellow decent Americans "to be confident, not just in yourselves but in the country and your fellow citizens." I hate to think I'm ending this reading exercise by taking Rush Limbaugh's advice. But I do have confidence that the American system is more flexible than either Limbaugh or Hughes believes. There is an undeniable link between grievance and political action. Those with real grievances who read these two books won't feel compelled to stop complaining. But they could be inspired to dissent in more original ways, and to pick their targets with more precision.