Triumph of Meanness

Triumph of Meanness

by Nicolaus Mills

As the 1990s draw to a close, it is clear that America is not the same nation it was when the decade began, writes Nicolaus Mills. There is a meanness in our public and private lives that has changed the way we see ourselves and the future. Like the bumper stickers that ask "Where is Lee Harvey Oswald when his country needs him?" we have crossed a line that not long…  See more details below


As the 1990s draw to a close, it is clear that America is not the same nation it was when the decade began, writes Nicolaus Mills. There is a meanness in our public and private lives that has changed the way we see ourselves and the future. Like the bumper stickers that ask "Where is Lee Harvey Oswald when his country needs him?" we have crossed a line that not long ago marked the outer bounds of decency. The new meanness, Mills argues, is reflected in many ways, not just in the political shift to the right that has sent welfare back to the states for the first time since the New Deal and that urges us to cut Head Start while adding billions more to the defense budget than the military requested. The new meanness is also style and attitude. We hear it on talk radio when G. Gordon Liddy advises his listeners on the best way to shoot a federal agent. We see it on pay-per-view television in the popularity of extreme fighting, in which combatants slug it out in bare-knuckle brawls held in steel cages. We read about it after law officials raid a California sweatshop where workers were kept under guard and paid fifty cents an hour for sewing. Central to the new meanness, Mills contends, is our feeling that we are no longer a coherent nation bound together by our history. With the end of the Cold War, we have come to apply the language and thinking once used to demonize our enemies abroad to those we believe threaten us internally. Our fears about the economy, combined with the end of the civil rights movement as a moral beacon, have led us to act on the basis of a lifeboat ethics that rewards ruthlessness. For Mills, the only way to end the new meanness is to first recognize the grip it has on us; The Triumph of Meanness is his diagnosis of how, over the course of the nineties, we have, undermined our better selves.

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Editorial Reviews

Chris Lehmann

As I lugged my galley copy of The Triumph of Meanness through lower Manhattan recently, a prepossessing young man standing on a street corner -- he appeared to be selling clothing -- demanded a closer look. "The Triumph of Meanness"? he called out and smiled. "That's right," he added more quietly and nodded his head.

It's not a focus group sample, to be sure, but this incident suggests that Nicolaus Mills -- an American studies professor at Sarah Lawrence College and a contributing editor of Dissent -- has gotten hold of a provocative idea. Meanness does define a popular culture and political climate in which the vulnerable are sacrificed and opponents are shredded with indiscriminate glee. Mills begins to plumb the new meanness, moreover, with a refreshing view from the top, by recounting the swashbuckling, downsizing initiatives of American CEOs in recent years. Few observers have bothered to make the elementary connection between our increasingly brutal style of public discourse and an economy in which workers are cavalierly thrown upon their own resources after years of corporate service -- and then described condescendingly by their barons as "self-employed vendors."

However, Mills' subsequent forays into the familiar turf of cultural confrontation -- racial rancor, immigration hysteria, gender-role retrenchment and scorched-earth political campaigns -- don't connect as strongly with his class-inflected opening arguments. He's still too attached to the mythology of the left to follow through on the considerable class blind spots on the "progressive" front of the Kulturkampf. Via the self-dramatizing excesses of identity politics, moreover, the left contributed its share to the climate of meanness. Mills, however, goes out of his way to portray liberals and the left as forever demonized, never the demonizer.

Mills ruefully notes that "in contrast to the sixties counterculture with its emphasis on dropping out of the mainstream lifestyle," contemporary lifestyle rebels -- notably the fringe members of the anti-government militia movement -- have embraced "the notion of an eye for an eye." One needn't belabor the famed Weatherman "Days of Rage" or the left's witless romanticization of Third World military thugs to note that this opposition is a tad oversimplified. And militias hardly qualify as a countercultural vanguard.

In particular, what passes for counterculture in the 1990s is less noteworthy for its retributive flourishes than for its rampant corporatization. What may prove the nastiest legacy of alternative culture in our day may be the boorish leer of Jenny McCarthy or the smarmy directorial nudgework of loutish films such as Chasing Amy and She's the One. The meanness in such spectacles is less lurid, to be sure, than Quentin Tarantino and Marilyn Manson, but it's arguably all the more odious for its canny narrowcasting. If Mills had kept more closely to his opening argument, he might have put together a more astringent and nuanced view of the triumph of meanness. Then I could nod my head along with my sage interlocutor on Canal Street and say, "That's right." -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his trenchant analysis, Mills, professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence and co-editor of Dissent, indicts American culture for its vindictiveness in both the cultural and the political arenas. He cites many examples of "meanness without guilt" including the barrage of racist, sexist and homophobic language indulged in by radio talk-show hosts, retaliatory attacks on the poor by conservative politicians, large-scale layoffs of workers by corporations interested only in maximizing profits and journalistic "attitude" as practiced by columnists who, the author argues, rely on personal attacks on political figures rather than on objective investigation of their public policies. The author also detects a new resentment toward feminists by men in such writings as Iron John by the poet Robert Bly and Oleanna by playwright David Mamet. Although Mills's views may engender controversy, his analysis of contemporary culture is worth pondering. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Humiliating talk shows. Serial-killer trading cards. Vicious politics. Mills, a coeditor of Dissent, here argues that Americans have become too damn mean for their own good.
Mills (American studies, Sarah Lawrence College) asserts that during the 1990s, American society has become significantly more mean- spirited and uncivil. He explains the ways in which this culture of meanness has been shaped by such influences as the end of the Cold War and the civil rights movement, the loss of post-World War II prosperity, and fears about the US economy. He also discusses implications for life in the country in the next millennium. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
By introducing left-wing backlash into the right-wing's culture wars, Mills further sharpens this acrimonious debate.

Mills (American Studies/Sarah Lawrence Coll.; ed., Legacy of Dissent, 1994) begins with the premise that enemies can serve a function in politics. When the end of the Cold War left America enemyless, some people turned inward to identify new pariahs. Despite the implausibility of the notion that the weakest or most marginal elements of American society—e.g., welfare recipients and the poor, recent immigrants, homosexuals—pose a vital threat to the country, these and other groups have been targeted in vitriolic attacks spearheading a turn toward mean-spiritedness. It's as if the stakes, emotions, and rhetoric of the Cold War, characterized by a threat to national survival and easily couched in terms of good versus evil, have been imported directly into domestic politics. In this context, conservatives do not just find liberals confused, they are a fundamental threat to civilization that must be extirpated from society, if not humanity. Paranoia and prejudice are not new phenomena in American politics, of course. But Mills argues that the current incarnation is more virulent and widespread, and completely unapologetic. In surveying the business world, race and gender relations, immigration policy, the press, and politics as characterized by the Republican Contract with America of 1996, he finds that the kings and queens of mean proudly embrace the characterizations of their critics; they revel in their nastiness. The most interesting thing about this book by a leftist (Mills is a coeditor of Dissent), however, is the odd way it parallels its right-wing targets. Both sides overgeneralize from observations that do deserve serious consideration, and rather than complaining about popular culture from the right and nostalgically embracing an idealized version of the 1950s, Mills complains about popular culture from the left and nostalgically embraces an idealized version of the 1960s.

A provocative counterattack.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
Publication date:
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5.79(w) x 8.59(h) x 1.00(d)

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