Wolfe’s skewering essay was not responsible for the initial wave of derision which caused “radical chic” to unravel and become passe, but his detailed observations about the foibles of the “New Society” put it in historical perspective. The roots of the debacle, in Wolfe’s opinion, lay in the aristocratic tendency to romanticize things primitive and proletarian as a way of asserting superiority over the placid life-styles of the middle-class. The French had a phrase for this inverted form of snobbery—nostalgie de la boue, or, literally, nostalgia for the mud. It surfaced in the early 1960’s in excursions to the Peppermint Lounge to dance the twist with killer Joe Piro and in the infatuation with pop art and Andy Warhol. Left-wing cause parties went back at least to the 1930’s, and many of Bernstein’s friends within the communications industry were “red diaper babies” who had been weaned on liberal-left political traditions. A double-track mindset was at work, with subtle contradictions, encompassing noblesse oblige but also a longing to be attuned and avant-garde. In the case of the charismatic Panthers, the envy was almost palpable. Quite aside from the political issues involved, what excited Bernstein’s guests about the Panthers was their hip life-style, language, and mode of dress—in short, their raw, vital presence. As one woman put it: “These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—these are real men!” They were “righteously” cocky, in contrast to black moderates who excoriated themselves for their failure to ameliorate ghetto rage. In their presence, Bernstein’s assembled guests, in their Pucci dresses, Capucci scarves, and Gucci shoes, resembled “a bunch of leaping, prancing, palsied happy-slobber Saint Bernards.”
Wolfe is at his most hilarious in describing the mental gyrations accompanying the planning of the cause party. For example, how to dress? Avoiding something frivolous, pompous, or artificially funky, Felicia Bernstein settled on a simple black frock and plain gold necklace. Employing black maids would be a faux pas, so Felicia hired white South Americans dressed in black uniforms with white aprons to serve the cheese morsels, asparagus tips, and miniature meatballs. (Felicia’s Chilean background had proved so useful in finding domestics that her friends joked that she headed the Spic and Span Employment Agency.)
The cause party itself opened with some droll introductory remarks by muttonchopped “movement” attorneys Leon Quat and Gerald Lefcourt, including jokes poking fun at Spiro Agnew and Hubert Humphrey. Then Field Marshal Don Cox from Oakland and Defense Captain Henry Miller from Harlem—accompanied by their lithe, beautiful, well-dressed women—put forth the Panthers’ militant ten-point platform, as well as a pitch for the Panthers’ breakfast program. Frequently quoted was Defense Minister Huey P. Newton on the necessity of class struggle, the virtues of armed...
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For social critic Wolfe, the unhinged, helter-skelter burst of unchartered change was a troubling, though fascinating, facet of 1960’s American culture. Nothing offended his sensibilities more than those who remained willfully blind to reality. In “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” he ridiculed a white college professor who read aloud passages from Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968), only to receive her comeuppance from a street-smart black student, who dismissed it as jive intended for gullible white folks.
In Wolfe’s opinion, the Black Panthers were a media-hyped handful of radicals with hardly a toehold in San Francisco’s ghettos. Their Ten-Point Program was written in the North Oakland Poverty Center. While admired by street blacks for their courage, they were into a seemingly suicidal “trip”—fighting the Pigs (police)— on which few wished to embark. What was emulated was their swashbuckling posture, which for a time vied with the supercool “pimp” style of Sly Stone vests, black beaver fedoras, thin nylon socks, outlandish slacks, and effeminate shirts. Collegians at San Francisco State, for example, looked so “righteous,” in Wolfe’s words, “that Che Guevara would have had to turn in his beret and get bucked down to company chaplain if he had come up against it.”
What do Wolfe’s two essays have in common, aside from their acerbic tone and the author’s signature style? Both poke fun at stumbling efforts to establish dialogue across class lines. Yet both the “New Society” cause parties and the mau-mauing confrontations brought together two different worlds in ways that were mutually rewarding, not merely in assuaging white guilt and venting black rage. Quite the reverse. The meetings (and that is what Bernstein insisted they were) opened windows of opportunity, at least slightly, for black participation in the system in ways which enabled both groups to assert their superiority to dreary, conservative middle-class folks—both black and white. Behind the radical posturing and sloganeering, both groups were acting in their own selfish interests. Behind the cant, Wolfe believes, lay the inherent self-interest of human nature. Meanwhile, there were more delicious contradictions to be exposed as the United States headed into the “Me Decade,” a phrase Wolfe coined to described the self-absorbed 1970’s.