Magazine article The American Conservative

Honky-Talk Woman

Magazine article The American Conservative

Honky-Talk Woman

Article excerpt

What's the Matter With White People? Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was, Joan Walsh, Wiley, 278 pages

Everybody knows who Joan Walsh is. To liberals she's a saint, and they just might have a point: her TV guest spots have established her as Joan of Fallen Archness. Editor-at-Large of Salon, she regularly turns up on the People's Republic of MSNBC, wearing her trademark simper and oozing coyness, and obsequiously recites, "Yes, Reverend Al" to the honkyphobic views of Al Sharpton. But she is likely to appear on Fox News as well, coyness at the ready and wearing the same simper but adding a furrowed brow of troubled understanding as she analyzes and sympathizes with the fears roused by Pat Buchanan's predictions of an imminent white-minority America.

Her signature characteristics hold fast in her new book. She demonstrates her fallen archness by crafting a title that reminds everybody of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" and enlists her coyness and her simper in the service of book promotion to see if it really is possible to fool some of the people all of the time, and who--or all of the people some of the time, and for how long.

If you read her title as "What's the matter with us white people?" you align yourself with her Irish-Catholic working-class origins (the book's cover is green with a black-and-white family snapshot) and probably hold the same racist attitudes and prejudices she grew up hearing. If you read it as "What's the matter with you white people?" you identify with the later forces that pulled Walsh in the opposite political and cultural direction: going to college; becoming a career woman; working in the media; looking down on uneducated people; and general, all-round moral superiority.

Her theme is that working-class whites are their own worst enemy, having followed where Nixon's "Southern strategy" led and become "Reagan Democrats." Threatened by the civil rights movement, resentful over blacks getting "something for nothing," disdained by liberal Democrats who ignored them to cater to blacks, they thought that simply voting Republican would make everything the way it used to be: silent minorities, not majorities; no hippies; a perpetual Eisenhower era of prosperity where their middle-class aspirations could proceed undisturbed--the Golden Age of Walsh's subtitle.

But working-class whites who vote for the GOP, says Walsh, are voting for economic royalists who intend to put them back where they were before FDR's New Deal rescued them from the satanic mills and gave them "something for nothing"--collective bargaining, the G.I. Bill, federally insured mortgages, Social Security, unemployment insurance--to help them realize their middle-class aspirations. Minorities now had the same middleclass aspirations, and the civil rights movement was the second New Deal. In short, working-class whites and minorities were brothers under the skin and ought to vote accordingly.

Whenever Walsh says "minority" she really means black, because blacks were the minority of her white working-class New York childhood. Puerto Ricans were still a local "ethnic" problem but blacks had gone national, so to speak, so that Walsh, born in 1952, had a front-row seat for every racial convulsion beginning with the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education school integration ruling in 1954. These were the times that tried men's souls in the close-in Long Island suburbs where she grew up.

It's obvious that blacks are her favorite minority even though she knows she's not supposed to have one. Her formative story, which she clings to even as she calls it a "fairy tale," is her father's belief that he and Joan, the brunettes in the fair-haired family, were "black Irish," descendants of the Irish with Spanish or "Moorish" blood "from centuries before." Did he mean Irish people who somehow managed to meet and mate with the North African invaders of southwestern Europe that Charles Martel defeated in the battle of Tours in 732? …

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