Gregory Hood, American Renaissance, May 24, 2018
Steve Sailer famously defined political correctness as a war on noticing. If this is true, the late Tom Wolfe was the most politically incorrect novelist who ever lived; he noticed everything we are not supposed to notice.
Peter Brimelow of VDARE.COM recalls a conversation with Wolfe after the success of Mr. Brimelow’s Alien Nation. “I see you’re being attacked by all the right people, for which I salute you,” said Wolfe. Of course, those “right people” included the New York Times, Washington Post, and innumerable other outlets now paying tribute to the Man in White.
Today’s system would never permit another Tom Wolfe. He chose truth over cant—especially when he wrote about race—and somehow he got away with it until the end.
If Wolfe had lived a little longer, the same publications now toasting his memory would have turned on him. There were some stirrings of this impulse on Twitter, as critics kicked themselves for not attacking Wolfe while he was alive.
A thing I discovered a few weeks ago when writing about the Leonard Bernstein exhibit in Philly: Tom Wolfe’s seminal”Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” article is jaw-droppingly racist. https://t.co/4VOVk0BEOF pic.twitter.com/2gf10FdjNz
— MarjorieIngall (@MarjorieIngall) May 15, 2018
For the most part Tom Wolfe’s work was racist, sexist, & stylistically over-effing-rated. The damage he did to the Black Panthers is only outweighed by the favors he did for the FBI.
Tom Wolfe’s book about Ken Kesey was fun. “The Right Stuff” is great. His fanboys? Tasteless.
— Gemma de Choisy (@DuhShwaZee) May 16, 2018
I’ll have a lot more thoughts about Tom Wolfe, I imagine, particularly regarding his racism. But working through this piece at least got me considering Wolfe’s journalism, the good and the bad: https://t.co/Bt517faWKV
— Elon Green (@elongreen) May 16, 2018
Naturally, Wolfe himself anticipated this. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, English expatriate reporter Peter Fallow is a pathetic alcoholic on the brink of losing his job, until he is spoon-fed the story of black youth Henry Lamb, killed in a hit-and-run by a white man driving a Mercedes. By sensationalizing the story and playing up of the racial angle, Fallow not only saves his career, he wins a Pulitzer and marries the boss’s daughter. The incentives for this sort of thing are, if anything, stronger than ever. The book is considered the quintessential novel of the 1980s, but the sordid dynamic of race hasn’t changed.
Consider this passage from the lawyer Albert Vogel, who is explaining the importance of the hit-and-run story to Fallow:
[T]his isn’t just one of those passing sensations. This thing gets down to the very structure of the city itself, the class structure, the racial structure, the way the system is put together. . . [Y]ou’re from England, Pete, but you come here and you put your finger right on the central issue, which is how much is a human life worth. Is a black life worth less than a white life? That’s what makes this thing important.” [p. 405-406]
Just as Bonfire anticipates Black Lives Matter, so does the experience of the white Mercedes driver, Sherman McCoy, anticipate the fate of “racists” targeted by journalists and social media today. The philandering bond salesman is utterly destroyed even though he wasn’t the driver during the fatal accident. Wolfe explained that a media campaign can “kill” a person psychologically, even destroy his own sense of who he is:
The press was now a condition, like lupus erythematosus or Wegener’s granulomatosis. His entire central nervous system was now wired into the vast, incalculable circuit of radio and television and newspapers, and his body surged and burned and hummed with the energy of the press and the prurience of those it reached, which was everyone, from the closest neighbor to the most bored and distant outlander titillated for the moment by his disgrace. By the thousands, no, the millions, they now came scampering into the cavity of what he had presumed to be his self, Sherman McCoy. (p. 512-513)
With remarkable insight, Wolfe notes that McCoy (and media targets generally) are “not shocked and angered by these gross distortions and manifest untruths” but instead are shamed. The moral hysteria somehow infects them until they, too, despise themselves. McCoy doesn’t recover until the end of the novel, when he is reborn as a defiant “professional defendant” aggressively asserting his innocence as he is dragged from trial to trial.
Much of Wolfe’s work, fiction and nonfiction, is about the two great driving forces of American life, race and status. None of his work is dated. Wolfe’s devastating portrayal of Leonard Bernstein hosting the Black Panthers in his 1970’s piece “Radical Chic” could be a story about every liberal speech at the Academy Awards, every “open borders” declaration from someone who lives in a gated community, or every celebrity anti-Trump screed on Twitter. Wolfe also described the combination of racial masochism and hypocrisy that leads to what we now call virtue signaling:
[T]he styles of romantic, raw-vital, Low Rent primitives—are good; and middle class, whether black or white, is bad. Therefore, Radical Chic invariably favors radicals who seem primitive, exotic and romantic, such as the grape workers, who are not merely radical and “of the soil,” but also Latin; the Panthers, with their leather pieces, Afros, shades, and shoot-outs; and the Red Indians, who, of course, had always seemed primitive, exotic and romantic. At the outset, at least, all three groups had something else to recommend them, as well: they were headquartered 3,000 miles away from the East Side of Manhattan. . .
A member of the Black Panthers called the author of “Radical Chic,” a “dirty, blatant, lying, racist dog” who had written a “fascist disgusting thing.”
Similarly, Wolfe’s “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” laid bare the race-grievance industry. In a brilliant dissection of Saul Alinsky-style “community organizing,” he hilariously described a dashiki-wearing activist revving up black children with junk food and causing a riot in a city building, thus winning concessions and attention from local government. Again, nothing has changed; look at the antics of activist group BAMN.
The hapless bureaucrats who “catch flak” to appease non-whites are a common type in Wolfe’s fiction and nonfiction. Taken as a whole, his work is one long story about whites losing control of their country. In The Right Stuff, Wolfe lauded the patriotic, all-American ideal, comparing the Mercury Seven astronauts to warriors of a prior age. Yet Wolfe also chronicled the rise of the counter-culture in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
The loss of cultural and racial confidence that began in the 1960s can be seen in the deracinated whites who appear in Wolfe’s novels, bewildered and intimidated by racially aware non-whites. Sherman McCoy of Bonfire is the most obvious example—the onetime “Master of the Universe” crushed by a black huckster preacher and ambitious prosecutors hunting for the “Great White Defendant.”
I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe’s caustic portrayal of college life, depicts a white basketball player in terror of losing his position and his status as a campus god to a black teammate. Finally, Back to Blood (reviewed by this author in 2012) is an explicit statement about the supremacy of identity politics in post-American Miami. Indeed, Wolfe’s final novel was a kind of prophecy, warning Americans that in their now-deconstructed country, “All people, all people everywhere have but one last thing on their minds—Back to Blood!”
As a white Southerner watching his culture eradicated by design, Wolfe may have seen his own life in these terms. He was a native of Richmond who attended Washington & Lee University, a once-proud Southern school now apologizing for its history. He earned a Ph.D. at Yale, writing a thesis on the Communist Party’s organizational activity among American writers. Wolfe was always conscious of their lust for power and status concealed behind syrupy egalitarian rhetoric. The hypocrisy, willful blindness, self-hatred, and moral preening that Wolfe depicted so skillfully are timeless.
Wolfe’s “new journalism,” however, was not timeless. He found and profiled interesting people; today’s even newer journalism finds interesting people and tries to destroy them. It misleads, rather than informs. With his commitment to racial reality, Tom Wolfe today couldn’t be an intern at a free local weekly paper, let alone survive as a novelist.
The problem with American letters is not that there isn’t another Tom Wolfe; it’s that unless there is revolutionary cultural change, another Tom Wolfe will not be permitted. Like the test pilots in The Right Stuff, Wolfe was a product of the real America: white America. That nation has only a past—though if whites can get “back to blood,” it will have a future as well.