Someone made the odd, maybe malicious, certainly rash decision to put Tom Wolfe on the right-hand side of the cover of Harper's new 150th anniversary issue, facing Mark Twain, a leonine, earthy, dignified old devil, sitting in alert repose, apparently listening. A man to whose energetic image the white suit is incidental. Over on the right-hand side, Wolfe's white suit is dominant, looking just a shade too big for its shriveled occupant, who gazes nowhere in particular with a smirk of wooden self-satisfaction.

The bizarre juxtaposition of Wolfe with Twain consummates 30 years' inflation of the former's modest talents. To read his breathless prose, shrill with yaps and self-importance, is like having a small dog attack one's leg. Wolfe's anniversary essay is called, "In the Land of the Rococo Marxists. Why No One is Celebrating the Second American Century." As Jan. 1, 2000, arrived, Wolfe asks, "Did a single, solitary savant note that the First American Century had just come to an end and the Second American Century had begun?" To which, of course, the answer is that Americans saw the millennial chronology as mostly hype, hooked loosely to the Christian calendar, and excitingly dressed up in the vestments of a modern Apocalypse or Second Coming, the Y2K circus. They weren't bothering with anything so pompous as the "Second American Century."

Wolfe's habitual technique is to say something, and then, repeat it at accelerating degrees of shrill enthusiasm for his own insight. In this case, Paragraph 1 announces popular indifference at the millennial turnover to America's imperial triumphs. Paragraph 2 belabors the same thought again: "Did a single historian mention that America now dominates the world ...?" More of the same in Paragraphs 3, 4 and 5.

What Wolfe doesn't grasp is that his fellow Americans have better manners than he. Does a man boast about making his second billion? Wolfe's premise is balderdash. Americans know they have an empire. It's simply bad form to exult along the lines proposed by Wolfe.

But Wolfe doesn't blame the ordinary folk for failing to cheer America's second century. Wolfe, don't forget, pretends to speak for the ordinary folk against the intellectuals. In his latest retread of a stunt he's been pulling since he unveiled "radical chic" all those years ago, he now calls these intellectuals "the Rococo Marxists." In Wolfe's inflamed imagination, these RMs have somehow stealthily persuaded the American people that it's wrong to be vainglorious about Empire. Marxism has this power in America? He's got to be kidding.

Wolfe is flogging a horse so dead there's neither hide nor flesh left on the bones. Didn't Harper's research department nudge Wolfe's elbow, direct his attention to the tempest over political correctness at the start of the nineties when the PC crowd, aka the Rococo Marxists, were sapping the nation's virility with exhibitions like the Smithsonian's "West as America," where the heroic, 19th-century paintings were tricked out with beastly, knowing captions compromising America's historical virtue? Didn't they hint tactfully that it's a little late in the day to discover the pernicious influence of fancy French intellectuals like Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida, or to make jokes about PC profs getting their students to spell "women" as "womyn"?

Wolfe knows very little about anything interesting. What he mostly knows is how to be knowing. The undergrowth of his prose rustles with absurdities. Here's a passage, where Wolfe is grandly announcing that the operative definition of the intellectual is someone who has quite seemly specialization for larger fields: "The prime example was Noam Chomsky, a brilliant linguist. ... But Chomsky was not known as an intellectual until he denounced the war in Vietnam, something he knew next to nothing about -- thereby qualifying for his new eminence."

In other words, assessment of the merits of killing off a couple of million Vietnamese was a specialized discipline, the purview of Samuel P. Huntington, Walt Rostow, and other house intellectuals of Empire. Chomsky, who made Vietnam the object of close study for more than a decade and a half, was somehow disqualified because he wasn't a political scientist under contract to RAND, or one of the war-strategizing university think tanks, or the Pentagon.

Back one more time into the rustling thicket of Wolfe's nonsense: " ... structuralism, post-structuralism, post-modernism, deconstruction, reader-response theory, commodification theory. ... This will not be Vulgar Marxism; it will be ... Rococo Marxism, elegant as a Fragonard, sly as a Watteau ..." Elegant as a Fragonard! What can Wolfe be talking about? Late Marxism and post-Marxism in all their myriad hues may have some redeeming qualities, but the elegance of Fragonard is certainly not among them. Wolfe doesn't know anything about Marxism. His ignorance is so profound, he doesn't even know how to be knowing about it.

It's all so ... dated. Here he is, making labored fun of Susan Sontag ("Her prose style ... had a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review.") about 20 years too late. Poor Wolfe, someone should tell him the news. Those good soldiers in Seattle or in Washington raising their ruckus against Empire don't have Fish or Butler or even Foucault in their backpacks. They're on different terrain altogether. Wolfe always was a follower of fashion, and there's nothing so silly as a fashion-plate appearing in the intellectual and prose equivalent of periwig and ruffles, like some figure of the ancient regime, when the rest of the world has moved on.

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