The Salon Interview: Stanley Crouch

Author and critic Stanley Crouch offers sharp and commonsensical views on President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, multiculturalism and the American identity, Spike Lee and Johnnie Cochran.


Jonathan Broder
February 26, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

For the past two decades, author and critic Stanley Crouch has delighted and enraged readers with his two-fisted observations of American culture. In books like "The All-American Skin Game" and "Notes of a Hanging Judge," as well as in commentaries and columns in the New York Daily News and the New Republic, he has attacked the excesses of black nationalism, feminism and the gay rights movement and bemoaned the sentimentality that guides so much of American social policy. In the process, the 52-year-old Crouch has carved out a niche as one of the country's most controversial, outspoken and independent-minded critics. In this era of devout political correctness, the fact that Crouch is black makes him even more of an intellectual maverick.

Crouch is an unabashed admirer of old-style civil rights, jazz, Jewish intellectuals, authors Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray and black success stories like Johnnie Cochran and the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. And he's not afraid to do battle with the current trend of separatism that defines black politics today. A stylish butcher of sacred cows, he dismisses the 1995 Million Man March as the "Waterworld" of Afro-American politics: a lot of "money and publicity, but it didn't work." He calls Malcolm X "the Elvis Presley of race politics," gangsta rap "'The Birth of a Nation' with a backbeat" and Afrocentrism "another simple-minded hustle." Many prominent black Americans loathe Crouch for his critical candor, while white conservatives love him. Typically, Crouch doesn't give a damn what any of them think.

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Now Crouch has written another book, "Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, 1995-1997." In a recent conversation in Washington, he spoke with Salon about Monica Lewinsky, offered some surprising views on the O.J. Simpson verdict and reflected on the tensions and paradoxes of American life.

What does the country's obsession with the Monica Lewinsky affair tell you about America?

One one level, it's Jerry Springer goes to Washington. But on another level, it's more telling. The brilliant Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, said that the balkanization of the country into different groups --blacks, women, gays, etc., etc., has led to the fact that one of the few things that they can all talk about in common is sex. People are so busy italicizing their differences that sex has become the one thing everyone can agree on. As Cole Porter said, "Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it."

But couldn't one argue that the way in which conservatives and liberals have divided over the affair suggests that sex has become just one more fault line in American society?

Clinton's 78 percent approval rating suggests something totally different to me. There's probably a minimum of 50 million women who would fly to Washington to go to bed with President Clinton right now. One woman even told me that she wouldn't vote for a president who couldn't get anybody other than his wife to sleep with him. I asked her why. She said, "Well, Bill's not going to be able to give you much attention. He's not going to leave his wife for you. What little you get is going to be based upon when he can get to you and when you get to him. So knowing that up front, if this guy can convince you to go for a deal that is that narrow, then he's the kind of person that you need arguing in the interests of the country behind closed doors with foreign leaders." Now that's what I would call political maturity.

The feminists used to say that chivalry and ladyhood were ways of keeping women down and preventing them from standing toe to toe with the guys. Now you've got a lot of women saying that if a guy is guilty of infidelity, it's far more chivalrous not to humiliate his wife and children by admitting to anything like this.

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How realistic is it to expect a president not to lie?

My position is this: In high politics, truth is not necessarily important. For example, say we have some very important spy operations going on in Iran, Iraq, Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo, and the diplomatic representatives of those countries at the U.N. accuse the United States of espionage. Are we to believe that at a press conference, if somebody with the hysterical Cub Scout morality of Sam Donaldson asks if it's true, this president, or any president, would say, "Sure"? Don't be absurd. The president would say no on a stack of Bibles stretching to the moon. That's how these things go. In 1931, if the United States had the misfortune to learn that President Roosevelt was having an affair and his wife was sleeping with other women, we would have lost the leadership of two of the most remarkable Americans in the history of the republic.

The feminist response to the allegations against Clinton is a far cry from their response to the allegations against Clarence Thomas by Anita Hill. Are we to understand that it's not allowed for a man to hit on a woman, or simply that it's not allowed for a conservative man to hit on a woman?

I must say that I never could understand how Anita Hill was the victim. She says Clarence Thomas said all these things to her. She told him she didn't like it, and she acknowledges that he stopped. Then he promoted her, took her with him to another agency, wrote letters of recommendation for her, and she went on to teach in college. So in fact, she won the war. That's exactly the same war that Paula Jones won if what she says happened in fact happened. It's also true that the feminists line up totally on the basis of political self-interest. The feminists turn up their noses at the charges against Clinton made by Paula Jones, and they joke about her white-trash looks and manner. I suppose this means if one is lower born, abuse is not abuse, a kiss is not a kiss. Seems like uncolorized plantation logic to me.

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But just because the feminist leadership is inconsistent and bows to sympathetic power, we should not dismiss the feminist charges about how the world works. As Americans we have to remember something very important. In 1960, everything of importance outside the civil rights movement seemed to be done by white men only. Today, you have women everywhere. So while we still have a ways to go, we should not deny how far we've come.

You speak about the balkanization of America. How serious a problem is this?

It's very serious. It seems to have seeped into the DNA of the society, this idea that one group cannot be understood by another group, etc., etc. So if you're not black, you can't understand the black experience; if you're not American Indian, you can't understand that; if you're not a women, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Now during the civil rights movement, the central issue was to get people free of the limitations that were the result of circumscribed impositions based on their categories. In other words, to get rid of the notion that if you were black, you couldn't do x, y and z. In other words, it wasn't who you are, but what you are. That was the target of the civil rights movement, the notion that category precluded essence. In my book, I look at a lot of false divisions that people have created and accepted, and I propose that there's a lot more that connects us as Americans and that these things are quite evident to other people.

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In your new book and in previous books, you argue that black nationalism derailed the civil rights movement. How so?

Black nationalism didn't just derail the civil rights movement; it obliterated it in favor of a tribalism that was based on some kind of black unity and eventually some kind of Third World unity, functioning in opposition to the great devil of all times, the West. One of the problems is that for Negro Americans to embrace these colonial metaphors, they're not removing blindfolds from their eyes, but putting a blindfold on. The fact is that African-Americans are at the very center of American culture. African-Americans have been here since before most white people got here. African-Americans are central to the American sense of humor, to American music, to American dance. They've been fundamental to the expansion of the social contract, the purifying of the Constitution toward the greatest ideals of the society. By the same token, the blacks living under British colonialism in the West Indies were not central to the identity of Britain. African colonials were not central to the identities of the European countries that occupied them. So the unity of black nationalism is a very false kind of unity.

It is far more important for us to recognize what I call the American humanity. There's a certain thing that we've got. And this thing is so strong that if you put Patrick Buchanan and Louis Farrakhan on a plane to Dublin, and they were arguing and shouting at each other for the entire flight, once they stepped off the plane, even if they were not recognized as Buchanan and Farrakhan, the Irish would say, "Ah, two Americans."

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How would you define this thing that we Americans have?

It's a way of speaking the English language. It's a broad set of physical reactions to the world, body language, as they say. It's a musical conception, a way of practicing Christianity, it's a way of performing, making movies. It's a way of giving political speeches. It's a way of being a child, a teenager and an adult. And it's been documented so well through the mass media that everyone recognizes what the American humanity is. Sergio Leone, the Italian filmmaker, once said that the reason why American films were such a powerful international phenomenon is because they had to speak across so many categories. It had to be a film that people in Seattle, Mississippi and Boston would like.

Where does a filmmaker like Spike Lee fit into that analysis?

Well, his new movie, "Four Little Girls," about the black girls who were blown up Sept. 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., was a very good film. Spike Lee started out as an ideologue, but his last movie suggests he's developing. He has great cinematic technique. Once his understanding of the human heart parallels his filmmaking ability, who's to say what he'll do? The guy's only 40. Let's all remember that the early novels of William Faulkner had depictions of black people that were essentially racist. But by 1940, Faulkner was writing in a way no one would have expected from a guy who began where he began. He came a long distance. If he did that, who's to say Spike Lee can't do it?

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Do you think that Louis Farrakhan has that capacity for growth?

No. Louis Farrakhan is an ideologue. I think he's insane. He's a nut. He talks about flying in space ships and all that numerology nonsense. I don't see how we can put him in a serious discussion. He's not really important. The people who are really important are all the black mayors, all the black people in Bill Clinton's administration, all the black congressmen, all the people in this growing body of black entrepreneurs. These are the important people in the country's racial dialogue.

The problem is that the dialogue has been overtaken oftentimes by these con-men and con-women, who have turned alienation into a commodity. They teach kids that they're alienated from everyone else. Black kids come on campus, and they get them into the black student union and get them a separate black table. Then, in the worst of black studies, they teach them that they're forever outside America, that they're only victims. Women and various other groups are taught similar things. So the fact that this country has been moved forward and its principles deepened by these different groups gets lost in the shuffle.

Why do you admire Johnnie Cochran and Ron Brown so much?

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You know, some imbecile who reviewed my book said I admired Johnnie Cochran and Ron Brown because they were black men who made it in a white world. But I don't know where that white world is. Carl Jung said that white Americans walk like Negroes, talk like Negroes and laugh like Negroes. Now Carl Jung was from Switzerland, where they make the real white people. He also pointed out that the dominant images in the dreams of his white American patients were those of Negroes and Indians. That's something we ought to think about.

We can also look at the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, where he talks about these American woodsmen who wore their hair long, Indian-style, dressed in Indian-style buckskins and were, at least in part, culturally Indian and unashamed of it. They had learned from the Indians. Now this sort of thing has happened in America over and over. All those foods that white people in the South love to eat -- fried chicken and black-eyed peas -- were invented by the slaves. As Albert Murray says, that makes them incontestably mulatto.

But today, people are afraid to say that you, a white person, and I, a black person, have more in common than not. They prefer to say that if you're from one ethnic or religious group and I'm from another, then that makes a big wall between us. Now people are trying to impose the idea that your category is more important than who you are. One of the pieces in the book was written after the Oklahoma City bombing. I wrote that piece to remind people that the deaths of the four little girls who were blown up in Birmingham in 1963 foreshadowed what we saw in Oklahoma City. This is something that we're not supposed to forget. I saw a woman from the Feminist Majority speaking about the recent bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham. She made no connection to the fact that 35 years ago, there had been another bombing. That's what I'm talking about -- this balkanized, narcissistic thinking about one's own group. I was amazed. She couldn't see that it was happening all over again.

You've been criticized for defending the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. What's your defense?

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Everybody thinks it was some kind of expression of racial solidarity. But consider this: Let's just imagine that Woody Allen had been accused of murdering Mia Farrow, and a major piece of evidence had been found by a black detective. And let's say this black detective goes on the witness stand and he's asked if he ever referred to Jews as "kikes." He says no, never. Then a tape is discovered in which we find out the detective is a member of some racist black group that considers Jews not just kikes but monsters. The case would have been lost. The fact that jurors almost always acquit when the prosecution's star witness is found to be lying on the witness stand was not made clear to Americans by the media. The same media that talks about the corruption of the system -- Watergate, Iran-contra, the CIA, Monica Lewinsky -- set that fact aside. It's one of the great sins of our period.

Why do you dislike rap and rock 'n' roll so much? Are you suggesting there are ethics in music?

I don't particularly dislike rock 'n' roll, and I don't particularly dislike rap. I dislike gangsta rap. I dislike the side of rap that encourages violence over trivia, theft, drive-by shootings, misogyny, the side of rap that gives young women the impression that in order to rebel, they should become sluts. That's what I don't like. These things have had a very destructive influence on our society.

What is it about jazz then that speaks to you so profoundly?

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Well, for one thing, people have to know how to play their instruments. Also, it's a democratic musical form. It's based upon the interplay between the individual and the ensemble, which is what our social contract is about. It's about the individual in the community. Jazz also has an unsentimental vision of life.

We would be better off if we didn't always sentimentalize everything and everyone. We sentimentalize the great figures of our past, and then we find out that they were human beings who did both things that were exceptional and other things that perhaps weren't savory at all. Then people want to reject the whole deal. That's the adolescent morality that you find in rock 'n' roll. We have to be able to see both the good and the bad. That's what being grown-up is all about. We have to strive toward what I call an unsentimental patriotism, one that faces 200 years of slavery, the decimation of the Indians, the second-class citizenship of women, child exploitation and terrible labor conditions, but one that also recognizes that we came through with the unions, that women and minorities moved themselves into the center of the dialogue and therefore took the country closer to being the thing that it was originally conceived as.

And jazz is the musical expression of all that?

It's one of them.

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Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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