The essays in Notes of a Hanging Judge were written between 1979 and 1988—years when many of the gains of the civil rights era were being overturned by the Reagan administration and the so-called Culture Wars were just starting to heat up. Crouch's essays capture the intellectual ferment of the era, offering trenchant criticism on emerging cultural trends and milestone moments in film, literature, and politics. One of his most memorable essays, "Nationalism of Fools," is a biting profile of a 1985 Nation of Islam rally led by Minister Louis Farrakhan at Madison Square Garden. Typical of Crouch's approach, he mocks what he considers Farrakhan and the Nation's "muddled" ideology and senseless anti-Semitism, but also thoughtfully considers why such a message and messenger could attract 25,000 people at that historical juncture.
Other essays attach other black cultural totems of the 1980s: "Aunt Medea" argues that Toni Morrison's much-praised Beloved "explains black behavior in terms of social conditioning, as if listing atrocities solves the mystery of human motive and behavior." In "Do the Race Thing," he derides Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing as "the convention of a new black exploitation film." And in "Man in the Mirror," he takes the unusual stance of defending Michael Jackson's extensive plastic surgery by placing it within the context of the American and African American tradition of improvisation: "The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn't intrude upon the freedom of anyone else."
It will be hard to find many people who agree with Crouch on every point; his ideas can raise the hackles of conservatives and liberals alike. And his essays can sometimes seem unnecessarily curmudgeonly—sometimes almost mean-spirited. Nevertheless, his often surprising essays, argued in lively and enjoyably rich prose in this collection, are essential to anyone who values serious ideas.