Notes & Comments March 1992
One cheer for Robert Hughes
The essay by Robert Hughes on “The Fraying of America” in the February 3 issue of Time—a preview, apparently, of his forthcoming book The Culture of Complaint—is in a number of important respects a welcome addition to the current national debate over political correctness, multiculturalism, and the assortment of related contentious issues that have now made the arts and the humanities in this country a fierce ideological battleground. On a wide range of issues that now dominate and demoralize American intellectual life—the fate that has befallen literary study, the cry for cultural separatism, and the accelerating vogue for mendacious revisionist history—Mr. Hughes has some very cogent things to say, and he says them with all the force of his customary apodictic style.
That he has come late to this cultural discussion—by our calculations, a decade late—does not make his critical observations any less welcome or any less relevant, though it is of course a sign of how much further our cultural situation has lately deteriorated that a writer such as Mr. Hughes, a liberal who would clearly have preferred to remain above the “fray” he now explores, has felt it imperative to address what is obviously a deepening national crisis.
Consider the following passages from “The Fraying of America”:
On literary study:
The world changes more deeply, widely, thrillingly than at any moment since 1917, perhaps since 1848, and the American academic left keeps fretting about how phallocentricity is inscribed in Dickens’ portrayal of Little Nell. 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. Eliot . . . you know, them, the pale, patriarchal penis people.
. . . you do not have to listen to the arguments [for multiculturalism] very long before realizing that, in quite a few people’s minds, multiculturalism . . . means cultural separatism within the larger whole of America. They want to Balkanize culture. The separatism [that multiculturalism] fosters turns what ought to be a recognition of cultural diversity, or real multiculturalism, tolerated on both sides, into a pernicious symbolic program. Separatism is the opposite of diversity.
On the rewriting of history:
The Afrocentrist claim can be summarized quite easily. It says the history of the cultural relations between Africa and Europe is bunk—a prop for the fiction of white European supremacy. Paleohistorians agree that intelligent human life began in the Rift Valley of Africa. The Afrocentrist goes further: the African was the cultural father of us all. European culture derives from Egypt, and Egypt is part of Africa, linked to its heart by the artery of the Nile. . . . No plausible evidence exists for these claims of Egyptian negritude. . . . To plow through the literature of Afrocentrism is to enter a world of claims about technological innovation so absurd that they lie beyond satire, like those made for Soviet science in Stalin’s time.
Nowhere are the weaknesses and propagandistic nature of Afrocentrism more visible than in its version of slave history. Afrocentrists wish to invent a sort of remedial history in which the entire blame for the invention and practice of black slavery is laid at the door of Europeans. This is profoundly unhistorical, but it’s getting locked in popular consciousness through the new curriculums. . . . But the African slave trade as such, the black traffic, was an Arab invention, developed by traders with the enthusiastic collaboration of black African ones, institutionalized with the most unrelenting brutality, centuries before the white man appeared on the African continent, and continuing long after the slave market in North America was finally crushed.
All these points have often been made before, though not always with as much rhetorical command as Mr. Hughes brings to their expression and only rarely by writers of a liberal persuasion. The fact of the matter is, that as this crisis has developed over the past decade, liberals have either supported the radicals in this cultural revolution or else kept their mouths firmly shut. If they spoke out at all, it was usually to attack conservatives and neoconservatives for their outspoken opposition to the accelerating Left-liberal cultural agenda.
This has indeed been Mr. Hughes’s own record in this matter—a record of taking easy shots against the neoconservatives, some of whose criticisms he has now belatedly appropriated. While we welcome his conversion, we must nonetheless point out that the liberal habit of appeasing the extreme Left in these matters continues to afflict even so remarkable a performance as “The Fraying of America.” Again and again in this essay Mr. Hughes attempts to situate his argument in some mythical “center” between the radicals and their critics—which is to say, between falsehood and truth—on the grounds, we can only suppose, of the misguided belief that liberals can allow themselves “no enemies on the Left.”
No doubt it is for this reason that Mr. Hughes is still attacking “neoconservatives who rail against a bogey called multiculturalism” while going on elsewhere in the same essay, as we have seen, to attack this same “bogey” very energetically indeed. Why it should be OK for Robert Hughes to “rail against” a malevolent political assault on our culture in 1992 but somehow wrong to have engaged the issue at the outset, years ago, when the support of liberals like Mr. Hughes might have helped to stem the tide now threatening to overwhelm us—that is a question Mr. Hughes cannot bring himself to face. So he speaks instead of the radicals and their (premature?) critics as “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.”
It is, alas, liberals like Robert Hughes who have been “evading engagement in the real world” of the cultural revolution that has been going on for some years now. We cheer his decision to enter the fray, and warn him that ill-judged attacks on those of us who have been fighting this fight for a decade are not going to shield him from the vituperation of the radical critics that now awaits him. They will teach him soon enough that the mythical middle ground on which he has attempted to conduct his argument has in fact been one of the casualties of the cultural revolution he has now belatedly attempted to address.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 7, on page 1
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