A church in Birmingham, Alabama, publicly advocating racism? What kind of KKK-at-prayer worship center is this?
Um, it’s a black church. More:
A Birmingham pastor is coming under fire for controversial messages slamming a suburban mega church that plans to open a satellite campus in a “high crime” area of the city.
New Era Baptist Church Pastor Michael Jordan said God told him to put the messages up outside his West End church. The sign reads on one side, “Black Folks Need to Stay Out of White Churches.” The other side of the sign says, “White Folks Refused to Be Our Neighbors.” Jordan is strongly opposed to Church of the Highlands, Alabama’s largest church, creating a place of worship in the inner city, even though its intentions are to help curb crime.
“You don’t want to live next door to us, so why do you want to put a church here if they don’t know us? And I am condemning the black African Americans that worship white churches because the culture is so different,” said Jordan.
Pastor Jordan is a bigot who needs to repent. Racism is a sin — and it’s a sin that is particular to no color or tribe. Alas.
Sharonell Fulton and other foster parents asked a Philadelphia court late yesterday to end a new City policy that is leaving foster homes sitting empty while the City is in a foster care crisis. In Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, the City must answer for its decision to stop allowing Catholic Social Services to place children in foster homes, solely because the City disagrees with the agency’s religious beliefs – a decision the City is threatening to make permanent on June 30.
In March, the City of Philadelphia issued an urgent call for 300 new foster parents to provide loving homes for some of the over 6,000 kids in Philadelphia foster care. That same month, the City abruptly barred Catholic Social Services, one of the city’s top-rated foster agencies, from placing children with foster families. This decision makes it exponentially harder for hundreds of children in need of foster care to find homes. Foster homes are sitting empty, even as the city begs for more families to help in its foster care crisis.
“What justice is there in taking stable, loving homes away from children? If the City cuts off Catholic Social Services from foster care, foster moms like me won’t have the help and support they need to care for special-needs kids,” said Sharonell Fulton, a foster mother. “I have relied on Catholic Social Services for support for years, and the City is taking away this help and causing harm and heartache to countless families like mine.”
Sharonell has been a foster parent for over 25 years and has opened her home to over 40 children, including two children currently in her care. She strives to provide a loving, stable home and treat each child as if they were her own. To do that, Sharonell relies on Catholic Social Services’ help, including around-the-clock support and access to information and resources.
Catholic Social Services and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have been serving children throughout Philadelphia for over a century. Their Catholic mission drives them to find loving homes for all children in their care, regardless of the child’s race, color, sex, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. Catholic Social Services currently serves over 100 children in foster homes. No family or individual has ever complained that the agency’s Catholic mission prevented them from fostering or adopting a child.
Here’s a link to the court filing. Excerpt:
8. Ms. Fulton could not provide the extensive care that these special needs children require without the support she receives from Catholic Social Services. Catholic Social Services has provided Ms. Fulton with training, resources, support, and professional guidance as to how to best care for special needs children. She has been able to call social workers at any hour and receive an answer from someone she knew and trusted. These social workers have become like family and have shown great love and care to her foster children. By contrast, Ms. Fulton previously 4 received training from a government agency, and has noted the stark difference between that agency’s treatment of her and Catholic Social Services’ care and compassion. She is aware that other foster parents have been unsatisfied with the support they receive from other foster agencies. Ms. Fulton believes that she would not receive the kind of support she needs to serve children with serious medical problems if she were with another agency. If the City terminates its contract with Catholic Social Services, or refuses to renew the contract in June, Ms. Fulton’s two current foster children will be immediately transferred away. Because of their extensive medical needs, she anticipates these children will have a very difficult time being placed, and it is very unlikely they will be placed with a foster parent that has the same capacity and training as Ms. Fulton to address these special needs.
9. Ms. Fulton shares the religious beliefs of Catholic Social Services. As an African American woman, Ms. Fulton has experienced discrimination in her life. It is insulting and hurtful for her to observe the government of the city in which she lives needlessly denigrate and publicly condemn her own religious beliefs in such a discriminatory fashion.
The City of Philadelphia would rather have orphaned children taken away from Christian foster parents who rely on Catholic Social Services, and leave other orphaned children outside of families, than tolerate Catholic beliefs. Note well that neither Catholic Social Services nor the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is trying to stop the placement of children with gay couples; it’s only declining to do so itself based on its longstanding religious convictions.
For liberals and city officials, that is intolerable, apparently. You would think that given how many Philadelphia children without parents are desperately in need of foster care, the city would be doing all it can to get those kids placed in loving homes. The city finds no problem at all with Catholic Social Services … other than the fact that it operates by Catholic principles regarding family structure. If they can’t make Catholic Social Services violate its corporate conscience and kneel before militant progressivism, well then, those children will have to suffer.
The cruel pettiness and anti-Christian hatred shown by the cultural left in cases like this shocks the conscience. One hopes the court will deliver some sanity and compassion to this dispute. Still, my religious conservative readership had better take a lesson: on LGBT issues, the cultural left is driven by anti-Christian spite that they would even see orphaned children — including children with severe medical disabilities that no one wants to care for — and the families who want to love and care for them suffer rather than yield a single inch.
Such is the “tolerance” they told us they wanted. Don’t be fooled. The cultural left will not stop until all Catholics (and other Christians) to the right of gay Jesuits are driven out of the public square. And then they’ll only stop their crusade long enough to catch their breath.
You Christians: fight this now, but prepare for what’s coming.
UPDATE: The first comment, right out the door, is from a liberal. Here it is, and here is my answer:
Doesn’t that cut both ways. Haven’t Christian adoption agencies shut down to prevent LGBT people from adopting?
Seems like both sides are dug in deep and you only call out the other which makes sense no one likes to call out their own side. I find your constant diatribes about anti-Christianity rather empty and often over blown. I can attest that these sort of stories are what pushed me away from the faith. Christianity is strong and strong things change with life.
[NFR: Empty and overblown because you’re not the one suffering from anti-Christian bigotry. There is no way for both sides to “win” on this one. The Catholic Church has deep, consistent teachings about family and sexuality. They are now unfashionable, true, but this is something integral to the Church’s teaching. The Catholic Church also has a long history of social services to the needy. If the Catholic Church’s health care and other social services disappeared tomorrow, you know who wouldn’t feel the pain? Well-off and middle-class people. You know who would? Poor people — and there are few people more poor than severely handicapped orphans. You need to ask yourself why your anti-Christian bigotry is so strong that you would compel Catholics and other Christians who are giving their lives and their treasure to helping the poorest of the poor to violate their consciences. I’m sick to death of this progressive preening. — RD]
UPDATE.2: What we have here is a sort of Progressive Integralism, with the foster children that stand to be removed from (or not placed with) Christian foster families via Catholic Social Services playing the same role that Edgardo Mortara did in the 19th century Papal States.
You remember that story, right? An illiterate housemaid baptized a baby within the Jewish family for which she worked. When news got out, Pope Pius IX, who was the temporal ruler of that territory, declared that the child, Edgardo Mortara, had to be removed from his family because having been baptized, he could not be denied a Catholic upbringing. It caused a huge international scandal at the time.
So now we have a case where the sanctity of homosexuality has been declared by the liberal state, such that foster children must be taken out of Christian homes if there is any chance that their “baptism” into the secular state religion might be compromised, even by appearance. Ordinary human decency and compassion cannot be allowed to interfere with the remorseless exercise of the state religion’s authority.
And there are actually people today who believe that liberalism is neutral. Don’t you believe it for a second.
UPDATE.3: “But what if an adoption agency refused to place kids in interracial homes. You wouldn’t support them working with the city, would you? How is this different?”
For one, race and sexuality are not the same thing. But we have been over that topic exhaustively here.
For another, yeah, I probably would support that agency, as long as there were more children needing homes than there were homes for them. Some progressives advocate the idea that black children should be placed in black homes, Hispanic children in Hispanic homes, et cetera, as a matter of cultural defense. I think this is wrong, but if an otherwise competent child placement and social services office only wanted to work on black-to-black foster placements, or Muslim-to-Muslim, whatever … well, why not? I don’t have to agree with their methodology to be grateful that there are more people involved in trying to find homes for kids who need parents. I may believe that the people running the hypothetical black-to-black agency hold racist anti-white beliefs, but I can live with that as long as I can be confident that they are putting orphans who need families in good homes.
I would be significantly less ticked off about this thing in Philly if there were no shortage of foster homes for these motherless and fatherless children. Where are all the nice, right-thinking liberals in Philly, doing for these poor children what Christians like Sharonell Fulton are doing?
UPDATE.4: I’m thrilled to hear from two frequent liberal commenters. First, Adamant:
Oklahoma just passed a law preventing this very thing.
Fact: There is no existing substitute for religious organizations in adoption, child placement, and foster care in the US.
Without these organizations, the system, shambolic as it is, simply collapses, and the sum total of human misery increases greatly.
Supporters of this nonsense are the same small, blinkered souls that get a perverse glee at the thought of nuns being forced to buy contraception.
To my liberal brothers and sisters; do you have a plan to replace these organizations and the means to execute that plan, ready to go? If not, please sit down and STFU. If your highest and best use isn’t the care and protection of vulnerable children, you don’t have a policy: you have a pose.
Now, from the irreplaceable Franklin Evans:
This one is literally close to home. I’ve lived in Philly nearly my entire adult life, raised three children here, and actively contributed to the long evolution from LGBT scapegoats to becoming integrated and full participants in our community. There are some things here that some might find interesting, even if they don’t agree that they are relevant.
For many years, the school district budget saw a significant drain on resources because by law they were required to deliver educational services to parochial and private school students whose schools were by law exempt from providing, combined with the fact that they were not entitled to the enrolled-student subsidy from the state for the students of those schools. In short, Catholic schools have long enjoyed getting those services for free.
Contrast that to the many religiously sponsored community services who must not proselytize to the children under their care if they either receive city funds or provide services to city-funded institutions. One center, which my children attended through their before- and after-school programs, fired one employee for violating their clear policy to comply with that restriction.
Those form an abstract comparison point which subsequently pales when placed against the foster care services. The principle is the same, and very important, but when it comes to the care and safety of children in need, we simply must not make political footballs of them.
In this case, not only is the city wrong, it is egregiously wrong. If they must level the “playing field” in foster care — Catholic Services is by far the best funded of all the available foster care services — they can do so on the existing breadth of options for same-sex couples, along with making sure that all the foster care services are linked with needy children in an equitable fashion.
UPDATE.5: As for you readers who are trying to draw an equivalence here, and say that both Catholic Social Services and the City of Philadelphia come off looking bad here, by restricting the placement of foster children, you should consider that this is a superficial equivalence. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re correct, and both sides are being selfish. Only one of those sides has the power to stop foster placements entirely: the City. It cannot be the case that willing gay foster parents aren’t receiving placements because of CSS’s stand; there are far more kids needing placement than there are placements. All CSS is doing is declining to make placements that conflict with its deeply-held principles. Fine, call them a bunch of horrible mackerel-snapping bigots, or do your best to change their mind. But do not pretend that there are kids in Philly who are going without foster parents because of the CSS policy. CSS is not the only foster placement game in Philly. If it was, you’d have more of a point. This is only about grinding the face of the Church, and the face of those poor children, and Christian families who want to foster them.
I was not a fan of Whitney Houston, the megastar who died of a drug overdose six years ago. I thought at the time, “Oh, how sad, another star who couldn’t handle fame and money.” There’s a new documentary out now about her life and death, and this interview with the director made me feel more compassion for her.
It turns out that her family — her brothers — and others around her were saturated by drug abuse. It was everywhere when she was coming up. She wanted to be part of the fun. The director says that in interviewing 70 people for this movie, he was struck by how much latent guilt there seemed to be in everyone. They know that they had a hand in what happened to her.
The part that really got to me, though, was the revelation that Whitney Houston was sexually abused in childhood by her now-deceased cousin Dee-Dee Warwick, sister of Dionne Warwick. Excerpt:
It’s one of Whitney’s brothers who brings up the abuse allegations. How did you feel when you uncovered that piece of information?
I first began to suspect that there might be some kind of abuse involved before anyone had actually told me. I just had a sense, having sat watching interviews about her, watching footage of her. I had a feeling that there was something wrong with her. There was something preventing her, in some way, from expressing her real self. She felt uncomfortable in her own skin in almost every interview there was with her. And I thought that was a very strange thing, and it kind of reminded me of people I’d seen who had suffered from abuse, just in their body language and their sense of holding something back. That was just an intuition, and then somebody mentioned it off-camera to me. They wouldn’t talk about it on camera, but they said Whitney had said to her that something had happened.
And for a long time, that was where it lay. I didn’t know whether that was true. And then I interviewed Pat Houston and Gary Houston, who’s Whitney’s brother. He told me that he was abused by a woman in the family, and Pat Houston told me that, yes, Whitney had said to her, “This is what happened.” So at that stage, I’d had the confirmation that something had happened, but I didn’t know who it was. And then, on the next interview, Gary did tell me who it was. This was at the very end of filming, two weeks before we locked the cut. Then I [interviewed] Mary Jones, who was Whitney’s longtime assistant [throughout] the last 10 years of her life, and who knew her better probably better in that period than anybody else. And she told me Whitney’s point of view on this, and what Whitney had told her in detail, and how important she felt it was for understanding Whitney, but how scared everyone was to talk about it. So, yeah, the film changed radically in the last weeks of editing it, which I guess, as a detective, is the result you want.
But, obviously it’s such a disturbing allegation, and we did have a lot of debate about it. How do you present material like this, and how do you do it in a way that’s going to be fair to the family and to somebody who’s accused who is also deceased?
What was the answer to that question?
In the end, we felt that we had three different people saying this. One of them, Gary, was also abused by [the same woman]. So, we felt that having direct testimony of somebody saying, “This happened to me” meant that even if by some incredible stretch of the imagination, Whitney had been lying to everybody else about it, that there was no reason not to go public about it. All the experts I spoke to about this area and this issue told me that it’s best to talk about these things and best for them to be out. That is the current thinking: it may prevent other people being abused in the future, it may give people the courage to come forward and say, “This happened to me, and this was the person who did it.” So there was some nervousness about it to begin with because I didn’t expect to be making a film about somebody who was an entertainer to lead to such a dark place. But once we got there, I felt like we had an obligation to use this.
Whitney Houston famously had a lengthy love affair with Robyn Crawford, her longtime assistant, something the director acknowledges in the interview, though Crawford refused to be interviewed. Was Whitney Houston’s lesbianism tied to her abuse by her female cousin? Or: was the fact that she had same-sex desire compromised by the fact that when she first discovered it, it was in the context of abuse, and therefore it carried with it a special taint in her mind?
The torment of victims of child sexual abuse is something unique and horrifying. This is something anybody who has spent time reading accounts emerging from the church child abuse scandal learns, and never forgets. That poor woman. God bless those who endured, and found healing, not self-destruction. I wonder what would have happened to the singer had she been in a family that had been willing to talk about the abuse, and had not burdened her (and other victims of Dee-Dee Warwick) with the dead weight of keeping a malign secret.
The Houston tragedy makes me realize that one of the biggest ways the church sex abuse story changed me was making me much more hostile to the idea that people (families, churches, etc.) should keep dark and damaging secrets to maintain the façade, both inwardly and outwardly, of normality. It’s a sick system that tells those who were victimized by that system that they have a moral obligation to stay silent to protect the reputation and the stability of that system.
We are a couple of weeks away from this year’s Walker Percy Weekend — please buy your tickets if you haven’t yet! — and we have a great line-up of speakers and topics. Alas, it is my sad duty to inform you that for the first time in five years, my dear friend Ralph Wood of Baylor won’t be joining us. He couldn’t fit it into his travel schedule. But he will be there in spirit, and in more than spirit: one of his prize students, Jessica Hooten Wilson, will be there to promote her wonderful new book about Percy’s novels, and to teach a class on her favorite Percy novel, The Last Gentleman.
No Ralph Wood in St. Francisville this year, but here’s good news: there’s a Ralph Wood essay about Percy and Love In The Ruins in the new issue of TAC — and it’s available online, right here. Excerpt:
Percy’s philosophically astute psychiatrist identifies this far deeper trouble in a single lapidary claim: “Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house.” Dr. More traces our illness to René Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher whose notorious motto was “Cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.” Descartes’ animating idea marked a fundamental “turn to the subject,” a relocation of ultimate authority in subjective human consciousness rather than any transcendent reality.
It is safe to say that, prior to Descartes, human reason seated itself either in the natural order or else in divine revelation. In the medieval tradition, reason brought these two thought-originating sources into harmony. Thus were mind, soul, and body regarded as having an inseparable relation: they were wondrously intertwined. So also, in this bi-millennial way of construing the world, was the created order seen as having multiple causes—first and final, no less than efficient and material causes. This meant that creation was not a thing that stood over against us, but as the realm in which we participate—living and moving and having our being there, as both ancient Stoics and St. Paul insisted. The physical creation was understood as God’s great book of metaphors and analogies for grasping his will for the world.
After Descartes, by contrast, the sensible realm becomes a purposeless thing, a domain of physical causes awaiting our own mastery and manipulation. Nature no longer encompasses humanity as its crowning participant. The soul drops out altogether and is replaced by disembodied mind. Shorn of its spiritual qualities, the mind becomes a calculating faculty for bare, abstract thinking. To yank the mind free from the body is also to untether it from history, tradition, and locality. After Descartes, the mind allegedly stands outside these given things so as to operate equally well at anytime and anywhere. Insofar as belief in God is kept at all, it is an entailment of the human. Atheism was sure to follow. Marx made truth itself a human production, whether social or economic. Nietzsche went further, insisted that nothing whatever can stand over against the human will to power, not even socially constructed truth. Hence the cry of Zarathustra: “If there were gods, how could I endure not to be a god!”
As Wordsworth said of Milton, so might we plead: “Percy, wert thou living at this hour!” Though it’s 28 years past his death and 47 since publication of Love in the Ruins, he might call Christians to a similar kind of hope. Though he would be witty rather than solemn, I believe he would summon his fellow believers, not to a culture war against the twin evils of the left and the right, but rather to a drastic renewal of our badly fractured churches. Father Rinaldo Smith’s tiny flock might find its successors in small gatherings of Christians from across the denominations in order that the Gospel might survive amidst the Dark Ages that have already begun. Aboard the church’s rickety ark riding out the storm, these remnant Christians would create communities of refuge for those who desire “a better country” (Heb. 11:14) than our bestial and angelic Cities of the Plain.
For nearly a half century, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been making a similar summons. He has confessed that we Christians are likely to remain a permanent minority from here on in—barring, of course, a miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a phoenix-like rebirth from our moral and spiritual ashes. We Christians will never be in charge of things again, the future pope acknowledged. We seem to be back where we began—as a minority faith in an overwhelmingly pagan world. Hence these startling words from a 1969 radio address entitled “What Will the Church Be Like in 2000?”:
She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members…. The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek…. But when the trial [of] this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.
Yet it’s not as if two millennia of Christian existence have made no difference. In a 1997 interview with Peter Seewald, a German atheist reporter, Cardinal Ratzinger declared that we have been given two unparalleled gifts wherewith to build such enclaves of radical Christian excellence: (1) the inexhaustible fund of Christian thought and art, and (2) the unsurpassable witness of our saints and martyrs. On a sure prophetic and sacramental foundation, such mustard seed churches will “live in an intensive struggle against evil.” They will seek to keep “what is essential to man from being destroyed.” They will bring “good into the world,” prophesied the future pope, and thus “let God in.”
This, of course, is what The Benedict Option is based on. I’m not going to spoil the rest of the long essay by telling you what Ralph has to say about all this — and what Percy does — but I hope you will check it out.
These passages from Ralph’s essay really hit home with me this week. I am re-writing the proposal for my next book. In fact, just thinking about Ralph, and Walker Percy, prompted me to pour myself a finger or two of this incredible Reservoir bourbon my Virginia friends gave me recently (see photo). It’s the best sipping whiskey I’ve tasted in ages.
I submitted a proposal for the next book, and had it returned by my editor with the comment that it reads, as is, like the takeaway is, “We should all spend more time thinking about Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” I missed the mark, then. I wouldn’t read a book as dull and worthy-sounding as that one. I’ve got to find the edge.
A friend suggested that I ought to consider the paradox I inhabit: I spend my days howling like Jeremiah on this blog about how the sky is falling, but in person, I am cheerful and amiable. How do I keep up hope despite it all? Part of it is my disposition, I think; nobody who likes to eat and to drink and to tell funny stories as much as I do can ever be permanently gloomy. But there is philosophical and theological seriousness there too. It has to do with the culture of the Christian church, and with the kind of people (at their best) that Christianity produces.
It has something to do as well with the profound sense of meaning, meaning embedded in the material world, that comes from my Christian faith. That is to say, from a sacramental view of life. And it has to do with the fact that like Percy, I’m a natural ironist who is inclined to see the absurdity in life, and to cherish it.
How to talk about this in a way that doesn’t sound insufferably abstract or worthwhile-Canadian-initiative-ish?
And there’s this, which another friend pointed out to me. My wife once said that I’m a “weirdo magnet,” meaning that I have this uncanny ability to draw unusual people and unusual events to me. She’s right about that. I bat far above average in having encounters with the numinous, and with people who also have had them. I think that being open to them certainly helps — that, and the fact that I don’t mind talking about these mysteries openly. You’d be surprised by what people will tell you has happened to them once they know that you won’t automatically call them crazy for saying so. My friend, a solid, Ivy-educated professional who has had run-ins with the numinous himself, says that I should write about people like me: those “who had their faith in secularism destroyed by the collapse of the immanent frame and a kind of supernatural invasion.”
I think he’s onto something there too. But how to tie it all together? How to tie it all together into a book that actual people will read, and argue about?
Maybe I’ll get an idea or two at Walker Percy Weekend. Say, if you’re coming, I hope you’ll show up at the off-the-menu conversation I’ll be hosting on the back porch at the Magnolia Cafe with Fare Forward‘s Charlie Clark, about his essay “The Walker Percy Option.” TAC is sponsoring the event, and will provide frosty longnecks for ticket holders, though you don’t have to be a ticket-holder to come to the talk (only to get free beer). “If the Benedict Option imagines a faithful remnant waiting out the flood, the Walker Percy Option imagines an unfaithful one, nonetheless borne up by grace,” writes Charlie. More:
Like all Christians, Percy believed that man’s immortal soul had been jeopardized by his fall from grace, that his original connection to the divine had been severed by sin. But he saw the problem of modernity through a narrower lens. Influenced by existentialism, he saw that man had fallen not only from grace, but (more recently) from himself as well. Moderns were uncomfortable in their own skin, alienated from their daily lives, restless, angry—and this in spite of unprecedented wealth and leisure. Like the secular existentialists of his age, Percy became convinced that something about modernity hampered human flourishing. It blocked not just the special grace by which the monks attended to the counsels of perfection, it interfered with the common, everyday grace that makes an ordinary life feel worth living.
Percy’s anti-modernism is not reactionary. He does not propose to re-erect a premodern social imaginary “amid the high tide of liquid modernity,” as Dreher says. When his characters imagine a coming calamity that will usher in a new order, it is a sign of madness, not wisdom. Rather, Percy’s vision is forward-looking, synthetic—even syncretistic. It tolerates a high degree of imperfection, the rough edges that are the mark of all real and natural things. He envisioned a new humanism, one that combined an affirmation of animal life with an openness to higher perfections, and which could rescue believer and unbeliever alike from the common disaster of estrangement from their selves. This vision, Percy’s Bad Catholic Existentialism, may not promise eternal salvation, but it does create occasions for further in-breakings of grace. The cure for our modern ills can be found through cathedral doors—and not just behind monastery walls.
Creating occasions for further in-breakings of grace. Hmmm … I like the way this is going.
I hope we see you at the Mag on Friday afternoon, June 1, to talk about all this — and that we see you for the rest of the weekend as well. Again, buy tickets here.
When you are a writer who learns a beloved author has a dark side, you experience waves of disillusionment. When you teach that author’s work, you feel an additional stab of concern: What about my syllabus?
Why on earth would you? She goes on to explain why she does that. Excerpts:
I was the student who lost her composure when the famed science-fiction author launched into homophobic vitriol. After the conversation was over, I looked at the hardback edition I had just bought, signed and jacketed in its beautiful cover, and dropped it in the corner of my dorm room. Now, 20 years and four books later, I’ve been adjacent to every range of author behavior. There’s a lot of generosity, and grace, and talent. There’s also more than a few nightmares: arrogant, vindictive or on the prowl.
You’d throw away a book you loved because you found out the writer is a jerk? I don’t get that at all. A friend of mine the other day — a hardcore leftie secularist — was visibly shocked and crestfallen when I told her that J.R.R. Tolkien was a Catholic, and that his Catholic faith informed The Lord of the Rings. She told me that I ruined it for her. That is something I do not understand. In fact, not only do I not understand it, I push back hard against it. If we start judging works of art by the character of the artists, where do we stop?
The Venn diagram of “artists” and “saints” has almost no intersection. I hate the off-the-rack Bohemianism holding that real artists are hedonists. Flannery O’Connor was no hedonist. Wallace Stevens sold insurance. Tom Wolfe, who just passed, dwelled among the acidheads in the 1960s, but he never went native — and his ability to observe closely but not be captured by those he observed was a key to his talent.
On the other hand, it’s equally childish to expect artists to be good people. If I started talking about the seamy private lives of accomplished artists and other creative types, we could be here all day, and exhaust ourselves. As I write this, I’m looking on my bookshelf at a collection of Truman Capote short stories. Capote was immensely talented — a talent he wasted on decadent living, and an early death. Nothing about his private life takes away from his artistic accomplishment. I wouldn’t have to cast my eyes over many titles on my bookshelves to find other authors about whom I could say the same thing. Or musicians.
Or filmmakers. Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite, a philanderer, and a hot mess. He is also a hell of a filmmaker (ever seen Apocalypto?) If Mel Gibson’s personal politics and opinions make it hard for you to watch a Mel Gibson movie, okay. But if you deny your students the opportunity to study a Mel Gibson movie because you find him personally objectionable, the sin is yours, not Mel Gibson’s.
Beasley goes on:
If your love of literature is grounded in erecting a wall between authors and their work, then you have your philosophy. I respect that. I’m a stickler for addressing “the speaker” of a poem, never the poet. But let’s say that it’s my student heading out the door to meet that poet — a jerk whose work I once adored without reservation. I will have an instinct to pull her aside, to say, Hey, just be aware. If there’s still space for that poet on my syllabus, there certainly needs to be space for that conversation, too.
Well, that makes sense. So look, don’t go have a drink with Junot Diaz (who has recently been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct) or Mel Gibson. But don’t cut them from the syllabus.
To put someone on a syllabus is to privilege them with our attention. We’re saying, This is worth your time. Unless we actively complicate the conversation, our students will perceive that as a form of admiration.
I don’t know. That sounds to me like a secular version of the sort of thing one hears from a certain kind of Christian: that whether or not an artist is a Christian matters in how you view that artist and his work. Christians who actually appreciate art complain all the time about how third-rate most consciously Christian art is. I believe it’s important to police the line between artistic merit and the personal characteristics of the artist. Otherwise, you get shlock made by lovely people who believe all the right things.
One last bit from Beasley:
Are we inviting students into a tall tower from which the world is viewed at a distance? Or are we giving them a compass to navigate toward the horizon? We ask readers to analyze the impact of enjambments, and to differentiate third-person limited point of view from omniscience. So let’s trust them to incorporate nuanced, even troubling information about authors into their knowledge of the work.
Or choose other authors. To not allow dynamics of our era to inflect how we teach is to gird the argument that literature is a self-contained and impractical pursuit. If your principal hesitation is that you’ll struggle to come up with replacement authors while remaining inclusive, consider that the diversity you’ve congratulated yourself on is merely tokenism in disguise.
I have a better idea: why not choose authors based not on their biographies, but on the quality of their work? Crazy, right? I think it just might work. Beasley lists some other American Indian and Hispanic writers to substitute on syllabi from which professors have exiled Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz for being pigs. How is that not tokenism?
Terry Teachout objects to the news that the Metropolitan Opera has decided not to rebroadcast performances conducted by James Levine, because he is a disgusting, abusive lecher. Here’s more info on what the Metropolitan Opera has done:
Performances by former Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine were withdrawn from the company’s Sirius XM satellite and online radio channel, representing a large percentage of the company’s history. Levine, the company’s leading force as music or artistic director from 1976-2016, was fired as music director emeritus on March 12 after an investigation found evidence of sexual abuse and harassment.
He conducted 2,552 performances from 1971 through Dec. 2, the day accounts first appeared in the New York Post and The New York Times of sexual misconduct dating to the 1960s. He was suspended by the company the following day pending the Met’s investigation.
The Met said the last Levine broadcast was a performance of John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby” on Dec. 10. The company said Levine’s performances “will be reintroduced to the programming at an appropriate time.”
This is insane, and immoral! It’s a kind of blacklisting, except worse, because it goes back in time. James Levine certainly deserves public shaming for his behavior, and he deserved to be fired. But by what kind of Stalinist ethic does all the music produced under his baton become so tainted that no one can listen to it? What about all the musicians and singers who are on those recordings?
This has to stop. It has to. This moral panic.
UPDATE: Now look:
Last week, Spotify flexed its new hate content policy by removing the music of R. Kelly and XXXTentacion, two artists with a long history of sexual misconduct and domestic abuse, from its playlists and algorithmic recommendations. Now, women’s advocacy group UltraViolet is urging the streaming giant to do the same with other artists accused of sexual abuse.
In an open letter, UltraViolet executive director Shaunna Thomas specifically calls out the likes of Chris Brown, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nelly, Eminem, Don Henley of The Eagles, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Tekashi 6ix9ine, and Ted Nugent, citing them as artists “who continue to profit from your promotion.”
“Every time a famous individual continues to be glorified despite allegations of abuse, we wrongly perpetuate silence by showing survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence that there will be no consequences for abuse,” she writes. “That has a cultural effect far beyond one individual artist.”
No. No, no, no. From what I know about R. Kelly, he is as scuzzy as they come. But banning his music from Spotify because of “hate”? You give these SJWs an inch, they’ll take a mile.
UPDATE: A couple of readers have pointed out this:
R. Kelly and XXXTentacion have not been ‘banned’ from Spotify. It’s just that they will no longer be included in playlists that Spotify curates/generates or in ‘radio’ stations that are dynamically created when you say ‘play more like this’ or such. If you want to listen to R. Kelly’s music on Spotify, it’s still there for you to listen to. It’s merely that his music won’t be fed to you by Spotify’s algorithms without you specifically ‘asking’ to hear it. That’s quite a difference from being ‘banned’ from the service altogether.
A fair point. I stand corrected.
Brooks has not always been the exclusive province of the well-heeled. One of my great-aunts was for many years a manager of one of their stores. The first decent shirts I ever owned as a college student were four immaculate white Oxfords in their billowing Traditional fit. Walking into a job interview, I felt confident and relaxed, like a modest but elegant 30-foot sloop setting out for a quiet afternoon cruise rather than a nervous 21-year-old uncertain of whether I would be any good at working in a bank. (As it happens, I was not hired.)
This, I think, gets very near the heart of Brooks Brothers’ appeal. No matter who you are or what you look like, if you wear a Brooks shirt in the right size you will make a good impression. Not flashy or debonaire but buttoned-up and presentable. This is not true of most other quality men’s clothiers, who these days seem to cater exclusively to starving 17-year-old French models who look like pouting Hellenistic busts no matter what they put on. Like the best parts of the WASP ethos with which the brand is rightly associated — politeness, common sense, a cheerful stoicism that makes ample allowance for the eccentricities of others — the virtues of Brooks are capable of export. One need not have ancestors among the first settlers of Plymouth Colony or take an active interest in water sports to look or feel comfortable in their clothing. This is why the sons of, respectively, a poor Kansan laborer, a bootlegging lace-curtain Irish hoodlum, and a Muslim Kenyan immigrant have all worn it effortlessly.
I reflect upon these things with quiet satisfaction when I open my closet and see outnumbering the Tyrwhitts and the casual western shirts, the lone Versace of unknown provenance, in a row of stolid whites and blues, with the occasional pink or orange gingham popping up like an embarrassed spring flower, all the sensible items I have acquired from Brooks Brothers. No matter where I am going — to Mass, to my uncle’s for a few drinks, to my office downstairs for the morning’s work — I know that I will look and feel all right.
I share this view, though I no longer live in a city with a Brooks Brothers, and despite the fact that a friend who worked for Brooks for years left them not long ago, and explained to me at length how the Italian owner is badly mismanaging it. Whether or not you buy from Brooks Brothers, Walther is giving good advice for young men learning how to dress.
Brooks Brothers is not for anyone with aspirations to dandyhood. I own an Armani suit that I haven’t been able to fit into for over a decade. When I was able to wear it, I felt like a million bucks. When I’d wear my Brooks Brothers suits, I felt like $250,000. It turns out that it’s quite enough to feel like $250,000 in most situations. You can wear Brooks with total confidence that you look correct. That’s worth a lot.
I am not much of a dresser, mostly because I have never had occasion to be. Nobody looks to journalists for their style sense. This is partly (but only partly!) because we don’t make enough money to dress expensively. But you can dress well enough, and when the occasion presents itself, you should.
This was something I had to learn on my own. As you know, I come from country folks. Pretty much the only time my father, and any other man, had to dress up was for church and funerals. Everybody looked uncomfortable, because they weren’t used to wearing more formal clothing. This was normal. For me, the upshot of it was that I had to teach myself how to dress once I left college and got out into the world.
My many sartorial mistakes are best forgotten. I made them in part because I entered an adult male culture where traditions of dress were weak and fluid. Maybe it’s a function of where I worked (a newsroom), but it seemed to me that the signals in the broader male culture of how men are supposed to dress were weak and garbled. You couldn’t just learn these things by observing the older men around you.
I don’t know how old I was when I discovered Brooks Brothers, but it was probably the early to mid 1990s, when I moved to DC. Suddenly I found myself living and working in a city where status mattered greatly. I had to pick up my game. It makes sense that I would have put myself in the hands of Brooks, trusting in its reputation to school me in how to dress. Clothes don’t matter to me as much as they should, so my memory is foggy, but I do remember how confident I felt when I bought my first Brooks blazer, with the brass buttons. I’m on my fifth one now, two sizes larger than the first. But the feeling of knowing that you look correct, and the confidence that brings, is immensely valuable to a young man in his twenties, who is trying to make his way in the world.
What’s so good about Brooks is that if you pay attention to what they sell there, you can get an education in basic American male style. It’s not off-the-rack department store clothing. There’s a greater unity of design in Brooks’s offerings. It’s not cheap, but it’s not going to break the bank, either, and you can be confident that your Brookswear is not going to go out of style or fall apart prematurely.
I’ll never outgrow Brooks Brothers. I’m a sedentary middle-aged guy who works from home, and, when he has to dress up, doesn’t need or desire to appear natty. If I were a millionaire, I wouldn’t spend my money on fancy clothes, but on books, wine, and travel. Brooks is reliable. The conservative in me values that. And, when I’m on business travel, I love connecting through airports that have a Brooks outlet, because I know that if I’ve forgotten something at home, they’ve got my back.
However, I haven’t lived in a city with a Brooks Brothers since I left Philadelphia in 2011. What we do have in my city is a branch of the New Orleans menswear store Perlis. A couple of weeks ago, I realized that my older son, who is 18, had outgrown his previous dress clothes, and needed to be outfitted for graduation and for starting college in the fall. He’s 6’4″, and not easy to dress. I took him to Perlis. He bought a blue blazer, a pair of dress grey pants, a very nice no-iron shirt (oh, how I wish those had existed when I was in college!), a tie that fits a man as tall as he, and a pair of dress socks to complete the look.
On the drive home, I explained to him how the blazer is versatile, and can be paired with his khaki trousers as well. We talked about basic rules of dressing like a man (e.g., belt and shoes have to match), and I was slightly chagrined at myself that I hadn’t had this conversation with him earlier. In the past, it had only been from me, “Wear this, don’t wear that.” But now that he was going out into the world on his own, he needed to know in more detail why we do the things we do with our clothing.
I advised him too to develop a relationship with a quality menswear store, wherever he goes in life. You don’t have to buy everything from them, but you need them for the basics of dressing well. You can’t always rely on the guy at the department store, but you can rely on the guidance of the salesman at an established menswear store, like Perlis … or like Brooks Brothers. It’s one of those things that men learn. This is especially important, I told him, if you are like me, and don’t pay a lot of attention to clothes. You may not be particularly interested in how you dress, but the world is, and it is important to show respect to other people, to the occasion, and to yourself by being dressed correctly. Nobody cares how you dress to go to class. But if you show up to a more formal occasion dressed like a clown, people will judge you, no matter what they say. And you will eventually pick up on that, and lose confidence. If a potential employer, customer, or even bride, sees you badly dressed in a context that requires correct dress, it might well affect your future. This stuff matters more than most young men in our informal culture think it does.
I wish I had known that at 18.
A few days after buying his new clothes, my son stood before an audience and defended his senior thesis. He’s a big audiophile, and conceived and built a surprisingly professional home recording studio in his bedroom closet. In his presentation, he talked about the technical aspects of his project, and played some music and spoken-word performances he recorded in the closet, with friends. He answered questions from his examiners and from the audience with ease and mastery. It was a stunning performance. One of the teachers said that he had never seen a better senior thesis defense ever, in the history of the school. We had not known that he had that in him. It was a complete triumph, the glow of which still lingers here in our house.
Here’s the thing: he looked damn good giving that presentation. He looked like a grown man, a man who took himself and the occasion seriously, and dressed for it. There’s no way to tell to what extent the clothes gave him confidence on stage, but sitting in the audience, I can tell you that they projected serious stature. I see this kid walking around most days in shorts and a t-shirt. That night, though he looked like a man in full, carried himself that way, and presented himself to an audience that way. True, his clothes were the least part of his presentation, but honestly, had he given the same presentation badly dressed, he would not have made the same impact. For the first time, I saw this big, broad-shouldered kid and thought: look, he really has grown up.
Clothes really do make the man.
UPDATE: I have an idea. Tell me what you think about it. I don’t know how women’s clothing works, but I’m sure someone could do the same thing for girls.
During the senior year of high school — in all schools (public, private, and parochial) — the school should partner with a local purveyor of affordable quality menswear, and conduct practical classes for all the senior boys on how to dress well. The emphasis should be on basic standards, but also practicality, e.g., how to build a basic wardrobe, how to get the best value for your money (that is, why spending more on a higher quality garment may be the better value), and so forth. The idea would be to teach young men how to dress conservatively and sensibly. The class could also include some basic etiquette instruction, such as how to conduct yourself on a job interview.
The store could offer a discount to members of the class who come outfit themselves there. The salesman (salesmen), having gotten to know the young men a bit over the course of the school year, could guide them into buying the basics they need for the roles they are likely to play. For example, a young man headed off to college will probably have different sartorial needs than one who is going to trade school. But every man will have times when he has to look his best (weddings, funerals, etc.), and if the schools won’t prepare them, who will? Many young men are growing up without fathers in the home, and many who do have fathers don’t have dads who know much about dressing well.
It’s hard to see the downside of this for anybody. The school could offer the classes on a voluntary, after-school basis. The store will probably get significant business out of it, and in some cases develop long-term relationships with these young men. And young men will gain a skill that will be really useful to them, socially and otherwise.
Knowing how to dress is a form of social capital, one that is denied to many poor and working-class men, and more than a few middle-class men who either don’t have dads, or whose dads are not equipped to help them. As a matter of fact, national menswear retailers — like Brooks Brothers — could establish a program to help young men in these situations. People could donate for a kind of scholarship that would help a needy young man get established with a basic coat-tie-slacks-shoes outfit that would help him in job interviews.
It’s very, very easy for a young man who doesn’t know much about dressing well, or dressing sensibly, to blow a bunch of money on flashy clothes that are totally unsuitable for dressier occasions. This is where the guidance of a menswear professional, or of older gentlemen who know how to dress, is invaluable.
One thing I’ve learned from almost 30 years of working life is how much it matters to invest in good clothes. Because my 18-year-old son has grown so much since we last bought him dress clothes, we had to go back to basics. We didn’t have to buy him dress shoes and a matching belt, but if we had, we would have spent around $1,000 that day. Had you told me at 18 that I should spend a thousand dollars (or whatever the 1985 equivalent would have been) on dress clothes, I would have thought you were out of your mind. But I wouldn’t have thought anything of spending that kind of money on any number of other things, like travel, stereo equipment, and so forth.
I would have been quite wrong to have thought that way. There really is no way to measure the cost when you show up at a dressy occasion, especially a job interview, looking sloppy, looking like you don’t have any respect for yourself or anybody else. You might find a charitable person who gives you the benefit of the doubt, but you can’t count on it. Besides, they’re not likely to hire you if they figure they’ve going to have to teach you how to dress appropriately for professional life. This is where the social capital aspect comes in.
Where else are poor, working-class, and even a lot of middle-class young men (and women) going to learn these skills unless we teach them? It might sound fussy and elitist to some, but these things can make a positive, meaningful difference.
Once, when I lived in DC on a college internship (I was 21), I was extremely nervous about what people thought of me. I felt that I didn’t belong. A wise older Southern friend — a hippie socialist, in fact — told me not to worry. “A well-mannered person from the South can go anywhere,” she said. She was right. Clothes are part of one’s manners. They don’t have to be expensive, but they do have to be correct.
Politico has a fascinating story from Minnesota, about the fight splitting up the foundation started by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s family and supporters. A majority of the board of Wellstone Action, which trains progressive activists, kicked the senator’s sons off the board. Why? They cared too much about rural poor white people. Excerpt:
Founded after Wellstone’s death in a plane crash in 2002, Wellstone Action has trained thousands of progressive candidates, campaign operatives and community organizers throughout the country, with alumni serving in local and state offices and in the U.S. House. In 2016, the last year for which tax filings were available, the group reported providing training to 2,135 data and digital strategists, 723 nonprofit leaders and community organizers, and 854 aspiring political leaders.
David Wellstone and other Democrats close to his father began objecting last year to what he described as Wellstone Action’s abandonment of disaffected Democrats in the rural Midwest — the rural poor were an early focus of the late senator — with an increasingly narrow focus on gender politics and people of color.
“I said, ‘After Trump, we’ve got to figure out how we are going to go back after those Democrats that we lost,” David Wellstone said. “We can do all the stuff we do. We do great stuff on communities of color, we’re doing great stuff on gender identity politics. But we need to do some of these other trainings. … Nobody wanted to have a discussion about that.”
Serious question: how many people think that having a truly liberal, non-identity politics is possible anymore? On this day in which Tom Wolfe’s death was announced, I’m reminded of this passage from his final novel, Back To Blood. The speaker is a character named Edward Topping IV, a white American who, in Wolfe’s fiction, is editor of the Miami Herald:
“Everybody… all of them… it’s back to blood! Religion is dying… but everybody still has to believe in something… So, my people, that leaves only our blood, the bloodlines that course through our very bodies, to unite us. ‘La Raza!’ as the Puerto Ricans cry out. ‘The Race!’ cries the whole world. All people, all people everywhere, have but one last thing on their minds – back to blood!”
The novel (which is not very good, or at least not the part I read until I gave up from boredom) is about ethnic cultural conflict in contemporary Miami. Tom Wolfe built his entire career as an observer of status in American life. I wonder what he thought of what was going on in Trump’s America, and how we were dividing over race and other identity markers. Look at this headline from an essay in The Forward today: “Intersectionality Has Abandoned Jews. Should We Abandon Intersectionality?” If the emerging left-wing politics has no role for poor, rural, and working-class white people, and a diminished role for Jews, will they turn to the Right? What about white gays, as the gay rights issue fades among Republicans (the GOP leadership already doesn’t care about it, and it’s going to become a non-issue as older Republicans die off).
If thinking about American politics this way makes you uncomfortable, well, I think it should. But progressives — the kind of progressives who kicked Paul Wellstone’s sons off the Wellstone Action board for caring more about economics than identity politics — are driving this train. David French writes:
Linker’s essay reminds me of a recent Remnant podcast with Jonah Goldberg and Michael Brendan Dougherty. I’m paraphrasing, but Michael made the point that the Left is simultaneously crowing about the decline of the white voter while scolding any white voter who racializes their politics. A message that essentially declares, “Ha! White people your time is over!” and “It’s racist for you to care” is unsustainable outside progressive academies or corporations. [Emphasis mine — RD]
The answer isn’t for politics to strive to ignore race. To ignore the role of race and racism in American history (or the American present) is to ignore reality. But I can think of few developments more destructive than doubling-down on racial identity as the defining strategy for coalition-building. Given the fact that American demographics are hardly changing at the same rate in every community, this is a recipe for Balkanization and division far more than it’s a recipe for Democratic dominance.
Another serious question: what are the meaningful forces in American culture that push back against racial balkanization and other forms of identity-politics balkanization? Can they be strengthened?
A final question: It is a Noble Lie that America only started practicing identity politics recently. Our politics have always had a strong racial and ethnic element. Sometimes they were nakedly present (e.g., Southern segregationist Democrats’ appeals), but more often they were submerged in the peaked waves of meringued rhetoric like Woodrow Wilson’s speeches about how ethnicity doesn’t matter in America. Is it better to be honest, or will we miss the Noble Lie when it is gone?
UPDATE: A view from across the Pacific, from reader Seoulite:
To frame this in terms of race, with a view from an outsider:
The US originally was a white empire with black slaves which became a white dominated multi-ethnic empire. Until now this has been relatively stable because: 1) there was one undisputed majority group, and 2) economic and political ascendancy allows people to look past a lot of grievances. Like an indebted gambler who’s still on a winning streak, those niggling problems seem like far away things to be tackled some other day.
Now that whites are no longer the undisputed dominant group (at least in the mind of the people, not yet in reality), the empire is starting to fracture as do all multi-ethnic empires. Think of what is holding China together: 1) economic prosperity, 2) the relentless dominance of the Han Chinese. If the economy was seriously faltering or Beijing started giving an equal voice to any and all identity groups, how long do you think the country would hold together?
So in answer to your questions Rod:
1) non-identity politics is no longer possible because there is now a feedback loop. Identity politics grants one power, which means more people in power are identity politicians, which strengthens identity politics, and so on. Heck, many groups aren’t even really in the game yet. Whites haven’t yet taken the field in earnest under this new paradigm. Nor have East Asians, or those from the Subcontinent. Let alone black Africans. It could also be argued that hispanic identity politics is still nascent, as the conversation in America is still dominated by black-white history. This identity politics thing has barely even begun.
2) The meaningful forces that could have held the US together were civic nationalism and Christianity.
We have already begun to see some groups reject civic nationalism outright (#NotMyPresident, #TakeAKnee, pulling down statues, renaming buildings, Founding Fathers were racist, etc). It clearly does not have the power to unite people anymore. Or those who previously rejected it no longer feel the need to keep quiet.
The Church, as you’ve said many times, is weakening. The only religion that could hold the US together would be a muscular (Islam-style) Christianity that strongly rejected racial identity while enforcing Christian identitarianism. This of course would be rejected out of hand by atheists, liberal Christians, and any others who believe that multi-faith, multi-ethnic empires are sustainable. It is far too late for any of that.
As I’ve written above, this has barely begun. The legacy of slavery narrative is still so loud that other conflicts are being drowned out, but as time goes by this black vs white history of America will be replaced by a multitude of voices. I’m thinking of the political battles between Asians and Hispanics in California. Or Hispanics and Blacks in California. Or Muslims and whites in Michigan. The list goes on and on.
The story of the American Dream requires prosperity and American exceptionalism to unite people. If the USA is no longer #1, what is this American Dream and why would an immigrant from North Africa care who died in the civil war and what they blasphemed about one nation under a false god?
Tom Wolfe, an innovative journalist and novelist whose technicolor, wildly punctuated prose brought to life the worlds of California surfers, car customizers, astronauts and Manhattan’s moneyed status-seekers in works like “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” died on Monday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by his agent, Lynn Nesbit, who said Mr. Wolfe had been hospitalized with an infection. He had lived in New York since joining The New York Herald Tribune as a reporter in 1962.
In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.
But as an unabashed contrarian, he was almost as well known for his attire as his satire. He was instantly recognizable as he strolled down Madison Avenue — a tall, slender, blue-eyed, still boyish-looking man in his spotless three-piece vanilla bespoke suit, pinstriped silk shirt with a starched white high collar, bright handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket, watch on a fob, faux spats and white shoes. Once asked to describe his get-up, Mr. Wolfe replied brightly, “Neo-pretentious.”
It was a typically wry response from a writer who found delight in lacerating the pretentiousness of others. He had a pitiless eye and a penchant for spotting trends and then giving them names, some of which — like “Radical Chic” and “the Me Decade” — became American idioms.
His talent as a writer and caricaturist was evident from the start in his verbal pyrotechnics and perfect mimicry of speech patterns, his meticulous reporting, and his creative use of pop language and explosive punctuation.
“As a titlist of flamboyance he is without peer in the Western world,” Joseph Epstein wrote in the The New Republic. “His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word ‘hernia’ 57 times.”
William F. Buckley Jr., writing in National Review, put it more simply: “He is probably the most skillful writer in America — I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.”
True, all true. I remember the spring of 1998, when my wife and I were newly arrived in Manhattan. We were walking along upper Madison Avenue one afternoon, and there he came toward us, in his white suit, accompanied by two women. We stopped and moved aside to let him pass. I was too shy to say anything to him, but it was a Moment. The moment said, in part, “Welcome to New York, kid.”
Here’s Terry Teachout’s remembrance. Here he’s talking about Wolfe’s big novel The Bonfire of the Vanities:
I remember reading it with the same sense of bedazzled revelation that George Orwell’s Winston Smith read The Theory of Oligarchical Collectivism It was as though the veil of euphemism had been pulled back—no, ripped down—and for the first time I saw New York as it was:
Cattle! Birdbrains! Rosebuds! Goyim! You don’t even know, do you? Do you realy think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours?…You don’t think the future knows how to cross a bridge? And you, you Wasp charity-ballers sitting on your mounds of inherited money up in your co-ops with the twelve-foot ceilings and the two wings, one for you and one for the help, do you really think you’re impregnable? And you German-Jewish financiers who have finally made it into the same buildings, the better to insulate yourselves from the shtetl hordes, do you really think you’re insulated from the Third World?
Were people talking like that in 1987? Sure—but they didn’t publish that kind of talk, which is what made Bonfire so thrilling. As I wrote in The New Criterion on the fifth anniversary of the book’s publication, “Rereading Bonfire, I found myself thinking, over and over again, Nobody would print that today….Without access to a realism of this degree of specificity and honesty, it is impossible for a writer to describe New York, or America, as it really is. Yet who can imagine any New York editor allowing such things to get into print nowadays?”
Ain’t that the truth. But look, do yourself a big favor and read Michael Lewis’s 2015 Vanity Fair profile of Wolfe, focusing on how Wolfe became a writer. Here’s Lewis talking about Wolfe leaving Virginia as a young man and ending up at Yale. This is a priceless anecdote:
For the first time in his life, it appears, Tom Wolfe has been provoked. He has left home and found, on the East Coast, the perpetual revolt of High Culture against God, Country, and Tradition. He happens to have landed in a time and place in which art—like the economy that supports it—is essentially patricidal. It’s all about tearing up and replacing what came before. The young Tom Wolfe is intellectually equipped to join some fashionable creative movement and set himself in opposition to God, Country, and Tradition; emotionally, not so much. He doesn’t use his new experience of East Coast sophisticates to distance himself from his southern conservative upbringing; instead he uses his upbringing to distance himself from the new experience. He picks for his Ph.D. dissertation topic the Communist influences on American writers, 1928–1942. From their response to it, the Yale professors, who would have approved the topic in advance, had no idea of the spirit in which Wolfe intended to approach it:
“Dear Mr. Wolfe:
I am personally acutely sorry to have to write you this letter but I want to inform you in advance that all of your readers reports have come in, and … I am sorry to say I anticipate that the thesis will not be recommended for the degree…. The tone was not objective but was consistently slanted to disparage the writers under consideration and to present them in a bad light even when the evidence did not warrant this.” [Letter from Yale dean to T.W., May 19, 1956.]
To this comes appended the genuinely shocked reviews of three Yale professors. It’s as if they can’t quite believe this seemingly sweet-natured and well-mannered southern boy has gone off half cocked and ridiculed some of the biggest names in American literature. The Yale grad student had treated the deeply held political conviction of these great American artists as—well, as a ploy in a game of status seeking. This student seemed to have gone out of his way to turn these serious American intellectuals into figures of fun. “The result is more journalistically tendentious than scholarly…. Wolfe’s polemical rhetoric is … a chief consideration of my decision to fail the dissertation.” To top it all off … he’d taken some license with the details. One outraged reviewer compared Wolfe’s text with his cited sources and attached the comparison. Sample Wolfe passage: “At one point ‘the Cuban delegation’ tramped in. It was led by a fierce young woman named Lola de la Torriente. With her bobbed hair, leather jacket, and flat-heeled shoes, she looked as though she had just left the barricades. Apparently she had. ‘This is where our literature is being built,’ exclaimed she, ‘on the barricades!’ ” Huffed the reviewer: “There is no description of her in the source, and the quotations do not appear in the reference.”
Which is to say that, as a 26-year-old graduate student, just as a 12-year-old letter writer, Tom Wolfe was already recognizably himself. He’d also found a lens through which he might view, freshly, all human behavior. He’d gone to Yale with the thought he would study his country by reading its literature and history and economics. He wound up discovering sociology—and especially Max Weber’s writings about the power of status seeking. The lust for status, it seemed to him, explained why otherwise intelligent American writers lost their minds and competed with one another to see just how devoted to the Communist cause they could be. In a funny way, Yale served him extremely well: it gave him a chance to roam and read and bump into new ideas.
You’ve just got to read Lewis talking about Wolfe and The Right Stuff. And then, how even though he was one of the leading lights of the New Journalism, he refused to turn himself into a character, like Truman Capote or Hunter S. Thompson:
Tom Wolfe wasn’t like that. For years after he became famous for his writing he was unable to stand up and give a talk without writing it out first. He simply hadn’t been raised for the job of being a famous American writer circa 1970. “I got by on the white suit for quite a while,” he now says. The white suit reassured people that he was busy playing a character when he was in fact busy watching them. In truth he had no sense of himself as a character; he thought of himself as a normal guy in an abnormal world. That he had no great ability to attract attention to himself except through his pen proved to be a huge literary advantage. He wanted status and attention as much as anyone else, but to get them he had to write. His public persona he could buy from his tailor.
His career, he suspects, is no longer possible. I also think that is true, for all sorts of non-obvious reasons—the career turned on the distinctiveness of his voice, and he found that voice only because he was given lots of time to do it. The voice also came from a particular place, now dead and gone. Not New York in the 1960s and 70s but Richmond, Virginia, circa 1942, when he was a boy and figured out what he loved and admired. Wolfe thinks his career would no longer be possible for a more obvious reason: the Internet. Electronic media aren’t as able or as likely to pay for the sort of immersion reporting that he did. And the readers of it aren’t looking—or at least don’t think they are looking—for a writer to create their view of the world. “I wouldn’t have the same pathway from the bottom to the top,” he says. “At some point you get thrust into the digital media. God, I don’t know what the hell I’d do.”
Then he surprises me. Looking back on it, he says, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is his favorite book. His second novel, A Man in Full, published in 1998, sold the most copies, but Radical Chic was the one he wouldn’t change a word of. In the same breath he says that he recalls his father’s reaction to the book. “I remember him saying, ‘God, you’re really a writer.’ ”
Read the whole thing. It’s just great. When I was just starting out as a professional writer, there were three journalists who inspired me, because they showed what a writer could do with journalism: Truman Capote, Pauline Kael, and Tom Wolfe. What a man!
Reader Candles, responding to reader Ping Lin’s comments on the Petty Barbecue Tyrant story:
Ping Lin: “So the busybody harasser actually gets some social punishment instead of getting off scot-free? It’s long overdue.”
I think this is a horrible set of norms and deeply corrosive to small l liberal interactions generally. It’s basically elevating the worst kind of mob impulse…
BUT if this is where we’re going to go socially, I would like for you to explain for me what would be wrong with the following action on my part.
My wife is an English professor in a R1 university. My social circle includes a LOT of humanities and social science professors, who consider me friendly. They are not shy about loudly repeating outspoken opinions around me.
I am not, however, a white progressive. In fact, I am increasingly highly white progressive critical. I consider a lot of born again politicized wokeness as deeply illiberal and divisive.
Many of the people I know, though not all, often live up to the absolute worst caricatures conservatives repeat about arrogant, ignorant, sanctimonious, anti-christian, anti-white (though they all are white themselves), anti-rural, anti-conservative, anti-Western jackasses who have a profound contempt and moral disgust for the families who pay their bills and entrust their students with them, and who aren’t shy about using their class rooms to evangelize their politics, which are, for them, the primary arena for performing morality.
I spend a great deal of time in social gatherings biting my tongue and listening to people who really, seriously deserve a comeuppance. I probably sit through 5 or 10 stray statements per social gathering that would go viral via campusreform or other higher ed critical activist networks if I were to surreptiously record and upload them talking and verify the status of the speakers, who are all professors responsible for teaching plenty of students.
Now, I don’t do that, partially because it would be obvious it was me in smaller social gatherings, but mostly because that would be morally wrong and bad for society. I don’t think it’s the right way to deal with this problem, because any responses via social media would be highly disproportionate and unfair, and because, even though they are being jerks, they are not intending to be speaking on a public stage in that context.
But it seems to me that if we are going to abandon that older norm, of not yanking private citizens out of their local, thoughtless, private contexts and making global examples of them, then I would be a sucker to not record and share the worst of these professors to my hearts content. That would be the reasonable endpoint of all this, right?
I mean, I imagine that some people might object that, unlike the racist busybody, these professors I know aren’t actually doing anything wrong, and it would be horrible for someone like me to subject them to the whims of a hateful mob. But the magic of mob justice is, if I disagree, and I can find a mob who agrees with me, then your objections really don’t matter one whit, because this is between me, the professors I record, and the mob I can find as an audience.
Did you see the video of the white woman in Oakland who called the cops on some black people who were cooking in a public park with a charcoal grill? My view is this: unless they’ve set up the grill in your house or in the ICU, you leave people with charcoal grills alone, because they are contributing to the sum total of human happiness. Meats grilled over a charcoal fire are one of life’s great pleasures. It takes an especially petty busybody to call the police on people who set up their charcoal grill in a public park. The woman, who is white, said that the black people were setting up their charcoal grill in an area reserved for gas grills, and that if they didn’t move, she was going to call the police.
They refused. She called the police. A friend of the black party video’d her on the phone with the cops, and called her racist. When the cops arrived, they didn’t arrest anybody, but they did determine that the busybody was, um, correct. So reports the San Francisco Chronicle.
That Chronicle report was the only neutral report I could find about this incident. The whole thing has blown up bigtime as an example of white racism. The reports on it have focused heavily on the fact that the busybody was white, and how this is obviously an example of anti-black racism.
Again: I believe the white woman may have been technically correct, but was morally wrong, and besides which, she’s a pill. But look: if you watch the 24-minute video until towards the end (say, starting at the 22 minute point), a different picture starts to emerge. Michelle Snider, the white woman taking the video of the anti-grilling white woman chases her with the camera, and harasses her to the point of tears. I went from disliking the barbecue griper as a pain in the butt to feeling very sorry for her, because she was bullied by Snider.
Neither the barbecue griper nor Snider comes off well in this video. At all. Two things come to mind:
1. Why the assumption that calling the cops on black people barbecuing is by definition an act of racism?
2. Even if so, why does that give one of the supposed victims (the woman with the camera) the right to harass the busybody by chasing her through the area?
Maybe the Barbecue Griper is a racist. But we have no reason to assume that. Maybe she’s just a petty person who sees a violation of the law — the grillers were in violation of the law — and went all nanny state. There’s a certain type of person who feels compelled to police public order to a ridiculous degree. Most of us, whatever our race, have had run-ins with that sort. They’re annoying as can be, but that’s just how some people are. It’s especially annoying when they happen to be right about the law.
Still, most of us learn how to get along together. Here’s a story: We lived in an apartment complex not too long ago. There were three young unmarried guys living in the flat above ours. They would get loud on the weekend. We decided that being good neighbors meant that we should put up with the banging and hooting until 10pm, but not after that, because that was bedtime. The first few occasions we went up to ask them to knock it off, they were nice about it. But then they got obnoxious, usually after they had been drinking. Finally one night, after multiple attempts to ask them to stop, we had to call the apartment security people. We didn’t want to be those neighbors, but they left us no choice.
The difference is that those bad neighbors were causing actual harm, yelling and banging on the floor and playing loud music until late in the night. The people grilling in the park were not harming Barbecue Griper one bit. Still, had the jerks upstairs been three young black guys, not white guys, I wonder if I would have said anything to them at all, for fear of them turning it into a racial confrontation. If I had called apartment security on them, like I eventually did with the white guys, after they ignored our repeated requests to stop banging on the floor, etc., would they have confronted me in the parking lot with a smartphone camera, calling me a racist, and distributing it to social media, and turning me into a racist pariah? (That griping white woman’s life must be miserable today, now that she’s become a meme.)
Who wants that? I notice that the many places on the Internet celebrating the public shaming of the white woman never stop to ask whether or not this is proportionate to her offense. They’ve taken a petty tyrant and, through social media amplification, made her into a monster. At the beginning of the video, I did not expect to get to the end pitying the woman, who ought to have left the grillers alone. But it’s easy to imagine yourself tormented by a harridan like Michelle Snider, the woman with the camera phone — and knowing what came next for her (national infamy, thanks to social media), it’s pretty horrifying.
If you read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s big book, you’ll recall an incident in which he was riding an escalator in a Manhattan movie theater with his little boy, and an elderly white woman gave the kid a shove, telling him to move along. TNC — who is quite tall — went ballistic on the old lady, and was so threatening that someone else in the crowd said he was going to call the police. What’s so bizarre about the incident was that Coates frames it entirely as an example of white racism threatening blacks, and believes that his reaction was entirely appropriate. Here’s the passage from the book:
You were almost five years old. The theater was crowded, and when we came out we rode a set of escalators down to the ground floor. As we came off, you were moving at the dawdling speed of a small child. A white woman pushed you and said, “Come on!” Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body. And more: There was my sense that this woman was pulling rank. I knew, for instance, that she would not have pushed a black child out on my part of Flatbush, because she would be afraid there and would sense, if not know, that there would be a penalty for such an action. But I was not out on my part of Flatbush. And I was not in West Baltimore. And I was far from the Mecca. I forgot all of that. I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defense. I experienced this as his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast. He had made no such attempt on behalf of my son. And he was now supported by other white people in the assembling crowd. The man came closer. He grew louder. I pushed him away. He said, “I could have you arrested!” I did not care. I told him this, and the desire to do much more was hot in my throat.
In my review of the book, I commented on this passage:
TNC says that the only thing that stopped him from getting violent was knowing that his little boy was watching him. He says he tells this story out of shame that his actions that day put his child in danger of watching the NYPD “cuff, club, tase, and break” his father.
This is such a revealing anecdote. Living in New York means having to deal with crotchety, pushy old people. We lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn for five years. This was a fact of daily life. It is not at all shocking that a pushy old lady on the Upper West Side overstepped her bounds with a child. The woman was wrong to do so, but Ta-Nehisi Coates made her bear the weight of 400 years of white supremacy, or at least the anger of a grown man who had been raised in the ghetto. No wonder she shrunk back, shocked. And if I saw a young man speaking with hot anger to an old lady in a public place, I would likely step forward to defend her too. But TNC interprets that as a white man exercising racial solidarity, and choosing the old woman over his son. Maybe the white man did not see what the old lady had done to TNC’s son. TNC does not tell us. TNC concedes that he reacted with rage, and that he shoved the white man back. In what world is this an acceptable response to a minor incident? For TNC, the penny-ante rudeness of an old woman in the lobby of a Manhattan movie theater is the showdown at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He connects that grumpy woman’s action to Jim Crow and slavery.
More darkly, TNC openly fantasizes about how the old woman’s pushiness would have been kept in check had she been in a black neighborhood, because of fear. Well. For one thing, does TNC imagine that white children in New York are immune from the rudeness of crotchety old folks? Does he think that the worldview Eddie Murphy parodied in this 1984 short film on SNL is real? And what would he have seen done to the old white lady had she laid her hands on his son in Flatbush, knowing as we do that he has a tendency to see those he associates with the white world and its institutions as inhuman?
The old white lady on the escalator was a scapegoat. So too is the busybody white woman in the Oakland park. I thought the black community’s response to this — lots of families coming to that same park with their charcoal grills for a massive party — was inspired. More grilled meats for more people! But it’s hard to see this whole thing as anything but a defeat for civility, all the way around. Escalating every unpleasant run-in between blacks and whites — ordinary things that happen as people rub up against each other with sharp edges — into a civil rights showdown is a good way to keep people fearful and suspicious of each other across racial lines.
UPDATE: I should have emphasized more strongly that Michelle Snider, with her camera and access to social media, is also a tyrant. The unnamed white woman who tried to ruin a barbecue is guilty of only that: trying to ruin a barbecue. Vengeful Michelle Snider may have all but ruined a life.
UPDATE.2: Reader Done writes:
[Note to Rod: This is gonna be a rant, so feel free to edit or even toss. I’ll understand.]
Ok, I’ve read most of the comments. Clearly, none of you live in Oakland. If you did, I’m certain your reactions to this incident would be different – if you were sane, that is. I know because I lived there for over 20 years, including near Lake Merritt – the location of this incident.
First, let’s dispense with the notion that this was a racially motivated incident between a white woman and some black folks. This lady is NOT white. Repeat after me: This lady is NOT white. It is clear to me from her facial features and body type that her racial and ethnic background is mixed – possibly white and Pacific Islander – which would not be uncommon in the Bay Area. When you live in a racially and ethnically diverse area for a long time, you begin to detect and distinguish ethnic and racial differences (and any combinations thereof) that often go unnoticed by people who have not been exposed to such racial and ethnic diversity. Plus, she’s not old. She’s in her 30s. As if that even matters – yeesh!
Second, I’m gonna play the sex card here – even though I don’t normally do this but whoa, the comments here are pretty, well, sexist. Nosy? Busybody? Killjoy? Petty? Grouchy? Old? Oh sure, she’s a regular Mrs. Kravitz (Google the reference if you don’t get it)! Yeah, I’m fairly certain most of you wouldn’t have used those words to describe her if she were man. Why don’t you just toss in “frigid” for good measure. Just saying…
Next. Let me explain to everyone how things work in Oakland – they don’t. Nobody and I mean nobody respects common courtesy and the rule of law, not to mention bothers to comport themselves appropriately in public spaces. The area around Lake Merritt is in complete chaos. All. The. Time. Why was this “petty” “nosy” “busybody” so-called “white” woman calling the police over such a seemingly innocuous incident as people wanting to barbecue using charcoal? Um, maybe because the City of Oakland is located in a severe, high fire danger area and it’s against the law! Oakland Hills fire of 1991 anyone? Google images. I survived it.
And why does a citizen have to report someone breaking the law? Because people regularly, openly and brazenly break the law in Oakland and asking them “nicely” to desist DOES NOT WORK. And what does the Oakland PD do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. That’s why she was waiting over 2 hours for the police to respond. I’m surprised they came at all! My car was stolen and did the police come when I reported it? No. A woman was being attacked in front of my house and her attacker was also threatening me and it took the Oakland PD over 45 minutes to respond as I begged the 911 operator for help. On a separate occasion, I awoke one morning to find a man lying face down in my front yard. I thought he was dead. I called Oakland PD. They told me to take his pulse (!) to see if he was alive and that they’d come when they could – priorities you know! They arrived about 40 minutes later. He was still alive, but who knows what would have happened if it took them another 40 minutes. Another time, I came home early and interrupted some miscreants burgling my neighbor’s house and they threatened to kill me. Oakland PD did respond to that – I guess because I was almost killed. Oh there’s more: My other neighbor was carjacked with her baby in the car. Another elderly neighbor was robbed at gunpoint. My co-worker was also mugged – in broad daylight by three young thugs not more than two blocks from Lake Merritt, the location of the barbecue incident and did the police come? No. Did anyone intervene and help my co-worker? No. Oakland, especially the area around Lake Merritt, is in a state of complete lawlessness. And no one cares. In fact, the lawlessness is celebrated as a kind of teenage, immature, passive aggressive rebelliousness. You can’t tell me what to do! Especially if you’re white – because that’s, you know, intrinsically racist. Their sad battle cry…..
What I see from this video is a relatively reserved woman reporting illegal behavior and being absolutely HARANGUED by the woman filming the incident who assumed (1) that the first woman was white and (2) that she was motivated by racial animus and not genuine concern for safety and the rule of law. O. M. G. Are you kidding me? The woman who filmed the incident and browbeat the other woman to tears should be ashamed of herself. I think her behavior even meets the requirements of menacing. But this is where we are now. Everything’s a racial incident which is then quickly followed by SJW virtue signaling. PC BS run amok. And now this poor woman is being viciously attacked on social media. Have you seen the memes? They’re brutal. She’s bullied and dehumanized in a thousand different ways as only the merciless internet can do. And why? Because everyone’s decided she’s an entitled white busybody b*@%h. And what’s Oakland’s response? Classic identity politics. Protests and parties in support of the supposed aggrieved folks who, btw, were actually breaking the law. And that’s exactly why I left Oakland. It’s hell on earth. God help us because as the saying goes, so goes California, so goes the rest of the nation. Civility and decency are dead in Oakland. They’re dead in California and they’re soon to be dead in the entire United States.
Postscript: Since I have many friends who still live in Oakland, I just recently returned from a visit. While there, a young Latino man was murdered in cold blood in broad daylight on my friends’ street while we were all home. The shots just missed his pregnant sister. I couldn’t look outside but my friend did – she saw the body in the street. And guess where this happened? Just a few blocks from Lake Merritt – the site of this infamous barbecue incident.
Keep it up Oakland! Pretty soon, there won’t be one decent, law abiding citizen left because lawlessness and incivility are rewarded and responsible citizenship is vilified.
Any Oakland or former Oakland readers want to challenge this?