Guest: Crouch, Stanley
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Stanley Crouch, Part I
Title: “The Professor of Connection”
VTR: March 4, 1998
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And in a strange way my guest today has caused me more angst, worrying about how to hone in on his thinking, than just about anyone else who’s sat here with me in the 42 years since I began The Open Mind. And Stanley Crouch is still only a decade older than the program is. Think what the situation will be when he finally decides what to do when he grows up.
Well, maybe it’s simplest just to borrow a bit from a recent New Yorker profile of this “professor of connection,” as Robert Boynton called him, noting that “few cultural critics have a vision as eclectic and intriguing.” And the profile goes on. “Stanley Crouch hardly lacks for venues these days to convey what he variously calls ‘the real deal,’ or what’s actually going down, or how it really is. In his Daily News column and frequent appearances on “Charlie Rose” and on National Public Radio, in essays for The Los Angeles Times, Time, and The New Republic, Crouch has fashioned for himself a place as one of America’s most outspoken and controversial critics. After years as an actor, poet, playwright, jazz drummer, professor and essayist, Crouch is a rare figure in a narrowly specialized, intellectual world. He’s an independent thinker, unconstrained by affiliation with any camp, creed, or organization.”
Most important, of course — and this parallels the title of Crouch’s new Pantheon book of essays, “Always In Pursuit” — just may be The New Yorker’s conclusion that, “When all is said and done, still for all his intelligence and charisma, Stanley Crouch is himself very much a work in progress.” Which gives me a cue to ask what I don’t think I’ve ever asked a guest: What would you do if you could just sort of start over from scratch now and first create Stanley Crouch?
CROUCH: [Laughter] Well, what a question that is.
HEFFNER: What’s the answer?
CROUCH: Well, I think I would have paid more attention to things my mother told me. Because she gave me a lot of good advice and I ignored it when I got into a certain position, you know, as a young hothead. And I went down a number of paths that I think, at this point, didn’t necessarily benefit me.
But, on the other hand, had I not gone down them, I wouldn’t know or understand things about what I call the “four fundamental problems that face humanity,” regardless of time, regardless of economic system, regardless of political attitude, which are: folly, corruption, mediocrity, and incompetence. See, by doing these things that I did, by getting involved with Black Nationalism, with certain, the confusion of fusing with the Black Power movement came in, racism and white people, which was clearly separated during the King era. Everybody could hate racism, as did King himself, but racism and white people didn’t mean the same thing. When Black Power came in, that became, that started to become the line, that these people and this institution, or these corrupt or prejudicial institutions, were essentially the same thing. That these restrictive elements, these brutalizing things, were an expression of the essence of a group of people, out of which, of course, that Ron Coringle, Le Roi Jones, etcetera, a number of people who polluted the atmosphere, it seems to me. And I went with that. I went with that for a little while.
HEFFNER: When you say, “a little while,” how much, how long did you buy into it?
CROUCH: Four or five years.
HEFFNER: And what turned you away?
CROUCH: Well, I actually just started… What happened to me was it didn’t fit with the way I actually was reared. See, my mother was a person who could get extremely heated if you tried to say that you knew what somebody else was like if you didn’t know the person. She really didn’t like that. And the Negro American background that I grew up in was extraordinarily focused on the idea of the individual. These people were not naive. They knew that there was racism. They knew there was prejudice. They knew there were social limitations that were imposed upon people due to the color of their skin or, in the case of the Negro, due to the various colors of their skin. But they always had this, you know, they would always come back to you, the individual. And they also had a, as pure a sense as I’ve ever encountered of the meaning of the life of the mind. People would say stuff to you like this, they would say, “Well, let me tell you something. You know the way these white folks out here can treat you? But not all of them treat you bad, but the way the ones who are bad can treat you. They might steal from you. They might cheat you. They might take things that you should rightly have. But, if you learn something, if you learn something, that’s something that you will always possess. They cannot take that from you.”
HEFFNER: Because that was the only thing they had?
CROUCH: Well, no. I think that that’s an ongoing vision of the nature of life. That is, that when you’re reading a book, right? When you, Richard Heffner, are a kid reading a book, if somebody is at that time cheating your father out of his property, right, and you all get thrown off the property, if you go into some glorious world, right, of Balzac, of Melville, of some place, some passage in the Bible, etcetera, even though you may have to go through personal human turmoil as a result of this, of being defrauded, in a certain sense, that, the grandeur of that thing that you have absorbed is in you. You possess that. That has become part of you, and that will be with you. And, you know, if you stay down, or if you rise again. And that, to me, is the essence of the life of the mind.
HEFFNER: Stanley, is that why you were considered such a good teacher, because you made what you were teaching a subject of real value for the students?
CROUCH: What I tried to do when I was teaching school is I started evolving away from what I was when I started, which was… See, I was kind of confused. I was being influenced by this black nationalism on one side, but I had read all of these other things already that I was trying to figure out according to Le Roi Jones, in particular, a way to shunt, to say, “Well, these expressions of, you know, Western European decadence, blah, blah, blah.” But, see, my mother, she would make me, when I was a kid, Sir Laurence Olivier was coming on television on Sunday doing Richard III, right? “You are going to sit here and look at this because Sir Laurence Olivier is a great actor, and he’s going to be doing Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is a great playwright.”
HEFFNER: This was not a very permissive lady, was she?
CROUCH: No, not about that. But she could have a good time, now. I learned how to have a good time around her. She could dance, and sing. And people used to come in the house and play the blues and party. She wanted to do that too, as well as it could be done. But she had this sense that there were no barriers. See, her generation did not believe that there was a white something and a black something that was, that either of these things were held in place by some form of exclusivity. So their attitude was: How dare these people say that they’re the only ones who can do X? So, as far as they were concerned, Leontyne Price should be able to sing opera if she had the talent and wanted to. You know? Or Louis Armstrong should play what he wanted to play if he wanted to play that. Or Althea Gibson should be a track star if she wanted to be a track star. Or, if Benny Goodman wanted to play jazz, he should be able to play it. It didn’t make any difference if he was from, you know, Eastern European Jewish background. Who cared, as far as they were concerned? If you could do it, you should be able to do it, and you should be judged on ability, and that’s it. People should get out of your way.
HEFFNER: What’s happened to that notion? What’s happened to that sense of one’s self in relation to all others? Because you talk about an individualistic trait.
CROUCH: Well, I think that, see, I’ve discussed, in The All-American Skin Game, and I began in the first book of essays, Notes of a Hanging Judge, I started coming clear to me then, and it’s become progressively clearer that we know that the thumbnail explanation of the meaning of existentialism is existence precedes essence. That is, you exist before your life means anything. Now we’re in a period where category precludes essence. So you, the individual, can never be any more. You’re a white man. End of story. I’m a black guy. End of story. Somebody’s a woman; end of story. Somebody’s from the Lakota tribe in South Dakota; end of story. So everything else is secondary to that. Which is a… But that has come about primarily because white people have submitted to what I call the comodification of alienation. That is, particularly in academic circumstances. See, they have submitted to these various departments that sell alienation. That is, they have submitted to a department that will have a student union that only one group of students can go to. Right. Now, everybody pays to come to the school, but only one group of students can go to this student union. They have submitted to ideas like monoracial dormitory floors. They have submitted to students requesting monoracial tables in the dining halls.
Now, had they just said, “Look, I’m sorry. I know y’all had a problem. I know y’all have a serious case. I mean, America has not been fair to many of you of various sorts. But we can’t go that way. Because that’s the reason why we had the problem.”
HEFFNER: Why didn’t we do that in the academy? Why didn’t we have the strength to do that?
CROUCH: Well, on one level… Initially, I remember, see, I remember when we were fighting for the black studies department…
CROUCH: …in Claremont. And…
HEFFNER: So you’re to blame.
CROUCH: I’m one of them. I was there. You know? But I remember at one point, because a lot of people were saying, you know, “Why can’t these things just be integrated into the English department, the history department, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera?” And the argument then, essentially, was, this was something like the anthropology department. In other words, race, if you will, which we know is a fraudulent conception anyway, should be looked at differently. It also should be taught by people who had experienced this thing from the inside.
Now, there were arguments from white professors who would say, “Well, in that case, should someone be able to treat cancer who hasn’t had cancer? Or should all doctors who treat cancer patients only be people who either have cancer or have beaten it?” Now, they would make arguments like that, but it would get turned around. And I think that there was…
See, we also have to remember something very, very important about that period. And it’s something that we have yet to recover from, which is that that was a period of extraordinary loss of faith in American institutions that reached a peak or an exploding boil, if you will, with Watergate. See, this had begun, this very thing had begun publicly, it seems to me, in the McCarthy years, that after fighting off the axis powers, here in America rolls a demagogue who could, using tactics not very different from the ones that Stalin used in those horrific trials in the 1930s could accuse you with essentially no proof, could destroy you by virtue of accusation, could put you in a position where you had to explain yourself on the basis of association with people, who could say because you had been at some time associated with some group of people that you were therefore a threat to the United States. This guy, when Murrow and those other people started to pull this guy down, right, I think a fissure began in American consciousness about the loss of faith in American institutions.
The Civil Rights Movement itself made us completely have to rethink the whole idea of state’s rights. Do any states in the United States have the right to remove the Constitution from the lives of people who exist within the borders of their states? Is that true? When people began to see the degree to which this undemocratic way of dealing with citizenry, sometimes half of the population of the state, sometimes more, right, which included bombings, murders, mutilations, people began to say, “Wait a minute. Hold it. Now we’ve got a problem with that.” Right?
Then, of course, we know there was the terrible blunder into Vietnam which Lyndon Johnson, not having had any military experience, made because he listened to people whom a man like Dwight Eisenhower would have dismissed. If a man of Eisenhower’s military experience, or even half that degree of military experience, had had this come to him, he would’ve said, “Okay, first thing, how much support do we have? How much local support do we have for this?” “Well, we think…” “I don’t want to know that, don’t want to hear that. Can we invest in invasion or this amount of American military engagement without a certain degree of support there? Well, I think, look, that’s okay. We’re going to table this.” Johnson, not knowing anything about that, which is an incredible example of the fall of a political genius, is that you have a guy who’s one of the great geniuses of American politics in the second half of the century, who, though, because he doesn’t know anything about a specific area of engagement, all the scandals, all these kinds of intricacies about how to get this from this congressman, that from that one, how to promise somebody something in a bill that’ll get a job done over here, how to get this person to come this way, how to buttonhole this kind of person, how to do this, how to that, etcetera, this guy and his genius, right, is put in a room with a bunch of guys, right, who lead him like an automobile at high speed down an alley that’s full of fog into a wall.
Now, now, now…
CROUCH: That explosion, the response to the War in Vietnam from all these people developed a very crucial cloud of a lack of faith, if you will. Then it seems to me that the black nationalist emerges which essentially said, “These people are never going to do anything for you. They never have. You can’t trust them. This is essentially a racist situation. The very, very best you can do is either support yourself and separate yourself from them, or, if you have sufficient courage, wage revolution. So I think that by the time these people, by the time, with all of that in the air, by the time that these departments began to propose that they should exist in these universities, there was, this was the flood. This was the flood. This was the poisonous cloud. You know. This was the avalanche. And I think that the academies just were overwhelmed.
HEFFNER: And today, what do we do? Is the flood, can we turn it back? Can we stop the avalanche? What’s the situation today? You describe a situation that is dire indeed. Were you saying, “This is simply the past; we don’t have to worry about that today.”
CROUCH: No. Well, the first thing is, it’s now institutionalized.
HEFFNER: It is institutionalized.
CROUCH: But, but, but, but, but…
HEFFNER: You’re going to deinstitutionalize it?
CROUCH: So was segregation. We know what happened…
CROUCH: We know what happened after the end of Reconstruction, 1877. We had 90 years of antidemocratic laws put on the books which said that, “If you live here and you don’t look like this, you can only get this much of the society.”
HEFFNER: Yeah, but wait a minute, wait a minute. Are you telling me that Stanley Crouch is that sanguine, saying, “Hey, it’s just a matter of time. Give it enough decades and we’ll reverse this whole business.”
CROUCH: Oh, no. See, nothing ever happens without taking a sword and going out there and getting red stuff on the sword.
HEFFNER: That sounds more like the Crouch I read.
CROUCH: No, but what I’m saying is you have to understand the context. See, I’m just saying that this is how it seems to me it came about. But, see, you can never… See, my feeling is this: Cynicism is often a mask for fundamental cowardice of the sort that I do not think anyone in the United States who knows American history can seriously take on without being laughed at. If the people who were Abolitionists had become cynical by the year 1700, right, by the year 1800, by the year 1840, right, who knows what would’ve happened. People like Frederick Douglass, they never laid down. Right? They appeared at a point in which people owned other human beings and had no intention of freeing them, and were willing to go to war to keep them.
You know, if women had decided, right, “Okay, these guys are just not going to give us a good deal, so the hell with it,” you know, in the 1920 they wouldn’t have gotten the vote.
Now, the thing is… Or if people had said, or even a bad writer, like Upton Sinclair, who is the father of the Pure Food and Drug Commission, right, if he had said, “Well, these people, you know, they’re making so much money, you know, selling this meat, this filth, etcetera, and if people can get sick from, so who am I to think that writing a book about this I can change anything?” See, American history is about an ongoing battle with the problems of folly, corruption, mediocrity, and incompetence. That’s what it is. And that’s the greatness and the horror and the tragedy of our history. But we can look at far too many examples of how drastically America has changed for the good over the last 35, 38 years. You know, when I talk to kids today I always say, “Look, in 1960,” I say, “Turn on the History Channel if you don’t believe me. Go look it up on the books. Everything of significance outside the Civil Rights Movement, and, if you want to call the World Series important, was done by white guys in dark suits and dark ties. That’s the way it was.” Today, when you turn on a television you have men, women across the ethnic spectrum, talking about everything from Wall Street to the Middle East to local politics to what’s going on in the Beltway to cinema to sports, etcetera. Everybody’s in the game now. I’m not saying that we do not have enormous problems to fight, but one could never get the impression, if one just turned on television and stayed on one station, doesn’t even matter, that the United States is what it was in 1960. And it didn’t get that way because the people who were the guys in 1960 or people who were descended from that sort of power just one day just said, “Well, I’ll tell you, I think it’s time to let them come on in. I think so.” That’s not what happened.
HEFFNER: But that’s the question. Isn’t what happened, that the very people you have not very much use for today, made so much noise, did radicalize the situation?
CROUCH: Well, no, no, no. See, the people I’m talking about, see, the most radical person finally was King, really. Because what his position was was that we all have to come together to deal with these problems; that the problems of any group are the problems of the country at large; that these are not the problems of the Negro, these are not the problems of the Jews, these are not the problems of the poor; these are the problems of America. And American problems will be solved by Americans. That is the only way they’ve ever been solved, and that is the only way they will be solved now. I mean, American progress, American change has always come through these mixtures of people, through these coalitions of different groups. That’s just the way, that’s the way it has always been. I mean, as Arthur Schlesinger points out, and as we know, Europeans essentially used to look at nationality, nationality was race. A German marrying somebody French was like an integration.
HEFFNER: Listen, we’ve got to talk about this longer, at greater length, more. So, stay where you are. I’m going to say goodbye to our audience, and we’ll do another program, okay?
CROUCH: Fine with me.
HEFFNER: Thanks, Stanley Crouch.
And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.