Junot Diaz and the Rot That is Bourgeois Culture

Photo source Embajada de EEUU en la Argentina | CC BY 2.0

Seven months after Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, the #MeToo moment of reckoning is still going strong. The latest powerful asshole to be felled by its revelations is the writer Junot Diaz, who, as the New York Times notes, has repeatedly sexually and verbally harassed women, including students. Diaz’s initial response to the allegations was less than compelling: “I take responsibility for my past,” he said. “That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape [as a young child] and its damaging aftermath.” In other words, ‘the reason I’m an asshole is that I was raped a long time ago, and I wrote about it in the New Yorker last month to preempt inevitable allegations of my being an abusive prick.’

Apart from the comeuppance that so many serial abusers are receiving and the change in culture that is taking place, one of the satisfying consequences of the #MeToo movement is simply that unpleasant people, “iconic” egomaniacs who treat others badly, are getting what they deserve. That is, the idols of a bourgeois culture that worships fame and authority are being seen to have feet of clay, not only by millions of individuals but by the very institutions of culture they serve and obey. When mainstream feminism targets celebrities and authority-figures, the result is the delightful spectacle of bourgeois culture eating its own, in fact those who best embody its cult of personality, profit, and power.

After all, it’s a truism that the reason people like Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Bill Cosby, Junot Diaz, Dustin Hoffman, Mario Batali, Mark Halperin, and many others of their ilk are able to rise high in their professions is that they don’t challenge authority—certainly not class structures, the most fundamental ‘authority’ there is—they make money for powerful institutions, they accept mainstream (bourgeois) tastes and standards of value, they’re brilliant at self-promotion, etc. There is nothing admirable about these qualities. But of course a culture that values them will prostrate itself at the feet of those who personify them—at least until they violate other values that have made it into the bourgeois canon, such as not harassing women who themselves obediently fit into mainstream culture and thus deserve to be heard.

More generally, Chomsky is right that we ought to be skeptical of most people who have achieved success (especially those at the top). Far from its being impressive, success tends to be driven by “some combination of greed, cynicism, obsequiousness and subordination, lack of curiosity and independence of mind, self-serving disregard for others, and who knows what else.” Such qualities are quite compatible with an abusive personality, and the #MeToo revelations we’ve seen so far are surely an infinitesimal fraction of the magnitude of sexual harassment by powerful men.

Personally, I find the status-consciousness of our culture repellent. It saturates the society, soaking every institution and even the public spaces between institutions, as in the value-judgments we constantly make (even half-consciously) about others’ clothing or looks or confidence. In a sense, status-consciousness fuels our world, determining our behavior through its implicit presence in social and institutional norms. (For if we act contrary to norms, we’ll have a lower status.) This is to say that anti-democracy fuels our world, for the principle of respecting status/authority/power is opposed to that of respecting the equality and potential rationality of all people. Moreover, as I just noted, the people we end up admiring are usually precisely those who don’tdeserve to be admired, given the qualities it takes to succeed in a capitalist world. To quote the historian Albert Prago, “in an amoral society, the amoral man is best qualified to succeed.”

There is also something incredibly vulgar about status-worship, about the spectacle of it all. The whole culture industry, in particular, is farcical, premised on the exaltation of inauthenticity (not to mention, in most cases, mediocrity). To take a rather subtle example, I recall years ago attending a writers conference that featured, one night, readings by some famous authors, including Ravi Shankar, Josip Novakovich, and the liberal feminist Katha Pollitt. Later I reflectedon the experience:

At the celebrity readings the audience is duly appreciative, basking in the presence of fame, applauding the sometimes idiotic selections on display. (For example, Katha Pollitt read a piece that related her experiences with a small group of Marxist activists; most of it was devoted to glib jokes at their expense, which duly elicited laughter from the audience.) The whole charade, with all the glamor and self-congratulation and two-minute-long introductions of each writer, repulsed me. Such artificiality! Any of the poems and stories written by us students could have been read and would have received the same applause; people would have been clamoring to buy the book, would have wanted autographs—although, actually, those reactions might have been relatively justified, since some of the students’ work was better than the celebrities’. Only in the later, sparsely attended student readings could one escape the snobbery and credentials-worship.

Bourgeois culture, of which this typical event was a microcosm, is little more than artificiality and stupidity deified.

At this point I could launch into a diatribe about how not only the entertainment, political, and business worlds but also the intellectual world consists largely of frauds, assholes, and idiots, but instead I’ll end by quoting someone who actually deserved the adulation he received: Howard Zinn. We have to start, and end, with the same thought he had in 1970, that the world is completely upside down:

I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down. Daniel Berrigan is in jail—a Catholic priest, a poet who opposes the war—and J. Edgar Hoover is free, you see. David Dellinger, who has opposed war ever since he was this high and who has used all of his energy and passion against it, is in danger of going to jail… At Kent State University four students were killed by the National Guard and students were indicted. In every city in this country, when demonstrations take place, the protesters, whether they have demonstrated or not, whatever they have done, are assaulted and clubbed by police, and then they are arrested for assaulting a police officer…

Things are topsy-turvy in every sphere of society. One only wonders how long the farce can continue.

Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Notes of an Underground HumanistWorker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, and Finding Our Compass: Reflections on a World in Crisis. His website is www.wrightswriting.com.

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