Tribal Warfare in America

In the fall of 1974, in Kanawha County, W. Va., Christian fundamentalists enraged at the imposition of "blasphemous" textbooks in the public schools demolished a wing of a school board building with fifteen sticks of dynamite. When the board insisted on keeping the books in the curriculum, homes were bombed and school buses shot at. "Jesus Wouldn't Have Read Them," read one of the slogans of a movement whose leader, a preacher, would soon face charges of conspiracy to bomb two elementary schools.

Into this whirlwind stepped Paul Cowan, a shaggy-haired, bespectacled, left-wing New York Jew, trying to make sense of why he felt sympathy for the side that was laying the dynamite.

For people like Cowan, a 34-year-old staff writer at The Village Voice, it was a boon time for existential drift. In 1970 he published "The Making of an Un-American," the memoir of a raw and arrogant new-left punk who had taken a one-year leave from the Voice in 1966 for a stint in the Peace Corps that was supposed to be broadening, but ended up being wildly disillusioning. "When I read that the Viet Cong had attacked the American embassy in Saigon during the Tet offensive," Cowan concluded in Un-American, "I was almost able to imagine that I was a member of the raiding party." But by the time Cowan began his next project, in 1971, life inside the new left had become an emotional burden for him: diminishing returns, dashed certitudes, "intellectual claustrophobia." That was how, "gradually, half-consciously, without any theory or any plan, I decided to cross the sound barrier of dogma and test my beliefs against the realities of American life." The twelve chapters of "The Tribes of America" (1979) were the felicitous result.

A person of Cowan's inclinations and background was supposed to know exactly what to think about a howling mob gathered around a crucifix-emblazoned flag and expectorating demands to burn books of the sort the reporter would want his kids to study, books with chapters by Norman Mailer and James Baldwin and test questions asking students to interpret rather than parrot what they had read. It would have been easy to record the scenes of bonfires and leave it at that; certainly that would have satisfied Cowan's readers back in Greenwich Village. Instead, Cowan took the riskier step: wondering whether these criminals didn't also have a point.

The people responsible for the textbooks were bureaucrats who wrote blithely of pedagogy's power to "induce changes ... in the behavior of the 'culturally lost' of Appalachia," and identified teachers as state-designated "change agents" and schools as "the experimental center, and the core of this design." Nowadays the arrogance of this formulation is as grating to us as a chalkboard screech. Not then. It was an era when the language of universally applicable liberal enlightenment flew trippingly off cosmopolitan tongues. Which was why it came as such a shock when the "culturally lost" proved to have ideas of their own – that their culture had inherent dignity and value, and that textbooks suggesting that Christian revelation was on a par with Greek myth were, as protesters put it, "moral genocide."

It took a keen eye and an open mind to recognize that the cosmopolitans were pursuing a form of class warfare. Cowan noticed how urban and suburban professionals in Kanawha County – "Hillers," in local parlance – spoke nervously in private of how familiarity with names like Mailer and Baldwin would get their precious darlings into Harvard and keep them out of West Virginia Tech. The Hillers weren't about to risk having their upward climb impeded by the "Creekers," poor residents in the hollows who wanted "to protest corruption," as one suburbanite told Cowan, but didn't "even know how to spell that word." But some Creekers were motivated by similar dreams of upward mobility. Their version of it was just incompatible with the Hillers' impositions – like the kid who told Cowan "he wanted to go to West Virginia Tech, to be an engineer," and he felt he needed "a good basic education" to do it.

Dynamite wasn't the answer. But neither was a kind of cultural imperialism indifferent to the fact that 81 percent of the district opposed the textbooks. It was, in a word, complicated. Certainly more complicated than the portraits other journalists were creating for sneering consumption back home: death threats, double-barreled shotguns, Onward Christian Soldiers. The futile last stand of yokels against the inevitable march of progress.

It was at a time when, certainly to the left, local cultures were of keenest interest as obstacles federal judges eradicated in order to deliver social justice. But what Paul Cowan understood long before anyone else was that there was a new kind of story to tell about such conflicts: that attempts to "coax people into the melting pot" had costs as well as benefits, and campaigns to replace "our periods with your question marks," as one Creeker put it with aphoristic intelligence, must not simply be imposed by fiat. Cowan understood how "often, people I might once have written off as reactionaries were fighting to preserve their culture and their psychological and physical turf," and that this new argument over the meaning of democracy was defining the next frontier of political conflict itself. That America had tribes, and that sometimes – often – they would come to blows.

We call those fights the "culture wars" now, and we have a more richly variegated vocabulary to describe the Hillers and the Creekers: red state and blue state. Redneck and yuppie. New Class and white working class. "Evangelical" and "liberal." We describe our nation's dueling dreads over such concepts with a casualness that once marked cocktail party chatter about the inevitability of consensus liberalism. Writing in the 1970s, however, Cowan had no such clichés to lean on. He had to figure it out for himself. He did so brilliantly – eyes open, with a courage I can scarcely believe. He traveled all over the country: to Boston during the busing wars; to Forest Hills, Queens, where he was shocked at the racism of immigrant Jews fighting the construction of a low-income housing project; to the southernmost border of the United States, where the sacrifices Mexicans were making to preserve their families looked like anarchy to the Americans patrolling the border with shotguns. Cowan's reporting from these places left him "with a profound respect for the stability of religion, of ceremony, of family life: of customs I'd once regarded as old-fashioned and bourgeois." His travels also found him realizing that "those same longings, translated into political terms, have produced the vicious fights I've witnessed for the past seven years and recorded in this book." His agonized sensitivity to battlefields then barely emergent makes for one of the most remarkable books I have ever read by any journalist.

It was courage that allowed him to achieve it, though courage of a certain sort. Paul Cowan was a journalist who threw himself into situations that might just change his mind, and how many of us dare to do that? In the deeply humanizing portrait of illegal aliens, he notes how "I'd always included braceros" – Mexicans who traveled back and forth on legally sanctioned work contracts – "in my private litany of the oppressed." Instead, he found "they talked nostalgically, not bitterly, about their adventures" north of the border. He calls the chapter "Still the Promised Land" – a self-reproach to someone who once proudly called himself an "Un-American." In a profile of Jesse Jackson, he encounters a man on the verge of apostasy from the left: Jackson, who was then deeply opposed to abortion, was the keynoter at the 1978 meeting of the Republican National Committee. Cowan sat and listened, relegating his own voice to the background. That quiet and reflective voice may account for a mystery regarding Cowan, whom I had never heard of at all when I encountered this book by accident last year. Flashier contemporaries went on to greater fame. Cowan's willingness to play down his own ego – indeed, to mock his own ego – accounts for some of his obscurity.

The more famous names often seemed more macho; there is something about the male journalist and the trope of physical courage. Though Cowan was no chicken. Covering a nationwide transportation strike, he thumbs a ride with a trucker through Ohio where strike supporters are shooting scabs from overpasses. But then comes the characteristic Cowan move: the introduction of a discordant image. He describes a group of college students goofing around in a truck stop's game room, himself "oddly envious, as they chatted cozily about the plays they planned to see during a weekend in New York." He would rather be with them. It is a meditation on a deeper meaning of courage. What journalist, reporting a story, forcing yourself on strangers, attempting to convince yourself that you have something worth saying about a world not your own, hasn't felt the desire to be somewhere else – anywhere else? And what, really, is more difficult: admitting that to yourself (and the world: Cowan wrote of his "fear that I'll appear a fool"), or placing yourself in the way of a "dangerous" situation that renders moot the question of whether what you're doing is worth writing about? The latter course is a way to banish the real fear. Sometimes you realize, reading The Tribes of America, that physical courage and psychic courage are inversely proportional.

The book is not just a collection of published articles. Cowan revised and extended the articles by revisiting the places where he'd reported them. You want scary? Imagine catching up with the people you originally thought you'd turned into heroes with your stories, and who you now know think you've sold them out.

In 1974 Cowan was among the onslaught of outsiders – students, politicians, scribblers, filmmakers – who descended on Harlan County, Kentucky, to chronicle a coal miners' strike. He arrived bearing fantasies. The locale was legendary: "Bloody Harlan," site of the Depression-era strike that inspired the song "Which Side Are You On?" "Some of the journalists I admired most – Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and John Dos Passos – had been part of a committee that investigated working conditions in Harlan in 1931," Cowan explained. They had left as heroes, or so he thought. Why couldn't he? He overlooked the arrogance of some of those earlier reformers, who had distributed copies of the Daily Worker to miners and then stood by as those very possessors of the Daily Worker were removed to jails in remote hamlets reachable only by mule. In Harlan, Cowan partnered with a young miner with leadership ambitions, Jerry Johnson, who seemed more cosmopolitan than all the rest: "I began to fantasize that we were a latter-day version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, pledged to cleanse the mining town of its heritage of corruption." Sure, some of Jerry's values were different, such as his devotion to the land and his traditional marriage. His motivations were different, too. Jerry was moved less by abstractions of justice than by a passion to recover the folkways of his ancestors' Appalachia, before it was commandeered by the greedy overlords of coal. Cowan, the left-wing universalist, emphasized their commonality and romanticized the differences. "I began to think of them as the lost tribe of the working class," he wrote of the miners – arrogating himself, dangerously, a role as their anthropologist.

It couldn't end well.

Jerry hated the story that was meant to lionize him and ended up hating its author, too – who Jerry thought had rendered Harlan's traditionalism in the Voice as titillating local color incidental to the political struggle, when to many in Harlan their traditions as they understood them were the point of the political struggle. Only upon returning did Cowan realize that these friendly people "felt a smoldering resentment toward outsiders" – even, or especially, outsiders who parachuted in and styled themselves as saviors. He had made a terrible botch of things. "Harlan County: The Power and the Shame," he titled this chapter. Part of that shame, he suggested, was his own. He had "indicated a set of commitments – and an unquestioning acceptance of Jerry's view of the strike – that my articles didn't really reflect."

That, he says, "helped me distill the argument that was the genesis of this book": that the passions of reformers can sometimes betray a contempt for the common sense of ordinary people, leading in turn to a dangerous narcissism that could transform someone like him into a close kin of those arrogant school bureaucrats in West Virginia.

Cowan reckoned with that danger most explicitly in his book's concluding chapter. In 1972 "the urban journalistic and political elite" – a tribe in its own right – had flooded another parochial locale, the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where Richard Nixon's Justice Department had staged a politically motivated conspiracy trial designed to neutralize the bands of Catholic radicals trying to end the war in Vietnam by disrupting the draft system. Cowan's tribe came with "visions of jurors lifted from the pages of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street." So did the tribe of John Mitchell, Nixon's attorney general, whose Justice Department was counting on these terrified Silent Majoritarians to sentence the defendants to an eternity underneath the jail.

Well, the yokels saw that the government's case was patently absurd, so the yokels had no trouble acquitting. "How stupid did those people in Washington think we were?" one juror later asked Cowan.

That was how Cowan ended the book. The Harrisburg experience, he concludes, "left me feeling that my attitudes toward that group of Americans (like the attitudes of most lawyers, reporters, and defendants – members of the urban elite who were connected to the case) were just as narrow and parochial as their attitudes toward us." He vowed to do better.

By the time I read that, around Christmas in 2003, I had an aching question I wanted to ask Paul Cowan. I wanted to know what had become of him ideologically. After all, in the mid-1970s, other writers were also raising criticisms about the urban journalistic and political elite and their self-serving condescension toward "heartland" people and their values. These writers were also discovering a newfound "respect for the stability of religion, of ceremony, of family life." They recognized the habits of a former radicalism as a set of blinds, just as Cowan had, and embraced what Cowan called "the more primal part of oneself" and the conviction – as Cowan wrote – that "cultures aren't clay that you can sculpt to your liking." These writers called themselves neoconservatives. Had Paul Cowan become one of them?

I couldn't ask him that question; he died of cancer in 1988. So I called Paul's widow, Rachel, his frequent companion in many of these chapters. What Rachel Cowan told me was that her husband was just as proud to write from the left at the end as he was at the beginning. He continued to work for The Village Voice; one of his last big stories was a profile of the victims of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, also in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Politically, the answer made sense to me. It shows in Paul Cowan's ultimate judgments – for example that the border guards whom he also deeply humanized in his portrait of illegal aliens, otherwise decent men and professionals, ultimately suffered from a racist inability to recognize the full humanity of the "wets" they hunted. It shows in his conclusion to the West Virginia chapter, in which he faces a moment of truth with the Creekers' charismatic leader: he has to grant her point that "maybe there is no school system that can provide for your kids and mine," but concludes, "I would like to think there is room for fundamentalists in my America. But I'm not sure there is room for me in theirs."

The answer also made sense to me as someone on the hunt for good writing. His ability to probe where those he disagreed with were coming from while still understanding why he disagreed with them – he knows which side he's on – was a token of his moral seriousness and his comfort with moral complexity. He was equally allergic to moral relativism as to moral dogma, which is exactly what made him a great journalist. I came to this realization while thinking of another book published in 1979. It was written by a bad journalist, who in his previous book had proved himself to me a very a good one. That previous book was called "Making It," and its descriptions of subterranean social forces that no one had described before – in this case those shaping the New York literary world – were in their way as astonishing as the journalism in Cowan's The Tribes of America. But Norman Podhoretz's next book, "Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir," one of the most famous and influential books of neoconservatism, was a very lame one. Podhoretz told "the whole story of how and why I went from being a liberal to being a radical and then finally to being an enemy of radicalism in all its forms and varieties." Podhoretz had picked the wrong side. So he rejected it root and branch, right down to its core principle: social solidarity: "The politics of interest," Republican-style: that, he wrote, was "the only antidote to the plague" of sixties radicalism.

You can agree or disagree with the politics. I think it's hard to disagree that Podhoretz became a much worse writer, much less skilled at describing the world. In Making It, self-examination was the taproot of social observation. In Breaking Ranks – and his subsequent work – Podhoretz recognized only demons that existed outside himself. The left left him; he always stayed the same. Podhoretz claimed a courage – he called it moral courage – that was inversely proportional to his actual courage, which was sorely lacking. For perhaps it wasn't the left that was dogmatic, but himself – and dogmatists make terrible journalists.

Paul Cowan took a different course, and that is the meaning of his work. He looked inside himself. He found sins – his own sins, not the sins of some abstraction called "the left," to be rejected as such – and he reckoned with them. Which is hard work. He tested his prejudices against reality, about as deeply as anyone could test them; he embraced new principles, cleaving to the ones worth keeping. He saw virtues in bourgeois virtue. But that didn't paralyze his conscience. He saw that America had tribes, and that the left-leaning Ivy League professionalism he inhabited was one of them, with its own characteristic inanities. That wasn't the end of the story for Cowan, but rather a new, richer beginning.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}