Jewish World Review March 22, 2006 / 22 Adar, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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The joker | I was going to catch your eye with the headline "A Conversation With Tom Wolfe," but decided that would be misleading even for a journalist. Because I was only reading an interview that The Wall Street Journal conducted with the iconic American novelist, essayist, social critic, man-about-town, fashion plate and aristocratic Luddite.

I'm not sure if all that covers it, but it's a start.

Almost from the first, the celebrated author and provocateur got my attention (and admiration) with a typically comprehensive Tom Wolfe blast at yet another modern inconvenience, e-mail. He begins by saying he has nothing against the Internet in theory, a sure indication he has everything against it in practice. He then fires verbal barrage after barrage with ever mounting effect till no computer terminal is left standing:

"Using the Internet is the modern form of knitting. It's something to do with idle hands. When you knitted, though, you actually had something to show for it at the end. Thomas Jefferson used to answer all his mail from the day before as soon as he got up at dawn. In his position, think of the number of e-mails he'd have had. He never would have been Thomas Jefferson if he'd been scrupulous about answering all these things. I think e-mail is a wonderful time-waster. It's peerless. Here it is, you can establish contact — useless contact — with innumerable human beings."

Bravissimo! You have to marvel at the completeness of the devastation wrought — even if I happen to be writing my compliments to Mr. Wolfe on a computer at the moment, after which I'll e-mail it to the syndicate that distributes my column. The Internet does have its uses.

By now even Tom Wolfe may recognize as much. For he's been reduced to using a computer instead of his trusty old typewriter. Maintaining the old machine, he discovered, "is pretty hard. It really is like owning a buggy. You have to have all these parts made, or else cannibalized from somewhere, and you have to have your ribbons re-inked. That tells you it's time to move on."

Newspapers determined to stick with the old Linotype machines were confronted by much the same necessity after a time. Progress marches on, often enough right over us and our favorite technologies. No doubt much the same lament was sung over the quill pen.

Tom Wolfe, bless him, has done his durndest to stick with the old ways. But it can be a losing struggle. The classic, antebellum white suit, for example, has become his trademark. You have to worry about his taste, however, when he tells his interviewer, the Journal's Joseph Rago:

BLOCKQUOTE> "I have this pimped-up car now, which is all white, with total white interior; there's synthetic white suede that covers the roof and ceiling; they call it the headliner. White leather seats, and the rims are powder-painted white, and it has white sidewalls. I figured why spend all that time on the highway and not be noticed?"

But if the author's latest theory about what drives human beings is correct — the search for status — it is only those of the highest status who can still afford not to be noticed in an era when privacy has become a luxury of the past.

Today the Internet may spit out all kinds of details about our lives — not just name, rank and serial number but address, credit rating, magazines we subscribe to, the brand of cereal we prefer, and who knows what else.

Consider Tom Wolfe's own, embarrassing dossier: He once let it slip, in an interview with The New York Times, that he'd voted for George W. Bush, scandalizing blue-staters of all states. "The reaction among the people I move among," he says, "was really interesting. It was as if I had raised my hand and said, 'Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you, I'm a child molester.'"

Oh, come on. That's scarcely fair. The author has got to be exaggerating. At a time when polygamy is already becoming the next idealistic cause, and man-boy societies are yesterday's outrage, surely being a child molester couldn't possibly offend on the scale of having voted for W.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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