Tom Wicker's Attica
It is not widely recognized that there is more than one kind of racial attitude among whites in America. Some whites have since birth had extensive dealings with blacks, in a wide variety of situations. Some have come to these dealings without any personal, familial, or cultural involvement in the institution of slavery. Some, like the French and the Hispanics, have come from cultures in which intermarriage between races is a fairly common circumstance. But if in the pluralism of white cultures there are demonstrably different historical experiences with black cultures, our social analysts have not sufficiently noticed the extent to which the interpretation of the meaning of race in America has become “Southernized.” Not only do many of the most eminent blacks who have codified white-black relations derive from Southern culture-leaders as diverse as Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and Vernon Jordan; many of our most outspoken white liberals, too, those who are, as it were, almost fixated on this issue, have been Southerners: men like Lyndon Johnson, Bill Moyers, Garry Wills, Larry King, Willie Morris, Ramsey Clark, and Tom Wicker.
American culture is too often examined from the perspective of Massachusetts southward and westward, and so to some extent the voices of Southerners contribute an important counter-point in the national self-understanding. Yet on matters of race—and on moral questions, more generally—Southern perceptions of urban industrial society tend to distort reality in important ways.
It is characteristic of Southern liberals that they have come late to liberal attitudes on race; usually, they can date to the day and hour the time they first touched a black, embraced a black, or for the first time addressed a black as an individual like themselves. It is also characteristic that they approach the racial question in preeminently evangelical and moralistic terms. Finally, it is characteristic that, sensitive to the moral burden carried by every Southerner in entering the world of Northern white liberals, such Southerners almost unconsciously compensate by trying to give frequent evidences of their morality. The dominant symbols of morality in America are men of sterling character and impeccable family reputations—the “Massachusetts men” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., speaks so fondly of—the members of “blue-ribbon” panels, the Yankee brahmins. A Southerner like Lyndon Johnson, or even Terry Sanford, or Jimmy Carter, or J. William Fulbright, or Sam Ervin, is necessarily insecure in his moral standing on the national stage. Being Southern is almost like bearing an Italian name: watchfulness is stimulated among the guardians of the narrow gates; one can feel their skepticism.
And for a Southerner who would aspire to true national eminence there is a further obstacle to clear: in learning the ways of the Northern middle class, the liberal professionals, one must also avoid too fawning an approval of “middle-class procedures,” “middle-class mores,” and “middle-class values.” One must imitate the ways but learn to disdain the household gods; irreverence and skepticism are necessary proofs that one has caught the hang of it.
The way is made a little easier because the complexity and ambiguity of Northern industrial life have deprived even the guardians of our national moral symbols of their certainty as to what is right or wrong. The infusion of the fresh faith of converts is a Northern necessity, the justification for all those missionary forays down the years. And so they come: proper, neat, clean, highly purposive and moral young men to teach their jaded teachers the true faith again. Bill Moyers is the very voice of reason and virtue, Ramsey Clark the apostle, Tom Wicker the avenging scribe.
Their way has been especially smooth since the Kennedy era, and most of them, indeed, owe their national emergence to the Kennedy period. For that was the era when Lindisfarne and Camelot—the Celtic fires—replaced the mellower English abbeys as the sources of the nations moral rhetoric. “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Norman Mailer once perceived: the sudden wedding of arriviste professionals and moral fervor, when politics was seized from the hands of “mere politicos” and offered to the ambitions of the young, the tough, the willing, the new frontiersmen, the new generation come of age. As pragmatism, and wheeling-dealing, and new bureaucracies, and new techniques began to lose their moral luster, many “Kennedy liberals” moved rhetorically left-ward: i.e., they escalated their moral fervor (which was the very reason for their entrance into public life, along with their ambition to be famous men) exactly in proportion as the programs they championed met the ironies and tragedies inherent in every form of politics. They espoused withdrawal, not so much from Vietnam as from “centrist” politics, from liberalism, from a sense of ambiguity and that humane cynicism that must line the stomach of every successful political practitioner, and they began to flirt with “raised consciousness,” “radicalization,” and “revolution.” They did not become revolutionaries—or few did—but they denounced the “tough pragmatism” that was the backbone of the New Frontier, and in its place they embraced its high moral rhetoric, which for John Kennedy, at least, was only its outward magic: the poetry that gilds Irish crassness, the wit, the way with words, the famous blarney. They kept the blarney and abandoned the hardball. And, slowly, the Irish New Frontier gave way to political evangelism, the urban Irish toughness to Southern morality.
In their present state, the intellectual and moral underpinnings of what used to be the Northern Left have the consistency of hominy. Description, diagnosis, and analysis have been replaced by moral mush; outrage and sermonettes, doomsaying and paradisiacal vistas, have replaced pragmatic modesty. We are promised all—or nothing. “Middle” is a term of opprobrium. As one might imagine, in the background falls the splash of blood. For what the rhetorical revolutionaries cannot bring themselves to do, some who honor them do not hesitate to do.
The reception of Tom Wicker's odd account of Attica1 demonstrates conclusively the lust of Northern liberals to drink the Southern cup, to charge again their anger. outrage, and moral passion. The explicit confessions of the text and the experience of renewed commitment expressed by the book's reviewers tell us more than we need to know about the intellectual and moral state of mind of those of whom we used to hope so much: the readers of books, the literate and enlightened Left.
Wicker writes of himself, everybody knows by now, in an unnecessary third person. In Norman Mailer's hands, the device allows for multiple personas, ironic distance, a self-mocking and psychoanalytic point of view. In Wicker, it is merely theatrical: Wicker himself as the subject of a novel. The aim may be modesty, the avoidance of the “I”; the net effect is that of television journalism: Wicker's story towers over Attica's as on television Roger Mudd is larger than the capitol.
The structure of A Time to Die is rather tightly chronological, although a reflective and personal dimension is added through flashbacks to Wicker's past, occasional disquisitions on prisons in the United States, and sundry philosophical views. The prose, meant to suggest Melville or Faulkner, actually suggests James Jones and the genre of the tough guy with the heart of gold.
On Friday, September 10, 1971, the book begins, Tom Wicker sat “in the executive dining room of the Geographic” with celebrities and men of power, whose names are listed for a full paragraph, enjoying “the best talk in Washington.” Wicker “had a vivid sense of having come a long, long way” from his home town of Hamlet, North Carolina. There is a phone call, inviting him to Attica. He did not even know a riot had begun the day before; he hadn't paid attention to the story in the Times.
Former Nieman fellow, confidant of President Kennedy, former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, and now a thrice-weekly columnist and associate editor of the Times, Wicker is as the call arrives one of a dozen most influential figures in one of the most powerful industries in America, the merchants of communications. As a highly paid journalist and as twice now a writer of best-sellers, he is richer, better known, and of greater political potency than most senators and governors. This is the person chosen as one of the twenty-seven “neutral observers” who were permitted by New York State at the scene of the Attica riot, fourteen of them, including Wicker. invited specifically by the rioting inmates.
The most important information in Wicker's book is about Wicker himself. On what he says about Attica at least three preliminary points must be made. First, Wicker never gives us fail criteria by which we might measure “conditions” (the inmates' code word) at Attica. The only prison of which Wicker offers us a first-person account is Attica. Some of the features that appall him are common to all those institutions that Erving Goffman calls “total institutions”—asylums, hospitals, prep schools, convents, monasteries—and some are common to crowded, lower-class urban areas. We do not learn from Wicker that the average term of incarceration at Attica is only seven years, nor that it is one of the most modern prisons in the U.S.; only in the pictures and diagrams do we discover how large, ample, and generous with space it is.
Wicker is shocked that inmates receive only 50 cents a day for their work, without adding in the $10,000 per prisoner it costs the state to keep a roof over their heads, teed them, keep them warm, and maintain their health. He does not note that the prisoners' only complaint about their food is that they receive “too much pork” (a legitimate sore point to the Black Muslims): he does not note that every day after lunch the inmates are handed an apple and cookies for an afternoon snack. (One demand of the rioters was “for fresh fruit daily.”) Wicker is not amazed, as the reader is, to find that each cell comes equipped with earphones, so that each inmate can listen to the radio and records without disturbing others. He is outraged that each cell is closed, so that prisoners cannot look down the corridor without mirrors; he is not surprised, as the reader is, that hand mirrors are permitted, and not gratified that the prisoners are not permanently locked in tiers of open cages instead of private rooms. The grievances of the prisoners are shockingly trivial, and remind one far more of Auberon Waugh's complaints about boarding schools in England than the prison in Arkansas where so many grisly corpses were found or conditions in the mines and mills of Pennsylvania circa 1920. Wicker shows not a speck of a tough reporter's cynicism about the complaints of inmates. He calls their neat cells, their daily life, “the lowest condition of existence.” Yet lack of personal liberty apart, the prisoners at Attica live better than a majority of people on this planet, not to mention most prisoners in history.
Secondly, Wicker's reporting gives us no clear sense of why the riot started. The prisoners were restive, he suggests, because they were the victims of injustice. Yet no one complained of having been improperly tried, sentenced, or jailed; nor even of illegal loss of life, injury, or brutal treatment. Indeed, compared to the brutality of homosexual rape, vendetta, debt “enforcement,” and other violence among the inmates themselves, the incidents Wicker reports of “police brutality” seem well within the range of the expectable amount of intimidation the vastly outnumbered guards would have to insist upon in order to survive. No one complained of being shot by a guard. Wicker quotes the leader of the riot: “In all the years I've been in prison . . . I'd never seen guns in the yard. I'd never seen a gun fired from the tower. . . . You never think of the guns as a thing that of itself could cause harm.” Prison society is not pleasant, and it can be improved, as no one more than the liberal Russell Oswald, the New York State Commissioner of Corrections, was working to accomplish. But having observed British police in Hong Kong, Italian police in Rome, and French police in Paris, knowing a little of police operations in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Vietnam, I found the behavior of the guards at Attica even as described by Wicker rather high on the scale of humane conduct in their circumstances.
The prisoners shouted later that they wanted to be treated “AS MEN,” in an appropriately upper-case voice. But it was precisely because they had failed to act accordingly that they found themselves in Attica. They had shown by their proven crimes that they did not deserve the society of men. They were being treated as prisoners, at heavy expense to taxpayers, because they could no longer be trusted with adult male responsibilities. Wicker writes as if their rhetoric of oppression were legitimate; as if rates of recidivism were a failure of the state rather than of individuals themselves—as if the state could do what God himself did not do: make all men good.
Roger Starr has pointed out (COMMENTARY, March 1973) that the McKay Commission, appointed by the state to investigate Attica, “found no evidence” that the riot had been planned, but that it didn't look very hard for evidence. Well, why did it start? My own theory is gleaned indirectly from Wicker (and similar accounts). A concerted effort was going on in the prisons to fill the heads of not terribly bright, uneducated, and uncritical minds with revolutionary illusions. Talking revolution in the ghettos was not very rewarding; people were too smart and even on the meanest streets too many had it better than they ever had, in the South, or in Latin America, or wherever. Thousands were going to colleges, “getting out” and “moving up.” In prison, the imagery at least had objective correlatives; inmates, by their own deeds, had indeed condemned themselves to a “police state,” even if not the most terror-ridden in the world. Wicker quotes a letter from Sam Melville, the white ex-con “radical” bomber and bank robber, written a month before the riot: “I can't tell you what a change has come over t[he] brothers in Attica. So much more awareness and growing consciousness of themselves as potential revolutionaries, reading, questioning, rapping all the time.” Most of the inmates were young; Champen, almost forty, was respected for his maturity. Herb Blyden, another leader, told the inmates in a D-yard speech: “They had never had a chance to rise in a racist and oppressive America . . . prison being no more than the actual representation of the life they were forced to lead even on the outside. . . . And we are the vanguard!” The inmates felt “liberated” by the mere capture of D-yard. It was a species of role-playing, a psychodrama, not meant to be taken seriously—surely, not meant to provoke counter-attack. No one boasted of being internally liberated, never again to commit crime; nor of having any revolutionary plan to help America or the rest of the “oppressed” world. They felt better in the sunlight and air of the familiar yard, with hostages. Revolution? Self-dramatization.
Finally, Wicker is ambivalently “charitable” toward Governor Rockefeller's refusal to go to Attica in person. In his long telephone conversation with the Governor, Wicker does not make, as he himself is obliged to recognize, a convincing case; the Governor has sound reasons which Wicker cannot meet. So Wicker then proceeds to whine and undercut by rhetoric what he could not meet with reason. The Governor, Wicker goes on in classical Southern rhetoric, ending every sentence with this phrase, prefers “the order of things.” But Wicker himself in his newspaper columns is, when it suits him, America's leading champion of moral and constitutional “order.” Order is not a “middle-class” concept but a condition absolutely essential to a government of laws; order is essential to the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and democratic procedures. Unless human beings have internalized order, guards must be posted everywhere and everyone must be watched. Without order, neither democracy nor industry nor daily acts of trust are possible. Proper order is the basis for outrage over Watergate, for concern about CIA domestic surveillance, for worry over the rash of bombings, kidnappings, and taking of hostages on airlines and elsewhere. Without order, life is searches, force, a police state. Wicker doesn't have the courage to argue against Governor Rockefeller, or the intelligence to see precisely where the Governor's failure lay.
Rockefeller should not have talked to the inmates, as Wicker wanted, for the reasons the Governor gave: no deals with kidnappers and hostage-holders, no conferring of credibility on confused and illusory revolutionary theater. But Rockefeller should not have used surrogates to do the dirtiest work of the state. Rockefeller's habitual style is to do his deeds through hired agents. In a private citizen, the style is contemptible enough; in an executive officer, it is inexcusable. The broken figure of Commissioner Oswald is proof enough that the Governor burned up his subordinates to save himself. The fact that no one on the scene thought to have medical units ready to enter the prison yard after the troopers' assault indicates that the Governor could have played an important role as overall administrator of the restoration of order. If Rockefeller had been there. the citizens of New York would not have felt leaderless or suffered from his cowardice. Attica was about responsibility; the Governor failed his.
On Attica, then, Wicker sheds little useful light. The true story of A Time to Die is the story of Tom Wicker's testing as a man. There is no mistaking this as the dramatic center of the book. Wicker sees himself leaving for Attica already on page 6 as having an opportunity that “might make him think better of his work, even of his life,” and as he leaves, his important lunch companions are “moving to and fro, talking no doubt of Michelangelo.” Later, he recalls: “It had occurred to him within minutes of entering the prison . . . that perhaps the time had arrived for his life to be put to the challenge.” Before Attica, “his fiction seemed no more promising than it had been a decade earlier. Nor did he think his newspaper work had had enough value to sustain his passionate desire to signify as a writer. His personal life was breaking up and falling away. . . . [R]eflecting on Attica, he discovered that he had arrived at an age and time—his divorce, the shattering of the stability he had come to depend on, was a large part of it—when neither his profession nor his sense of self yielded him an essential feeling of worth. He liked and believed in his work; but its aloof, critical onlookers' ethic, valid professionally, could not sustain his life.” Exhausted later, “he realized how tired he was, how old, how inadequate, how disappointed in himself.” Later, in action: “He was caught up in the euphoria of decision, leadership, action. He felt bigger, stronger, better than he ever had. He thought he could handle anything, and he was prepared to try. He felt true to himself.” Attica was therapy, Attica was a time of testing, Attica was real life.
By his own account, Wicker failed the challenge of Attica. His role, as one of the observers, was to see to it that “Nobody gets killed.” But in the event—although he is still less than willing to face this squarely—what he and his fellow observers did was help to bring the massacre about. Instead of telling the inmates the truth about the troops outside, or challenging their illusions about what the state was prepared to do, or trying to persuade them to put their demands on a realistic basis which might have led to a peaceful settlement, Wicker and the other observers chose not to make recommendations, but rather to serve as conduits of the rioters' story to the outside world. When Commissioner Oswald says plaintively, “A committee as powerful as this ought to have been able to swing that group around to meeting with me on neutral grounds,” he summarizes the observers' achievements fairly. The observers had been loath to swing the inmates on anything, had acted like non-directive therapists awaiting insight. What came instead was bloodshed.
The name of Wicker's hometown in North Carolina is Hamlet, and it is in the role of Hamlet that the reader sees his efforts to avert that bloodshed defeated, not by the cosmos, but by his own moral and intellectual flaws. Since these flaws are common to many “decent, liberal, progressive” persons in our midst, Wicker's greatest service is to have exhibited them—even if without full awareness of what he has done—for public judgment.
The most immediately striking of these flaws is the desire to have everything both ways. On the one hand Wicker represents himself as a naive person, a “middle-class product of a system lie regarded as fundamentally rational.” In this character he can express anger and outrage at every indication that society is not “fundamentally rational.” On the other hand, he is a realist, too tough-minded to be a revolutionary, to believe in dramatic change; and whenever it suits his convenience, especially his professional convenience as a journalist, he can slip into this character too. Wicker doesn't really believe in reason and order; yes, he does. “Wicker, at one level, agreed with the skeptics. . . . On a more intellectual plane, however, Wicker found himself, as have so many liberals and intellectuals in times of challenge to liberalism and reason, unable to concede the futility of sensible conciliation of interests.” He gives many little sermons on the inevitable corruption in human nature: “Well, there'll always be an Attica.” Wicker “believed human nature would prevail over any system, that justice would flag and power assert itself in any company of men; and that in all societies, the fight for justice and a limit to power would go on, indomitably. inevitably, the cycle dominating the generations, the struggle never ceasing, the victory never won.”
Is the cosmos indifferent, as indifferent as the silent Potomac that one day, fifteen years earlier, swept Wicker helplessly along and threw him over a 76-foot falls? Death and life seemed equally significant, then. Or does the cosmos favor progress through struggle? “He wanted to help men and things be better, for once, than they might have been. If he did not really believe that likely, he nevertheless hoped it could happen.” Philosophically, Wicker has not decided if he is an existentialist, a progressive pragmatist, a stoic, a Scotch Calvinist. It's all mixed up. He pulls out whichever strand is rhetorically needed for his posture of the moment.
Secondly, Wicker's perspective on America is innocent of history: “Orangeburg, the cities' riots, the Tet offensive, the Chicago convention, My Lai, Cambodia, Kent State, Jackson State—these and other shocks to his conventional understanding of things had carried Tom Wicker, by September 1971, a long way from the comfortable place in the mainstream of action and acceptance that he once had relished. He had suffered professional and social opprobrium for his developing view of a society gone seriously astray from proclaimed ideals; his ‘constituency’ was made up substantially of alienated and protesting blacks, young people, the disadvantaged.” One marvels before anything else at the stance taken in this passage, in which one of America's most successful and influential journalists manages to turn himself into a lone prophet crying in the wilderness. (Is the “constituency” he refers to intended to describe readers of the Times?) More important, Wicker either displays ignorance of or vastly underestimates the bloodshed, violence, and continuing degradation experienced by the white immigrants who settled in the urban industrial centers—and even in rural towns like Batavia and Warsaw and, yes, Attica—and hence he sentimentalizes the sufferings of blacks. He forgets the bloodshed required to end child labor, to make labor organizing legal, to permit strikes, and to make strikes effective. He forgets the hundreds of thousands who perished in the mines or who were burned to ashes in the mills or mangled by machinery.
For example, exactly seventy-four years before Attica, on September 10, 1897, a sheriff's posse of seventy men armed with rifles fired on an unarmed group of “Hungarian” strikers at Lattimer, Pennsylvania, killing twenty-eight and wounding at least forty (many were dragged off by relatives and never became part of the official count). The New York Times, informed later that the shooting had not been provoked, editorialized on September 19, 1897: “Now this is merely incredible. . . . America's sheriff's posses do not behave in that way.” George McGovern's doctoral thesis recounts the Rockefeller massacres of immigrant miners in Colorado in 1914. Eric Sevareid's autobiography tells of a massacre of strikers in St. Paul, Minnesota, when he was a reporter for the University of Minnesota Daily. In 1936, mounted troops bloodied heads and hired thugs tarred and feathered union organizers in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Nor does all this show anything especially evil about America; the fate of peasants and serfs in Europe at the time of immigration was even worse.
Thirdly, Wicker has an easy solution to complicated moral problems: the exploited, especially if they are black, are always right. He attributes his virtue to the “class sense he had absorbed from his father, the obligation to side with the underdog, the downtrodden, the poor, and the exploited.” Given Wicker's own stated “constituency,” his source of power and his moral imperative coincide, which is convenient. But what if the “poor and the exploited” at Attica were in the wrong? Could it have happened that way? What would the inmates have had to do to be wrong? “Honor and heritage required of him that he stand for the underdog, that the place of man was with the workers and the poor against the powerful and the greedy.” But some workers see him, precisely, as one of the “powerful” and the “greedy.” Coming out of prison the first day, “Wicker suddenly realized he had thought nothing at all about the hostages.” He never visits correction officers or their families. The truly invisible people in his book, outside Wicker's vision, and deeply betrayed by him, are the working-class whites of the prison staff. They figure in his book exactly as he describes blacks in Hamlet during his youth: all he hears is their footsteps; all he vaguely feels is their presence.
Wicker is profoundly ambivalent about his own Southern heritage and about the liberalism for which he has exchanged it. Like many Southerners, he openly believes Southern liberals are better than Northern liberals—see to the heart of things quicker. Yet it is required that he disown the South. So on a troop train for ten days in 1946 with twenty-seven blacks and two other whites, “he set the face of his life away from the South.” A convert to Northern liberalism, he keeps trying to prove himself worthy. He “envies” those, like William Kunstler, the radical attorney (a fellow observer at Attica), who are more to the Left than he. Above all, he admires men who have “paid the price,” who have “earned their right” to liberalism; he always feels unworthy.
Wicker's most profound ambivalence, of course, concerns race. The first time he ever shook hands with a black was at the age of nineteen, at the university; his first human exchange with a black appears to have been on that troop train—a highly charged moment to him, a moment in which the direction of his life changed. “In 1946, he had made the great discovery that blacks were as human and individual as anyone. It was not much to learn, yet it was more than some people learn in a lifetime.” It is difficult for those of us brought up in Northeastern industrial cities to believe Wicker can be serious. Our earliest fist-fights were with blacks; we played ball with and against each other. We are not without our own forms of racism, but we have long since done blacks the honor of liking or disliking what we see in them, whether one by one or in solidarity. And we have tried to resist attributing all problems, including all the problems of the blacks themselves, to race alone.
Not so Wicker. “Racism, its consequences, the modern attack on it both legal and intellectual, and its endurance in so many forms had been the central public concern of Tom Wicker's life—and one that, in his life's pattern, had set him apart from many of his contemporaries and his peers.” And again: “There had been no moment in his adult, professional life when ‘the race question’ had not been prominent in his mind and work. Its effect upon him and what he had written, he supposed, was responsible for his presence at Attica.”
Thus on page after page, Wicker reduces the issues of Attica to race, to “whiteness,” to “blackness.” He seems to think of the Latino prisoners as black, and he slides over the whites among the inmates as a kind of embarrassment to the thesis he really wants to sell. “At the heart of the matter was the fear of blackness.” Governor Rockefeller “did not appear to realize, even months later, the implications of two cardinal facts—that the attack force was all white and that the rebelling inmates were heavily black and Puerto Rican.” But what are these implications? Europeans are not notoriously gentle to other Europeans. Officials have seized farmhouses at point of gun from penniless white farmers. Massacres have happened in every decade in American history, and as likely as not whites were the victims of whites. Only 54 per cent of the inmates at Attica were black (9 per cent were Latino), figures not inconsistent with crime rates among young males in New York State, particularly among the amateurs most likely to be caught.
To imagine every misunderstanding, hardship, injustice, and even brutality done to a black as prompted solely or chiefly by his race is a wretched disservice both to truth and to those who suffer. It is another form of putting them in their place. When in the intense emotion of parting from the inmates, Wicker was called “brother” by a black, and hugged him, “for the first time in his life he sensed that nothing racial stood between him and a human being who happened to be black. He felt himself free, for once . . . free at last free at last. . . .” Wicker's mystique of blackness and whiteness may possibly be Scotch-Irish and it is certainly Southern; it is not part of every white culture, and the emotion he describes here does not seem as attractive as he may imagine.
Even the most destructive form of Wicker's racism seems at first glance like exquisite sympathy. After a former prisoner, “G.I.” Paris, spoke of “the conditions” in the prison and asked “You unnerstan'?,” Wicker writes: “But how could the gap between ‘the conditions’ of G.I.'s life and his own—let alone those of the truly affluent—be really understood if it had not been lived? How could he fully know what ‘the conditions’ did. . .? . . . He sensed the profound inadequacy of his understanding. . . .” How can this be? Wicker is not hesitant about understanding poor whites, or Vietnamese, or characters in fiction or in history books. Only when it comes to blacks and Latinos do his powers of understanding fail. But it is not necessary to live someone else's life in order to understand “the conditions” under which that life is lived. “Gaps” among humans can be crossed by understanding—indeed, with a little healthy cynicism, one can sometimes see others more clearly than they see themselves. It is condescending not to face others with the normal amount of cynicism.
Such cynicism deserts Wicker when it comes to blacks, but not as he deals with whites, especially when he believes them gullible or susceptible of emotional blackmail. Wicker's public detestation of threats of a “bloodbath” in Vietnam are well-known; one expects the “bloodbath” newspaper column yearly. Yet through four days of negotiation at Attica, Wicker and the other observers invoke the image of a “bloodbath” repeatedly in order to shock the Governor and state officials. They do not warn the inmates of a bloodbath, however; they protect the inmates' naiveté.
For 300 pages, Wicker tells us the inmates had no trust in the state; in the end he tells us they never wavered in their trust in the state, never imagined the troopers would come in shooting. And why should they? In earlier uprisings at Rochester and at Auburn the state sent troopers in with sticks rather than with guns. One might even argue that at Attica, too, instead of feeding the prisoners and allowing them to organize and to play at revolutionary theater, the state should immediately have sent in a large force without guns and taken back the prison, if not bloodlessly, at least with fewer dead. Why, then, did Wicker and the other observers—who knew that the state was serious—confirm the inmates in the illusions of revolutionary theater?
Underlying everything, more important to his tale than abstract discussion, is this failure to tell the inmates the truth. On Sunday, September 12, Wicker realizes that no one has told the inmates about the guns outside, about the pressures for attack; no one has warned them that the state is serious. “If,” he says to himself, “the faintest possibility existed that a blunt speech of warning might avoid calamity, he ought to take the microphone and state the truth as plainly as he could.” Ashamed of his vulnerability as a Southerner, Wicker rationalizes. Time slips. “But the straw lay there to be grasped at . . . Wicker saw it clearly. He did not doubt the imperative to speak that had been placed upon him by the realization. . . . He knew what was expected of him, what he expected of himself. The moments passed. More hostages came forward. But he did not speak.” These lines come at the end of a chapter. Even here, Wicker cannot bear to face his failure. He closes the quoted sentence with a qualifier: “. . . it seems.” No seeming about it. He did not speak.
Later, he comes back to it:
Obviously, a clear understanding of the real alternatives facing them might have made a great difference in D-yard that Sunday afternoon. “Why didn't someone say, ‘Listen . . . their position is that they will not move another inch and they're going to come in with guns and shoot you people to death’?” Three years later, Roger Champen [an inmate leader] still was asking himself that question, and Tom Wicker could give no better answer than “you should have known.” He knew that was hardly an answer at all.
And, still later, Wicker cannot accept the reassurance of his fellow observer, Congressman Herman Badillo: “We did all we could.” “Wicker was not sure about that. He had not spoken in D-yard the afternoon before. But that was his to live with, not Badillo's.”
Great moral failures do not happen suddenly; a thousand small surrenders prepare the way. In Wicker's case it was a long series of surrenders to rhetoric—revolutionary rhetoric and black rhetoric—that deprived him first of the ability to see the saving truth clearly and then the courage to speak it when lives were hanging in the balance.
Earlier, on first hearing the inmates' rhetoric, Wicker is fascinated as “a Southerner who responded to eloquence.” When Herb Blyden assures his “rapt audience” that the prison is “no more than the actual presentation of the life they were forced to live on the outside,” Wicker congratulates him warmly afterward, and writes: “He was a man who spoke with the cutting edge of an essential truth that his hearers knew from their lives to be a truth.” Clarence Jones later tells Wicker “how much an institution like this is a microcosm of the outside society. . . . Malcolm X used to tell blacks they were all in prison—that America meant prison for blacks.” Wicker in “his evasive Southern way” concedes the point of Clarence Jones and Malcolm X “without anything to do or say that would change or answer it.” Instead of conceding, he might have asked Jones, the publisher of the Amsterdam News, if he were being rhetorical, self-pitying, or merely manipulative of a poor Southern boy.
The inmates continually boasted of their readiness to die, and “Wicker, at least, had taken it almost literally.” Later, however, Champen “explained that the speeches were really dramatizing how bad conditions are.” It turned out, that 46.8 per cent of the inmates did not expect guns to be used. But Wicker accepted black rhetoric at face value: “The pig only answered to the knife; The Man only yielded to the gun. That was what the brothers believed, what life had taught most of them.” Yet in the final test, despite the predictions that hundreds and possibly thousands would be killed, 43 died, counting the guard and two prisoners killed earlier by the inmates. A horrible waste, but nothing approaching the picture drawn by the inmates and spread by the observers. On the one side, of the 211 troopers who stormed D-yard, only 74 men actually fired; and on the other side, the inmates did not kill the hostages when D-yard was attacked. (This does not seem as hard to understand as Wicker makes out. About to be overwhelmed, suddenly choking with tear gas, those who held the hostages had a chance of surviving only if they did not murder; murder when immediate retribution is on its way is not impossible to deter.)
Wicker's attitude toward the leaders at Attica was as uncritical as his attitude toward their rhetoric. He did not know that two prisoners had been executed in some orderly fashion, and that the leaders had more reasons than he suspected for resisting any demand short of amnesty. The leaders played on the crowd like fundamentalist preachers, and the crowd passively responded. Wicker does not explore the dark side of the leaders' personalities; he does not seek out their moral or emotional weaknesses; he accepts them, not quite at face value, but as symbols of revolution, as metaphors for materials locked up in his own psyche. He rails several times at “normal citizens” who saw in these inmates only “murderers, thieves, and rapists,” and not their decency and their impressive talents. But here Wicker has things exactly backward. It is he who trivializes the inmates by taking their illusions seriously, by being amazed at their talents, and by averting his eyes from their pathologies, their ignorance, and their flirtations with destruction.
Every human being has enormous capacity for evil and also for good: Wicker included. Cleaving to the “moral rigor” his mother expected him to live up to, Wicker does not imagine that people like his mother—the mothers in Batavia, ordinary citizens—might be subtler than he. Of the troops at the prison he says, trying to be “charitable,” that they were “unschooled in the subtleties of the situation.” One wonders. Had they not understood the situation exactly, from the first? Did they not know that the sooner the assault was launched, the less bloodshed there was likely to be? Had they not done this before? Had they not already surmised full well that no “revolution” was beginning in Attica, and that meaner motives lay behind the posturing? Were they not thinking that, if further Atticas arose, they might be the next hostages? For all his “subtlety,” Wicker by his own testimony was wrong at every step of the unfolding drama.
Indeed, it seems amazing that a professional journalist should have cared so little about, inquired so weakly into, the masses of people who are constantly at the edges of this text, almost never seen, but experienced as an ominous and hateful presence: the new niggers of America. Wicker hugged black inmates in his farewell; he could not look the white hostages in the eye.
Nothing could better symbolize the distortions which the Southern perspective has introduced into our understanding of race relations. The North is not the South, nor the South the North. Attica is not the Arkansas State Prison; Cicero, Illinois, is not Birmingham, Alabama; South Boston is not Little Rock. The North is a different, harsher world, and blacks who were churchgoing and gentle in the South are often gravely wounded by the amoral, hostile, and fiercely competitive working world of Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Toledo, and New York. The whites they meet are not from Southern culture, do not have Southern guilts. The rules are different. The game is different. Ideology abounds.
The inmates picked the wrong game at Attica. the game of revolution, and forty-three human beings lost their lives. It is not a game limited to blacks: this particular disease is free of racial bias. Southernized, however, revolution signifies “the blacks”; “oppressed” means black; “minority” means black; “poor” means black; “underdog” means black. All problems are defined as racial problems. But racial mysticism, applied to Northern neighborhoods and towns, will not alleviate the scarcity of jobs; the abuse of the civil right to life and limb by muggings, robbery, and rape; the downward slide of stable communities; the economic competition; the bias of the media in dividing black from white; the scramble for scholarships and decent schools. Racial illusions kill: that is the lesson of Attica, and of Tom Wicker's book.
1 A Time to Die, Quadrangle, 342 pp., $10.00.