The Dirty Dozens

Terence Hawkes

  • Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars by Henry Louis Gates
    Oxford, 199 pp, £15.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 19 507519 6
  • The Alchemy of Race and Rights by Patricia Williams
    Virago, 263 pp, £7.99, September 1993, ISBN 1 85381 674 4

We haven’t been allowed to forget that 1994 has brought the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. But their sound and fury masked another, no less fateful event whose anniversary we will probably not be asked to remember. As the Italian campaign of 1943 slowed to a painful crawl, the British found themselves more and more dependent on the Americans both to maintain it and to mount any effective invasion of Northern France in the following year. No conclusive Churchillian thrust into the soft underbelly of Europe remained on the cards. And so at this point, just 50 years ago, the balance of the world decisively shifted. The United States took over the role of premier Western power and it began to dawn on British politicians and their generals that the game was finally up. In any case, Roosevelt had already made it quite clear that the price of the United States’s entry into the war in Europe was that the British should give up their empire. In consequence, as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out in his matchless Blood, Class and Nostalgia (1990), the British underwent a massive and soul-gelding relegation. Harold Macmillan’s remark that ‘these Americans represent the new Roman Empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go’ was never anything but whistling in the dark.

Fifty years on, the tune of choice for any remaining whistler would be less likely to be ‘The Anniversary Waltz’ than ‘There’ll Be Some Changes Made.’ For one of the central domestic questions now facing the new Romans is how to become truly American. Broader, complex matters, involving way of life, language, cultural inheritance and historical and political perceptions of the world at large, are obviously at stake, and in their engagements with these, both Henry Louis Gates and Patricia Williams offer despatches from various front lines of what have been called the ‘culture wars’. What is at stake is the meaning of the term ‘America’, and Gates and Williams take their place among a growing number of African-American academic foot-soldiers who see themselves currently leaping from their landing-craft to confront an entrenched and ruthless enemy.

Gates wisely hits the beach under a protective barrage of scholarly references and sources, deftly deployed. An initial outflanking movement proves immediately successful, drawing as it does on V.F. Calverton’s judgment of 1929 that, in respect of black contributions to American art and literature,

it is no exaggeration whatsoever to contend that [they] are more striking and singular in substance and structure than any contributions that have been made by the white man to American culture. In fact, they constitute America’s chief claim to originality in its cultural history ... The white man in America has continued, and in an inferior manner, a culture of European origin. He has not developed a culture that is definitely and unequivocally American. In respect of originality, then, the Negro is more important in the growth of American culture than the white man.

The nonchalant audacity of this helps reinforce Gates’s somewhat cannier argument that the forces characterising American culture have never been solely white. This partly accounts for those anxieties concerning the configuration of a ‘national’ culture that lend debates about pluralism and multiculturalism in the United States their specific academic edge. In Europe, the flowering of nationalistic passions encouraged by economic decline and the collapse of Communism generates battles on the streets, rather than university campuses.

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