Tag Archives: Tom Wolfe

Neo-McLuhanism: Wired, Coupland, and Wolfe

Marshall McLuhan popped into my mind at JFK as I watched the boarding call for my flight to Cairo on Egypt Air. The effects of media on human behavior: I remembered a passage where McLuhan says a print-based culture tends to produce linear, sequenced, and generally ordered thought. (Because letters, one after another in precise arrangement, have to be organized like an army–I think McLuhan called these the seeds of Cadmus. Look it up.)  There was no linear thought behind the boarding process for Egypt Air. And since I’ve been in Cairo, whether at supermarkets, at train stations, or museums, I’ve noticed a repulsion from, an absolute aborrence for, the concept of a queue.  Buses do not always stop on the street to pick passengers up. They slow down to 15 maybe 10 miles an hour. Then passengers have to break into a sprint and make a last minute leap onto the bus as it pulls away. 

McLuhan believed that certain non-linear behaviors tend to flourish when the pervasive media is audio-visual.  I was not surprised to hear my host say that, aside from reading the Koran, Egyptians prefer other media to the book.  They listen to the radio, watch television, and gossip in the cafe.  Five times a day, all throughout the city, a call to prayer sings over thousands of bull horns. What is this but “the tribal drum,” to use McLuhan’s phrase?

A bit of a McLuhan revival is bubbling up. (Yes, I know there was already one in the ’90s.) Anytime a reporter asks Tom Wolfe what he thinks about the new media, he slips into McLuhanese, talking about its reliance on rumor and the tribal mind. Wired has an interesting Clive Thompson piece on the evolving visual media on the Web. And just this morning I find an op-ed by Douglas Coupland suggesting that McLuhan’s theories may help us identify the underlying mechanisms behind the financial panic of ’08:

Marshall McLuhan tells us that “terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it, everything affects everything all the time.” What he perhaps didn’t foresee was that terror didn’t turn out to be Winston Smith’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Terror turned out to be a friend’s grandmother bingeing on conspiracy websites during a late-night browsing jag, triggering days of pension freak-out e-mails with her daughter, Sarah, down in Human Resources, who then installs a real-time Dow Jones ticker widget in the top right-hand corner of her work screen…

The evolving thinking is that electronics extend our central nervous systems, and that economic news in particular has hit the point of speed and saturation that our microeconomic daily freak-outs are becoming the new macroeconomics.

Oh yeah, Coupland is writing a McLuhan biography.



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The Wolfe Tells Larry He Should’ve Barked

Another great Wolfe interview–does he have a new publicist?–this time for the National Association of Scholars. Wolfe recounts the Larry Summers gaffe.  He raises a point that speaks to the weakness of Jonathan Haidt’s theory of political psychology.  The intuitions fueling the rage against Larry arose as they did because he had so flagrantly violated the egalitarian taboo:

They weren’t attacking him on intellectual grounds but on religious grounds. They were treating him as a heretic, a transgressor. They were assaulting his character. We learned how to deal with that one in our sophomore year at St. Christopher’s. If someone impugns your character, you can’t waste time trying to defend it. You’ll just end up sitting there wringing your hands and bleating something lame like, “I am, too,a good person.”
Iannone: So you should do what instead?
Wolfe: Attack the attacker. Attack his—in this case, their—character. All he had to say was, “I cannot…believe…what I am now witnessing…members of the Harvard faculty taking a grossly anti-intellectual stance, violating their implicit vow to cherish the free exchange of ideas, going mad because a hypothesis that has been openly discussed for almost half a century offends some ideological passion of the moment, acting like the most benighted of Puritans from three centuries ago ransacking all that is decent and rational in search of witches, causing this great university to become the laughingstock of the academic world here and abroad, sacrificing your very integrity in the name of some smelly little orthodoxy, as Orwell called beliefs like the ones you profess. I’m more than disappointed in you. I’m ashamed of you. Is that really how you see your mission here? If so, you should resign…now!…forthwith!…and take to the streets under your own names, not Harvard’s, and forbear being so small-minded and egotistical as to try to drag Harvard down to your level. Ladies, gentlemen…kindly do not display your ignorance…on these hallowed premises…while holding aloft the flags, the standards, of this university. Be honest with yourselves, even if you can’t be honest with Harvard. Look…think…and see…what you have become.” That would have taken care of the whole thing.

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Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing The Incredible Hulk

Yes, it’s true, Tom Wolfe used to appear in Marvel comic books


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Shanghaiing Tom Wolfe in a Cafe

Whoever this intrepid new media interviewer is, I want to thank him. I can’t tell for sure, but based on what’s said in the interview, it would seem this excited fan found Tom Wolfe in Argentina and then persuaded him to sit down and talk over a cup of coffee. The guy must be using a phone camera. And yet this could be one of the best interviews with Wolfe I’ve ever seen. 

Watch for yourself.

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Wolfe’s on Greenwich Time

I can’t think of another novelist whose opinion on social matters is sought out like an oracle’s. (Could it be because he’s the last great hope for social realism in literature?) Imagine newspapers calling up Philip Roth and asking him about hedge funds. Would anyone care? Anyhow, here’s the oracle of social realism in today’s Times

The Masters of the Universe are smarter than the people they left behind at the investment banks. Their hedge funds have blown up here and there, but unlike the investment banks, they are still very much in business. They have hurriedly pulled themselves into defensive positions inside their shells, like turtles. Their Armageddon, if any, will not come for two more days, which is to say, Tuesday, Sept. 30.

Most hedge funds open up a crack on Sept. 30, Dec. 31, March 31 and June 30 to give investors the chance to “redeem” their investments, meaning take their money out. These moments are called gates, like a series of gates in a prison. The gate is the limit, the fixed percentage of your money, that the fund will allow you to take out at one time. Even with these strict caps on withdrawals, some funds may end up nothing but shells.

Shed no tears for the Masters of the Universe, however, not that your correspondent actually thought you might. Most of the young Masters already have their own personal nut free and clear. “Nut” is the term for the amount of money you need salted away in weather-proof investments in order to generate enough interest to live comfortably in Greenwich on Round Hill Road, Pecksland Road or Field Point Road in a house built before the First World War in an enchanting European style, preferably made of stone featuring the odd turret, with a minimum of five acres around it and big enough to be called a manor. Every Master of the Universe knows the number.

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Hedge Fund Managers Deserve Their Salaries Because They’re Smarter

The ever insightful Richard Posner writes

I do not think that the government does bear much responsibility for the crisis. I fear that the responsibility falls almost entirely on the private sector. The people running financial institutions, along with financial analysts, academics, and other knowledgeable insiders, believed incorrectly (or accepted the beliefs of others) that by means of highly complex financial instruments they could greatly reduce the risk of borrowing and by doing so increase leverage (the ratio of debt to equity).

Posner fails to consider a host of contributing factors originating from government sources: the moral hazard Freddie and Fannie create, perverse tax incentives (starting in ’97) to overstimulate investment in housing, and the Clinton administration’s policies (again, starting in ’97) to increase home ownership among the poor. Still, the venerable Judge has a point. If all these mortgages were suspect, then why did all those Ivy Leaguers on the trading desks eat them up? Shouldn’t their 150 IQs have included a bullshit detector? Quoth the Seventh Circuit Judge:

It should be noted that because of the enormous rewards available to successful financiers, the financial industry attracted enormously able people. It was not a deficiency in IQ that produced the crisis.

But are they able enough? And were the rewards high enough to attract the most able? The New York Observer has been the first to buttonhole Tom Wolfe and ask him what he thinks of the current crisis. (It’s about time someone got a hold of him, fer Christ sake. Whenever there’s a Wall Street story, a thousand reporters invariably trundle out references to the Bonfire of the Vanities and the Masters of the Universe.) Wolfe has a peculiar theory about the failure of investment banks–it’s brain drain, he says. Instead of turning into cubicle donkeys, the best and the brightest in finance have all found their way to hedge funds, leaving space at the trading desks for all the second-raters out of Harvard. Herr Wolfe:

 there’s nothing as second-rate as investment banks. Every smart and ambitious young man—and forget young women because they don’t play any role in this—wants to be in a hedge fund. And I’d be surprised if the hedge funds implode, they’re just smarter. … What bright guy wants to be an executive for a firm like Lehman Brothers, where you have to hold the hand of disgruntled employees, you hold the hand of disgruntled directors, you’re constantly nice and wearing the right clothes? That’s for real second-raters. … It’s only the bottom of the barrel that’s left in these companies. The new Wall Street is Greenwich, Conn. You don’t need these big glass silos full of people. Look at the number of employees. Lehman? 28,000! And a Greenwich hedge fund can handle the same amount of money with 20 employees. 

And just for kicks, Wolfe adds, “Did I mention to you I’m pimping out my cars?”

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