Sunday, April 3, 2016

Book Review: Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, by Tom Wolfe (1970)

Another look at my Tom Wolfe bookshelf, highlighting his 1970 work, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Felicia Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein, and Don Cox, field marshal of the Black Panther Party, 1970.

Tom Wolfe, resplendent in his white suit, sometime in the 1970's.
Tom Wolfe entered the political fray with the two essays in his 1970 book Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. “Radical Chic” describes a fundraiser that Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia held at their Park Avenue apartment for the Black Panther Party. Wolfe wasn’t actually invited to the party, but he saw the invitation on David Halberstam’s desk at Harper’s magazine. Halberstam wasn’t in, so Wolfe pocketed the invitation and RSVP’d to the party. Wolfe was struck by the incongruity of the Bernsteins hosting a fundraiser for radical black socialist/communist militants in their two-story, thirteen-room penthouse duplex, and it’s this irony, this inherent satire, that gives “Radical Chic” it’s bite. 

At the time the Bernsteins hosted the party, on January 14, 1970, what Wolfe calls “radical chic” was definitely a part of some elements of the liberal culture. It was considered hip and groovy to support very radical political causes. In 1969, various Black Panthers were arrested and accused of trying to blow up a number of buildings in New York City, including that bastion of racism and oppression, the Bronx Botanical Gardens. The party the Bernsteins hosted was to raise money for the defense fund of those Panthers who had been arrested, who were still being held in jail. Don Cox, field marshal of the Black Panthers, spoke at the fundraiser. 

Wolfe’s writing is as sharp as a knife throughout the essay: “God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events…But it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status.” (p.8) Wolfe is always on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status! That’s his calling card! This is right up his alley! 

Tom Wolfe wasn’t the only journalist who was at the fundraiser that evening. Also present was Charlotte Curtis, a reporter from The New York Times who actually captured what’s probably the best-known exchange of the evening, between Cox and Leonard Bernstein:

"'If business won't give us full employment, then we must take the means of production and put them in the hands of the people'

'I dig absolutely,' Mr. Bernstein said."

Curtis’ article on the party was published the next day in the Times, and the party was considered so intriguing that a few days later a Times editorial was published about it, attacking the Bernsteins for hosting such a radical organization. Felicia Bernstein then wrote a long letter to the Times defending their hosting of the event, and protesting the fact that it was reported as a “party.” The Bernsteins split hairs by saying that the fundraiser was really for the defense fund of the accused Panthers, and that it was all about free speech rather than backing everything that the Panthers stood for. You can make that argument, but why not just give money to, say, the ACLU if you’re so concerned about the Panthers’ civil liberties?

The whole event became something of a media circus, as pundits from both political sides weighed in on the party. Wolfe was quoted in Curtis' 1987 obituary in the Times, saying, "It wasn't anything she wrote that infuriated them. It was that she put down exactly what they said. That's always what seems cruelest of all, to hold up a mirror to people that way."

Wolfe’s own article, titled “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” was published in June, 1970, in New York magazine.  Don Cox was not happy about Wolfe’s article, as related in his 2011 New York Times obituary:

“He added that ‘it was those media freaks and that bloodsucking Tom Wolfe’ who exploited the cause of black liberation to make money from it and ‘to be part of the machinery that tried to ridiculize {sic} it.’” According to the obituary, “Cox was charged as a conspirator in the July 1969 murder of Eugene Anderson, a Panther who had been a police informer in Baltimore.” Cox left the United States when a warrant was issued for his arrest and never returned.

On the official Leonard Bernstein website, run by Bernstein’s estate, there is a lengthy section on the “radical chic flap,” which is quite an interesting read. 

Wolfe had some difficulty in writing the essay, and in a 1980 interview he said: “I started writing in the first person, which was a big mistake, telling how I saw this invitation, how I wrangled my way in. I wrote about thirty pages like that, and then it dawned on me that it was useless information and really detracted from the scene, which was the important thing.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.136) 

Wolfe was criticized for not taking a political stand of his own in “Radical Chic,” and like other works of Wolfe’s, critics at the time used him as a tabula rasa to imprint their own feelings about what Wolfe’s politics might be. Appearing on William F. Buckley’s show Firing Line in December 1970, shortly after Radical Chic was released, Wolfe spoke about the role of the writer, saying, “The real contribution of a writer is not to make the moral point, it is to discover. I think of a lot of moralistic writing as a moral cop-out. If you have your mind made up, or if you have a cause in mind, why should I really wear myself out gathering evidence when we already know the conclusion? This is the greatest vice of journalism in our time.” 

The point of “Radical Chic” is not that you learn about Tom Wolfe’s own political point of view. He’s a reporter, not an editorialist. If he had presented the book from a liberal point of view, liberal critics at the time would have cheered, but would the book have been valuable? Or would it have just been preaching to the choir? Likewise, had he written the book from a conservative point of view, liberal critics would have just attacked him because he was taking a conservative viewpoint. By making the book not have an editorial point of view, Wolfe ultimately wrote a better book. He leaves it up to the readers to come to their own conclusions.

Every work of art doesn’t have to be political. But the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s were an extremely political time-in the lingo of the time, you’re either with us or against us, part of the solution or part of the problem. We live in a similar time now, when every decision people make seems to be politically informed, or is thought to somehow be a window onto one’s politics. 

“Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” describes how various minorities groups in San Francisco would intimidate government programs into giving them money. Wolfe calls the process “mau-mauing,” after the Mau Mau Rebellion that took place in Kenya in the 1950’s. Wolfe is superb as he shows how a combination of bureaucratic ineptitude and white guilt combined to give money to groups who might not have been pursuing the agendas of the anti-poverty programs. 

My favorite part of “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” is Wolfe’s description of the “flak catcher,” the government employee who takes the heat, or catches the flak, from the minority groups:

“All you have to do is look at him and you get the picture. The man’s a lifer. He’s stone civil service. He has it all down from the wheatcolor Hush Puppies to the wash’n’dry semi-tab-collar shortsleeved white shirt. Those wheatcolor Hush Puppies must be like some kind of fraternal garb among the civil-service employees, because they all wear them. They cost about $4.99, and the second time you move your toes, the seams split and the tops come away from the soles. But they all wear them.” (p.93) 
Wolfe is so good at painting such a vivid picture of a person by just using a few key details like that. 

In his profile of Wolfe in the November 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis described the experience of reading Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers when he was 11 or 12 years old: 

“At some point came a thought that struck with the force of revelation: this book had been written by someone. Some human being must have sat down and scribbled the Hardy Boys series, along with the Legends of the NFL-how else would I have ever known that Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Bob Lilly lifted a Volkswagen by himself? I’d never really stopped to ask who had written any of those books, because…well, because it didn’t matter to me who had written them. Their creators were invisible. They had no particular identity. No voice. Now rolling around a living-room floor in New Orleans, Louisiana, howling with laughter, I asked a new question: Who wrote this book?”

Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is one of Tom Wolfe’s essential books, and Wolfe once said in 1987, “As a piece of sheer writing, it’s my favorite book.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.213) It's a terrific read, with a very strong authorial voice. 

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