November 15, 2004


Rick Perlstein on Paul Cowan's The Tribes of America (Rick Perlstein, November/December 2004, Columbia Journalism Review)

He discovered the culture wars, then reported behind the lines

In the fall of 1974, in Kanawha County, West Virginia, 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 thirty-four-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. [...]

[The Tribes of America] 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.

Mr. Perlstein is absolutely right that Mr. Podhoretz's inability to acknowledge that he was wrong when he was on the Left has very badly marred his subsequent writings, a flaw shared most notably with David Horowitz. Both lack the moral courage of a Whittaker Chambers, who was able to write with brilliant insight about his own blind service to an anti-American cause. It's hard to see though why Mr. Cowan should be considered courageous if he truly did contnue to serve the Left which did not share his "profound respect for the stability of religion, of ceremony, of family life: of customs I’d once regarded as old-fashioned and bourgeois" and, in fact, continues to try to destroy such in favor of the State.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 15, 2004 4:04 PM

An "inability to acknowledge that he was wrong when he was on the left"? !

Horowitz has done nothing but demonstrate how utterly wrong he was when he was "on the left" and, even it if it somewhat circumspect, it's a helluva lot better than Hitchens' second-thoughter record. I admire both writers. But Hitch has that annoying habit of clinging to Socialism. Can't quite understand it.

I ask you: If Horowitz was so reluctant to acknowledge his past leftist errors, why is he so reviled by the left?

Posted by: Brian McKim at November 15, 2004 8:36 PM

The "Victims of Three Mile Island" were the victims of media and government that had a run-away reaction. Check the health stats for the Three Mile Island area: healthier than the nation as a whole.

I'm not a huge fan of Horowitz now, just as much as I wasn't a fan back then. His conversion, while always welcomed, is extreme in the extreme, where he still cannot countenance a view divergent from his own, even if that view did a 180. Maybe his facts are better now, but his slash-and-burn are not conducive to progress.

Posted by: John at November 15, 2004 10:03 PM


Because he left the Left. Buit read his autobiography in which he tries to justify every vile thing he did while there.

Posted by: oj at November 15, 2004 10:51 PM

It took a keen eye and an open mind to recognize that the cosmopolitans were pursuing a form of class warfare.

Mmmmkay. Honestly, oj: you keep excerpting this mook Perlstein as though you admired him or something. I can't say I see the attraction. He looks like a typical leftoid to me: anybody else's tribalism is "... a racist inability to..." blah blah blah, whilst his own, militant tribalism is mere "social solidarity." Whatever. He must be a real charmer when you meet him in person.

Posted by: joe shropshire at November 16, 2004 12:25 AM


Read his Goldwater book--it's excellent and barely partisan. Then marvel at what four years of George ?Bush has done to him.

Posted by: oj at November 16, 2004 12:28 AM

I will, and glad to hear it.

Posted by: joe shropshire at November 16, 2004 12:35 AM

This mook says read Cowan and find out for yourself whether the border agents were racist or not.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at November 16, 2004 10:52 PM


Who cares? We're all racist, no one moreso than blacks and Latinos.

Posted by: oj at November 16, 2004 11:12 PM

Yes, Orrin. Don't read. You already know everything.

Anyway, I'm interested in what four years of Bush has done for conservatism.

An ideology based on local control signs off on a one-size-fits-all education plan that localities across the country despise.

An ideology based on limited government sees a president who hasn't vetoed a single spending bill, and a "conservative" congress that has passed more pork earmarks than any in history.

An ideology that once revered Federalist 51's call for a government of laws, not men, belives in a saintly president who can do no wrong and calls deliberative input by the opposition party "irrelevant."

An ideology of law and order seriously contemplates changing the rules of the House to allow an indicted man a leadership role.

A movement once proud of its intellectual patrimony spend most of its cognitive energies rationalizing the contradictions above.

An ideology whose most useful and profound contribution to American social thought is a distrust of the imposition of social engineering, engineers a fantasies of re-engineering the entire Middle East.

An ideology who once usefully derided the victimization complex of liberals has developed an overriding instinct to answer all setbacks by reference to its own victimization by all-powerful "liberals."

An ideology rooted in a respect for military honor persecutes military leaders who dare criticize its violations of military honor.

An ideology that once usefully disparaged "eltists" telling others how to live now licenses pharmacists to decide which legal drugs people can be prescribed.

An ideology of individual liberty calls unpatriotic any criticism of a "Patriot Act" that points out its imprecations of individual liberty--and lionizes an attorney general, soon to be retired, who has a 0 for 3000 record in convicting terrorism detainees.

Barry Goldwater died despising his fellow conservatives. Maybe he was onto something.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at November 16, 2004 11:32 PM


If the education industry hates NCLB so much, then let's just go straight to vouchers, and let the chips fall where they may.

While not minimizing the sociological trends which have made educating children more difficult, it's clear that over the past thirty years the education industry has utterly failed to distinguish itself by meeting those challenges.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 17, 2004 12:37 AM

Mr. Perlstein: Until such time as you dress yourself in sackcloth, cover yourself with ashes, and walk barefoot and fasting to Washington, D.C to beg the President's forgiveness for the uterly vile cover under which your late screed ran in the Village Voice, I will continue to regard you as a debased and loathsome creature who is not worthy of a civil or civilized reply to any comment in this forum or any other.

And yes, I understand that you did not make that drawing, but it did label your words and you are tagged with it whether you like or not.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 17, 2004 2:50 AM

Define "uterly."

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at November 17, 2004 7:24 AM

Actually, I take down that previous remark. It was childish.

Here's the grownup response:

Not until the such time as the president dresses himself in sackcloth, covers himself with ashes, and walks barefoot and fasting to Iraq to apologize to this baby
for General Myers' claim that there were no civilian casualties in Fallujah.

Their lies should bring shame to patriotic Americans.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at November 17, 2004 7:33 AM


NCLB is about letting parents out of the public school system--what could be more conservative?

Posted by: oj at November 17, 2004 8:24 AM

OJ: What is that you see in this loathsome creature?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 17, 2004 7:02 PM


Don't you have any liberal activist friends? They're all like this right now.

Posted by: oj at November 17, 2004 8:04 PM

No, mine are depressed, but civil. That thing I would not let into the house.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 18, 2004 3:40 AM

Loathsome why, Robert?

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at November 18, 2004 12:30 PM

Holds up Mirror. Look in Here.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 18, 2004 10:01 PM