Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What Was the Culture War, Anyway

Benjamin Schwartz has a chip on his shoulder, which he seems to have transferred to celebrated author of Christian Lander's Stuff White People Like. Schwartz is a hater of the old school, occasionally letting off riffs better suited to The New Criterion than the once Boston Brahmin Atlantic. If it weren't clear that his politics are similar to those of Thomas Frank, as the nostalgic "those who strive for truly radical -- that is, class-based -- political change," it would be easy to write off Schwartz completely off. His reviews can be interesting when he is on his own ground, but Schwartz' own predilections often peek through as in the case of this jumble of assertions, starting with his calling the Port Huron Statement a "gaseous manifesto." (Do I need to say he who smelt, dealt it?) In the case of his editing, the Atlantic often does feature well-considered reviews, but it also have provided a platform for two of the most intolerant and incoherent writers to appear regularly in general interest magazines: Caitlin Flanagan and B. R. Myers. Whatever else one might say, Schwartz likes a literary squabble as much as the next person.

One gets a sense of how hard it is for Schwartz to set aside his chip when you realize that SWPL is little more than an Official Preppy Handbook for the age of the blogosphere. Lander's work is sort of thing most folks who have gone to a liberal arts school or graduate school in the humanities have done at one time or another: devising a hot or not list based on what is likely to be labeled as politically correct. If it is sociology--at all--it is the quote unquote comic sociology of David Brooks, with more than a little tendency to bend the truth if its makes the joke funnier.

What goes unremarked by Schwartz (and Lander) is what is really interesting about this phenomenon: that the capacity to simultaneous embrace and disdain certain cultural artifacts indicates a high degree of bad faith or, to put it bluntly, self-hate. It goes unremarked because of course cultural artifacts are mere trivia compared to economic concerns. The good society will not depend on whether you can get a decent macchiato or that the latest best-seller is literate. I have spent enough evenings with people going over in loving detail about how things are done better in Europe not to have some sympathy with this view. But why the animus if the said artifacts are trivial, if the good life could be had whether Jacqueline Susanne or Toni Morrison or George Saunders is our a leading author? Could self-hate be a constitutive part of what white people like? I can't say for sure, but the success of American Idol, which must have as part of its audience numbers of ironic consumers, suggests that the secret to popularity now is finding that achy sweet spot between the entertaining and the mortifying. What this says about the future of the culture I am not sure, but it does not appear to lead to the good society.