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 …