Monday, August 17, 2020

Review of Radley Balko’s "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces"

Radley Balko’s 2013 book is a combination of history and policy analysis of American policing efforts after World War II. Balko starts with the provocative question of whether police are constitutional—before wrestling with the contexts in which their use is ethical and practical. Then he provides a brief but useful survey of police history before the 1960s.

The American colonists were greatly upset about the British practice of “writs.” (8) The king was imposing heavy taxes, which led to smuggling and then attempts to curtail it. The writs were general warrants, granting broad authority to British soldiers to enforce the law. The colonists were not happy about either the wide-ranging powers (including the ability to search anything and to seize suspicious items) or soldiers as the enforcing agents.

By the time of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers were concerned about both Roman history[1] (1) and the British military in their roles as a police force (xi). The anti-federalists were especially worried, but the federalist concern about external threats (and thus, the need to raise an army) carried the day (15). This was cemented by Shays Rebellion and the usefulness of federal troops to collect taxes and keep the peace on occasion (16-18).

With British abuses, American independence, and British influence through common law and rule of law, the “Castle Doctrine” was popularized: one’s home is one’s castle. We can defend our homes and we should not to be subject to unreasonable treatment of our property by the government (6). This led to the 3rd and 4th Amendments: the government can neither quarter soldiers in our homes nor search or seize our property.

Until the early-mid-19th century, justice was meted out through community standards, social stigma, “informal justice”, and vigilantism. Private citizens were all involved in the process—a “universal duty” instead of something done by the government. Sheriffs, constables, and marshals were largely administrative and part-time unpaid positions. Imprisonment for punishment was rare (x-xi, 28). As cities became more densely populated and more heterogeneous, a police force became more practical. Manifestations differed by region: night watch patrols in the North; slave patrols in the South; and vigilantes and police-for-hire in the West.[2] (28-29)

The American militarization of the police begins with efforts to enforce the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act in the North (19-23). The next episode was Reconstruction—with the military used to impose laws in the South (23-25). Police reform was a key facet of the Progressive Era, ranging from efforts to eliminate patronage, professionalize the police, and use the police to enforce morality (31-33). Finally, Civil Rights legislation in the Jim Crow South required the use of government troops—again, putting the military in a heavy policing role (40-41).

Policy and Incentives

One of the great things about Balko’s book is that it’s written before the current controversies over police policy. So we can trust its perspective, rather than being tempted to see it in partisan or political terms. Moreover, he is a libertarian, so his criticisms are both bi-partisan and objective. He is also careful to say that his book is not anti-cop—but rather, anti-policy and anti-politician. When politicians pass policies that create strong incentives, you can blame individuals, but you should start with the system.

For example, “no-knock” warrants and “stop-and-frisk” policies get going in 1964 under Governor Nelson Rockefeller (R-NY). There was momentum from police and politicians—and the courts did not stand in the way, starting with Ker v. California in 1963 (44, 48-49). By 1969, 25 states had a no-knock law (75). The federal government began to use it frequently in 1972, but Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC) successfully crusaded against it being extended to DC (88, 93-94). The federal law grew more unpopular and was repealed in 1975 (123-124). They also faded at the state level, before growing again with the reinvigorated War on Drugs in the 1980s.

The courts were a mixed bag, despite some infamy in protecting the rights of the accused. The Warren Court also bolstered the capacity of the police to act, especially in more-forceful ways (53-56). In fact, the last big SCOTUS ruling of the era confirmed the legitimacy of “stop-and-frisk” policies—for no more than “reasonable suspicion” in Terry v. Ohio (1968). “Liberal” court rulings also gave conservatives a useful foil to run as “anti-crime” candidates.[3]

But Balko’s chief focus is SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams—with their armored personnel, military-grade weapons, and military training. He is concerned about their militarization and especially their frequent use: They were “…once reserved as the last option to defuse a dangerous situation. [Now] increasingly used as the first option to apprehend people who aren’t dangerous at all.” (xii)

Balko is sympathetic to the existence of SWAT teams—but not the eagerness to use them. “This was an understandable response to the growing sense that American cities were spilling over with crime, violence, and rioting…Assault wasn’t a dirty word. It was an appropriately swift, forceful response to defuse a violent situation…But when the riots, strife, and unrest finally died down, when the threat of chaos and lawlessness eventually grew remote, the weapons, heavy-duty vehicles, and militaristic culture stuck around.” (63-64)

Various events served as catalysts—snipers in the Watts riots in 1965; Charles Whitman in the clock tower at the University of Texas a year later (56-59); Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army (126-130). Connecting this to the Wolfe and Collier/Horowitz books, the first SWAT team raid was against the Black Panthers in December 1969 (76).

Pop culture further popularized more aggressive police work. After Dragnet in the 1950s, the 1970s gave us the ABC drama S.W.A.T., which led to a board game, lunch boxes, action figures, View-Master sets, puzzles, etc. (131-132) From Dirty Harry and Miami Vice to Cops and Hill Street Blues, Hollywood has contributed to a glorious and entertaining view of police work (304-306).[4]

Some of this is probably police preferences—a bias toward using force, often in spectacular ways. Quoting a federal official in 1970: Local and state law enforcement “didn’t value education or training. They valued hardware.” (96) Balko also argues that police departments felt an intense peer pressure to go along with the trend to militarize. Unfortunately, this was a desire “to be up to date without any knowledge of what they’re getting into…Soon, just about every decent-sized city police department was armed with a hammer. And the drug war would ensure there were always plenty of fails around for pounding.” (132-133)

All that said, none of this is particularly surprising given the underlying policy incentives—thanks especially to the Federal government (244). For example, “civil asset forfeiture” (CAF) was a powerful motivator to prioritize drug offenses, since law enforcement agencies could keep any assets connected to the crimes. CAF debuted in the 1970s under RICO laws (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations). In the early 1980s, a GAO report argued that CAF was under-utilized and the Reagan administration was happy to seize the opportunity (140-141, 146).

These incentives also created perverse outcomes. More inducements to focus on drugs necessarily meant less emphasis on rape, murder, and other crimes (240, 243).[5] Law enforcement now had an incentive to “find” a connection between property and crime. It was better to arrest people in their homes, so that the house could more easily be seized. It was better to wait until drugs had been sold, so the confiscated booty was cash which could be kept, rather than drugs would need to be destroyed.[6] (153-154)

Other policies also contributed. The government began to sell surplus military equipment to the police (158). The National Guard’s presence was increased and its roles were expanded into standard police activities (36, 179-180). Homeland Security introduced more funding and more rationales to militarize (242, 254). The conflation of border security and the drug war led to more federal military activity in police matters (244). The drug war also led to the marriage of police and multiple military branches: the Navy intercepted boats that the Coast Guard could search and seize (206).

One irony is that militarization often makes encounters less safe. In discussing the use of flash-bang grenades, Balko notes that they’re useful when dealing with immediate threats. But in raids for nonviolent offenses (far more frequent), “sowing confusion only increases the potential for violence…[You] can’t first claim that the use of flash-bang grenades to stun and confuse people is critically important, then claim that seconds after the device goes off, those same people (many of whom have also just woken up) should be cognizant…” (278)

The presidents

The War on Drugs is a significant piece of the militarization puzzle. Nixon and Reagan are the most famous presidents in this realm. But Balko notes how presidents from Johnson through Obama have been surprisingly active in enhancing police activity.

Johnson was effectively described as soft on crime by the Republicans—as Nixon emphasized the issue in the 1968 election. Then, with the riots in the summer, it became politically advantageous for both parties to get “tough on crime”. Johnson was probably softer than the presidents to come—both in terms of emphasis and preferring cash and social programs over force. Still, he created the first major federal agency to deal specifically with drugs—what would later become the DEA. He also greatly expanded the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration—the first agency to “stream federal funding, equipment, and technology directly” to state and local law enforcement. As with other federal grant examples to states, this is a wonderful way to enforce a policy cartel: go with the federal approach or lose funding (64-70).

Nixon didn’t “declare war” on drugs right away, but his early rhetoric was “already slipping into combat fatigues.” (70) In policy terms, Nixon was also quite active (although the details are too much for a review); Ford and Carter stepped back; and then Reagan ran with the ball again.

The Reagan Administration’s first public policy change was to enhance the role of the military in the drug war (145). It got much more active with civil asset forfeiture (141, 146). It focused most of its efforts on marijuana as a gateway drug. Politically popular with the public, Congress passed a big, bipartisan Crime Bill in 1984 before the election—with no real debate (151-152). And in 1986, Reagan connected drugs to national security, spending more money and promoting more militarization (157).[7]

Bush I is infamous for using crime to help him rout Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election. But his biggest contribution was choosing William Bennett as “drug czar.” Bennett’s rhetoric was his innovation: “to infuse it with morality…The man who often struggled to control his own indulgences was ready to unleash a full federal arsenal of force on people whose indulgences he personally found immoral.”[8] (163-164)

Those who wanted a lighter approach to the “war” had high hopes for Bill Clinton (especially as a former pot smoker). His rhetoric was less inflammatory, but he was still heavy-handed on policy. Agencies were allowed to become less transparent; his drug czar was an actual retired general; and his “troop to cop” program formalized the militarization trends. Balko’s biggest beef with Clinton: his “one strike and you’re out” in public housing served to incentivize police raids on the poor in particular—who could be evicted even if they were not directly involved in a crime (193-195).

The Clinton years also saw the first state-led push toward legalized marijuana. But Clinton and then Bush II warred against this by pushing for federal law to supersede state law (215-217, 250-252). Bush II added SWAT team raids on legal businesses selling pot to cancer and AIDS patients for medicinal use (205). So much for federalism and states’ rights.

Bush II and his drug czar John Walters used 9/11 to further foment the drug war, connecting terrorism to drug use through galling propaganda. The government ran ads claiming that drug use supported the Taliban and therefore terrorism. The reality is that the War on Drugs is—by definition—the direct cause-and-effect to sending money to the Taliban and other groups within organized crime (250-252).

Obama was similar to Clinton: you’d expect a lot more, but he did not deliver and was worse than many other presidents. Obama criticized Bush for cutting federal police programs and then enhanced them when he was elected, increasing spending by $2 billion in 2009 (247-248). All of this served to boost militarization, SWAT teams, and multi-jurisdictional anti-drug task forces (218-223). Obama also stepped up federal raids on state-legal marijuana activity—as well as raids on immigrants, doctors, and pain clinics (301).

We don’t know if Joe Biden will be elected president. But he is one of the “stars” of the book, given his legislative passions and pursuits—and easily its most prominent legislator.[9] Biden commissioned the report that led to increased civil asset forfeiture in the 1980s and authored the resulting civil asset forfeiture bill (140, 146). He coined the term “drug czar” in a 1982 article. Later, Biden “savaged Bennett and Bush’s drug plan—for not going far enough”, saying it was “not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand.” (167-168) In 1994, Biden authored the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act”—a “community policing” bill that, without sufficient direction, ironically ended up funding more militarization (218-219). In 2002, Biden wrote the RAVE Act, which made business owners liable for selling “paraphernalia” used at rave parties—such as bottled water and glow sticks (257). And as noted above, Biden was behind Obama’s push to fully fund a federal police program (247-248).

Who else is to blame? Where do we go from here?

The data are clear on these matters. Balko describes the work of Peter Kraska (206-223) as he mined a field that had gone untouched. Kraska documented the “two-decade insurgence of militarism into just about every city and county in America”—what he called “the militarization of Mayberry.” (207) Balko makes clear that this has been a bipartisan effort—from LBJ and Nixon through Bush and Biden. One fruit of this was tremendous growth in the relevant bureaucracies, resulting in inevitable overlaps and inefficiencies.[10] (180)

But the beliefs were so prevalent—in politics and in the general public—that it’s difficult to aggressively assign blame. If you were opposed to the consensus, you would have been laughed at or worse.[11] The GOP has the stronger reputation on crime. But often, Democrats felt pressure to go along. Other times, they seemed quite content to go along—or even, to lead the charge (67, 72, 146, 151-152, 167-168).[12]

The pattern of less famous abuses did lead thoughtful and engaged people—especially those enmeshed in enforcing the system—to reconsider their approaches. Balko describes the “Second Thoughts” conference about the drug war in 1997 (224ff). And many police leaders have worked to re-emphasize community policing.[13] Balko describes many of these efforts throughout the book (97ff, 189ff).

Balko concludes with a call to reform. He begins with a riveting story that should stick in our collective memory: Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights (309-315), had a horrible run-in with the police who mistakenly accosted him and his family in their home. (Google him if you don’t remember.) His fight to pass a transparency bill (315-318)—what should have been a slam dunk, but was not—and the resulting data (318-320) were fascinating and sobering. From there, Balko lays out policy proposals—from ending the War on Drugs to more modest ideas such as transparency, community policing, and accountability (321-332).

The public’s desire for safety and fear of criminals has been a key driver in motivating public officials to take action. At times, terrible results have led to questions and some pushback. That said, other high-profile failures—such as SWAT ineptitude and cowardice with school shooters (e.g., Columbine, 230-232)—have not raised much concern. And the extension of SWAT activity into gambling, bingo, barbershops, immigration, massage parlors, child pornography, and cockfighting—from police violence as first-choice rather than last-resort—has not raised many alarms.

The high-profile incidents in the 1990s—like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor today—are probably necessary to get the attention of a “rationally ignorant and apathetic” public (200). Balko also notes the good news that has come with technological advance—that it’s easier to record bad behavior and share it with others through social media (242-243). But as he notes at the end (331-332), without public passion against the status quo and vested interests such as police unions, little can be expected to change.

[1] After the execution of Julius Caesar, elite troops were used as bodyguards (Praetorians). Soon, they were used to investigate serious crimes, provide security, gather intelligence—and even to fight fires and collect taxes. The military were not allowed into Rome, so the eventual blurring between the police and the military caused troubles until the Praetorians were disbanded by Constantine in 312 AD (2-3). Balko (4-5) also describes English efforts, especially before the Norman Conquest, the English used a localized, hierarchical police-like system. The officers were called tythings, shires and reeves—the combination of the latter two leading to our word “sheriff.”

[2] All of these started as voluntary before evolving into paid positions.

[3] Although not as dramatic as the Warren Court in the 1960s, the courts continued to weaken constitutional rights in this realm. Balko sprinkles this discussion throughout the book.

[4] The pop culture references can cut both ways. Balko (307) notes an episode of LA Law, The Simpsons, and Chapelle’s Show. And of course, there are many movies dealing with rogue and corrupt cops.  

[5] Balko (240) shares a story where a cop in a sex crimes unit is frustrated to learn why she had so few resources: most of it was diverted to drug crimes, where the incentives were.

[6] Balko (154) cites research that police were much more likely to stop cars leaving the city (when they had cash) than entering the city (when they had drugs). Balko (272) notes a Catch-22 in police funding: “If police fatalities go up, it’s an indication that criminals are getting more dangerous and cops need more firepower. If police fatalities go down, it means militarization is working.”

[7] Balko (142) notes the various rationales for a drug war: prejudice (as with George Wallace); the Bible (as with the “Moral Majority”), and intellectual (as promoted by Robert Bork, James Q. Wilson, James Burnham, et. al.).  

[8] Balko (164) throws hammers at Bennett: Noting his previous experience as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education, “he had run both agencies as a proud moral scold. Which isn’t to say he was a prude…an obese man, a chain smoker…[with a] serious jones for video poker.”

[9] It’s useful that the book was written before Biden was running for president so that it is not seen as partisan.

[10] See: Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower for a parallel in bureaucratic intelligence failures surrounding 9/11.

[11] Another example: Since many people were racists during the Progressive Era, should we crush or merely criticize those who used Darwinism and “race science” to support rank racism and eugenics policies?

[12] For many years, the two parties even avoided blaming each other for mistakes and misuses of power. But partisan and ideological flipping began with some prominent abuses of power—Ruby Ridge in 1992, the Branch Davidians in 1993, and Elian Gonzalez in 2000 (200-206). The latter two were useful politically for the GOP, but all three put conservatives in the strange position of critiquing law enforcement.

[13] Balko (34-35) cites technological advance after WWII (e.g., cars, radios) that improved police performance but separated the police from the community, leading almost inexorably to greater animosity.

Review of Collier & Horowitz’s "Destructive Generation"

Peter Collier and David Horowitz (CH) were among the leaders in the Sixties “Radical” movement. But when its fruit became apparent to them over the next decade, they converted from the Left. Destructive Generation is a useful history of the late 1960s and early 1970s in America. The authors’ applications to the 1980s are provocative, even when not convincing. (The parallels to today are more impressive.) And their story of intellectual and ideological transformation is compelling.

The first four chapters are mini-biographies of some key players during the Sixties. Chapter 1 relates the sad tale of Fay Stender—a lawyer and activist whose story turns out to be a catalyst for their conversion. Chapter 2 covers “Billy” Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, and the Weather Underground. Chapter 3 is about an obscure pair of Marine Corps buddies in Vietnam who end up on different sides of the law when they return. Chapter 4 discusses Huey Newton and the Black Panthers.

The second quartet of chapters speaks to some of the reasons for their conversion: some absurdities of the Left (Chapter 5); the McCarthy era on the Right with applications to the Left in the Sixties (Chapter 6); a history of Berkeley (Chapter 7); and the Left’s positions in the 1980s on foreign policy (Chapter 8). A final trio of chapters is more directly auto-biographical—a chapter written by each author and then a closing chapter describing their “journey” so far.

CH open with “epiphany”—a popular term among radicals in the Sixties: “it tended to elevate life’s commonplaces…part of the decade’s transcendental conviction that there was something apocalyptic lurking behind the veil of the ordinary, and that just a little more pressure was needed to…[break] through to the other side.” (14) But it’s a later epiphany which leads to their break from the movement. As they wrote about Stender, who was viciously attacked by African-Americans she had defended, they were appalled that she was “taken advantage of and debased by” her previous allies on the Left (303). Not surprisingly, CH were then pilloried by the Left for describing this history, further speeding their exodus.

The Stender episode illustrates a common progression of legalism and fanaticism within idealism.[1] Who is pure enough? Who is willing to sacrifice for the Cause? Strict standards often lead to hypocrisy, legalism, fanaticism, “sectarian ecstasies”, and ultimately “cannibalism” of the movement (61, 156). When Stender was shot multiple times and paralyzed, some of her friends were suddenly worried about a criminal getting out on technicalities, while others defended her attacker and called her defenders racist (57). Even the Weather Underground were later labeled “racist.” (114)

Vietnam also persuaded CH to leave, since it didn’t turn out nearly as promised by the Left. After America left the field, “what we had dismissed as impossible was happening with dizzying speed.” Occupation, bloodbaths, re-education, boat people, Cambodian genocide, and an aggressive USSR moving into the foreign policy vacuum. More people were “killed in the first two years of the Communist peace than in the thirteen years of American war.” (174)

CH and others “challenged the survivors of the New Left to live up to their claims to be partisans of social justice and the rights of the oppressed.” (175) Many doubled down instead. But the convicted began to meet and find their voice. CH and others formed a “Second Thoughts Conference” where future luminaries like Richard John Neuhaus, Ronald Radosh, Michael Novak, Michael Medved gathered to discuss their past and the future (350-358).

A Destructive Generation Then

CH describe 1968 as “the great unraveling of the Sixties”—from Tet and the assassinations of MLK Jr. and RFK, to LBJ’s withdrawal from the presidential race and the riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago (“the Kristallnacht of the New Left” [291]). Among other things, faith in democracy was supplanted by a passion for radical change. “By the end of the Sixties, participatory democracy was a language no longer spoken on the Left. Its slogans had changed…” to ideologies like Marxist-Leninist (171). “But while we wanted a revolution, we didn’t have a plan.” (15)

CH’s book overlaps with subjects in Tom Wolfe’s writing. Whites, especially Jews, were instrumental in helping many of the “Black Power” groups start. But then they were kicked out in the name of self-determination (28). The Black Panthers were a notable exception (29), leading to the wonderful moments described by Wolfe in Radical Chic. CH provide the picture of well-dressed Black Panthers patrolling the streets with guns—“irresistible, especially for white New Leftists.” (147) Huey Newton was invited to co-lead a seminar on racism at Yale (153). And after mentioning Bernstein’s party, BH describe the Panthers as “one part model for radical self-sacrifice and one part house pet of radical chic.” (149)

Wolfe wrote about the limited connection between the radicals and the community they claimed to represent. CH tell us that they “had no base in Berkeley’s black community, which in fact was deeply suspicious of the radicals and resented what it regarded as their manipulation of racial and ethnic issues.” (224) A telling example: the community was not excited about the radical push to rename an historically important street name to “MLK Way.” They didn’t want to lose the former name and recognized that “many of those now pushing the name change had dismissed King in the Sixties as a sellout and a ‘Tom’.”[2] (228)

CH discuss the parallels between the Far Left and the Far Right, but note a key difference: the Far Left are utopians with a “religious confusion and moral corruption that defines [it]…If self-righteousness is the moral oxygen of the radical creed, self-deception is the marrow of its immune system.” (247) They quote Arthur Koestler here: “Clinging to the last shred of the torn illusion, is typical of the cowardice that prevails on the Left.” (347)

Good intentions easily trump good results. Wishful thinking: if we only had more competent people in charge, better plans, purer purpose—always, the next time. “Stalin’s reign was the consequence of a bad man rather than a bad theory and a bad system.” (250) Blame evasion—whether earnest and blind, or as a cynical grasp for future power. “They manufacture innocence out of guilt: it is the eternal work of the Left…For Leftists, there are only tomorrows. They never talk about the evil they have done, except superficially, to imply that it has increased their moral sensitivity. But they are always anxious to discuss the utopia to come.” (245)

This also leads to the ends justifying the methods—to accomplish goals “by any means necessary.” (173) And they are willing to define “the truth” strategically: “the radical willingness to tinker with the facts to serve a greater truth.”[3] (37) One manifestation of this: the use of “the political defense” for criminals—not denying the crime, but blaming the system: “an attack, rather than a defense, by charging that America’s law enforcement was homicidal and its criminal justice system infected with racism.” (147)

A Destructive Generation Now

As they wrote this in the late 1980s, CH saw an impending renaissance of the New Left (15, 266). But the ascendancy was still 20 years in the future—perhaps superseded by the transcendence of the USSR’s implosion a few years later. One aspect they saw—which was true then and continues today—is a romanticized view of the 1960s and Socialism. The 1960s continue to be re-cast as “a golden age” with “energy and excitement…commitment and belief.” (243) Socialism is imagined as bigger government, rather than its bloody history and the State owning the means of production.

The connections to today are more obvious. The “liberated zones” and “a bloody war with the police forces of several cities” are reminiscent of this year in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, etc. (34) Smashing windows, setting cars on fire, and “trashing the famed Chicago Gold Coast” sounds familiar (88-89). Nothing has equaled the Weather Underground’s bombing of the U.S. Capitol, but the year isn’t over yet (105).

Something akin to “cancel culture” was in play with McCarthyism in the 1950s and its sequel on the Left in the 1960s. CH saw glimpses of it in the 1980s—e.g., Roger Wilkins calling Thomas Sowell “an enemy of his people.” (196) In those days, the only thing “out of bounds in the political debate” is whether you “are or were or might have been” a Communist (197). But CH were prescient in imagining a resurgence in our times with the Pharasaism of political correctness—and now, the fascism of cancel culture. Even then, they saw this illiberal impulse as “a way of embargoing ideas that the Left dislikes and invoking cloture on debates that it doesn’t want to have.” (197)

CH argue that “the history of McCarthyism actually shows how alien the witch-hunt mentality is to the American spirit…brief in its moment and limited in its consequences. And it was complete in the way it was purged from the body politic. [McCarthy’s] strut on the stage ended in a crushing repudiation by his colleagues…and [he has] an enduring obloquy in the rogues’ gallery of American history”, along with Benedict Arnold and a few others (195-196). But with cancel culture’s power and popularity today, one might wonder if McCarthyism is so aberrant after all.

[1] We see these tendencies today on the Left today with “cancel culture.”

[2] Another example of Berkeley’s heterogeneity: By 1985, 22% of its students were in private schools—twice the state average (234).

[3] “Faith and terror are the twin pillars of the revolution’s defense.” (249) This is reminiscent of the two Beasts in Revelation 13—the State and False Religion.

Review of Wolfe's "Radical Chic" and "The Mau-mauing of the Flak Catchers"

This short book is a combination of two delicious and insightful essays written 50 years ago by Tom Wolfe. Radical Chic (RC) tells about the intersection of black “Radicals” and white “Chic”—in particular, cosmopolitan mover-shakers like Leonard Bernstein throwing parties to raise money and prestige for the Black Panthers.[1] (45) The Chic’s wealth created a dilemma and a “most desperate search” for white servants from South America (7). Beyond race, it was uncomfortable to have any servants—if one was working toward equality—but servants (and good interior design work) were simply a must (8, 36-37).

Wolfe notes the reflexive strains of elitism among the Chic—for example, in the exquisite details of a “sweet potato pone” recipe: what it looks like when standard African-American fare is made by rich, white people (26). He describes this (and Radical Chic in general) as nostalgie de la boue (a French phrase translated “nostalgia of the mud”). Elites look to distance themselves from the despised middle class by combining “the trappings of aristocracy” and “the gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders.” (27)

“Mau-mauing” (MM) is a term for confrontation and threats, where those attacked are “catching flak”. In this context, Wolfe describes the flak that black activists were giving to white, second-tier bureaucrats in government offices (94-95). Wolfe describes it as mostly theater (87-89)—a “tactic, a procedure, a game.” (107) The goal was intimidation, not damage: “terrify but don’t touch.” (107) It felt good to flex and it was fun to take away a bureaucrat’s “manhood.” (102) Sometimes, the displays generated enough fear to produce resources. But often, they accomplished little of substance, when there was insufficient energy and organization to get through the slog of the bureaucracy.

Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing Today

One can see many parallels to current events. For one thing, the Radicals did not represent the majority or even a significant slice of “the black community”. As such, the Black Panthers struggled to find churches or other groups that would work with them (51). Today, for example, it’s not at all clear that demands to “defund the police” represent the average African-American.

“Compromised” Civil Rights leaders were in danger of being attacked by Radicals. Bayard Rustin was not at Bernstein’s party because of threats on his life (55). Today, some African-Americans aren’t considered “black” if they hold certain positions. “Cancel culture” looks to re-write history, punish long-past mistakes, and crucify people who are not sufficiently “woke”—all in the name of diversity and tolerance. And of course, we’ve seen violence, mayhem, and rioting stemming from what should have been peaceful protests.[2]

The Black Panthers demanded change, but it was not clear what they wanted to do instead. Wolfe relays a funny discussion where partygoers ask reasonable questions about the path forward. When no answers are given, Bernstein sums it up by asking, “You mean, you’re just going to wing it?” (57) Today, we see calls for “revolution”, but with little apparent sense of what would replace it. “Defund the police”? OK, and then what? Reparations? How will you do that with more than a semblance of justice and efficiency, in a manner that will clearly help?

It’s always difficult to do government activism well in practice, rather than merely on paper. Wolfe points to one significant barrier—at least at that time: officials did not know the community leaders. Ironically, they valued “mau-mauing” because it signaled who “the leaders” were—well, at least leaders of some sort (104-106). Outside the churches, who are the “community organizers”?

As today, competing interest groups wrestled over status, victimhood, political attention, etc. In Wolfe’s context, Jews had helped Blacks form their groups. But in the name of black solidarity, they were eventually ousted. And then, ironically, Blacks began to support Arab causes contrary to Jewish interests (71-73). Today, we see squabbles between the interests of those involved in “identity politics.” (Nationally, there was the recent boycott of Goya Foods; in Louisville, we’ve seen “mafia tactics” used against a Cuban restaurant.) Are you paying attention to us? Are your grievances bigger than mine? What about my rights?

The Chic were, at least in part, interested in assuaging their own guilt and justifying their wealth and status. Wolfe relays a story where a black student crushes a white teacher for using a woke book: “Ghetto people would laugh if they heard what you just read. That book wasn’t written for the ghettos. It was written for the white middle class…That book is the best suburban jive I’ve ever heard.” (110)

Today, popular books are much more focused on relieving “white guilt”[3] about “white privilege” than actually dealing with key problems for the poor in general and the African-American poor in particular. For all of the talk about anecdotal personal racism and pervasive systemic racism, there is little discussion about brutal public policies such as welfare, K-12 education, the War on Drugs, labor market regulations, Social Security, and so on (aside from modest interest in police reform).

Finally, the elite didn’t get it—and often don’t get it today. Romanticizing violence and thuggery is never cool. Applauding destruction is never helpful. In our time, many of the Left have no clue why Trump won. They don’t understand that insisting on lockdowns for Covid and encouraging protests had to be seen as hypocrisy. Black lives matter to most people, but the BLM movement goes far beyond that. Most common folk understand these things.

The Bernstein party received flattering news coverage from The New York Times. But this resulted in “an international chorus of horse laughs or nausea” outside those circles[4] (68-69)—and even a critical editorial in The Times. Few prominent editorial boards still think in these terms, but maybe you can imagine some version of their editorial today:

“Emergence of the Black Panthers as the romanticized darlings of the politico‐cultural jet set is an affront to the majority of black Americans. This so‐called party, with its confusion of Mao‐Marxist ideology and Fascist para‐militarism…the group therapy plus fund‐raising soirée…represents the sort of elegant slumming that degrades patrons and patronized alike. It might be dismissed as guilt‐relieving fun spiked with social consciousness, except for its impact on those blacks and whites seriously working for complete equality and social justice. It mocked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was solemnly observed throughout the nation yesterday.”

The mocking has been resurrected in today’s radicals. King’s vision is inverted. Racism is practiced while it is condemned. The ends justify the means. The “fight for justice” is all too serious on the one hand—and downright silly on the other. There is much work to be done to improve society and public policy, but sadly, neither the Radical nor the Chic are much help.

[1] RC reads like a who’s-who of the rich and famous. Of names I did not recognize, Carter and Amanda Burden were apparently at the top of the food chain (43-44). Amanda later married Steve Ross and was domestic partners with Charlie Rose.

[2] Wolfe (66) tells of a black leader who spoke at the party and apologized for failing the younger generation, since “non-violence didn’t work.” Fifty years later, I saw a YouTube video of a prominent preacher in Louisville who apologized for the same thing.

[3] Wolfe (41) notes the excitement that they would not get a tax deduction for donating to the Panthers—an excellent way to virtue signal.

[4] Bernstein was booed at concerts soon afterwards and Wolfe imagines him thinking of the audience as “secret candy-store bigots.” (81)