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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : One Shrill Version of the Nature of Truth in America : TELLING THE TRUTH: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense--and What We Can Do About It by Lynne V. Cheney ; Simon & Schuster; $23, 255 pages

October 23, 1995|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By the time I finished this book my ears hurt.

Lynne Cheney yells at the top of her lungs from the first page to the last.

I don't know how persuasive this technique will be with most readers. It rather put this one off. It is not that her subjects are not deserving of comment. Indeed they are:

What students should read and how they should be taught in school and college, men and women and the relations between them, the quality of justice, questions of race, what we should look at in museums and at the movies, memory and pain, how Presidents are elected, the role of the press, the meaning of history, the nature of truth.

The dominant attitude in the United States on all these subjects is terribly wrong, Cheney argues.

She draws on her experience with the National Endowment for the Humanities, an arm of the government of which she was chairwoman for six years under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, but which she now says should be abolished. She draws also on the new marvels of computer technology, which enable her to roam through the files and retrieve a nearly endless series of contemporaneous examples of academic and political lunacy.

Her opening example is a Massachusetts educator warning teachers against using "The Story of Babar" because it "extols the values of a European, middle-class life and disparages the animals and people who have remained in the jungle." While it might be thought odd to ask modern American children to read books that portray the pleasant life in the French African colonies before World War II, it would probably do them no lasting harm. Certainly, as Cheney suggests, it scarcely deserves the severe moral censure of that Massachusetts educator.

If there is a bit of humor in all this, Cheney does not see it. Her book is written, without interruption, in high dudgeon.

She denounces, among other horrors, radical feminism, multiculturalism, what she lovingly calls political correctness, witchcraft in the schoolroom, Afrocentric history, the Modern Language Assn., Duke University, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the late Michel Foucault, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, affirmative action, Oliver Stone, Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon and President Clinton.

Many, if not most, of these have at times made themselves eminently denounceable, if not more aptly fit for a good horselaugh.

But the stern Cheney is quite implacable. She never lets down her standards. Here she is on American museums:

"Museums used to be places that invited visitors to learn about great works of art, to understand their society, and to know more about the course of history. Today, like so many other cultural institutions, they are apt instead to be in the business of debunking greatness, Western society, and even history itself."

In the last couple of years, I have visited the Getty, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Huntington, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, numerous museums of the Smithsonian, the Holocaust Museum, the Kimbell in Ft. Worth, the DeYoung and Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, and a host of other illustrious institutions. I can attest that in them I have never seen anything of which she complains. It is true that I skipped New York's Whitney, of which she writes especially harshly.

Her approach to museums is indicative of her attitude toward all her subjects. She generalizes and exaggerates:

". . . Many museum professionals, under the sway of ideas current in the academic community, have leaped . . . to the conclusion that there is no such thing as truth."

Throughout the book she writes that "truth" has become "relative," a tendency she both detects throughout American society and deplores. Exactly what she means by "truth" is not clear, but her version seems to be grounded in the ideas of the Enlightenment.

It is probably unfair to wish that this book could have dealt seriously and sensitively with the genuine questions and problems it touches upon. Political intolerance in universities does exist. Oliver Stone does sullenly twist history. Some college teachers of English do use bizarre theories of class and gender to create imaginary universes.

But this is not an analytical book; it is a polemic hurled from the right against what its author sees as the left. It settles old scores, revisits old ground and raises some new bogypeople to frighten us. It will please the righteous, but will it convert the sinners? I don't think so.

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