Thinking For Yourself in America:
Revisiting Curtis White's "The Middle Mind"
Curtis White is a retired English professor, novelist and literary and cultural critic. Mostly, he is an intellectual troublemaker. This is a good thing. In his 2003 book, The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves, White offered a uniquely scathing critique of the state of critical imagination in popular American culture.
The Middle Mind remains ten years on one of the more biting commentaries on the level of blandness and conformity in popular media, politics, and entertainment. With the harsh bleach of his critical perspective, White scoured everything from the “War on Terror” to Steven Spielberg films to the sea-to-shining-sea monotony of Clear Channel radio, and the techno-visions of Internet guru Bob Davis. Even Julia Cameron’s popular self-help primer, “The Artist’s Way” (Putnam, 2002), was target for critical excision.
The book was actually based on an earlier essay in Harpers magazine (March 2002) in which White shocked the magazine’s liberal readers with his leftist critique of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.” He called it an example of the hackneyed, “middle-mind” mentality (or perhaps what a Marxist might call the shallow conventions of petty-bourgeois thinking) that passes for sophisticated media commentary on art and culture. For White, “Fresh Air” obliterated any real criteria for distinguishing artistic achievement, “flattening” everything into a kind of assembly line “Fresh Air” product. The most gifted of artists, the latest hit TV sitcom writer, or Barry Manilow, all breezed merrily past the line inspectors, White charged, subject only to the light step of Gross’s casual inquiry.
On the surface, White’s critique came across as a kind of highbrow protest. Here, after all, was the tenured literary scholar, schooled in the classics, apparently wanting everyone to turn off “Everybody Loves Raymond” for a warm evening before the fire and The Brothers Karazamov (or, at least, old TV reruns of Masterpiece Theater). In the case of “Fresh Air,” his rebuke probably struck many Harper’s readers as over the top, sparked perhaps by a personal distaste for the host’s personality or interview style. But White’s argument was more substantial than that. In his view “Fresh Air” was symptomatic of a more encompassing cultural framework at work, one that implicitly demands only that an artist or work pleases us, or at least has earned enough marketing buzz to justify appearances on shows like “Fresh Air” (or Charlie Rose or Oprah or….). And by virtue of latter said achievements, thus becoming—ta dah!—culturally significant.
In The Middle Mind and other works, White’s writing can be edgy and often mocking, tinged with a polemical enmity that appears almost gleefully provocative. He accused self-help writer Julia Cameron (has anyone even thought of criticizing her before?), for example, of selling individual solutions to blocked creativity like modern-day “snake oil,” profiting from the deadening effects of alienated workplaces, TV, money, and other toxic distractions without ever suggesting what we really need is an alternative culture. Similarly, he took issue with the “blandly informative” Ken Burns’ PBS documentaries, transforming as they routinely do the seismic, often violent sweep of historical events and epochs into blasé Hallmark Card pathos.
Then there was Steven Spielberg’s film, ”Saving Private Ryan.” White eviscerated it as an ideological disaster of unstated “crypto-fascist” meaning, a movie whose shockingly effective battle scenes only lulled viewers into a deeper, far more insidious message of the rationality of old-fashioned (murderous) patriotism. This is what historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States (Harper Perennial, 2005), more politely described as the “War is hell, but what are you going to do?” mentality. Less well known was the “high-tech vision” of Lycos CEO Bob Davis’ book, Speed is Life (Doubleday, 2001). Davis led one of the first web portals to multi-billion dollar success in just six years. But in White’s hands the Lycos entrepreneur came across as a kind of “Bizarro-Buddha,” tossing out such Koan-like gems as “to act fast is to live fully.” Or, “If you let up, you lose.” In the end, the technology master revealed not much than the startling insight that the Internet is “a great place to advertise.”
The Aesthetic of Resistance
White’s enemy in The Middle Mind was the dull blade of complacency, challenging art, politics, and intellectual life to envision social change that goes beyond predictable banalities, or this or that tweaking of the status quo. The problems of our lives and our world—our human potential—should ask more of us, he declared. Accordingly, readers were reminded of the cultural ferment that once gripped the youth generation of the late 1960s. Those were days when young people by the millions questioned the status quo, challenging authority and a war that many had come to believe was criminal. They were days when young women rebelled against the traditional thinking that required a limited life and deference to male authority, refusing to be tethered to cultural notions of biology as (second-class) destiny. They were days when music and art flowered in new directions and the future felt wide open.
In a later essay for Orion magazine (May-June, 2009) on “Capitalism and the Crisis of Nature, White observed that ”second perhaps only to toxic landscapes, the most thoroughly degraded aspect of our culture is its art.” But through artistic vision humans also conceive of a better life, he observed, of beauty and the possibilities for a more harmonious world. It’s just that in the world as it is, saturated in blood and lies and destruction of the natural world, art should be something more than a mere outlet for aesthetic pleasantries or docile observation. “Art is not a call to passive contemplation (a trip to the museum) but to the activity of human creation,” he wrote.*
How much has changed in the decade since The Middle Mind was published? Not much, sadly. As I was composing these thoughts, I read a news item about Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) recent Rotary Club remarks on President Obama’s assassination-by-drone program. ”We’ve killed 4,700,” says Graham. ”Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war.” No, actually, Graham doesn’t hate that. Not really.
In a sense, Curtis White wants to raise a ruckus about everything that keeps the rest of us from raising a ruckus. “Thought ought to be the liveliest thing we do,” he says, “because it is necessarily about the possibility of change. The presence of real thought in the culture (in place of what we have, a show-biz confidence game overseen by media moguls) would keep us constantly on the edge of our collective seats with common interest and anticipation.”
In late 2011 we got a taste of this lively reality for a few short months, when the Occupy Wall Street movement burst on the scene. In retrospect, this largely youth-based movement expressed a kind of grassroots utopian protest against the bleak prospects of a faltering economy, but it was also more than that. The sudden explosion of largely leaderless protest represented raw, vibrant rejection of politics as usual for another, more liberating vision: Society should be just and humane, egalitarian and even joyful, and not a soul-destroying stench of ugliness, greed, and violence. No wonder in city after city, local mayors (mostly Democrats, by the way) conspired with the police to shut down the protests.
In The Middle Mind, the reader is reminded that authority has to justify itself. Who says the cultural narratives we were raised on, the stories we learned about religion or politics, work or love or what makes a work of art worthwhile were necessarily right? Who says “free-market” American capitalism is the best system? Or that artistry belongs only to the genius few, those at least with the savvy publicists and right corporate endorsements? Who says we have to put up with endless Hollywood mediocrity, with television executives who see dollar signs in “hot babes in halter tops eating insects?” Or, as we ask in 2013, that the “Change We Can Believe In” of Barack Obama is the best we can do?
Hark the ‘Necessary Angels’
As a writer, White encourages us to think for ourselves, to ask questions and to question everything, especially authority. The Middle Mind is a book whose indecorous rejection of orthodoxy and cultural mediocrity was meant to sting. But as biting a writer as Curtis White can be, his message is also a hopeful one. He wants all of us to believe in the wild, unfettered power of human imagination, trust in it. Let the poets speak to the philosophers, the philosophers to the politicians. Let revolt happen against all those who would administer culture “for our own good,” or their own profit.
This is a writer who wants us to discover what the poet Wallace Stevens called the “necessary angels” of our imagination. And to let those angels fly now and burn away in their light the collective fears that keep us humans so divided and in conflict, mired in the perpetual muck of our current disorders.
* This perspective is further elaborated in The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature (Paridigm Publishers, 2009).