Crouch, Kristol, and Trolling

Interesting to see Ta-Nehisi Coates wade into the Crouch/Mtume debate on Miles Davis’s electric period. It’s very difficult for me to comment on what I think of Stanley Crouch’s perspective without straying into ad hominems against Crouch himself. And the reason for that is there’s a point that I always come back to and struggle with: how did Crouch turn toward musical conservatism in the early 1980s? Remember, Crouch was a drummer in the NYC loft scene of the late 1970s, playing avant-garde music. By most accounts he wasn’t particularly talented, and so dropped out to focus on writing. So how does someone go from a mediocre practicioner of forward-thinking music to the staunchest critical opponent of the very same style? There are almost no parallel conversions in other fields that I can think of.  And so the explanations I always come back to are the corrupting influences of fame and money. Stanley Crouch saw a niche to be filled as an angrier, more extreme disciple of Albert Murray, and a handy rising star to hitch his wagon to in the person of Wynton Marsalis.  And he ran with it and it’s worked out very well for him. The rarefied circles of the New Yorker and others take him seriously and treat him as an expert on something they mostly don’t understand very well themselves.

And so it’s hard for me to see Stanley Crouch as anything but intellectually dishonest. A useful comparison is to Bill Kristol. The last 10 years have shown that Kristol is not playing the same game as other commentators. For most, commentary is an end in itself, an attempt to get at larger truths because the pursuit of them has policymaking value, whereas for Kristol it’s merely an instrument to always be used for maximizing his own power. And so this power-above-everything ethos frequently leads Bill Kristol to say all kinds of  crap that’s so obviously false that it’s impossible to believe that he really believes it. So I don’t think engagement is usually a productive way of handling this kind of figure. They don’t have the basic respect for their audience and subject matter to treat what they do as participating in an honest debate. Those who recommend that Crouch have the humility to say “it’s just not for me” are missing the point.

Stanley Crouch isn’t really a critic. Rather, it’s more useful to think of his writing and speaking as just the repeated playing of a game, a game called Figure Out How to Make Wynton Marsalis Always Right. It’s the real-life equivalent of trolling. Why are we still feeding him?

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