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Manhattan Paper: Today and Tomorrow In Tom Wolfe's New York

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Manhattan Paper: Today and Tomorrow In Tom Wolfe's New York

July 15, 1988


Peter Huber is an attorney and author whose book Liability: The Legal Revolution and Its Consequences will be published by Basic Books in 1988.
Myron Magnet serves on the Board of Editors of Fortune and is the author of Dickens and the Social Order.
Charles Murray is a policy analyst and author whose book In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government will be published by Simon & Schuster in 1988.
Walter Olson is a writer living in New York City.
Terry Teachout is a member of the Editorial Board of the New York Daily News.
Richard Vigilante is a writer living in New York City.
Walter Wriston is a banker and was a key architect of New York City's fiscal recovery in 1975.

* * * 

Walter Olson—The first question that comes to mind in considering Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities is this: Why did it take a novelist to tell us so many of the striking truths (or, at least, assertions) about New York City which this book contains? Why didn't the working press of New York do it first? When I asked Terry Teachout about this recently, his reply was: "That's easy. Novelists can get away with things that journalists would never dare say in print." What exactly is Wolfe getting away with in this book?

Terry Teachout—He is saying publicly things that most people in New York are only willing to say behind closed doors and not for quotation. In particular—and this aspect of the book has received the most criticism from unsympathetic readers—Bonfire flies in the face of any number of pieties about the nature of ethnicity and race relations in New York City.

New York is a virtual laboratory of liberal pieties, a place where all of the old-fashioned liberal assumptions about the proper role of government have been carried out to their furthest extremes. If you want to see a real-life experiment about how a policy as absurd as, say, rent control really works when systematically put into practice, this is the place to go. Moreover, merely to suggest in public that any of these assumptions might be untrue is to be immediately found guilty of first-degree heresy.

A great many of these pieties have to do with ethnicity. Even though most New Yorkers subscribe wholeheartedly to the notion of ethnic identity, it is simply not socially acceptable to draw general conclusions

about the predictable behavior of ethnic groups in a set of given circumstances. Not only does Tom Wolfe do that in The Bonfire of the Vanities, he dares to draw negative general conclusions—something that it has long been impossible to do in New York without being ostracized from polite public discourse.

Charles Murray—The particular piety Wolfe treads on most unforgivably has to do with blacks and whites. He says out loud things that have been said at cocktail parties for years. He talks about the massive racial antagonism that's been out there for years, something nobody can talk about.

Back in the mid-1970s, when I was evaluating a program on juvenile delinquency, I first became acquainted with the statistics on who gets arrested for juvenile crime. I saw that juvenile crime is predominantly a black phenomenon and that juvenile crime rates were skyrocketing. Looking at those numbers, I said to myself, "This is really explosive. People can't ignore it for very long. It's really going to hit the fan when these numbers become common knowledge." Well, it never did hit the fan. People will talk privately about juvenile crime as a black phenomenon, but no-body has ever been willing to talk about it officially, publicly, in print. This is what Wolfe has done in Bonfire.

Myron Magnet—The first piety which Wolfe has broken, in fact, is to say that what the average middle-class white is worried about is black people. Note Bonfire's recurrent theme: the white man who is restored to primal maleness by taking on and triumphing over a young black man.

Walter Olson—With the aid of several thousand pounds of metal.

Myron Magnet—Well, the point is that Sherman McCoy's Mercedes is an extension of himself. That particular fantasy is something that nobody would have confessed to, even in private, before Bonfire.

Walter Wriston—Tom Wolfe is probably the only writer around who can say these things without getting people angry at him.

Terry Teachout—But lots of people are terribly angry over Bonfire...