No doubt about it, at times I can only be grateful for what I have read in the various books I have just mentioned and a number of others like them. I will be sitting in the living room of a man who works in an automobile factory, or a policeman or a fireman, or a store clerk, and I will hear “the authoritarian personality” giving vent to itself, and “white racism” coming forth in one awful word or phrase after another, and “one dimensional man” affirming proudly what he and his neighbors have come to. On such occasions a theorist’s ideas about what is happening in a society, like a good psychiatrist’s interpretations, rightly timed and sensibly worded, help one to pull together what seems otherwise chaotic or frightening, or both.
Yet there are other moments, and they are not so infrequent either. Here is a man speaking who works in a General Electric factory outside Boston—and I have to emphasize as strongly as I can that I have known him and his coworkers and neighbors for five years, spent that length of time with them and their families and neighbors:
“The country is in bad trouble, that’s how I see it. We’re paying for all the wrong things we’ve done; I’d say that. We had no business getting into Vietnam in the first place; they’re a bunch of crooks and thieves and liars, the people in the government we’re supporting. Look at some of the countries we’re pouring money into all over the world—dictators and generals run them, and there are a small bunch of rich, and most of the people are so poor you can’t even imagine how they live, like animals they live. Here in this country you have the highest standard of living in the world, but it’s still the same: there are the rich and there are the poor, and then there are people like us—we work day and night to keep up with the expenses. (I don’t know how I’d make it if I didn’t have a second job on the weekend.)
“I get sick and tired of welfare cheaters and worse are the hippies, who sit around doing nothing—but they call up Daddy if they run into trouble; and the niggers, always pushing, pushing. But what the hell, who really is in charge of this country, who is calling the shots, who is raking in the money? Not the poor colored people, I’ll tell you, it’s not them. What have they got for themselves out of this country, for all the damn back-breaking work they’ve done since they got picked up in Africa by guys with guns and sent over here like cattle? What does the ordinary worker get out of this economy, that he doesn’t have to fight for every year or two? Nixon freezes wages, he freezes prices, but the bankers and the stock market people (gamblers, that’s all they are, nothing else), those guys just keep pulling it in, profits and more profits. Some of them have these high price lawyers and accountants and they fix the tax forms up so that a millionaire can end up paying practically nothing compared to the hunk they deduct from my check every week. (And if they run into real trouble, there’s always the lobbyists in Washington who can go see congressmen and senators and get the tax laws changed.)
“Sometimes I wonder what to tell my kids. They ask you these whys: why one man has so much money that he owns five houses and buys a painting for a million dollars, and meanwhile children are hungry and there’s no work for thousands and thousands—right in this country. I tell them that it was always like that: even Jesus Christ couldn’t beat the big boys, the rich boys; they got rid of Him, plenty quick. So, what can a guy like me do? I tell my kids not to try and make sense out of this country; it’s like with people, there’s a lot of bad and a lot of good. If you ask me, I think in the long run the working people of this country will have to realize that it’s their sweat that produces the wealth, and that means we should have the same rights as the stockholders. No man should have to beg, and no child should go hungry, and no board of directors of a big company should be allowed to sit and make decisions as if it’s the stock market people, always buying and selling their shares, who turn out those cars and all the other things our factories produce.
“I can’t figure out how to make things more honest and fair in this country; I’m no big brain. But I’ll see some of those big brains talk on television, and I’ve seen them on the streets protesting, and a lot of them are damn fools, that’s right, and in love with hearing their own voices. They write about one scheme and then another (they get paid for doing it) and they’re against everything that they haven’t come up with themselves, and they hit you every place; they make you feel ashamed of everything in your life: your country, the schools your kids go to, the factories where you work and the things you help make, the union you belong to, the dreams you have—that your kids go to college and get good jobs.
“I notice, mind you, that the people who criticize this country most, they’re not doing so bad. They call America all kinds of names, but just look at them: they live the good life; they look pretty prosperous to me; no one’s stopping them from saying anything they want. I’d sure like to let off some steam every once in a while the way they do—and maybe pick up a few bucks for doing it, and get cheered; but no, I have to clock-in at eight, and I’m no sooner home than it’s time to eat and say good night to my kids and go to bed myself. Before I get there, though, I’ll hear on a program or I’ll read in the paper that I’m a bigot, people like me, because I’m not fair in my mind to the colored—or to youth, they’re called, not kids, or to the women and the fairies. Everyone wants liberation; that’s what you hear, liberation this and liberation that, liberation for everyone—yes, everyone except families like mine, and we’re the majority, only that Nixon is mistaken if he thinks we’re always going to be so damned silent. All we want is to get by this week and go into the next one without drowning in bills.
“Maybe all of us who just work and don’t bellyache ought to start demanding liberation for us. I mean, we could quit showing up at the factories and start calling a lot of other people names. Soon there’d be no food in the stores and nothing to buy, and the planes wouldn’t work, and the TV would stop and the newspapers, and we’d all be shut up. Then maybe we could start over again. You see injustice in this world, and you think sometimes that we should—start it all over, and make the country better, make it more like the people said it should be, the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence. I still remember some of the words in it, even now—about men being created equal; it’s a shame they’re only words.”
The longer I know this man, the more I hear him talk, the harder it is for me to call him this or that, and in so doing feel halfway responsive to the ironies and ambiguities and inconsistencies that I hear in his words and, more important, see expressed in his everyday deeds, his situation in life. He speaks at times about blacks and students and college professors with more anger and contempt than this excerpt indicates. He can be irrational, mean, narrow-minded; and he can work himself up into a spell of mixed racism and jingoism that would only please some of the very people he chooses to attack later on: the rich and powerful, the “vested interests,” an expression he learned from Harry Truman and uses over and over again.
He can also be seen working beside black men, talking easily and warmly with them, sharing food with them, offering advice to them and taking advice from them—on what kind of gas to buy, where to get a household item, a gadget, an article of clothing. One day, sometimes one minute, I hear him waving the flag frantically, or treating the struggles of all kinds of people with a nervous scorn that does nothing to reassure him about his own worries and fears. The next day, if not the next minute, he is a strong social critic, a populist, an independent-minded citizen who sees through all sorts of sham and cant and hypocrisy, as spoken and practiced by people he will often collectively refer to as “the powers that be.” A white racist, a one dimensional man, a male chauvinist, an American imperialist, an authoritarian person, he is a far cry from the noble, unblemished proletarian hero some radicals have praised to high heaven—and sought to lead.
Maybe there never was such a proletarian man, at any time in history, in any country; I have no way of knowing. I have enough trouble with my own reactions to what I observe. I become annoyed, saddened, frightened, outraged. I also feel admiration, respect, affection—and a measure of shame. Some of this man’s barbs hit home, bring me up short, and make me wonder why it has been, why it continues to be, that in my mind’s way of thinking I can’t quite do justice to the complexity of his life, let alone the “problem” that arises when someone like me spends time with him and with others more or less like him.
In a way, when I met these white American working men and their families, I was as ill-prepared to comprehend them as I was to make sense of the black people I first worked with in the South and later met up North. I had heard about them, too, from psychological and sociological theorists—about the “mark of oppression,” about the “basic Negro personality,” with all its weaknesses and failures and “disadvantages.” Yet, year after year I saw enormous strength and resiliency as well as liveliness and resourcefulness in people who were (also, it has to be immediately added) capable of being moody, tired, worn-down, and quick to express anger against themselves as well as against a white visitor and his kind.
Perhaps I should have known all along that only a certain kind of novelist or moral philosopher or social historian can do proper justice to the lives of human beings as they are lived in such flagrant disregard for the needs and insecurities and ambitions that various theory-prone social scientists or ideologues happen to have. So one belatedly turns away from one kind of social observer and searches out another: James Agee in Alabama; George Orwell in Wigan; Simone Weil among France’s workers and peasants; C. Vann Woodward trying to fathom the life of Tom Watson—only to find that for them, too, it has been hard, and sometimes impossible, to avoid one or another pitfall.