Of Morality And Marshmallows

The Atlantic reports on a new study suggesting that the famous “marshmallow test” is unreliable as a predictor of future economic instability. Excerpt:

In the case of this new study, specifically, the failure to confirm old assumptions pointed to an important truth: that circumstances matter more in shaping children’s lives than Mischel and his colleagues seemed to appreciate.

This new paper found that among kids whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for a second marshmallow did no better in the long run—in terms of standardized test scores and mothers’ reports of their children’s behavior—than those who dug right in. Similarly, among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation, once other factors like household income and the child’s home environment at age 3 (evaluated according to a standard research measure that notes, for instance, the number of books that researchers observed in the home and how responsive mothers were to their children in the researchers’ presence) were taken into account. For those kids, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages.

The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.

Maybe so. But might it also be the case that children raised in more affluent homes will have been taught the value of resisting their impulses? I say this because one of my own children has had a very demanding sweet tooth from earliest childhood. He is also impulsive by nature. It has taken years of effort on the part of his mother and me to train him to say no to his impulses — not only for sugar, but, as he has gotten older and started earning spending money, his enthusiasms for buying things that strike his fancy. Many times I have pondered the difficulty he is going to have managing his money if he doesn’t get this impulsiveness under control. He’s a very good kid, highly moral and responsible, but impulsiveness is his Achilles’ heel.

He’s not being raised in poverty. We are middle class people, but culturally I guess that puts us with more in common with the affluent than not. Our impulsive child has been raised in a stable household — materially and emotionally — so there are no environmental factors that nurture his impulsiveness. From an Orthodox Christian point of view, this is simply one of his passions, something he has to struggle against. I have my own particular passions (anger and gluttony). Orthodoxy teaches that life itself is a struggle to crucify the passions and order ones desires towards the will of God. There is nothing wrong in principle with wanting to eat a marshmallow, but if your reason and your will are overcome by that desire to eat a marshmallow, you are weak, and can fall into sin. The regular fasting that Orthodox Christians do is designed to train the will to desire what God desires for us, not what we desire for ourselves.

Anyway, all of that is prelude to what I want to tell you. Last night, I was at a dinner party with some friends. One of them, N., told a long story about a local carpenter she and her husband had hired to do some renovations on their house. I won’t tell the story in depth, because the story is hers to tell, and she’s a writer. The gist of the story is that N. and her husband have been working with this guy for a long time — it’s a big project — and have gotten to know him well. He’s working class, and economically quite precarious. N. said the man has become a friend, and that she and her husband have been working hard to help him stabilize his life.

N. said — again, I’m summing up, but the details are sort of breathtaking — that the carpenter’s personal life is a study in chaos. He cannot grasp that he has the power to determine future events by the choices he makes today. A sense of moral agency totally escapes him. He sees N.’s ordinary family — they have kids — and thinks that they are simply one of fate’s winners. N. talked about the extraordinary lengths she and her husband have gone to befriend and to help this man, but how ultimately it has been futile. No matter what they say to him, no matter what they do for him, he cannot get it together. And he is leaving all kinds of chaos in his wake (several wives, kids, etc.).

I told N. that my wife and I have been in the very same situation, trying to help someone just like that who had become a friend … and in the end, concluding that it was futile. I wrote about it in the past on this blog: how I had gone to my lawyer, offering to pay him to represent this impoverished friend in a particular case. Lawyer said he would take my money and meet with the friend, but that in his lengthy experience with these cases, he could tell me that I’d be wasting my money and his time, because my friend would not follow through. It’s in the nature of people who get themselves into these kinds of situations, he said, to keep doing what got them into that situation in the first place. I told him I would be willing to take that chance to help her.

Next time I saw this friend, I told her to make an appointment with Lawyer X., that he would be willing to advise her, and that I would pay the bill. She thanked me profusely, but said that wouldn’t be necessary that she had decided to … well, that she had decided to keep doing the same stupid thing that got her into this bind in the first place. The country lawyer’s practical experience in dealing with the poor was wiser than my heart-on-the-sleeve idealism. Not for the first time did I feel like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story. (My future epitaph: “Call me Azzberry”.)

At dinner last night, my friend and I dwelled on the intractability of human nature in cases like this. She said that she had to conclude that a stable family life in childhood provides psychological goods that cannot be given through any other way. There aren’t enough government programs, personal charitable efforts, or anything else to compensate adequately for a chaotic childhood. My friend was certainly not saying that we can wash our hands of the responsibility for our neighbor’s welfare, but she was concluding — accurately — that we have to recognize the limits of our ability to change the lives of others. She was also saying that her experience with the carpenter made her more fully aware of how important it is to do everything she can to give her own children a stable home life.

Notice that I’m not saying — nor did I hear her to say — “affluent” home life. My folks never had a lot of money. We were an ordinary working-class to lower-middle-class family. But the gift my mother and father gave me of an orderly, stable childhood was priceless, I now see. How did they do it? They were both imperfect people who endured their share of difficulties in marriage, caused by their own flaws, as well as a period of economic stress. My father is no longer with us to discuss the matter, but the truth is, neither one of them would have been given over to much self-reflection on the question. They were the kind of people who would have simply said, “We made a vow,” and left it at that. For them, that was reason enough to stay together — that, and they always made it clear that the needs of us kids came before their own. That was just how my folks went through life. Not to get too philosophical about it, but for them, that was the Tao.

That wouldn’t have guaranteed stability in my family’s or my late sister’s, but they gave us such a good model of how family was supposed to work. Again, I don’t want to hold my mom and dad out to have been perfect. I don’t think there are any perfect families, and certainly mine had its particular flaws, some of which had unfortunate long-term consequences. That said, I am so very grateful to my parents for holding things together, and showing my sister and me that it is possible to build that kind of life, even when you don’t have much money.

My father was the chief breadwinner in our household, and, because they were a traditional 1950s-era couple, he was the one who dictated how our financial resources would be handled. I find this interesting with relation to the Atlantic article because having grown up very poor in the Great Depression, he ought to have been shaped by the experience of inconstancy in a particular way. Remember, the Atlantic writer said:

There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.

That’s how my father grew up, but that same experience made him far more likely to do what he could to hedge against chaos. He talked to Ruthie and me a lot about these things, relating him to his childhood. His own father was away from home for most of my dad’s early childhood, entirely because he had to work and send money back to support his wife, children, and elderly mother, who lived in the household. That sense of vulnerability made a profound impression on my dad, who was determined that his children would not feel it, if he could help it.

Daddy wasn’t unique in that. What I can’t quite understand today is why his response to childhood poverty and insecurity was so very different from what is normal today. That is, Daddy’s response was to live as an adult in such a way that he was less vulnerable to that chaos, and in which his own children were made less vulnerable to the chaos that would have come had outside pressures broken the family apart. I’ve written many times in this space about how he had deep compassion for people who were poor and suffering victims of circumstance, but also something bordering on contempt for people who were poor and suffering, but who always blamed others, or fate, for their suffering. He would say, “You can’t do nothin’ for people like that.” This was the opinion of a man who had once been poor, and who had lived his entire life in the same community as poor people, and working with them. Kind of like that country lawyer I mentioned above.

It seems to me that aside from his personal qualities, my father was the beneficiary of a local culture that, for better or for worse, had a strong bias against people living morally disordered lives. I should add that my dad had much more hostility towards middle class and wealthy people who lived that way. “They know better,” he would say. “They don’t have an excuse.” In his case, it wasn’t so much a matter of religion — my dad wasn’t particularly observant — as it was a matter of shame and honor. The culture that shaped my father’s code said it was dishonorable for men and women to live in ways that violated its core moral code. I heard my dad say on a number of occasions, “There’s no shame in being poor,” but he also spoke with stern judgment against men who abandoned their families, people who wouldn’t work, and so forth.

That code could be harsh, but it was more realistic about life than a lot of what passes for wisdom today. I think that has a lot to do with why Jordan Peterson is so popular. He gives to young men a sense of moral agency. Peterson is not Moses coming down from the summit of Sinai, but he talks common sense to a culture that has forgotten it. There has never been a society, and never will be a society, in which somebody can live like a fool and not pay the consequences — and for that matter, inflict consequences on others. You can’t not show up for work and expect to keep your job forever. You can’t ignore your kids and expect that they will grow up to be responsible people. You can’t get loaded every weekend and wonder why your roof is falling in, and won’t fix itself. You can’t allow television and social media to raise your children, and expect that they will be good.  And so forth.

“The world doesn’t owe you a living,” my father would lecture me, usually when I hadn’t done my homework, or failed to do something I was supposed to have done. I suppose this attitude is what made my dad a natural conservative. He couldn’t stand people who were ungrateful and lazy. His basic attitude towards us kids was: I bust my ass to provide for y’all, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you waste the opportunities you’ve been given. There was a time in my life when I thought he was so square, but the older I get, the more I see that there really isn’t any other way to live. My dad was keen to help people who were down on their luck, and I see now that he allowed himself to be taken advantage of by some folks with hard-luck stories. Mostly, though, what he was eager to do was to teach people how to help themselves, and to encourage them to do so. For him, this was a matter of natural justice. A society in which people were rewarded even though they did the wrong thing, or failed to do the right thing, was not a just or good society. And doing the right thing always meant subjugating your own desires to the greater good, especially the greater good of your family.

Here’s a funny thing: a few years back, when I was working with the African-American actor Wendell Pierce on his memoir of growing up in south Louisiana, I spent some time speaking with his Uncle L.C. Edwards, the last surviving member of Wendell’s parents’ generation. Uncle L.C. was the same age as my father, and like him, had grown up in rural poverty. I loved the stories of L.C.’s parents (that is, Wendell’s grandparents): poor black farmers who weren’t educated, but who had a very strong religious ethic, and who placed enormous value on education and self-discipline as the only reliable means of self-advancement. Poverty was the enemy of both L.C. and my father, but Lloyd and his siblings also had to deal with Jim Crow. If memory serves, every one of the children of Wendell’s grandparents got educated, and escaped poverty. I’m telling you, the chapter on Papo and Mamo (the grandchildren’s name for L.C.’s parents) is worth the price of the book. Here’s a characteristic excerpt:

One Christmas evening after supper, the Edwardses went to call on their College Point neighbors, to wish them a happy holiday. The kids were startled to go into one house and to see that all that family had eaten for their Christmas meal was potatoes and grits. When they returned home, Papo told the children, “This is what I mean when I tell you it’s important to save for a rainy day. If you put your money aside now, you will have enough to eat well on Christmas.”

Given the man Papo was, if the Edwardses had any food left, he probably took it to that poor family and didn’t tell his own children for the sake of preserving their neighbors’ dignity.

His children remembered Papo as a slow talker but a deep thinker. He never made a quick decision, but acted only after prayer, deliberation, and sleeping on it. Whatever the answer was, he arrived at it through careful reason, not passion. Acting on impulse was the sure way to lose your money, in Papo’s view.

Papo worked for a time in a sugar factory and received his weekly wages in a brown packet. He had a firm rule with himself: Wait twenty-four hours before spending a penny of it. Uncle L.C. said that as a young working man, he thought his father’s rule was silly. You have the money, he figured, so why not enjoy it?

But when he got married and started a family of his own, he understood Papo’s good sense and followed the rule himself. Uncle L.C., who worked at the DuPont chemical plant, has done well through saving and investing over the years. To this day, he credits Papo for teaching him by word and example the importance of being careful with your money and not letting your passions guide your decisions.

Talking with L.C. was like speaking with a black version of my own father. Though he had long been in retirement when I met him, L.C. was always thinking of ways he could make a little money. He told me about how he would take fatherless black boys from a nearby trailer park, and try to teach them something about working to make money and to plan for the future. He told me how sorry he felt for those young men, who had no father in the home to offer them direction, or a sense of responsible manhood.

But his pity had strict limits. Like my own father, L.C. was death on those who wouldn’t work or practice self-discipline. He told me about how his own wife, a retired public schoolteacher, quit her job the very day the last of their adult children no longer needed their help paying for college. She was of a generation for whom education was the most precious thing, their ticket out of poverty and oppression. Today, though, she was worn down by students who wouldn’t work, wouldn’t behave themselves, and parents who blamed the schools and the teachers for their kids’ failures.

American culture is far less friendly to the worldview of those Depression babies like L.C. and my father. Politics and economics are complicated things. You can’t simply apply a moral code to every situation, and expect it to solve the problem. But let’s recognize this: very few Americans in 2018 are as materially poor as my dad and L.C. Edwards were when they came into this world in the 1930s. Is there anybody in America today who is poorer than a black child born to uneducated farmers living in the Deep South under American apartheid? And yet, look what they did with what they had been given! There never will be a society in which family won’t matter, and in which moral self-discipline won’t matter. 

The wealthy, and those with social connections, can absorb a lot more disorder than the less well off can, but money won’t last forever.

The world we have today is wealthier, and in some ways is better able to defray the cost of that disorder. We have more of a social safety net today than we did back then. But this world is much poorer in social capital, which is not something you can raise from Chinese bankers.

There’s a lot of brokenness in this country, and no clear way to fix it. The people my dinner companion and I were talking about last night are white. They live in Charles Murray’s fictional Fishtown. They diverge greatly from the core values and practices of stable middle-class and well-off Americans, in ways that were not true a couple of generations ago. Society has grown far more individualistic and tolerant of non-conformity. This is not entirely a bad thing! But the cost to people who don’t have a lot of social and material capital to begin with has been immense. People love to imagine that if only we brought good jobs back to America, or voted in this or that political party, then these problems would solve themselves. I don’t believe that’s true. That’s no reason not to try to improve opportunities for people, but there are no government programs or private charitable initiatives that can meaningfully compensate for the loss of a sense of moral order and purpose.

Finally, I phrase occurred to me while writing this post, a fragment from something I’d read ages ago. I googled it, and the source turned up here. Here is the excerpt I was thinking about. The writer is talking about the 1950s:

It was a more human world in that it was a sexier world, because sex was still a story. Each high school senior class had exactly one girl who got pregnant and one guy who was the father, and it was the town’s annual scandal. Either she went somewhere and had the baby and put it up for adoption, or she brought it home as a new baby sister, or the couple got married and the town topic changed. It was a stricter, tougher society, but its bruising sanctions came from ancient wisdom.

We have all had a moment when all of a sudden we looked around and thought: The world is changing, I am seeing it change. This is for me the moment when the new America began: I was at a graduation ceremony at a public high school in New Jersey. It was 1971 or 1972. One by one a stream of black-robed students walked across the stage and received their diplomas. And a pretty young girl with red hair, big under her graduation gown, walked up to receive hers. The auditorium stood up and applauded. I looked at my sister: “She’s going to have a baby.”

The girl was eight months pregnant and had had the courage to go through with her pregnancy and take her finals and finish school despite society’s disapproval.

But: Society wasn’t disapproving. It was applauding. Applause is a right and generous response for a young girl with grit and heart. And yet, in the sound of that applause I heard a wall falling, a thousand-year wall, a wall of sanctions that said: We as a society do not approve of teenaged unwed motherhood because it is not good for the child, not good for the mother and not good for us.

The old America had a delicate sense of the difference between the general (“We disapprove”) and the particular (Let’s go help her”). We had the moral self-confidence to sustain the paradox, to sustain the distance between “official” disapproval and “unofficial” succor. The old America would not have applauded the girl in the big graduation gown, but some of its individuals would have helped her not only materially but with some measure of emotional support. We don’t so much anymore. For all our tolerance and talk we don’t show much love to what used to be called girls in trouble. As we’ve gotten more open-minded we’ve gotten more closed-hearted.

Message to society: What you applaud, you encourage. And: Watch out what you celebrate.

The author of those words is Peggy Noonan. She published them in, get this, 1992. Some things have gotten better over the last 26 years. For example, when she published this, David Dinkins was mayor of her town, New York City, and the city would record just over 2,000 homicides. Know how many the city recorded last year, 25 years after the column was published? Only 290.  Progress is real!

On the other hand, I can’t get out of my head the words spoken to me by a professor at an Evangelical Christian college. Speaking about the student body, which is predominantly white, he told me that he didn’t think most of them would ever be able to form stable families. I was shocked by this.These were not kids from the blighted projects or wretched rural trailer parks. Why not? I asked.

He said, “Because they have never seen it done.”

We live in a society in which the moral code that we applaud and the people we celebrate all say: Take the marshmallow now, and don’t worry about the future. This is going to cost us.

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SIG SAUER Aiming For Zero Charity Match Raises $45,000 for Active Heroes Foundation

SIG SAUER Aiming For Zero Charity Match Raises $45,000 for Active Heroes Foundation
SIG SAUER Aiming For Zero Charity Match Raises $45,000 for Active Heroes Foundation

Newington, N.H.-(Ammoland.com)- SIG SAUER Academy is pleased to officially announce the successful completion of the Second Annual SIG SAUER Aiming for Zero Charity Match having raised over $45,000 for the Active Heroes Foundation.

Aiming for Zero is a division of the Active Heroes Foundation whose mission is to reduce veteran suicide and assist military families. The Active Heroes Foundation provides physical, educational, and emotional programming to assist veterans and their families that are reintegrating following deployment and/or suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or depression.

“We are grateful for the sacrifice our soldiers and Marines and their families make to protect our freedoms, but we are also all too aware of the difficulty these heroes can face when they return from the battlefield. At SIG SAUER we are committed to the men and women of the Armed Forces at every stage of their service and want to ensure they have the resources, and the support, they need to overcome any challenge they may face,” said Tom Taylor, Chief Marketing Officer and Executive Vice President of Commercial Sales, SIG SAUER, Inc. “One Veteran suicide, is one too many, which is why this partnership between the Active Heroes Foundation and the SIG SAUER Aiming for Zero Charity Match is so important. Our sponsorship ensures that 100% of the proceeds raised from the SIG SAUER Aiming for Zero Charity Match goes directly to the Active Heroes Foundation Veterans Services programming.”

Nearly 300 shooters, including Team SIG Captain, and professional shooter, Max Michel participated in the second annual SIG SAUER Aiming for Zero Charity Match held at the SIG SAUER Academy in Epping, New Hampshire, May 18th through May 20th. The match was a mix of IDPA, USPSA, and Steel Challenge disciplines with an Iron Sights division, a PCC division, and an Optics/Open division. Full match results can be viewed at practiscore.com.

To learn more about the Active Heroes Foundation visit activeheroes.org.


SIG SAUER, Inc. is a leading provider and manufacturer of firearms, electro-optics, ammunition, Advanced Sport Pellet (ASP) airguns, suppressors, and training. For over 100 years SIG SAUER, Inc. has evolved, and thrived, by blending American ingenuity, German engineering, and Swiss precision. Today, SIG SAUER is synonymous with bar-setting quality and innovation which has made it the brand of choice amongst the U.S. Military, the global defense community, law enforcement, competitive shooters, hunters, and responsible citizens. Additionally, SIG SAUER is the premier provider of elite firearms instruction and tactical training at the SIG SAUER Academy – a world class, state-of-the-art, 140-acre training facility. SIG SAUER is headquartered in Newington, New Hampshire, and has more than 1,700 employees across eight locations, and is the largest member of a worldwide business group that includes SIG SAUER GmbH & Co. KG in Germany, and Swiss Arms AG in Switzerland. For more information about the company and product line visit: sigsauer.com.

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Gun Owners Of America Issues Statement On Santa Fe Shooting

What happened Friday was awful. Unfortunately, because a firearm was used, we’ll inevitably continue to debate the tools used rather than the mentality behind such attacks.

It’s also because of this that gun rights organizations need to speak out in the aftermath of such an attack. Friday, Gun Owners of American issued a statement about the attack.

Gun Owners of America Statement on Santa Fe, Texas Shooting

Springfield, VA – Executive Director of Gun Owners of America (GOA) Erich Pratt stated the following after the tragic shooting at the high school in Santa Fe, Texas:

“Everyone at GOA grieves with those who lost loved ones. Our prayers go out for families of those affected. It’s heartbreaking to see innocent lives lost.

“Sadly, the media is focused on this shooting, and they continue to do so because they will use it to advance their gun control agenda. Some outlets are continuing to cite the fake number of mass shootings in 2018, which was refuted by The Washington Post after the tragic Parkland shooting.

“The mainstream media has ignored potential mass shootings that were stopped by armed personal, such as the school resource officers who stopped shooters in Maryland and Illinois.

“GOA remains firmly committed to protecting our Second Amendment rights and urges Congress to pass the ‘Safe Students Act’ to repeal gun-free schools, and for Texas to pass Constitutional Carry.”

Now, part of the reason the media focused on the shooting is because of the old news adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.” A school shooting will always draw media attention, and part of that is because people want to know what happened. That’s not going to change, even if the media suddenly did a 180 on guns.

That said, it was almost as if the media was salivating at another school shooting, only to be visibly disappointed that the weapon wasn’t an AR-15, not to mention that none of the anti-gun proposals being floated around would have done one thing to stop this shooting.

It’s not surprising, though. Let’s be honest, we all know the current proposals on the table are useless. This shooting illustrated just how little they would do to prevent school shootings. And by “little,” I mean “jack squat.”

The problem is something deeper into the psychology of these shootings. Luckily, we have a handful of mass shooters who surrendered. We need a psychological study of these people to begin to delve into their pathology. We know that blaming the guns is stupid. However, blaming nebulous concepts as “mental illness” is useless, too. There are millions of students suffering from things like depression who would never even raise a finger to hurt their fellow students.

No, we need to understand what makes these people tick, what the common factors are, and continue to build a profile while trying to find ways to curtail these horrible crimes. The more we can learn, the more we can stop these attacks from happening.

In the meantime, let’s remember that it was a couple of good guys with guns that wounded the attacker and ultimately convinced him to surrender.

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She Killed Her Husband And Children In Cold Blood, But She Blames It On Her Childhood

When a Keego Harbor, Michigan woman went on a killing spree, she had one thing to blame – her childhood. Although she was 45 at the time of the murder-suicide, she wrote a note detailing how it was her parents’ fault. The tragic murder-suicide reveals the stress this shunned Jehovah’s witness mom endured in the last days of her life. She had researched suicide methods and videos on how to operate a Glock on YouTube for weeks before she turned a gun on her family on February 15.

Before committing the heinous crime, Stuart shared a video describing herself as “broken” and that she was done burdening her family with her presence. But instead of just taking her life, she killed her 47-year-old husband Daniel and her children, Steven, 27, and Bethany, 24.

She left a note on her dinner table and cleaned up the home. Then she texted loved ones and her husband’s boss. The last thing she did before killing her family was to leave the family photos on a secretary desk.

“I took my husband and kids with me, so they don’t have to feel my selfish act. They will sleep until Christ resurrects them,” Stuart wrote in a text to a cousin on February 15 at 5.07pm “I truly hope you do better where I have failed.”

Investigators found evidence of years of depression and trauma from alleged sexual abuse from her youth. But it was the ostracism from the Jehovah’s Witness church that pushed her over the edge.

Police obtained a two-minute video from Stuart that describes why she was planning the suicide. That was created on February 6 at 11 pm. In that video, she said she had “many issues” and “can’t do it anymore” and how she no longer wanted to be a burden on her family.

She made another video on February 7 where she talked about her “path of destruction” and the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of a family member.

On the day she killed her family, she sent the following text to her husband’s boss:

“Mark, this is Lauren. Dan had an accident this morning and has died. I can’t talk now. Someone will inform you later on details at hospital.”

The boss asked for more details, but Stuart ignored his texts.

Hours later she sent the text to her cousin. That one described how she “became evil” so she “took my husband and kids, so they don’t have to feel my selfish act.”

The cousin responded: “Lauren, you are scaring me? What are you saying????? … Don’t do it Lauren.”

No response.

Then at 9 pm, a neighbor heard gunshots and a slamming door.

Stuart killed her children by luring them to the house under the promise of a Valentine’s Day celebration.

“This was premeditated and carefully planned out by Lauren,” police wrote in their report.

Her suicide note read: “I allowed evil into my heart when I chose not to accept God’s free love and it made me sick inside. I killed my family because I know my death would stumble them. At least now they will not suffer and will be resurrected into love forever in peace.”

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Tom Wolfe’s Tribalist America

Tom Wolfe in person was rather subdued, even bland. I remember feeling oddly crestfallen when I discovered this, that the writer who had so long enchanted me on the page wasn’t a drawling troublemaker like Hunter S. Thompson or a puckish raconteur like Gore Vidal. Indeed, Wolfe’s personality may have been the only quiet thing about him, a contrast with his hair-on-fire prose, the 60s cultural geysers erupting around him, even his trademark white suit.

Yet how else should he have been? Wolfe, whose death this week left our literary scene all the hollower, is known today for his novels. But first and foremost he was the finest reporter of his generation, with an ear for dialectical precision and an eye for aesthetic nuance, none of which would have registered had he preferred to talk rather than listen, to flaunt rather than observe. Trained as a newspaper man, inspired by realists like Dickens and naturalists like Zola, he made a career first out of experimenting with feature reporting—which he eventually elevated into a literary style he called New Journalism—and then applying that to fiction. An indefatigable witness to the human condition, he ventured constantly to the places he sought to portray and skewered other novelists—among them John Updike and John Irving—whom he saw as succumbing to the entropy of the office. He called for intrepid writers who would, as he put it in his essay Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, “head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping, Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.” In an age when impactful cultural melees like the one at Charlottesville are covered largely by spot reporters photosynthesizing in front of computer screens hundreds of miles away, that call is more relevant than ever.

It wasn’t just the meticulous research that distinguished Wolfe, but his contagious style, which has unconsciously slipped into the prose of many an admiring young writer. Wolfe alone could do Wolfe—that much was clear—yet his madcap way with words is essential study for anyone who wants to become an effective stylist. In high school, too many students are initiated into the cult of Strunk and White, those dread lords of awful writing who, were there justice in this world, would be put on trial for crimes against the language before some sort of writerly tribunal. Wolfe is the antidote to all that because he gleefully and methodically breaks every one of their dreary rules. His sentences slalom along through run-on clauses, fragments, dialects, slang, brand names, onomatopoeia, archaisms, alliterations, exclamation points, italics, neologisms. What English 101 builds up, Wolfe dynamites down, allowing one to reconstruct the debris into original style.

To Wolfe, a group of kids eating snacks in San Francisco City Hall was a “childstorm” that filled “the very air with a hurricane of malted milk, an orange blizzard of crushed ice from the Slurpees, with acid red horrors like the red from the taffy apples and the jelly from the jelly doughnuts, with globs of ice cream in purple sheets of root beer, with plastic straws and huge bilious waxed cups and punch cans and sprinkles of Winkles, and with mustard from off the hot dogs and little lettuce shreds from off the tacos, with things that splash and things that plop and things that ooze and stick….” The emaciated women of Manhattan high life were “social X-Rays,” the sarcasm-laden banter of college students was classified on a scale from “Sarc I” to “Sarc III,” and a passing fleet of custom cars meant “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm).” This style, manic and contortionist, was ideal for 1960s romps like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, where most of Wolfe’s subjects were high on acid, but it also worked surprisingly well in The Bonfire of the Vanities, where his characters’ constant need to maintain class status results in plenty of hysterical angst.

Bonfire is probably Wolfe’s best work; it’s certainly the finest novel about New York City ever written. But it’s the underrated I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe’s study of the modern university campus, that stands out for me. It was pilloried, not wrongly, by critics for its overreliance on stock characters and rush job of an ending. Yet Charlotte is also Wolfe’s most universal novel and for that reason his most familiar, full of little pinpricks of recognition for anyone who attended a stay-away college. Wolfe wrote it after four years of observing frat parties and sports tailgates, and the result is an alarming typhoon of sex and degradation, all seen through the eyes of a doe-eyed freshman from the hinterlands of North Carolina. In particular, the slow-burning set piece towards the end, which sees the heretofore awkward Charlotte pregame too much vodka and cozy up to frat-boy heel Hoyt Thorpe—while the reader simultaneously rejoices over her social acceptance and dreads the loss of her virginity he knows is coming—is impossible to look away from. And Charlotte’s aftermath of shame and depression is wrenching enough to make anyone reassess their own good times at college.

As all that might suggest, Wolfe was a man of the right. I say that not in the aspirational way that some conservatives claim South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (“they make fun of liberals, so they must be one of us!”) but as a matter-of-fact descriptor of his politics. Not only did he find ample subject matter in the pathologies of 60s leftism, he railed against communists and radicals, wrote for the American Spectator, favorably blurbed Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism, and even had kind words for George W. Bush. This, I think, was both a genuine expression of his Southern upbringing and a celebration of Kingsley Amis’s dictum “if you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.” Wolfe was, to culturally appropriate Churchill, in the New York establishment but not of it, and he relished nothing more than poking its eminences in the eyes. As he put it, “I cannot stand the lockstep among everyone in my particular world. They all do the same thing without variation. It gets so boring. There is something in me that particularly wants it registered that I am not one of them.”

The eminences hit back on occasion. John Updike called Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full “not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form,” while John Irving denounced the Wolfean style as “yak.” Christopher Hitchens, who had a limited respect for Wolfe, nevertheless declared: “There has probably never been a less prescient journo-novel than The Bonfire of the Vanities.” On that, at least, he had a point. Bonfire, which mixed together the dollar-chasing louts of opulent Park Avenue and the black underclass of the Bronx—just add vinegar—presaged a New York doomed to racial and class warfare. Whereas the city at the time of Hitchens’ writing was turning into a glorified daycare center, as Rudy Giuliani’s war on jaywalkers begat Michael Bloomberg’s war on canned soup. Crime was down, order was in, and the authorities had turned from the big to the trivial. Wolfe, it seemed, had gotten it wrong. That dovetails into another critique of Wolfe, which is that, rather than assess a college campus independently from Atlanta independently from New York, he applied the Bonfire model across the board, a sort of one-size-fits-all right-wing identity politics that sees different demographics as irreconcilable, whether rich and poor, blacks and whites, frat boys and nerds.

That lens may have proven distorted in New York, but position it over present-day America and it suddenly seems less smudged. Wolfe’s understanding of humanity was primarily tribal: people take on the customs and prejudices of the groups they belong to and clash with those they don’t. Hence why his characters are often accused of being universals rather than particulars. Hence, too, why his final (and weakest) novel, Back to Blood, was set in Miami and covered the tensions engendered by mass immigration. Contra Hitchens, what could be more prescient than that? In Back to Blood, the Cuban-American mayor of Miami tells the African-American police chief: “I mean we can’t mix them together, but we can forge a secure place for each nationality, each ethnic group, each race, and make sure they’re on the same level plane.” Is this our destiny, an America of subgroups that never quite melt into the pot? Are we doomed for more conflagration a la Charlottesville? Or is the liberal multicultural dream still possible, even desirable? That we’re even asking these questions suggests Wolfe has been vindicated more than his critics allow.

Ultimately, the only way we’ll get the answers is if we trouble to embark into this America of ours, sneakers laced, notebook paper crinkling in the breeze, lush phrases turning in our minds, determined to confront the weirdness in our backyard and chronicle it in a way that is—saints preserve us!—fun to read. Tom Wolfe’s work is ours now. May he rest in peace.

Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.

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