Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons made quite a stir when it was released in late 2004. In the April Atlantic Mark Bowden takes another look at the book and the critical reaction. One quote jumped out when i read it this week-end:
Reviewers with children or students (or both) the same age as those in the novel reacted defensively. The stuck up for the modern student and the quality of thought at modern universities, and found Wolfe's take on campus life to be shallow, prudish, inaccurate, and unfair. "In the course of a very long 676 pages [Wolfe] serves up the revelation-yikes-that students crave sex and beer, love to party, wear casual clothes, and use four-letter words," wrote Michiko Kakutani, whose reviews in the New York Times are routinely parroted by critics throughout the land.That journalistic sangfroid about college life is in short supply when it comes to the Duke lacrosse case. Now, beer and parties and strippers count as evidence that the Duke players were racist gang-rapists in training. What was no big deal last year is an outrage-OUTRAGE-today. The players had parties- fire the coach, disband the team, send some of drunken louts straight to jail.
Many have noted that Wolfe's novels have a way of anticipating the headlines. Bonfire of the Vanities seemed like prophesy after Tawana Brawley: so much so that it is hard to remember that Wolfe wrote it before and not after Al Sharpton's coming out party. At Duke we find echoes of all three Wolfe novels- a point noted by many bloggers.
(But few journalists… otherwise they would be camping out on his doorstep trying to get an interview.)
I still prefer his journalism. This quote from Hooking Up might also explain part of what is going on at Duke:
From the outset the eminence of this new creature, the intellectual, who was to play such a tremendous role in the history of the twentieth century, was inseperable from his necessary indignation. It was his indignation that elevated him to a plateau of moral superiority. Once up there, he was in a position to look down on the rest of humanity. And it did not cost him any effort, intellectual or otherwise. As Marshall McLuhan would put it years later: 'Moral indignation is a technique used to endow the idiot with dignity.'On most campuses there is a permanent population of intellectuals-in-training. They search for opportunities to be outraged. When the news of the allegations broke, they seized on the issue. It was tailor-made for their purposes. They could be outraged at all the right targets. They could PROTEST.
They did not need facts; they could bang pots and pans. Due process? That was for Mumia. These were white jocks! They used up their due process just by walking around campus with their patriarchal attitudes and white skin privilege.
The protests drew the cameras. The cameras were an invitation to more protests. A perpetual motion machine fueled by restless indignation, arrogant ignorance, and lazy journalists. The perfect media storm.
The author of "Ambush at Fort Bragg" has to be loving this.