Stanley Crouch: The Visible Man
April 26, 2000
The All-American Skin Game (Or, The Decoy of Race: The Long And Short Of It, 1990-1994) by Stanley Crouch, 272 pages 24Stanley Crouch writes beautifully.As Timothy McVeigh bombed exquisitely, as Shoko Asahara conspired to gas with panache, as Roh Tae Woo stole with seeming effortlessness and without a sound, Stanley Crouch writes beautifully about matters of politics and art from a perspective of race. He is wrong, disingenuous and probably a very bad man, but he puts out the finest, sweetest poison since Black Flags work with the Roach Motel concept.So know this when you read him and are transfixed by his grace.His style pairs a black American blues-based sensibility with an awesome love of the European writing tradition; this results in elegant riffs that pulse with a lively, improvisational quality even when the subject at hand is something as apparently sterile as the doings at a journalism conference. It is seductive, and full of lies, mostly lies.Stanley Crouch, like so many politically minded writers, counts on the whoosh that his prose sends through the mind to supersede the reason and logic that might discount his arguments, which are puny. And yet it is he, not bell hooks, not Cornel West, who is in the process of achieving mass-media over-exposure. Some weeks it seems that Crouch -- who is, in the traditional sense of physical presentation, very ugly -- logs as much TV screen time as some news anchors. Lots of people are lying down for him and letting his words do to their world views what they will.The difference between Crouch and George Will and a trillion skilled neocon writers is that he is a black man with art in his pen and disdain for much of contemporary black culture in his words, mouth and mind. Those qualities and a good agent can get you far, honeyed strychnine at the ready or not.We have precedents for this. On the strength of his willingness to express, with grace and a facade of dignity, a program that the white power structure could endorse, Shelby Steele a few years ago moved from obscure San Jose State University English prof to prime voice for how black people ought to be looking at the world. But Crouch has Steele one beat. Not only is he willing -- no, compelled -- to go where few black writers are willing to go, he's also a bully, a hanging judge in his own words. His 1989 collection Notes of a Hanging Judge, his first packaged offering, showed the world a man who's always prepared to kick an outclassed opponent and elbow any person or entity that gets in the way of his making a point. Feminists and gays (homosexuals, he calls them), Spike Lee and hip-hop artists (gangster rappers, they all are) incur his wrath.In The All-American Skin Game (Or, The Decoy of Race), a collection of essays, rewritten speeches, off-the-cuff disses and scraps of hate, Crouch continues his tradition of commanding attention as a tweaker of conventional thinking. Pieces from the New Republic (of which he is a contributing editor) and the New York Daily News dominate, but a few speeches from the past year give the thing fresh breath. In one wisp of an attack on Derrick Bell, the author simply celebrates that he publicly defeated the legal scholar on a point in public. Hungghh! In your face! he says. There's not much point to it, but it's kind of cool. Like most of Crouch's non-jazz writing, it's bullshit, and of course it is quite delicious. Of course, Stanley Crouch is no hanging judge. He cheats like a motherfucker.The image of a judge calls up the idea of someone who weighs both sides of a story and then renders a bloodless verdict. Not only does Crouch refuse to take the equal measure of two sides -- there are only good guys and bad guys -- he comes to his conclusions through much passion. Its what gives his writing flavor; its also what ultimately destroys his pretense of balance.Where in Hanging Judge the freshly iced corpse of James Baldwin was the centerpiece desecration, Crouch this time lays to waste a range of thinkers and artists intent on discussing ideas about reparations for black people. Most go unnamed, but in this realm the enemies are obvious. They in fact have no names. If you aren't Stanley's friend, an acolyte, then surely you are a foe, not only of his but of the black race; you are one of the counterfeit firefighters who sell us sieves when we should face our dragon blazes by designing better buckets, stronger hoses and making sure the water from the hydrants gushes out with appropriate force.And so we have insight into how the L.A. natives politics come about. A straightforward, unerringly precise thinker when such quality is convenient, he becomes distinctly elliptical in his approach when logical follow-through would undercut his positions. Take, for example, his perspective on the propensity certain societies have for cleansing themselves through massacres:The repulsive blood sports of the conquistadors are made far less distant by our familiarity with either totalitarian purges or the genocidal wars of Bosnia and Africa that presently break and chill the world heart. The historical boomerang returns not only with yellowed and grim statistics but also with fresh blood.This vivid imagery is a buttress for the idea that viewing past genocide as regrettable is historical sentimentality. We're told that we understand the enormous price paid by indigenous peoples of the Western world only I repeat: only because we now live in a world where the idea of a transcendent humanity rose into visions of national and international social policy as a result of the Enlightenment. Now, since the Enlightenment trumps the slaughter of a people, doesn't it follow that no more slaughters ought to have followed? I caught his sentence "Democracy is a vision . . . which is undaunted by the chronic imperfectability of human kind" just as CNN public debaters argued the merits of World Series fans painting their faces and wearing chicken feathers as headdresses while Native Americans protested in the background.Crouch's writing on blacks contains similar flights of reason. He takes to the cliched tack of placing blacks and whites on an equal level of stature and progress in discussing the assailed alliance between former NAACP boss Ben Chavis and Louis Farrakhan. If Bob Dole or Tom Foley decided that David Duke was doing something for the self- esteem of poor whites and said it was nobody's business if a highly visible white politician associated with the air-brushed racist, either man would find out something about white political independence. Yet while David Dukes program has been repudiated by mainstream America, Farrakhan, as the Million Man March has shown, offers much of substance to the whole of American culture, fraught as it may be with only a certain number of unacceptable ideas. A better example for Crouch would be Traditional Values Coalition leader Lou Sheldon, whose views on gays are as distasteful as Farrakhan's comments about Jews, and who freely associates with Republican figures. This sort of example falls by the wayside not only because of Crouch's refusal to recognize the role power relationships play in the evolution of a national story line, but also because he doesn't like gays. The one area in which Crouch claims expertise, to which he often speaks and in which he is absolutely rootless is rap music. Throughout the last seven or so years of his life as a public intellectual, he has been called upon to slam the form, and he handles the topic, as he handles all topics, with wit and take-no-prisoners energy.Except that he knows nothing. He knows less than nothing. All rap music is gangster rap, doggerel that has critical weight only because slumming white critics choose to engage in the ultimate extension of the romantic love of the outlaw, the bad boy, the nihilist, he who lives at the fantasy center of rock and roll anger. In his finely worded screed, he forgets that the white audience for hip-hop has in the last five years diminished dramatically as the appetite for that brand of culture vulturing has diminished (to be replaced quite adequately by the work of Quentin Tarantino, whom Crouch loves). There has even been talk of returning to rap's origins as a non-album form -- something Crouch, a highly esteemed jazz critic whose work on the music in Skin Game is above reproach, might not know. He might also be unfamiliar, having never heard anything other than the gangster rap that predominated more than half a decade ago, with the thousands and thousands of young rap fans who have been exposed to serious jazz through the efforts of groups such as Hieroglyphics and Heavyweights to incorporate jazz techniques into their lyrical delivery styles.None of this appears to matter to Crouch. He's much more concerned with his role as the guaranteed go-to guy in the all-too-frequent call for someone to dismiss an art form that instills in black youth a love of language and its possibilities. In a less cynical world, one might hope that a mind as fertile as Stanley Crouch's might seek to engage in the discussions going on in hip-hop culture. But in a less cynical world, Stanley Crouch would be a different man.