Commentary Magazine


Three Mobs: Labor, Church, and Mafia, by Wilfrid Sheed

Three Mobs: Labor, Church, and Mafia.
by Wilfrid Sheed.
Sheed & Ward. 157 pp. $6.95.

For many years American Catholics, painfully aware of living in an immigrant ghetto, rough in manners and low in aspiration, awaited the coming of a generation of intellectuals who would be urbane, cosmopolitan, and witty—the sons and daughters, some hoped, of the generation that founded The Commonweal, Cross Currents, Jubilee, and Sheed & Ward.

Wilfrid Sheed is such a son. His mother, Maisie Ward, born to an illustrious family (close to the minor literary luminaries the son now writes about in the New York Times Book Review) was a writer; his father, Frank Sheed, was for a generation the best-known lay thelogian in the English-speaking world. The publishing house that bears the family name was almost singlehandedly responsible for making modern European Catholic classics available to American audiences.

Sheed’s areer by now has included stints as Esquire‘s movie critic and as a co mnist for the Times Book Review; he has published a half-dozen novels—a ong them Max Jamison, Office Politics, Square’s Progress, and People Will Be Kind—and in his essays he has established himself as an expositor of the techniques and tricks of criticism and as a force in literary tastemaking and what may be called the politics of reputation. Sheed has been much praised (and self-praised) as a writer. Indeed, he can often write well and wittily; yet as the slender volume under review demonstrates, his faults are rather more glaring than his virtues.

Three Mobs consists of three esplus a fourteen-page introduction, “Some Notes on Sub-cultures,” in which Sheed tries to explain the “single impulse” from which the pieces (they originally appeared in magazines) were written: namely, “to explore some of those second- or third-class nations we all belong to and which supplement our passport descriptions.”

America licenses, naturalizes, semi-officializes all its institutions, even its criminal ones, and they in turn must fight like tigers for survival and identity. That is my subject. The need of individuals to belong to something different, but not foreign; the need of the groups they belong to remain themselves without arousing the suspicion or vengeance of society.

Sheed calls each of his three nations “an organism within an organism, a cancer.” The cancer metaphor soon predominates.

The chapters, “America’s Catholics” and “Everybody’s Mafia,” are in the form of twenty-page essays, part of whose function in each case is to review six or seven books. Sheed apologizes in a preface: “Reviews planted in essays tend to be unsatisfactory reviews.” It is also true that personal essays glutted by reviews of a half-dozen books are, like boa constrictors, swollen by what they do not digest and overcome by lassitude. “Personal” they are not; “essays,” uncertainly.

The seventy-page essay, however, “What Ever Happened to the Labor Movement?” (filled out with twenty further pages of notes by Judith Ramsey, his researcher) is pure Sheed. “Let me know if you find an American labor movement,” it begins, quoting Bert Powers. “George Meany in particular is a godsend to a lazy writer,” Sheed continues, and from then on Meany—or, in lower case, meany, like caesar, the typical labor leader wherever he is found—becomes the symbolic focus of the essay.

. . . there’s no mistaking this guy. The gravelly voice, abraded in drafty meeting halls, the face of many weathers, and that style—watchful, patient, sufficiently charming for the political side of things. He tends to be built for sitting up all night, like a beer bottle, and his backside is probably as callused by now as his hands. He is past sixty-five, but has no thoughts or retiring. “What to?” says one labor leader—referring to another one.

The American labor leader is part of a vanishing species that never quite seems to vanish. For years now, there’s been talk of a new breed, but when the new-breed comes along, it always turns out to be past sixty-five and bottle-shaped.

Sheed discovers that labor cares more about money than about ideals; that Meany does not always speak for workers; that the labor movement is not unified, cohesive, or tightly disciplined. There are few factual novelties uncovered; some of the substantive speculations—the nitty-gritty reasons why Meany may have been neutral on Nixon in 1972—Sheed takes from the Wall Street Journal. “Most writing about labor,” he says, has a “dismal sameness about it” and adds in a footnote: “A strong exception is the Wall Street Journal labor reporting, which I have scavenged more than once in preparing this article [sic].”

Sheed devotes some twenty of his seventy pages to labor history, another eight or so to “The Blue-Collar Worker as Sociologists’ Plaything,” and a concluding dozen to change, collective bargaining, compromise, and survival. Perhaps the fairest way to examine Sheed’s tour of a world he never knew—though “courtesy of my Irish-Australian relatives,” he writes, he was “raised with strong Labor sympathies”—is to compare it to a similar work of journalism, Andrew Levison’s recent The Working Class Majority.

Sheed gives the reader no feel for the world of the local laborer or local union official; Levison has pages of vivid daily description Sheed seems to have no sense of the actual numbers of lower middle-class employees, or the actual average wages they take home; Levison’s analysis of the 62 per cent who do menial labor and the contrasting 10 per cent whose salaries rise above $16,000 per year sets in harsh light the contrast between the world of labor and that of the professional class. (“No respectable union would tolerate the level of poverty and insecurity that most free-lance writers take for granted,” Sheed writes in his own defense. The New York Times recently revealed that salaries for judges at the Book-of-the-Month-Club, of whom he is one, range from $35,000 to $50,000, which places Sheed in the top 0.5 per cent.)

Sheed repeats the familiar knock at George Meany: “He never led a strike in his life.” But Levison points out that the AFL-CIO, which Meany heads, is not a union; it does not bargain; it does not negotiate contracts or process grievances; it is, as its name plainly says, a federation. Moreover, Levison shows, construction unions—Meany was once head of the plumbers’ union—are different in three key ways from industrial unions. They organize individuals, not everybody in a shop, plant, or industry; their opponents are not a single, permanent management, but a contractor for one job at a time; their key concern is not better wages or conditions, but work—they often spend months unemployed.

Levison also points out that of the approximately 18.5 million members of all unions in America, 3 million are black—more than one in seven, considerably higher than their proportion in the population. Blacks have more policymaking places in unions than in any other institution except the black church; considerably more than in the authors’ guild, one might add.

Sheed scoffs at the political importance of labor, pointing out that in 1972, 71 per cent of union members said Meany’s opinion would not influence their vote. Levison notes that Meany’s neutrality reflected rather accurately the actual vote of union members: 54 per cent for Nixon, 46 per cent for McGovern. (In a poll in October 1972, by contrast, union members went 53 per cent for Kennedy, 41 per cent for Nixon.) Professionals and businessmen gave Nixon 69 per cent of their votes in 1972; the college-educated—making up that other “movement” in which Sheed has personal experience, with Eugene McCarthy—gave Nixon 63 per cent.

_____________

 

Why did Sheed attempt a piece in an area in which he knew so little? The criticism he received afterward brought him “outbursts of spleen” in “lifetime supply,” which he attributes to “minority-group touchiness.”

It had in fact been precisely part of my aim to cut through the false solemnity that surrounds labor and to write about it like anything else in America, whether politics or the arts. I admit that Meany and his Council sometimes affect me the way Il Trovatore affected the Marx brothers, and I may have over-done it. (In fact, once or twice I find the tone a bit grating myself.) But the real trouble seemed to be that I had violated tribal taboos connected with survival by making any jokes at all.

That’s one theory. Another has to do with Sheed’s image of himself. He puts it in his own words:

Although I was raised a Catholic I was spared the mind-bending effects of a parochial education. . . . Also, I spent some time in England where I learned a different style of being Catholic: a more attractive style, because underdogs are usually more attractive. And finally, my parents were exceptionally cosmopolitan in their Catholicism. . . . My objection to the American Church is that it was not regional in this sense but colonial: the cooking was Roman, the music was Roman.

Sheed is freer than immigrant Catholics, more attractive, more cosmopolitan, and did not suffer colonization. Accordingly, the essence of his prose is to be superior to anything he sees. But he is also shallow. Ideas do not attract him; neither does self-analysis; an understanding of social power is not his aim. What fascinates him are style, tone, bella figura—that is the real “single impulse” behind this book, and his others.

Sheed’s critics feel his fake superiority, but when they voice objections it drives him to further heights: “I am not about to give these porcupines lessons in survival.” His exchange with Albert Shanker reveals his self-image perfectly. Shanker had raked Sheed fairly hard in his column and Sheed now replies in his text: “Shanker obviously doesn’t encounter too many jokes in his reading.” Then Sheed can’t resist a footnote:

Incidentally, Shanker’s pseudo-outraged blast. . . . indicates, I believe, both why he is where he is and why he may not get much further, though again, far be it from me to give Shanker pointers on how to get ahead. By picturing me as a village idiot, he lost (I trust) a few of my readers while gaining nothing and his willful misreadings of the text made him seem either dense or malignant. An urbaner man, of the kind who becomes a national leader, would have used condescension. Sheed may be all right in his own field (whatever that is), but is lost on ours—that kind of thing I pass on free to Mr. Shanker for next time.

As a writer, Sheed is a vaudeville performer; a nudge here, a snigger there, a raised eyebrow in case you missed trick number thirty-three. “When the Church shed its style,” he can write, “it found it had nothing on underneath. What Labor wears underneath remains well hidden.” Like Browning’s portrait, these words depict the face not of the Church or of Labor, but of Sheed.

Mostly, in his career so far, Sheed has been skating like a katy-did on a pond, and watching himself skate: catch that curve, Max? His essay on Catholicism, compared for example even to Philip Roth writing on Judaism, tells us nothing about his own state of soul, and as an interpretation of one-fourth of the American population it is exceedingly lame. His essay on the Mafia has not much to commend it, either, except his eye for style—that of Mafiosi and of writers about Mafiosi. He is not an expert on the Mafia. Perhaps Sheed can dismiss his subjects as “three mobs” because he is in some odd way held by silken threads from ever touching earth in America. Altitude is grubby too, may be the message he imparts.

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