Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers

Of the many memorable moments afforded to us by the most recent American presidential election, one in particular stood out to me – stands out to me still – both for its own sake and because I sincerely belief it prematurely torpedoed the presidential prospects of a leading candidate. In August of 2015, while giving a campaign speech in Seattle, Bernie Sanders was interrupted by two Black Lives Matter activists, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, who proceeded to snatch the microphone from his hands and denigrate his campaign. The optics alone were fatal: a presidential hopeful left shamefaced and silent by two blustering twenty-somethings. It was an instance of what author and journalist Tom Wolfe long ago identified as “radical chic,” the adoption of radical politics – or political radicals – to shore up a broken self-image, assuage a guilty conscience, or simply demonstrate allegiance with the aggrieved and oppressed.

The essay “Radical Chic” describes a series of Park Avenue parties held by New York’s moneyed elite – from Leonard Bernstein to Barbara Walters – to raise money for the Black Panthers and other fringe advocacy groups with radical politics and non-tax-deductible status. Why, Wolfe asks, would the very people in society who have the most to lose align themselves with groups seeking to overthrow the social order? Why do bankers and their wives host soirees for Marxist revolutionaries? Imagine the following speech, delivered by a Black Panther member fresh out of prison, in the gilded living room of a New York brownstone:

We call them pigs, and rightly so, because they have the way of making the victim look like the criminal, and the criminal look like the victim. So every Panther must be ready to defend himself. That was handed down by our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton: Everybody who does not have the means to defend himself in his home, or if he does have the means and he does not defend himself – we expel that man …see…As our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton says, ‘Any unarmed people are slaves, or are slaves in the real meaning of the word’ … We recognize that this country is the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world. The pigs have the weapons and they are ready to use them on the people, and we recognize this as being very bad. They are ready to commit genocide against those who stand up against them, and we recognize this as being very bad.

Wolfe points out the curious mix of canned phrases – “our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton…” – and stumbling, extemporaneous ones (“we recognize this as being very bad”). What is lost on the partygoers, however, is any sense of the gravity of what they’re hearing. To hear the United States described as “the most oppressive country in the world,” or the police as genocidal, or merchants – even black merchants – as exploiters of the underclass, and to continue smiling politely, requires something like a mental block, and it’s exactly the psychology of their smiling acquiescence that Wolfe investigates with such humor. The “radical chic” trend, for example, inspired a prolonged, aggravating search for non-black servants:

Plenty of people have tried to think it out. They try to picture the Panthers or whoever walking in bristling with electric hair and Cuban shades and leather pieces and the rest of it, and they try to picture Claude and Maude with the black uniforms coming up and saying, “Would you care for a drink, sir?” They close their eyes and try to picture it some way, but there is no way. One simply cannot see that moment.

The payoff comes later, in a moment of vindication that Wolfe captures perfectly. After hearing about the injustices visited upon the Panthers, and the role the Park Avenue sect might play in righting them, a moment of collective calm descends on the partygoers: “[…] suddenly everyone feels, really feels, that there are two breeds of mankind in the great co-ops of Park Avenue, the blue-jowled rep-tired Brook Club Junker reactionaries in the surrounding buildings…and the few attuned souls here in Lenny’s penthouse.” Hosting a party for the benefit of the Black Panthers offers a psychological payout that the more mundane charitable donations do not give; it allows the hosts to believe themselves quantitatively different from their other well-to-do friends and coworkers, who float through life on a cloud of wealth. They are among the enlightened, after all.

The second essay explores similar psychological territory on the opposite coast. “Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers” describes the unhealthy relationship that had developed between San Francisco government bureaucrats in charge of administering welfare and public assistance benefits, and their constituents, who learned to game the system by being extremely vocal – even hysterical – about their plight. The helpless bureaucrats, reduced to “flak catchers,” absorb the rage of their constituents, which both confirms the importance of their government jobs and enables them to agitate for more funding for their departments. Taken together, these essays are investigations into the phenomenon of white guilt, and the absurdities it causes among those caught in it, both black and white; they’re written with honesty and humor, and sparing of no one – as good satire should be written.