Monday, August 17, 2020

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)


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