Stubborn, adaptable, and ferocious, mediocrity thrives in politics and art, monster–truck rallies and academic conferences, maintaining any given set of clichés with a glazed, lock-jawed determination. Reality be damned, California’s chiseled, self-anointed new “People’s Governor”—in the best King of Pop tradition—embodies that will to banality at its most unrelenting. Equal parts sub-Arthurian Conan (complete with his very own Kennedy-bred Guinivere) and government-baiting Robin Hood come to save the day, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s a living fairy tale: proof that with enough perseverance and steroids, anyone can make it to the top of the food chain. No wonder Arnold’s army of angry white entrepreneurs, starstruck youths, and even bootstrapping Latinos rallied around nebulous, content-free mantras like “change” and “sending a message.” The change was to imagine Hollywood formulas could be applied to economics—who ever heard of a high-concept flop, right?—and the message was your basic discontented throw-the-fuckers-out fantasy. Through the miracle of magical thinking, wishing/believing was/is enough to make it so: A shiny new tabula rasa Golden State will rise from the old political order’s ashes, a business-friendly capitalist paradise.
Such blithe delusions invoke the specter of cultural Armageddon in Curtis White’s recent The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves, an apoplectic dose of magical thinking from the other side of the ideological tracts. White’s vision is a No-Funhouse negative image of Schwarzeneggerism: a call for the master’s-degree race to revolt against the tyranny of escapist fallacies and the pervasively mediocre, for the destabilizing Sublime to rise up and overthrow the patently ridiculous. You’ll recall White’s charming essay on American “Sotoligarchy” from these very pages, and his book radiates the same affluent leftist contempt for the common people that’s helped drive them into the open arms of Schwarzenegger. Attempting to resuscitate the lingering/festering romantic dream of ’60s rebellion, The Middle Mind‘s effusion of frustrated bile mostly reflects a desire to at once deprogram and reprogram the undernourished, ultra-coddled American psyche. Out with the old brainwashing, White altruistically demands on behalf of the poor, disenfranchised intelligentsia, and in with the not-so-new: thick gratings of hard cheese courtesy of Adorno, McLuhan, and Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. Casting himself as an anti-egalitarian version of Michael Moore (a doubly self-canceling shtick if ever there was one), White evokes Dwight Macdonald’s professorial paternalism with a bonus layer of stilted pseudo-hipness: “In discussing Radiohead in the context of the thought of Theodor Adorno, I have performed an unnatural act (as Lenny Bruce once called sex between the Lone Ranger and Tonto [or Tonto and Silver!]).”
Pinch me, Gretel, I’m getting goose bumps at such daring—taking positions against middlebrow complacency, literature as canon fodder, info-economy technocracy, the American Empire, and the Great Satan Spielberg. This regurgitated indignation may be new to Schwarzenegger’s blinkered enthusiasts, but The Middle Mind‘s evangelism isn’t really for their feckless, no-account benefit. Its true targets are the contented, tolerant, well-educated, quasi-liberal, Seinfeld-adoring, NPR-listening white folk who have failed to set a better example for the lower orders. Outing Fresh Air hostess Terry Gross as a “morbid, perverse, and voyeuristic” dominatrix of the mind, White sees National Public Radio’s semi-elevated inanity as the intellectually pornographic, Big Brother-like suppression of all things sacred. By the lights of The Middle Mind, Gross’s rink-a-dink salon of the airwaves is more than Oprah-esque trivialization, it’s a genuine threat to the sanctity of art, holding the national imagination hostage. At least the awareness of anyone who matters— all piddly 2 million of ’em. Imagine, we’re asked to shudder, the whole country wired to Terry Gross’s bourgeois ass!
Here’s where all such cushy socio-aesthetic arguments (Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See asked us to picture Harvey Weinstein’s vulgarian ass instead) become less about why Americans can’t or won’t think for themselves than the pet peeves of an exquisitely self-involved social class. One that denies its own existence—”What, me privileged?”—even as it projects its divided consciousness outward, torn between its hopelessly Gross, Zoloft-y side (gurgling, pleasantly benumbed, moonily “jejune”) and a furious, obsessive-compulsive White-bred hemisphere (all earthshaking ideals and sanctimonious aspirations to purify the “social aesthetic”). At its crux, a sense of terrible social injustice: chafing under the misrule of their moral and intellectual inferiors, yet bearing the burden of heightened awareness, those quavering antenna-like sensibilities tuned to heaven’s private frequency. They’re tortured by the knowledge there are people who haven’t heard the good news about Adorno’s idea of happiness or haven’t accepted Jacques Derrida as their personal savior; they live in dread of any unmediated contact with the great unwashed, vigilantly erecting prophylactic buffers against the chance they might inadvertently laugh at a David Letterman joke and become permanently sullied.
This is the love-hate song of the spotless mind: Radiohead (“Ice age comin’! Ice age comin’!”) offers its solipsistic apotheosis. The mood muzak of “Idioteque” functions as the latest in luxury sense-deprivation chambers (cork-lined and hermeneutically sealed, complete with hot and cold running theory). Lie back and bask in the warm bubblebath of existential kitsch, the bittersweet romance of estrangement, the refined blend of self-pity and -aggrandizement. Who knows suffering and privation better, the pig-ignorant underclasses or the insulated rock stars and secondhand intellectuals who’ve actualized their human potential to the max? Not unlike liberation theorist Paul Wolfowitz, these neo-rads want to free the oppressed from “certain mass delusions” which have imprisoned them. Only instead of deploying the apparatus of colonialism abroad, they dream of bringing it back home, conquering the sots instead of the wogs. Shades of Field Commander Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan,” sans irony: Next, White’s “soldiers of the imagination” could airdrop copies of Wallace Stevens’s The Necessary Angel on an unsuspecting populace, then hold guerrilla screenings of politically approved cinema (no gratuitous nudity or pleasure allowed, please) and broadcast Kid A‘s “The National Anthem” twice every hour over the Voice of the Next American Sublime radio. The grateful masses will naturally welcome this and capitulate to enlightenment, for how could anyone presume to resist such impeccable good taste and uplifting values? “A socialized imagination requires justice”—yet what about those dead-enders who would resist such socialization, the Wal-Mart crowd defiantly clinging to their soap operas and Michael Bay movies? Institute a cultural literacy test for voting, or send the recalcitrant to “play” camps to learn the meaning of freedom through forced mental labor? Take art’s absolutist revenge on the leveling, pragmatic impulses of democracy? Are things like a living wage or universal health care really the equivalent of aesthetic justice for works of art that may deserve a bigger audience? (I love Sleater-Kinney and Seijun Suzuki, but have a hunch they’re minority tastes in a way that liberty and human rights are not.)
The dialectical tug-of-cultural-war between the Schwarzeneggerites and the Adornoheads comes down to a taffy pull between High and Low Mediocrity: competing fantasies of utopia (each as the other’s dystopia), rival irrationalizations, dueling Neverlands, Hail to the Thief vs. the déclassé-warfare of Twisted Sister’s”We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The great joke of a dumb capitalist stooge like Arnold is that he instinctively understands the politics of class in America better than hackademic aristocrats who rail against privilege even as they marinate in it. The people who elected Schwarzenegger made a sucker’s bet on the future, yet on some hilarious level he has more to offer them—mediocre fellow-feeling if nothing else—than the assumed superiority of a shadow ruling class whose compassionate motto is “Let them eat metaphysics.” Reified catchphrases such as “the Adolescent Abyss” and “the Middle Mind” itself are hardly less vacuous than “I”ll be back,” “Game over,” and “Hasta la vista, baby.” White may exhort his imaginary shock troops to believe “Change is real,” but such inspirational platitudes have the unmistakable ring of Spielberg Envy: pining for a false optimism and smug innocence to call his very own. And if a bitter underclass ever did organize and start looking for some heads to roll, such armchair radicals would be the most surprised people on the block. “You aren’t looking for us,” they’d impatiently lecture the torch-wielding mob. “You want the nasty Republicans next door. We voted for Nader.”
Howard Hampton is a freelance writer who is working on Badlands: A Psychogeography of the Reagan Era for Harvard University Press.