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Bitch, Bitch, Bitch..

Presents excerpts from 'Culture of Complaint--The Fraying of America,' concerning the distrust of formal politics in America in the late 1980s and early '90s. How entertainment sets education standards and creates 'truth' about the past; The rise of cult therapies that teach we are all victims of our parents; The self-defeating vogue for politically correct language; Possibility the politics of ideology has broken the traditional American genius for consensus.

America in the late 1980's and early 90's is a polity obsessed with therapies and filled with distrust of formal politics. It is skeptical of authority and prey to superstition, and it's political language is corroded by fake pity and euphemism. It is also a culture that has replaced gladiatorial games, as a means of pacifying the mob, with high-tech wars on television tat cause immense claughter yet leave the rulers in full power over their subjects.

Mainly it is women who do the objecting, for due to the prevalence of 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 of them. Those who crave a female prophet get Shirley MacLaine and a 35,000-year-old Cro-Magnon warrior named Ramtha who takes up residence inside a blonde housewife on the West Coast and generates millions of cult dollars in seminars, tapes, and books.

Meanwhile artists vacillate between a largely self-indulgent expressiveness and a mainly impotent politicization, and the contest between education and TV has been won by television, a medium now more debased than ever before. Even the popular arts, once the wonder and delight of the world, have decayed.

There was a time when popular music was full of exaltation and pain and wit--and appealed to grown-ups. Today, instead of the raw intensity of Muddy Waters or the virile inventiveness of Duke Ellington, we have Michael Jackson, and from the theatrical compositions of Gershwin and Cole Porter we are down to illiterate spectaculars about cats or the fall of Saigon. Even the great American form of rock 'n' roll has become overtechnologized and run through the corporate grinder until it is 95 percent synthetic.

For the young, more and more, entertainment sets education standards and creates "truth" about the past. Millions of Americans, especially young ones, imagined that the truth about the Kennedy assassination resided in Oliver Stone's vivid, lying film JFK, with its paranoid elevation of a discredited New Orleans prosecutor into a political hero beset by an evil, omnipresent military establishment that murdered Kennedy to keep us in Vietnam. How many of them saw anything wrong with Stone's frequent claim that he was "creating a counter-myth" to the Warren Commission's findings, as though one's knowledge of the past equated with the propagation of myth?

Hollywood's treatment of history used not to matter. But in a time of televised docudramas and simulations, when the difference between TV and real events is more and more blurred, such exercises fall into a mushy, anxious context of suspended disbelief that old Hollywood pseudohistory never had.

The self is now the sacred cow of American culture, self-esteem is sacrosanct, and so we labor to turn arts education into a system in which no one can fail. In the same spirit, tennis could be shorn of its elitist overtones: You just get rid of the net.

ON VICTIM STATUS

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 that teach 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"--and, as John Bradshaw, Melody Beattie, and other gurus of the 12-step program are quick to point out on no evidence whatsoever, 96 percent of American families are dysfunctional.

We have been given imperfect role models, or starved of affection, or beaten, or perhaps subjected to the goatish lusts of Papa; and if we don't think we have, it is only because we have repressed the memory and are therefore in even more urgent need of the quack's latest book.

The number of Americans who were abused as children and hence absolved from all blame for anything they might now do is more or less equal to the number who, a few years ago, had once been Cleopatra or Henry VIII. Thus the ether is now jammed with confessional shows in which a parade of citizens and their role models, from Latoya Jackson to Roseanne Barr, rise to denounce the sins of their parents, real or imagined.

Not to be aware of a miserable childhood is prima facie evidence, in the eyes of Recovery, of "denial"--the assumption being that everyone had one and is thus a potential source of revenue. The pursuit of the Inner Child has taken over just at the moment when Americans ought to be figuring out where their Inner Adult is, and how that disregarded oldster got buried under the rubble of pop psychology and short-term gratification.

If the Inner Child doesn't let you off the hook, the embrace of redemption will. It used to be said that there are no second acts in American lives. That was before TV started burning out our memory cells. The public life of America today is largely made up of second acts and has become an unconvincing parody of the original promise of America as a place where anyone could make a fresh start. Even David Duke said he was reborn from Nazism into the brotherhood of Christ--and thousands of people believed him.

The all-pervasive claim to victimhood tops off America's long-cherished culture of therapeutics. To seem strong may only conceal a rickety scaffolding of denial, but to be vulnerable is to be invincible. Complaint gives you power--even when it's only the power of emotional bribery, of creating previously unnoticed levels of social guilt. Plead not guilty and it's off with your head.

The shifts this has produced may be seen everywhere, and their curious tendency is to make the "right" and the "left" converge. Consider the recent form of discussion of sexual issues, which revolve more and more around victimization. Prolifers borrow feminist lingo to call abortion "surgical rape" (never mind that it is a wholly voluntary act).

Meanwhile, the new orthodoxy of feminism is abandoning the image of the independent, existentially responsible woman in favor of woman as helpless victim of male oppression--treat her as equal before the law and you are compounding her victimization. Conservatives have been delighted to cast their arguments in the same terms of victimology, with the difference that, for them, what produces victims is feminism itself. The grossly expanded views of criminal assault by feminist Andrea Dworkin--sex between men and women is always rape--reduce women to victims without free will, deprived equally of the power of assent or of denial, mere dolls tossed around in the ideological flurries of feminist extremism.

In these and a dozen other ways we create an infantilized 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. To be infantile is a regressive way to defy the stress of corporate culture: Don't tread on me, I'm vulnerable. The emphasis is on the subjective: how we feel about things, rather than what we think or can know.

ON POLITICALLY CORRECT LANGUAGE

There are certainly worse things in American society, whether of the left or the right. But few things are more absurd and, in the end, self-defeating, than the ongoing vogue for politically correct language.

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 cripple rise from his wheelchair, or feel better about being stuck in it, because someone back in the days of the Carter administration decided that, for official purposes, he was "physically challenged"? Does the homosexual suppose others love him more or hate him less because he is called a "gay"--a term revived from the 18th-century English criminal slang, which implied prostitution and living on one's wits?

Or take "homophobic;" a favorite scatter-word of PC abuse. Today scarcely anyone knows what it means. Homophobia is a clinical term for a pathological disorder meaning an obsession with homosexuality caused by the heavily suppressed fear that one may be homosexual oneself. Today it can be, and is, indiscriminately applied to anyone who shows the slightest reserve about this or that same-sexer, or disputes (however mildly) any claims of special entitlement (however extreme) made for them as a group or class.

In stress, angry people who don't have enough language (or whose language is merely the servant of an agenda) reach for the most emotive word they can find: "racist" being today's quintessential example, a word that, like "fascist," raises so many levels of indistinct denunciation that it has lost whatever stable meaning it once had. You can be a "racist" for saying the simple truth that the Reverend Al Sharpton hoaxed New York with the entirely concocted abuse of black teenager Tawana Brawley by imaginary white goons, or for having doubts about the efficacy of welfare, or, in some minds, merely by virtue of being white.

If these affected contortions actually made people treat one another with more civility and understanding, there might be an argument for them. But they do no such thing. Seventy years ago, in polite white usage, blacks were called "colored people." Then they became "negroes." Then, "blacks." Now, "African-Americans" or "persons of color" again. But for millions of white Americans, from the time of George Wallace to David Duke, they stayed niggers, and the shift of names has not altered the facts of racism.

THE CULTURAL MOSAIC

There was never a core America in which everyone looked the same, spoke the same language, worshiped the same gods, and believed the same things. Even before the Europeans arrived, American Indians were constantly at one another's throats. America is a construction of mind, not of race or inherited class or ancestral territory.

These things, I know, have been said before, but their obvious truth is why America has always seemed marvelous to foreigners like me. It does not mean that America has a monopoly on freedom, or even that its models of freedom are exportable everywhere in the world.

But it is a creed born from immigration, from the jostling of scores of tribes who become American to the extent to which they can negotiate accommodations with one another. These negotiations succeed unevenly and often fail: you only need to glance at the history of racial relations to know that.

It is too simple to say that America is, or ever was, a melting pot. But it is also too simple to say none of its contents actually melted. No single metaphor can do justice to the complexity of cultural crossing and perfusion in America. American mutuality has no choice but to live in recognition of difference. But it is destroyed when those differences get raised into cultural ramparts.

Two hundred and sixty million people make up the same country, but this does not mean that they are all the same kind of people, with the same beliefs and mores. The fact remains that America is a collective work of the imagination whose making never ends, and once that sense of collectivity and mutual respect is broken the possibilities of Americanness begin to unravel. If they are fraying now, it is because the politics of ideology has for the last 20 years weakened and in some areas broken the traditional American genius for consensus, for getting along by making up practical compromises to meet real social needs.

Reading America is like scanning a mosaic. If you only look at the big picture, you do not see its parts--the distinct glass tiles, each a different color. If you concentrate only on the tiles, you cannot see the picture.

CARTOON (MATT FAULKNER)

Excerpted from Culture of Complaint--The Fraying of America (Oxford University Press) by Robert Hughes. Copyright 1993 by Robert Hughes.