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The Timelessness of Tom Wolfe

Although we are far too old for hero worship, and have suffered far too many disappointments to place much faith in even the most promising public figures, we still regard Tom Wolfe with pretty much the same awestruck reverence as when we first encountered his writing in our more starry-eyed youth. The Wichita Public Library’s copy of his anthology of the “new journalism,” followed by all of his works in the genre, led directly to our newspaper career, and his Atlantic Monthly essay that summed up everything we hated about contemporary American fiction and called for a more robust and reportorial and realistic style, and then of course each of his subsequent masterpiece novels, inspired our own modest literary efforts, but after more than 40 years of devout fandom he somehow seems to get even better with each passing headline.
There’s almost a sense of deja vu in all the stories that are coming out of academia and the rest of post-racial America these days. All the talk of a “culture of rape” on the American campus is redolent of Wolfe’s scathing essay on “Hooking Up,” from way back at the turn of the second millennium, as well as his novelistic treatment of same subject in “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” published in 2004, and both are still essential to understanding the current hysteria. Countless racial contretemps, right up to the “Black Lives Matter” movement of the moment, were foretold in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” All those celebrities with reputations for cutting-edge political opinions probably don’t realize they were already thoroughly satirized way back in 1970 as “Radical Chic,” a Wolfe coinage that is still often and effectively deployed, and reading about a recent event that occurred in the Dartmouth University library reminded us of the companion report “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” a phrase that might soon be back in usage.
In case you’re not up on the latest campus capers, last week a large group of black Dartmouth students and some radically chic white compatriots marched through the library shouting obscenities and threats and sometimes spitting at or pushing the students who were attempting to study there. So far as we can tell their grievance is that Dartmouth has failed to provide a “safe space” for black students and their radically chic white compatriots, and no one well versed in Wolfe’s work will be surprised to learn that the school’s Vice Provost of Student Affairs has described their actions as “a wonderful, beautiful thing.” That Vice Provost of Student Affairs is a “flak catcher,” as Wolfe described the poverty program bureaucrats of the late ’60s, and he had been thoroughly “Mau-Maued,” as Wolfe described the time-honored technique of black protesters using their intimidating blackness to win concession from the supposedly all-powerful but in fact quite cowed The Man, and we’ll forgive the now-octogenarian Wolfe if he decides he has nothing more to say on the matter.
Still, we’d love to see his sly style and slick punctuations and perfectly timed capitalizations take on the subtle nuances of the Dartmouth library invasion. How he could relish that the Mau-Maus are Ivy Leaguers, with all the Ivy League privilege that entails, and that the racist institution they rail against is dominated by people who consider themselves the most exquisitely non-racist people in the whole wide world, right down to their tearful and radically chic confessions of “white privilege,” which at least awards them some sort of status as the better sort of white people, with such status being another recurring theme of Wolfe’s take on American culture, so it would make for a great essay. As avid students of his work we guess he’d also be amused by the video that shows the would-be students who were attempting to study during the protest looking more bored than threatened, seemingly unworried that even the most Mau-Mau sorts of Ivy Leaguers and their most radically chic white compatriots constituted a physical threat. Those more studious Ivy Leaguers who were in the library probably don’t have the benefit of our more vibrantly diverse public school experience, which did little for our understanding of higher mathematics or foreign languages but did much to teach us when to get the hell out of a tense racial situation, but even they seemed unimpressed. That the administration of one of America’s most prestigious universities immediately acquiesced to an assault on its library is by now a hackneyed ending.
The same tactic of invading by public spaces and harassing the unfortunate folks who happen to be there has also by been deployed outside of academia by “Black Lives Matter” activists, usually at fashionable eating places frequented by young white hipsters. One needn’t have the keen Wolfe eye to note that this hardly seems likely to dispel any notions that even the most racist white people have about blacks, much less the sorts of young hipsters who dine at fashionable eateries, or the more studious sorts of Dartmouth students who intended to be at the library instead of at a protest, and that it’s such delightful fodder for the right sort of writer.
Far be it from us to presume what Wolfe might notice, but we hope he’d allude to the fact that the protestors aren’t invading those Twin Peaks breastaurants where the biker gangs congregate, or any of several south side bars we can think of here in Wichita, or any of other decidedly unsafe spaces where more genuinely racist people can presumably been found. Wolfe also foretold the rise of stock car racing and its bootlegging roots and celebrated the redneck culture that gave it birth, and his Charlotte Simmons’ only hope against the craven academy was her country upbringing, and he sensed a certain strain of more pugnacious white America that would sooner or later confront the Ivy League Mau-Maus. The outcome remains to be seen, and we hope Wolfe gets to weigh in.

Tom Wolfe is about the same age as our beloved Dad, who is the only other man we regard with an awestruck reverence that is even greater than in our starry-eyed youth, and who has contentedly slowed down a bit lately, so we can’t blame Wolfe if he sets back in some high-end brand-name divan and in some swank apartment in a fashionable art of New York City and sips some status symbol wine in his white suit with his slyly but unapologetically white self and takes some same satisfaction in knowing that he got the important things right. We’ll try to keep up Wolfe’s call to literary arms, but it will be hard to surpass the master, and impossible to keep up with events.

— Bud Norman

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Radical Islam and Radical Chic

Radical Islam seems to be losing its radical chic, judging by two stories in the news lately. One story is set in the swankest spot in Beverly Hills, the other deep in the even more treacherous jungles of Nigeria, but both illustrate what it takes to at long last rile the modern world.
The brouhaha in Beverly Hills concerns the famously opulent Beverly Hills Hotel, which is owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, which is an arm of the Brunei government, which is run by the absolute authority of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who recently imposed sharia in the country. Sharia is the Islamic code of law proscribed by the Koran and Hadith, and although the interpretations vary from country to country it is always a harsh system by contemporary western standards, with the Brunei version featuring fines and jail times for failing to attend Friday prayer services, flogging and the severing of limbs for property crimes, and death by stoning for such crimes as adultery and homosexuality. Those final provisions proved especially offensive to the sensibilities of Hollywood show folk, who have now vowed to boycott the hotel until Brunei changes it laws or the property has a new owner.
We consider it unlikely that the Sultan of Brunei will abandon his apparently ardent faith to curry favor with the infidel celebrities of Tinseltown, but he might be forced to sell the hotel. The hotel’s value derives largely from its reputation as a gathering place for the beautiful people, and they seem genuinely determined to stay away. Famed talk show comedienne and lesbian Ellen DeGeneres, who is is as famous for being a lesbian as she is for being a talk show comedienne, has announced she won’t be back “until this is resolved.” Kim Kardashian, who is famous for some reason or another that we cannot discern, has cancelled a planned wedding reception, although she’ll probably have plenty of others there if new owners are found. Former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno even compared the Sultan to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, which is about brutal an insult as a Los Angeleno can muster these days. Such unfavorable publicity is bad for business, and although it won’t do much for the unfortunate folks in Brunei who are late for the call to prayer or shoplift a candy bar or engage in homosexual activities it will no doubt have a soothing effect on the consciences of America’s entertainers.
Radical Islam has been gaining an even more uncool reputation far away in Nigeria, where the Boko Haram terrorist organization has kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls. Boko Haram has been murdering thousands of Christians and other varieties of infidels for many years without arousing the outrage of any well-intentioned westerners, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and various high-minded do-gooder groups even resisted its inclusion on the official list of designated terror organizations until recently, but the kidnappings have so outraged the bien pensant that even Clinton is now sending out indignant “tweets.” First Lady Michelle Obama summed up the disapproval in her Mother’s Day address to the nation, in which she neglected to name the kidnappers or their religious ideology or even their intention to sell the girls into slavery but instead dwelled on the fact that the girls were being denied an education. “And what happened in Nigeria was not an isolated incident,” the First Lady explained, leaving one to wonder if the same sort of thing might be happening right here in America if any more of those Tea Party types with their War on Women get elected to Congress. Her husband has helpfully provided the use of drones and other military assistance in getting the girls released, so her outrage might prove more effective than mere “tweeting,” but it remains to be seen if the Islamic world at large will embrace feminism.
We wish these newly outraged activists well in their efforts, and welcome them to the ongoing struggle against radical Islam, but we’d like to see them broaden their perspective. The treatment of women and homosexuals throughout most of the Muslim world is appalling, and warrants the western world’s condemnation and fierce resistance, but surely the intolerance of Christianity and Judaism and free speech and representative democracy also deserve mention in the casus belli. The modern liberal is ill-placed to condemn assaults on Christianity and Judaism and free speech and representative democracy, and finds it more useful in domestic politics to focus on homosexuality and women’s rights, but now is not the time to jettison the old values. The newly outraged find themselves in a clash of civilizations, and reluctantly on the side of the one they’ve been hoping to undermine, and it can only be defended on the basis of all its virtues and not just its latest enthusiasms.

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, Down South

What little attention Americans pay the rest of the world has lately been focused on Ukraine, so the noteworthy noise emanating from Venezuela has gone largely unheard. That’s partly because the uprising in Ukraine has thus far been bloodier than the one in Venezuela, and has political and economic implications for Europe rather than South America, and features Vladimir Putin in a villain’s role and a recent world heavyweight boxing champ as his antagonist instead of a bunch of Venezuelans no one in the United States has ever heard of, but we suspect it’s also because most of the American media find Ukraine less embarrassing than Venezuela.
The Ukrainian mess is an embarrassment for those media intent on favorable coverage of the administration, as it once again reveals the utter failure of the “reset” diplomacy with Russia and the forehead-slapping stupidity of its underlying theory that any problems with those kindly Russians must surely have been the fault of that belligerent cowboy George W. Bush, but the damage done to the cause is limited. Even right-wing Obama-bashing bastards such as ourselves can’t blame the 50-something-year-old president for the past centuries of atrocities that the Russians have inflicted on the Ukrainians, or the mess that the Ukrainians have thus far made of their opportunity for independence, and in the midst of all that tragic history there’s no need to remind anyone of the administration’s recent naiveté. All those Russian troops amassing on the Ukrainian border and the Russian warships docked in Cuba might yet make the story unmanageable, but for now it can be reported without trepidation.
The Venezuelan mess, on the other hand, is an unmitigated embarrassment to one of one liberalism’s most chic causes. An uprising against an explicitly Marxist Latin American regime, undeniably caused by the economic catastrophe that follows every attempt at Latin American Marxism, is not a tale that most of the modern media are eager to tell. This is especially true of Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez’ glorious revolution against the Yankee capitalist pig-dogs was especially trendy among the Hollywood bleeding-hearts, scruffy Occupy encampments, and the more progressive corners of the Democratic party. Some of the radical frisson has gone from Venezuela since the death last year of Chavez, the fat little windbag hillbilly who somehow acquired a cult of personality that stretched from the barrios of Caracas to the penthouses of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but successor Nicolas Maduro has carried on the revolution with the same inflationary, impoverishing, iron-fisted style, and until recently Venezuela was still a fashionable example of social justice in action.
The fashions are changing, however, as protests against Maduro’s government are springing up in all the smart places. Maduro’s government has driven so many Venezuelans out of the country that they’ve been dispersed to all the smart places, where their eyewitness accounts of the country’s problems have had some success countering the media’s relentless propaganda, but it has also acted with such blatant disregard for human rights in putting down the protests that it cannot be ignored by even the most willfully blind observers. All of those celebrities who once basked in the revolutionary warmth of Venezuela, from pugnacious movie star Sean Penn to patrician politician Joseph Kennedy II, are now in danger of being out of style.
In his desperation Maduro has resorted to the Latin American Marxists’ most reliable trick of blaming the Yankees for his woes, going so far as to expel American diplomats from the country, and the administration has response by expelling an equal number of Venezuelan diplomats from this country, but no one outside the barrios of Caracas are likely to believe that President Barack Obama has ever wished any harm on Maduro’s convoluted share-the-wealth schemes. Obama’s own choice for the Federal Communication Commission’s “diversity czar” openly expressed his admiration for Chavez’ “incredible and democratic revolution,” which routinely denied broadcast licenses to any troublesome critics, and ever since the State Department sided with a Marxist coup in Honduras back in ’09 it has been clear the administration has been friendly toward to South American socialism. Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa recently returned from a three-day trip to the same Cuba where that Russian warship is parked and expressed great enthusiasm for its medical system, which he describes as even more advanced than Obamacare, former Democratic President Jimmy Carter is planning yet another trip to Venezuela to negotiate between the protestors and the government whose fraudulent elections has long endorsed, and it’s hard to think of anyone in the Democratic party that hasn’t been on board with the noble experiment that is currently imploding in Venezuela and to a lesser degree throughout South America.
The vast disparity between the coverage given to Ukraine and Venezuela is so conspicuous that The Washington Post felt compelled to explain it, but they didn’t mention the embarrassment they surely feel in addressing the story. It seems likely they’ll soon have to report the end of Chavez’ glorious revolution, but don’t expect them to mention who was complicit in the debacle.

— Bud Norman