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Friday, November 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Beware the numbing Middle Mind; it lurks everywhere

By Bob Simmons
Special to The Seattle Times

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There's something in "The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves" to displease just about everyone. Or at least every "middle-minded" consumer of art, literature, entertainment or politics. Novelist and social critic Curtis White has written a witty and blistering commentary on America's poverty of imagination, which he explores through examples from the media, academia and public policy.

The "Middle Mind" (HarperSanFrancisco, $23.95) describes a suffocating paradigm dominating American entertainment, stifling our social imagination and impacting vitally important public decisions.

White describes the Middle Mind as an identifiable body of thought with a purpose — marked by "charm and banality" and thriving on "the thoughtless and ephemeral enthusiasms that it presents as culture." Its purpose, he says, "is to assure that the imagination is not abroad."

He personalizes it: "The Middle Mind is liberal," he says. "It wants to protect the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and has bought an SUV with the intent of visiting it."

Author appearance


Curtis White will read from "The Middle Mind," 7:30 p.m. next Friday, the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

Prominent among White's lineup of Middle Mind thinkers: Public TV's Charlie Rose, NPR's Terry Gross, PBS documentarian Ken Burns, authors Joe Queenan ("Basalmic Dreams") and Dinty W. Moore ("The Accidental Bhuddist"); and the academic purveyors of Cultural Studies who — according to White — have trouble making clear any qualitative distinction between Milton and Madonna.

His most withering critique is an 11-page deconstruction of Steven Spielberg's movie "Saving Private Ryan," which White finds to be a "crypto-fascist work of historical revision." It's urgent, he insists, that we view this and every film as an artifice in which there are no accidents — everything that's in the movie is there for a purpose — and to question closely what the storyteller is trying to accomplish with each frame of action and bit of dialogue. In that way, White says, the Spielberg film's "murderous thesis" — the glorification of war and the imperative to choose death — come clear.

Concentric with the spread of the Middle Mind, White warns of a "New Censorship," more insidious than traditional restraints on speech and writing. The new form functions, not by restraining information but by "making everything known and naked to a paralyzing degree." He cites the lack of public outrage over the Clinton government's widely publicized missile attack on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which he calls "an act of state terrorism and a violation of every principle of international law." He deplores the ability of the Bush administration, under cover of the New Censorship, to admit the scientific basis of global warming and assert at the same time that nothing should be done about it. The New Censorship works, White says, when our entertainment-oriented media play these stories as business-as-usual, ensuring a flaccid public response and a growing tolerance for corruption.

At the same time he finds hope in what he calls the "honest and combative work" of Andrei Codrescu, Bill Moyers, Molly Ivins, Tom Frank, Michael Moore, George W.S. Trow, Eric Schlosser and others whose writing "transcends the extended joke of two-party politics and urges people to reconsider the meaning of their world."

He warns that the possibility of such reconsideration is quickly being extinguished with the rise of the Middle Mind. Defeating the social imagination, White says, has become as regular a chore as taking out the garbage: "Darling, did you remember to repress your sense of your own creative capacity before you came to bed? And don't forget to stultify the kids."

We might wish that White had devoted fewer pages to philosophical debates between leading literary critics. Some of those sections are hard to get unless you're already conversant with the literary philosophers and their contesting approaches.

To which we could imagine White responding, so what? Struggle a little, it will stimulate your mind. If that's scary, then don't let me bother you. Go turn on David Letterman.


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