Robert Hughes versus the PCs: The pugnacious cultural critic is taking on America's illiberal extremists. He may be on dodgy ground

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NEW YORK - 'You are up against the spectre of America's disappointment,' says Robert Hughes, 'a disappointment to which it seems historically doomed in not living up to its Utopian expectations.'

In a cavernous Manhattan loft, one of the most passionate high liberals of our day is contemplating the 'fraying' of his beloved adopted country. The barrel-like Australian with a prose style that sounds like a suitcase falling downstairs has joined the chorus of concern for a culture apparently bent on dreaming itself to destruction. America, he thinks, is fraying at the edges; unless it wakes up soon, it is destined to unravel completely.

In his book Culture of Complaint, Hughes has attempted to sound the alarm with the characteristic raucous brilliance that has made him bitter enemies, primarily among mediocrities, in the neurasthenic art world of New York. By nature an optimist, he admits the case for pessimism is strong - 'I'm glad I'm 55, not 18' - but still his love for America rises to an intensity of faith in his conviction that the solution to her problems may lie in 'what America has been'.

His fear is the fear of the post-Cold War era: that the fine, high liberalism of the West is imperilled by an enfeebled extremity of misguided tolerance and a rabid polarisation of political debate. On the left are the Politically Correct with their illiterate essentialism - if you are black or white, straight or gay, then that is all you are or ever can be - and on the right are the Patriotically Correct with their Edenic fantasy of a unitary, I Love Lucy, Protestant culture and their zany schemes to get 'Creation Science' taught in the schools. They are as bad and stupid as each other, and both are convinced that anybody not for them is against them. Hughes, needless to say, with his radical attempt to restore sanity, has been anathematised by both sides.

His anguish is understandable. In some bizarre orgy of television and other unrealities, America seems to be courting cultural suicide. Every issue is turned into a facile sound-bite row between the two sets of PC mobsters. Lies are deliberately propagated and indulged.

The cult of 'Afro-centrism', for example, has been dreamt up to counteract white 'Euro-centrism'. It offers absurdly inaccurate histories tracing all culture and all technology back to the ancient, black Egyptians and it is given serious airtime simply because it represents the self-expression of an oppressed minority. The lies are accepted as therapeutic by a nation that seems to think feeling good is all that counts, that deluded self-esteem is better than humble knowledge.

The resulting Cassandra-like vision is of a collapse of civic life into a series of warring tribes, irreconcilable by their own essentialist definitions and, therefore, incapable of acceding to the American ideal of E Pluribus Unum. Hughes, in common with many others, thinks that this fissiparous cocktail was exposed by the ending of the Cold War. The external enemy of Communism provided at least a theoretical unity. Once that was gone, the schisms that had festered, hidden and undebated, surfaced.

It is all undoubtedly serious. America still leads the world economically and culturally, and if the great liberal experiment goes wrong here, it potentially goes wrong everywhere.

But the question is: will the plural culture really self-destruct? Hughes's targets are certainly the right ones and they all deserve the brutal kicking he delivers. But are they portents of the end or just easily lampooned eccentricities on the margin of an essentially sound polity?

The pessimistic answer is that these illiterate polarisations are not marginal because they are symptoms of profound, and perhaps irreversible, large-scale changes in society. The crude demands of television lie behind the instant polarisations of American politics, and television's perpetual phantasmagoria of unscanned, unabsorbed images destroys the discipline of contemplation that is essential to the survival of any serious culture.

What chance has Vermeer against Eyewitness News? Thomas Jefferson against Hillary Clinton? Hughes believes the sheer narrow badness of television indicates the failure of the Utopia of the Eighties mediacrats and theorists who dreamt of a limitless cultural field of mass electronic communications. What we are given instead is a new culture of limitation: Tom 'Sincere' Brokaw, the anchorman with NBC, and jolly, fat weathermen for the newly cabled proletariat.

Furthermore, education has responded to the compulsions of the therapeutic society by placing ever lighter burdens upon its charges. It is now perfectly possible to gain an English degree at an American university by reading no more than 30 to 50 books and, meanwhile, anecdotes about the staggering ignorance of undergraduates have became a nervy staple of American chatter. On the heels of this narrowing of the possibilities of learning come the PC rows about what few fragments are allowed to be taught. Tragically, this involves brutal censorship of the best of America.

'Thomas Jefferson,' says Hughes, 'is one of the greatest people who ever lived. You teach Jefferson in the schools today, and the first thing the kid comes out with is that he kept slaves. Big fucking deal. It's bloody awful, actually.'

This idiotic moral tic - both types of PC are possessed by it - is what Hughes calls the 'obsessive retrofitting of the past with one's own moral precepts'. It represents perhaps the most culturally lethal aspect of the new America because it institutionalises and validates a 'loony therapeutic subjectivism'. History can only be observed through the distortions of our own tinted contact lenses.

And the tints are the same old essentialist blacks and whites. Jefferson was a white man with black slaves, he must be consigned to the hell of our deliberate ignorance; Plato was a pillar of a slave-based Athenian society, to hell then with Western philosophy.

The present becomes a historical autocracy, dictating standards, interpretations and even facts. We have no need to be humble before the past because we make it up as we go along. Here PC meets the deconstructionist wave that has swept American academia. There are only versions of the world, competing discourses and, since that is all there is, there is no final jury that can indict any single interpretation.

Look, insists Hughes, at the way American academics reacted to the Salman Rushdie fatwa - with barely a whimper. So deconstructed and psychotically 'multicultural' was their perspective that they could not condemn evil when they saw it. Of course, if the Ayatollah had been a white European . . .

But there is a problem for Hughes, as there is for all high liberals confronted with this morass. In his book he writes of his own strict Catholic boyhood. He is lapsed now and condemns the silliness of his upbringing with its masturbatory guilt and nightmares of damnation. He admits, however, that it provided the side of the pool from which he could push off and he still insists on the need for the pool to have sides.

His problem is: who builds the sides? And the point is: to have sides at all is an admission that liberalism, if it is to exist, must end somewhere with a final, illiberal assertion. Without such a core assertion you cannot find your bearings in the pool and that is when the voices of right and left PC start screaming at you.

Generations of fine, humanistic liberals such as Hughes have succeeded in overthrowing one set of delusions and superstitions only to watch with dismay as they are replaced by new, more destructive variants. The anxiety is that what we are seeing now might be the logical outcome of liberalism rather than its perversion.

The response of Hughes is to insist on a core; a cultural canon that is not immutable but which provides a wall to the pool. The canon will not exclude other cultures, but it will come first and it will be pervasive because, simply, it made America by defining the standards of tolerance that made cultural co-existence possible. The Africans, the Arabs and the Euro-Americans colluded in the slave trade, he points out, but only the Euro-Americans thought of a reason to stop it.

This is fair enough, but, as Hughes knows, the contest for the soul of America is going to be a damn close- run thing. A final illiberalism is required that is not as instantly pigeon-holed as that of Pat Buchanan and the televangelists. It will be a fiendishly difficult trick and Hughes is grateful that he is just a writer and does not have to fight for a case that goes beyond sound-bites in the maelstrom of the schools and universities.

And the optimistic view? Well the Hughes family has now moved to the country, but they still keep their loft in New York's artland. He continues fighting, flaying lies and mediocrity, deep in the belly of the PC beast, Manhattan.

'Culture of Complaint' will be published on 17 June by Oxford University Press at pounds 12.95.