Culture of Complaint

Culture of Complaint : The Fraying of America

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In this radical account of the decline of twentieth-century American culture, Time art critic Robert Hughes insists that the politicization of almost every area of American culture has resulted in quarrelling, infighting, and a fall in the standards needed to hold such a diverse nation together.

Based on a series of lectures sponsored by the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press, Culture of Complaint asserts that the melting pot of America has never melted, and that American mutuality has always existed in a recognition of differences. The blame for the fraying of the American sense of collectivity and mutual respect is laid at many doors: demagogues who claim there is only one path to virtuous Americanness, multiculturalists who seek to rewrite history,
advocators of political correctness, and sociologists who see the dysfunctional family as the cause of most personal problems. The book is an extraordinary statement of the times, and a clarion call for the rebuilding of America.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 224 pages
  • 150 x 219 x 23mm | 420g
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • New
  • 0195076761
  • 9780195076769
  • 475,514

Back cover copy

The best-selling author of The Shock of the New, The Fatal Shore, and Barcelona here delivers a withering polemic aimed at the heart of recent American politics and culture. Culture of Complaint is a call for the reknitting of a fragmented and over-tribalized America - a deeply passionate book, filled with barbed wit and devastating takes on public life, both left and right of center. To the right, Hughes fires broadsides at the populist demagogy of Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, Jesse Helms and especially Ronald Reagan ("with somnambulistic efficiency, Reagan educated America down to his level. He left his country a little stupider in 1988 than it had been in 1980, and a lot more tolerant of lies"). To the left, he skewers political correctness ("political etiquette, not politics itself"), Afrocentrism, and academic obsessions with theory ("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"). PC censoriousness and "family-values" rhetoric, he argues, are only two sides of the same character, extrusions of America's puritan heritage into the present - and, at root, signs of America's difficulty in seeing past the end of the Us-versus-Them mentality implanted by four decades of the Cold War. In the long retreat from public responsibility beaten by America in the 80s, Hughes sees "a hollowness at the cultural core" - a nation "obsessed with therapies and filled with distrust of formal politics; skeptical of authority and prey to superstition; its language corroded by fake pity and euphemism". It resembles " the corruption and verbosity of its senators, in its reliance on sacred geese (those feathered ancestors of our own pollsters and spin-doctors) and in its submission to senile, deified emperors controlled by astrologers and extravagant wives". Culture of Complaint is fired by a deep concern for the way Hughes sees his adopted country heading. But it is not a relentless diatribe. If Hughes lambastes some aspects of American politics, he applauds Vaclav Havel's vision of politics "not as the art of the useful, but politics as practical morality, as service to the truth". And if he denounces PC, he offers a brilliant and heartfelt defense of non-ideological multiculturalism as an antidote to Americans' difficulty in imagining the rest of the world - and other Americans. Here, then, is an extraordinary cri de coeur, an outspoken call for the reconstruction of America's ideas about its recent self. It is a book that everyone interested in American culture will want to read.
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Review quote

'splendid diatribe ... The reader may sometimes flinch under the barrage of furious one-liners, but nobody could begrudge Hughes the pleasure he must have had in constructing them. Nothing ought to be compulsory reading, but I'd like to think that The Culture of Complaint might accidentally fall into the hands of a few schoolteachers on both sides of the Atlantic.'
Times Literary Supplement 'a curious mixture of gritty truth and liberal piety ... On the attack he can be sensible as well as amusing.'
Roger Kimball, Sunday Telegraph 'what sets this book apart is the fact that Hughes argues that the right is also guilty of supreme lack of connectedness to reality'
Kevin Young, Living Marxism, August 1993 'Political correctness is out to clean up our speech and behaviour. This short book, by an Australian-born art critic who still values America as a Utopian site of experiment and pluralism, lucidly diagnoses where pc has come from and where it will take us if we don't watch out.'
The Independent on Sunday 'his local insights are persistently invigorating ... Reading him, you are constantly aware of a mind cutting through sham and cant, doing marvellously trenchant things with language.'
John Carey, Sunday Times 'infused with a generous and humorous spirit, of the sort that is indispensable to any authentic manifestation of outrage or impatience ... The immense value of his book is that it wants to uphold pluralism and experiment without compromising or qualifying the thing that makes these things at once possible and worthwhile - namely free inquiry and uninhibited debate.'
Christopher Hitchens, Independent on Sunday 'Like all of Hughes's work it possesses not only wit, common sense and learning, but more than its fair share of intellectual courage. His criticism and his histories are so fresh and original in part because he is so shockingly different to what he is meant to think and say.'
Michael Lewis, Literary Review 'It is frequently delightful, often very funny, and splendidly abrasive. It is also quite important ... He is also an excellent historian of the deep American roots of a therapeutic aesthetic ideal.'
Fredric Paul Smoler, The Observer 'provocative and often amusing book ... throughout his book, Hughes maintains a good sense of humour about the absurd factionalism that has overtaken so much of American political and cultural life.'
Michael Sheldon, Daily Telegraph 'it is as spirited and jolly a book as one is likely to find, even as it catalogues a host of grim trends that have overtaken US culture ... an agile and mellifluous quodlibetarian and damned funny too'
Jim Holt, The European 'Hughes is joyously merciless, but in this engaging and invigorating essay, he has more in mind than another diatribe on the banality of the New World. His acid wit does not obscure his moral purpose; Hughes is a sceptic, not a cynic, and his real target is the extremists.'
Ronald Brownstein, The Times 'Culture of Complaint, three lectures hammered into a book, is a sombre plea for reason ... much of the book is scorching, bright and keenly felt'
Robert Winder, The Independent 'an enormously stimulating and wide-ranging book ... Enormously erudite and inspired in his aesthetic discrimination ... Hughes's writing makes a telling contrast to the chic sludge that often passes for cultural criticism. It is readable, humane and, behind the swagger, communicates enthusiasm and curiosity.'
Colin Donald, The Scotsman 'the book is outspoken but not the "scorching" look at America of the hype; it is too deeply thoughtful, by a very well-educated Australian who loves his adopted country, to merit such a hype.'
Lloyds List 'particularly sharp on any and all sign of whinging and whining ... we can revel in the racy ruderies of this book'
Brian Wenham, Financial Times 'a clarion call for the reunification of a fragmented America ... "Culture of Complaint" is bloodily smart, funny with a cold edge - and true. It's also fired by a legitimate and compassionate concern. I wish I could buy you all a copy ...'
Jane Ehrlich, The American 'immensely entertaining ... His best barbs are reserved for 'Afro-centric' history ... He has especial fun with the fact that, unfortunately for the Afro-centrists, slavery in Africa predated the arrival of white men by hundreds of years.'
Niall Ferguson, Daily Mail 'Culture of Complaint exposes the new American dreamers ... There is plain sense and reasonableness in much of the critique.'
Ellis Cashmore, New Statesman & Society 'a useful guide to a sometimes amusing, but more often appalling, American phenomenon ... Robert Hughes, the art critic for Time, will delight only those already converted to his point of view with a clever diatribe which, like his title, comes close to one long sneer.'
The Economist 'It's not exactly a pretty exhibition, but it's nothing if not entertaining.'
Jonathan Yardley, International Herald Tribune 'In his book Culture of Complaint, Hughes has attempted to sound the alarm with the characteristic raucous brilliance that has made him bitter enemies ... his love for America rises to an intensity of faith in his conviction that the solution of her problems may lie in "what America has been.".'6LBryan Appleyard, The Independent 'A lacerating study of the decline in American values that will surely raise amens among many people, as well as hackles among others.'
Time 'Full of wicked pleasures ... Discoursing at yellow heat, Mr. Hughes is a happy Jeremiah, an uncommon scold who casts a sharp eye successively on the political-cultural debates of the 1980's ... Mr. Hughes can display with precision and clarity what a multicultural intellectual work ought to sound like, and he can put the great canon debate on campuses in its place.'
Linda Bradley Salamon, The New York Times Book Review 'Hughes's prose, especially in its more caustic turns, issues apothegms at a spitfire rate ... The result can be exhilerating: Jeremiah meets Sebastian Melmoth ... What's distinctive about Hughes's analysis isn't ... that he shuns the excesses of both the left and the right ... His particular gift is to understand the foibles of both sides as symptoms of a single malaise - to see that they are, in effect, the same excesses.'
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The New Yorker 'Neither right nor left, liberals nor conservatives come away untarnished by Hughes's scouring observations, the sting of his analysis, which is to say his views have the fresh tone of being biased by experience and intelligence, not by politics, careerism, and the will to power.'
John Robinson, The Boston Globe 'A small gem ... Mr Hughes's main targets are hypocrisy, hucksterism, racism, anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, feminist extremism, anti-abortionists, ignorant and biased professors, political and patriotic correctness and, in general, respected right-wing spokesmen, editors and their publications. Which gives him more than enough to write about! ... I can't wait for the sequel.'
Herbert Mitgang, The New York Times 'Never deserted by his rapier wit, Hughes delivers the most enjoyable, most sensible contribution to date to the American cultural debate.'
Ray Olson, Booklist 'A brilliant mocking cultural criticism ... Only a splendidly educated Australian art critic with something of the Australian's professional bluffness could have exuberantly taken on so many cultural bad actors as Hughes has in this book.'
Alfred Kazin, The New York Review of Books 'Nothing if not entertaining ... We suffer, Hughes claims, from 'a hollowness at the cultural core, a retreat from public responsibility,' and he is right.'
Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World '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 ... Taking together the exuberance and corrosiveness, we have something valuable ... A badly needed touch of Dean Swift and George Bernard Shaw.'
Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times 'he has written an angry, devastating attack on the newest wave of conformity in American intellectual life ... His book ... is passionate, polemical and eminently readable ... Robert Hughes's relentless polemic has struck the new philistines a mighty blow and made a fine contribution to the cause of a genuinely democratic culture and to the creation of a new politics of intellectual engagement in an America which sorely needs both.'
Times Higher Education Supplement 'is probably the funniest, recent diatribe against American cultural decline ... He summarises many things, and his trenchant satire is eminently quotable ... His despair, if such it is, is that of a sensible man who sees folly and vanity, the fatuous and the banal, triumph at the expense of mature values.'
Derek Mahon, The Irish Times `what sets this book apart is the fact that Hughes argues that the right is also guilty of supreme lack of connectedness to reality'
Marxist Review of Books 'Hughes clearly cares a great deal about art, artists, politics, culture in general, Australia, Barcelona, religion, the American redemptive idea ... He is amon the most valuable cultural critics writing today. Hughes has a matchless eye for the unexpected bloom. Sure, he's post-modern; but he's also a truth-and-beauty man, and a damned good one.'
London Review of Books 'Robert Hughes's prose is so seductive and his arguments so sane that this is a welcome threnody for American culture and politics. America can often seem silly, but it is alive. This book stands as a tribute to that living spirit.'
John Keenan, Catholic Herald 'wise and hilarious new book ... Robert Hughes is always lightening things up. Not many minutes pass while reading this book when you're not laughing. The brilliant glitter of Robert Hughes prose, its poise, its sheen, is an inspiration. How can one but respect his erudition, how can one but envy his wit? '
Christopher Bray, Modern Review 'a ferocious attack on Political Correctness, right-wing demagogy, Afrocentrism and other idiocies'
John Naughton, The Observer 'Robert Hughes is no Salem scaremonger and the lucid passion with which he dissects realities in his adopted lands makes scary reading.'
John Booth, Tribune
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About Robert Hughes

Time art critic and author of two best-selling books, The Fatal Shore and Barcelona, Robert Hughes is a recognized authority on the 20th century art scene.
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Rating details

627 ratings
3.9 out of 5 stars
5 31% (193)
4 37% (233)
3 25% (157)
2 6% (35)
1 1% (9)
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