Nicolaus Mills '60 has dedicated his latest book, The Triumph of Meanness: America's War against Its Better Self (Houghton Mifflin), to the late Cesar Chavez and to Fred Ross of the United Farm Workers of America because, he says, "they represent the best in us as a country, the fundamental commitment to equality and the ideal of politics from the bottom up." Today, he maintains, few Americans share those ideals, which prompted him to write this book.
Mills defines meanness as "spite and cruelty toward the most vulnerable members of society," and he aims to make readers vividly aware of how it has become part of daily life. Among his many examples are a poster that pro- claimed, "Senior citizens are the biggest carriers of AIDS: Hearing Aids, Band-Aids, Rol-Aids, Walking Aids, Medic-aid, and Government Aid," the Florida congressman who drew an analogy between hungry alligators and welfare recipients. instead of being outraged and offended, he charges, too many Americans have accepted such attitudes passively and allowed them to pervade our culture.
Mills doesn't suggest meanness is a new phenomenon in American history, but argues that a more damaging form of it developed after the end of the Cold War. With no one "outside" to scapegoat, he says, "we began to demonize our own people, and we've habituated ourselves to acting meaner without embarrassing ourselves." His solution is to battle back in nonviolent ways, whether by fighting for revisions in the current welfare laws or arguing against the brutality of rap lyrics. The prescription echoes his own experiences as a teacher and voter-registration drive worker in Mississippi in the mid 1960s and as an organizer with the UFW during the grape boycott of 1967.
Today Mills feels fortunate to be a writer and a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, where he teaches American studies and has seen some of the cultural changes he writes about first-hand. "We now have a scholarship category for students 'with newly revealed need,"' he writes. "What it acknowledges, albeit with a euphemism, is a terrifying fact of middle-class life in the nineties: job loss for the forty-five- to fifty-five-year-old businessman or woman who, having reached what was once a secure place in management, is suddenly sacked for a younger, cheaper worker as a company downsizes."
Regardless of the triumph of meanness that he describes, however, Mills has some hope for the future. "I don't feel that a new progressivism is around the corner as some writers do," he says, "but I am determined that we can do better." As he writes in his introduction, "Having a bad conscience doesn't by itself guarantee that we will change, but it is a starting point and one that I hope[my book] will provide the grounds for cultivating." -CLAUDIA ANDREA BENNETT
Harvard Magazine- Jan./Feb. 1998