Wall Street Crashes, London Burns: Frank Rich and Adam Moss Discuss Downgrades, Riots, and the Portents of McQueen

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Adam: Hi, Frank. Over the past few days, as the stock market has gone berserk, analysts — while acknowledging the obvious triggers — described the plunge as a "panic." (As for the end-of-day surge, what's the opposite of panic? Irrational exuberance?) You're not an economist, so I'm not going to ask you to explain this in economic terms. But let's talk about panic. I'm wondering how you react to these kind of massive fluctuations personally. Do you freak out when the market tumbles — or are you able to view the upheaval through a more dispassionate lens?

Frank: I sort of freak out, as irrationally as anyone else, I guess. This is a classic panic. Everyone knows that S&P has gotten everything wrong in the recent past, but the kindling for panic was there, waiting for just the right spark to ignite it, and the S&P downgrade, meaningless in some ways in itself, was just that spark. It's like Archduke Ferdinand's assassination in 1914 — though let's hope it doesn't lead to that magnitude of apocalypse. Yet, watching the riots in London, I wonder if we might not actually be on the verge of an international conflagration of some sort, the breaking down of a discredited old order. Feckless, irresponsible leadership throughout the Western world has left a vacuum, and is ripe for toppling. And America has failed to set a better example. Our political leadership is out-of-touch, out-of-its-mind (in the case of the economic flat-earthers of the Tea Party), and now, as Wall Street crashes and London burns,**  literally on vacation.

Adam: Yesterday I found myself deeply upset. My reaction wasn't rational — I wasn't worried about money, specifically. I saw the economy slide away, was worried about its impact in this office and on my colleagues here — I wasn't ready to relive the last two years. In a larger sense, I just feared change. I'm not as angry as you are — my experience is more of dread — but we are certainly in the midst of a fairly seismic shift, and the market upheavals (up and down), as well as the London riots, and Tea Party extortion — they've all been sizable tremors. But we've been feeling these tremors for years. I don't quite fear an apocalypse, it's just obvious that we live in convulsive times, and nobody can credibly tell me what the world is going to look like when, or if, things settle down. And here, I have divided loyalties. As a journalist, I welcome the upheaval — it's fascinating. As a person, I fear it, because like most people I fear the unknown. I'm a fairly superstitious person anyway — and the market can set me off even on normal days. I give it a weird kind of power. It has nothing to do with money. If I see green numbers, I feel optimistic; red numbers, pessimistic. I use it, inanely, as a psychic stoplight. Not exactly healthy behavior. (Although maybe I'm getting over that. When the market soared today, the turbulence just made me even more uneasy.) What does the market mean to you? Do you think we as a culture pay too much attention to it?

Frank: I think I'm moving from anger to dread, too. We pay attention to the market because it feels like a sport (scored in clear-cut numbers) and because one way or the other we know we will be affected by it, whether we own shares or not. I am completely unprescient about the market — though no less so than, say, S&P, Geithner, Bernanke, Greenspan, and all the others who failed to see the last crash and/or this one coming — but last Thursday, the morning just before the big drop began, I had a premonition. (And I am not by and large superstitious.) I was catching up (at the last minute) with the McQueen extravaganza at the Met. That same morning the Times had a front-page story about the rebound in luxury retailing. Once I entered the McQueen show, I was struck by how the installation, with its smoke and mirrors and S&M touches, looked like a cross between Phantom of the Opera**  and the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut** . Whatever else the McQueen show was about, it's about decadence — and about luxury goods beyond the reach of 99.9 percent of the throngs gawking at them. Something about the discrepancy between the opulence and the masses thronging barricades to get in gave me a premonition that a crash was on its way. Maybe it's because I associate the crash of 1987 with the opening of Phantom on Broadway in early 1988. Conspicuous over-the-top decadence in America always seems to lead to a bad end.

Adam: I'm glad you brought up McQueen, so we can make this conversation a little less depressing. Since I've never known you to have much of an interest in fashion, I assume you went to see McQueen at the Met because everyone else (but me) did. You went because you'd heard that it was good — but also because that's where the herd was going (a certain kind of herd, to be sure) and you wanted to see what the fuss was about. So first off, did you like the show? Why do you think it was so popular?

Frank: My father was in the fashion shoe business once upon a time, and running stock at his store to make extra money as a teenager was and is my only direct knowledge of fashion. But fashion is theater, and when it produces a hit like the McQueen show, I get curious. I found some of the clothes beautiful, and the show itself pure kitsch. A hologram of Kate Moss**  (from Autumn/Winter 2006) was accompanied by the violin theme from Schindler's List! Perhaps this was a riposte to John Galliano or to Coco Chanel's behavior in Vichy France. Or perhaps not. In any case, I think shows that you can't get in to are always popular in New York, and this one had the additional drawing cards of sex, money, the subject's tragic suicide, and hype. Do you care about fashion? If not, you wouldn't know it from the fashion-conscious magazine you edit.

Adam: I'm not necessarily interested in everything we publish, but I do happen to like fashion. A beautiful object is a beautiful object. We're putting together a fashion issue this week (which feels a little incongruous, but there you have it; these issues are fun to make and, at the moment, happily distracting). Anyway, there was a McQueen dress being fussed over by a bunch of editors before being photographed — a black Octopussy gown with organza tentacles**  that were kind of amazing to the touch. My fashion-knowledgeable colleagues loved the dress; me, too. I also go to a few fashion shows every season, a ritual that I've come to look very much forward to. Talk about theater — even in this day and age, most are still elaborately produced; the lights dim, music starts up, the first girl pops out walking that preposterous runway walk; I pretty much always find them exhilarating. It helps that they're about twelve minutes long. And that even after all these years, I'm not sure what I'm looking at, which makes even the bad shows satisfying to me. (Really, I leave the shows and it's clear that everyone has already, independently, formed an opinion, which is often unanimous. I can rarely figure out why they thought this was a good one, and this one blahhh, and yet they all seem to know.) As many have remarked, in the age of the Internet, they're pointless, but I'm glad they exist.

But these are serious times (are they? I suppose you could argue it either way), so let's move on from fashion: The NYT poll that came out last week showed the Tea Party agenda (its most extreme version) to be strikingly unpopular among all cohorts — Democrats, obviously — but also independents and hard-core Republicans. Given that, how is it that that agenda seems to be dominating our politics?

Frank: History tells us that bullies, even if in a minority, can get away with a lot (and cause a lot of damage) if there are no brave leaders willing to stand up to them. Obama — let alone most Democrats and Republicans in Congress — failed that bravery test, and so the Tea Party ran right over them, and the country. We are now seeing the immediate results.

Adam: How did I get us back to this subject? Quickly, let's talk about Rick Perry, who's signaled that he will finally enter the Republican race on Saturday. Last week he hosted a religious rally in Texas which attracted about 250,000 30,000 people, a pretty impressive showing. I thought perhaps that we were through with the religious right. And yet here's Perry, and Michele Bachmann, and it would seem as if we're having a religious resurgence in politics. What kind of influence do you think religion is going to have on the next election?

Frank: My guess is that America will never be through with the religious right — the Scopes trial will always be re-running somewhere — but I'm not sure we are seeing a resurgence this year, despite Perry and Bachmann. Religion's main influence will be within the Republican party's nomination battle, especially given that Perry and Bachmann will be essentially battling Romney, who is skittish about his own religion. (He really should see The Book of Mormon and get over himself.) If the economy continues to crater, it's hard to imagine religion or social issues being major factors in the general election. But the failure of the secular establishment in both parties could yet give an opening for a priest-politician to sneak in as an alternative if enough voters are desperate enough.

Adam: Which leads us right back to the impending sense of doom, which is where — for everyone's sake — we'll end it for today. Readers, please send your questions for Frank to AskFrankRich@nymag.com.