Recently I have been re-reading a book by Curtis White, who is a penetrating thinker, though hardly a Christian one.
The book is called: The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves.
White is a university professor and like myself, is an American, and what he means by The Middle Mind is the generation of a collective mindset – generated across the board: in the media, in academia, in political pronouncements, in entertainment, in the arts so-called.
It is a mindset whose effect is to dull thinking, numb feeling and to admit no world, beyond the borders of a tightly controlled domain.
Everything from Steven Spielberg films to liberal college education is analysed – acutely – in this book. What White is doing – among other things – is to show how apparently disparate institutions now tend to the same end. How for example, once “high brow” academia and “low brow” crass entertainment now amount to the same vision.
As the author writes:
“The American university is not itself part of the Middle Mind, whose realm strictly speaking is entertainment, but it is a mostly unwitting ally [It] shares … the tendency to flatten distinctions.
This is most conspicuous in what has become known as “Cultural Studies”, where notoriously Milton has had to share the stage with Madonna for the last two decades. [There is] a flattening effect on literature, because all texts can be said to contain “signifiers” acting as “social symptoms” … A TV commercial, a sitcom, a tabloid treatment of OJ, a poem by Yeats – they’re all “manifestations of culture”.
This tends to flatten culture, abolish distinction, make everything gray.”
White frequently does superb work I think, to show how this Middle Mind is so very effective – effective in reducing, confusing, blurring and simplifying issues, leading to a culture of banal mediocrity.
It is also a culture that stultifies what White calls the imagination. The word as White uses it, points to something incredibly potent and multilayered. But it includes – though is not limited to – our ability to conceive of any other cultural option or future for humanity.
Moreover the author also possesses the courage to link our cultural deficit of imagination to a political agenda – one of stupefying people and producing tolerance to what ought to be intolerable.
Thus he writes that it serves capitalism and a corporate culture that does not want us to think of any world beyond its own agendas. As White puts it: ‘The Middle Mind is a strategy. It is a means to an end. It is a form of management.”
And I feel like adding: Here is the true opium of the people.
For all his shrewd insight in these areas, I want to salute Curtis White.
I regret to say that I find the book less-than-satisfactory in other respects, however.
White is an entertaining, very funny writer. But I wonder if he is too funny – a writer who cannot resist a (good) joke. I freely admit it: I laugh when he writes lines like the following about the recurrent use of the American flag in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan:
“Is the flag present in the movie because, well, flags are always in WWII movies? Is it a purely generic concession? That would be really stupid, if that’s the case.”
White’s punchline: “It therefore very possibly is the case.”
I laugh … but I wonder if I should be weeping more.
Because White is really talking about something that is not for laughs. It is something that is murdering the soul of our civilisation.
Some will consider this book as just another liberal rant. It is certainly true that White belongs to liberal, leftist American academia. He is however acutely aware of the poverty of vision of his vague, liberally minded cohort – as well as its poverty of commitment to change.
Indeed he despairs of much hope for change. Yet ironically to my own Catholic mind, his despair may well be rooted in his own incapacity to see much beyond the contemporary culture that we are locked in.
Here is the irony I at least, cannot help but see in The Middle Mind: The thesis here is that we are locked into a tight, narrow culture, yet the Catholic of Faith will be unable to escape the conclusion: White himself is locked into the selfsame culture – and its byproducts – that he criticises …
Once more, the author is not a Christian thinker. And he often takes a dim view of Christianity in these pages. Like so many Americans, his dominant associations around Christianity are to do with the Protestant Evangelism – which has served to convince so many Americans that Protestant Evangelism is pretty much all there is to Christianity.
To his credit, White does recognise that there are other versions of Christianity. In an effort to be fair, he gives fleeting mention to “the Christianities of Dante, or Chaucer or Gerald Manley Hopkins” as being different to the Christianity, which he critiques. Yet it is not surprising that what he does not mention, is that all three of these men were Catholics. More on this point, in a moment …
On the whole, the book is anti-traditional religion. Still White does seem interested in something, which he calls “religion”.
Yet to the Catholic mind, it amounts to a highly minimalist version of religion.
True religion for White would seem to involve the capacity to be consciously reflective, to feel passionately and to engage the imagination.
Of course, I agree with White on all of this. True religion does involve all these things. But it also involves far, far more. My beef with White’s “religion” is that it is so terribly minimalist. For White, it would appear, this is what true religion is – and not much else.
Thus I doubt whether it occurs to White that the reason there might be Catholic geniuses like Dante is not simply that they possessed vivid insight or imagination – but also that they were nourished by the living SACRAMENTS.
I may be wrong, but I tend to doubt whether an appreciation of a Sacrament has ever even entered into White’s stripped-down reading of religion …
Really White’s take on what religion amounts to is not far different from many of the more intelligent New Age approaches – minus some wackiness (That of Richard Moss springs to mind here). From a Catholic hermeneutic, it is reductionist, humanistic and in the end materialistic.
Once in a while, I even find the book odious. There is an all-too-casual purely utilitarian defense of killing the unborn to save the born …
Some may wonder why I bother at all with Curtis White. First, I believe in reading and absorbing many different sides of important issues.
And the issues here are very, very, very important.
We are being murdered -I want to repeat – by the very things White is talking about. And whatever the book’s numerous faults, it contains a truly sharp analysis of both how and why we are being murdered.
Christianity is also being murdered by the same forces that White analyses. The Christian and Catholic Faith is being buried by the kind of Middle Mind that White so ably describes here …
A wag once said: it is a difficult acrobatic feat to place a laurel leaf on someone’s head, while giving him a boot up the rear at the same time.
There is a paradox for me here – White is describing in very acute terms indeed a culture that is stultifying, becoming ever more mercilessly automatic and robotic.
What White is describing tunnel vision – yet his remedies stem from the very same tunnel that led to the problem. At least, I do not think a truly Catholic mind can escape any other conclusion.
A truly Catholic mind cannot help but see the author as locked into the materialistic tunnel of the last centuries that counts supernatural grace or the Sacraments for nothing, nothing at all. All the author can do is dream of a culture in which by our own effort, we will become once again reflective, imaginative, critical, feeling …
I wonder if the Professor here has ever bothered to take seriously a critique, from beyond this perspective …
Such a critique would say. The so-called progressive, liberal trajectory of the last centuries, is at least open to serious critique. There may be something in the “premodern view” that human beings are not free from Original Sin and will not – in and of themselves – automatically move ever forward into greater freedom and creativity.
Of this your penetrating book, Dr White, may I say offers all-too-ample evidence?
And what if Dr White, the only answer is not an answer that simply involves human effort – greater imagination, critical thinking and the like – but Supernatural Grace?
And what if the Sacraments of the Church confer that Grace, but that you – like so many millions of other good, decent people – have been deprived by the self-same secular tunnel, from knowing what a Sacrament even is …?
Of course, Dr White, I imagine you dismiss all of this out of hand. And you do not engage much with what the geniuses of the West – beyond the last centuries or so, pre- Locke, pre-Hume – were really concerned with.
But if I am right, your non-engagement is my point, really.
Still I could recommend your book to many people.
Because once again, we are being murdered, slowly murdered. And The Middle Mind could serve as a wake-up call from an author whose mind and heart are clearly ALIVE – whatever his culturally prescribed reductions of religion, amongst other important things.
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