The Dignities of Modernity
with Greg Thomas
Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and Stanley Crouch exemplified a vital strain in American social thought and criticism, one that may have come to an end with Crouch’s death in 2020. Literary men all, they were incisive critics of the central position that race had come to occupy in conceptions of American identity. Each of them saw in Americanness something far richer, more contradictory, and more complex than the notion of “race” could capture, and each argued in their own way that viewing the monumental achievements of African Americans in isolation from the full spectrum of American experience was a disservice to both.
In their prime, each wielded tremendous influence. Today it’s hard to find any leading black intellectuals who wrestle with questions of race, freedom, and identity with their profundity. But Greg Thomas, co-founder of the Jazz Leadership Project and senior fellow at the Institute for Cultural Evolution, was a friend of Crouch’s, and he takes inspiration from Crouch’s example. In this excerpt from my recent conversation with Greg Thomas, we use the legacy of Ellison, Murray, and Crouch as a jumping-off point to discuss the direction of intellectual history within black American culture and in the West at large since the mid-’60s.
Greg sees the advent of postmodern thought as a turn away from the Enlightenment. In his view, postmodern thinkers are too critical of modernity, and they risk discarding the many achievements of modern Western culture along with its less reputable elements. But as I point out, there are still institutions, like the black church, that provide a link to the traditions of the past. They matter, too. Are there ways we can preserve our connections to the past—America’s history and that of the West—while continuing to expand our horizons?
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GLENN LOURY: What do you think is left of that great legacy? Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans. We’re talking here about Stanley Crouch. All of these men are gone. We have their books. But has not the conversation about race, especially amongst African Americans, been seized by people who are not all that friendly to the worldview of those who would want to embrace our American heritage, who would want to focus on what has been created culturally, politically, and so on here by African-descended people here in America, involved in the larger project of the making of American civilization, involved at its foundations?
I guess I'm trying to ask a question here, but I don't know exactly what it is. I'm saying 50 years from now, are people going to know who Albert Murray was? Will they know who Stanley Crouch was?
GREG THOMAS: Well, if I have anything to say about it they will. And the reason I say that is because, not just in terms of me being a writer also, I am part of a movement and a collaboration called “Combating Racism and Antisemitism Together: Shaping an Omni-American Future.” And we had, in October of 2021, a two-day broadcast where we gave Wynton Marsalis an honor. We had Bob O'Meally and Farah Jasmine Griffin from Columbia. We had various scholars, Jewish and black American, to talk about the legacy of Murray. And this is gonna be an annual event. So definitely, if I have anything to do with it and say about it, it will continue.
But to answer the implied question that you had is, like, what happened to that legacy? And the answer's deep and complex, but I'll just try to bullet point it by saying, I think what happened in the starting in the '60s, kind of similar to what John McWhorter points out, it was in the ‘60s and there was a shift. So you have Dr. King, Civil Rights Movement. But then you have a more radicalized version. Not only the Black Arts Movement, but black nationalism, Stokely Carmichael taking over SNCC from ...
Was it Foreman?
Oh, good Lord. He died like two years ago. John Lewis. John Lewis. Oh yeah, he took it over from John Lewis. So you had a shift there, and Stanley talks about this a lot. But to fast forward, that's where some things began to go off-kilter. That's intra-black American political development.
But a larger perspective is in the '60s—you mentioned worldview, Glenn. Another worldview came online, I think in the '60s. A postmodern world. When you talk about the legacy of the Enlightenment, when you talk about the legacy of liberal democracy, secular orientation as opposed to a religious orientation, which would be traditional, you're talking about modernity. But postmodernity came online in the '60s and developed, particularly in French thought, with folks like Derrida and Foucault and others, where the focus was a critique of the power relations or the power dimensions of life, so that those who were not a part or left out of some of the fruits of modernity were like, you know ...
How do they do this? So they analyze, how do you get, keep, and maintain power, whether it's colonial power … And then they critique it, even down to the language that's used, they deconstruct it, and this is what we see. When you're talking about Ibram X. Kendi, when you're talking about a whole orientation, particularly on the left, progressive left, that's a large part of it.
So understanding this particular worldview is really important, because once you understand it as a world view, then you can say, okay, this is where they're coming from. In the same way that modernity was based on the foundation of traditionalism, there were certain core values—family, duty, honor—that come from traditionalism. Modernity was founded on that, but modernity pushed up against the whole religious orientation. Postmodernism pushes up against modernity. So each level is pushing up against the other and critiquing the other, but they're grounded on the basis of the other.
Without us being W.E.I.R.D.—Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic—postmodernism wouldn't even have a basis upon which to stand. The reason they can critique is because they can point out the contradictions in how the social contract in America, for example, was employed. But they're not pointing out the fact that we are moving closer and closer‚—got a ways to go, but it's moving in a certain direction. There's so many things that they miss and leave out, because they're about deconstructing and critiquing. And when are we going to get to some reconstruction? When are we going to get to some synthesis? You know? Something's got to integrate these different world views. I'm also a part of that work, through an organization called the Institute for Cultural Evolution.
Okay. I want to hear about the Institute for Cultural Evolution. But I first want to understand the connections between the development of political and cultural thinking amongst African Americans, on the one hand, and the advent of this large-scale movement and intellectual life that you're calling postmodernism on the other. It's not obvious to me that the latter should be driving the former, should have as much influence over the former as it does have.
I'm wondering, for example, about what happened to the church. I'm talking about the black church, which has a role in music, of course. It's a foundational institution in the development of black American experience on the North American continent since the dark days of enslavement. It has been a way of looking at and interpreting experience that has given comfort and lent support and structure to the enslaved people, our enslaved people and their descendants. And it's as far from postmodernism as you could possibly get, it would appear to me.
I mean, people love their Jesus. They believe in their Bible. They're trying to live right and righteously in the sight of God and so forth and so on. That's not dead—yet—in black American culture. Why should it lose out to the postmodernist tendency? I mean, are we leaving something out? Is it not just black folks that we're talking about here?
Oh, we're not just talking about black folks. Absolutely. And I mean, what you're talking about is the beautiful foundation of traditional. That's the traditional I was referring to. Absolutely. And that has been a source of the development of a leadership class. That's been the place where we're able to build communal institutions. That's the place where on Sunday mornings we were able to sing a joyful noise unto the Lord. Whereas Saturday night, what Albert Murray called “the Saturday night function,” that was the blues, the blues idiom. But Sunday morning was more about the sacred and the devotional. So you're right. That is still there.
And the key thing is, this kind of developmental arc that I alluded to, I think what has happened, it always happens that, in the same way that each generation has to learn certain lessons over and over again—we have to teach our children, and then our children have to teach their children—I think that, the way it's been, these big world views, these ways of having certain coherent values across time, the problem has been that you can critique modernity. You could critique the downsides of the religious worldview and its intersection with politics, which of course was a big part of moving away from feudalism and such. But you don't, as they say, throw out the baby with the bath water. Same thing with postmodernism. Yeah, you can critique the downsides of modernity, but good Lord, man. It's not just disasters. There's also dignities in modernity.
So I think the answer to your question, ultimately, is to have a way of looking at the positives, the contributions of each of these levels, these worldview levels, and focusing on that, integrating it, synthesizing it in a way, or at least attempting to, and trying to avoid the downsides. Because each one has detriments, downsides, shadows. No question. So the question is, how can we integrate the best aspects of those so we don't lose something essential and end up in the kind of confusion that we're in today?
Very stimulating conversation. My own thought re: rooted cosmopolitanism, to the extent I’ve absorbed the concept, is (and it might be far too late) that it would be far better to embrace a positive, inclusive patriotism (not a blind patriotism or a jingoistic one, or one driven by negative integration) and recultivate a sense of the special privileges and commitments of shared citizenship. Not so that these greater and shared identities should erase or entirely submerge racial or ethnic or other comparatively tribal identities. But so we have a common glue and sense of shared interests and a shared future. The cultural elite is already at a sort of rooted cosmopolitanism: the roots are seen in how identity is promoted as a super-proxy for individual experiences and interests and is either wielded to intimidate and extract or is used to sweepingly delegitimize if not condemn others by their identity (or is used to deflect or performatively extirpate and transfer what is class guilt and class privilege onto people who might have a now very unfashionable skin color and who almost entirely lack the status, connections, and actual material advantages we associate with “privilege”). The cosmopolitanism is seen in an increasingly overt, unapologetic abandonment by credentialed professionals of shared commitments to and with one’s fellow citizens, replaced by a self and class-aggrandizing orientation toward and advocacy of the interests and attitudes of transnational, mobile, globalized credentialed and culturally elite upper middle class (and the MNCs and NGOs they serve). And yet here we all (or nearly all of us) remain, sharing a home; sharing an amazingly rich broader American culture (to which all have contributed profoundly); sharing a nation based at least in principle on citizenship, not blood; sharing founding documents that did become the promissory notes unbelievably courageous civil rights heroes over many decades sacrificed to redeem for all of us. We’re in this boat together - and it’s the only one most of us have ever known. Rooted cosmopolitanism therefore sounds a little too “Jihad vs. McWorld” for me. This polity is the only shared and at least somewhat representative system of government we have. Overly-rooted concerns and institutions are inherently exclusionary, risk flattening actual diversity to a reductive hyper-racialism, and further risk feedback loops of division and polarization between groups increasingly encouraged to see all domestic issues through a tribal affiliation and interests. Meanwhile, who or what abroad or transnationally-focused actually has our people’s interests at heart? All of our people’s interests. Unsurprisingly, I’m going to bring this back to what a rooted or identity-first framing can both innocently and very cynically erase: class. Anyone who uses the term WASP or even “whiteness” should read Albion’s Seed. It’s a basic accounting of the history of the major - and very distinct and often alienated if not antagonistic, regional, ethnic, and social classes who immigrated to the US from Britain. I remember the first time I heard this acronym simplistically defined. I was white (whatever mixing of ethnicities, races, and tribes had taken place among some of my ancestors in the murky Appalachian past). I was sort of Anglo-Saxon (though much more descended from Celts who’d been largely overrun, subjugated, and partially absorbed by invaders in what used to be their own homelands). And we were kinda- sorta, mostly nonreligious people who’d been raised in some kind of watered-down mainline Protestantism (we weren’t Catholic, anyway).
But the dominant meaning of WASP by the 1980s was a guy decked out in Ralph Lauren, driving a BMW, and golfing at a private club. I was the offspring on one side of Welsh immigrants who came here with very little (one ancestor enlisted with the Union Army at Camp Chase very soon after he arrived) and a middle class Scots-Irish family fallen to tragedy and a grandmother orphaned by her late teens on the North Dakota prairie. On the other side, my grandparents were the 3rd and 4th grade educated children of Eastern Kentucky sharecroppers. My dad was their only child who who moved away for a time or went to college. By time I knew what WASP meant we were a fairly traumatized immediate family of three: a single mom and two kids who qualified for federally subsided school lunches. What did impoverished Ulster Scots, consigned to the wilds of Appalachia to serve as a hedge against Indian attacks have to do with the people who came over on the Mayflower, the people who founded Harvard, or the Pennsylvania Quakers or Virginia Tidewater Cavaliers? What did our family have to do with prep school kids back East or even those closer to home handed luxury cars at sixteen?
Have otherwise disadvantaged and demeaned white Americans at times bought into and tried to claim whiteness as some sort of token of if nothing else at least belonging to the majority?
Of not first and foremost being from the wrong side of the tracks or low-class or poor or “trash”? Sure. And I was aware that some stereotypes and injustices even cut my way. I knew that if I was in a rush or it started raining, I could, as a kid, start running, carrying whatever I was carrying and, so long as I projected a sort of polite innocence, I was relatively unlikely to attract the suspicion of the police. I was aware of the persistence of more subtly-perpetuated residential segregation by race which seemed to impact black families more than East or South Asian ones. But the idea that there is a common white experience in America, let alone a hierarchy in which white Americans are uniformly on top is just bonkers to me. And I don’t think it’s just because I grew up amid what was once a substantial racial majority (so that my privilege is somehow ubiquitous - but invisible to me) or, what was once, well before I was born, a formally privileged skin color. No old boy’s club or network of mentors and connections ever existed for me. (There were no adult men around who had any connection to me and I struggled mightily to form connections with anyone who took an interest in me at work and in school.) I am very proud of some of my family’s particular heritage and values - an unpresupposing gentle decency; a love of books and learning. I think the history of the Scots-Irish in America is an interesting one and an important cultural strand in our shared history. But I’m not particularly interested in even the most benign ethnic affinity groups. Nor am I particularly drawn to the ostentatious pretend humility of labeling myself a citizen of the world.
We’re all human beings, we’re all one family. But I’m an American. One thing so many of my black fellow citizens I share is many of our ancestors have simply been in this country for hundreds of years. Think of the mix of unique, shared, and blended cultures and art forms we have created together. I believe we can all honor and explore our own and each other’s differences in ethnicity or heritage in much more positive, constructive ways If we start with what we have in common. We share a country and a home. We are one people. Our country needs to work for all of us, together. Not solely for one group against the rest, nor just for the many other groups juxtaposed against and defined in opposition to one. We need, as much as possible, shared symbols, shared myths, shared heroes. I’m not preaching a stultifying even suffocating cultural uniformity. But if I had to error in one direction it would be toward essentializing our national community of citizens rather than essentializing us into almost unavoidably hostile tribes by identity - or a naive, amorphous one-worldism which would cede most power and moral agency to global elites who feel an affinity only to their own rarefied class.
A healthy dose of twenty first century Thomas Paine, namely “Common Sense.”