Expert Excerpts: Literature, TV, and Film

                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Patrick Allitt — “What’s so great about George Orwell?”

Patrick Allitt Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
We’re going to head into our second speaker, who is Patrick Allitt. Patrick is going to talk about why we should still care about George Orwell. Patrick, fire away.

Patrick Allitt:
Thanks very much, Larry. George Orwell had the bad luck to become famous only at the very end of his life. His most famous book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, came out in June of 1949, and he died the following January aged just 46. Since then, his reputation has risen steadily, and people all over the world invoke his name to justify themselves and to criticize their opponents. That’s unusual. Most writers, especially writers on controversial issues of politics and economics, draw as much blame as praise. Think about Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes. Each of them has plenty of admirers, but many fierce critics too.

By contrast, there are, so far as I know, no outspoken anti-Orwellians. Most people on the political left in the English-speaking world claim Orwell as one of their own. So, they should because Orwell was a democratic socialist who thought capitalism was a dysfunctional system based on exploitation and dedicated to preserving social injustice and inequality.

Orwell fought for the Spanish Republic during Spain’s civil war in the late 1930s after enlisting in a far left anarchist militia group. During World War II, he wrote that Britain could only win the war if it underwent an internal socialist revolution. But during the Cold War in the years just after his death, Orwell became almost equally popular on the political right. This was because his two most famous books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, were the cleverest and most artful denunciations of communism written up to that time.

The fact that the Stalinist in Animal Farm are pigs and that they tried to imitate men by walking on two legs instead of four made them seem ridiculous as well as menacing. During the Cold War, of course, communism was the great enemy, and Animal Farm, a book even middle schoolers could enjoy, simultaneously satirized and condemned it. Even after the Cold War, Orwell remained popular on the right because his works could be used to criticize big government. People caught in a bureaucratic web, a common enough experience, compare themselves to characters in Orwell’s fiction, and people aware of constant electronic surveillance compare their situation to that of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four who
knows always that Big Brother is watching you. Conspiracy theorists who fear what they call the deep state also evoke the menacing image of Big brother.

There’s a lot more to Nineteen Eighty-Four than just the anti-communism. It’s also a book about standing up for the truth and resisting peer pressure. Winston Smith, the central character, tries to do just that. After his arrest, his interrogator, O’Brien, tells him that two plus two can make five if the regime says so. Smith realizes that he can only preserve his dignity and his humanity if he continues to believe that two and two make four and only four.

It’s a book about the emotional honesty, about refusing to believe something or to love something out of fear or expediency. The disheartening end comes when Winston Smith can no longer hold out against the barrage of falsehood and propaganda and is forced to admit to himself that he loves Big Brother. The book ends, therefore, in failure, but readers honor Winston, the struggling as long as he did to uphold the simple truth because the ability of any citizen to think clearly threatened the regime’s omnipotence.

George Orwell didn’t go to college, and one of the pleasures of reading his work is his constant denigration of professional intellectuals. He thought of them as bloodless, cold, and shallow, willing to rely on theory instead of actual experience. His most severe scorn was reserved for British intellectuals who joined the communist party and defended Stalin’s show trials. Men like that, he knew, were going to give socialism a bad name.

By contrast, he had faith in the common decency and basic good sense of ordinary people. He wrote affectionate portraits of men and women who did hard jobs like the coal blackened miners in his Depression-era book, The Road to Wigan Pier. In one of his most memorable and paradoxical phrases, he called coal “the filthy heart of civilization.”

Among the first American critics to realize Orwell’s merits was Lionel Trilling, who taught English literature at Columbia University in the 1940s and ’50s. In an introduction to one of Orwell’s books, Trilling wrote that many of the great writers of the early 20th century, like George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and D. H. Lawrence, were geniuses whose work was so impressive that aspiring young writers often found it a bit discouraging.

Trilling went on, “If we ask what Orwell stands for, the answer is the virtue of not being a genius of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple direct undeceived intelligence and the respect for the powers one does have and the work one undertakes to do.” I think that’s absolutely right, and it’s partly why Orwell is as enjoyable and informative now as he was when his books and essays are fresh off the press. Thanks very much.

Larry Bernstein:
Excellent, Patrick.

Patrick Allitt QA Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
I guess I want to start out with a quick story and bring it in. I read Nineteen Eighty-Four to my kids aloud, and in the last scene of book, Here’s the background. There’s been a war between Oceania and Asia, and Big Brother’s troops win, and Smith says, “Oh, my God, I love Big Brother,” and in that moment, a bullet goes through the Smith’s head. My son, I think was probably 10 or 11 at the time, said, “Oh, my God, this really is a masterpiece.”

Larry Bernstein:
I think the brilliance of Orwell is, I guess, coupled. Not only is he able to have a philosophical analysis, but there’s also a literary genius to him as well. Patrick, could you speak a little bit about, I’ll call it, the literary aspects of it that make it so good, his Ministry of Truth, his word choice, it so real and so problematic.

Patrick Allitt:
Well, I think he’s particularly strong at depicting characters. Sometimes in the books, they really are himself in books like Homage to Catalonia or Down and Out in Paris and London, and sometimes they’re fictional transfigurations of himself, but in every case, he makes the character seem incredibly vulnerable and shows the character trying to hang on to a basic sense of decency in the face of powers and/or authorities, which are going to be too strong for him.

He’s very, very talented at creating the sense of the underdog struggling for his dignity and sometimes even to stay alive at all, but then beautiful coinages like the Ministry of Truth where nothing but lies takes place and doublespeak the constant tendency of their regime to forcibly present the telling of simple truths because truth is the thing that’s going to threaten the authority of the regime itself.

There’s also a great moment when Winston Smith is being tortured, or he’s being prepared for torture by O’Brien when he still thinks, “Surely, this regime justifies itself according to some higher criteria like the triumph of the proletariat,” but O’Brien says, “Oh, no, we’re just doing it for power itself.” I think that’s a great moment where Orwell blows the lid off the pretentions of regimes to say, “Eventually, there’s going to be one so cynical and so power hungry, it’s not even going to pretend that it’s interested in some higher principle.”

Larry Bernstein:
Yeah, that is fantastic, but in that scene in Room 101, they’re able to figure out exactly the torture that he was most scared of. In this case, it was like a rat in a cage being opened up and being allowed to eat through them or something. All of us have, I guess, our biggest fears, and Orwell uniquely is able to capture that concept and just drive it home even though it has nothing to do with the general themes of the book. It’s, again, another literary strategy to make us very scared and upset.

Patrick Allitt:
That’s right. I think there was quite a lot of early 20th century literature about heroic resistance to torture and heroic resistance to psychological manipulation. There’s a terrific scene, for example, in [inaudible 00:32:00] arrival and departure where the principal character is able to resist his communist tortures, but I think Orwell takes the more realistic view of saying, “No, no. Once the tortures have worked out what we fear most, we’re going to be absolutely incapable of holding out.”

Julia, the woman he loves and whose love is the central, well, phenomenon of the novel, which keeps our hopes alive, instantly gives him a way when she’s tortured by what she fears most. Similarly, his knowledge that the rats might gnaw at his face, he simply hasn’t got the resourcefulness to resist it. I think that’s a realistic appreciation of the power of totalitarian tortures.

Larry Bernstein:
Well, I think the relevance of Orwell today, it was so relevant, I’ll call it, doublespeak and information coming from regimes, but there was this other character whose job it was, was once someone has been in a show trial, that they have to be removed from history. They’ll have to remove them from the newspapers. They’ll remove them from photographs. It would be like they never existed. I don’t know what the Stalinist regime did in that regard, but it reflects a technology that probably is now capable. Maybe just as a metaphor, we had Alan Dershowitz a couple of weeks ago talk about cancel culture and that they would be forever stigmatized. How do you think about some of Orwell’s basic themes as it applies as technology improves to our current society,

Patrick Allitt:
It clearly does have a relevance. When the Soviet Union wanted to get rid of the memory of Trotsky, it did what we’d regard as incredibly primitive jobs of removing his face from the photographs, but they’re easily detectable as forgeries. The growing sophistication of things like photoshopping pictures today makes it incomparably more difficult for us to know what’s fake and what’s real, and obviously, the success of internet interference, but… Of internet interference, but possibly in the 2016 election by Russians working on behalf of Trump, they’re showing that it can be done very effectively. Of course, we’ve also seen demonstrations of the power that the technology companies have, although I’m very glad that Trump was thrown off Twitter and wasn’t commenting during the recent inauguration. There’s no question that that shows you the great political power that Twitter has. So when regimes are themselves running sophisticated technology organizations like that, we really do have a situation which might reasonably be described as Orwellian. Just thinking about what’s happened to sales of his book, every time there’s a new threatening political situation or a new threatening political phenomenon, sales of 1984 spike very sharply. They spiked just after Trump’s inauguration, one of his press secretaries began to talk about alternative facts.

Of course, that sounded just like doublespeak. Back in Nixon’s day, I was very interested to hear the previous speaker talking about intense hatred of Nixon. You probably remember that he had a press secretary, I think it was Ron Ziegler, who made a statement, which was then shown to be untrue. Then he said something like, “Oh, that statement is no longer operative.” In other words, “I was lying, but now I know I can’t give you that line anymore, so now I’m going to give you another one.” Moments like that lead to increases in sales of the book. So I do think, Orwell, who’s, I think is probably the bestselling novelist of the whole 20th century, even though luckily he was wrong in predicting that Britain and America would be totalitarian states by the 1980s was very good at foreseeing some of the ways in which manipulation of technology adds to the power of regimes.

William Fischel:
Can I jump in and ask a question here? Orwell died young. Do you think if he’d lived a normal life span, he would have stayed a socialist?

Patrick Allitt:
Yes, I do. I think his deepest principle was his hatred of inequality. The difference is that he might’ve developed a more grudging respect for the powers of capitalism in the 1950s and ’60s during that prolonged economic boom. But there’s no question that he’s someone who came from the British upper classes and wanted to get rid of his class privilege and wanted to become a formal ordinary person in economic terms than he’d started out as. One of the paradoxes of his reputation is that since his death, everybody’s trying to claim, he thought in the way that we now think, and if he was alive now, he would be one of us, but overwhelmingly, the socialists still have the best case to make, because he was very explicit, we’ve got to get rid of capitalism because it’s based on inequality and inequality is intolerable and we’ve got to get rid of all forms of class privilege.

Ironically, during World War II, he wrote a great little pamphlet called The Lion and the Unicorn, in which he said, “The only way Britain is going to win this war is by having an internal socialist revolution.” Well, no sooner did the war end than the labor party came into office for the first time, nationalized many of the great industries, nationalized the universities, set up the National Health Service, but almost at once… Orwell didn’t think, “Oh, this is the situation I was hoping for.” He started grumbling that the government hadn’t abolished the House of Lords. In other words, he was far to the left, even of the British labor movements at the time when it was very powerful. I think the most illuminating remark he made as a guide to his own politics was this, “The worst enemy of socialism is communism.”

That sounds very paradoxical to American audiences because the propaganda against socialism for so long assumed that socialism and communism were more or less on a continuum, but as far as he was concerned, they were polar antagonists and that the great thing about socialism was that it was democratic and that it was based on genuine equality, whereas communism was dictatorial and was based on the rule of a narrow elite, which was going to be repressive and cynical. So although lots of people through the late 20th century made persuasive arguments in favor of the idea that Orwell might be one of them, I think they were kidding themselves and that the socialists continue to have the best case to make.

Gary Fine:
Patrick, this is Gary Fine.

I wanted to asked, you raised Twitter as an example, the way that Twitter sensors, Facebook the same thing, YouTube, and I’m wondering today is the danger, the Orwellian danger from capitalist enterprises that are doing those very things that Orwell was talking about the state doing in 1984.

Patrick Allitt:
Well, there’s the possibility that they might start to do so. I suppose I’m in favor of a situation in which the companies are offset by the capacity of the government to regulate them. In other words, in a mixed economy, which we have, in which I favor, it’s true that a capitalist can often make threatening gestures, but it’s also true that government can regulate them. So the American situation now is much better than the situation in somewhere like China, where there’s no countervailing power and the state in fact has a monopoly on access to information.

Larry Bernstein:
But isn’t Gary’s question that censorship by either party against political speech is problematic at its core, and that you wouldn’t want to limit political speech as a principle and the fact that the platform for speaking happens to be capitalistic-oriented, like Twitter, does that justify limiting speech as a constitutional or moral issue? Is that, Gary, where you were headed?

Gary Fine:
Yes, essentially. Now we are seeing Twitter making decisions as to what can occur in the public sphere.

Patrick Allitt:
Well, my answer to that would be that there should always be a very strong presumption against censorship, and there should always be a presumption in favor of the maximum access to information. But when the purveyors of some of that information are deliberately ignoring the truth in the most elementary sense, then I’m sympathetic to the idea of these, of Twitter for example, saying, “We’re no longer going to countenance that, and whatever other companies want to do, we’re not going to put up with it.” I agree that there’s a very serious moral issue there, but I don’t think there’s a very strong argument to be made on behalf of people whose intention is to regale us with uninterrupted falsehoods.

Larry Bernstein:
Let me go back to another theme of Gary’s talk, which is demonization of the opposition almost at the outset. In Animal Farm, which you were discussing earlier, Orwell introduces Snowball, who I believe was the character who most resembled Trotsky.

Patrick Allitt:
Yeah.

Larry Bernstein:
In that, Trosky’s character, that pig who had been thrown off the farm years ago. Yet, he had been demonized whenever anything goes wrong on Animal Farm. The blame is always on Snowball and it is a conspiracy, that Snowball was leading is what’s causing the failure of, or the lack of efficiency or the plans of the leadership. How do you think about Snowball’s character in combination and the demonization, some of the things that Gary was talking about earlier?

Patrick Allitt:
Well, it’s clearly very useful for regimes to have scapegoats particularly authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, and Trotsky certainly served that function for the Soviet Union. I agree also with Gary’s general comment that certain politicians who’ve already got a long reputation for standing for certain things before they come into office are likely to generate polarizing passions of intense hatred or love and hatred. But luckily, I think in our society, it’s never gone anywhere like so far as it did in the Soviet Union. Orwell was clearly describing a real situation. One of the things that’s so horrifying about reading the history of the show trials, and if I’m reading about the Soviet Union in general during the 1930s, is that whenever anything went wrong, it was always described as sabotage.

In other words, they were completely unwilling to admit human weakness or the unrealistic character of the five-year plan or happenstance is what’s led to our problem. Always, the claim was they’d sabotage and it’s the sinister the Trotskyists. that’s why, and not only that, but then the show trials forced innocent people to claim that they had in fact, been saboteurs. Luckily, we don’t have anything comparable in our society. That’s why the freedom of the press and freedom of information and freedom of speech are so incredibly valuable and things we should cherish. That’s the point that Orwell did understand very well.

Larry Bernstein:
Patrick, thank you.

                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

David Grazian — Bonfire of the Vanities 30 years later

David Grazian Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
Okay. We now move on to our discussion about a bonfire of the vanities, Tom Wolfe’s 1980s classic. Our first speaker in this panel will be David Grazian, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Go ahead, David.

David Grazian:
Thanks Larry. Can you hear me?

Larry Bernstein:
Perfect. Go.

David Grazian:
As a teenager growing up in the New York suburbs during the 1980s, my vision of the city was deeply colored by the incendiary news coverage on local TV and the tabloid papers my father brought home, the Daily News and the New York Post. Their headlines screamed of junk bond kings, white-collar crime, crooked politicians, opportunistic community leaders, real estate moguls, fears of street and subway muggings, even scarier vigilantes, and all this against a backdrop of racial strife in the city. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987, author Tom Wolfe spins these headlines into laugh-out-loud satire, turning up the panic of the city to eleven. There are few heroes in Bonfire, with everyone cynically on the take, out for themselves.
Most of all, the city is divided by class. There are the haves, like bond salesman, Yale man, and “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy; his wife Judy, who got their Park Avenue co-op apartment featured in Architectural Digest; McCoy’s seductive mistress, Maria Ruskin; and the rich ladies Wolfe calls “social x-rays” on account of their slim bodies, so thin “you can see lamplight through their bones.” Then there are the have-nots, people of color who fill the city’s jails and courthouses, and heed the leadership of a corrupt Black power broker deliciously named Reverend Bacon who exploits them for private gain.

And then finally there are the working-stiffs in the middle. There’s Peter Fallow, a British alcoholic and parasitic reporter who writes for the New York City Light, a thinly-veiled stand-in for the New York Post; and Larry Kramer, an assistant district attorney commuting by subway from Manhattan to an underpaid job out in the Bronx. These characters all converge around a singular event that drives the narrative of the novel—a vehicular incident in a Bronx ghetto neighborhood from which McCoy and his mistress flee after having possibly run over a Black teenage boy with McCoy’s $48,000 Mercedes sports roadster.

Reading Bonfire more than thirty years after its 1987 publication, one is struck first by how this book is as much about New York City as it is about any of its cringeworthy characters; and one is then consequently struck by how much New York no longer looks the way it is depicted in the novel, and how much the city has changed in the intervening years. Most apparently, the crime rate has dramatically sunk—for instance, in 1987 there were 1,672 murders in New York; thirty years later, that figure had dropped to only 292 murders. With the crime drop came the renewal of Times Square and gentrification of Harlem, Alphabet City, and the outer boroughs, including many parts of the South Bronx where Bonfire takes place. Affluent whites used to fear venturing into Bronx neighborhoods like Mott Haven, the scene of the hit-and-run that swings the novel’s plot into motion. Today, it’s local residents of color who fear displacement as upper-income, white gentrifiers move in and rents increase. (In typical New York fashion, real estate gurus have embarrassingly renamed the South Bronx “SoBro”.)

Much else has also changed. The aristocratic world of high finance where McCoy works, a patrician investment-banking firm dubbed Pierce & Pierce where McCoy gets his loafers shined at his desk, has been replaced by the relative meritocracy represented by today’s hedge funds, day traders, and the physicists and engineers who perfect their algorithms. Meanwhile, many of the decade’s most controversial figures whose exploits are thinly-masked in the book have been rehabilitated in the new millennium, most famously race-card provocateur-turned MSNBC anchor Al Sharpton. (Even the MTA subways are cleaner now, which hopefully will remain the case after Covid.) In fact, the New York caricatured in Bonfire may seem as outdated as Tom Wolfe’s white three-piece suits and creamy silk ties.

Yet if the novel still resonates with readers, beyond the fact that Park Avenue and its thousands of springtime yellow tulips still looks as radiant as it is described in the book, it may be due to Wolfe’s attention to the all-too-human ways his class-conscious New Yorkers experience status envy as an unavoidable fact of life. Indeed, New York may have enjoyed a transformation from Gotham to Disneyworld—or from a naked city of shadowy noir to a giant entertainment free-for-all—but its class and racial cleavages still remain, even among the haves and the top 0.1%–call them the have-a whole-lot-mores. The married men in the novel have elaborate sexual fantasies about women other than their wives, or even their mistresses, for that matter. Peter Fallow spends his late nights carousing over cocktails and chicken paillard (pie-YAR) at bistros where he prays someone else will pick up his tab. Even Sherman McCoy, a so-called Master of the Universe, frets not only over his highly leveraged apartment, advancing balloon payments,

and his cheating heart, but his inability to afford to keep a limousine and driver in the city while only making a million dollars a year. Then again, perhaps only Wolfe could make the reader feel sorry for such sad saps.

Larry Bernstein:
Fantastic, David.

David Grazian and Julie Salamon QA Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
All right before we get to question answers, we’re going to have you joined by a panelist, Julie Salamon, the former Wall Street Journal and New York Times film and TV critic. She will discuss aspects of her book, The Devil’s Candy, the Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco, the Making of the Film Bonfire of the vanities. Julie, go ahead.

Julie Salamon:
Thanks so much, Larry. Larry’s invitation to be part of this discussion came at the perfect moment. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Devil’s Candy, the book I wrote about Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities. I was a film critic at the Wall Street Journal at that time and De Palma, who had gotten to know in the course of doing articles about Hollywood, gave me complete access to filming from start to finish. My book came out a year after the movie did. It was an amazing experience for me and not so amazing for the filmmakers because nobody’s been allowed to do it since then.

While Tom Wolfe’s book became a symbol of everything that was wrong with New York in the 1980s, Brian De Palma’s movie became a symbol of everything that was wrong with Hollywood filmmaking as the 1990s began. Bonfire, the movie was lacerated by critics. And my book did really well, no doubt in part because Bonfire was such a huge publicized so-called failure. In Newsweek, the critics said the promise misfortune is Salamon’s gain. It didn’t make me feel very good about somebody who had been so generous to me.

So people always ask me when I knew that the movie was awful. And I always say I never did. For me, when I watched the movie, I didn’t really see a movie, I saw the making of each scene. And the truth is, to prepare for today, I watched the movie again. And honestly, I think it’s a movie worth reconsidering. It may not be a great film, but it’s certainly an interesting film and a worthy artifact.

The truth is, interest in both the film and Tom Wolfe’s book remain strong. A new audio version of my book, The Devil’s Candy is coming out this summer and I’ve been asked to do a seven-part podcast about the making of the movie right now. Sort of very meta, the movie about a book and then a podcast about the book about the making of the movie about the book. Very 21st century.

So I’ve been thinking about Bonfire a lot. And I am amazed at how Tom Wolfe’s observation to the world he was living in were so prescient. As David pointed out, it’s true that much in New York, where I live, has changed for the better. But so much is the same. Wolfe wrote about the masters of the universe, the mainly men on Wall Street, who we would now refer to as the 1%. The tabloid press that will satirize has been replaced by Twitter. But the net effect is the same, only worse. And Wolfe’s take on race certainly heralded the Black Lives Matter movement, as did his cynical or accurate take down on New York politicians, Bill DeBlasio, Andrew Cuomo, need I say more.

In the course of writing my book, I had the good fortune to spend several hours interviewing Tom Wolfe on two separate occasions. His prose was lacerating, but he himself was a courtly, Southern gentlemen. Bonfire was wildly popular, Wolfe got plenty of criticism for being sexist, racist, ultra conservative. I would argue that he was a great reporter, even when writing a novel and a good social critic, demonizing just about everyone in the cause of making people think about the world we live in. He wasn’t presenting his characters to praise them, but rather to skewer the real-life people they represented.

The filmmakers on the other hand, lost heart about two seconds after they bought the rights to Wolfe’s book. I’m not sure the term politically correct had been invented yet, but that’s what the movie suffered from at the time. Especially when it came to casting. David has laid out the plot, so you kind of know the characters. Sherman McCoy, the master of the universe, was deemed too unlikable by the Hollywood execs. So, they gave the role to Tom Hanks, just off his success in Big. Remember how adorable he was? The grown man in a 12-year-old boy’s body? Wolfe’s dissipated British journalist, Peter Fallow, became Bruce Willis, hot off of Diehard. And look, who’s talking. Remember he played a baby in utero and then after birth?

But the biggest change within Wolfe’s sole noble character Judge Kavitsky, the Jewish judge who sticks to the law. Alan Arkin was supposed to play him, but all of a sudden the executives and De Palma had a flash. By then, they had turned all the white men male main characters into these guys who were sort of nice and likable. But all the blacks of the movies were caricatures. So, they decided Judge Kavitsky should be black. And not just black. He’d be played by Morgan Freeman.

For Tom Wolfe, this casting cut the guts out of his story. I remember talking with him about what he called the crossover point politically. He meant that the moment he arrived where new groups were coming into their own politically, the same way that it had happened in previous generations for Italians, Irish, and Jews. Now Latinx and blacks were becoming dominant populations, but the ruling political class at the time hadn’t made the shift. Judge Kavitsky had to be who he was to make that point, to illustrate the tension that existed every day as black defendants faced white judges and prosecutors. I wish I could say Bonfire was entirely a history lesson, but it certainly is not.

As I said at the beginning, the issues Wolfe wrote about are far from settled. In my non-work life, I’m board chair of BRC, one of the city’s largest provider of social services and shelter to people who don’t have homes. I started volunteering at BRC 30 years ago, right about the same time I started reporting The Devil’s Candy. At that time, you may remember the city was overwhelmed by homeless people, and we still have an enormous homeless population. So those issues that Tom Wolfe was writing about, the issues that drove people out of their homes and into the streets haven’t been resolved.

Julie Salamon:
As for The Devil’s Candy, Tom Wolfe recognized it would be difficult, maybe impossible, to condense his huge book into a two-hour movie. He told me then it’s too bad movies don’t run nine or 10 hours. Though he spent the last part of his career as a novelist, Tom Wolfe remained at heart, a journalist. He wanted us to look at the world around us and say what? Really? I really
believe Bonfire has important things to say. Maybe we should have listened more closely last time around. And I think you should watch the movie. It gets four stars on Rotten Tomatoes.

Larry Bernstein:
Julie, thank you. I’m going to open with a question for you and then go to David in a second. First, the point you make is that the producers got cold feet regarding Judge Kavitsky’s character by bringing in Morgan Freeman to play his role. Do you think that we’ve got producers are even more politically correct now? And could a film like this even be made today? To its vision?

Julie Salamon:
No. Interestingly enough, I was thinking about Tom Wolfe saying that the book should have been nine or 10 hours. I think it probably could be made today as a mini-series or a limited run series. And in fact, there were news reports about five or six years ago that Amazon had bought the… was thinking about buying the rights to the book or had bought the rights to the book and were thinking of doing that. But nothing’s ever happened. If you look at things like succession, I think that we probably could do a, probably not as a two-hour movie, but as a longer form piece.

Larry Bernstein:
Yeah. Another thing about the book is I thought of it as a tragedy. And Sherman McCoy, although not a lovable character, we really understand him and feel his pain. And we cringed as all these problems are moving towards the center stage. When they chose Tom Hanks to play him, did they effectively give up on the tragedy? Did they not make him a real enough character that was worthy of that type of empathy? How do you think about why Tom Hanks didn’t work in the role?

Julie Salamon:
No, I mean, I actually think they chose Tom Hanks exactly for that reason. And just to go back to the whole question of whether he did or didn’t work in the role, I think one of the things that happened to Bonfire, which, as I said, I think if you watch the movie to date, it’s pretty entertaining. But I think when the movie came out, the people who reviewed the movie were critics like me. Except I didn’t, because I’d spent the year following it around. But critics had all read the book.

So when they reviewed the movie, I think the backlash was not against the movie that was in front of them, but the movie they had inside their heads because they had such strong feelings about Tom Wolfe’s book. So no, Tom Hanks wouldn’t be the person you would cast in that role. But if you hadn’t read the book and you saw Tom Hanks and Sherman McCoy, I think he did exactly what you’re talking about, Larry. He like you see the more sympathetic side of Sherman.

Larry Bernstein:
Another example, which you talk about in your book, is the role of the mistress, Maria Ruskin, Tom Hanks’s love interest. In the book, you mentioned interviewing Uma Thurman as a potential role at the time a 19-year-old aspiring actress. And when there’s the meeting you described between Tom Hanks and Brian De Palma, Tom Hanks basically says I didn’t feel any sexual tension or that actress won’t work with me. And Brian De Palma is stunned by it. And instead, they go with Melanie Griffith.

When I watch the movie now and I see Melanie Griffith in the role, I think she kills it. And I actually can’t see Uma Thurman doing it right. In retrospect, how do you think about the decision to go with Melanie Griffith over Uma Thurman in that role?

Julie Salamon:
Oh, I think it was the right decision. I think Melanie was great. I mean, for me, part of what was just fascinating about the whole Uma Thurman thing was that a lot of the duplicity and craziness that Tom Wolfe wrote about in terms of people’s relationships in their families or in their job played out on the movie set. So, they had already been in negotiations with Melanie Griffith to play this role that when they auditioned Uma because on the spread of the moment, the promise that she might do a better job.

Julie Salamon:
Interestingly, thinking about what Christine was talking about earlier about harassment of women, when I look back at the way women were treated on that set, I mean, there were hardly any. But it was really a reminder of how much things have changed. Even though interestingly, the executive in charge of the production, Lucy Fisher, was a woman. On the other hand, Melanie Griffith, who was one of the three stars of the movie got paid less than 30% of what both Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks got paid.

Larry Bernstein:
David, to bring you into the conversation, the first question I asked Julie was could they make this movie today? Let me ask a more basic question to you. Can you teach Bonfire of the Vanities in a class at Penn, in a world where they’re taking Dr. Seuss off the shelves?

David Grazian:
I don’t think so. I mean the truth is, for all of Tom Wolfe’s talents, he’s never really portrayed African-American characters all that well. I mean, you see this in some of his earlier work as well. Like in Radical Chic. The book is a sprawling novel, almost 700 pages. There’s not a single relatable female character. And it’s about a New York City that again, that doesn’t entirely exist anymore. Whereas if we had an updated version of this kind of a book about sort of about the city as it exists today, I think it could be taught very well in schools.

I mean, so one example of this, and so if we can shift media, in the urban studies program at Penn, we have a course on the city. And the primary text for that course is the five-season run of the show, The Wire, which takes place in Baltimore. And like Tom Wolfe’s novel, is sort of the sprawling depiction of the city with lots and lots of interlocking characters. And there’s an entire season devoted to corruption in politics, there’s an entire season devoted to corruption in journalism. In a lot of ways, The Wire captures all of the sort of the trickery surrounding race relations and racial politics in a city like Baltimore. In a lot of ways, The Wire works perfectly as sort of a text for a class like that, in a way that Bonfire of the Vanities just sort of seems kind of dated and out of touch.

Larry Bernstein:
I love The Wire as well, and I think it’s a great example. Could you also speak a little bit about the role and use of literature and film in sociology, as a way of going behind the scenes to understand the complexities of social life?

David Grazian:
Sure. So, this was something that was actually much more popular in the 1950s and 1960s, I think in part because sociologists were more considered public intellectuals in midcentury America than they are today. And scholars like C. Wright Mills and Erving Goffman, David Riesman wrote books that were best-sellers, that were going to be read by large swaths of the population. These were real sort of intellectual figures that both relied on film and novels for examples that they could pull from fiction, to sort of illuminate the things that we observe in everyday life. And in a lot of ways, Tom Wolfe’s writing, particularly his nonfiction, given that he relies so much on reportage, and then brings that report Bonfire of the Vanities… In a lot of ways, Bonfire of the Vanities feels like a work of sociology because he’s able to take his reporting and his observations about everyday life, and infuse his books with that sort of every day kind of authenticity.

Larry Bernstein:
Let’s go back to your comparison with The Wire, which I just loved. In The Wire, there is season on the Baltimore Sun, going in depth into the media. And in Bonfire, the media plays a very important role as well, and how Reverend Bacon was very successful in using the press, making that relationship with Peter Fallon, to kind of bring this McCoy story to a frenzy. And he also makes fun of how TV works, how the demonstrations were made for TV, and how to use the press to their benefit.

I guess a two-part question. Was Wolfe successful in the dramatization of the role of the media, and has the media radically changed since the mid-eighties when he wrote this, in terms of their presence and power?

David Grazian:
So the first question is I do think he does a really great job of depicting the media forces at play in the 1980s, particularly surrounding New York politics. As I said, my front row seat to New York culture and politics was all through television, having grown up in the New York suburbs and watching local news coverage of this. On the other hand, in a lot of ways, a lot of the points that he makes, we kind of take for granted, right? We kind of were familiar with the idea that public demonstrations are very often what Daniel Burstein, the historian, referred to as pseudo-events, that are events that are simply put on for the purpose of being reported on.

I think, as Julie pointed out, if you were to do something like this today, there would be a whole lot of talk about social media and mobilizing bots to create disinformation campaigns. I think the media landscape that we have is far more technologically sophisticated than back then. And I think because we all use social media, we’re all extraordinarily familiar with the ways in which the media can be manipulated to the ends that were used by Reverend Bacon in Bonfire.

Larry Bernstein:
I want to go to a Black Lives Matter for a second. What’s really interesting about Bonfire is it kind of turned Black Lives Matter 180 degrees. Here, in the set, in the current world, the police and the district attorneys are viewed as antagonists to the African-American community. And in this book, both the police and the District Attorney’s Office believe that what they really want is the Great White Defendant. They want to take down someone who looks like Sherman McCoy, and they can’t believe their good luck. He comes right out of central casting as the man to take down.

How would you distinguish between the desire to destroy the Great White Defendant and Black Lives Matter’s fears that these same organizations are being primarily used to take down the African-American community?

David Grazian:
Well, to me, I would say that the desire to take down the Great White Defendant is sort of an exception that proves the rule. The reason they need to take down Sherman McCoy… I almost said Tom Hanks. The reason they had to take down Sherman McCoy is to cover up all of the everyday systematic racism that the criminal justice system inflicts on Latino and black populations on a daily basis. And it becomes very clear that, in terms of the politics of the moment, Sherman McCoy becomes a useful scapegoat in politically sort of volatile climate. But it’s fairly clear that Wolfe does see this as a corrupt systematically racist system that sort of is a need of a scapegoat for its own survival.

Larry Bernstein:
Julie, to bring you back in, you start out your discussion by mentioning that it’s been 30 years since the film and 30 years since you’ve written your book. I read Bonfire in 1987 when it was first released, and I had just started work at Salomon Brothers at the time, as a 21-year-old financial analyst. And I read the book with agape, in complete shock as to these characters in these unknown worlds, which, frankly, I had yet to be exposed to. The only part of the book that I had any experience with was ironically Pierce & Pierce, which was based on the trading floor that I was working on at Salomon Brothers, which was uncannily accurate. I didn’t know any social x-rays, I had never been to an Upper East Side dinner party. But now that I’m 54 and I’ve had a chance to go to these dinner parties, I now know that he was completely accurate and a very good social critic and observer.

And I’m just wondering, as a film critic now coming at reviewing this movie with 30 years more of age, how do you see how accurate the book was, and how the film could expose some of this interesting satire?

Julie Salamon:
So, as I said before, I think the movie is interesting. It’s an interesting artifact of the time, but also just an interesting film. And I do have to say I’m sad to hear David say that you think that you couldn’t teach Bonfire of the Vanities in a classroom, because it seems like yes, certainly parts of it are dated, but I think to talk about how somebody, who was an incredible journalist writing at that time, would talk about the social issues in this satiric vein, it feels sort of very sad to me, as a liberal arts person, to think that you couldn’t have that discussion.

In terms of the movie, I think that it’s an odd movie because De Palma is so much a visual stylist and Tom Wolfe is a word man, so Tom Wolfe painted every single picture with words, and De Palma tried to match that with his visual style. So sometimes the movie’s just a little bit jarring with all these weird camera, angles and exaggerations, but I think that it really holds up as a satire, and it seems so much smarter than so many movies I see today.

Larry Bernstein:
David, you mentioned that you thought Tom Wolfe did a poor job with some of the African-American characters, but the lead African-American character in this book is Reverend Bacon. And, for me, Bacon is a very complicated character. On the one hand he plays this black organizer, but behind the scenes he’s also running a municipal bond underwriting business, he has some insurance businesses, he seems to be very familiar with all the upscale New York restaurants, and he also seems to manipulate the press. He seems like an incredible giant. Why do you feel that when he creates characters like Bacon, it does not work?

David Grazian:
A lot of it is the way that he describes black English vernacular. A lot of this comes through in the very first scene in the novel, which is a jarring way to start the book. This is essentially at a demonstration that erupts during a political speech. The other thing I’ll say about… First of all, if a faculty member in urban studies wanted to teach this at Penn, I certainly wouldn’t stop them. I just simply wouldn’t teach it myself. It’s not really where my students are at either, they’re really looking for a more diverse wide variety of voices that speak to them, and I just don’t see this as the kind of book that speaks to the millennial generation of today’s college students. Particularly given how many of those students have been moved by the Black Lives Matter social movement.

Larry Bernstein:
David, just going back to Radical Chic for a second, which was one of Tom Wolfe’s first books. And it describes a cocktail party at a Park Avenue apartment where the Black Panthers are invited. And some wealthy Jewish guys are at an apartment and talking with them, and the Black Panther activist is asked, “What’s your plans?” and he says, “Our next step is to kind of burn down these buildings here on Park.” And the fellow says, “Like which building, because I live on Park.” And it’s very funny. He’s very clever in kind of bringing to a head when people’s interests are not on the same page, and them not realizing at the same time. So, in some ways he’s an artist, he’s clever, he’s not that serious.

David Grazian:
That’s right. Part of the challenge, though, for him… So, when I think about his first book, or rather his first full length nonfiction novel, The Electrical Kool-Aid Acid Test, that’s a book that really makes you feel as though you are there. And Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters really felt like, even though he had only spent a couple of weeks with them, he had really sort of gotten their argot, their ways of talking, their lifestyle. They really felt like he had sort of nailed it, and I guess I just don’t see… It’s just hard to imagine black readers seeing themselves in Tom Wolfe’s writing.

Larry Bernstein:
Tom Wolfe goes after the Jews as well. He is relentless on Abe Weiss and Larry Kramer, he’s relentless on Judge Kovitsky. It’s incredible the venom that comes out, but I don’t think Jews feel the same way about it. Just to go in a different direction for a second… One of Wolfe’s first books is a book called New Journalism, which is an edited collection of articles, kind of reinvigorating what journalism is. He takes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and starts talking about giving the journalists license to be creative and comment about what’s going on in people’s minds, where, in fact, journalists have really no idea. In other words, he’s using the ideas of literature and applying it to journalism.

And I think what’s fascinating about Bonfire is he’s able to take the ideas of journalism and use them back into literature, kind of reversing his first great adventure.

David Grazian:
I think that’s right. And for me, as a sociologist, a lot of the writing that made me want to become a sociologist was that sort of creative non-fiction new journalism of the ’60s period, including The Electrical Kool-Aid Acid Test. In a lot of ways, what he is doing is he’s infusing sort of sociological ethnography with art, and I think it’s something I wish sociologists were trained to do better, and I wish it was something that sociologists wanted to do better. We might be more a part of the public conversation if we did.

And I agree, I think Tom Wolfe does an equally good job of taking his reportage and pouring it into his novels, much in the way that realists like Emile Zola did at the turn of the century.

Larry Bernstein:
One of my favorite characters in the novel is a real estate broker, who we first meet at that dinner party where Sharon McCoy is sitting next to Maria Ruskin. And it seems innocuous at the time, she plays very little interest, but she is one of the first phone calls when Sherman gets into trouble and says, “By the way-”

David Grazian:
She wants to help him sell his apartment, right?

Larry Bernstein:
Yeah, and he can’t believe her audacity, how the vultures are circling so quickly. I thought it was just incredibly insightful, and Tom Wolfe was fantastic.

Larry Bernstein:
Julie, question for you. You mentioned that you had unfettered access to making this book about the movie, but that, since then, no one has allowed a journalist to do that again. Why did you burn so many bridges for so many of your colleagues? And how?

Julie Salamon:
Well, I didn’t think I was burning so many bridges, I really just wrote a book that reported what I saw. But it was, I think, in retrospect, I think by De Palma allowing me on a film set, it was really like inviting somebody into the inner sanctum of your family, and letting somebody write down every grotesque thing you say and do to each other, and the absurdity that comes up that usually is not part of the press.

But also, I think what I tried to do in the book was just to show the aspect of the work, most of which is incredibly unglamorous, but a lot of it was inadvertently funny and crazy, like any workplace. And I think the reason nobody ever let a journalist… I probably wouldn’t have been let on either, except De Palma just let me and the first part of filming took place in New York and by the time the film moved out to LA, I was so embedded that the studio had no choice. They just didn’t want the truth to be told, even though the truth, in my opinion, is not bad damning, it’s just interesting.

Larry Bernstein:
I agree. And was Brian upset by the book, at the end of the day, and if so, what bothered him? Was it his personal relations with his various levers that was the problem, or was it something about his professional work?

Julie Salamon:
Neither. Brian De Palma has been unbelievable about this book from the get-go, even after the movie bombed and he could have closed the door on me, because I still needed to talk to him. Because the movie was out and over and I was just starting to write my book, and he never flinched. He went into kind of hibernation for a few weeks after the movie was just so destroyed by the press, but then he continued to talk to me. After the book came out, he has spoken of it in very positive terms on the Charlie Rose Show, and there was a documentary that came out about De Palma five years ago. So, he felt that it was accurate, and he stood by his decision to let me in, basically.

Larry Bernstein:
One last question. When your book ends, it sort of ends with it doing very poorly at the box office. And poorly met, it had revenues around 15 million, out of a budget of around 40 or something and so it was a money loser. But when the producers, when Warner Brothers or when Ms. Fisher was analyzing it before it got to the theater, she thought it was a masterpiece and had the potential for greatness. Do you know, did they ever have a post-mortem to evaluate what went wrong, and what they missed that the public didn’t like?

Julie Salamon:
Yes, and I think what they concluded, and I think they were right, is that they completely underestimated the power of the critics at that point. It’s really different now… A movie comes out, and individual critics at newspapers, on TV, really don’t matter that much because people look online, they can get many more voices weighing in on a movie. But 30 years ago, the critical establishment were made up primarily of people who were fans of Tom Wolfe’s book. He was a fellow journalist who had written this novel that had become sort of lauded as this brilliant takedown, which it was, of the 1980s, and people were… They really looked at the movie as though it was a personal affront to them. I have rarely seen so many really terrible reviews.

Larry Bernstein:
Unbelievable. All right, David and Julie, thank you.

                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

E.D. Hirsch — Cultural Literacy and Educating Citizens

E.D. Hirsch Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
Our first speaker is Don Hirsch. Don is a founder of Core Knowledge Foundation and a professor of education at the University of Virginia. And he’s written a recent book called How to Educate a Citizen. Don, can you please go ahead?

Don Hirsch:
Yes, thank you. It’s an interesting segue because you’ve been talking about uncertainty and risk. And in the topic that I’m going to talk about, there is very little uncertainty in the scientific world, but there’s a lot of debate and political activity, which prevents that science from being applied. Let me give you the background to all of that. In the ’60s and ’70s, that’s how old I am, I started reading cognitive psychology, though I was already a professor of English. And especially psycholinguistics, because I had just done a book on interpretation. And I ran across a remarkable discovery in psycholinguistics. I think it was the most important discovery about language since the invention of alphabetic writing. It was the discovery of what you could call the communicative store. That’s what cultural literacy is. In my six minutes, I’ll try to unpack that phrase, communicative store.

Everybody has long known that language carries implications beyond its explicit words. The very term implication means something folded in, hidden from view. Pli, the P-L-I element means pulled layer, as in plywood, for example. There’s nothing new there, implication is old hat. What was new was the insight that all human languages had evolved to be deeply ambiguous and therefore enormously efficient. With a few thousand words, you can pretty much say anything. That’s life preserving for tribal actions, when a human group wants to kill and eat a big mastodon, or another human tribe.

And it’s also true in the modern world. Suppose I give a brief command like, “Polly, put the kettle on, we’ll all have tea.” It takes about four seconds to say, and that’s enormously efficient because Polly will need a full half hour to carry out the command. If I had to be explicit in the command, it would take quite a long time. So, it there’s every evolutionary reason for human tribes to evolve a language, a communicative vehicle that is both efficient and precise. And those who survive are the ones who do evolve that combination, efficiency and precision of communication.

But to be both proficient, efficient and precise, the speaker and the listener have to share a lot of unspoken lore that fills in the blanks. So, what is implicit in the language isn’t in fact folded in, it isn’t there at all. It isn’t in the language. It has to be put in there by the listener or the reader. The implications in the words are not a layer in the folds of language, but in the folds of the human neocortex. And that’s where language and culture reside.

Ever since 2005, we’ve learned that the neocortex is a blank slate at birth. John Locke was right. It’s a terribly important discovery. It has huge implications, for example, for the concept of ethnicity. And that’s another problem. But note, for the command, “Let’s all have tea,” to be carried out, Polly has to know, has to have learned quite a lot. Only because she knew the implicit details could she quickly run off and get to work, so the tea would be ready before the guests came.

So, note this. For effective communication to turn the human tribe into an intelligent and efficient organism, there’s a key feature in the evolutionary scheme, namely the big, hard to birth, human brain. It not only has to learn the basic language system, some 60 or 70,000 words, it has to learn a lot of tribal lore that makes those words work precisely, and a lot of specific life and death circumstances. That takes a huge memory capacity. In every tribe it takes a lot of schooling of the young.

Psycholinguistics uses two key terms that every concerned citizen in a democracy should know. Background knowledge and speech community. The members of a speech community are people who share the background knowledge that can disambiguate and amplify each other’s utterances. Notice there’s a pli in amplify.

They specify the key aims of early education, really, since the beginning of humanity. The speech community is a group that irrespective of skin color, shares the background knowledge, which transforms the group into a speech community. That was the conclusion reached by the great scholar of nationalism, Karl Deutsch, a nation is a speech community period. That was his definition. He has fascinating comments for example, about Switzerland in that regard, they have four languages in Switzerland, but they’re still a single speech community.

It’s the chief nation’s sustaining duty of a nation’s schools to transform its young people into being members of the national speech community. It has to convey the shared background knowledge, the communicative store, the cultural literacy that’s shared in the nation. In the US we all have tea is a fancy afternoon affair, in working class Britain is the early evening meal. That’s the sort of subtlety that makes British speech, the British speech community something different from the FMRO. So, despite our current determination to educate people of color effectively, the reading scores of young blacks in the United States has remained stagnant. It has even declined recently. That’s because our educational theories, as you suggested in your intro, are focused on skill, rather than content. The idea that there’s such a thing as a general reading skill or a general communicative skill, that’s wrong, as we know from psycho linguistic work, it’s communicative skill depends on the communicative store that people have, so that they can disambiguate and amplify language communications.

The cultural literacy effort is an attempt to make explicit, the background knowledge possessed by the speech community, and that happens to speak and write and print Americanese, and that the schools need to ensure every child has equal access to that shared knowledge. So, my six-minute conclusion is very straightforward, to be a successful unified nation, with highly competent self-governing citizens, we need to revolutionize our K -8 education so that everybody can communicate effectively with everybody else in the nation. In the common school of the 19th century, up to about 1930 in fact, that’s in effect what we had for white students. We were at the top internationally. The black culture that people now want to include, is easily accommodated if we focus on content. But we have to rationalize and universalize our early curriculum, so we begin to score better.

For example, in the international rankings, American students now rank in the PISA tests of international assessments, we’re at number 25 among the nations. Now we can improve the equity and the quality of these scores and equity in our schooling, by enabling every child with the silent communicative score store, that every person informed enough to be listening, I should think to this podcast, undoubtedly possesses, but you’ll have to change our policy considerably.

                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Arnold Weinstein — Why Twain’s Huckleberry Finn Has Become Too Controversial to Teach?

Arnold Weinstein Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
Arnold is a comparative literature professor at Brown, and he’ll be discussing Huckleberry Finn. Go ahead, Arnold.

Arnold Weinstein:
Thank you. Huckleberry Finn has always been controversial from the get go. When it was published in the 1880s, it was infamously rejected, turned down at the Concord Public Library. And of course, Concord in the American mind, so you think of the home of American transcendentalism, Emerson, Thoreau, it was turned down there. And the reason they turned it down is that they thought the book was coarse, and they called this language, I quote, “the various trash,” but there was no mention at all of the N-word. It’s been said that Twain was delighted with this bad press and he thought it would sell some more copies. Throughout my whole career, the book has been controversial. Teachers and administrators and students have been stung by its treatment of race.

Jim has been thought one dimensional and from a literary point of view, equally bad news, the entire last third of the novel is thought in many quarters to be botched. It turns into a carnival of disguises and tricks and fun and games as if Tom Sawyer had hijacked the book, so that the plot, the moral plot, the freeing Jim gets lost sight of and loses authority. And one reason that’s worth bearing in mind is that what goes around comes around because today the book is in even more trouble and again, because of language. And this time, of course, it’s the N-word, it’s all over the book. And I’ve had students, some of my best students have told me, “I can’t quote this word. I’m not allowed to even when teaching it.” And my own fear is that once we start sanitizing books, we’re not all that far away from burning them.

But one reason this matters to me is why the language is what it is in this book and whether or not it should be controversial, which it really leads me to how Twain uses Huck and what needs to be born in mind and not everybody, I think, realizes this, when you read the book, you have to really think hard about it. And I said, even though Twain published the book finally in the 1880s, he spent a lot of time writing it, that the timeframe within the novel is in the 1840s. And that matters because in the 1840s there’s been no civil war, there’s no Abraham Lincoln, there’s no emancipation proclamation. Slavery, in some essential sense, has not yet been adjudicated. The second piece is Twain’s stroke of genius, is to entrust the story to Huck Finn, who was a kid, further a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, unschooled, what in the fifties or sixties, we
would have called a dropout, with no cultural capital. Which is to say, he’s not a preacher, he’s not an abolitionist, he’s not a university student, he’s not a progressive.

And for all these reasons, I’d like to say that I think we need to read this book and to see that Huck Finn is barometric, he’s in some sense, exemplary of his moment. In other words, he is serenely racist, as are many of the other characters in the novel, Aunt Polly, the Widow Douglas, Ms. Watson, the stuff that’s learned in Sunday school, the very air you breathe. There’s a line I’ve always liked, which is not underlined at all in the book, where a Huck improvising, as he always does, is asked why he was late by his Aunt Sally. And he explains that there had been an accident on the steam boat. I quote, “We blowed out a cylinder head.” Her answer, “Good gracious, anybody hurt?” He says, “No, kill the N-word.” She answers “Well, it’s lucky because sometimes people do get hurt.” So, these are the ways in which Twain, I believe, is giving us the words of the tribe as it were, about the, what I call serenely racist views of that moment and culture in Missouri and places like that.

What Twain has, I don’t know how he came to this because it’s so different from Tom Sawyer and other books of his, he came to the view that if you put this young boy on a raft in the Mississippi with an older man, escaped black slave named Jim, you’ll get magic. And of course it’s well-known in Twain criticism and people who loved the book, that it’s on the raft and only on the raft that Huck comes to realize that Jim is real, that he’s a human being just like he, Huck is. Another line that’s worth quoting is, “That I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for theirs. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.” And it’s amazing to me that many cultural theorists would have picked up on that today, that word, natural, which one of the lessons in our time, many times is that natural, once you start to examine, it means cultural and means a whole set of assumptions that are anything but natural.

So the book offers us a Huck who was an orphan because who’s been cared for, but never been loved, which of course is what he experiences over and over on the raft. And the pinnacle moment of the novel is when Huck, who is totally beset by a bad conscience, because he’s aiding an escaped slave, he writes to Ms. Watson, the owner, that he knows where Jim is. And then he finds to his amazement that he cannot send the letter and it causes lines that people who know the book love, quote, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” And tore it up. So this view of the novel, what I’m trying to convey, is that it’s filled with rich things that I think are the kind of testimony of literature, a testimony also to Twain’s own brilliant, pick one question, the book is crawling with others.

We’ve got regulatory care and we’ve got Pap, most readers sense that in any poetic or spiritual sense, that the real father that a Huck has is Jim. That would be the love that they’re not speaking its name at that moment, it couldn’t have been rationally understood that way, and yet it’s what the moral truth of the book is. And moral is what I want to focus on, that Huck’s moral education is among the most beautiful things, I believe, in American literature, also necessary. How much do we ever know about moral education with regard either to ourselves or others, when we are altered, when we grow, when something changes in us.

So that’s the way I’d pose this presentation. The N-word, I heard it every day, as I think Don Hirsch did, in Memphis, where I grew up, as he did, in the forties and fifties, in my case at school, from our own teachers. And we all know that these words were used not so long ago in Charlottesville, in the case of George Floyd, with the Confederate flags being waved at the Capitol on January 6th. So, I guess I’m offering a simplistic piece of advice, our country, on both sides of the aisle, could be worse than to reread Huckleberry Finn or read it because we still need to learn as a society when Huck learned, that Jim is real and he is a human being and that that’s still controversial.

Larry Bernstein:
Thank you Arnold.

Hirsch and Weinstein QA Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
All right, I’m going to begin asking questions of Don and Arnold. Arnold, I’ll start with you because you just finished up, and it goes to what Don was talking about, which was the importance of a communal relationship, that once we choose what that curriculum is, that we all read it so that we can all make common references to it. Here’s a book that may not be able to fit within the communal experience. There are enough school districts that will not allow this book to be taught for various reasons. Do you think that means that it should be abandoned, and if so, what are the consequences of that? Is it important? Can we replace it with Pudd’nhead Wilson, another one of Twain’s books? Could we replace with, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Or for that matter, should Twain just be abandoned and we pick some other author from American literature or otherwise?

Arnold Weinstein:
Well, as Don knows, as well as I do, maybe better, is that the cannon formation about what’s been taught has always been a work in flux of sorts, that there have been changes up and down. It’s a little bit like the stock market and valuations have evolved. So, I revere our cultural literacy, the book and the argument, it was very important for several generations of literature professors and students. I think one point that needs to be brought also into the conversation is not just a common group of books, but also to create a society or at least some kind of population of readers. And it’s in that sense that I would say that I don’t know how we can legislate what the canon is, we can warn that one should perhaps be more cautious in exiling people, dead white males or whatever group, was supposed to leave the canon or has enjoyed it too long.

But I think that there are a lot of difficult issues that come into play about what warrants being in the canon, they get into matters of qualitative judgment. The reason I mentioned readers is that this is what I would add to cultural literacy, it’s not merely that we need a content-based group of texts that we agree are part of a general education, that helps bind a society together. But I also think we need to work harder in my area of learning to teach people to be more discerning readers. See my view is, what’s controversial about this book is the reason why it needs to be read
There’s a large chunk of this country that needs to read this book and that because something offends, is not a reason to remove it. On the contrary, it’s a reason to hold on to it and to ask why does it offend? We haven’t resolved these issues. They are still very sensitive and explosive issues in American society. I think all of us have gotten, even recent installments in that type of education. So that’s one way of responding helter skelter to your question.

Larry Bernstein:
Don Hirsch, what are your thoughts on what should be in the canon and what criteria should be used?

Don Hirsch:
Being reminded, I haven’t read Huck Finn in a long time, of course, I love to be reminded of how wonderful that book is. I suppose since some districts refuse to touch it, that it can’t be part of a national curriculum, but it could be part of the standard curriculum in the colleges, I should think. I don’t know what to say about that particular issue, but I think if you relate these problems back to the current polarization of the country, where you were just mentioning how strong and active racism is in the United States. I do think that the studies in sociology that I’ve been reading, make pretty darn clear that one of the reasons for the current polarization is the lack of a center. I mean, the lack of commonality in schooling, because what has happened, there are sociologists who point that out, identity with a political party and wearing red hats and that sort of thing, are now connected with one’s own social identity. You’re identifying as a Republican more than as an American.

And so there is another step to be taken before we can really deal with the issue of should everybody know Huck Finn, and that is really, should everybody be an American instead of a narrower ethnic group. And that’s why I threw in the part about ethnicity not being racial and the multicultural movement and the emphasis on diversity has tended to racialize thinking. And my conclusion is we need to nationalize thinking because it is an inherently diverse nation and everybody should have, not to think of diversity in this abstract way as being defined by your home culture, but instead having a lot of different home cultures, but one school culture.

And the reason I spend, even when doing way back 30 odd years ago, doing culture literacy, the reason I focused on nation making and nationalism, is that it’s something Ernest Gellner said in his book on nationalism, “The status of an individual in the industrial and post-industrial world, is not the folk culture, but the school culture.” And of course, all of the students of modern nationalism have come to that kind of conclusion. You need to create a common school culture to make these diverse nations work. And I have strongly attacked, not racism head on, but progressive education head on, because we had a defect, we were making pretty good progress along the racial front. And then all of a sudden we weren’t, everybody was not on the same page educationally, when progressive education came in, differentiation became the watch cry following the child’s individual nature. That was a huge educational mistake.

And so that’s what I focus on, is rectifying that mistake and trying to work, well, first towards state curriculum in the elementary schools, along with the tests that go with them. And then a gradually de facto national curriculum, which is what we had basically in the 19th century.

Arnold Weinstein:
Let me come in a little bit on that. This is Arnold Weinstein again. I think that one of the bugbears that threatens a lot of this is what has been called, identity politics. And I see it as a regrettable response to diversity. I think that when one takes one suit, whether it’s ethnic or racial or gender, and to say, “This is who I am and that this must have representation in the curriculum and that this is how I define myself.” I think we do a great disservice to diversity and we do a great disservice, I guess, this is me with my literature hat on, we do a great disservice to the elasticity and multiplicity of literary texts themselves. I mean that people think the great books are just the white male canon, but in fact, many of the great books are nothing but trouble. I mean, they’re filled with many, they’re multivocal, they’re multi perspective, they’re about fault lines in the particular cultures that they come from. And therefore, I wish we could come up with a model.

I agree with the view that cultural literacy holds great promise is that there is a center and that there are texts. One problem with this is that a curriculum is finite and for everything that needs to be put in, something needs to come out. And it is the case that for quite some time, there wasn’t a representation, either of women writers or writers of color, et cetera. So, these populations have not had much representation, but to go whole hog in that direction is to forget that, as I said, that art itself is elastic. Virginia Woolf can create male characters who are very interesting and that male writers, including Hemingway, can create female characters and William Faulkner can imagine Black characters. And even Toni Morrison, who’s not very interested in white characters, the ones that she puts in there are interesting figures.

But it seems to me that particularly literature is so much more capacious and multi tongued, this is the reason for agreeing on a curriculum, but it’s also a strong exhortation that they be taught in that way that is at odds with some sort of despotic, single-minded view about identity politics and this is who one is, and this is who one fights for. So that would be just one response to this whole mix of issues.

As an interesting footnote to that, there was quite a stir in my family a few weeks ago because somebody had sent my wife a website address to an old MacNeil Lehrer Show, when cultural literacy was hot stuff in the eighties. I was on the MacNeil Lehrer Show, with Maya Angelou, and there was a Harvard professor. I can’t remember his name. Anyway, he was all worried about the fact that the Germans were very cultural literate, and they still had Hitler and Auschwitz. But Maya Angelou was all in favor of having kids learn something in school and so she was very much pro having the commonality and communicability that you get out of common knowledge. So that was an interesting example because you would be hard pressed to find a distinguished Black representative from any field, who would go whole hog in favor of cultural literacy.

I hope actually that happens because the actual school results of trying to introduce all students into the knowledge that’s needed to really understand the newspaper and biology books and all the rest, is implicitly shared. Because I think I failed to mention in my little piece, a wonderful comment by a cognitive psychologist, Daniel Willingham, which is a reading test is a knowledge test in disguise. And the only modification I would make, is a reading test is a shared knowledge test in disguise. And of course, people are incapable of reading Huck Finn now actually, I mean, there’s a lot of wouldn’t you say, I mean, do you think one reason there’s resistance is that people cannot read that book with understanding?

Arnold Weinstein:
No, I think that’s a marvelous question and it’s an uncomfortable one, because it’s so easy to say you just like a book for all kinds of, fill in the blank, ideological reasons. It’s much harder to admit that you don’t like the book because you can’t read it, you can’t understand it, you can’t negotiate his language. Twain, I agree with you, I mean, Twain was quite proud of the number of dialects, the enormous amount of research he had done to put into that book and my students, they simply have a great deal of trouble negotiating sentence by sentence, what’s in the book. So, it has its own can of worms because people don’t want to say that’s the problem, it’s easier to lay the blame on positions that you disagree with.

Don Hirsch:
I’ve just done another little book in which I actually confront the cancel culture, as it were. And I do think that there’s an unfortunate connection between we call the cultural left and the political left. The cultural left, the political left, you’re not as old as I am, even though we’re from Memphis, you were in a slightly later era anyway, because you’re still actively teaching college courses, aren’t you?

Arnold Weinstein:
That’s right. Old though I am, yes.

Don Hirsch:
It’s just that this cultural left, which makes a lot out of whether you’re studying the Odyssey or not. So, you obviously, because it’s racist, hey, ho, ho movement, it’s unfortunate because it’s emphasizing differences instead of commonality. And that’s a mistake. It’s a technical mistake for getting the kind of equity one wants in the nation and the kind of competence one wants. And the schools that have followed, you could call them cultural literacy schools, are really completely closing the black/white reading gap and they’re all getting into select high schools and so on.

So the parents of these of Black children and Hispanic children are in disagreement with the university theorists of ethnicity. And so it’s an interesting political situation now, with regard to that question.

People who are loudest in the various jurisdictions that decide on curriculum and such matters, they are not necessarily representative of the parents because the parents, in huge numbers, get very disappointed when they get into these content oriented schools.

Arnold Weinstein:
It shows up just as forcefully in appointments that are made when positions come available in humanities, which is less often than it used to be. But that the diversity claim is such that we must have X or Y or Z. We don’t have enough of X or Y or Z. And this has become, I find myself seeming quite reactionary by saying, we want the smartest person in the group, because that’s an elitism, at least of a sort, that I can believe in. But one of the things that grounds that type of conviction, that elitist conviction, is that the materials we study have themselves so much scope and what I call capriciousness in them, that the lines where these battles are fought, we’ve got to have more women, we got to have more Blacks. We got to have more Muslims. We’ve got to have writers that are lesbian.

Those things, once you single them out and make them your crusading cause, that this is not represented in our either teaching core or in the books we assign, it seems to me you’ve done a disservice to the profession at its best and to most of the books that are important. And even to talk about equality today, is to run the risk again, of sounding horribly elitist and that’s the way I was formed in my own work, so I still believe in those old equalities.

Don Hirsch:
On that point, Arthur Schlesinger wrote quite a good book called the disuniting of America. And he coined the phrase, “The cult of ethnicity,” which I think is a very telling phrase. And what’s interesting is that nobody knows what ethnicity is, nobody has bothered to define it. it’s vaguely associated with race, which is scientifically incorrect. Ethnicity has zero to do with race. And that was the point I was trying to make off hand in my presentation, that ethnicity is entirely cultural.

Larry Bernstein:
Don, in your book Why Knowledge Matters, you talk about the French experience and the radical change in their educational policies. And I guess let me open by explaining what I understand the French used to do and where they are now, and then you could talk about how it went wrong. France had a very strict national curriculum. On each particular week, they would have a specific topic to discuss throughout the day and in various different classes. And it was not only true in Paris, but it was true all over the French world, whether it be in Guadalupe or Quebec or wherever, this was what was taught in a French school. It was a bona fide national curriculum, but in the 1980s, following the lead of some of the Progressives in France led by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, he recommended that they focus on the individual child and have that follow the child’s natural instincts and interests and not follow the national curriculum. And then they offered teachers to follow whatever curriculum they thought best, whatever text, whatever subjects.

Don Hirsch:
It wasn’t just Pierre Bourdieu, it was also the prestige of everything. American. The French started even liking Coca Cola. There was, after the Second World War, there was a lot of pro-American sentiment in France. And they thought, well, the Americans are doing awfully well, they’re rich, they’re free. So, everybody was very America-centric. So, Pierre Bourdieu had his own theories, but in addition, there was general sentiment, let’s copy the Americans in France. And that’s what, let’s instead of tying everybody down to this national curriculum, let’s do what they’re doing and follow Dewey instead of whoever they were following. The French always rejected Rousseau.

Larry Bernstein:
So what happened to the French school was after this change in curriculum policy?

Don Hirsch:
Well, they Americanized and they said, we have to differentiate that each school should have its own thing and each student within the school should do his own thing. And what happened was the French reading scores plummeted. And also, and this is the more important point, I guess, the equity declined hugely. And I think I showed a graph which illustrated how social class determined your school record, which it to a much greater extent post Americanizing the schools then before Americanizing the schools and Pierre Bourdieu himself is a wonderful example. His parents couldn’t even speak standard French. He came from a poor family and he rose to the top of the French educational system.

But I dare say that could not happen now in France. So, it’s a cautionary story. Whereas the Germans who followed from the beginning and the child centered idea, from kindergarten, they did very poorly in the first PISA results, the International Assessment of Students, and the Germans corrected themselves and they’ve gotten what is now essentially a national curriculum. So, the Germans went one way and the French went another and the Germans are doing far better now on these international exams.

Arnold Weinstein:
One of the things that’s interesting about the French is that they’ve always had a very particular slant and take on American literature. That the French got Faulkner at a time when much of the intelligence here was totally writing him off, that the New Yorker was and the New York Times are saying, failed minor talent and Sartre and Malraux were saying that this is the most interesting writing of our moment.

They also liked Jerry Lewis. They have some little bit wacky views sometimes about American society and they’re always convinced that they’re right as well. But I think what you just described, Don, is a version of a new free enterprise curriculum. And give up the old one, the one that probably came post Napoleon, where you have a centralized educational scheme that is required in the colonies was everywhere else too.

But it is also the case, it is the case that this curriculum is not surprisingly all male, and that people have found that there were remarkable writers in the Renaissance that were women writers, both in Britain and France and for so long, they had no place whatsoever. And then I remember when I came to Brown, my field in comparative literature was exclusively Anglo American. It was all Eurocentric and then England and United States. And of course, now you can’t get any respect in this field if you know nothing whatsoever about other large parts of the world that were never thought to be necessary to know to be educated. So, I think this is the dialectic that’s been going on for some time, the canon does have a lot to answer for it seems to me. But I think the idea of a formulaic solution that like a Chinese menu we’ve got to have one from column A, one from column B and one from column C for every course we teach. And of course, anyone who seems offensive to us, like let’s say Faulkner-

Don Hirsch:
A principle of quality. And of course, I say first we have to have practicality. If people do not want the greatest works that are representative, I’m all right with that as long as everybody knows the same thing. So, I think of it, the general point, the devil can quote scripture for his purpose. As long as scripture is there, as long as there’s commonality enough for communication and moral and creating a decent society, I’m not going to get into a battle about having to give away even Huck Finn. The stakes are getting pretty high now in the country. It’s falling apart to some degree. And to make a canon entirely based on merit is, I think, perhaps not the number one issue now.

Arnold Weinstein:
And of course, merit goes up and down too. And then the writers who were construed as very meritorious known once he’s all kinds of warts and problems with them. But I understand and agree with the point that you’ve made on that, that from a societal point of view about what the purposes of education are for in a sense creating a populace or a comity where there are shared, communication is real, and that people have the same touch tones that are available to them and yes, that’s more important than insisting on quality. I also feel, this is where you and I will differ, that the core of my field runs the risk of, it is qualitative.

That great art is great. Not only because it may help bind a culture together, particularly a difficult culture like America, which has so much diversity, but also because of what it says to us about being alive and having a brain and a heart and all of these old-fashioned things that the qualitative argument addresses. And so to me, it’s a tricky, it’s a conundrum to have a book that I think is a simplistic book, but definitely represents a group and that everybody needs to read it so that they know something about that group has something for it, but it’s also, I think, a risky proposition.

Larry Bernstein:
Don, when you say you don’t really care which book it is, so for example, if the progressive left put together a syllabus and it was filled with second rate work, but it filled in all the blanks and that curriculum became the national canon, which was taught in every school and every classroom. Would you be happy with that because at least we’d have a comment culture?

Don Hirsch:
Well, it’s not what I think would happen. I think at that point, when everybody is communicating and operating very effectively, there would be a chance that the culture would improve and you would go for quality rather than representation. And also, if you have the feeling, we’re all Americans, you would want the best American work, quite irrespective of origin. And so I think the Cult of Ethnicity, we’ve got to hope that, which is what all this representation-ism is some about, I hope that that diminishes because of the future of the country depends on it.

Arnold Weinstein:
Don, what do you think about the other weaknesses of that I think you’re going after? Not only is the Cult of Ethnicity a little bit scary in terms of where it leads, but it seems to me, it is such a reductive picture of what both readers and texts are. It’s a one-liner about self-definition. It strikes me that that’s one of the scariest features of it, is that most of the interesting, or the important books have more scope than that. As I said, women can write about men, men can write about women. The difference can be written by lots of different writers and many books themselves contain, as Whitman said, multi aspects for himself.

Don Hirsch:
Of course, that’s true. And it’s an enlightenment point, you would hope, that everybody would come to. But only after you’ve gotten past the current polarization, we’re in now.

                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Julie Salamon — Bonfire of the Vanities Film

Julie Salamon Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
All right before we get to question answers, we’re going to have you joined by a panelist, Julie Salamon, the former Wall Street Journal and New York Times film and TV critic. She will discuss aspects of her book, The Devil’s Candy, the Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco, the Making of the Film Bonfire of the vanities. Julie, go ahead.

Julie Salamon:
Thanks so much, Larry. Larry’s invitation to be part of this discussion came at the perfect moment. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Devil’s Candy, the book I wrote about Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities. I was a film critic at the Wall Street Journal at that time and De Palma, who had gotten to know in the course of doing articles about Hollywood, gave me complete access to filming from start to finish. My book came out a year after the movie did. It was an amazing experience for me and not so amazing for the filmmakers because nobody’s been allowed to do it since then.

While Tom Wolfe’s book became a symbol of everything that was wrong with New York in the 1980s, Brian De Palma’s movie became a symbol of everything that was wrong with Hollywood filmmaking as the 1990s began. Bonfire, the movie was lacerated by critics. And my book did really well, no doubt in part because Bonfire was such a huge publicized so-called failure. In Newsweek, the critics said the promise misfortune is Salamon’s gain. It didn’t make me feel very good about somebody who had been so generous to me.

So people always ask me when I knew that the movie was awful. And I always say I never did. For me, when I watched the movie, I didn’t really see a movie, I saw the making of each scene. And the truth is, to prepare for today, I watched the movie again. And honestly, I think it’s a movie worth reconsidering. It may not be a great film, but it’s certainly an interesting film and a worthy artifact.

The truth is, interest in both the film and Tom Wolfe’s book remain strong. A new audio version of my book, The Devil’s Candy is coming out this summer and I’ve been asked to do a seven-part podcast about the making of the movie right now. Sort of very meta, the movie about a book and then a podcast about the book about the making of the movie about the book. Very 21st century.

So I’ve been thinking about Bonfire a lot. And I am amazed at how Tom Wolfe’s observation to the world he was living in were so prescient. As David pointed out, it’s true that much in New York, where I live, has changed for the better. But so much is the same. Wolfe wrote about the masters of the universe, the mainly men on Wall Street, who we would now refer to as the 1%. The tabloid press that will satirize has been replaced by Twitter. But the net effect is the same, only worse. And Wolfe’s take on race certainly heralded the Black Lives Matter movement, as did his cynical or accurate take down on New York politicians, Bill DeBlasio, Andrew Cuomo, need I say more.

In the course of writing my book, I had the good fortune to spend several hours interviewing Tom Wolfe on two separate occasions. His prose was lacerating, but he himself was a courtly, Southern gentlemen. Bonfire was wildly popular, Wolfe got plenty of criticism for being sexist, racist, ultra conservative. I would argue that he was a great reporter, even when writing a novel and a good social critic, demonizing just about everyone in the cause of making people think about the world we live in. He wasn’t presenting his characters to praise them, but rather to skewer the real-life people they represented.

The filmmakers on the other hand, lost heart about two seconds after they bought the rights to Wolfe’s book. I’m not sure the term politically correct had been invented yet, but that’s what the movie suffered from at the time. Especially when it came to casting. David has laid out the plot, so you kind of know the characters. Sherman McCoy, the master of the universe, was deemed too unlikable by the Hollywood execs. So, they gave the role to Tom Hanks, just off his success in Big. Remember how adorable he was? The grown man in a 12-year-old boy’s body? Wolfe’s dissipated British journalist, Peter Fallow, became Bruce Willis, hot off of Diehard. And look, who’s talking. Remember he played a baby in utero and then after birth?

But the biggest change within Wolfe’s sole noble character Judge Kavitsky, the Jewish judge who sticks to the law. Alan Arkin was supposed to play him, but all of a sudden the executives and De Palma had a flash. By then, they had turned all the white men male main characters into these guys who were sort of nice and likable. But all the blacks of the movies were caricatures. So, they decided Judge Kavitsky should be black. And not just black. He’d be played by Morgan Freeman.

For Tom Wolfe, this casting cut the guts out of his story. I remember talking with him about what he called the crossover point politically. He meant that the moment he arrived where new groups were coming into their own politically, the same way that it had happened in previous generations for Italians, Irish, and Jews. Now Latinx and blacks were becoming dominant populations, but the ruling political class at the time hadn’t made the shift. Judge Kavitsky had to be who he was to make that point, to illustrate the tension that existed every day as black defendants faced white judges and prosecutors. I wish I could say Bonfire was entirely a history lesson, but it certainly is not.

As I said at the beginning, the issues Wolfe wrote about are far from settled. In my non-work life, I’m board chair of BRC, one of the city’s largest provider of social services and shelter to people who don’t have homes. I started volunteering at BRC 30 years ago, right about the same time I started reporting The Devil’s Candy. At that time, you may remember the city was overwhelmed by homeless people, and we still have an enormous homeless population. So those issues that Tom Wolfe was writing about, the issues that drove people out of their homes and into the streets haven’t been resolved.

Julie Salamon:
As for The Devil’s Candy, Tom Wolfe recognized it would be difficult, maybe impossible, to condense his huge book into a two-hour movie. He told me then it’s too bad movies don’t run nine or 10 hours. Though he spent the last part of his career as a novelist, Tom Wolfe remained at heart, a journalist. He wanted us to look at the world around us and say what? Really? I really believe Bonfire has important things to say. Maybe we should have listened more closely last time around. And I think you should watch the movie. It gets four stars on Rotten Tomatoes.

Larry Bernstein:
Julie, thank you

David Grazian and Julie Salamon QA Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
All right before we get to question answers, we’re going to have you joined by a panelist, Julie Salamon, the former Wall Street Journal and New York Times film and TV critic. She will discuss aspects of her book, The Devil’s Candy, the Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco, the Making of the Film Bonfire of the vanities. Julie, go ahead.

Julie Salamon:
Thanks so much, Larry. Larry’s invitation to be part of this discussion came at the perfect moment. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Devil’s Candy, the book I wrote about Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities. I was a film critic at the Wall Street Journal at that time and De Palma, who had gotten to know in the course of doing articles about Hollywood, gave me complete access to filming from start to finish. My book came out a year after the movie did. It was an amazing experience for me and not so amazing for the filmmakers because nobody’s been allowed to do it since then.

While Tom Wolfe’s book became a symbol of everything that was wrong with New York in the 1980s, Brian De Palma’s movie became a symbol of everything that was wrong with Hollywood filmmaking as the 1990s began. Bonfire, the movie was lacerated by critics. And my book did really well, no doubt in part because Bonfire was such a huge publicized so-called failure. In Newsweek, the critics said the promise misfortune is Salamon’s gain. It didn’t make me feel very good about somebody who had been so generous to me.

So people always ask me when I knew that the movie was awful. And I always say I never did. For me, when I watched the movie, I didn’t really see a movie, I saw the making of each scene. And the truth is, to prepare for today, I watched the movie again. And honestly, I think it’s a movie worth reconsidering. It may not be a great film, but it’s certainly an interesting film and a worthy artifact.

The truth is, interest in both the film and Tom Wolfe’s book remain strong. A new audio version of my book, The Devil’s Candy is coming out this summer and I’ve been asked to do a seven-part podcast about the making of the movie right now. Sort of very meta, the movie about a book and then a podcast about the book about the making of the movie about the book. Very 21st century.

So I’ve been thinking about Bonfire a lot. And I am amazed at how Tom Wolfe’s observation to the world he was living in were so prescient. As David pointed out, it’s true that much in New York, where I live, has changed for the better. But so much is the same. Wolfe wrote about the masters of the universe, the mainly men on Wall Street, who we would now refer to as the 1%. The tabloid press that will satirize has been replaced by Twitter. But the net effect is the same, only worse. And Wolfe’s take on race certainly heralded the Black Lives Matter movement, as did his cynical or accurate take down on New York politicians, Bill DeBlasio, Andrew Cuomo, need I say more.

In the course of writing my book, I had the good fortune to spend several hours interviewing Tom Wolfe on two separate occasions. His prose was lacerating, but he himself was a courtly, Southern gentlemen. Bonfire was wildly popular, Wolfe got plenty of criticism for being sexist, racist, ultra conservative. I would argue that he was a great reporter, even when writing a novel and a good social critic, demonizing just about everyone in the cause of making people think about the world we live in. He wasn’t presenting his characters to praise them, but rather to skewer the real-life people they represented.

The filmmakers on the other hand, lost heart about two seconds after they bought the rights to Wolfe’s book. I’m not sure the term politically correct had been invented yet, but that’s what the movie suffered from at the time. Especially when it came to casting. David has laid out the plot, so you kind of know the characters. Sherman McCoy, the master of the universe, was deemed too unlikable by the Hollywood execs. So, they gave the role to Tom Hanks, just off his success in Big. Remember how adorable he was? The grown man in a 12-year-old boy’s body? Wolfe’s dissipated British journalist, Peter Fallow, became Bruce Willis, hot off of Diehard. And look, who’s talking. Remember he played a baby in utero and then after birth?

But the biggest change within Wolfe’s sole noble character Judge Kavitsky, the Jewish judge who sticks to the law. Alan Arkin was supposed to play him, but all of a sudden the executives and De Palma had a flash. By then, they had turned all the white men male main characters into these guys who were sort of nice and likable. But all the blacks of the movies were caricatures. So, they decided Judge Kavitsky should be black. And not just black. He’d be played by Morgan Freeman.

For Tom Wolfe, this casting cut the guts out of his story. I remember talking with him about what he called the crossover point politically. He meant that the moment he arrived where new groups were coming into their own politically, the same way that it had happened in previous generations for Italians, Irish, and Jews. Now Latinx and blacks were becoming dominant populations, but the ruling political class at the time hadn’t made the shift. Judge Kavitsky had to be who he was to make that point, to illustrate the tension that existed every day as black defendants faced white judges and prosecutors. I wish I could say Bonfire was entirely a history lesson, but it certainly is not.

As I said at the beginning, the issues Wolfe wrote about are far from settled. In my non-work life, I’m board chair of BRC, one of the city’s largest provider of social services and shelter to people who don’t have homes. I started volunteering at BRC 30 years ago, right about the same time I started reporting The Devil’s Candy. At that time, you may remember the city was overwhelmed by homeless people, and we still have an enormous homeless population. So those issues that Tom Wolfe was writing about, the issues that drove people out of their homes and into the streets haven’t been resolved.

Julie Salamon:
As for The Devil’s Candy, Tom Wolfe recognized it would be difficult, maybe impossible, to condense his huge book into a two-hour movie. He told me then it’s too bad movies don’t run nine or 10 hours. Though he spent the last part of his career as a novelist, Tom Wolfe remained at heart, a journalist. He wanted us to look at the world around us and say what? Really? I really
believe Bonfire has important things to say. Maybe we should have listened more closely last time around. And I think you should watch the movie. It gets four stars on Rotten Tomatoes.

Larry Bernstein:
Julie, thank you. I’m going to open with a question for you and then go to David in a second. First, the point you make is that the producers got cold feet regarding Judge Kavitsky’s character by bringing in Morgan Freeman to play his role. Do you think that we’ve got producers are even more politically correct now? And could a film like this even be made today? To its vision?

Julie Salamon:
No. Interestingly enough, I was thinking about Tom Wolfe saying that the book should have been nine or 10 hours. I think it probably could be made today as a mini-series or a limited run series. And in fact, there were news reports about five or six years ago that Amazon had bought the… was thinking about buying the rights to the book or had bought the rights to the book and were thinking of doing that. But nothing’s ever happened. If you look at things like succession, I think that we probably could do a, probably not as a two-hour movie, but as a longer form piece.

Larry Bernstein:
Yeah. Another thing about the book is I thought of it as a tragedy. And Sherman McCoy, although not a lovable character, we really understand him and feel his pain. And we cringed as all these problems are moving towards the center stage. When they chose Tom Hanks to play him, did they effectively give up on the tragedy? Did they not make him a real enough character that was worthy of that type of empathy? How do you think about why Tom Hanks didn’t work in the role?

Julie Salamon:
No, I mean, I actually think they chose Tom Hanks exactly for that reason. And just to go back to the whole question of whether he did or didn’t work in the role, I think one of the things that happened to Bonfire, which, as I said, I think if you watch the movie to date, it’s pretty entertaining. But I think when the movie came out, the people who reviewed the movie were critics like me. Except I didn’t, because I’d spent the year following it around. But critics had all read the book.

So when they reviewed the movie, I think the backlash was not against the movie that was in front of them, but the movie they had inside their heads because they had such strong feelings about Tom Wolfe’s book. So no, Tom Hanks wouldn’t be the person you would cast in that role. But if you hadn’t read the book and you saw Tom Hanks and Sherman McCoy, I think he did exactly what you’re talking about, Larry. He like you see the more sympathetic side of Sherman.

Larry Bernstein:
Another example, which you talk about in your book, is the role of the mistress, Maria Ruskin, Tom Hanks’s love interest. In the book, you mentioned interviewing Uma Thurman as a potential role at the time a 19-year-old aspiring actress. And when there’s the meeting you described between Tom Hanks and Brian De Palma, Tom Hanks basically says I didn’t feel any sexual tension or that actress won’t work with me. And Brian De Palma is stunned by it. And instead, they go with Melanie Griffith.

When I watch the movie now and I see Melanie Griffith in the role, I think she kills it. And I actually can’t see Uma Thurman doing it right. In retrospect, how do you think about the decision to go with Melanie Griffith over Uma Thurman in that role?

Julie Salamon:
Oh, I think it was the right decision. I think Melanie was great. I mean, for me, part of what was just fascinating about the whole Uma Thurman thing was that a lot of the duplicity and craziness that Tom Wolfe wrote about in terms of people’s relationships in their families or in their job played out on the movie set. So, they had already been in negotiations with Melanie Griffith to play this role that when they auditioned Uma because on the spread of the moment, the promise that she might do a better job.

Julie Salamon:
Interestingly, thinking about what Christine was talking about earlier about harassment of women, when I look back at the way women were treated on that set, I mean, there were hardly any. But it was really a reminder of how much things have changed. Even though interestingly, the executive in charge of the production, Lucy Fisher, was a woman. On the other hand, Melanie Griffith, who was one of the three stars of the movie got paid less than 30% of what both Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks got paid.

Larry Bernstein:
David, to bring you into the conversation, the first question I asked Julie was could they make this movie today? Let me ask a more basic question to you. Can you teach Bonfire of the Vanities in a class at Penn, in a world where they’re taking Dr. Seuss off the shelves?

David Grazian:
I don’t think so. I mean the truth is, for all of Tom Wolfe’s talents, he’s never really portrayed African-American characters all that well. I mean, you see this in some of his earlier work as well. Like in Radical Chic. The book is a sprawling novel, almost 700 pages. There’s not a single relatable female character. And it’s about a New York City that again, that doesn’t entirely exist anymore. Whereas if we had an updated version of this kind of a book about sort of about the city as it exists today, I think it could be taught very well in schools.

I mean, so one example of this, and so if we can shift media, in the urban studies program at Penn, we have a course on the city. And the primary text for that course is the five-season run of the show, The Wire, which takes place in Baltimore. And like Tom Wolfe’s novel, is sort of the sprawling depiction of the city with lots and lots of interlocking characters. And there’s an entire season devoted to corruption in politics, there’s an entire season devoted to corruption in journalism. In a lot of ways, The Wire captures all of the sort of the trickery surrounding race relations and racial politics in a city like Baltimore. In a lot of ways, The Wire works perfectly as sort of a text for a class like that, in a way that Bonfire of the Vanities just sort of seems kind of dated and out of touch.

Larry Bernstein:
I love The Wire as well, and I think it’s a great example. Could you also speak a little bit about the role and use of literature and film in sociology, as a way of going behind the scenes to understand the complexities of social life?

David Grazian:
Sure. So, this was something that was actually much more popular in the 1950s and 1960s, I think in part because sociologists were more considered public intellectuals in midcentury America than they are today. And scholars like C. Wright Mills and Erving Goffman, David Riesman wrote books that were best-sellers, that were going to be read by large swaths of the population. These were real sort of intellectual figures that both relied on film and novels for examples that they could pull from fiction, to sort of illuminate the things that we observe in everyday life. And in a lot of ways, Tom Wolfe’s writing, particularly his nonfiction, given that he relies so much on reportage, and then brings that report Bonfire of the Vanities… In a lot of ways, Bonfire of the Vanities feels like a work of sociology because he’s able to take his reporting and his observations about everyday life, and infuse his books with that sort of every day kind of authenticity.

Larry Bernstein:
Let’s go back to your comparison with The Wire, which I just loved. In The Wire, there is season on the Baltimore Sun, going in depth into the media. And in Bonfire, the media plays a very important role as well, and how Reverend Bacon was very successful in using the press, making that relationship with Peter Fallon, to kind of bring this McCoy story to a frenzy. And he also makes fun of how TV works, how the demonstrations were made for TV, and how to use the press to their benefit.

I guess a two-part question. Was Wolfe successful in the dramatization of the role of the media, and has the media radically changed since the mid-eighties when he wrote this, in terms of their presence and power?

David Grazian:
So the first question is I do think he does a really great job of depicting the media forces at play in the 1980s, particularly surrounding New York politics. As I said, my front row seat to New York culture and politics was all through television, having grown up in the New York suburbs and watching local news coverage of this. On the other hand, in a lot of ways, a lot of the points that he makes, we kind of take for granted, right? We kind of were familiar with the idea that public demonstrations are very often what Daniel Burstein, the historian, referred to as pseudo-events, that are events that are simply put on for the purpose of being reported on.

I think, as Julie pointed out, if you were to do something like this today, there would be a whole lot of talk about social media and mobilizing bots to create disinformation campaigns. I think the media landscape that we have is far more technologically sophisticated than back then. And I think because we all use social media, we’re all extraordinarily familiar with the ways in which the media can be manipulated to the ends that were used by Reverend Bacon in Bonfire.

Larry Bernstein:
I want to go to a Black Lives Matter for a second. What’s really interesting about Bonfire is it kind of turned Black Lives Matter 180 degrees. Here, in the set, in the current world, the police and the district attorneys are viewed as antagonists to the African-American community. And in this book, both the police and the District Attorney’s Office believe that what they really want is the Great White Defendant. They want to take down someone who looks like Sherman McCoy, and they can’t believe their good luck. He comes right out of central casting as the man to take down.

How would you distinguish between the desire to destroy the Great White Defendant and Black Lives Matter’s fears that these same organizations are being primarily used to take down the African-American community?

David Grazian:
Well, to me, I would say that the desire to take down the Great White Defendant is sort of an exception that proves the rule. The reason they need to take down Sherman McCoy… I almost said Tom Hanks. The reason they had to take down Sherman McCoy is to cover up all of the everyday systematic racism that the criminal justice system inflicts on Latino and black populations on a daily basis. And it becomes very clear that, in terms of the politics of the moment, Sherman McCoy becomes a useful scapegoat in politically sort of volatile climate. But it’s fairly clear that Wolfe does see this as a corrupt systematically racist system that sort of is a need of a scapegoat for its own survival.

Larry Bernstein:
Julie, to bring you back in, you start out your discussion by mentioning that it’s been 30 years since the film and 30 years since you’ve written your book. I read Bonfire in 1987 when it was first released, and I had just started work at Salomon Brothers at the time, as a 21-year-old financial analyst. And I read the book with agape, in complete shock as to these characters in these unknown worlds, which, frankly, I had yet to be exposed to. The only part of the book that I had any experience with was ironically Pierce & Pierce, which was based on the trading floor that I was working on at Salomon Brothers, which was uncannily accurate. I didn’t know any social x-rays, I had never been to an Upper East Side dinner party. But now that I’m 54 and I’ve had a chance to go to these dinner parties, I now know that he was completely accurate and a very good social critic and observer.

And I’m just wondering, as a film critic now coming at reviewing this movie with 30 years more of age, how do you see how accurate the book was, and how the film could expose some of this interesting satire?

Julie Salamon:
So, as I said before, I think the movie is interesting. It’s an interesting artifact of the time, but also just an interesting film. And I do have to say I’m sad to hear David say that you think that you couldn’t teach Bonfire of the Vanities in a classroom, because it seems like yes, certainly parts of it are dated, but I think to talk about how somebody, who was an incredible journalist writing at that time, would talk about the social issues in this satiric vein, it feels sort of very sad to me, as a liberal arts person, to think that you couldn’t have that discussion.

In terms of the movie, I think that it’s an odd movie because De Palma is so much a visual stylist and Tom Wolfe is a word man, so Tom Wolfe painted every single picture with words, and De Palma tried to match that with his visual style. So sometimes the movie’s just a little bit jarring with all these weird camera, angles and exaggerations, but I think that it really holds up as a satire, and it seems so much smarter than so many movies I see today.

Larry Bernstein:
David, you mentioned that you thought Tom Wolfe did a poor job with some of the African-American characters, but the lead African-American character in this book is Reverend Bacon. And, for me, Bacon is a very complicated character. On the one hand he plays this black organizer, but behind the scenes he’s also running a municipal bond underwriting business, he has some insurance businesses, he seems to be very familiar with all the upscale New York restaurants, and he also seems to manipulate the press. He seems like an incredible giant. Why do you feel that when he creates characters like Bacon, it does not work?

David Grazian:
A lot of it is the way that he describes black English vernacular. A lot of this comes through in the very first scene in the novel, which is a jarring way to start the book. This is essentially at a demonstration that erupts during a political speech. The other thing I’ll say about… First of all, if a faculty member in urban studies wanted to teach this at Penn, I certainly wouldn’t stop them. I just simply wouldn’t teach it myself. It’s not really where my students are at either, they’re really looking for a more diverse wide variety of voices that speak to them, and I just don’t see this as the kind of book that speaks to the millennial generation of today’s college students. Particularly given how many of those students have been moved by the Black Lives Matter social movement.

Larry Bernstein:
David, just going back to Radical Chic for a second, which was one of Tom Wolfe’s first books. And it describes a cocktail party at a Park Avenue apartment where the Black Panthers are invited. And some wealthy Jewish guys are at an apartment and talking with them, and the Black Panther activist is asked, “What’s your plans?” and he says, “Our next step is to kind of burn down these buildings here on Park.” And the fellow says, “Like which building, because I live on Park.” And it’s very funny. He’s very clever in kind of bringing to a head when people’s interests are not on the same page, and them not realizing at the same time. So, in some ways he’s an artist, he’s clever, he’s not that serious.

David Grazian:
That’s right. Part of the challenge, though, for him… So, when I think about his first book, or rather his first full length nonfiction novel, The Electrical Kool-Aid Acid Test, that’s a book that really makes you feel as though you are there. And Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters really felt like, even though he had only spent a couple of weeks with them, he had really sort of gotten their argot, their ways of talking, their lifestyle. They really felt like he had sort of nailed it, and I guess I just don’t see… It’s just hard to imagine black readers seeing themselves in Tom Wolfe’s writing.

Larry Bernstein:
Tom Wolfe goes after the Jews as well. He is relentless on Abe Weiss and Larry Kramer, he’s relentless on Judge Kovitsky. It’s incredible the venom that comes out, but I don’t think Jews feel the same way about it. Just to go in a different direction for a second… One of Wolfe’s first books is a book called New Journalism, which is an edited collection of articles, kind of reinvigorating what journalism is. He takes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and starts talking about giving the journalists license to be creative and comment about what’s going on in people’s minds, where, in fact, journalists have really no idea. In other words, he’s using the ideas of literature and applying it to journalism.

And I think what’s fascinating about Bonfire is he’s able to take the ideas of journalism and use them back into literature, kind of reversing his first great adventure.

David Grazian:
I think that’s right. And for me, as a sociologist, a lot of the writing that made me want to become a sociologist was that sort of creative non-fiction new journalism of the ’60s period, including The Electrical Kool-Aid Acid Test. In a lot of ways, what he is doing is he’s infusing sort of sociological ethnography with art, and I think it’s something I wish sociologists were trained to do better, and I wish it was something that sociologists wanted to do better. We might be more a part of the public conversation if we did.

And I agree, I think Tom Wolfe does an equally good job of taking his reportage and pouring it into his novels, much in the way that realists like Emile Zola did at the turn of the century.

Larry Bernstein:
One of my favorite characters in the novel is a real estate broker, who we first meet at that dinner party where Sharon McCoy is sitting next to Maria Ruskin. And it seems innocuous at the time, she plays very little interest, but she is one of the first phone calls when Sherman gets into trouble and says, “By the way-”

David Grazian:
She wants to help him sell his apartment, right?

Larry Bernstein:
Yeah, and he can’t believe her audacity, how the vultures are circling so quickly. I thought it was just incredibly insightful, and Tom Wolfe was fantastic.

Larry Bernstein:
Julie, question for you. You mentioned that you had unfettered access to making this book about the movie, but that, since then, no one has allowed a journalist to do that again. Why did you burn so many bridges for so many of your colleagues? And how?

Julie Salamon:
Well, I didn’t think I was burning so many bridges, I really just wrote a book that reported what I saw. But it was, I think, in retrospect, I think by De Palma allowing me on a film set, it was really like inviting somebody into the inner sanctum of your family, and letting somebody write down every grotesque thing you say and do to each other, and the absurdity that comes up that usually is not part of the press.

But also, I think what I tried to do in the book was just to show the aspect of the work, most of which is incredibly unglamorous, but a lot of it was inadvertently funny and crazy, like any workplace. And I think the reason nobody ever let a journalist… I probably wouldn’t have been let on either, except De Palma just let me and the first part of filming took place in New York and by the time the film moved out to LA, I was so embedded that the studio had no choice. They just didn’t want the truth to be told, even though the truth, in my opinion, is not bad damning, it’s just interesting.

Larry Bernstein:
I agree. And was Brian upset by the book, at the end of the day, and if so, what bothered him? Was it his personal relations with his various levers that was the problem, or was it something about his professional work?

Julie Salamon:
Neither. Brian De Palma has been unbelievable about this book from the get-go, even after the movie bombed and he could have closed the door on me, because I still needed to talk to him. Because the movie was out and over and I was just starting to write my book, and he never flinched. He went into kind of hibernation for a few weeks after the movie was just so destroyed by the press, but then he continued to talk to me. After the book came out, he has spoken of it in very positive terms on the Charlie Rose Show, and there was a documentary that came out about De Palma five years ago. So, he felt that it was accurate, and he stood by his decision to let me in, basically.

Larry Bernstein:
One last question. When your book ends, it sort of ends with it doing very poorly at the box office. And poorly met, it had revenues around 15 million, out of a budget of around 40 or something and so it was a money loser. But when the producers, when Warner Brothers or when Ms. Fisher was analyzing it before it got to the theater, she thought it was a masterpiece and had the potential for greatness. Do you know, did they ever have a post-mortem to evaluate what went wrong, and what they missed that the public didn’t like?

Julie Salamon:
Yes, and I think what they concluded, and I think they were right, is that they completely underestimated the power of the critics at that point. It’s really different now… A movie comes out, and individual critics at newspapers, on TV, really don’t matter that much because people look online, they can get many more voices weighing in on a movie. But 30 years ago, the critical establishment were made up primarily of people who were fans of Tom Wolfe’s book. He was a fellow journalist who had written this novel that had become sort of lauded as this brilliant takedown, which it was, of the 1980s, and people were… They really looked at the movie as though it was a personal affront to them. I have rarely seen so many really terrible reviews.

Larry Bernstein:
Unbelievable. All right, David and Julie, thank you.

                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Sam Hoffman — TV Production During the Pandemic

Sam Hoffman Transcript

Sam Hoffman
Okay, thank you, Mitch. So filmmaking, whether it be feature films or television or even reality shows is by nature a very intimate, professional endeavor. Think about it, what we do when we make films and television is we gather a large group of people for long hours into small spaces to film other people pretending to do all sorts of things, including, but not limited to, fighting, kissing, hugging, singing, very few of these activities are what we would call COVID compliant. And as a result, almost all of the film and television production in this country stopped in the middle of March due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The film and television industry has contributed about $41 billion to the economy each year and employed about 2 million people, and this spigot completely shut down in mid-March. And of course the fixed costs of the studios didn’t stop, the rentals on their soundstages, and salaries to their executives, the payments on the development deals, all of those continued. And so they immediately were facing a crisis of not being able to create a product, or in this case film entertainment, of course the lifeblood of the industry, even though the revenue streams have changed over the last decade from movie theater box offices to streaming service subscriptions, as Mitch was sort of talking about, the marketing concept hasn’t really changed. I’m sure you’ll hear more about this in depth from Mr. Goldstine later, but the basic marketing concept is we have something really cool and new and everybody’s talking about it and you really need to see it. And that’s the idea, and when you run out of new cool things to show, people do lose interest.

The other thing is studios don’t have a lot of inventory of filmed entertainment on purpose, because zeitgeist changes and material can get stale. And so ironically, during this lockdown, when people were needing media content more than ever, we couldn’t make any. So the imperative became, how could we get back to work in this perilous intimate workplace when this pandemic was showing no signs of. So for people who don’t know much about the film industry, the first thing you need to understand is that we are a highly unionized business. We’re all in unions, so any solution to get back to work had to be negotiated between the studios and the unions as part of a collective bargaining agreement.

So it started with basically two papers coming out in June, one by the management side, which is the AMPTP, and one from the union side led by a whole collaboration of unions. And they both came out in June, and these two documents formed the backbone of the agreement that would eventually be signed between the industries management and labor representatives. The industry whitepaper addressed issues which had become in the intervening months commonplace in dealing with COVID-19. Testing, PPE, hand hygiene, vehicle cleansing, physical distancing, remote working if and when possible, and it introduced a new position of COVID compliance officer, which is a person added to the crew who would run a department that would be responsible for not only testing, but also administration of the new guidelines.

Unfortunately, the whitepaper didn’t delve into the specifics of actually trying to create a practical protocol for shooting, and that’s where The Safe Way Forward, the union document, sort of took it a step forward. This document basically created the idea of a zone system. And the zone system was the idea of trying to protect the most vulnerable people in the company, specifically, the people who have to work without social distancing and/or PPE, this is primarily the performers. Most shows are filming stories that are not taking place during the pandemic so they can’t be wearing masks, they can’t be social distanced and they have to behave like we used to behave. So they become very vulnerable because they’re in a room with a bunch of people, including themselves and members of the film crew, the director, the cinematographer, camera, boom, et cetera.

So these people became zone A, zone A was the bubble that we were trying to keep and protect people the most. Zone B is everything else where the film production has a footprint that isn’t zone A. So the zone A people would be tested a minimum of three times a week, a lot of shows are testing five times a week. Zone B would be tested a minimum of one time a week, but a lot of shows are doing extra and testing three times a week. And the idea is that zone A would mostly be coming in contact only with other zone A people, but if they had to come into contact with zone B people, those zone B people would be much less of a risk or hazard than the people in the world at general. So that’s basically how it’s been done in a nutshell, and those are the measures that have been adopted by the production.

How’s it going? Well, the simple answer is that the industry is shooting again. I personally am prepping a pilot with Phil Abraham, who you’ll hear from next, who’s directing of a CBS show called Ways and Mean. I personally, as the producer, am creating a long form application to ViacomCBS to be allowed to shoot. This has added a good, solid 50% to my labor in terms of what I have to do work-wise and in addition to actually producing the show, which brings me to the cost of these COVID protocols.

What does it costing a show to comply? I’ll know better once I finished budgeting the show, but anecdotally I’m hearing between 15 and 30% more. There’s a whole new department to pay for, a lot of testing, a lot of PPE, but that’s only the beginning, we also can’t shoot as fast. So all the labor costs increase. It’s very difficult to break for a meal, for example, in a crowded city, finding a place to feed a crew that has enough space to allow for social distancing is very difficult. Before COVID, if we needed to move the crew for lunch, we did what we called roundies, which was we had 15 passenger vans going round and round from one place to another. Well, now the allowable number of people in a 15 passenger van is not 15 passengers, but rather three passengers and the driver. So you need to do roundies these all day, or have a lot of vans with a lot of extra Teamsters in order to make that lunch possible.

There’s also the issue of shutdowns. Shutdowns are incredibly expensive because the production is paying to carry all the tasks that’s human and otherwise and not shooting anything. I’m told that 59 shows have suffered shutdowns from a day to a full two week quarantine. Many of these were caused by false positives, some due to reliance on rapid testing machines that could easily be affected by environmental issues, others were caused by true positives.

And finally there’s the question of quality, are you making the show that you want to make, that you would’ve made? A perfect example is crowd scenes. How do you make a crowd scene look real if you can only have 25 extras in a room meant for 150? It’s a challenge and that’s just one example of the challenges that we face. But yet we mush onwards, what choice do we have? The industry needs us to make some entertainment, for those of us who do it, it’s not only our job but our craft. We think of ourselves as artisans, some of the last Americans to make our product by hand, piece by piece like an Amish Oak dining set.

But I’m not lying to you when I say I look forward to the end of these protocols, not because they’re a pain in the ass, which they are, but because the fun, the real true fun of filmmaking is being in it together. To being a band of Outlaws, to being the circus that rolls into your town. And right now there’s no in it together, there’s only in it mask, tested and six feet apart. Thank you.

                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Phil Abraham — Directing TV During COVID

Phil Abraham Transcript

Thank you, Larry. So yes, I am a TV director. And as you all probably know my job is to say action and cut. But before filming starts, I have a lot of decisions to make collaboratively with the production team. I have to visualize the script, figure out how I’m going to shoot the script, where the cameras will go, I have to cast some actors and sit in a ton of meetings. We’ll have a tone meeting to make sure we’re all on the same page about the tone and the themes of the script. I look at wardrobe options, sets and locations that are specific to the story and try to match all of that with the tone of the story I am charged with telling. And our efforts all come together as the cameras roll and I finally get to say action and cut.

But when the COVID pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders were issued, all forms of movie and television production shut down nationwide and really globally as well. Suddenly we were all out of work and many showrunners and creators pivoted to the idea of producing shows remotely. But how do you actually produce a show during a nationwide stay-at-home pandemic? Well, back in late April of this year I was called by my friends over at Orange Is the New Black, where I’ve been a director over there, a seven season run, to direct an episode of the new Netflix series they came up with and called, appropriately Social Distance, which is an eight part anthology series exploring and dramatizing the experiences that we were all living in real time. The show was to be shot while adhering to all the mandates and safety protocols of the lockdown.

And it was decided that to better reflect that experience of the stay-at-home orders, the form of the show and how you experienced it on Netflix would be completely subjective and that all imagery would be displayed to the various modes of communicating with others, that our characters were using, iPhone, FaceTime calls, Zoom, classroom meetings, Nest or Wyze cameras checking in on each other, sending video messages over the Marco Polo app, and so on.

The concept of the show was to explore the human condition that we were all experiencing during this stay-at-home moment of time. This was truly our art mimics the next life moment, and as production progressed and racial justice became a rallying cry the writers adapted and pivoted with the time to incorporate as much of that experience as they could.

So our challenge was set, how do you direct and produce a scripted television show completely remotely? Well, the first step is always casting, finding the appropriate actor or actor pairings who could inhabit the characters as written and be willing to set up cameras and lighting in their own homes. In my particular episode, we needed to find two mother/daughter pairings that lived in the same quarantine pod. And of course the actors who interacted physically with each other has to be living together. Our Orange Is The New Black ties helped us when we reached out to Danielle Brooks who was quarantining with her mom, Larita and Marsha Stephanie Blake, and her six-year-old daughter Rocco. The scripted mother daughter relationships were jumbled, but that worked for the stories advantage.

Once we settled on our actors, we would scout our actors living spaces by having them give us a guided tour through their homes via a Zoom on their laptop. On our side the call was myself and all our department heads looking and assessing on how we were going to make this work. Once we had our actors on board, we adopted what the production called the Blue Apron approach to film it. We would have delivered to each pod of actors all the things necessary to film the scenes. Cameras and sound equipment, iPhones, lighting, prop, set deck, any necessary wardrobe or accessories, WiFi boosters, and everything else needed.

A day or two before shooting and their giant Blue Apron box arrived we’d have our equipment tutorials. We’d walk everyone through the unpacking, to the setting up of the cameras and linking them to our network whereby we could remotely control the focus, exposure settings, and even the panning and tilting of the camera, where we employed a WiFi enabled remote head. Creating an almost Truman Show like world where we can fold the cameras inside the actors real home, as they inhabit a character of the show’s creation. Not sure I would ever have guessed I’d be the Ed Harris’ character in this analogy, but there I was glued to my screen.

This was insanely time consuming and a very heavy lift for our actors who all did it with a smile, but you could see it was something they hadn’t fully internalized the enormity of. Typically of course, on the day of shooting in before times, our crew arrives and loads in their equipment, and we rehearsed and began to set up. In this case, the only people at the location were the actors and whatever family members they had, all of them were enlisted to help out and essentially be the hands-on crew, very different for them and very different for us.

On our end, it weirdly felt like a version of NASA Mission Control, where we’ve launched our actors out in space with the essential items for a successful mission, talking them through all the procedures one step at a time. If the space capsule has a problem, there’s a tremendous amount of support back at mission control. And just like Apollo 13, once a decision on how to proceed was made, the actual fixing of any issue would have to be carried out by the actors themselves. One big difference of course, was that instead of all of us gathered together, back at Houston problem solving, we were all buried with our heads in our screens at home, needless to say, we all quickly developed amazing Zoom skills.

One thing that was important to me and that I wanted to implement was a direct line to the actors where I could talk to them privately, as I would typically do on set. I’ve never been the kind of director who shouts a direction out from the back of the room by the monitors. I always felt I needed a closer, more intimate space for that. So we had a Zoom DJ working with us who could easily and quickly open up breakout rooms, where we could have private conversations without the whole crew involved, and this was an incredibly useful tool, both for me and the actors. I felt it was important to shelter them whenever I could, from the stagehand aspect of this job and care for them as actors and give them that discussion and direction time.

Typically on a set during filming we spent 12 hours a day working. On this show, being shot from the comfort of my own home we never had a longer day than seven hours. And I have to tell you, I have never been more exhausted at work before. The strain of communicating all your intentions over a Zoom call just wears you down. Not to mention working with a six-year-old who had flashes of brilliance, but whose attention span rightfully wandered. I also am really more of a shotmaker director and finding camera setups remotely was a huge challenge, and one that I don’t think I could ever fully get used to. What I did find, and this experience reinforced, is that when the actors were shooting themselves in selfie mode, our young Rocco created the greatest and most unexpected moments in her playfulness. She was so camera or iPhone savvy and was far more visual than she was even aware of, and that is something to always be open to. Sometimes the best thing a director can do is just let it happen.

Going forward, now that production is open back and we no longer have to stay at home, I’m back at work at the very show I was prepping when we shut down, as Sam had said, we’re doing this thing together. But since this is a very different world we’re reentering, there’s a whole host of new challenges that we’ll be encountering. How to film actors when trying to maintain an appropriate social distance, how to shoot group scenes, let alone scenes with actual crowds, all these new safety mandates and protocols while necessary will present their own challenges that we’ll just hunker down and figure out. And that, I suppose it’s really what the job is all about. As they say, the glamor of show business just never stops.

Phil Abraham QA Transcript

Larry Bernstein
I’ve got a question now for Phil Abraham, it’s Larry Bernstein again. One of the major themes of What Happens Next is how technology has disrupted during COVID the way we do business. And after COVID it’s likely that we will be disrupted going forward. Now you’ve just described some very radical changes in the production methods for your television program, how cameras are run, how sound is done, how the props are used and the role of actors as part of that process. But you’ve also mentioned that you were completely exhausted after only a few hours of work. What do you think that you’ve been doing lately that will continue on after COVID? What has been more efficient, more constructive, better? And James was just explaining how his work is going to be a hybrid of what today and before was like, is yours going to be a hybrid?

Phil Abraham
I hope not. I mean, because honestly, yes. I mean, could it be? I mean, look, Sam and I are prepping a show now where essentially, the idea of even under these sort of COVID protocols and whatnot, the idea of going into an office and congregating around the boardroom table and sort of discussing things, we find that we can actually accomplish this on a Zoom call truthfully. And hopefully people are engaged enough, and you have to be, that you’re giving it all your undivided attention. So in the prep aspect of it, I think a lot of things will happen and can happen successfully remotely. In the physical production and making of the show, I don’t think so. I mean,

I think the show I did with remote production was very specific and they were doing other… Now, there are other shows that were shooting during COVID that weren’t doing it remotely. They would isolate and quarantine a pod of actors and crew. And the story was very small or it’s two people in a house and you’re in that house and everyone is quarantined together. And I know Fargo did a version of that. And there are a couple of small movies that did versions of that and they did it very successfully. So that was one way of doing it. But really the only thing that was different was that they sort of quarantined, but their physical production sort of protocols where the same. So I don’t know-

Sam Hoffman
So I can think of one technology that I think we’re going to use and that will continue on afterwards, which is that, Larry, we have a thing called video assist which allows people to see, to sit and see what the camera is seeing. And typically we sit on set and watch a TV which allows us to see what the camera is seeing. And what’s developed now is a technology to sort of beam that almost live to anywhere. And so you’re going to have people who used to come in from LA to sit on the set and watch what we were shooting, now we’re not going to have to do that anymore. They can sit right in their office and watch it.

Larry Bernstein
Yeah, that’s interesting.

Phil Abraham
Well, that’s true. That’s true. They’re on Zoom and they look at their sort of… They open up a link and they have like, oh, this is what’s going on in New York. And that’s what they’re shooting. I mean, that to me is a nightmare scenario.

Sam Hoffman
A little bit.

Phil Abraham
That probably will happen.

Josh Goldstine :
You’re inviting too many chefs into the kitchen, so to speak.

Phil Abraham
Way too many. Way too many. And then you have these sort of voices from a box coming, “Phil, can you please come and have a conversation with all these people on the Zoom?” And it’s like, oh my God. So yeah. I mean, there are shows that that sort of manipulate you that way. But I think Sam’s right. I think there is that technology. Which existed before, but now since people are so completely used to sitting at home and clicking a link and opening something up and it’s all being there, I think they’ll probably insist on it in the future.

                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Josh Goldstine — Marketing Films During COVID

Josh Goldstine Transcript

Larry Bernstein
Thank you so much. All right, our next speaker is Josh Goldstine. Josh is the former worldwide marketing chief for Universal Studios. He’s going to discuss marketing films during COVID. Go ahead, Josh.

Josh Goldstine
To me, movie theaters are hallowed ground. On the big screen, reality takes on mythic dimensions. Our laughter, gasps and tears are cathartic when strangers share our emotions.
That said, the movie business faces an existential crisis because a new generation has come of age consuming content in a new way.

COVID-19 is accelerating the change in movie-watching habits. Netflix, with its $230 billion market valuation, rises above its peers. Disney+ owned the last Fourth of July with its culture-capturing coup with Hamilton. Traditional studios are experimenting with Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) releases—something they wanted to do for years. Warner Media’s HBO Max and NBCU’s Peacock are making their debuts with direct-to-consumer digital platforms, and the dwindling number of vertically integrated media behemoths are rethinking their capital allocations with one eye on COVID and another on the future.

The press frame this as an epic Darwinian battle between Old vs New, Studios vs Streamers, Hollywood vs Silicon Valley, Art vs Technology. But we don’t have to choose sides. Hollywood and Silicon Valley are going to work symbiotically more than either side realizes.

I want to shift gears and highlight the four major changes to content distribution.

(1) Give consumers what they want, when they want it, and where they want it.

This is the lesson of the decade and we all know it. Theaters are going to close, despite consumers desire for a communal experience. New norms will likely accelerate pre-pandemic declines in theater use. Some industry analysts speculate that 80% of customers will need to be vaccinated for theaters to return to normal.

But movies are not going away. People have been telling stories in a three-act structure for thousands of years, and they are not going to stop now.

(2) The Rise of direct to consumer content apps: how tech is making entertainment ever more personalized

Where movie theaters take us to shared public arenas, direct-to-consumer content apps personalize home entertainment. Cable costs are uncompetitive at $70/month and cords will be cut because linear cable is pre-historic and awful.

Digital is our future because the massive content libraries are instantly available.

Digital platforms will also play a pivotal role in the pipeline of mid-tier movie product. Studios with the direct-to-consumer advantage, will happily trade low margin rental fees on iTunes for higher value subscriptions on their own platform.

Streaming customers inhabit a time of their own creation; they get to watch what they want, when the want, independent of the rest of us. Binge-watching is the ultimate revenge against linear time.

And it is all about data: these platforms provide media companies with unprecedented access to consumer behavior and that data that will drive future content production. Consumer interests went unrecorded when attending a movie theater.

(3) Cultural Relevance Matters

Despite the trend toward greater personalization, broad cultural events steer behavior— we are a herd specie. Even with COVID, virtual water-cooler chatter is extraordinarily effective. I recently worked with Sasha Baron Cohen and Amazon on the Borat 2 movie launch, and our decision to time the movie’s release for the week before the presidential election exponentially increased the movie’s cultural relevance. We used a Beyoncé-inspired shock approach by dropping material in a highly compressed window just before release. Our greatest triumph was the strategic decision to hold back the movie’s juiciest scene with Rudy Giuliani, timed perfectly with frenzy of the final presidential debate. The resulting firestorm led to a heated exchange between Borat and Trump that generated untold value in free advertising and made the movie a global sensation. Borat 2 surpassed Amazon’s predicted viewer model by so much that Amazon is reportedly rethinking its entire film acquisition strategy.

(4) This leads into the 4th and final point: Algorithms are fabulous but will not replace creative marketing

Netflix’s model is based on data science. Algorithms analyze consumer behavior and make recommendations. The algorithm uses past viewing behavior to predict future eye balls. But as Kierkegaard observed “life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.” Algorithms are incredibly powerful, but it is essential, especially in entertainment, to appreciate their limitations. Algorithms will always miss the new thing like ET or Star Wars or Borat 2.

Creativity plays an essential role. Recognizing a pattern is different from understanding why the pattern occurs. Following a recipe does not make you a chef. Understanding the properties and appeal of mixing novel ingredients creates surprise and delight.

The future of entertainment is a dance between the auteur and the algorithm.

A shortcoming of algorithms is its efficiency focus, who will be most interested, repeating successful cliched themes fails to maximize the potential audience. A talented marketing team can create new audiences. As advertising guru George Lois put it: “Great advertising can make food taste better, can make your car run smoother. It can change your perception of something.”

There is a gap between prediction and what is possible. What Art can teach Tech is not how to efficiently get the likeliest audience, but rather how to effectively persuade the least likely spectator to watch and enjoy.

Data alone makes you a thermometer; creativity makes you a thermostat

Larry Bernstein
Thanks Josh.

Josh Goldstine QA Transcript

Larry Bernstein
Josh, you discussed the importance of data and how it wasn’t available previously. It was sort of uncaptured by the movie theaters themselves. What and how are people going to be using this data to do? Are they going to choose what kind of content to create? Is it that it can be more efficient to market to those individuals who already saw Borat 2 to market to them for Borat 3? How do you see the role of data in improving value in this whole process?

Josh Goldstine
I think that’s a great question, Larry. I think the answer is they’re going to use data for everything, but primarily for both the marketing side of it and the production side of it. Because if you think about it, it’s that in the movie and entertainment business, we really often don’t have a direct relationship with our consumer. We sort of hand off our product to the theaters. And the theaters can gather their own data, but on some level that becomes their data, not the studio’s data. There’s been some recent efforts to sort of sharing some of that, but what you’ll see is you get just much more granular understanding. If you’re watching something on a platform, it’s when did someone stop watching? Where did they get bored? They can build a much more elaborate picture of the kinds of interests that different subgroups have.

Josh Goldstine
Hopefully it kind of starts to unlock potentials of new opportunities for, oh, we didn’t expect that maybe new genres can kind of can begin to emerge. And so I think there’s both a marketing and a production side of it. And what you also will get with the marketing is it’s very hard in the marketing world to even know how effective each particular marketing activity is. And when you start to have a direct relationship with the consumer, you kind of have… you have a much more closed loop attribution system, and you are able to actually understand the value of those marketing endeavors and really make your money go much further and much more effective.

Mitch Feinman
So Josh, I think both you and I are really interested in this topic of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, as you talked about. And I worked in both and then got tired of hearing people at Google say things like, “Oh, the guys in Hollywood just don’t get it.” How much do you think some of what you’re talking about in resolving the tension between what algorithms can do and what marketers can do, entertainment marketers, is based on let’s call it cultural and personality differences between Silicon Valley and Hollywood executives and how they view and manage businesses. And if you agree with that, how… and I don’t know if you can answer this part, and when do you think those kinds of tensions might get resolved?

Josh Goldstine
I do think that a lot of it does come down to just a basic lack of understanding and a lack of appreciation of the other. I mean, I think we’re seeing throughout our culture on many, many, many issues, the degree to which parts of our society look at each other and don’t connect. And so I think that part of that is to be expected because these are new relationships. But I think what has to start to happen is that there has to be this willingness that we’re in it together, that whether we have to send everyone off to summer camp to get to learn and understand who the other one is. But I think it really comes down to, again, sort of putting yourself into the other person’s shoes and find to really ask and say, “What is it that you think that we’re not capturing from this perspective?” And really trying to create a kind of a dialogue around it.

Josh Goldstine
And I think right now we’re in that early sort of distressful state of the relationship and there is this sort of jockeying for position. And the answer is I just think that in fact, you have these two great companies that have done incredibly well in the last 10 years, you have Disney and you have Netflix. And they sort of have done… and if you sort of see where they are now, Disney sort of built itself up building these extraordinary brands through Pixar and Star Wars and how it’s done that in Marvel. And Netflix did such extraordinary work with this direct to consumer understanding the power of the internet. And I think what’s sort of starting to happen right now is that you see Disney is actually starting to embrace a much more Netflix approach with Disney + and trying to harness the power of the internet.

Josh Goldstine
And I think to some degree, maybe not quite as much, you sort of have Netflix beginning to think about, hey, should we be building brands? What is the relationship that a brand can create? Which is really a Hollywood thing. And I think you’re starting to see these sort of two great companies wanting to learn what the other one does. And I think that becomes the sort of initial steps for how these cultural differences start to break down and better dialogue. And frankly, just more successful ultimately coming. I do think that the economic imperative will be the thing that of pulls everyone together ultimately.

                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Reginald Dwayne Betts — Going from Prison to Yale Law School – The Power of Books

Reginald Dwayne Betts Transcript

Rick Banks:
Our final speaker is Reginald Dwayne Betts. Dwayne is a graduate of the JD program at Yale law school. One of his mistakes was going to Yale and not to Stanford. He’s also now a PhD student at Yale. I’ve met Dwayne a few years ago as he began to contemplate entering legal academia. As a youth, Dwayne found himself on the wrong side of the law and he spent time in prison for armed robbery. Since then, he has not only become an astute legal analyst, he is also a poet with three published volumes of poems. And he is the project director of the million book project, which aims to use books to restore hope, dignity, meaning and purpose to individuals who were incarcerated.

Rick Banks:
You may have seen the Dwayne’s extraordinary essay in the New York Times Magazine some weeks ago. It was titled Kamala Harris, mass incarceration, and me. He begins with the observation that he has followed Kamala Harris’ career closely because she is a prosecutor and he is a felon.

Rick Banks:
What follows is one of the most honest and insightful essays about crime and punishment that I’ve read.

Dwayne Betts:
Yeah. Thanks everybody for listening. And yeah, that was actually fabulous. I think one of the things that I’ll start with is, when Bill Withers sang at Carnegie Hall, I think it was in 1974 and he was introducing a song, I Can’t write Left-Handed. One of the things that’s stunning about it is he talks about how when he was young, he wasn’t really political and how a lot of people write songs about the war and they write about politics and how they imagine the world should be. And he was thinking about himself when he was 17 going off to Guam and how he was a lot like the young men he had talked to who came from Vietnam, which is to say that they were law abiding, they went because somebody told them to go. And then he goes on, I Can’t Write Left-Handed, and the piece is really exploring, the soldiers struggle with what it meant for him to be caught up in a war like that.

Dwayne Betts:
I wrote a piece for The New York Times, I found that in my own life, I’ve been caught between these poles. I went to prison when I was 16 for carjacking, and this was in 1996. And at the time, the political moment said that teenagers, John Dilulio article came out in 1995 in The Standard, and they said that it was a new era of violence that was coming to the fore and we were super predators. And I remember being called a menace to society and I was facing life in prison for a crime that I committed, but the name of it, the very idea of it was an invention of a policymaker. There’s no such thing as carjacking, it doesn’t actually convey something that specifically happens. I just robbed somebody and I robbed them with a gun. But the difference between having an armed robbery was a sentence of five to 40, and having carjacking meant that I faced life.

Dwayne Betts:
And I remember this, and I remember when we were locked up, teenagers having 30, 40, 50 year sentences, I specifically remember writing to the ACLU for a friend of mine and we were making an argument that he had a 63 year sentence in a state that didn’t have parole, for a crime that wasn’t a rape, wasn’t a murder, and it wasn’t even a robbery. And I remember the ACLU writing us back saying that that wasn’t one of that policy concerns. And now you fast forward to 2005 and you have Roper decided, in 2010 you had Graham decided and then you had a whole political landscape changing and a landscape that changed the landscape of the politics, brings back parole, it makes people look at that 16 year old, slightly differently.

Dwayne Betts:
But I think the way that we look at him is only slightly differently, and when I was writing the New York Times piece about Kamala Harris, that became crucially important for me because I recognized that if the way we think about this issue is based on the whims of the moment, that we will never get down to figuring out what the ultimate question really is. And one of the things I particularly find fascinating is that scholarship forces you to get further and further away from the experiences of somebody who was suffering under the weight of incarceration or under the weight of violence. And my main goal in the New York Times piece was to make an argument that we can’t fully address mass incarceration without contemplating how, as a society, we want to respond to violence.

Dwayne Betts:
And so working on the piece, I’ll just talk about three conclusions that I tried to draw and one failed conclusion. The first is that I follow Senator Harris all around the country and I talk to dozens of prosecutors about the work the prosecutors do. And I should back this up and just say that a couple of years ago, I got appointed to this commission in Connecticut, where Connecticut is the only state in the country that hires prosecutors. And so I’m on a commission with five other people and we hired all their prosecutors in Connecticut. So we had line prosecutors, and then we had an equivalent of a district attorney, that gets televised and it’s a public hearing. So that’s the backdrop of the conversation.

Dwayne Betts:
But when I talk to prosecutors all across the country, and when I talked to people all over the country about the work of prosecutors, the first thing I realized is that it’s really opaque. Even in our interviews, it was hard to nail down what prosecutors actually do on a case by case basis. And then I worked as a public defender, and I just worked as a public defender for a year, I knew that it was really varied. I knew I got outcomes that would bother many people in the public, if they knew the details. That I worked on cases where it was robberies with a gun, and we worked out deals where the prosecutor accepted a plea for a lesser or include an offense and there was no jail time. And I knew that the public would resent those plea agreements, but I thought it was justice, the prosecutor thought it was justice because, we all had this notion that incarceration should only be used in the most extreme circumstances, but detention in that, came up when we were dealing with actual violence.

Dwayne Betts:
And so in the piece, I was trying to one, grapple with the notion that we actually don’t know what prosecutors do, and then two, grapple with the notion that there are instances where it’s the kind of violence that demands a response. It may be the response it demands, is prison, and maybe the response it demands is prison for a long time. And then I would just add two more points. Now, in coming to this, I was writing about my mom and you go to prison, everybody I was in prison with, most of us had committed violent crimes. And so sometimes I listen to the conversations about reform and how we should deal with mass incarceration, and when it completely ignores violent crime, I wonder if the conversation is really about getting people I know, free, or if it’s about having a conversation that’s more palatable to the public and a more effective way of dealing with the 15, 20% of people who are locked up from state to state for non-violent crimes.

Dwayne Betts:
But anyway, my mom got assaulted the year that I got locked up and I spent this decade in prison, really thinking about how the system was onerous and burdensome. And I came home and the first day I came home, my mom tells me this horrible thing that happened and it made me have to think seriously about what that meant for how I thought about justice, and I couldn’t, I sort of just set it to the side. And it was interesting because I set it to the side in the same way that I was forced to set it to the side, my own violence and my advocacy work. And so writing the piece was the first time that I got a chance to try to contemplate what it meant to want somebody in prison. And in fact, the person took a plea bargain and got sentenced to a 20-year sentence and then got paroled. And because they took the plea bargain, my family never really found out, they weren’t included amongst the victims because the crown got no process for my mom and it was really, really complicated.

Dwayne Betts:
But the point was that the whole experience and ordeal taught us how the system was ineffective, but it wasn’t just ineffective because people went to prison, it was also ineffective because the victims didn’t have a sense of being safe and a sense of community. And then the last thing I would just mention about the piece before I stop talking, is one of the tragedies though is, what I was trying to point out and how it was trying to make it complicated is that while acknowledging the violence that my mom suffered, I was also trying to acknowledge that there were people in prison who I knew should be out. And I was talking about friends of mine, who had got locked up when they were children, some for murder, some for robbery, but they did 20 and 30 years.

Dwayne Betts:
And so I’m trying to work through this aspect of the piece where I knew that essentially, I knew who my audience was, my audience was in some ways like the parole board who would review these cases, I knew that I was making an argument for friends, but I was trying to do it in a way that honored and acknowledged the fact that many people probably wouldn’t even want them to be free, in the same way I probably wouldn’t want the person that raped my mom to be free. And at the end of the day, maybe this is why I’m not academic and why the thing I do is kind of different, because I was supposed to have a conclusion at the end, I was supposed to have an argument I was making about what the system was supposed to look like.

Dwayne Betts:
But by the end of the piece, what I concluded is that the way in which we think about people who are incarcerated and whether they should be, or shouldn’t be, is tied into how much we know about them. And I advocated for my friends because I know them and I advocate for my clients because I get to know them. And for me that felt deeply unsatisfying, but it was sadly the place where I landed. I’m going to say one more story before I finish this actually, because I’m completely discombobulated in a way and it’s related.

Dwayne Betts:
I wrote the piece and I talked about a friend of mine named Juvie. It was really hard to write a piece for the NYT and not put somebody’s real name because they’re real serious about having you put a person’s real name. But since he was only mentioned in the passing sentence, I didn’t have to put his real name. And he got locked up when he was 17 and he did 26 years in prison, he’s one of the first people that I represented on parole. And I think about how my conversations with him overlap all the conversations that I’ve heard thus far, particularly because he came home and he wanted to get a barber license and he struggled with how he would be able to get licensed. And the fact that he needed to accumulate a thousand hours of haircutting to get licensed and all of the hours he spent as a barber in prison, in fact, didn’t count.

Dwayne Betts:
But what I wanted to mention is that he did 26 years in prison and this is the kind of person I think, who doesn’t frequently come up in these conversations. He did 26 years, he was now 46 years old. For all intents and purposes, people thought he was healthy. He got released last December and then last week, he had emergency surgery because he had diabetes and he didn’t know. So he did 26 years in prison, didn’t know he had diabetes, came home, was home for just 11 months, had emergency surgery and then died. And I think about his story in a context of Bill Withers saying, I Can’t Write Left-Handed and telling the story of the soldier, when we think about incarceration, that often gets elevated to a level that obscures where people struggle with on the ground. And anyway, I’ll just end there.

Rick Banks:
Wow. Thank you, Dwayne.

Victor Rios, Connie Rice, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and Robin Greenwood QA Transcript

Rick Banks:
So let me start with just a question for everyone, which is, when we think about youth who get enmeshed in the criminal justice system and on the wrong side of the law, what is it that people need to understand, but don’t understand or misunderstand about their lives and about the forces and factors that result in their being criminalized? We can just go in order, Victor, Connie and Dwayne, if you have observations about that.

Victor Rios:
Yeah. Well, first of all, Dwayne, I’ve been following you, I know we’ve been in communication at some point, and I just wanted to tell you, I truly respect that journey you’ve been on and the work you do for justice. And Connie, thank you so much for the work you do, it really inspires me. And yeah, there has to be a way in which we not only understand their stories, but do something that’s policy and program based on their stories. In other words, their stories are actually the solution. And that’s my entire framework. So let’s take, for example, LA County now has pre-adjudication diversion programs. So essentially, when an officer goes out now and encounters a youth that committed a crime, their job now is actually to find a diversion program for them, before even citing them. Because we know the research shows, my research, everyone else’s research shows that when you have a young person that ends up with a ticket, with a citation, with a court appearance, that pretty much jumpstarts the school to prison pipeline. So in this case, they get diverted before they get adjudicated and it’s a different experience.

Victor Rios:
Connie had a great word, she said, the street PhD’s, there’s PhD’s and there’s street HD’s. I call them the BTDT, the been there done that. And those are the individuals like that gang academy, where they’ve been there, they’ve done that, they go to this academy and they’re ready to do diversion, they’re ready to keep these youngsters out of that school to prison pipeline. So not just understand, that’s a pity framework, that’s a sympathy framework, but embrace their stories of resilience, of grit. And then the new framework I’m working on, I call it a prosperity framework, so let’s not just expect them to have resilience and grit. You survive 20 years, then you got diabetes when you got out, you’re resilient. Well, guess what? No, we have to give you the tools to actually thrive in this society, we have to give you the tools to prosper. So it’s not just about teaching them through their stories to be resilient, but also providing them the resources to be prosperous in our society.

Connie Rice:
I would add, this is Connie Rice, I would add to my co speakers, individuals. They’re focusing on the most important part of the spectrum, which is the individual experience. The children born into these neighborhoods, I am actually focused on the systemic, so it’s a spectrum, it’s a horizontal spectrum. The work that people like me do, doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t change the lives and experiences that my co speakers are talking about. So when you ask what’s the difference for a child learning these neighborhoods, it’s the fact that they’re born in that neighborhood. I go out and look at that system, that ecosystem for the explanations as to why you have incarceration rates for children, nine prisons for children in LA County, that more than half of which have been closed now, but the prison to pipeline fact, that fact is orchestrated by a policy. That policy is mass incarceration. And that mass incarceration policy embodies assumptions and attitudes about neighborhoods and communities that are never meant to get on the right side of the thin blue line.

Connie Rice:
For people like me, who are privileged, we get concierged to safety. In the neighborhoods that we’re discussing, the hot zones, the gang hot zones, the trauma zones, Rand did a study of 4,000 5th graders and third graders in LA Unified, very poor areas, Pacoima, East LA, Watts LA, very poor areas. It found that in these areas, almost 40% of the children suffer from civil war levels of post-traumatic stress. Guess what? The cops who are gang officers in those regions for more than two years, also have civil war levels of posttraumatic stress and teachers do too. So you’re talking about very unhealthy ecosystems, no playgrounds, no afterschool activities. Most public spaces are controlled by gang members who charge all kinds of taxes and stuff. It’s out of control environment where children cannot thrive. And the legal standard for children is failure to thrive. Well, the children in these neighborhoods are failing to survive. And we look the other way. We, the larger body politic, we, the political class, we think it’s okay. It’s built in, it’s assumed.

Connie Rice:
So all of the racial disparities in sentencing and charging and stopping and putting people into that mass incarceration machinery, it starts with the profiling of the neighborhood. And the profiling of the neighborhood is based on class and race compounded. Doesn’t mean there aren’t bad apples, it doesn’t mean community members aren’t responsible for their behavior. They are. What I’m saying is that we need to understand that until you unplug the structural drivers of the massive policy and government failures and behavior and culture failures in these neighborhoods, you can’t rewire it to have a healthier environment that produces children who don’t even think about whether they’re going to prison. Right now, you go to Jordan Downs, go to Nickerson Gardens housing project, economist, Raj Chetty from Harvard, established that if you’re a black man between the ages of 18 and 24, and you live in Nickerson Gardens, housing project in Watts, every time you step out of your unit on any given day, you face the 45% chance of going to jail. Not of being stopped, of going to jail. That’s what mass incarcerations extreme impact has produced.

Connie Rice:
What mass incarcerations extreme impact has produced. It is both counterproductive, it is extremely wasteful and expensive, and it destroys lives. The most profound statement I’ve ever heard a police officer make, the former chief of LAPD and he said, “Connie, I changed because I realized that search and destroy policing,” that’s what he called his gang policing, those aren’t my words, those are the words of an LAPD chief. He said, “Search and destroy policing, I finally realize, doesn’t just destroy the community, it destroys you, the cop.” So we have a stuck on stupid, extremely destructive public policy and crime control, violence control, and it’s really a containment suppression system that we inherited from plantation policing.

Connie Rice:
And so until that mission changes, until the incentives change, until the rewards, you can reward cops for locking every kid in baggy pants up in a gang neighborhood where kids have to join a gang to survive, or you can flip the switch, flip the paradigm and have everybody rowing in the boat together to make a healthier community, which does not involve mass incarceration. Do you get the violent people out of a neighborhood? Absolutely. Lock them up. If you commit violence or you’re predatory, you got to go. And what I’m talking about is the 70% of people in our state prisons who are in there for non-violent drug crimes and mental health problems. So we have a paradigm problem and we need to understand that pipeline is something we’ve created.

Dwayne Betts:
So I agree with so much

Robin Greenwood:
Can I ask a question?

Dwayne Betts:
Me or Connie?

Robin Greenwood:
Oh, no, I was going to ask both of you. I just heard two different, this is Robin, one of the earlier speakers, I heard two different numbers. I think I heard the last speaker say a number like 15% were the non-violent and now I just heard a number of 70%.

Reginald Dwayne Betts:
Yeah, that’s what I was going to push back.

Robin Greenwood:
Okay.

Connie Rice:
Well, in California state prisons, the majority of the people are in there for non-violent crimes. Status crimes, gang enhancements, drug crimes, a lot of drug crimes, personal use during crimes. And that’s part of our problem is we’ve criminalized a lot of health problems, the mental health problems, drug problems, instead of well, for example, the difference in the response to the crack epidemic versus the opioid epidemic. That’s very clear.

Reginald Dwayne Betts:
So I don’t have California numbers and I would have to look up California numbers, but I do find, and this is one of the fundamental tensions in my piece, I was locked up from 1996 to 2004. I was locked up with a lot of people in state prisons. And I don’t pretend that my own experience is empirical, but most of the people I was around with locked up for violent crimes, myself included. Now if you say arrest, then I think the number of people who were arrested for non-violent crimes might balloon past the number of people who are incarcerated. But if you look at the prison policy initiatives data, they argue that if you just look at the whole path for people currently incarcerated, the numbers of people incarcerated for violence towards those incarcerated for non-violence is 1.3 million people in state prisons, 700,000 locked up for violence, 200,000 are locked up for property, another 190,000 for drugs.

Dwayne Betts:
And maybe we can have arguments about whether or not burglary is violent, some people say it is, some people say it isn’t, but I think that that’s a fundamental tension in thinking about this problem, because frankly, once you start to create that dichotomy between the violent and non-violent, then the way in which we treat people who have committed violent crimes is almost justified. And then the policymakers ignore the civil war level amount of stress and anxiety that young people deal with. And I would argue that one of the things that we need to do is take more account into that, but actually have a robust conversation about what should punishment look like and what is adequate and responsible punishment. We avoid that question by just imagining that it’s this huge pie of people who are locked up undeservedly when in fact, I think that you shoot somebody, you rob somebody, you burglarize a home, even if you start asking people how many stolen cars should we deal with, should we accept, you start getting really squishy answers.

Dwayne Betts:
And Chess is great, but I listen to Chess and talking about it, and he created the same dichotomy to think about how they were going to deal with prosecutions for cop deaths. He said, if some people who steal cars because they’re homeless or they just kids and joy riding, and we shouldn’t be locking those people up, but if some people who are a part of hardcore gangs and they should be getting prosecuted. And the fact is, it is almost impossible to disentangle those two groups and it’s almost impossible to disentangle who was the person with a robbery charge who is incorrigible from the person who was just like me.

Dwayne Betts:
And so what I find most troubling is that at some point the conversation you get what just now happened. Two people say different things and what I say about rape, violence, robbery, murder, does not lead the reform. It doesn’t lead to people saying abolish prisons. And so people won’t have that conversation, it’s just much more convenient to talk about drugs and property crimes. And so I’m not sure, Connie, where you get your numbers from, and I don’t distrust your numbers, but I think largely across this country in state prisons, the majority of people actually are locked up for committing violent crimes, not for committing non-violent crimes and drug offenses.

Connie Rice:
The larger point is we have a mass incarceration system and it needs to be unraveled. We need something that’s more productive, we need something that isn’t as destructive. And that requires changing the policing, changing the conditions on the ground, changing the strategies to the wraparound public health strategies. It doesn’t mean you don’t go after predation and violence, you do. That’s what you do the arrest for. That’s what you do the imprisonment for. But you have to go after the conditions that are, if you believe the statistic for the Nickerson Gardens housing project is that, Raj Chetty has documented it from here to Sunday, and you can’t look at that number and think that that’s okay. If that’s your policy outcome, I can’t agree with those policies. So we have created a machine, a juggernaut, and behind it are a lot of the assumptions about African-American danger and a lot of the tropes of needing to contain and suppress the violence and the misery in certain neighborhoods.

Connie Rice:
That’s the strategy, it’s called containment, suppression policing for a reason. So I’m suggesting that everything from our approach to the conditions in these neighborhoods, what opportunities are available to these kids, what childcare is available for children who are poor, both rural and urban communities, that infrastructure, the public health infrastructure that is not there. We don’t have the soil in which children can survive and thrive. We’re barely letting them survive. So I’m talking about putting the rungs in the upward mobility ladder back in the ladder, we spent the last 40 years taking them out, we’ve got a lot of support for subsidies and support and bailouts for large corporations and defense contractors, that’s where our public money is. And we need to think about our priorities to undo this system that I think all of the speakers on this call are saying is dysfunctional, is unproductive and has destroyed too much.

Victor Rios:
Clarify a little bit about, what’s been said here, because it’s important to clarify for a lay audience that we’re talking about, Dwayne’s numbers are, are coming from prisons, but there’s a total number of people that are incarcerated. And if you look at those numbers, I would stand my ground and say a quarter of the people incarcerated out of all people incarcerated in this country are there for violent crimes, which leaves three quarters of people there for non-violent crime. And some of them, it’s debatable like the 20% of that is debatable, whether a robbery is a violent crime or not. So I want to clarify that because what it does, and I agree with Dwayne’s point, we have to make sure that in this effort of reform, we’re not just addressing one part of the system and not the other.

Victor Rios:
And what do we do with folks, the big sharks. there’s an analogy I make in my book Punish where I say, the kids would say this to me, they’d say, the police are so busy catching the little fish, they let the shark get away. And the shark was a predatory guy that police knew they were there, community knew they were there, but somehow that predatory guy was not addressed. And that’s the guy that ends up in and out sometimes, but no one’s doing anything about that guy because it’s hard to even conceive a program. So one of the things that my students and I have been doing, we’ve actually taken serious this idea of abolition and tried to figure out measures for how abolition might work in terms of transformative justice, not restorative justice, but transformative justice.

Victor Rios:
And that’s in some of the points Connie is making. I don’t know if she would frame it in this way, but in terms of changing entire ecosystems, in terms of addressing those violent offenders, bringing them into conversations, and then of course the debate is still there. How much time do they do? Where do they get incarcerated- all of that stuff, but all to make it a systematic wide solution, rather than just addressing, say, those kids that are in and out for petty crime. And by the way, we’re dichotomizing human behavior, you’re either good or bad. And Dwayne and I had a big debate about a recent book, we didn’t have a debate, we had a debate with the author because that author, Alice Goffman who wrote On the Run was dichotomizing behavior of black males in Philadelphia. They’re either good or bad. And so all to say that, when you dichotomize human behavior, you don’t look at the behavior in a spectrum at any given point.

Victor Rios:
I know when I was on the streets, I know that a lot of my family and peers that were on the streets and are still on the streets, they can be these incredible supporters of justice and change and at the same time, get caught up in the wrong moment where they’re committing a violent crime. And so how do you address that behavior within one individual? I think that’s where the transformative justice piece, and dare I say, taking serious some of these pushes for abolitionism and finding measures and policies that allow for that kind of abolition, that is pragmatic, of course.

Connie Rice:
Well, I don’t know that there’s any way to do pragmatic solution. I think that the model that we know works and has been evaluated has been tried in LA. I have represented people in poor areas for years, I don’t live there, I don’t live their lives, but I’ve never had a client or any group asked me to eliminate the police. They want police who police humanely, compassionately, and productively and help them with their lives and help them with the conditions in their communities. That’s what they’ve asked for. And the transformation comes not just in the police, but also in the community. And there’s a truth and reconciliation process and there are resources that are put together to a strategy that is aimed at changing that neighborhoods ecosystem, getting resilience and all of the assets reinforced and taking out the crimogenic conditions and physical structures that actually shield gang violence and other kinds of violence, domestic violence, and other kinds of violence.

Connie Rice:
So we’re talking about building a healthy community, and policing is a part of that. But I think the discussion, if you don’t look at the systems, if you don’t look at the policies, yes, one-on-one is very, very important. The individual experience is extremely important, but you can’t get transformative just doing one at a time. And so when you look at the system of policing, you look at the court system, all of those systems have to be reconfigured to deliver a different outcome, a different product, a different result. And if that result is set for violence reduction, you have to start with the reductions all the way over to a healthy community and you get all of the agencies, all of academia, all of government, all of society, all of the neighborhoods together, rowing in the boat in the same way to achieve a healthier non-violent ecosystem with policing that doesn’t destroy the community, but actually helps communities build themselves up.

Connie Rice:
Then you’ve got something. And I think that the CSP evaluations and the grid evaluations and this wraparound strategy that we came up with 14 years ago in LA, we’ve documented that it works. People can’t seem to hear the solution because we’re so busy fighting.

                                                            
 
 
 
 
 
 

Packy McCormick — Writing a Newsletter about Technology

Packy McCormick Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
We’re going to go on to our next speaker. That is Packy McCormick. Packy runs The Not Boring Club, a semi-weekly newsletter on business and pop culture. Packy, why don’t you go ahead.

Packy McCormick:
All right. Thanks so much for having me, Larry and Todd and good afternoon, everyone. I’m Packy McCormick and I’m here to talk about kind of three connected things with the way that individuals are making a living. One is growing my newsletter, Not Boring has 41,000 subscribers and a million-dollar revenue run rate in less than a year of operation. Two is the creator economy more broadly. And three how the web, blockchain technologies like NFPs can play into all of this.

So, first of all Larry asked me to explain how I’ve grown my newsletter. I write this twice weekly newsletter called Not Boring on technology companies both big and small. This time last year I had quit my job. I was in the middle of starting an in-person business and COVID hit. My wife and I had also just found out that we were having our first kid. When I paused that business, the one asset I had was this newsletter that I sent mainly to friends and family with some links to things that I was reading and listening to. It had about 400 subscribers that I’d built up over a year. I gave myself a couple of months to see if I could grow it and turn it into something before looking for a full-time job again and going to join another company. I changed the newsletter’s name to Not Boring.

I started writing long form essays, and I set a goal of 5,000 subscribers by the end of the summer. Then I’d start thinking about asking people to pay for it. By Labor Day, I had 13,000 subscribers, I had sponsors and an active venture investing syndicate. By the end of 2020, I had 29,000 subscribers, was on pace to make more than I’d made in my last job, and had invested over $1 million into startups via the Not Boring syndicate. Today there are 41,000 subscribers, it’s on pace to make over a million dollars from sponsorships over the next year, and the syndicate has invested over $2 million in tech companies and I’m about to raise a small fund. The big secret to all of it and the hack for growing a newsletter from 400 people to 41,000 in a year is that there is no hack. I write about things that I’m personally interested in in my own voice.

There are no growth hacks. I haven’t paid to acquire any subscribers and I haven’t done any outbound ad sales. The topics I cover aren’t even that novel. Technology strategy is one of the most crowded categories in newsletters and Ben Thompson is firmly locked in the top spot, but by writing about companies that fascinate me and sprinkling in some humor with the analysis, I’ve been able to carve out a very small niche and grow through word of mouth. Over the past month, three companies have even decided to break their fundraising news on Not Boring instead of Tech Crunch, which all feels crazy to me. I’m just a random guy on the internet. There are people way smarter, and a lot of them have spoken on this call, and way more experienced than me out there. I feel lucky a lot of Not Boring’s early success can be attributed to the right place and the right time.

People are stuck at home with plenty of time to read and I was stuck at home with plenty of time to write, and there’s no better time to be writing about tech than in one of the craziest tech bull markets of all time. At the same time and more importantly, what Not Boring represents is that we’re in the middle of this dramatic shift in the way that people can make a living. Instead of working for a company, a growing number of people are working for themselves as part of what Legion calls the creator economy. And that’s distinct from the gig economy or if you think about an Uber driver who is a piece of modular, a supply in a larger machine. The creator economy, or the passion economy is all about people doing the thing that they love doing and are best at and being able to make a living out of it. The key insight of the creator economy is this, people follow people, not companies.

It’s always been true and it’s how we’re wired, but now there’s a wave of new companies building tools that help individuals build businesses and monetize their unique skills and passions. Over just the past few months, a company called Clubhouse raised a hundred million dollars at a billion-dollar valuation. Substack is raising at a $1 billion valuation. Stripe, which underpins so much of this, just raised $600 million at a $95 billion valuation. And Twitter’s really getting into the game. They acquired a newsletter platform called Review and are making a strong push towards supporting and monetizing individual creators. The list goes on and I get pitched a new creator economy tool every day.

The net result is that individuals have software at their fingertips that gives them capabilities that would have previously taken teams of people to handle. Previously to set up a website and newsletter and investing syndicate, I would have had to learn how to code or hire coders, learn Photoshop or hire designers, figure out deliverability issues, hire lawyers to handle deal documents, look up potential sponsors and call them up on the phone or cold email them. Instead, today I write and send a newsletter on Substack. I share what I write and engage with readers on Twitter. I invoice my sponsors on a company called Millio.

I run my syndicate on Angie’s List and my costs are practically zero and I can focus all of my time and energy on researching, writing, meeting with companies and speaking with readers. I’m not alone. Substack’s top 10 writers make $15 million. YouTubers, TikTokers, Instagram influencers, and Twitch streamers also regularly make upwards of a million dollars a year. These things happen in media first because media is a relatively simple business, but creators are launching increasingly complex businesses as well. No Code Tools make it any easier for anyone to build a website. Shopify makes it easier for anyone to set up an online store. And I know multiple people who have stitched together a variety of products to build software businesses that do tens of millions of dollars in revenue with just one person.

I think this is just the beginning. Recently there’s been a lot of buzz around NFTs or non-fungible tokens. NFTs are a way to prove authenticity and create scarcity with digital goods. A digital artist just sold a piece through Christie’s for $69 million and a company called NBA Top Shops sells digital video trading cards that fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. And there are thousands of examples of recent sales of NFTs from hundreds to millions of dollars. We’re almost certainly in an asset price bump on NFTs. People almost certainly come back down to earth. This is how the hype cycle works. But today the underlying technology already lets creators sell directly to their audience without a middleman and we’re just at the early days of experimentation. In the next couple of weeks, I’m in a middle of an essay on the creator economy as an NFT with a twist.

It’ll automatically split the proceeds with anyone whose work I linked to in the piece. That’s where I think things get really exciting, when we can figure out new ways for creating and sharing value. More money will attract more creators and more creators will generate more creative business models by remixing the tools at their disposal. I think this trend has major implications for how people work in the future, for employment relationships, who captures the value, where people live, what people buy and so much more. And I think over the next decade, more and more people are going to feel the same way that I have and hopefully find the opportunity to work for themselves. Thank you.

Packy McCormick QA Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
Packy, terrific. I want to ask a first question about self-publishing. Amazon offers self-publishing for books, but I didn’t hear anyone making a lot of money doing it. Why is self-publishing of newsletters a better method to get paid? What is it about the newsletter that distinguishes it from I’ll call it the self-published book?

Packy McCormick:
It’s a good question. I think with the self-published book, you’re still competing with the traditional system. You’re competing with trying to get either digital or physical shelf space, to get on the New York Times bestsellers list and there’s a lot of kind of machinery in place around that that just benefits people who work with traditional publishers. On the newsletter side, there’s not really big incumbents. It’s a real direct relationship with readers and readers share what you write with each other. And there are platforms like Twitter or LinkedIn or Reddit that allow you to kind of connect one-on-one and build an audience with fans. I think the distribution is easier and you’re competing with other individuals as opposed to competing with traditional publishers.

Larry Bernstein:
In your last essay, you talk about Coase’s theory of the firm. And we had a chance to talk about Robert Coase’s book The Firm last week with David Weil. As background Coase says that the reason, we have companies at all is because of transaction costs. It is hard to rehire the same workers every day. And using a transaction cost framework for thinking about why we all go to the same office instead of working for ourselves independently. And I think what you’re saying here is that the world is heading into a world of substantially lower transaction costs in many different ways allowing content providers to deal directly with their audience, and you gave a lot of different examples. How do you think about how individuals particularly on the creative side can continue to work for themselves instead of working for a third party who captures some of that benefit?

Packy McCormick:
And I think third parties do add value. Obviously, firms add a ton of value and there’s a reason that most people have, will, and will continue to work in firms. But I think the big change has just been the availability of software tools that make both creating and distributing work and then capturing value and actually getting paid much, much easier. That’s the huge shift here is that, like I said, there’s 10 different people that I would have had to work with in the past to be able to do what I do with five pieces of software today. And I think that’s a big shift. And if there’s one piece of advice to creators or to people who are listening who want to do a side thing, I think it’s really to get out and start experimenting and just play around with these tools.

Even in the past two years that I’ve been starting to write, the tools have just gotten better and easier and people have gotten more receptive to the work of individuals. And I think it’s really all about experimenting, finding what tools make sense for you, finding what medium makes sense for you, and then just going out and trying a bunch of new things. I think that’s the best way to stand out.

Sudi Mariappa:
Hey Packy, this is Sudi Mariappa. I just had a question back to creators. Does this labor market help, are we just seeing the first start of it and do you see this as deflationary because we’re going to open up a lot of flexibility in the labor market and potentially future supply, not only in the US, but globally?

Packy McCormick:
I think the global talent question is a really interesting one and I have invested in a couple of companies that are making it easier to both hire internationally and to work with international teams. And I certainly think there’s going to be, regardless of the greater economy, but just the globalization of talent post COVID, I think will certainly put deflationary pressure on wages. What I think happens though in a lot of cases and unfortunately happens in various parts of the market is that you’re going to see a bifurcation. The person who is living in and I’ll just choose Ghana because that’s where my sister is. Over the past three months, she said that the cost of a talented engineer in Ghana has gone up three X. And it works both ways.

Maybe in the US where people have had access to the highest paying jobs with less competition, it will be worse for wages, and globally it might help the more talented people access higher, more globally competitive wages. But I think just generally you’ll see people who are able to stand out within their particular niches, whether that’s as doctors performing telemedicine across the world, or whether that’s somebody writing a free newsletter. I think the people who are able to stand out to make more than they would have before, and then it’s really I think incumbent in on the system and individuals to figure out what to do about the fact that there is going to be this global marketplace for talent for the people who aren’t able to kind of stand out.

Todd Benson:. I guess, one of the things, and I guess it’s professor, Anita Elbers at Harvard Business School has a thing around which she says basically in the digital economy, it’s winner take all. And you see that basically kind of in whether it’s authors, or entertainers, or baseball players like Mike Trout. So that probably is kind of interesting. It really favors the exceptional, I guess and commoditizes the average. I’m curious, you’ve written and you’ve talked about a lot of tools and one of the more interesting ones and one that was kind of near and dear to kind of mine and Larry’s and Sudi’s generation was Excel, which you wrote about as one of the early tools that we all kind of came of age with. And I’m wondering if he might kind of share with people just a little bit about kind of your essay or your report on Excel?

Packy McCormick:
I think you’re absolutely right that there’s a parallel. I think the way to fight that is to find your own niche because I think niches on the internet are so much bigger than people expect or give them credit for. There’s some sort of quote that’s niches are bigger than you expect on the internet, even after you expect that the niche is going to be very big, or something better said than that. I think that’s the way to fight that is to just get really, really good at your specific niche. But certainly, the average is going to be hurt. On the Excel side, you said that you grew up on it. A decade or so later, I grew up on Excel. My dad grew up on Excel.

So the thing that we wrote about in that piece is just the incredible staying power of this software that was developed decades ago and is still used and loved by so many people. There’s not a single other piece of software developed when Microsoft Excel was that people right now starting out will use and come to love. There’s a lot of fascinating things about Excel. One of which is that it’s pretty much a full-fledged programming language where you can build a front end, which are the dashboards and the graphs. You can build kind of a transformation layer that does calculations. So, the calc tab in your model, and then you can build simple database functionality. Now there’s a bunch of issues, there’s version tracking issues and data provenance issues, and so it’s not perfect as a programming language, but as a simple programming language, it works.

One of the other interesting things about Excel is that so much of the B2B software, which has created nearly a trillion dollars’ worth of market cap and potentially more depending on how wide an aperture you have on things that have picked up Excel have really just come from people saying, “Oh, I think I could build a purpose-built piece of software that does this thing better than Excel.” So, the early days in Salesforce, if you were running your CRM in a spreadsheet, now Salesforce is a multi-hundred-billion-dollar market cap company that made that its own piece of custom-built software. And there’s more and more companies that are built as people come up with creative uses for Excel.

A company comes in and builds a piece of B2B software that does that one thing better and still Excel survives and thrives as these things are being picked off. And so now it’s No Code movement, which I mentioned in the speech, I think it’s taking inspiration not from the use cases of Excel, but from what Excel does and the flexibility that it has and the ability that it gives non-technical people to build all sorts of things outside of kind of a set channel parameters. So that’s just a few of the interesting things about Excel. It was a 6,000-word essay, but I think it is as appreciated as it is and 700 million users underappreciated still.

Larry Bernstein:
Packy, just as a followup on Excel for a second. It’s Larry. So, when I started Salomon and I thought it was interesting that Todd mentioned that we started using Excel, when I was at Salomon, I started using Lotus 123 as our software program for doing spreadsheets and then I would think in something like 1994, we transferred over to Excel. So, there was seven years of Lotus 123 for me until I made the switch. I think what’s interesting is just this week I have five interns for What Happens Next and we tried to keep a spreadsheet for what authors to have on the show. And my interns encouraged me to use a Google Sheets spreadsheet so that we could all use the same spreadsheet in real time and be aware of each other’s changes.

Do you think that there’s a chance that Excel could end up losing out to a Google spreadsheet? And I guess there were two things that I thought were interesting about it. One, it was free, so the price was different. And second was is that we could all make changes immediately and then have it also be available to all of us at the same time. Excel is some sort of closed system and is expensive. Students are using this Google document as well. Your thoughts on free and immediacy?

Packy McCormick:
So it’s interesting because I’ve had this conversation with so many ex-finance people who have gone into the startup world and to a person, they all are total Excel adherence and loyalists. I think Google Sheets probably gets you to 80% of the functionality of Excel, but the people who are used to working in Excel just love working in Excel and can do more powerful things. It’s a little bit faster because it is offline and people are just used to the very particular functions that they like using. Google copies a lot of them and still people who really love Excel and need to do it for more hardcore use cases stick with Excel. I think the Google Sheets certainly picks off a lot of the simple use cases. So, when you’re making a list that you want to share with people, either you go with Google Sheets or you go with something like Air Table, which is essentially just taking the database functionality of Excel and putting it in a more structured format and has become a multi-billion-dollar business.

I consider Google Sheets kind of somewhere in between the two of those things. I also would say that I think if it were a different CEO at the helm of Microsoft, I’d be a little more concerned, but I feel like Satya Nadell is doing such a good job at kind of bringing Microsoft forward and keeping Microsoft up to date that I feel like they’ll have a solution that rivals the good parts of Google Sheets in the not-so-distant future. I don’t love Office 365 yet, but I feel like they’ll be able to get to kind of feature parity on the collaboration side with Sheets.

Larry Bernstein:
You mentioned some of the programs or software that you use to search your new business that were very effective and I want you to expand on that. And I thought I would open with something that helped me on What Happens Next. A number of my listeners said they would prefer to read a transcript than to listen to an audio. And I had one of my interns investigate the matter with an artificial intelligence solution, and we got back the What Happens Next episode and it was complete garbage. It was not a usable solution.

So someone recommended rev.com and I sent the What Happens Next audio to rev.com and then literally two and a half hours later after a two-hour show, I would get a copy of a transcript that was nearly perfect. I would say it was like 99.9% perfect, but still required some reading and editing. Rev.com uses freelancers to do their transcripts. In fact, they can use anyone in the world to help in this paid project. I was amazed by rev.com. Of the choices that you mentioned, I actually don’t know any of the things that you discussed. What would you describe as the piece of software that you thought was the most incredible in terms of enhancing your own productivity?

Packy McCormick:
So there’s a couple, neither of which I mentioned directly because they’re not core to what I do, but are just absolutely incredible pieces of software. The first is Figma. So Figma is to Adobe Photoshop and then the creative suite as Google Sheets is to Microsoft Excel. So, it’s collaborative and it’s flexible, and somebody like me who’s not a designer is able to hop on to Figma and make, they’re not great graphics by any stretch of the imagination, but I can at least make graphics and things that I dropped in. And then Figma is this other company that’s valued at a couple of billion dollars and is going to be worth I think a whole lot more. So Figma is one. More closely comparable to rev.com is a piece of software called Descript That is one of the most magical pieces of software that I use.

So because my essays are five to 6,000 words long, I’ll read most of them and turn them into an audio version just for the people who don’t want to read five to 6,000 words every week. And as I’m reading, it transcribes along with me, and then I can edit it like a text document. So I can delete words, I can copy and move things to different places. It’s also, and I haven’t tried it, but also apparently works really well with video where you can just like you would a word doc, copy, paste, delete, type, do all of these things and it makes the audio or the video kind of match the thing that you have down in the doc. Descript, I think just in terms of blow your mind magic as a piece of software, I think Descript is probably top of the list there.

Larry Bernstein:
Can I just go over that one more sec because I’m not sure I understood it completely? So you write your 5,000 words and then I guess a freelancer would turn it into an audio version. And then how do you take that audio version and edit it ex-post?

Packy McCormick:
So this speaks to the non-scalability of what I’m doing right now. So instead of a freelancer, I send it at 9:00 on Monday mornings. I sit there at 6:30 AM on Monday morning and actually just read my whole essay into Descript. And Descript is what I use to record. And then as I’m recording, maybe with a two to five second delay, the words are showing up on a piece of paper. They’re on a document in front of me, and I can copy, paste, delete, start over, drop in music, do all sorts of things, and automatically it’s updating the text and then the audio alongside it.

It also has a feature where I can just dump in the whole essay. And if I’ve recorded, it’s a pretty long recording you have to do, maybe five minutes, but it captures your voice and the way that you express different things. And it will actually, if I want it to, it’s a little uncanny right now, but it would read back the thing that I wrote in my own voice. And then I could edit from there as well. So, it’s able to go both ways.

Sudi Mariappa:
Packy, Sudi again. Hey, so then for your next post, you’re going to put down these productivity tools that us middle-agers can use.

Packy McCormick:
Sorry, I’m hitting my one-year anniversary next week. I think I’m going to do a little behind the scenes on the whole shebang. And I’ll definitely include the tools that I use.

Larry Bernstein:
Just following up with that previous example about Figma, this equivalent to the Adobe Photoshop. So what do you do? Let’s say you want some graphic design. You basically write words. I would be interested in a graphic design that looks like this, and then some freelancer or a group of freelancers respond with, “How about that?” Can you explain that a little bit more detail? I don’t fully understand it.

Packy McCormick:
Sorry. So yeah, Figma’s different. Figma is just like Adobe except now Adobe has collaborative tools as well. This was built first as a web tool with collaboration built in. And I use it just in single player mode. I’m in there editing photos and adding words to pictures and doing very, very basic things.

But real design teams will use them to build interactive mock-ups that they can give to their product manager. Product manager can leave comments. They can both be in there talking at the same time, and the designer can make tweaks in real time. And it just makes the design process a whole lot more collaborative, and it opens up the ability for more people on the team to be designers.

It’s relatively cheap software. It’s relatively easy to at least get a basic understanding. So even a non-designer, a product manager, an engineer, somebody can go in and mock up very roughly what they want and then share it with the designer as well. So, it just makes that whole process a lot more frictionless by letting more people into it.

Todd Benson:
Packy, one of the things I’m sort of curious if you might share just some things that you think listeners and us on the call… What sorts of things should we be paying attention to?

Packy McCormick:
So that’s a very good question. I mean, I think specifically related to this topic, certainly from the outside before I was in it, I would hear the words Creator Academy or creator, and I would think somebody on Instagram selling flat tummy teas use or some T-shirt, and that’s what I viewed as a creator.

I think more and more and more, people are able to do things that resemble real businesses or there are doctors on YouTube who are building up a following and not giving medical advice, but giving some kind of broad health advice. And I think more and more, creator is seeping into a lot of categories and becoming more than just someone who looks pretty in a picture and can sell things. And so those businesses are getting more and more complex.

I just touched on it briefly at the end, and I’ve been broadly curious in crypto for a while, but very confused about how it’s actually going to be practical because there haven’t been strong use cases because Bitcoin pretty much is just money.

If Bitcoin is kind of artificial narrow intelligence, there are other block chains like the Ethereum blockchain, which a lot of people are building on top of now, that’s really its purpose is to let people build kind of A-G-I or general intelligence type applications on top of it and do all sorts of different things.

So I think the head fake right now is I probably wouldn’t go out and spend millions of dollars on a piece of digital art, but I think there’s really interesting things happening with the underlying technology itself, with how groups of people are able to organize and align incentives. There’s a lot of the best engineers that I know, a lot of people who are interested in economics, all kind of moving towards the blockchain. And obviously part of that is that Bitcoin hit $60,000, and there’s a lot of money in being proficient in the blockchain right now. But I think it’s this longer-term thing where I haven’t seen as much creative energy or speed in the traditional web as I have in the things that people are building on top of the blockchain now.

And this is coming from someone who was very skeptical even three months ago and remains skeptical. Just the speed at which they’re able to build because it’s open source with money built in essentially. And because everything’s out in the open, because everything that one person builds becomes a building block for the thing that the next person wants to build, people are just moving really, really quickly in that part of the internet. And I’d say that’s something to maybe ignore the current hype, but definitely look a few levels deeper at what people are building on top of the blockchain.

Larry Bernstein:
You talked about Substack as a place to distribute I’ll call it independent writing. I’m not sure many of our listeners know what Substack is or how important it has become, and how you make money by creative materials that will be read on this platform.

Packy McCormick:
Sure. So Substack is a very simple newsletter publishing platform. It has a text editor. It has the ability to capture emails and it has some very, very simple analytics and the ability to hit send and reach your audience.

Substack has grown incredibly fast. There’s been a little controversy around them recently because they’ve been paying authors advances to come over from traditional publications to write on Substack… Nothing inherently wrong with that, but doing that while trying to play the unbiased platform card, I think has created a little bit of tension. Substack’s core belief is that advertising has really made the discourse on the internet toxic and click-baity. And that by making media subscription-based and letting fans pay writers directly, they can improve the discourse and improve visibility on the internet.

I’ve built my whole business on Substack without ever charging anybody in the audience a dollar for it. So I’ve actually paid Substack zero dollars. Their model is when there’s a subscription that goes through their system, they take a 10% cut and then Stripe on top of that takes their 2.9%. So, the author is left with 87% of the revenue that they get.

Instead of that, I’ve just directly gone to sponsors, most of whom are readers of the newsletter. And I charge in two different ways. I have a traditional, like you’d read top of email sponsorship with 100-150 words that then links to somebody’s product. And then the thing that’s been most fascinating to me is that I do these sponsor deep dives where a company pays me money to write a full post like any one of my other posts, but on the company. And I’m able to be critical where I think there’s criticisms to be made. I’m very upfront with the audience about the fact that I am getting paid, and I have a filtering process that’s very similar to my investment filtering process. I don’t want to write about a company if I don’t think it’s the best in class in the space, if I don’t think the space itself or the company itself is interesting.

And because of that, I’ve been able to find this really great model where somehow people don’t mind the sponsored content, and they like it. And Ben Thompson, the Stratechery writer actually said on his podcast that there’s advantages to my particular model because I’m able to get access to companies that you otherwise wouldn’t get on private companies to their financials and their strategy and their leadership teams and all of that.

And then the company gets this kind of full deep dive that not only drives clicks to their site and drive sales, but attracts investors and attracts hires and has all of these other benefits of having a well done piece of writing out on the internet about the company. I’ve gone around the subscription model and just doing the numbers, it’s worked a heck of a lot better than subscriptions would have for me.