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Friday, April 12, 2024

How A White Boy's Black Idolatry Turned Bad - The Making Of A Conservative

Life has its lessons, many of them hard to learn.  Most of us think back on the childhood lessons we ignored but embrace now. Forget, 'Don't go out with a wet head', or 'Don't run with scissors', Bob Muzelle's mother had taught him circumspection.  Not everyone is your friend, she said to her gregarious, voluble son who had already made a name for himself.  He was open and direct, fearless of the truth, and felt that nothing was private - every bit of his young life was to be shared in the interest of community, companionship, and camaraderie. 

Bob's mother was unhappy, however, when stories about the family would get back to her distorted out of any semblance of reality, twisted and turned by her son's imaginative telling and the normal function of gossip, and warned him about the Missus Green, Arthur, and Swanson, all gossipy, nosey, women with too little to do and nothing better on their minds. 

The truth was that young Bobby Muzelle liked Henrietta Swanson, a pert, lovely young woman who made his blood run hot.  If only I could marry Mrs. Swanson, the boy thought, and followed her around the kitchen like a puppy.  He confided in her because confidence was the way to a woman's heart he errantly thought. Where he got that particular idea was a mystery because his father was as tight-lipped and recondite about his every move and his mother was not so much concerned with getting confidences as avoiding them, but so was family life in New Brighton, at least in the Muzelle household. 


In any case, there was no tamping down the collegial energy of the young Muzelle and he became a popular feature in school.  Not very attractive, pudgy and early-jowled, moderately bright and clean, Bob never had the pick of the girls, nor was he ever picked for touch football; but he was a good talker, a budding orator as the principal noted on his report card, thinking of the boy's talk in front of the class on Julius Caesar, a surprisingly well-researched and -assembled piece of Roman history.  A boy to be watched, the principal shared with his colleagues. 

Where he stumbled upon liberal politics was another mystery.  His parents were good Republicans, had never considered life in any other way, and were solid, church-going members of the community - Women's Auxiliary, Rotary, golf, and the Lions Club.  The whole idea of politics was somehow distasteful to this very sedate and settled family.  By all rights the boy should have followed in their footsteps, but somewhere along the way his head was turned by the plight of the black man, a black man to be more specific, Pharoah Jones, the young locker room attendant at the YMCA where Bob spent his  Saturday mornings.

Now here was a mensch, thought Bob.  A Negro with his head held high amidst the sweat socks, wet towels, and toilet paper.  The young man was standoffish but not uncommonly so given the mores of the times, but he finally saw an opportunity and chatted with Bob about incidentals and then more intimate things about his family - poor, single-mother, abusive father, brothers in prison, sister strung out on H with him the only staple to hold the mess together. 

The more he talked, the angrier he became.  As eloquent and impassioned as Bob ever was, Pharoah railed on about his degraded, dismissed, marginal life, all at the hands of the white man. Pharaoh knew that he had a captive audience, a receptive, gullible white boy who had just learned to tie his shoes and who loved him.  Little of what he said was true.  His father was actually a dining car waiter on the New York, New Haven & Hartford, and his mother a downstairs maid; but the boy enjoyed the con, watching Bob beg for more.   

Bobby had no idea he was being snookered by Pharoah, his nose wide open by the hustling boy's charm.  The more confessional Pharoah became, the more attentive and solicitous became his new friend. Pharoah wanted nothing more out of the friendship than the pleasure of suckering a white boy, weaving incredible stories about slavery, the whiplashes and seductions of his great grandparents, the insolence of the plantation grandee and the brutality of the plantation's Simon Legree.  

All confabulation and fantasy.  The Jones ancestors had been Northern slaves with a trade, freed early on, and lived well in Portsmouth until the railroad moved them to Connecticut. Pharoah was the genius of the two boys, and his stories were as compelling as anything Ralph Ellison or Mark Twain ever wrote.  Before long, Bob Muzelle was completely in Pharoah's thrall. 

After a few months Pharoah had had enough of his white boy and left him on the curb, lost and befuddled, but Bob was certain that his friend had good reasons for his departure - probably throttled and beaten by his uncle just out of the pen, sold down the river, and lost in the miasma of the racist South. He believed only the best and vowed from that moment onward to be a champion of the black man. 

It is characteristically this type of emotional epiphany which fuels most progressives' commitment to reform.  Theirs is not simply an academic exercise, the embrace of neo-socialism and post-Soviet communalism, but a passion.  There is a Pharoah Jones in every progressive's past. 

Bobby's course had been set - naturally congenial and eloquent, profoundly influenced by Pharoah Jones' con, and finally rid of his parents' cloying conservatism, he was on his way to a life of social justice and right action. His college days were heady ones, freedom rides to Selma and Birmingham, rallies on the New Haven green for Negro rights and worker solidarity, and late-night sessions discussing Marx, Hegel, and Lacan. 

Washington was the logical next step, internship, apprenticeship, and an institutional home.  Everything fell into place - marching in lockstep with like minded young people, a love affair with a Jewish girl whose grandparents had known Samuel Gompers, and fellowship with his black brothers. 

This last was a hard nut to crack, for Bob had come into his own at the same time as Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, and Malcolm X, all white-haters committed to black revolution and a society in which the white man would have no part.  The racially collegial days of Dr. King were gone, done, and buried, and the new racial world did not include the likes of Bobby Muzelle. 

Yet, he soldiered on from afar, hectoring, preaching, lambasting white conservatives for their cracker, Jim Crow mentality and lectured on the greatness of the black man and his African tribal past - a socio-cultural legacy which put him on the top of the human pyramid.  Bob was indefatigable, but as he grew older he found that his brand of racialism was out of vogue.  The young men and women of the movement were intemperate and hostile.  There were no longer bridges between the races.  

From their side of the river white liberals pursued their hatred of white conservatives, congenital racists with uncommon passion while black anarchists slashed and burned, looted and vandalized and gave whitey what was coming to him. 

Young progressive radicals wanted no part of him, this croaky old man who had had a love affair with a black boy who left him and never got over it, left on the curb where he belonged trying to appropriate black love when he couldn't get it up if he tried with anyone white, a supernumerary, a leftover, an emotional wreck, black wannabe that belonged out to pasture. 

His so-called colleagues were not shy about all this, and made it clear that they wanted no part of this retread; not one word of thanks for his freedom rides and marches across the Pettis Bridge; and so it was out of historical inevitability and personal pique that this progressive became conservative.  Leave the whole, nasty, black thing to somebody else.  

After six decades, black ghettoes were still sinkholes of crime and dysfunction.  All the hammering, hectoring, and badgering about black supremacy hadn't been worth a tinker's dam.  All the idolatry about African culture, empire, and civilization disassembled as one country after another fell to despotism, rancid corruption, and moral desuetude. 

It was all a shell game, a huckster's con, a racial Enron, political Bernie Madoffs running the show. An epiphany coming too late to make much of a difference, but not an inconsequential one. There was an evangelism on the right as well.  "Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep that was lost", said Luke, and so it was with Bob and his club of former liberals turned coat then passionately conservative. Better late than never. 

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