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Tom Wolfe

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In the Claremont Review of Books, Michael Anton discusses female characters in Tom Wolfe’s books from the perspective of F. Roger Devlin’s subversive thinking:

Woman in Full
By: Michael Anton

Posted: May 29, 2015

… Wolfe tells unwelcome truths about race, multiculturalism, modern art, masculinity, and much else. At least these get noticed. His heterodox insights on women have been entirely ignored, unseen behind the repeated insistence that he is unable “to write sensibly or sensitively about female characters”—thus Stephen Abell, representatively, in the Times Literary Supplement. “Wolfe’s women are mostly ciphers in short skirts, who adore male attention,” Abell continues, not noticing the tension between the two halves of his formulation. Perhaps Wolfe’s depiction of women is yet another instance of his trying to tell us something we don’t want to hear.

William Crooke and Sir Herbert Risley, two 19th-century English social scientists, coined the term “hypergamy” to describe their observations of inter-caste marriage in India. Women, they found, married up but never down. Crooke and Risley concluded (or assumed) that hypergamy’s root (in India, at least) is the male insistence on preserving the status of the patrimonial line. A decade ago, political theorist F. Roger Devlin revived the term and gave it a new twist. Far from being unique to India, hypergamy is in Devlin’s account universal and, what’s more, driven by female, not male, desires. “[W]omen,” he wrote, “have simple tastes in the manner of Oscar Wilde: They are always satisfied with the best.”

When properly channeled, hypergamy can be individually and socially beneficial. It encourages young ladies to become worthy of a worthy man, and vice versa. Yet off the leash, it spurs women in unhappy and self-indulgent directions.

This truth our culture cannot abide. That there are vices characteristic of men and not widely shared by women (violence, crudeness, skirt-chasing) is not merely acknowledged but rubbed in our faces. But any assertion of the converse is met with incomprehension, denial, and sometimes persecution. The writings of Tom Wolfe—who figured all this out on his own—are just about the only mainstream cultural product of the last 50 years to present an alternative view. Everyone missed it because Wolfe has consistently declined to be explicit, partly out of the good storyteller’s dictum to show rather than tell, perhaps also to protect himself from undue blowback. But it’s there, between the lines, and has been almost from the beginning of Wolfe’s career

In the 1960s Wolfe wrote with great zest and insight about New York and London young women trying to break into or not fall out of cafe society in a manner that marked him out as worthy descendant of Evelyn Waugh.

But then in the late 1960s, he got himself embedded on an aircraft carrier off North Vietnam to write “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie.” This led to an obsession with masculine bravery that culminated in The Right Stuff in 1979. He seemed to lose some of his interest in female characters and the accompanying rather fey style he had used to successfully depict them in essays like “The Woman Who Has Everything and Radical Chic. In the 1970s, Wolfe’s output gets more butch and he seems to be losing interest in writing about women.

If anybody out there is writing Wolfe’s biography, a question I’d be interested in understanding more about is: What were his exercise regimens during different parts of his literary career? And did they have any effect on changes in his literary interests and tastes?

A 1970s cartoon by Wolfe, “The Joggers’ Prayer.” Click on it to read the caption.

Wolfe has written a certain amount about the psychological effects of jogging (which in Wolfe’s mind is associated with liberal holier-than-thouness) versus strength-training (which to Wolfe is associated with sturdy loyal conservatism, as in the cop hero of Back to Blood, Nestor Camacho).

I can vaguely recall an interview with Wolfe in his 70s about his workout schedule, which leaned more toward weightlifting than was common at the time for a man of his age. The literary lion offered to show the interviewer what shape he was in by taking off his famous white suitcoat and doing 20 pushups on the spot, an offer the interviewer unfortunately declined.

Okay, here’s what Wolfe actually said at age 72:

“Straight push-ups are also terrific. I can do twenty if called upon by my country.”

So, it appears that I’m not just making this up that Wolfe associates strength training with patriotism and jogging with spiritual social climbing through mortification of the flesh.

• Tags: Books, Tom Wolfe 
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From the AP:

A murder charge against the woman who falsely accused three Duke lacrosse players of raping her is but the latest problem for a woman friends say is still haunted by the stigma of the lacrosse case. 

Crystal Mangum, 32, was indicted Monday on a charge of first-degree murder and two counts of larceny. She has been in jail since April 3, when police charged her with assault in the stabbing of her boyfriend Reginald Daye, 46. He died after nearly two weeks at a hospital. 

As for the poor bastard Ms. Mangum is alleged to have stabbed to death this month, well, his problems are over, so let’s get right back to Crystal’s troubles.

Friends said Mangum has never recovered from the stigma brought by the lacrosse case and has been involved in a string of questionable relationships in an attempt to provide stability for her children. 

Mangum, who is black, falsely accused the white lacrosse players of raping her at a 2006 party for which she was hired to perform as a stripper. The case heightened long-standing tensions in Durham about race, class and the privileged status of college athletes. …

Okay, most of this article sounds like it was written by Oprah’s friend Gayle, but the last line almost makes up for the rest:

Even when Daye’s nephew talked to a 911 dispatcher after the stabbing, he referenced the notoriety Mangum still carries. 

“It’s Crystal Mangum. THE Crystal Mangum,” said the nephew, whose name was removed from a publicly-released version of the emergency call. “I told him she was trouble from the damn beginning.”

I think the AP Style Guide should recommend that all news stories try to end with a quote from somebody who sounds like Chris Rock’s grandfather. Maybe the NYT should have talked to the nephew before running two dozen stories based on the assumption that Crystal Mangum was obviously telling the truth about the Great White Defendants.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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In the mid-1990s, Judge Richard Posner admitted that he hadn’t thought much of Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. But, then, he changed his mind:
“The book was written before Michael Milken was convicted and Clark Clifford indicted; before investment bankers and securities brokers were dragged, crying, in handcuffs from their offices on charges of criminal fraud that often turned out to be unsubstantiated; before courthouses became scenes of violence; before the Tawana Brawley fraud; before the trials of the police who beat up Rodney King; before the Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal in the first of those trials; before the trial of the rioters; before the indictment of O.J. Simpson. American legal justice today seems often to be found at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities even thought the book was written before the intersection had come into view.”
Twenty-three years later, Bonfire is the gift that keeps giving. When I read august commentators assert:
“Of course the Mayor of New York couldn’t possibly interfere in a religious construction project. That’s unthinkable. That would be a violation of Church and State!” 
I open up my copy of Bonfire to Chapter 27, which is about, mutatis mutandis, the Mayor of New York, a religious group, and whether or not a downtown building would receive landmark status.
The Episcopal bishop of New York, who is black, wants the mayor to keep the Landmarks Commission from landmarking a church in a neighborhood with no Episcopalians left, which would keep the Episcopalian Diocese from having it torn down and replaced with an office tower. The Mayor immediately agrees and has a phone call placed to the Landmarks Commissioner:
“Mort? … You know St. Timothy’s Church? … Right. Exactly … Mort — LAY OFF!”
The Mayor then asks the Bishop for a little quid pro quo: serve on a special blue-ribbon commission to investigate crime in New York. But as a Rising Black Leader, the bishop can’t afford to be associated with the Jewish Mayor, so he demurs. The mayor politely ushers the bishop out, then calls Mort again:
“Mort? You know that church, St. Timothy’s? … Right … LANDMARK THE SON OF A BITCH!”

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Tom Wolfe 
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For a number of years, it’s been known that Tom Wolfe is writing a book about immigration set in Miami. For awhile, it was supposed to be published in 2009, then in 2010, and now in 2012. Wolfe will be over 80 by then, so, we’ll see.

The working title is Back to Blood, presumably based on the following passage from Wolfe’s 28 page proposal that got him a $7 million advance, as reported in New York Magazine:

So, my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies and unite us. “La Raza!” as the Puerto Ricans cry out. “The race!” cries the whole world. The Muslims? Their jihad? Their Islam? All that is nothing but a screen, a cover story. What they are, is … Arabs! Forget the rest of it! Arabs! — once the rulers of all Asia and half of Europe! Once the world’s reigning intelligentsia- — and now left behind in the dust of modern history! Back to blood, muhajeen! They, like all people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds — Back to blood!” All people, everywhere, you have no choice but — Back to blood!

The hereditarian theme running through Wolfe’s books is a persistent one. It probably goes back to his father, a professor of agronomy and editor of The Southern Planter, a journal about breeding for the well-bred. As far as I can tell, Wolfe is an unrepentant Southern white conservative who has found the last 45 years unsurprising but thoroughly entertaining.

Heredity is likewise a major theme in many of the 19th Century realistic novels Wolfe emulates. In particular, Zola, a favorite of Wolfe’s, was obsessed with heredity, as a Richard Lewontin essay in the New York Review of Books entitled In the Blood pointed out:

In the twenty Rougon-Macquart novels that form the core of his literary work, Zola is preoccupied with a problem that motivates a good deal of English and French literature of the nineteenth century: the mystery of the origin of character. It is this problem that not only appears over and over again in the novels, but that motivates the entire structure of the cycle.

The problem of character is distinct from the issue of human nature [that's an intellectually unsophisticated distinction]. The latter concerns the commonalities of human temperament and motivation, of what it is to be human. Especially after the appearance of The Origin of Species in 1859 made evolution part of public consciousness, the role that our animal ancestry plays in forming our species nature was a subject for literary concern. But the problem of character, of the origin of differences among individual human beings in temperament, intellect, emotion, motivation, morality, was a concern of nineteenth-century literature, certainly from the appearance of Dickens’s first serious novel, Oliver Twist, in 1837. How are we to understand the contrast between the gentle, delicate, moral, grammatically impeccable Oliver, born and raised in the parish workhouse, and the crude, grossly shaped, and criminal Artful Dodger, whose upbringing was no worse? Why does Estella, raised by Miss Havisham to hate and take revenge on men, soften toward Pip in the end? And what of the extraordinary career of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, who starts life as a typical English milord and ends as a student of the Talmud who emigrates to Palestine?…

For Dickens, Eliot, and Sue, the solution of the mystery lies in an unquestioned belief in the power of blood over circumstance. Oliver is the child of middleclass parents, never seen by him; Estella is the biological daughter of the right-minded convict Abel Magwitch. Deronda turns out to be the son of a Jewish actress whom he meets only when he is an adult. 

The rest of the article is not online. My vague recollection is that Lewontin rather disapproves of all this, although he’s a bit stuck trying to look down his nose at giants of world literature. He’s left implying that, after all, we know so much more today about the unimportance of heredity! Oh wait, … well, the point is too be sniffy, not to be right.

In general, most English lit types just avoid the whole topic. 

When you stop to think about it, though, it’s hard to imagine how a social novelist like Zola, Dickens, or Wolfe could not be interested in heredity. But, that doesn’t come up much in contemporary thought, so nobody has much noticed what Wolfe has been up to over the last 45 years.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Books, Tom Wolfe 
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David Denby, the lesser of the two New Yorker movie reviewers, has written a short book entitled Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation.

The book doesn’t sound terribly interesting, but part of Michael C. Moynihan’s review in Reason caught my eye:

Denby tags the Fox News screamer Bill O’Reilly as a boorish knuckle-dragger, but his liberal counterpart Keith Olbermann is something else entirely: “One can’t help but noticing…that Olbermann’s tirades are voluminously factual, astoundingly syntactical…and always logically organized.” The leftist writer Gore Vidal is a “master of high snark,” while his conservative counterpart Tom Wolfe is an overrated racist. If you agree with the snark, it probably isn’t snark.

Denby identifies Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” as a progenitor of today’s snarky style, but it fails, he says, because the writer’s teasing of haute-liberal infatuation with the Black Panthers “now seems more fatuous than the assembled partygoers.” How so? Because according to Denby, “In the end, [Wolfe’s trademark] white suit may have been less an ironic joke than the heraldic uniform of a man born in Richmond, Virginia, who entertained fancies of a distinguished Old South in which blacks kept their mouths shut, a conservative who had never accustomed himself to the new money in the Northeast.” While denouncing bloggers for rumor-mongering and for besmirching reputations with nothing but conjecture, Denby nevertheless finds it appropriate to imply that Wolfe’s writing is steeped in white supremacy.

Nonetheless, I think Denby’s New York Jewish liberal irritation at Wolfe is not wholly without basis. It’s been little mentioned, but one of Wolfe’s strengths is his complete lack of Southern White Guilt.

Because Wolfe emerged so dazzlingly in the mid-1960s, it took the literary world a long time to figure out he was not one of them, that his political feelings were self-confidently conservative. After all, they reasoned, how could any artistic innovator be a conservative?

And yet, few societies in human history before 19th Century Europe would be surprised that a leading member of the artistic and intellectual classes would be an unalienated offspring of the gentry.

Thomas Wolfe Jr. was born in the Shenandoah Valley in 1931 (or 1930, sources differ), where his father was a professor of agronomy at Virginia Tech. A few years later, the family moved to Richmond when his father became the editor of The Southern Planter, a how-to journal for the rural squirearchy. The family spent their summers on their two farms. (Seeing Look Homeward, Angel and other novels by North Carolina novelist Thomas Wolfe on his father’s bookshelf as a small boy, little Tom naturally assumed his dad had written them.) He attended the traditionalist Washington and Lee College.

What little Wolfe has mentioned of his upbringing has been appreciative and loyal. In 1966, Elaine Dundy of Vogue asked him:

Do you feel that you had an important childhood — i.e., very disturbed, or unhappy, or ecstatic — in short, one that your find you keep constantly referring back to in your mind?

I was lucky, I guess, in my family in that they had very firm ideas of roles: Father, Mother, Child. Nothing was ever allowed to bog down into those morass-like personal hangups. And there was no rebellion. …

The first girl I ever fell in love with came from divorced parents. That was her status symbol to me. I was so envious of her because I thought, what dramatic lives they’re all having — real material to write about.

As the loyal, successful offspring of people of a deserved status in American society, Wolfe, who is hypersensitive to questions of status, upon his arrival in New York City always tended to be alienated from the alienated who dominated artistic and intellectual life. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that one of the great themes of Wolfe’s satire has been their transparent strategies to “Épater la bourgeoisie.”

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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One of the odder figures in 20th Century American history was Sen. Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, whose infatuation with another McCarthy staffer, handsome young G. David Schine, was used by Dwight Eisenhower to destroy McCarthy in 1954. Cohn went on to become a prominent NYC shady attorney before dying of AIDS in 1986 and then becoming a character in various gay Broadway plays, such as Angels in America. In 1988, shortly after publishing Bonfire of the Vanities, which is largely set in the Bronx County Courthouse where Cohn got his education, Tom Wolfe reviewed two biographies of Cohn. I will quote Wolfe at length for no particular reasons other than the pleasures of finding fugitive Wolfeiana and the inherent interest of the subject.

”I went to work for Joe McCarthy in January 1953,” Roy Cohn told Sidney Zion, ”and was gone by the fall of ’54.”

Less than two years. But a lifetime was packed into it, and more if obituaries tell the tale. “Does anybody doubt how mine will open? ‘Roy M. Cohn, who served as chief counsel to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy . . .’ Which is exactly how I want it to read.” He got his wish. That was exactly how it did read, all over America, when he died of AIDS in August of 1986 at the age of 59. But now the post-mortems have begun, and the picture we get is stranger by far than that of a baby-faced 26-year-old anti-Communist who somehow managed to dominate the front pages in the 1950′s.

If Mr. Zion’s ”Autobiography of Roy Cohn” and Nicholas von Hoffman’s ”Citizen Cohn” have it right, Roy Cohn was one of the most curious child prodigies ever born. Moreover, he was trapped throughout his life inside his own early precociousness. Many others were trapped with him along the way. One of them was Joe McCarthy. McCarthy never knew what he was dealing with. He didn’t destroy himself, as it is so often put. He was unable to survive Cohn’s prodigious obsessions….

Most child prodigies are pint-sized musicians, artists, poets, dancers, mathematicians or chess players. Their talents, however dazzling, have no direct effect on the lives of their fellow citizens. But Cohn was a child political prodigy. His talent was not for political science, either. It was politics as practiced in the Bronx County Courthouse, in the 1930′s, where the rules of the Favor Bank, with its i.o.u.’s and ”contracts,” were the only rules that applied.

By his own account, as well as Mr. von Hoffman’s, Cohn had no boyhood. He was raised as a miniature adult. His father, Albert Cohn, was a judge in the Bronx and a big makher, a very big deal, in the Bronx Democratic organization, which in turn, under the famous Edward J. (Boss) Flynn, had a pivotal position in the national Democratic Party. Cohn grew up in an apartment on Walton Avenue, just down the street from the courthouse, near the crest of the Grand Concourse, watching big makhers coming and going through the living room, transacting heavy business with his father….

Cohn says he was 15 when he pulled off his first major piece of power brokerage. Using his uncle Bernie Marcus’s connections, he acted as intermediary in the purchase of radio station WHOM by Generoso Pope, father of one of Cohn’s schoolmates. According to Cohn, Pope gave him a $10,000 commission, and Cohn kicked back a portion of it to a lawyer for the Federal Communications Commission – an F.C.C. kickback at age 15. By age 16 or 17, according to Mr. von Hoffman, Cohn thought nothing of calling a police precinct to fix a speeding ticket for one of his high school teachers.

Using speed-up programs designed for veterans, Cohn got both his undergraduate and law degrees at Columbia in three years. He was not yet 20. The day he got word he had passed the bar examination [his 21st birthday], he was sworn in as an Assistant United States Attorney. …

In the United States Attorney’s office the little prince moved in on major cases immediately. He played a bit part in the prosecution of Alger Hiss and developed his crusader’s concern with the issue of Communist infiltration of the United States Government. As Cohn told Sidney Zion, this was by no means a right-wing tack at the time. Anti-Communism and its obverse, loyalty, were causes first championed after the Second World War not by Joseph McCarthy but by the Truman Administration.

By age 23 Cohn was at center stage for the so-called Trial of the Century, the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for delivering atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. For a start, says Cohn, at the age of 21 he had taken part in a complicated piece of Favor Banking, involving Tammany Hall and one of its men’s auxiliaries, the mob, to get Irving Saypol his job as United States Attorney. Saypol became the prosecutor in the Rosenberg case and made Cohn his first lieutenant. Next, says Cohn, he did some Favor Banking for an old family friend, Irving Kaufman. Al Cohn had played a big part in getting Judge Kaufman a Federal judgeship. Now Judge Kaufman was dying to preside at the Trial of the Century. Cohn says he went straight to the clerk in charge of assigning judges to criminal cases, pulled the right strings, and Judge Kaufman was in….

It was the sons of two established Democratic Party families who vied for the position of chief counsel to McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security. One was Roy Cohn. The other was Bobby Kennedy. Cohn won out because, among other considerations, he had, at age 26, vastly more experience as a prosecutor. Kennedy signed on as an assistant counsel, and Cohn treated him like a gofer, making him go out for sweet rolls and coffee refills, earning his eternal hatred. What did McCarthy in was his attack on the United States Army. It was Dwight Eisenhower’s Army, and by now, 1953, Eisenhower was President of the United States. And who got McCarthy into his last, ruinous tarball battle with the Army? The little prince.

Cohn had brought aboard the McCarthy team, as an unpaid special investigator, one G. David Schine, the rich young handsome blond son of a hotel-chain operator. Mr. Schine’s only qualification for the job was that he had written an amateurish tract entitled ”Definition of Communism” and published it with his own money. Not even McCarthy knew why he was there. He only kept him on to make Cohn happy. McCarthy seemed to think that Cohn, in addition to being bright and energetic, was highly organized, tightly wound, cool and disciplined as well.

He wasn’t. What baby autocrat would live like that? Cohn and Mr. Schine proceeded to become a pair of bold-faced characters in the gossip columns, two boys out on the town, throwing a party that stretched from the Stork Club in New York to various dives, high and low, in Paris – where they arrived during a disastrous European tour, supposedly to monitor the work of United States Government libraries abroad. The European press mocked them unmercifully, depicting them as a pair of nitwit children.

What did Cohn see in Mr. Schine? Almost immediately there were rumors that they were lovers and even that McCarthy himself was in on the game. Cohn’s obsession with Mr. Schine, in light of what became known about Cohn in the 1980′s, is one thing. But so far as Mr. Schine is concerned, there has never been the slightest evidence that he was anything but a good-looking kid who was having a helluva good time in a helluva good cause. In any event, the rumors were sizzling away when the Army-McCarthy hearings, the denouement of Joe McCarthy’s career, got under way in 1954.

McCarthy’s investigation of the Army’s security procedures had taken place the year before. Now Eisenhower loyalists on McCarthy’s subcom-mittee joined with Democrats to conduct hearings on the subject of – Roy Cohn.

David Schine was draft age. He had been classified 4-F becau
se of a slipped disk, but now the highly publicized hard-partying lad was re-examined and reclassified 1-A. Cohn went to work. He tried to get the Army to give Mr. Schine an instant commission and a desk on the East Coast from which he could continue to serve the subcommittee and the Dionysian gods of the Stork Club and other boites.

Cohn made calls to everyone from Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens on down. He made small talk, he made big talk, he tried to make deals, he tendered i.o.u.’s, he screamed, and he screamed some more, he spoke of grim consequences. When all of this blew up in the form of a detailed log leaked to the press, Cohn was genuinely shocked. What had he done that any high official of the Favor Bank, any self-respecting makher, wouldn’t have done for a friend? All he had done was try to advance a few markers, make a few contracts, and scare the pants off a few bureaucrats who were so lame as not to have an account at the Favor Bank in the first place.

But he was no longer dealing with the courthouse crowd in the Bronx or even lower Manhattan. He didn’t know it, but he was dealing with Ike, and Ike had had enough. The thrust of the Army-McCarthy hearings was that McCarthy’s attack on the Army had been nothing but an insidious attempt to get favored treatment for Cohn’s friend Mr. Schine.

So what? Cohn remained confident that he could win against any odds. But, as he would later admit to Mr. Zion, he was no match for the Army’s counsel, the veteran Boston trial lawyer Joseph Welch. The hearings became a television drama that stopped America cold. The entire nation seemed to take time out to watch. The hearings had two famous punch lines, and Welch delivered them both….

But that was not the line that got under Cohn’s skin. That one came in an exchange concerning a picture of Mr. Schine and Army Secretary Stevens that Cohn had put into evidence. It turned out that the photograph had been cropped. Welch began going after one of McCarthy’s staffers about the source of the altered picture: ”Did you think it came from a pixie?”

McCarthy interrupted: ”Will the counsel for my benefit define – I think he might be an expert on that -what a pixie is?”

Welch said, ”Yes, I should say, Mr. Senator, that a pixie is a close relative to a fairy. Shall I proceed, sir? Have I enlightened you?” To Roy Cohn this was not funny.

By the way, in 1957, G. David Schine married the Swedish Miss Universe and they had six children. He never spoke publicly about McCarthy or Cohn again.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Tom Wolfe 
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Barack Obama has taken umbrage at Sarah Palin’s lack of respect for the sacred profession of community organizer. To help explain what that widely-lauded but little understood job entails, here are excerpts from the classic 1970 work of sociology:

Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers
by Tom Wolfe

Going downtown to mau-mau the bureaucrats got to be the routine practice in San Francisco. The poverty program encouraged you to go in for mau-mauing. They wouldn’t have known what to do without it. The bureaucrats at City Hall and in the Office of Economic Opportunity talked “ghetto” all the time, but they didn’t know any more about what was going on in the Western Addition, Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, the Mission, Chinatown, or south of Market Street than they did about Zanzibar. They didn’t know where to look. They didn’t even know who to ask. So what could they do? Well … they used the Ethnic Catering Service … right … They sat back and waited for you to come rolling in with your certified angry militants, your guaranteed frustrated ghetto youth, looking like a bunch of wild men. Then you had your test confrontation. If you were outrageous enough, if you could shake up the bureaucrats so bad that their eyes froze into iceballs and their mouths twisted up into smiles of sheer physical panic, into shit-eating grins, so to speak–then they knew you were the real goods. They knew you were the right studs to give the poverty grants and community organizing jobs to. Otherwise they wouldn’t know. …

It got to be an American custom, like talk shows, Face the Nation, marriage counseling, marathon encounters, or zoning hearings. …

The poverty office was on the first floor and had a big anteroom; only it’s almost bare, nothing in it but a lot of wooden chairs. It looks like a union hall minus the spittoons, or one of those lobbies where they swear in new citizens. It’s like they want to impress the poor that they don’t have leather-top desks … All our money goes to you …

So the young aces from the Mission come trooping in, and they want to see the head man. The word comes out that the No. 1 man is out of town, bu the No. 2 man is coming out to talk to the people.

This man comes out , and he has that sloppy Irish look like Ed McMahon on TV, only with a longer nose. …

“Have a seat, gentlemen,” he says, and he motions toward the wooden chairs.

But he doesn’t have to open his mouth. All you have to do is look at him and you get the picture. The man’s a lifer. He’s stone civil service. He has it all down from the wheatcolor Hush Puppies to the wash’n’dry semi-tab-collar shortsleeves white shirt. Those wheatcolor Hush Puppies must be like some kind of fraternal garb among the civil-service employees, because they all wear them. They cost about $4.99, and the second time you move your toes, the seams split and the tops come away from the soles. But they all wear them. The man’s shirt looks like he bought it at the August end-of-summer sale at the White Front. …

He pulls up one of the wooden chairs and sits down on it. Only he sits down on it backwards, straddling the seat and hooking his arms and his chin over the back of the chair, like the head foreman in the bunkhouse. It’s like saying, “We don’t stand on ceremony around here. This is a shirtsleeve operation.”

“I’m sorry that Mr. Johnson isn’t here today,” he says, “but he’s not in the city. He’s back in Washington meeting some important project deadlines. He’s very concerned, and he would want to meet with you people if he were here, but right now I know you’ll understand that the most important thing he can do for you is to push these projects through in Washington.”

The man keeps his arms and his head hung over the back of his chair, but he swings his hands up in the air from time to time to emphasize a point, first one hand and then the other. It looks like he’s giving wig-wag signals to the typing pool. The way he hangs himself over the back of the chair–that keeps up the funky shirtsleeve-operation number. And throwing his hands around–that’s dy namic … It says, “We’re hacking our way through the red tape just as fast as we can.”

“Now I’m here to try to answer any questions I can,” he says, “but you have to understand that I’m only speaking as an individual, and so naturally none of my comments are binding, but I’ll answer any questions I can, and if I can’t answer them, I’ll do what I can to get the answers for you.”

And then it dawns on you, and you wonder why it took so long for you to realize it. This man is the flak catcher. His job is to catch the flak for the No. 1 man. He’s like the professional mourners you can hire in Chinatown. They have certified wailers, professional mourners, in Chinatown, and when your loved one dies, you can hire the professional mourners to wail at the funeral and show what a great loss to the community the departed is. In the same way this lifer is ready to catch whatever flak you’re sending up. It doesn’t matter what bureau they put him in. It’s all the same. Poverty, Japanese imports, valley fever, tomato-crop parity, partial disability, home loans, second-probate accounting, the Interstate 90 detour change order, lockouts, secondary boycotts, G.I. alimony, the Pakistani quota, cinch mites, the Tularemic Loa loa, veterans’ dental benefits, workmen’s compensation, suspended excise rebates–whatever you’re angry about, it doesn’t matter, he’s there to catch the flak. He’s a lifer. …

One of the Chicanos starts it off by asking the straight question, which is about how many summer jobs the Mission groups are going to get. This is the opening phase, the straight-face phase, in the art of mau-mauing.

“Well,” says the Flak Catcher–and he gives it a twist of the head and a fling of the hand and the ingratiating smile–”It’s hard for me to answer that the way I’d like to answer it, and the way I know you’d like for me to answer it, because that’s precisely what we’re working on back in Washington. But I can tell you this. At this point I see no reason why our project allocation should be any less, if all we’re looking at is the urban-factor numbers for this area, because that should remain the same. Of course, if there’s been any substantial pre-funding, in Washington, for the fixed-asset part of our program, like Head Start or the community health centers, that could alter the picture. But we’re very hopeful, and as soon as we have the figures, I can tell you that you people will be the first to know.” …

So one of the bloods says, “Man, why do you sit there shining us with this bureaucratic rhetoric, when you said yourself that ain’t nothing you say that means a goddam thing?”

Ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram–a bunch of the aces start banging on the floor in unison. It sounds like they have sledge hammers.

“Ha-unnnnh,” says the Flak Catcher. It is one of those laughs that starts out as a laugh but ends up like he got hit in the stomach halfway through. It’s the first assault on his dignity. So he breaks into his shit-eating grin, which is always phase two. Why do so many bureaucrats, deans, preachers, college presidents, try to smile when the mau-mauing starts? It’s fatal, this smiling. When some bad dude is challenging your manhood, your smile just proves that he is right and you are chickenshit–unless you are a bad man yourself with so much heart that you can make that smile say, “Just keep on talking, sucker, because I’m gonna count to ten and then squash you.”

“Well,” says the Flak Catcher, I can’t promise you jobs if the jobs aren’t available yet”–and then he looks up as if for the first time he is really focusing on the thirty-five ghetto hot dogs he is now facing, by way of sizing up the threat, now that the shit has started. The blacks and the Chicanos he has no doubt seen before, or people just like them, but then he takes in the Filipinos. There are about eight of them, and they are all wearing the Day-Glo yellow and hot-green sweaters and lemon-colored pants and Italian-style socks. But it’s the headgear that does the trick. They’ve all got on Rap Brown shades and Russian Cossack hats made of frosted-gray Dynel. They look bad.

Then the man takes in the Samoans, and they look worse. There’s about ten of them, but they fill up half the room. They’ve got on Island shirts with designs in streaks and blooms of red, only it’s a really raw shade of red, like that red they paint the floor with in the tool and dye works. They’re glaring at him out of those big dark wide brown faces. The monsters have tight curly hair, but it grows in long strands, and they comb it back flat, in long curly strands, with a Duke pomade job. They’ve got huge feet, and they’re wearing sandals. The straps on the sandals look like there were made from the reins on the Budweiser draft horses. But what really gets the Flak Catcher, besides the sheer size of the brutes, is their Tiki canes. These are like Polynesian scepters. They’re the size of sawed-off pool cues, only they’re carved all over in Polynesian Tiki Village designs. When they wrap their fists around these sticks, every knuckle on their hands pops out the size of a walnut. Anything they hear that they like, like the part about the “bureaucratic rhetoric,” they bang on the floor in unison with the ends of the Tiki sticks–ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram–although some of them press one end of the stick onto the sole of their sandal between their first two toes and raise their foot up and down wih the stick to cushion the blow on the floor. They don’t want to scuff up the Tiki cane. …

Of course, the next day nobody shows up at the poverty office to make sure the sucker makes the telephone call. Some how it always seems to happen that way. Nobody ever follows it up. You can get everything together once, for the demonstration, for the confrontation, to go downtown and mau-mau, for the fun, for the big show, for the beano, for the main event, to see the people bury some gray cat’s nuts and make him crawl and whine and sink in his own terrible grin. But nobody ever follows it up. You just sleep it off until somebody tells you there’s going to be another big show.

And then later on you think about it and you say, “What really happened that day? Well, another flak catcher lost his manhood, that’s what happened.” Hmmmmmm … like maybe the bureaucracy isn’t so dumb after all … All they did was sacrifice one flak catcher and they’ve got hundreds, thousands … They’ve got replaceable parts. They threw this sacrifice to you, and you went away pleased with yourself. And even the Flak Catcher himself wasn’t losing much. He wasn’t losing his manhood. He gave that up a long time ago, the day he became a lifer … Just who is fucking over who … You did your number and he did his number, and they didn’t even have to stop the music … The band played on … Still–did you see the look on his face? That sucker–

When black people first started using the confrontation tactic, they made a secret discovery. There was an extra dividend to this tactic. There was a creamy dessert. It wasn’t just that you registered your protest and showed the white man that you meant business and weakened his resolve to keep up the walls of oppression. It wasn’t just that you got poverty money and influence. There was something sweet that happened right there on the spot. You made the white man quake. You brought fear into his face.

Black people began to realize for the first time that the white man, particularly the educated white man, the leadership, had a deep dark Tarzan mumbo jungle voodoo fear of the black man’s masculinity. This was a revelation. For two hundred years, wherever black people lived, north or south, mothers had been raising their sons to be meek, to be mild, to check their manhood at the front door in all things that had to do with white people, for fear of incurring the wrath of the Man. The Man was the white man. He was the only man. And now, when you got him up close and growled, this all-powerful superior animal turned out to be terrified. You could read it in his face. He had the same fear in his face as some good-doing boy who has just moved onto the block and is hiding behind his mama and the moving man and the sofa while the bad dudes on the block size him up.

So for the black man mau-mauing was a beautiful trip. It not only stood to bring you certain practical gains like money and power. It also energized your batteries. It recharged your masculinity. You no longer had to play it cool and go in for pseudo-ignorant malingering and put your head into that Ofay Pig Latin catacomb code style of protest. Mau-mauing brought you respect in its cash forms: namely, fear and envy. …

Brothers from down the hall like Dudley got down to the heart of the poverty program very rapidly. It took them no time at all to see that the poverty program’s big projects, like manpower training, in which you would get some job counseling and some training so you would be able to apply for a job in the bank or on the assembly line–everybody with a brain in his head knew that this was the usual bureaucratic shuck. Eventually the government’s own statistics bore out the truth of this conclusion. The ghetto youth who completed the manpower training didn’t get any more jobs or earn any more money than the people who never took any such training at all. Everybody but the most hopeless lames knew that the only job you wanted out of the poverty program was a job in the program itself. Get on the payroll, that was the idea. Never mind getting some job counseling. You be the job counselor. You be the “neighborhood organizer.” As a job counselor or a neighborhood organizer you stood to make six or seven hundred dollars a month, and you were still your own man. Like if you were a “neighborhood organizer,” all you had to do was go out and get the names and addresses of people in the ghetto who wanted to relate to the services of the poverty center. That was a very flexible arrangement. You were still on the street, and you got paid for it. You could still run with the same buddies you always ran with. There was nobody looking over your shoulder. … It was true that middle-class people who happened to live in the target areas got the top jobs, but there was still room for street types.

That was one reason why Summer Jobs was such a big deal. That was what the whole session between the Samoans and the Flak Catcher was over, summer jobs. The jobs themselves were nothing. They were supposed to be for teenagers from poor families. It was an O.E.O. program, and you got $1.35 an hour and ended up as a file clerk or stock-room boy in some federal office or some foundation–hell, they didn’t even need one half the people they already had working for them, and so all you learned was how to make work, fake work, and malinger out by the Xerox machine. It is true that you learned those skills from experts in the field, but it was a depressing field to be in.

Nevertheless, there was some fierce ma-mauing that went on over summer jobs, especially in 1969, when the O.E.O. started cutting back funds and the squeeze was on. Half of it was sheer status. There were supposed to be strict impartial guidelines determining who got the summer jobs–but the plain fact was that half the jobs were handed out organization by organization, according to how heavy your organization was. If you could get twenty summer jobs for your organization got five, then you were four times the aces they were .. no lie … But there were so many groups out mau-mauing, it was hard to make yourself heard over the uproar.

Buy Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers here

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Obama, Tom Wolfe 
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From the New York Times:

No Longer the City of ‘Bonfire’ in Flames


Twenty years ago, the acid-penned journalist Tom Wolfe unleashed his first novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Skewering everyone from self-absorbed Wall Street millionaires to hucksterish street politicians, the sprawling satire painted a picture of a New York declining inexorably into racial conflict, crime and greed. …

The novel tapped, to electrifying effect, a vein of anxiety that defined 1980s New York. … To some New Yorkers, Mr. Wolfe’s satire was bitingly accurate, nailing both a racist criminal justice system and the politicians who played on white fear and minority anger for personal gain.

To others, it was a cynical endorsement of racial stereotypes that did not so much critique white paranoia as cater to it.

Barnard at least admits that Bonfire of the Vanities didn’t so much “reflect” as “predict” most of the events it now appears to have been based on:

From the moment it was published in November 1987, new episodes in the drama of the metropolis seemed to unfold like chapters in Mr. Wolfe’s story.

Four white youths from Howard Beach, Queens, were already on trial for beating a black man who fled to his death in traffic on the Belt Parkway.

That same month, a black teenager named Tawana Brawley, who was found smeared with feces in a garbage bag, said she had been assaulted by white men with badges, sparking a prosecution that later collapsed when it was determined that she had fabricated the story.

Wall Street convulsed as its stars were investigated for white-collar crime, culminating in the 1990 securities fraud conviction of Michael R. Milken, the “junk bond king.”

In the 1990s, America‘s most distinguished jurist-intellectual, Richard A. Posner, admitted in his book Overcoming Law:

“When I first read The Bonfire of the Vanities … it just didn’t strike me as the sort of book that has anything interesting to say about the law or any other institution…. I now consider that estimate of the book ungenerous and unperceptive. The Bonfire of the Vanities has turned out to be a book that I think about a lot, in part because it describes with such vividness what Wolfe with prophetic insight (the sort of thing we attribute to Kafka) identified as emerging problems of the American legal system… American legal justice today seems often to be found at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities even thought the book was written before the intersection had come into view.”

Of course, the NYT’s article doesn’t remember to mention the NYT’s long campaign last year to frame the Duke Lacrosse team, even though they were more innocent than Sherman McCoy — headlines ripped from the story of Barnard goes on

Mr. Wolfe’s real-life characters remain deeply divided, like their fellow New Yorkers, over what changed their city.

Mr. Hayes — using some of the eyebrow-raising ethnic language of his “Bonfire” character, Tommy Killian — gave credit to “the war on crime in New York City, which was basically won by white Catholic men from the boroughs.”

Minorities in the courts “got treated like dogs, and if you were a legitimate guy in a poor neighborhood you had no shot at all,” Mr. Hayes said. But in his view, New York crippled itself by blaming “society” for crime until Rudolph W. Giuliani came into office in 1994.

Wolfe himself says in an accompanying series of interviews with the models for various characters such as Al Sharpton (“Rev. Bacon”):

New York’s demographics were already shifting shortly after he finished the book, he noted.

“I first noticed this when “Bonfire” was being filmed [in 1990]. There was a slightly outrageous scene —night on the street in the Bronx. Two cars are on fire — I mean, come on — on this block . Everyone on the block is a black drug dealer, black drug taker, black wino, black pimp, black hustler — it really was an outrageous caricature. There’s a big Hollywood movie being made at night — lights, stars. The whole neighborhood turned out, they’re watching this and saying — what’s this thing all about? Because they’re all Thais and Cambodians and Vietnamese.”

The long financial boom that began in August 1982 simply made the city too expensive for a lot of marginal characters. That’s why the crime rate has fallen less than the national average in a lot of nearby cities that they moved to.

By the way, this reminds me of what a remarkably bad job of casting Brian De Palma and company did in the 1990 movie adaptation. The whole project was pretty hopeless from the get-go. The problem is that the central character, Sherman McCoy, is a stuffed shirt bore, but the minor characters, such as Killian, his uber-Irish defense attorney, are wonderful. A 2-hour movie that concentrates on Sherman was bound for trouble from the beginning.

But the casting didn’t have to be so catastrophic. William Hurt, who was a big star at the time (before his drinking became a problem), was the obvious choice for Sherman, with Steve Martin a more daring selection. but instead they picked Tom Hanks, then still in his boyish era, and changed Sherman from an old money WASP to a young yuppie, which threw off the rest of the film. Of course, casting Bruce Willis as the villain, the poisonous British journalist Peter Fallow (based on Anthony Haden-Guest, Christopher Guest’s illegitimate brother) was insane. Fallow had to be rewritten into a hero! There was no time left for great characters like Kramer, the assistant DA, and Killian, so little known actors were given their role. Morgan Freeman is in the movie, and he would have made a terrific Rev. Bacon (Al Sharpton), but instead he was cast as the fierce Jewish judge, but then the character couldn’t be Jewish or fierce, but had to be black and numinous. Oh, man, what a catastrophe …

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Crime, Movies, Tom Wolfe 
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From one Virginian to another (in The Atlantic):

Fortunately for America, as Jefferson saw it, British aristocracy had never taken root here in the colonies. Most British toffs didn’t have the faintest urge to depart their country estates and London clubs, their coaches-and-four, their tailors, valets, butlers, ballrooms, peruke-makers, and neck-cloth launderers for a wilderness full of painted bow-and-arrow-bearing aborigines … and no desirable women, unless one were a rather twisted toff who had a thing for granola girls with honest calves and forearms and hands thick as a blacksmith’s from hoeing the corn and black-eyed peas. From the very beginning of his political career, Jefferson was determined to make sure no aristocracy, European- or American-born, would ever be established here. Aristocracy literally means rule by the best, but he knew the proper word was plutocracy, rule by the rich, in this case big landowners who maintained their lordly, demigodly, hereditary rank only by passing their estates down generation after generation—intact—courtesy of the law of entail and the right of primogeniture. As soon as the Revolution was won, Jefferson launched a successful campaign to abolish both. Too bad he couldn’t have lived another hundred years to see just how efficient his strategy was. In America, rare is the plutocrat whose family wields power and influence beyond the second generation. One need only think of the Vanderbilts, Goulds, Astors, Carnegies, and Mellons. Where are they now? On the letterheads of charitable solicitations, at best. They don’t even rise to the eminence of gossip-column boldface any longer. The rare ones have been the Bushes, who have wielded power—a lot of it—into the third generation, and the Rockefellers, who have made it into the fourth … by a thread, the thread being Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. But the odds are 2-to-5—you’ll have to bet $5 to win $2—that within 10 years the last, best hope of even these exceptional families’ next generations will be to start climbing the white cliffs of the disease-charity letterheads.

Jefferson created a radically new frame of mind. In a thousand different ways he obliterated the symbols and deferential manners that comprise aristocracy’s cardiovascular system. Led by Jefferson, America became a country in which every sign of aristocratic pretensions was systematically uprooted and destroyed. The round table where the Merrys [the stuffy English ambassador and his wife] suffered their intolerable humiliation? It has been recorded that Jefferson insisted on round tables for dining because they had no head and no foot, removing any trace of the aristocratic European custom of silently ranking dinner guests by how close to the head of the table they sat. “That certain class” does not exist here psychologically.

Jefferson’s pell-mell gave America a mind-set that has never varied. In 1862, 36 years after Jefferson’s death, the government began the process of settling our vast, largely uninhabited western territories. Under the terms of the Homestead Act, they gave it away by inviting people, anybody, to head out into the open country and claim any plot they liked—Gloriously pell-mell! First come, first served! Each plot was 160 acres, and it was yours, free! By the time of the first Oklahoma Land Rush, in 1889, it had become a literal pell-mell—a confused, disorderly, headlong rush. People lined up on the border of the territory and rushed out into all that free real estate at the sound of a starter gun. Europeans regarded this as more lunacy on the part of … these Americans … squandering a stupendous national asset in this childish way on a random mob of nobodies. They could not conceive of the possibility that this might prove to be, in fact, a remarkably stable way of settling the West, of turning settlers into homeowners with a huge stake in making the land productive … or that it might result, as the British historian Paul Johnson contends, in “the immense benefits of having a free market in land—something which had never before occurred at any time, anywhere in the world.” So long as you had made certain required improvements, after five years you could sell all or part of your 160 acres to other people, any other people. It’s hard to be absolutely sure, but where else in the world could ordinary citizens go out and just like that—how much you want for it?—buy themselves a piece of land?

The notion that cheap land and high wages are the essence of the American Advantage goes back even farther than Jefferson, to at least Ben Franklin’s 1751 essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind.”

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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By the way, perhaps I’m just being naive, but most of the vast amount of new construction on college and prep school campuses going up these days looks pretty good stylistically to my eyes, in contrast to the 1950-1980 Modernist eyesores nearby.

Awhile ago I visited the Claremont Colleges, which consists of a few lovely Spanish Mission buildings from before the War, when everything went to hell architecturally, a whole bunch of bland-to-bad postwar buildings, and a few extravagant new buildings. There was one incredibly awful building, a brutalist concrete nightmare from the 1970s that looked like they dug up Hitler’s Bunker and reassembled it above ground in the San Gabriel Valley. Not surprisingly, it housed the Art Department. If Claremont had an Architecture Department, it would probably be located in something equally calamitous, maybe a building inspired by the basement of the Lubyanka secret police headquarters in Moscow.

Anyway, most of the brand new campus buildings I’ve seen in the last couple of years look rather impressive, although maybe in 30 years they’ll look just as bad as the postwar stuff. But I don’t think so, since they are typically designed to fit in stylistically with the pre-Depression buildings on campus. While the postwar buildings were intended to be both a sharp stick in the eye stylistically, and cheap to build, the dominant aesthetic theme of the new edifices appears to be: Just like the old buildings on campus that you love, only much, much more expensive.

Perhaps the evident costliness of the construction makes them even more appealing?

In Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, the old aesthete drops in a bombshell of a paragraph cynically summing up what he’s learned from his lifetime’s obsessions with architecture and status about why we love beautiful buildings. Poor Adam Gellin, the much put-upon undergrad intellectual, has fled from the gay rights rally he was intimidated into attending into the gothic majesty of the Dupont U. library (Dupont is more or less Duke U., which has perhaps the most extravagant architecture of any American college):

“He stood in the lobby, just stood there, looking up at the ceiling and taking in its wonders one by one, as if he had never laid eyes on them before, the vaulted ceiling, all the ribs, the covert way spotlights, floodlights, and wall washers had been added … It was so calming … but why? … He thought of every possible reason except for the real one, which was that the existence of conspicuous consumption one has rightful access to — as a student had rightful access to the fabulous Dupont Memorial Library — creates a sense of well-being.”

This might be a little too reductionist even for my taste. First, it seems to take as a given that elegant conspicuous consumption is even more conspicuous than crass conspicuous consumption, but you need a cultivated a sensibility for that to be true. I suspect that It’s also hard to say how crucial the “rightful access” clause is since I generally haven’t broken and entered into too many architectural landmarks. Switching from architecture to golf architecture, I snuck onto the exquisite 15th hole at Cypress Point, and I recall, 30 years later, feeling pretty good, but I suspect I would have been ecstatic if I’d been there rightfully, playing the course rather than just skulking about, so perhaps Wolfe is onto something in pointing out the multiplicative force of aesthetics combined with status.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
Steve Sailer
About Steve Sailer

Steve Sailer is a journalist, movie critic for Taki's Magazine, columnist, and founder of the Human Biodiversity discussion group for top scientists and public intellectuals.

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