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Saturday, September 13th, 2003


The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves


A review by Gerry Donaghy

After reading The Middle Mind, I've come to the conclusion that its author, Curtis White, is the intellectual equivalent of the grumpy old man yelling at kids to get out of his yard. Think of him as Allan Bloom with a pretentious vocabulary.

I love reading books on both sides of the debate regarding politics and culture (especially Ann Coulter, one of America's most underrated comediennes). I particularly like the implied togetherness of these tomes. No matter who the author is (Michael Moore, Bill O'Reilly, or, in the more scholarly sense, Stanley Fish, or Julia Kristeva), they always take the "well, everybody is so stupid, evil, or just ignorant, but not us, dear reader" approach. They preach to the converted and these books only serve to reinforce their readers' deeply entrenched ideology. Don't get me wrong, I loved Al Franken's new book, but I seriously doubt that the folks scrambling to read it are Fox News viewers seeking an alternate viewpoint.

So what do you make of a book that proclaims in its subtitle that Americans don't think for themselves? If I actually paid for this book, I might have been insulted to be lumped into this batch of clueless automatons. But, there is the implication here that while Americans don't think for themselves, the reader of this book must be an exception. The reader is either ready to escape the condition White calls "the Middle Mind" or they've already escaped and are awaiting instructions on how to avoid a relapse.

And what exactly is the Middle Mind? According to White, the Middle Mind is a way of "attempting to find a middle way between the ideological hacks of the right and of the theorized left." He goes on to say, "the Middle Mind imagines that it honors the highest culture and that it lives through the arts....the Middle Mind's take on culture is well intended, but it is also delusional." It is this attempt at being culturally and intellectually middle-of-the-road that causes Professor White such sleepless nights. The folks who shop at Wal-Mart and go to stock car races, they aren't the problem. They're just dumb. It's the people who aspire to a pretense of intellect that pose the problem.

While the author wishes to avoid a debate between highbrow and lowbrow culture, he proceeds to bash such Middle-Minded diversions as Joe Queenan, Steven Spielberg and all of National Public Radio. Special venom is reserved for Fresh Air, which White refers to as a "pornographic farce." Fresh Air pornographic? Sure it can be banal, and there is a reason you won't be hearing Terry Gross report from the floor of the UN anytime soon, but this program is light years away from what any reasonable person would call pornography. When White gets worked up like this, you can just feel the foam from this rabid dog spray your face as you turn the pages.

Speaking of pornography, this guy, White, has a serious breast fixation. I'm not making this up. When he is shredding the film Saving Private Ryan (a film whose main thrust, he claims, is that intellectuals are cowards, but no Middle-Minded person has picked up on that), he makes a point of noticing the breasts of the granddaughters of the septuagenarian Private Ryan visiting the graves at Omaha Beach. Please forgive me for quoting at length:

"The aging vet totters toward the grave of…we know not whom....What the camera most encourages us to see is the three granddaughters, in their late teens, arm-in-arm, blonde, sweaters stretched over large (but not improbably large), round breasts. Ooh, they are well-titted, these little American wonders."

White continues to ponder these breasts when discussing the closing of the film, saying that, when Ryan asks if he's led a good life, "Well, with his granddaughters' lovely bosoms still hanging like a majestic sunset in the background, how can we say anything but yes?" I've seen this movie, and frankly, I hope I never see it again. But I'll tell you this, if I do, you can be sure that I'll be looking for the breasts. Thanks Professor White, I never would have noticed them without you.

This example is exactly what White's brand of cultural criticism is all about. It's the sort of hyper-analysis that leaches the pure entertainment value out of culture and reduces everything to signs, signifiers, and symbols. Is Saving Private Ryan excessively schmaltzy and made to capitalize on Boomer guilt? Yes. Is it treatise on anti-intellectualism? I don't think so. But you know, when I go to the movies this weekend, I seriously doubt I'll be using the theories Roland Barthes sets forth in his essay The Rhetoric of the Image, to decipher any possible coded iconic messages in Freddy vs. Jason.

White is angry that Americans prefer to get their information and cultural criticism through folks like Terry Gross, or NPR, or CNN, and then feel smart because they do. White's reasoning is that if they can't figure things out using the cultural examination techniques of such figureheads as Theodor Adorno or Jacques Lacan, then Americans are deluding themselves. I would counter that folks who watch television news might think they're smart, but so do people who never watch it. White's arguments lose ground when you consider that there isn't a class of people in America who believe that they are stupid. But, somehow, if you aspire to a level of cultural awareness but lack the critical apparatus necessary for a doctoral dissertation, you are the problem in White's mind.

Perhaps I'm naïve enough to think that most people who aspire to any level of understanding do so to the utmost limits of their abilities. To this end, I don't think that The Middle Mind will encourage anybody to stretch their minds. Rather, this book acts like the sun, looking to melt the wings of those attempting to scale the skies of intellectual inquiry.

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