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Honky-Talk Woman

Illustration by Miguel Davilla

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 middle-class 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? He didn’t say, and neither does she. Did he mean the shipwrecked sailors who supposedly washed up on Irish shores after the destruction of the Spanish Armada? Again, neither father nor daughter is specific about these “centuries before.”

What they do say unequivocally is that Cromwell exiled many Irish to Barbados, and that they ended up in the 17th-century South, working together with blacks as slaves on white plantations, intermarrying or living together until “white elitist” planters—read today’s GOP—separated them by inventing black-only slavery. Pre-Famine Irish immigrants also married or lived with blacks in the 19th-century North until “white elitist” Abolitionists—read today’s Democrats—pitted them against each other. Committed to the cause of black emancipation, the Abolitionists (mostly Protestant) wanted to draft Catholic Irishmen into the Yankee army to help free Southern blacks. This made the Irish turn on the blacks and caused the New York Draft Riots of 1862. It was a bloodbath; the atrocities committed by the Irish included the castration of black men, which, writes Walsh, “can only be described as sexual.”

Up to this point, Walsh’s contentions at least have historical events and dates attached, but she gets the bit in her teeth when she claims that the “Irish Diaspora” in America was female-driven and therefore comparable to the matriarchy of the single-mother black experience. Where she gets this curious information she doesn’t say; the book has no footnotes, a spotty index, and no annotated secondary sources to speak of, but Walsh produces Big Mama Machree anyway. Irish women, she says, came here alone or “with reluctant husbands” and often raised their children alone. Don’t tell this to an Irish tenor. That unique vocal quality, exquisitely described as “the struck silver of chaste melancholy,” is inextricably linked to ballads about girls with names like Mary turning into old maids in places like Tralee because the letter from America never came. But don’t tell this to Joan Walsh. For whatever subconscious reasons, she wants the Irish as black as she can get them.

An author who is forever teetering on the brink of an identity crisis is extremely irritating to read. Walsh refers over and over again to “my Irish Catholic workingclass family” well after she first describes her ethnic vital signs, as if she fears that somebody somewhere out there in readerland has forgotten who and what she is. She may cite this as proof of unabashed pride in her background, but her unnecessary reiteration sounds more like the obsessive chant of a guilt-ridden child hopping down the sidewalk repeating, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” It gets worse. We almost feel embarrassed for her when, analyzing failed legislation, she writes: “The result was, nobody got nothing, to use the workingclass vernacular of my childhood.” This is the sort of thing editors take out but it’s easy to imagine Walsh writing Stet! beside it because she needs it to re-emphasize her other identity as a college-educated elitist—though if she had half an ear she would write it as “nuttin’.” Fallen archness strikes again.

Walsh will go anywhere, bear any burden, to establish her integrationist identity with all deliberate speed, but she overshot the mark when she moved to the Bay Area during the ’70s and ran into the Ethnic Awareness movement. It wasn’t just about blacks anymore. Writing for various West Coast publications, she got involved in an Oakland public schools history-textbook controversy involving not just slavery but the Chinese exclusion acts, Amerindian genocide, and Japanese internment.

A worse shock lay in wait for her when she covered Stanford’s decision to multiculturalize its Western Civ course and found blacks practicing self-segregation in the cafeteria along with all the other minorities. They actually had a black table. “I learned to accept, against my integrationist instincts, that black self-segregation was natural, even developmentally important…” She simpers on in this vein, but we don’t believe a word of it. Neither does the black person who replies to Walsh’s objections with, “We didn’t fight the civil rights movement so white kids could have black friends.” Oh, didn’t they? As far as Walsh’s (white-working-class-Irish-Catholic) subconscious was concerned, that’s exactly why the civil rights movement was fought, and now they were discriminating against her.

It would seem that she suffered an identity crisis over the identity crisis suffered by Equality, Inc. There was no place for her: “our historic civil rights model didn’t entirely make sense anymore in a world where Latinos and Asians were the fastest-growing minorities.” She needed to find some other way to occupy her subconscious mind, so she appropriated the identity of her Jewish husband and refashioned herself as a classic perfect mother.

We had named our daughter Nora, after searching for a name with both Irish and Jewish roots—thank you, Nora Ephron! I realized how thoroughly I had transformed myself one Friday afternoon, sitting in a tiny chair at a tiny table at my daughter’s pre-school, eating challah the kids had baked themselves, drinking grape juice, and singing Shabbat songs. I realized I was as observant a Jew as I was a Catholic. Nora attended a wonderful Jewish Community Center pre-school, and I never missed a Shabbat. … Here I was, the Irish Catholic girl, celebrating Shabbat more often than I went to Mass.

It didn’t last. She was happy, she realized, except when she was miserable. Once again the problem was clashing identities, but this time it was the same clash experienced by millions of women, not just the morally superior few:

I found myself in my early thirties with a baby I loved to distraction, a career I treasured almost as much (yes, I said almost), and a marriage coming undone at least partly due to my bewilderment and resentment at being unable to manage both gracefully. I wanted to be home, I wanted to be working, and nothing in my feminist reading or debates had prepared me for the pull in both directions.

So that was it, over and out. “My marriage ended and I moved on, with my amazing daughter in tow.” Amazing is right: “She wound up the only white kid in a special Kwanzaa study group that doubled as a small-group session on impulse control.”

Walsh’s mask drops only once. “I got a little tribal, for the first time in my life, after September 11, knowing that so many cops and firefighters like my uncles and cousins died in those buildings, a lot of Irish and Italian guys, the boys I’d grown up with in Oceanside.” Soon afterwards, a supercilious review mocking the “maudlin” Twin Towers benefit concert appeared in her own Salon magazine. Her Irish up at last, and to hell with her Moorish blood, she penned a memorable reply: “Who did we think died in those buildings, Alice Walker and the Dalai Lama?”

It’s almost enough to make me like her, but odds are she will just end up apologizing to Al Sharpton for it.

Florence King is the author ofSTET, Damnit! The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002.

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