South to a Very Old Place
The Decline of the WASP
“In rummaging through Africa and inventing the Nation of Islam,” Peter Schrag observes in The Decline of the WASP, “Malcolm and the Muslims managed, really for the first time, to color Americanism black; the triumph of Malcolm’s hustle was his ability to make some people believe that the stolen goods from Franklin, Carnegie and Emerson were really new…. Not even the worst dressers in Harlem, said Albert Murray, the black writer, ‘are indifferent to fashion. They are over-committed to it.’ ” In this quotation Schrag argues, as Murray does throughout South to a Very Old Place, that the black contribution to contemporary life in America is as distinctively American as that of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which it willingly and often exultantly exploits and parodies.
Schrag and Murray must both be counted among the numerous social analysts now seeking to cool America down and reduce the ferocity of the internal conflicts that rend it. They do so by invoking fundamental American values that may still carry enough moral and political weight to influence their readers. They do not, however, appeal primarily to the same values. Murray is almost exclusively concerned with promoting equality of opportunity; Schrag emphasizes pluralism and cultural diversity—the acceptance and accommodation of a wide variety of styles of life—a goal which Murray dismisses as too frequently a device for preventing blacks from demanding and fully exploiting the opportunities due them.
Among persons who share a desire to heal America’s wounds and restore its integrity, however, this difference in choice of the values to be emphasized is crucial. Reduced to the simplest terms, cultural conflict in America and elsewhere may be viewed primarily as a sometimes lethal struggle between those who prize diversity far more than access to power and material success and those who reverse these priorities. The contrasting tone of the two books illustrates this very well. Schrag, while sympathetic to the anxieties that lead many New York City schoolteachers, for example, to hold on to the economic advantages of their jobs precisely because they possess no real salable skills and are—in the words in which Ortega characterized man in the mass—“unqualified, unqualifiable, and by their very mental texture disqualified”—also insists on respect for what he calls “the kids,” marijuana and all.
Mr. Murray’s position is more difficult to pin down explicitly, since he adopts throughout the book the literary device of imaginary colloquy with various vaguely identified spokesmen. It is usually impossible to tell whether these speak for him or whether he merely wishes to make his readers aware of their points of view as being widely and intensely held among his brothers and hence important social data. Perhaps a bit of both: here, at any rate, is a typical passage:
“I said goddam. I said what the hell I’m doing wasting my goddam time proving some kind of old bull-shit point to some little bullshit ofays down here on a summer vacation and sicking me on the goddam police to get some knots on my head and they can go home to papa and that fat-ass checkbook any time they want to. So here I am with a bunch of hickeys on my knuckleass head and they back up there bragging about how they helped me. Dig that. I said, man, what is this shit? I said, man, fuck that shit.”
It was also summer—June 22, 1964—when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were reported missing near Philadelphia, Mississippi; their bodies were recovered on August 4. This passage appears to be addressed, belatedly, to those who might still follow Mr. Goodman’s and Mr. Schwerner’s example; though the risks are fewer now, partly as a result of their martyrdom. Certainly, there are many sound reasons why blacks should welcome white intervention in their affairs even less than they did eight years ago. Black leadership has had time to develop and black self-confidence justly demands that the competence of local people be recognized in corresponding authority. But the argument against white participation in black movements has held that the experience of the two races in America has been so different that any attempt of whites to share the lives of black people must be inherently hypocritical; and that the conflict of interest between oppressor and oppressed is too solidly built into the American social structure to be abated by good will, which serves merely to confuse the issue and weaken resistance to continued exploitation.
This is almost the opposite of Murray’s position. While he certainly anticipates no change in the hearts of white men, he also insists that American blacks who groove on their distinctive heritage are obstructing themselves and their brothers by systematic self-delusion, because in spite of the eruption of African nationalism, American whites still control Africa. African leaders know it, and will have nothing but scorn for black Americans who don’t know where their home really is:
“Every time somebody come up with some of all that old West Indian banana-boat jive about the ‘block mon’ I tell them…ain’t nobody doing nothing nowhere in Africa and nowhere else that this white man right here don’t want them to do. I tell them. Every time a goddam African put a dime in a telephone, a nickel of it come right over here to this same white man. That goes for them Germans and Frenchmen and Englishmen, all of them over there and them Japs too. So you know it goes for them goddam barefooted Africans….
“All y’all want to go back to Africa, you welcome to go. Fare thee goddam well, horse, I say. But I tell you what I’m going to do. Because I know what’s going to happen. I say: I’m going to get my college boys trained to go to New York City and Washington, D. C. and get next to something. Because what’s going to happen is them Africans going to take one look at them goddam jive-time Zulu haircuts and them forty-dollar hand-made shoes and they going to lock your American ass up in one of them same old slave-trading jails they put our ancestors in, and they going to have you writing letters back over here to this same old dog-ass white man in the United States of America asking for money….
“And you know what the goddam hell I’m going to be doing? I’m going to have my college boys sitting up there in Washington and Wall Street with a mean-assed rubber-assed goddam stamp saying Hell, no! Saying, forget it, cousin. Hey, because by that time with what we know we supposed to have this white man over here all faked out and off somewhere freaking out and I mean for days! And I’ll bet you this much any day, we’ll have this white man over here faked out long before any boots from Harlem fake out any of them Africans over yonder.”
Schrag might well accept the conclusion, at least, of this statement; since the theme of his book is the decline in authority of the power-wielding WASP and the ease with which that authority is consequently countered or ignored by conflicting interest groups. He certainly does not deplore the passage of WASP hegemony, but he does recognize that this hegemony, when it was effective, depended on a kind of moral consensus that the WASPs themselves abandoned, thus contributing to their own down-fall. The squares, in his phrase, willingly turned plastic and thus came to stand for nothing at all; and this, at least, is a loss to culture.
Schrag’s approach, then, is that of a social critic. But Albert Murray is a booster rather than a critic. In the current American climate of national self-denigration, only a black American could have published so sentimental and chauvinistic a book as South to a Very Old Place with any hope of having it taken seriously. His reminiscences of college days at Tuskegee are nostalgic, rhapsodic, schmaltzy, and intellectually pretentious, as college days seen through the glass of memory thirty-five years later probably ought to be. But these are too much, they read like an S. J. Perelman parody of Stover at Yale. Maybe Tuskegee really was like that then—many American colleges were—but Murray apparently still cherishes the memory not merely for itself but as evidence that undergraduates had just as collegiate a time at Tuskegee, and just as good teachers, as they had at Yale. But who doubts it? And considering how ineffective such experiences have proved in restraining the subsequent barbarity of whites, how can they be recalled by blacks with tenderness rather than irony?
Murray’s central message to Whitey is “Anything you can do we can do better!” To want to do anything different would be romantic extravagance. His choice of examples for possible emulation can be very striking:
To which still someone else adds: “This is what I say. I say we know this white man. I say don’t nobody nowhere in the world know this white man better than us, and this is the goddam white man that runs the goddam world. That’s a fact, gentlemen, and ain’t no disputing it. Don’t nobody nowhere do nothing if this white man here don’t really like it. You remember what Kennedy did to old Khrushchev that time about Cuba? Old Kennedy said, ‘I’m going to tell it to you straight, pardner.’ He said, ‘Listen, horse, cause I ain’t going to tell you but once, so listen good or it’s going to be your natural vodka pooting ass.’
“He said, ‘Now I want all them goddam missiles and shit out of there by Wednesday’ (or Thursday—or whenever the hell it was) and he said, ‘I want them back on them goddam boats heading in such and such a direction, and then goddammit when you get to such and such a latitude of longitude I want you to stop and peel back them tarpaulins so my bad-assed supersonic picture-taking jets can fly over and inspect that shit and then I want you to get your Russian ass out of my hemisphere and stay out.’
“That’s this white man, and don’t nobody mess with him, and what I’m saying is we the ones that know him inside out and been knowing him inside out…. What I’m saying is he smart enough to go all the way up to the moon and we know he still ain’t nothing but a square like he always was, so what these [black] college boys got to do is get ready to take all that stuff we know and push it up to the nth degree and use it on this white man right here.”
Or on others. Black GIs bomb gooks—and call them that—just as white GIs do. Granted that Mr. Murray is not here speaking his own mind: he puts these words in the mouth and syntax of an old Mobile buddy who never left home to be educated. And, clearly speaking for himself, he states the issue precisely: “The problem is how to evolve socio-political tactics and strategies that are truly indigenous to and compatible with the dynamics of US Negro life style. Because until somebody does, the so-called masses are not likely to become very deeply involved no matter how earnest your appeals—even to their self-interest.”
Mr. Murray’s understanding of that life style and its uncanny mimicry of the values of the dominant white society is undoubtedly profound and accurate. The difficulty is that, as he makes the solution clearer, the problem becomes harder to discern, at least for white social critics. If what blacks really want is only the power to outsmart and defeat whites at their own game, what does it really matter who is doing what to whom? A shrewd and rather moving tribute to Lyndon Johnson as a politician who was not afraid of Southern whites because he was one himself and knew how to handle them and hence did a great deal for black people continues:
And now we got old Nixon. So now the Northern white man come trying to make out like he so worried because old Nixon ain’t doing enough for us. But now you just wait and see how many of them going to buck up against old Nixon. Just wait and see. Don’t be surprised if old Nixon don’t have to do more on his own than any of them nice old grinning Northern white folks ever going to be willing to try to force him to do. I’m talking about for us—ain’t talking about that old war over yonder.
He certainly isn’t. If he were, he would surely have noticed how much that old war has already eroded the white American hegemony Murray still finds so impressive. The missile crisis is unlikely to be repeated. Americans have learned, at least, that the political gains do not justify such risks. Cubans, being more flexible than we are about the financing of public services, can use the telephone without having to put a dime in; and if every time a black African does so a nickel comes back to America, the mark and the yen and the franc would not now rival the dollar where once they were subordinate to it.
The American model is no longer so appealing because of pure power. There is much to be gained and little to be lost by changing the rules and setting up a more humane and compassionate game. But black Americans as Murray perceives them have no interest in changing the American scenario—are opposed, in fact, to doing so—until they can get the meaty roles in the drama for themselves. Well, this works, after a fashion, in Shakespeare; but the world cannot afford to serve as a stage for continuous performances of the imperial American pageant, with a cast of hundreds of thousands of Third World extras, just so black Americans can get their turn to star.
I do not question the accuracy of Mr. Murray’s portrayal of the interests and aspirations of black Americans. It would be presumptuous for a white émigré to do so; and even if it were not, his statement is very plausible. His major point is that black Americans are and have long been just as American as anybody else; that they ought to accept this fact about themselves and try to make it on American terms by being even meaner and smarter than whites and taking full advantage of the toughness and cunning that decades of oppression have forced on them; that those who kid themselves about having a different—and less effective—cultural heritage are playing the white man’s game by opting out of it. But the fact that the American model is becoming increasingly available, and with luxury features, in black avails very little if the model is about to be recalled as demonstrably unsafe at any speed. The Decline of the WASP suggests that this is highly probable.
Mr. Murray is a better literary craftsman than Mr. Schrag. His use of jive language both to establish a sense of authenticity for his observations and to lead readers who are accustomed to perceiving hostile black rhetoric as revolutionary to discount his extreme conservatism is masterful. Mr. Schrag is a thoroughly competent and perceptive journalist, who occasionally weakens his argument by silly generalizations: “plush preachers peddled the panaceas of positive thinking; while a thousand shrinks, at thirty dollars an hour, taught people the marvels of psychological efficiency, which meant repression.” Nevertheless, his book deals with broader and more fundamental social issues than Murray’s. One might almost say that it takes up where Murray leaves off.
Many readers will find Schrag’s announcement of The Decline of the WASP in America premature. The Rockefellers are still very influential people. But they look a lot more influential in Venezuela than in Attica. Schrag makes his meaning clear enough:
Let us grant the existence of the military-industrial complex; accept the fact that two thousand retired military officers are now working for major defense contractors; that the CIA had its finger in the National Student Association and dozens of other “cultural” groups; that shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations is a myth; that inherited wealth can be exchanged for degrees in the prestige universities and then reconverted into more wealth; that 200,000 families control twenty-two percent of the wealth in America and sixty-five percent of the corporate wealth; that corporations, foundations and universities are linked through interlocking directorates; that the elite, through the Council on Foreign Relations, the universities and the foundations, try to make foreign policy; that Wall Street runs the Securities and Exchange Commission, the networks dominate the decisions of the Federal Communications Commission, and the private utilities control the Federal Power Commission—let us accept these things as true, which, indeed, they generally are….
The WASP elite still controls its own corporate offices, its board rooms, its banks and foundations, but its power is limited not only in the streets but in the mines and factories it is theoretically supposed to manage, in the college dormitories it has so generously erected and in the bureaucracies it established to do its work. The Attorney General of the United States cannot persuade the Irish mayor of Chicago to give the 1968 convention demonstrators a permit; the WASP mayor of New York cannot control his Irish cops; the establishment president of Columbia University cannot manage his students; and the whole power of the United States is insufficient to deter Arab hijackers from seizing airplanes flying the American flag and detaining their passengers….
The ruling class of America maintains power—what it still has—because it does not know how to let go and because most people believe it still has it. Buffeted by organized outsiders, by ethnics, by cops and civil servants, by unions, by students, by politicians, and hemmed in by its own technology, it can make deals catch as catch can—with teamsters, with university alumni, with the military or with the brokers of local power. It can occasionally buy off black ghetto militants (with jobs or just plain cash) to keep things cool in the city, pay off union leaders to keep the trucks running, hire Filipinos and Thais to fight in Vietnam and maintain the “free” world, manipulate Latin-American politicians, “reform” university government to placate students, bust the demonstrators to placate the legislature, and promise investigations of police brutality to mollify liberals, then forget the promises to appease the cops, but there is hardly anything it can still initiate or run by itself…. Wealth there is, and occasionally power, but both are losing the legitimacy and even the energy on which their perpetuation depends….
The moral and social credit of the American “ruling class” is almost exhausted, and the only thing that prevents any formal transfer of responsibility to someone else is the pressure of competing groups and the complexity of the monster itself. You can’t officially give it to blacks or kids or workers. So you do nothing while, with each passing day, they try to seize it for themselves. America in the early seventies looks more like the country of factions that Madison described in The Federalist than the monolith of C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff.
Liberalism, as Schrag sees it, has become a hindrance rather than a help in attempting to turn this chaos into freedom, because
…the fatal flaw of American intellectual liberalism in the twentieth century was its undeviating tendency to divide the world into cannibals and missionaries. It assumed that any man, if he could only be taught to understand his own best interests, if he could only be civilized, would want to become like the person who was looking at him and contemplating his salvation…. The American liberal has become so persuaded that the “better society” is nothing other than the universal admission for all men to the world of plastic that he now seems ready to support forced conscription of unwilling recruits to achieve it.
But radicals are no better, for:
Most self-styled radicals in America are onetime liberals who freaked out. They share the cannibal-missionary outlook, but they turned it upside-down and joined the cannibals (who, as often as not, don’t want them around). Rather than trying to bring the dispossessed into the mainstream—in whose existence they firmly believe—they are trying to keep them the hell out….
The radical believes in pluralism for everyone but WASPs; at the same time he already has a complete and unambiguous vision of what the cannibals are really like, or what they would be like if, through his efforts, they could become completely themselves. Since he is unable to separate the acquisition of technical skills and the possession of physical comforts from WASP life, he cannot offer even the minimal possessions that most of the cannibals desire: he likes black people but cannot imagine that a middle-class black could be anything but a WASP under the skin; he is sympathetic to striking postal workers and wants to help them organize their resistance to the insensitive system but cannot fathom—indeed, resents—their bourgeois aspirations. Of all people in America, the self-appointed radical still believes most deeply in the noble savage—as Negro, as Indian, as Chicano, as Vietnamese peasant—and in his more self-indulgent moments he fancies that he is or might become one himself….
And yet there is a possibility for genuine radicalism in America—aggressive, contentious, often threatening—and that lies in the recognition that the liberal failed in his de-facto disregard for pluralism and his excessive emphasis on economic security at the expense of all other things. He was often prepared to champion the downtrodden but only rarely able or willing to teach them to champion themselves on their own terms; he was frequently a defender of civil rights and civil liberties because he wanted people to have faith in the system, not because he wanted them to have faith in themselves.
With this much of Schrag’s thesis, Murray would surely agree. Yet the words he puts into the mouths of his black spokesmen raise grave doubts that they would accept this much pluralism or variety in life, or that a middle-class black would be likely to want to be anything but a WASP under the skin—even though many middle-class blacks do not, in the event, turn out so. Murray, for example, observes in his chapter on the new Atlanta:
At midnight you sit looking out over Atlanta from Polaris, the revolving cocktail lounge above the Regency Hyatt House, thinking of things you could have added to what you said to Joe Cumming about measuring revolutionary change. Item: The most fundamental revolutionary changes begin not at the bottom with the so-called masses but at the very top. The place to look for such change is in the centers of power and prestige. Are there any highly qualified but erstwhile excluded people at the conference tables—where policies are made? Are there any in the restaurants, the cocktail lounges, drawing rooms, ballrooms, where the deals and achievements are celebrated? Those, as any competent student of social change should know, are the revolutionary questions.
Oh, shit. I do not mean to put black people down for wanting to drink in the revolving cocktail lounge atop the Regency Hyatt House in Atlanta. But it seems late to make this sort of mistake about American society itself, and suggests that what Mr. Murray wants so very much to rectify is not, in fact, what has now come to be wrong. For I am sure that it is Mr. Schrag who is correct in observing, in his final paragraph:
America is not on the verge of becoming two separate societies, one rich and white, the other poor and black. It is becoming, in all its dreams and anxieties, a nation of outsiders for whom no single style or ethic remains possible. All sorts of pressures will be applied to force the country together—through the economy, the media, the common necessity to reestablish control over our lives and our technology, and through the police. But there is a growing necessity to preserve and enlarge the place apart, to reestablish the legitimacy of the things a man can call his own; not the goods of plastic, not the future of anonymity, but the privileges of being intrinsic, the integrity of place, the ability to love and create in the present, the gratifications of immediate expression and engagement, and the ability to live where one feels most at home.
The last phrase seems especially important; and the Regency Hyatt House is not a very old place.