Why We Must Criticize Our Culture

The job of a critic is to shatter the illusion that the status quo is necessary or good, and to free people’s imaginations for the contemplation of alternatives.

The other day, I found myself in “Waterset,” a planned community in Apollo Beach, Florida. I had just visited the Manatee Viewing Center (very worth the trip, if you like viewing manatees) and needed coffee, and Waterset had a cafe. 

Waterset is a new suburban development, one they probably flattened a stretch of wilderness to build. Its developer describes it as offering “a dazzling line-up of resort-style amenities, scenic views and beautiful nature, and friendly neighbors.” The amenities were certainly there (the publicity material boasts: “How many communities do you know of with four—yes, four!—pools available for use by all residents?”), although the “scenic views” and “beautiful nature” were entirely artificial. The lakes were so fake that even though I saw a young boy fishing on one, I suspected that any fish in the lake had probably been deposited there weekly by a worker whose job it is to come and fill the lake with fish. 

There was something about Waterset that gave me that feeling we call the creeps. The whole place seemed somehow wrong, yet it had carefully been designed to appear completely perfect. The streets were clean, the lawns mowed, the pools did not have a single leaf floating in them. Of course, this was the problem: it had that eerie Truman Show/Stepford Wives quality of a place so cheerful, so free of anything unsightly according to suburban sensibilities, such as an unhoused person or an unmowed or untidy lawn, that something dark must be lurking somewhere. 

When you start to look closely at such places, you do see darker things lurking beneath the surface. The landscaping is perfectly manicured because there is an army of Latino workers whose job it is to go around in the boiling Florida heat and keep the whole place perfect. It’s unlikely that many of the residents know any of these workers’ names, and if any of these workers have complaints about their conditions, it’s likely they’ll be summarily terminated. The neighborhood is built on the annihilation of the natural world. Virtually all wildlife is exterminated, and the only trees allowed are placed in orderly rows and not allowed to get out of hand. Everything is built by a single developer, who provides the floor plans for the houses, meaning that the community itself has very little control over the design of its space. The developer rules all (I don’t think Waterset has an elected mayor) and acts as a kind of benevolent dictator over the residents. Waterset also pitches itself specifically to military families (there is an Air Force base nearby), and promises to mow the lawns of any service members deployed abroad for the duration of their absence. The presence of veterans of America’s wars means, of course, that behind the doors of Waterset’s pleasantly inoffensive neo-traditional homes there lurks a great deal of trauma. One reason suburbs are creepy is that whereas in a city, you see the full range of human emotions expressed in the street (even if that means occasionally being screamed at by unwell strangers), suburbs make a strong effort to simply clear away all the nasty bits, to vanquish unpleasantness from life altogether, which means they repress the negative. 

It took me a while to understand this about neighborhoods like Waterset. When I was growing up in Florida, everything around me seemed natural and normal. It took the development of a critical intelligence for me to start asking questions like: What am I not seeing? What was here before all this was built? Who makes decisions in this place? What are their interests? Why do they prefer this aesthetic? Why do I have to drive in order to get anywhere? If I painted my house the wrong color here, what would happen? Why would that happen? Is this place democratic? Hey, and what does the U.S. military actually do when it gets “deployed?” 

A critical intelligence is one that doesn’t accept the society and culture around us as a given, and demands explanations for it. Sometimes, when we do that, we find that things that seemed “normal” are actually incompatible with basic principles of justice. We come to see the familiar as strange again, and be unsettled by things we once accepted. If I had been growing up in Waterset, for a long time I would have felt nothing was wrong. And if that feeling called the creeps had come over me as a teenager, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate what exactly felt wrong. Now, as an adult, I am capable of explaining why I think I don’t like the place. I can give you various problems: the “walkability” is an illusion, because there isn’t enough shade over the sidewalks so you boil in the Florida heat if you don’t drive; there isn’t a sufficiently broad range of individual expression; the whole place is lifeless and boring. I am capable of taking my feelings and turning them into specific complaints. These complaints are not purely negative, because they contain an implicit vision for an alternative. (For instance, follow New Urbanist principles for creating walkable places.) 

I used to hate being a professional critic. Critics are negative. Critics are the people who watch a movie that has taken hundreds of people a year to make, and have the audacity to just give it a “thumbs down.” They produce nothing. Their work is easy, because anything can be criticized. But over time, I’ve come to embrace the critical side of myself a bit more, because critics do something essential: they help people articulate their feelings and figure out why they don’t like certain things. For instance, when I wrote my popular critique of Jordan Peterson, a lot of people emailed to say that I had helped them understand why they were reacting the way they were to him. They knew something about him seemed fraudulent and wrong, but they couldn’t quite find the words. The job of the critic is to help us find the words, and finding the words to explain a problem is a precondition of discussing a solution. The critic asks tough questions. A critic who hates a work of art we love might help us see it in a new light, and wonder what the sources of our taste are. Correspondingly, a critic who praises something we loathe might have found virtues in it we overlooked. 

Criticism helps. It clarifies problems and gets us closer to solutions. Critical race theory, for instance, has articulated racial injustices that were always there but were not discussed or thought about in the academy. Sociologist Michael Burawoy gives a good explanation of how critical theories have improved the discipline of sociology: 

Feminism, queer theory and critical race theory have hauled professional sociology over the coals for overlooking the ubiquity and profundity of gender, sexual, and racial oppressions. In each case critical sociology attempts to make professional sociology aware of its biases, silences, promoting new research programs built on alternative foundations. Critical sociology is the conscience of professional sociology just as public sociology is the conscience of policy sociology.

Critical intelligence is useful for making the world better, then. Critics look at our culture—our art, our music, our buildings, our values—and get us thinking about whether they’re good. Are they what we want? I don’t think there’s much of a critical spirit anywhere in a place like Waterset, where everyone is expected to be agreeable. There is no space to ask questions like: Is there an “artificiality” or “soullessness” to this place? One thing I hope that Current Affairs can do is to bring up critical questions—about architecture, about TV, about the workplace—that expand our imaginations. “Capitalist realism” is the name given to the kind of cramping of the scope of imaginative possibilities that makes us think the economic status quo is inevitable or necessary. Critics help us see that what is in front of us is not the only thing we could have been offered. By explaining how something ought to have been, the critic draws attention to alternate paths. I don’t mean to encourage greater negativity in a world already overflowing with it, but there is a sense in which all criticism is constructive criticism, because all criticism implies that there are possibilities other than the present incarnation of whatever is being criticized. At a time when “capitalist realist” brain poison is so deep that it’s considered radical to even argue for a single-payer health insurance system (despite the obvious superiority of such a system), and when so much bullshit passes for wisdom, we need to encourage a kind of thinking that truly does question everything. It’s the only way we’ll get nicer neighborhoods, clearer thoughts, and a better world. 

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