For some time now I have been day dreaming about writing an autobiography (of sorts) called “Up From Mediocrity.” This autobiographical extended essay would explore the life of a middle-class mid-American of middling talents as he wrestles with his own mediocrity (how’s that for illiteration?). It would explore what happens when you realize that you will never go to Harvard or Yale, or even the University of Michigan, and that you are trapped in a sort of no-man’s land between intellectual flights of fancy and the workaday world. You can glimpse the heady heights of “the life of the mind” but inertia seems to keep you tethered to a comfortable but rather boring existence. You seem stuck in limbo: one part of your mind has endless ambition but the other part is realistic about your talents and potential.
I raise this rather self-indulgent issue because it came to mind when reading the reviews of The Middle Mind : Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves by Curtis White.
Now, I haven’t read the book so take what I say with a grain of salt (always a good idea regardless) but it seems to me that the author is in a similiar situation. After all he is a professor at Illinois State University which is smack dab in the middle of Middle America. The book is an critique of, and an attack on, the vaguely liberal psuedo-intellectual cultural status quo of American life. Far be it from me to dismiss someone who writes “blistering critiques” of people like Terry Gross, Steven Spielbergh, and Ken Burns; or who decries “Cultural Studies.” But behind all this anger and righteous indignation is very little substance. White would replace today’s corrupted and empty liberalism with the post-modern fallacies that lay beneath the surface. White’s book is like an argument between Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean. Dean thinks his angry rhetoric makes him authentic and immaginative when in reality little seperates the two. Oh sure, Gephardt’s edges have been knocked off by years of Washington politics but there is little difference in their fundamentals.
a review by Carlin Romano at Philly.com seems to back this up:
The Middle Mind suffers from terminal disingenuousness. Although it often proceeds as if White’s epiphany transcends the left/right, liberal/conservative culture wars, White reveals his left allegiances throughout.
In his introduction, for instance, drawing a contrast to what he perceives as mountains of media and academic drivel, he praises the “honest and combative work of writers like Andrei Codrescu, Bill Moyers, Molly Ivins, Tom Frank, Michael Moore, George W.S. Trow, Michael BerubÃ©, Mark Crispin Miller, and Eric Schlosser,” while also protesting the alleged “media blacklisting of people like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.”
Anyone who holds up the above list as exemplary is suspect in my book. How can one possibly take White serious as a proponent of deeper thought when he is praising Molly Ivins and Michael Moore? It seems to me that these two are just as big a part of the “Middle Mind” as Terry Gross they just have an angry edge. White views immagination and intellect as inherantly radical notions and so he views politics through that lens. If you aren’t calling for the overthrow of the status quo then you aren’t thinking hard enough.
Is it fair to read a bunch of reviews and reject a book without reading it? Not really, but in my defense there are only so many books one can read and there has to be a way to weed out the bad ones. If you want a more even handed review from someone who has actually read the book and is sympathetic to its politics, check out the Complete Review.