Clarence Page Provides a Stable Treatise on the Most Hot-Button Issues
In Culture Worrier, Pulitzer Prize Winner Clarence Page tackles a multitude of issues in his intelligent newspaper columns from 1984-2014.
Culture Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change: Selected Columns 1984-2014Publisher: Agate
Author: Clarence Page
Publication date: 2014-09
Clarence Page has made his mark on the media as a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune with remarkable wit and candor. He tackles tenuous issues that other news organizations only allow the barest of airtime to. His profession, however, is a dying one; a newspaper columnist who relies on old-fashioned research, first hand connections, and a Rolodex of contacts that stretches across the political spectrum.
Indeed, there’s not much room for souls and voices like Page in the shrinking realm of newsprint; his career isn’t one that college graduates aspire to any longer or seek out at job fairs. All the more reason, then, to celebrate his selected columns, neatly organized by topic and relevance, and captured graciously in Culture Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change, Selected Columns, 1984-2014.
Page is an intelligent person, an astute observer of politics and human nature. But the type of intelligence he trades in is the sharpest of double-edged swords. To begin, he’s rational and articulate. And he often forgoes incendiary language or easy targets in favor of a common-sense approach to divisive socio-political issues. That feat alone is enough to make a lone voice stand out in sea of angry, misinformed rhetoric, but Page also possesses a startling clairvoyance that accompanies his intelligence. He’s able to digest the past in order to contextualize the present while also reliably predicting the future. His commentaries are so prescient, so exemplary, that more than once you’ll need to refer back to the date posted beneath his headlines, just to make sure he wasn’t beamed in from the future.
Never one to shy away from difficult subjects, Page is at his most striking when he employs the powerful, logical techniques of argument that he has spent decades whittling down to a science. Brevity and logic are often his strongest suits. In an era of overindulgence and surface-level analysis, Page uses the power of less (and the power of the pen) to convey more. His word count is, in many ways, his most formidable weapon, second only to his candor and his evenhandedness when addressing delicate issues of race, gender, terrorism, and crime.
Despite Page’s lackadaisical title as but a mere columnist, he isn’t short on solutions to problems facing the population at large. Often his solutions are presented as the headlines themselves (e.g., "Dump the War on Drugs" and "Spare the Rod, Save the Child"). As a “worrier”, Page implies that he might be unable to produce results through his own thoughts, his “worried” mind. When, In fact, the opposite is true. Television pundits and personalities focus on attacking people (the ever present ad hominem fallacy that Page never falls victim to) rather than offer concrete plans or solutions to increase the dialogue between opposing viewpoints. It’s an area that Page reiterates again and again in his columns and in the book's introduction:
Many of the most talk-about news issues since the 1960s have been what I call “gaffe scandals,” or classes between opposing cultures… over what some thought they were saying versus the insult that others hear. Many of these episodes are revealing of changing times and American’s cultural fault lines. They could be resolved if we took the time to hold honest conversation that so many people say we need, but those who could benefit the most from such a conversation are the last to engage in it—until they have no other choice.
But the solutions and honest conversation that Page touts are not sexy and they don’t play well in the ratings game that is today's 24 hour network news cycle—something Page has been around long enough to witness the rise of. Reading and digesting Page’s opnion on problems, as well as his attempt to facilitate that “honest conversation” that he talks about, is wondrous to witness and, what’s more, motivating in the most active way possible. Page always offers a stable treatise on the most hot-button issues. And he’s always keen to point out double-standards wherever they may exist—from his liberal colleagues to conservative politicians, Hollywood actors, and on to civil rights figures when the situation calls.
As an African American, a trait he uses to his advantage rather than exploiting it, Page’s worldview is shaped by his context and colored in by his own experiences among the “salad bowl” of American culture. (He prefers the terms “salad bowl” and “Mulligan stew” to the oft-misused “melting pot” metaphor to describe the mixture that is American culture.) He’s quick to praise famous men, from James Brown to Christopher Hitchens, and also equally quick to call out foolish politics and practice when he sees them—from Reverend Al Sharpton to Newt Gingrich and all points inbetween.
Tempting as it is to say that Page doesn’t suffer fools gladly, that’s not the whole truth. In his columns, rather than ticking off foolish actions of politicians and public figures (of which there are plenty; Page has never been in need of topics to write about), he solicits advice when he is at a loss and provides consultation like a wizened father-figure who understands that raging against the system does about as much good as sawing through sawdust. That's not to say that Page doesn’t find topics rage-worthy. He just prefers to stick to his self-imposed direction of fostering a dialogue for the sake of a solution. He knows, all too well, that together we can achieve credible answers and actions by using the sum of our knowledge and opinions, instead of going alone into the darkness without the proper rhetorical armament.
Perhaps one of the most assured facets of Culture Worrier isn’t in the way Page presents himself, but in the way that Page presents our history. Whether he knew it at the time of his writings, or not, Page has become a legacy scribe, tracking and tracing the arc of politics as they evolved from the mid-'80s to our present year, the confusing and occasionally hopeless new millennium. Absorbing his views and keeping them close in our mind and hearts clarifies what we tell ourselves every day: history always repeats itself, the art of politics is a dirty one, and we can all do better if we learn from the mistakes of the past.
Page’s voice and steady hand are beautiful things to witness. Culture Worrier does the man and his audience a great justice by preserving his lively work for generations to come. And in so doing, it helps keep our model of a great and prosperous America alive and well, even long after the newsprint has faded.