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The Bonfire of the Vanities


Who are the masters of the universe?

This was the famous novel about New York. The first in a long time to educate one & all, shamelessly, publicly, about the class structure of New York. It shows a city where no one acts for the public good, where great achievements & great suffering define the lives of social classes that never meet & might not long tolerate each other.

The Bronx is stuck in the ’60s, where crime & race riots are the twin children of mid-century liberal triumph–neither welfare nor rent control nor any of the other genius ideas of the generation of genius do any good. Liberal rule of New York ignored or fell helpless before this third-world spectacle for a full generation & it all ended with a hecatomb. This is one reason respectable people dislike this novel.

Manhattan, on the other hand, is full of ’80s prosperity & people who have learned the worst lessons of free love, individualism, & a philistine rejection of the old middle-class responsibilities. The old restraints gone, pleasure &, even more, luxury are idealized by the new class of important people as much as public service had been the vanity of the old class of important people. What’s worse? Utopian politics that leads to social collapse or pleasure dome indifference to the suffering of the city?

What did morning in America mean in NYC, the city of very rich & very poor? Wall St. money. That’s what makes Masters of the Universe. These are the people who get what they want; the new face of American freedom. As moralistic as people used to be about restraint, so moralistic they are now about lack of restraint. They pursue vice as fiercely as they did virtue.

This is a caricature of America. The dignity of work turns into an interest in productivity which turns into success worship, so that the most successful feel like the most exalted product of the American experience. At the same time, the manliness & almost heroic striving which Americans bring to business are corrupted by a political collapse–the successful have no ideas about what public good might come from their pursuit of their own interest.

Enter a caricature of MLK, trying to turn civil rights into private advantage. The political struggle in New York pits a Jewish mayor startled by the loud anti-Semitism of black agitators against the black priest who bets the Jews are out & the blacks are in, so far as the political correctness of urban liberalism is concerned. A similar sense of how popular outrage could be exploited for private advantage leads the DA to look for ‘the great white defendant’ to throw to the mob. This marriage of the lowliest, most despicable is the grotesque end of midcentury liberalism.

Mr. Tom Wolfe’s first novel, not a lot of it left on the screen…