Monday, April 30, 2012

Bonfire of the Vanities, redux

In 1987, I was working in Washington, D.C. as Press Secretary to Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, and when I rode the Metro to Capitol Hill, it seemed like at least half of my fellow passengers were reading a Tom Wolfe novel titled Bonfire of the Vanities. I eventually broke down and bought a copy as well. It was a grind to get through it - 690 pages in the hardcover edition - but it was well worth it.

(I realize most of you under 30 have never heard of the book. Believe it or not, there were interesting novels published before Harry Potter.)

It's a long, complicated tale, but I'll try to boil it down to its essence. The main character is a millionaire New York City bond trader named Sherman McCoy (later played by Tom Hanks in the execrable movie adaptation). Wealthy and privileged, McCoy is driving his Mercedes one night with his mistress when they get lost between Manhattan and JFK airport, and wind up in the Bronx. Trying to return to Manhattan, they find a freeway ramp blocked with debris. McCoy gets out to clear the debris, and two young black men approach. Fearing a robbery, McCoy and his mistress try to flee. Their car (which the mistress is now driving) inadvertently sideswipes one of the youth, who winds up in a coma. Panicked (and unsure if the car hit a person or object), McCoy returns to his Park Avenue penthouse and hides the car in his garage.

A "social activist" black minister, looking for publicity to distract from his own financial scandal, feeds the story of this mysterious hit-and-run to a seedy journalist, who inflates the story (the street thug is transformed into "an honor student") to try to rescue his own career. Toss in an ambitious prosecutor, a corrupt judge and a media firestorm, and soon the hapless McCoy (who, remember, wasn't even driving at the time) is dragged into court for vehicular homicide. Race riots threaten to overrun the city because of the image of this rich, privileged white man callously hitting a member of a minority and running away. McCoy, faced with protestors outside his building, can't understand why so many people hate him when they don't know him or the facts of the story. Trust me, it's a great read.

Sound at all familiar? I've been thinking about that book a lot as the Amy Senser case has unfolded. The Senser case should go to the jury Tuesday, and I expect (thought I certainly may be wrong) an acquittal on the main charges by Wednesday.

There are so many similarities between the book and the Senser story - they were both driving Mercedes! - but I've focused more on the protestors outside Sherman McCoy's apartment. They marched and carried signs and wanted McCoy's blood, all based on (inaccurate) media accounts and their own resentment and jealousy of someone who lived in a Park Avenue penthouse.

Today, thanks to the internet, those Park Avenue protestors are instead found in the comments section of the Star-Tribune and Pioneer Press web sites. If you stop reading at the end of the story and skip the comments, you're missing some real insight into the 21st century American psyche.

People - or at least, the people who write comments on media web sites - HATE people who are successful. Running through the comments is a constant stream of envy and jealousy and hatred towards Amy and Joe Senser. People "know" that Amy was drunk. They "know" that she was on her phone. They "know" that she has alcohol and drug problems. They "know" that she clearly saw the victim, they "know" that she and Joe were lying on the witness stand and "know" a whole host of things that, of course, they have no way of possibly knowing.

It's an ugly strain of hatred, directed at a family that the vast majority of the comment writers will never know, using "facts" that they can't possible know are true. It's based, as I said, on jealousy and envy and a resentment of anyone at a higher socio-economic level, and if you ever had any doubt that "Minnesota Nice" was a myth, reading these comments will set you straight.

Tim Droogsma

1 comment:

  1. Reading the comments in the Pioneer Press, it confirms that any sane defendant should waive their 7th amendment right to a jury trial and request a bench trial, particularly if a person is not guilty, assuming a normal judge. If these are our peers, we're in a mess of trouble if we are not a member of some grievance group.

    Abe Frommen, Sausage King of Chicago