CHICAGO — Tom Wolfe, the great American author, also is proving to be a great American patriot in this chapter of his life. During an emotional speech before members of the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts (NAREIT) that ended with a standing ovation, the New Yorker in the trademark white suit touted economic freedom and defended America's role as a superpower.
Wolfe, who lost three friends when they were incinerated during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, also expressed anger toward some Europeans and members of the intellectual elite in America for exhibiting a “perverse satisfaction” with the tragedy that claimed more than 5,000 lives.
“We think that we have so much of Europe on our side. I have to wonder,” lamented Wolfe, the author of several best-selling novels including “A Man in Full,” which provides a satirical look at contemporary Atlanta society and the commercial real estate community. “Throughout Europe there is a feeling of what a lot of people call wounded chauvinism, the fact that they [France and England] were once the great powers.” Wolfe argues that the American influence in film, culture and science worldwide have only served to deepen those feelings of wounded chauvinism.
“People who are not against us politically in any ordinary sense are taking a perverse satisfaction in what has happened to us,” said Wolfe, addressing a luncheon crowd of several hundred real estate executives at the Sheraton Towers on Oct. 11. “There is the more vulgar form: ‘You got what you deserved. You've been invading other countries at will, and now you've got a taste of it.’ A subtle or less virulent form of it is, “‘Well, now you at last understand what we in Europe have been going through for centuries.’”
Wolfe, a native Virginian who possesses a dramatic flair for storytelling, recounted how his blood boiled when he first heard similar remarks expressed by a European friend. “I thought to myself, ‘What are you talking about?’ We in America have left the convenient isolation of a country with oceans on either side twice in the 20th century to keep you out from under the heels of dictators. Tens of thousands of Americans have lost their lives to save you.'”
A substantial number of Europeans believe that the success America has enjoyed economically during the past 75 years can be attributed to dumb luck, said Wolfe. “Our own intellectuals take the same stance that they're going to inform the lucky lummoxes about the truth of the world.”
In particular, the author takes exception with some of the writings of “intellectuals” in this country such as Susan Sontag who argue that the attack on our nation was undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions. Wolfe's response is that American military intervention abroad since World War II has been for idealistic purposes, either to stamp out communism or to stop oppression. “Think of the war in Vietnam, a terribly conducted war that dragged on and on. At the time we were accused of imperialism,” Wolfe said. “This was an idealistic war solely to stop communism.”
Wolfe added, “Think of Somalia, think of Haiti, think of Bosnia. There is absolutely nothing there that the imperialists would want. Find something in those countries that anybody wants. It was sheer idealism of a sort that only Americans are capable of.”
A common bond
What makes America so unique, according to Wolfe, is that anyone who is either born here or arrives here from another country, and is willing to make the most of his or her opportunity, can share in its wealth. He cites the rise of Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, as an example. Economic and personal freedom galvanizes Americans of all colors and languages and has led to the patriotic fervor we've witnessed in the wake of the attack, he believes. The author described Park Avenue, the sophisticated, wealthy, self-stylized boulevard in New York City, as awash in a sea of American flags.
Near the end of his speech, Wolfe quoted from an article, “Ode to America,” written by a Romanian newspaperman who was in New York at the time of the attack, a man who knew what it's like to live under the heel of tyrants. The Romanian reporter expressed amazement at the brave acts of heroism, such as the two men who carried a woman in a wheelchair down more than 60 flights of stairs at the World Trade Center following the attack. The journalist was overwhelmed by how quickly Americans bolted into action to donate blood, money or whatever was needed to assist the rescue efforts.
“After a month of reflection,” Wolfe concluded, “I for one am shocked. I'm still dazed but I'm encouraged.”