Stanley Crouch has made his reputation as a sort of literary bruiser, both literally and figuratively. He's known for his savage, slashing assaults on celebrities both highbrow and low -- particularly those fellow African-Americans who, in Crouch's view, take too seriously the pieties of political correctness and multiculturalism. And, like many New York intellectuals of old, Crouch doesn't always make a clear distinction between writin' and fightin'. In the jazz world -- where Crouch's often controversial opinions carry a great deal of weight -- more than a few of his remarks have led to fisticuffs.
It's not hard to understand why. Crouch is, if nothing else, blunt in his insults. In the past, he's dismissed critic bell hooks as a "terrier" and compared novelist Toni Morrison to P.T. Barnum. In his latest collection of essays, "Always in Pursuit," Crouch -- a contributing editor at the New Republic and a columnist for the New York Daily News -- takes on everyone and everything from the bland pop of Michael Jackson ("The King of Narcissism") to the raw comedy of Richard Pryor and Def Comedy Jam ("minstrelsy with dirty words, Uncle Tom cursing his way to the bank"); from Phil Donahue ("irritating ... smug ... sanctimonious") to Malcolm X (a "saber-rattling black nationalist ... rabble rouser").
Crouch's critics on the left have tended to dismiss him as little more than a neocon Uncle Tom, winning plaudits from the establishment for espousing the sort of "political incorrectness" that plays all too well in Peoria. They have a point: Does anyone imagine that it takes much in the way of guts to denounce rap music as "garbage" or to conclude that nuttily Afrocentric City College of New York professor Leonard Jeffries is a "buffoon"? Or that it takes real courage for Crouch to denounce "liberal racism" at a conference sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute? (One of his essays was originally delivered as a talk there.)
Still, Crouch is something more than a neocon hit man. While he generally prefers to attack with a right hook, landing his hardest blows on unsuspecting liberal icons and purveyors of pop culture "garbage," his ideological affinities are unpredictable, to say the least. "Always in Pursuit" contains loving paeans to the late Ron Brown, former Clinton administration wheeler-dealer, and (even more strangely) to defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, whom one might have expected Crouch to dismiss as a race-baiting conspiracy-monger.
Crouch's greatest crimes, though, come in the realm of style. Though he has a certain flair with the sound bite, most of Crouch's sentences are baggy, formless concoctions that only loosely adhere to conventional rules of grammar; his book is a chore to traverse. Take this sentence, a commentary on last year's summer blockbuster "Twister," which Crouch seems to think contains some profound lessons on life in postmodern America: "This American Mars and Diana who, far more than a century ago, became the pioneer man and woman on our frontier and have now been remade yet again to speak for the rallying point of the sexes in the face of our shifting redefinitions of each other and of the frontier that is now at least partially about how we shall use our technology to better human life."
No, it doesn't take much courage to toss another log on the fire of political correctness. But it does take a certain amount of chutzpah to push a sentence like that into print.