The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves

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9780060524364: The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves

  • What do George W. Bush, the Ivory Tower, Steven Spielberg, and Terri Gross have in common?
  • Does a political scandal make for good news copy?
  • Does network programming allow us to unwind from a day's work?
  • Does the art at the local museum make for pleasant cocktail conversation?

An unflinching and wry look at the dumbing down of the American imagination.

In this groundbreaking and incisive exploration, acclaimed social critic Curtis White describes an all-encompassing and little-noticed force taking over our culture and our lives. White calls this force the Middle Mind -- the current failure of the American imagination in the media, politics, education, art, technology, and religion.

The Middle Mind is pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the right's narrowness, and incredulous before the left's convolutions. It wants to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has bought an SUV with the intent of visiting it. It even understands in some indistinct way how that very SUV spells the Arctic's doom.

The Middle Mind is not about left or right, highbrow or lowbrow, academia or pop culture; in fact, it pervades society without discrimination. The danger is not in a specific point of view, but rather in how the Middle Mind thrives in the common ground of unquestioned mediocrity. All we seem to ask about the culture we experience is whether it's entertaining.

White argues that we have forgotten how to read, to watch, to think for ourselves. Because it is neutral, widespread, and easily digestible, the Middle Mind has lulled the American imagination to sleep. As we sit comfortably amused and distracted, just outside the door there is an immediate crisis of a nation blindly following the path of least resistance. Irreverent, provocative, and far-reaching, White presents a clear vision of this dangerous mindset that threatens America's intellectual and cultural freedoms, concluding with an imperative to reawaken and unleash the once powerful American imagination.

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Review:

Curtis White’s The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves--which grew from a 2002 Harper's article—examines as its titular object the dominant American liberal, pseudo-intellectual consciousness. "The Middle Mind" disdains hard thinking and true examination of corporate and political forces that act upon it. In the book, White dilates on his notion of an American Middle Mind to imagine a world beyond it, but he frequently gets lost on his journey. He finds three sources for this American malaise: the entertainment industry, academic orthodoxy, and political ideology. But, as in the original magazine piece, the figures he picks to condemn within this triumvirate are a bit surprising, even while his attacks are unremitting. NPR's Terry Gross, for example, is characterized as one whose work is "useless for the purposes of intelligence," and her show is dismissed as a "pornographic farce." In his critiques, White claims to be resisting the classic high-brow/low-brow cultural distinctions; or, rather, he sees the Middle Mind as having absorbed them. But his frequent allusions to Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and high Modernism long for a world that never was, a world of art and political resistance that was somehow accessible in its full complexity to all of America. While White wants a creative, intelligent, politically engaged American mass culture, his exemplars look remarkably like high culture icons and few modern intellectuals are left standing (notably Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Bill Moyers). By the end, his call for a "pragmatic sublime" diffuses into vague, postmodern-theory-laden discussion of artistic formalism and a celebration of David Lynch's film Blue Velvet as a model for resistance. In this context of exclusivity, Terry Gross's inclusive "Middle Mind" seems the more open space for true discourse. --Patrick O’Kelley

About the Author:

Curtis White is the author of the novels Memories of My Father Watching TV and Requiem. A widely acclaimed essayist, his work appears regularly in Context and Harper's. He is an English professor at Illinois State University and the current president of the Center for Book Culture/Dalkey Archive Press

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