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
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.)
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.
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 societye.g., welfare recipients and the poor, recent immigrants, homosexualspose 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.