It was not an innocent time. Robert Hughes, art critic for Time magazine, wrote a book about cultural antagonisms in the United States, The Culture of Complaint. David Denby, a movie critic for New York magazine, reviewed it for the New Republic. It doesn’t sound like much has changed (except that sensitivities have escalated):
For years liberal intellectuals in this country have sounded sickly and confused. half convinced that their privileged position has disqualified them from criticizing any less powerful group, afraid of asserting what might be seen as an advantage. Something like academic Afrocentrism may be largely nonsense, but how many have the stomach to attack it? How many have the courage to say that gay artists whose lives have become nightmarish from the fear of AIDS are not necessarily better painters or sculptors? Putting it in pragmatic terms: Is making such points worth the risk of sounding like Hilton Kramer? Even if you can avoid such a ghastly outcome, the task requires a relish for combat and a willingness to hit an open target—a sort of herculean insensitivity.
Enter the bull in the shopping mall. Hughes was born in Australia but has lived in America and written art criticism for Time since 1970. He combines the curiosity and the ambitious learning of a scholar (he has written distinguished books on Australia and Barcelona) and the ready indignation and sense of timing of a great journalist. He is a controversialist, a public intellectual. The book, written in 1992, as the political tide was turning, is implicitly addressed to liberals: You are the conscience of a great country. Why be so frightened? Hughes offers a guide for the perplexed, a moral and intellectual compass for those who want to remain liberals in this culture without giving up their standards, their education, their sense of what matters. Brandishing bis sword, be charges in, laying about on all sides. He ridicules the American touchiness, the querulous tone of grievance. He talks tough to self-pitying artists, to academics, to black intellectuals and ideologues, to politicians.
So even when today it might seem like times were better just as Bill Clinton was coming into the White House, America was divided and Americans were sensitive. In New York City, Rudy Giuliani defeated David Dinkins.
The widespread and unstoppable confusion of formal equality (which is obtainable through law) with equality of power and gifts (which is unobtainable) has led to a kind of Tocquevillian nightmare, a culture of self-pity and envious accusation. In the art world, for instance, the overproduction of artists caused by the runaway art market of the ’80s and the general lowering of standards leads anyone not actually celebrated by the media to designate himself an aggrieved party. “What are your ‘standards’ but further oppression?” the victim demands. The “you” that figures in so much paranoid-accusatory rhetoric is, of course, the white heterosexual male, whose “standards,” a mere construction, are assumed to be inherently corrupted by power. Second, the exacerbation of the differences among us, and the cynically calculated omission of what is held in common, leads to a grim spirit of intolerance—declarations of “cultural war” on the right and calls for separatism on the African-American left. Ideology annihilates the compromises necessary to keep the country going. . . .
Hughes fears no man or woman, but most liberals shrink from hurting anyone’s feelings. That is why James Wolcott was being disingenuous when, in the course of defending Rush Limbaugh recently in The New Yorker, he called on liberals to stop whining and “lean into the microphone.” In other words, get your own demagogues, bullies and wits. But as Wolcott surely knows. American liberals have committed themselves to abandoning the narcissism of the tribe; they are committed to respecting every group in the country. If conservatives have been making most of the jokes in recent years, that’s because it’s so much easier for them. For the liberal, everyone matters. That is the American glory and the American horror.
The point of this trip down memory lane is not to try to explain Trump, though with cultural conditions like this in the early 1990s, only a few years after Ronald Reagan helped a lot of Americans to see morning in America again, it is hard not to think that little emerged in the nation’s cultural, political, and religious institutions to offer some check on what Denby himself recognized as nonsense. The gatekeepers — universities, media, journalism — only seemed to guard the gates against those who thought it was impossible not to hurt someone’s feelings. Even Jesus did that.
Denby even received confirmation of Hughes’ observations when he returned to his alma mater, Columbia University:
The queasiness and prissy-mouthed grayness are often produced by the highest motives. During a year spent at Columbia attending classes with first- and second-year students, I saw many a promising discussion of social issues dry up at the border of genuine disagreement. As soon as a student actually said anything, he or she would be greeted with the comment (from another student), “That may be true from your point of view …,” the implication being that a point of view is not a strength but a weakness. Students quickly learn to stay away from anything that might betray a social judgment. The conservative students retreat into a grouchy silence and probably listen to Limbaugh in the dorms. The liberals take up a right-minded droning politeness; they learn that the only safe thing to do is to attack “power.”
They were, of course, only imitating their betters. The post-structuralist jargon, it turns out, serves all too well to reinforce liberal squeamishness. According to the recent academic orthodoxy (and Columbia is far less orthodox in these matters than many other schools), as soon as you write or speak you are in danger of allowing language, which encodes the structures of power, to do your thinking for you. In practice, any kind of vivid or concrete speech—any-thing personal, physical, evocative, active — “privileges” one point of view or another. (A graduate student in English upbraided me tor saying that a female student with long hair had long hair. Even though I was describing a specific student, the description was “a limiting stereotype.”)
Denby and Hughes also noticed that race-consciousness was pronounced, though an Afrocentrism that celebrated the continent seems to have found an outlet in affirmations of black pride:
After acknowledging the racism inherent in many nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies of Africa, Hughes goes through the claims of Afrocentrism and dismisses them. And so with the Afrocentrist version of slavery. After insisting that no history of slavery written before about 1960 can be quite trusted to tell the truth about black cultural history, he shreds the Afrocentrist insistence that Europe was solely responsible for the slave trade, filling in the large role played before and after the European dominated slave trade by Muslim slave traders and by African tribes themselves. And he dispels the notion of an African Eden, either of the past or the present, to which African Americans can return.
What he doesn’t acknowledge is that Afrocentrism may strive without being fully believed. At Columbia, in the wake of a rampaging, nonsensical lecture by Professor Leonard Jeffries of City College, I noticed that even some of the brightest African-American students to whom I talked were unwilling to dismiss the stuff out of hand. They half-believed in it, perhaps as a way of maintaining self-respect. They may have been heading, most of them, into mainstream academic and professional careers, but by talking Afrocentrism they were not selling out to whitey. (“The Bull in the Shopping Mall,” The New Republic, May 10, 1993)
These discussions of cultural markers, race, and history were not present in NAPARC churches in 1993. But in ways that seem to contradict the logic of cultural transformation, the church is often downstream from universities and journalists.