Arts

In the end, was journalist Tom Wolfe 'cool' or not? Well, he sure was proud to be a heretic

In the end, was journalist Tom Wolfe 'cool' or not? Well, he sure was proud to be a heretic

Once upon a time, there was this era in American life called the Sixties. As the old saying goes, if you remember the Sixties, then you really weren't part of them -- which kind of implies that the only people who remember the Sixties were Baptists, or something like that.

Anyway, lots of things in the Sixties were "cool." Some things were even "groovy," although I thought -- at the time -- that no one who was actually "cool" would have fallen so low as to use the word "groovy." 

Whatever the word "cool" meant, journalist Tom Wolfe was "cool," while at the same time being "hot." If you dreamed of being a journalist in the late Sixties and early 1970s, then you knew about Wolfe and you looked at his writing and thought to yourself, "How does he DO that? That is so cool."

Revolutionaries were "cool" and traditionalists were "not cool."

So with that in mind (and as an introduction to the content of this week's "Crossroads" podcast), please read the following quotation from a 1980 Rolling Stone interview with Wolfe. The key is to understand why, at one point, he calls himself a "heretic." This is long, but essential:

RS: I believe it was in the New Republic that Mitch Tuchman wrote that the reason you turned against liberals is that you were rejected by the white-shoe crowd at Yale.

WOLFE: Wait a minute! Is that one by Tuchman? Yeah, oh, that was great.

RS: He talked about your doctoral dissertation. 

WOLFE: Yeah, he wrote that after The Painted Word. It went further than that. It was called "The Manchurian Candidate," and it said in all seriousness that I had some-how been prepared by the establishment, which he obviously thought existed at Yale, to be this kind of kamikaze like Laurence Harvey -- I think that's who was in The Manchurian Candidate, wasn't it? -- to go out and assassinate liberal culture. I loved that.

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Memory eternal: Was there a moral compass at the heart of Tom Wolfe's best journalism?

Memory eternal: Was there a moral compass at the heart of Tom Wolfe's best journalism?

I was a journalism major in the first half of the 1970s, an era in which -- even at Baylor University -- everyone who wanted to be a journalist was reading Tom Wolfe. I even dreamed that Wolfe would venture down to Waco and write the definite magazine piece on just how crazy things really were in Jerusalem on the Brazos.

Even in the Bible Belt, Wolfe was the essence of hip, cutting edge journalism. Of course, everyone assumed this also meant "liberal," whatever that word meant back then.

As you would expect, his writings returned to my radar during my graduate work in 1981-82 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Then there was a lull until the explosion of criticism of his reporting/fiction in "A Man in Full" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons." 

As I read press reactions to those novels, something hit me: Some of the gatekeepers in elite American media were truly afraid that Wolfe might, well, have a moral and cultural point of view that was guiding his sniper-like attacks on American culture.

Oh. My. God. Might the man in the white suits be some kind of "conservative"? Should these books be read while listening to Bob Dylan's acidic, countercultural work on "Infidels"? Was Wolfe a heretic? Hold that thought.

My task here is not to criticize or even to summarize the many, many Wolfe obituaries and tributes that are -- with good cause -- being published right now. I recognize that it takes genuine chutzpah to try to write about Wolfe, or even to write about other people writing about Wolfe. The subject is just too big, too colorful and too complex.

So right now, I would simply like to make a few observations about the articles in The New York Times and New York magazine. After all, everything begins and ends with Wolfe (a transplanted Southerner, of course) and the city that he stalked for half a century, decked out in the white suits that he called "Neo-pretentious" and “a harmless form of aggression.”

Let's start with a symbolic fact about Wolfe's life. The Times noted:

He enrolled at Yale University in the American studies program and received his Ph.D. in 1957. After sending out job applications to more than 100 newspapers and receiving three responses, two of them “no,” he went to work as a general-assignment reporter at The Springfield Union in Springfield, Mass., and later joined the staff of The Washington Post.

How many people finish a Yale doctorate and then head straight into an entry-level job on a newspaper city desk?

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Diamonds, divas, devils: Where Catholicism, fashion, satire, news and commentary mix?

Diamonds, divas, devils: Where Catholicism, fashion, satire, news and commentary mix?

There’s been a lot written already about that killer fashion show in New York last week that mixed Catholicism and celebrities with couture designed by people who grew up in the faith but no longer attend church.

There were no hair shirts to be seen, but everything else that could be linked to Catholic practice or devotion was on display on peoples' bodies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Benefit on May 7. The annual event is a high holy day of fashion where guests vie to see who can have the most outrageous get-up.

Catholic traditions range from guardian angels to Guadalupe icons; all of them infinitely easier to cast into film and culture (has anyone done a movie about Protestants like Martin Scorcese's "The Silence" about Jesuits in 17th-century Japan?). The Met, in the biggest show it's ever staged, tried to draw them all in.

So we read first, from the Associated Press:

NEW YORK -- Delicate veils, jeweled crowns and elaborate trains made up the holy trinity of haute couture at Monday’s religion-themed Met Gala.

Bella Hadid held court as a gothic priestess (is that a thing?), as her gold-embroidered headpiece fanned out over a simple black corset and skirt. The dramatic look was topped off with a structured, embossed leather jacket, emblazoned with a gold cross.

Kate Bosworth’s pearl-encrusted veil draped over a shimmering tulle gown by Oscar de la Renta, while Mindy Kaling donned a regal, blue-jeweled crown with a feminine silver gown and navy gloves. Kaling stars in the upcoming “Ocean’s 8,” a jewelry heist romp set at the Met Gala.

If anyone can make a mitre modern, it’s Rihanna. The Grammy-winning artist arrived dripping in pearls and crystals in a Maison Margiela Artisanal minidress and ornate robe. 

This AP piece (two writers were apparently assigned to the occasion) did include a reference to the actual Catholic prelate in attendance:

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Guilt folder chatter: What happens when newsworthy topics are 'covered' in entertainment?

Guilt folder chatter: What happens when newsworthy topics are 'covered' in entertainment?

Faithful GetReligion readers are familiar with our "folder of guilt" concept. If you live online, you have one, too.

It's the large stack of emails that you know you need to deal with, but more urgent (or less complex) emails keep arriving, day after day, week after week. The digital layers between you and the "guilt" emails get bigger and bigger.

The difference here at GetReligion is that some of us have -- literally -- created "guilt" folders in our email software to protect certain stories or op-eds or online discussions that we know we should deal with, somehow, someday. Like today.

This brings me to a 5-star "guilt" discussion that took place recently among the GetReligionistas. This one was important because it cut to the heart of what we do here and, to be blunt, what we may or may not be doing in the future.

The basics: GetReligion has, for 14-plus years, attempted to critique the good and the bad in mainstream coverage of religion. We have deliberately tried to avoid writing about opinion and analysis journalism, other than making references to add depth or perspective to posts about hard-news coverage. We also have the weekend "think piece" feature that points readers to all kinds of journalism about issues linked to religion and, thus, religion news.

Meanwhile, trends in the Internet age have weakened the wall between straight news and advocacy news (#DUH). We know that and we have struggled to cope with that.

But we also know that many of our culture's most important discussions of religious issues and events are taking place OUTSIDE of the journalism world -- in entertainment. That's one of the reasons I left a newsroom in 1991 to teach mass-media studies at a seminary.

So what is GetReligion supposed to do with debates about "news" topics that take place, to cite one example, in a show like HBO's "Silicon Valley"?

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Bollywood movie 'Padmaavat' draws mixed coverage on Hindu-Muslim themes

Bollywood movie 'Padmaavat' draws mixed coverage on Hindu-Muslim themes

About 11 years ago, I was in Rajasthan, India, to research some stories for the Washington Times when I decided to take off a morning and visit one of the stupendous hill forts just north of the “pink city” of Jaipur, so named because of its stunning rose-hued buildings. We went to two of them, but it was the 17th century Amer –- or Amber -– Fort that caught my attention for its open air balconies, latticed stonework and gardens.

It was either there or in a similar palace that I heard of jauhar, a form of mass suicide by royal women and their retinues –- to escape abuse and rape -- should their menfolk fail in battle. A guide showed me bloody handprints on the wall from several of these women, left there before they went to die.

A new epic Bollywood film, which ends when the main female lead commits jauhar, is now out. If you wish to understand the Hindu-Muslim enmities that persist to this day in the Indian subcontinent, read up on “Padmaavat” and the mayhem among India’s Hindus before its recent release. According to the Associated Press:

NEW DELHI (AP) — There was anger about a rumored romance between a Hindu queen and a Muslim invader. There were death threats. There were buses burned and grandstanding politicians.
But when the Indian film “Padmaavat” was finally released on Thursday (Jan. 25) amid heavy security and breathless TV coverage, Bollywood’s latest over-the-top offering turned out to be just that: an opulent period drama with multiple songs and dances and a thin storyline and not the slightest hint of the rumored relationship…
The film is based on a 16th-century epic Sufi poem, “Padmavat,” in which a brave and beautiful Rajput queen chose to immolate herself in a ceremonial fire rather than be captured by the Muslim sultan of Delhi, Allaudin Khilji.
Over centuries of retelling, the epic has come to be seen as history, despite little evidence. The main character of Queen Padmini has become an object of veneration for many Rajputs, the clans of former warriors and kings from the western state of Rajasthan.

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CNN: Was 'The Last Jedi' officially Buddhist or a dose of Hollywood existentialism?

CNN: Was 'The Last Jedi' officially Buddhist or a dose of Hollywood existentialism?

Not long ago, my daughter and I went to see the latest Star Wars movie. The content has always been New Agey and I’ve been under no illusions as to it being otherwise.

So I was interested to see how CNN’s Dan Burke dissected “The Last Jedi” in terms of its religious content, or lack thereof.

You may ask if this is really a "news" subject. Look at the size of the "Star Wars" audience and its influence over multiple decades. Next question?

Burke sees this new movie as a symbol of a higher indifference to traditional forms of religion found among today’s Millennials and suggests that this attitude got picked up by the filmmakers. I’m not so sure the makers of “Jedi” thought it through to that point. Still, read on:

"Star Wars" has always kept its fingers close to America's spiritual pulse. 
In the '70s and '80s, the interstellar saga explored Eastern traditions, mainly Buddhism and Taoism, just as many "spiritual, but not religious" dabblers were doing the same. 
At the turn of the millennium, "Star Wars" caught the McMindfulness craze. "The Phantom Menace" opens with two Jedi talking about the benefits of meditation. Riveting, it was not. 
But the latest film in the saga, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," touches on trends in American religious life in some surprising ways, especially for a franchise that's so nakedly commercial. ("The Last Jedi" was the highest-grossing movie in the United States last year and raked in nearly $1.3 billion worldwide.) 
"It is very much a movie of this time," said the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, a Buddhist teacher, social justice activist and "Star Wars" aficionado who lives Berkeley, California. "It draws on ancient teachings, as well as what is happening in this country right now."

Is the movie trying to make a statement about organized religion or its demise? And if “Star Wars” really kept its finger on America’s pulse, it sure didn’t reflect any of the Christian revivals that happened in that same period. And there was a lot more going on in America amongst the monotheistic religions than the non-theistic ones.

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It's only rock 'n' roll? A Los Angeles Times music critic reviews a satanic trend

It's only rock 'n' roll? A Los Angeles Times music critic reviews a satanic trend

Everyone loves cleverly written stories and August Brown’s recent story in the Los Angeles Times about the new breed of Satanists is most certainly that.

We learn the cool stuff about the edgy folks who are into this movement, but none of the inconvenient truths. In other words, there are complex religion ghosts hiding in this story. Surprise.

So yes, it is entertaining.

In November, in the candlelit basement of a house just above the Silver Lake Reservoir, Alexandra James walked over to an altar where her husband, Zachary, waited near a bleached human skull, teeth locked in eternal rictus. From the altar, she lifted a sword and drew points across his chest while a circle of onlookers watched solemnly (well, a few giggled too). An organist played eerie minor key chords and Alexandra turned to face the group.
"On this altar we consecrate swords to direct the fire of our unholy will," she said. "A human skull, symbol of death. The great mother Lilith created us all, and will destroy us all."
"Hail Satan! Hail Satan! Hail Satan!" The group chanted back.

The story describes how the attendees are mainly artists, writers and musicians who fling around words like “Satan,” “coven” and “witches” without really knowing their meanings.

But a bigger moment came a few hours later when word circulated that Charles Manson had died. Far from mourning a man whose crimes burned satanic imagery into the American mainstream, everyone cracked beers in celebration and jammed on psych rock tunes. ... It was a great night for a heterodox generation of new self-described Satanists who are upending old "Rosemary's Baby" and "Helter Skelter" stereotypes in service of radical politics, feminist aesthetics and community unity in the divisive time of Trump.

Alas, there is no mention, of the gruesome way the Satan-influenced Manson and his companions killed nine people in 1969.

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Sometimes chasing 'Why?' questions pushes scribes past motives, into evil and tragedy

Sometimes chasing 'Why?' questions pushes scribes past motives, into evil and tragedy

When it comes to the big question in Las Vegas, news consumers around the world are still waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more.

Journalists want to know what kind of label to pin on the motives of Stephen Paddock, so we can go back to wrestling with theodicy questions like, oh, why so many Democrats voted for Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton. Where was God on election day?

Alas, new details in Vegas (Paddock shot a security man before the massacre began?) have only complicated the timeline of this tragedy.

What are journalists supposed to do? Well, this is the rare case when I want to point readers to a think piece during the middle of the week (as opposed to our weekend slots), in part because I get to plug a Poynter.org essay while sitting in the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. I've been here for several days speaking to a circle of international journalists.

The Poynter.org essay is called "The Journalism of Why: How we struggle to answer the hardest question," and it was written by veteran journalist and educator Roy Peter Clark.

Clark starts where I started here at GetReligion, hours after the massacre: With that familiar journalism mantra Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

Who? We got that information pretty quick (unless you're talking about Paddock having help).

What? We got that. When? The massacre timeline is evolving, but we know (or think we know) some of the basics. Where? You get the point. Then Clark notes, quoting one of the journalism scholars who most influenced my academic career:

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The Times of London goes clever (and surprisingly deep) with party girls and praying nuns

The Times of London goes clever (and surprisingly deep) with party girls and praying nuns

Every so often, there’s an article out there that’s truly a pleasure to read and it makes some interesting points about life and faith, even if the piece isn't hard news. Such is the case with the Times of London’s take on an upcoming reality TV show.

GetReligion does not ordinarily cover opinion pieces, but this was a mix of analysis and news, so I grabbed it.

The writer, Helen Rumbelow, shows a keen awareness of the human condition as she describes the comedic collision of party girls and nuns when a group of wild twentysomethings are sent to a convent in rural Norfolk. They don’t exactly swap their go-go boots for godliness but there are subtle transformations.

Plus, the piece shows how easy it can be to write profound observations on something as everyday as a reality show.

Five new girls arrive at the Daughters of Divine Charity convent in Swaffham, deep in rural Norfolk. The first, Paige, 23, has, between her red go-go boots and her miniskirt, a gap large enough to display the entire face of Nicki Minaj that is tattooed on her thighs. She is struggling to pull a suitcase the size of a small wagon across the gravel courtyard. It’s full of her clubbing lingerie. She is joined by Rebecca, 19, another committed hedonist who seems to sum up their situation when she realises what their new home is, crying: “F***, I’m in a f***ing nunnery.”
It’s a fair guess that this Channel 5 reality-TV experiment, called Bad Habits, Holy Orders, wouldn’t have taken much of a “sell”. “Think Sister Act,” the executive would say, “crossed with St Trinian’s.” …
The five women had been told only that they were going on a “spiritual journey” and had imagined a yoga retreat in Bali. Instead they were to be confined to a nunnery off the A47 with a bunch of mature ladies in wimples, whose modesty was far more shocking than anything they could think up.

What follows is a photo showing an elderly nun face-to-face with one of the sultry five. I’m guessing that the reality show paid the nuns a good amount to film this show on their property, for why else would a religious order put up with this craziness?

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