Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities, by Jack Cashill (Post Hill Press, 288 pp., $20)
Our well-intentioned government—named the “Good Intentions Paving Company” by financial analyst James Grant—always seems to find itself scrambling to explain how its latest scheme for a better world has delivered us into an even lower circle of hell. Bureaucrats to the core, they’ve even developed a one-step procedure for dealing with this task: blame it on the people. The term “white flight” is a product of this procedure.
A principal benefit of this system is that the Paving Company doesn’t have to ask people—in this case, the whites who took “flight”—why they fled. It must be because they were fleeing from nonwhite people, and fleeing from nonwhite people is racist. Why would you bother consulting racists about their motives?
Jack Cashill’s new book, Untenable, punctures this familiar white flight narrative. Cashill’s subtitle promises the “true story of white ethnic flight from America’s cities.” Cashill has learned a thing or two from his fellow descendant of Irish refugees, Ronald Reagan: damn the statistics, tell the stories. In fact, let people tell their own stories. In this book, they finally get the chance to do so.
Decades on, few have bothered asking white ethnic residents why they left the neighborhoods where they had met and married spouses, raised families, made their livings, drank beer together, cheered the home team, and gone to the movies. They (or their forebears) hadn’t left Ireland, Germany, Italy, or Poland lightly. It took poverty, starvation, tyranny, and decades of suffering, in many cases, to get them to our shores. We’re expected to believe that they dropped the fruits of a lifetime’s effort in America and decamped for the suburbs solely because some black families bought houses a few blocks away.
This certainly isn’t the story the white ethnics tell in the pages of Untenable. Their reasons for leaving boil down to two things: the rise of crime and the collapse of schools.
The book takes its title from one of those stories. Cashill asked a friend, a lifelong Democrat, why he and his mother had left the old neighborhood in the latter years of its long decline. “It became untenable,” came the careful reply. What did he mean by that? “When your mother gets mugged for the second time, that’s untenable. When your home gets broken into for the second time, that’s untenable.”
Cashill posted word of his book project on his grade school’s alumni page; the responses he got from his fellow refugees from the Roseville neighborhood of Newark were numerous and moving. A smattering: “Leaving Roseville was one of the hardest and most emotional parts of my life . . . We had a wonderful life and didn’t know it until we see (sic) the way things changed . . . God, I miss the Roseville Section. Leaving there was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It just wasn’t safe to live there anymore . . . I’ve always envied those that can go home again.”
Untenable visits the Newark that once was—with places like Roseville, Vailsburg, and Pigtail’s Alley. We meet Tony Boy Boiardo, Mario the policeman, Artie the Dodger fan, Hannah Litzky the teacher, Bill and Sandy Christie (the parents of Chris the future governor), and best of all, Cashill’s mother.
Here’s one of the tales Cashill tells. In today’s public schools, Eddie wouldn’t get out of kindergarten without being dosed with every mood-altering drug in the Big Pharma arsenal. “Wild” doesn’t cover it. One day crazy Eddie convinced Cashill to join him in commandeering a rowboat and rowing it across the bay and back. It seemed like a good idea until they were about 80 percent of the way into their return trip. By that time, they were sunburned, bone-weary, and limp.
Suddenly, a Coast Guard cutter stormed up alongside them. High on its bow stood an officer and Cashill’s mother. The officer drew back his arm to throw the boys a line, but the loving mother stopped him cold with a shout: “Let ’em row!” And row they did.
What about racism, though? Surely, some taint of it must have been there, but what role did it play, exactly? We’ll never know because no one ever inquired into the motives of the only people who could answer: Bill and Sandy, Artie and Mario, Hannah and Jack.
All the social experiments instituted for our benefit by our betters—forced busing, urban renewal, public housing, interstate highways—cascaded together in Newark in just a few mind-boggling years. They were ginned up in Washington and sold on the basis of social science. But when you attempt to explain, predict, or alter human conduct on the basis of numbers, you make mathematics into metaphor.
When you’ve finished crunching numbers, you move on to crunching people. Little Italy is flattened and replaced by a housing project that’s just a slum in the making; an elevated superhighway is plunged through the heart of Roseville; and more drugs circulate through the schoolyards than in Bogotá. When, at long last, people find all these conditions “untenable,” they leave. The exodus is then labeled “white flight,” and the people leaving get labeled “racists.” But what label should we affix to the geniuses in Washington who conceived and executed the whole cock-up? We call them “experts.”
The experts never pause to talk to Bill and Sandy, Artie and Mario, Hannah and Jack. Why would they? The experts aren’t really there to protect the interests of the purported beneficiaries of their projects. In The Managerial Revolution, James Burnham wrote that all large organizations eventually come to serve the interests of their permanent staffs. Ronald Reagan said that the most frightening words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Here to help themselves, says Burnham. They look on the working stiff not as the object of the beneficent program but as an obstacle to it.
Worse than the selfishness of the administrator is his solipsism. The federal agency hardly notices that Bill and Sandy, Artie and Mario, Hannah and Jack actually exist. Before the managerial revolution arrived, back in 1934, Simone Weil, then a Marxist, wrote an article saying that Marx had failed to foresee one form of oppression: bureaucrats could crush working people at least as badly as the most exploitative capitalist. As Weil wrote elsewhere, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. It is given to very few minds to notice that things and beings exist.” Members of the expert class seldom notice.
In Death of a Salesman, shortly before Willy Loman takes his own life, his wife Linda tries to explain it all to their sons. She registers a complaint against those who can’t see that things and people exist: “Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. . . . But he is a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. . . . Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”
In the pages of Untenable, attention is finally paid.
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