Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers Essay - Critical Context

Tom Wolfe

Critical Context

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.