Today's Paper Latest stories 2018 election city/county races Most commented Obits Traffic Newsletters Weather Puzzles + games

Sometimes you have a column all finished up and ready to go, and then you set it aside at the last minute and start over. Because there's suddenly something else you have to write about.

So it was when I heard the news that Tom Wolfe had died.

I've been told that I'm something of a contrarian, but if I am it was because Wolfe was. As a contrarian, I have few heroes, but that means Wolfe was one of them.

I first encountered Wolfe, probably like so many others, when I read The Right Stuff for an undergrad journalism class, after which I devoured just about everything he wrote. Because he punctured pretense with such delight; stood aside from the insecure, status-seeking herd of independent minds; and energetically skewered smelly orthodoxy after smelly orthodoxy.

I wanted to be like Wolfe, to have the courage and intellect and self-confidence to mock that which everyone else solemnly nodded their heads to like sheep in their desire for social acceptance and career advancement. Wolfe saw through them and understood their motives better than they understood themselves.

Wolfe was thus the ultimate antidote to the plague of political correctness, someone possessed of such a natural intellectual curiosity and courage that he provoked fear in and outraged the drones who embrace the trendy and fashionable and the verdict of the mob while telling themselves it's all for high-minded reasons.

Their type, so common, will always be with us. Wolfe's won't.

He took on everything, even subjects he wasn't expert in, even to sometimes ill effect, in large part because the idea of expertise in his view all too often served as a cover for cowering before received wisdom; he played the skunk at the picnic of the self-absorbed on everything from silly forms of art and ugly architecture to poisonous campus sexual relations. Nothing was off-limits; nothing was safe from his "New Journalism," which, all things considered, and despite the "New" appellation, really only consisted of allowing idiots, the pompous and the strange to present themselves as such.

I believe that Wolfe's first try at the novel format, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is the closest thing we have to that long elusive "great American novel," and if it isn't, then his second, A Man in Full, is.

Who, after all, could take race pimps like Al Sharpton seriously after Wolfe's Reverend Bacon? Or forget Bernstein and the Panthers in "That Party at Lenny's"? Those of us who grew up in the Chicago area know what the term "gold coast liberal" means, and there was Wolfe presenting us with pitch-perfect morally obtuse specimens of the creature.

My favorite Wolfe essay, however, is an obscure one he published about 30 years ago in the American Spectator magazine called "The Great Relearning," the essential thesis of which was that stupid ideas come back around about every generation or so and can only be overcome, after having wreaked their inevitable damage, by returning, in good Burkean fashion, to the common-sense beliefs of previous generations, the wisdom of our grandparents contained in a historically validated understanding of the nature of human nature and evidence of what works and what doesn't.

Wolfe thus almost certainly agreed with William F. Buckley's observation that it was better to be governed by the first 400 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty, and with the companion proposition that there are certain ideas so stupid only intellectuals could believe in them.

The initial Wolfe obituary in the New York Times, a media organ that has come over time to exhibit so many of the tendencies he ridiculed, had quotes to the effect that Wolfe was, in Buckley's view, "probably the most skillful writer in America" and for Joseph Epstein a "titlist of flamboyance ... without peer in the Western world;" which is analogous to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald saying someone other than either of them was the finest singer ever.

Wolfe's last novel, Back to Blood, was by far his weakest, and it seemed that his "pyrotechnical" and "staccato" writing style had degenerated into mere gimmick; it was in certain passages even painful to read. But then it would also be hard, in our age of identity politics, to say that Wolfe hadn't again hit the mark; if tribalism is our new religion he, like usual, had got onto it before the rest of us.

For the next couple of weeks I'm going to be reading nothing but Wolfe. Not his novels, which I've already re-read, but the Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and his journalism on Junior Johnson and stock car racing. And the spot-on critiques of art in The Painted Word and architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House.

I expect after that submersion that I'll feel better about all the crazy things that seem to be happening around us these days, because Wolfe will have reminded that it has always been so, that beneath all the virtue signaling and indignation and spewing of vitriol is nothing more than the enduring quest for social status and tribal acceptance.

And I am so looking forward to it.


Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 05/21/2018

Print Headline: The great contrarian

Sponsor Content


You must be signed in to post comments
  • RobertBolt
    May 21, 2018 at 8:35 a.m.

    If political correctness is the act of respecting diversity, we need more political correctness. If the antidote to excessive political correctness is to mock the other in order to divide and to demagogue, as Gitz often does, the so-called cure is worse than the alleged sickness. We need not take ourselves too seriously, but only when everyone can laugh together is humor truly the best medicine.

  • mozarky2
    May 21, 2018 at 8:45 a.m.

    Political correctness is being used as a cudgel to shut down any ideas that come from conservatives or libertarians like me.

  • WhododueDiligence
    May 21, 2018 at 9:02 a.m.

    mo, if you're bonked with a cudgel each of the numerous times you express your ideas, it's no wonder you're angry but it still hasn't shut you down.

  • PopMom
    May 21, 2018 at 10:06 a.m.

    Hitler had a stupid idea that whites are a superior race. Now, that stupid idea is back in vogue. Boltar has the right idea when he writes about people coming back together. Bishop Curry delivered a great sermon at the Royal Wedding on the power of love. We need more love and commonality and less Gitz, GeneralMac, and Mozarky.

  • GeneralMac
    May 21, 2018 at 10:09 a.m.

    "political correctness"....

    #1.......That carrot cuff female professor at University of Missouri calling on " muscle" to remove a reporter covering the militant Blacks on campus.

    #2..... the signatures of over 200 University of Missouri faculty on a letter supporting Ms Carrot Cuff and stating............" her right to freedom of speech allows her to crush others' freedom of speech "

  • GeneralMac
    May 21, 2018 at 10:17 a.m.

    Two days in a row we had the pleasure of great columns.
    Today........Gitz on Tom Wolfe
    Yesterday....MM on Dr Thomas Sowell

  • RobertBolt
    May 21, 2018 at 10:28 a.m.

    Political correctness and freedom of speech are not at odds. We can all say what we want, but we also must have reasonable expectations of consequences, pro and con. Only those who live in fear pretend they did not say what they actually did or whine about meanies who disagree nonviolently. For example, GenMac recently demonstrated this when he wrote an extraordinarily bigoted remark, had it deleted, and then pretended he hadn't written it at all. The truly courageous response is to say what one believes, accept the consequences without whining about reasonably anticipated and non-violent consequences, correct oneself when appropriate, learn, and move on.

  • GeneralMac
    May 21, 2018 at 10:47 a.m.

    BOLTAR..........I stand behind every word in that post YOU considered "bigoted" and cried to have it removed.

    I have NEVER denied ANYTHING I posted.

    Should I type slower for you?
    Should I use more CAPS for YOU ?

  • RobertBolt
    May 21, 2018 at 10:52 a.m.

    We know you are lying, but you merely prove my point. You had neither the courage of your convictions then nor the ability to learn from natural consequences now.
    Also, you know I'm not the one who asked to have your post removed. You should know by now that your lie would be more effective if some elements were true.

  • GeneralMac
    May 21, 2018 at 11:14 a.m.

    PopMom.........I don't recall you writing about "love" and " coming together" when Barack HUSSEIN Obama was fanning the racial unrest flames during his 8 years.