Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers

by Tom Wolfe
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1223

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 self-defense, and the willingness to risk revolutionary suicide in the face of a racist, intransigent police state.

During questions and answers, some guests expressed alarm that the Panthers were becoming anti-Semitic and were threatening moderate black leaders. Gallery owner Richard Feigen wondered who to call in order to give a party. The host speculated about whether the Panthers felt infuriated just walking into such a gathering, causing Field Marshal Cox to reply, “We want the same thing as you, we want peace. We want to come home at night and be with the family . . . and turn on the TV . . . and smoke a little weed . . . you dig? . . . and we’d like to get into that bag, like anybody else.”

Dominating the discussion was the maestro himself, whom Wolfe sometimes calls Lenny, almost as if he were behaving like an adolescent. Bernstein is portrayed as a voluble egotist: “the Great Interrupter, the Village Explainer, the champion of Mental Jotto, the Free Analyst, Mr. Let’s Find Out.” Anxious to find common ground with the self-styled revolutionaries, he ruminated that most of his assembled guests also had feelings of not being wanted. Wolfe describes a prophetic recurring vision of Bernstein’s in which he makes a fool of himself by giving a concert audience an antiwar speech that began with the words “I love.” “Radical Chic” does not so much heap ridicule on Bernstein personally as on his social circle’s facile assumptions about brotherhood and class harmony. Wolfe dissects the dichotomy between their radical-liberal political sympathies and their aristocratic life-style.

During the late 1960’s, “mau-mauing” evolved into an art form similar to a ghetto game called “the Dozens,” where the rhetorical patter (or “rap”) is theatrically violent and insulting, the object being to shatter your opponent’s cool. When directed against a bureaucratic “flak catcher,” the posturing was intended to instill a sense of panic. According to Wolfe, “mau-mauing” was a “shuck,” a put-on employed against willing civil servants—number-two men—who, according to Wolfe’s scenario, responded to the verbal assaults with guilt-ridden grins and eyes frozen into ice balls. As statistics would later confirm, the path to upward mobility was not in enrolling in a job training program but in becoming part of the bureaucratic apparatus itself. Wolfe wrote: “Everybody but the most hopeless lames knew that the only job you wanted out of the poverty program was a job in the program itself.”

Doing a “savage number” on “the man” was considered a “beautiful trip” that brought a sense of empowerment to groups especially interested in self-respect. Face-to-face confrontations were more exhilarating and easier to organize than mass marches or demonstrations. They played on white liberal guilt and fear of the black man’s masculinity. If the flak catcher’s dubious manhood had to be sacrificed, that was the price of averting lawless and potentially revolutionary behavior. Poverty officials nevertheless employed flawed logic in assuming that their tormentors were natural ghetto leaders rather than just gangsters or con artists. By and large, they were, in fact, street-corner hustlers posing as freedom-fighting warriors.

Wolfe uses the phrase “Ethnic Catering Service” to define the role played by the character actors in the mau-mauing ritual. Dashikis, sunglasses, and combat boots were among the favored props. Assembling some two dozen angry-looking youths—“wild niggers,” to use Wolfe’s phrase—was standard operating procedure, although one enterprising soul-brother simply filled a sack with weapons, dumped the contents on a conference table, and claimed, “These are some of the things I took off my boys last night.”

Chicanos, Chinese, and even Samoans got into the act. Wolfe describes how a group of Samoans once surrounded a functionary who resembled a seedy version of television announcer Ed McMahon. Bigger than professional football players, attired in blood-colored island shirts and sandals with straps the size of reins, the Polynesians banged their tiki canes in unison and demanded emoluments. “Listen, Brudda,” one said. “Why don’t you give up your pay check for summer jobs? You ain’t doing-—-.”

The intense competition for poverty money required the ingenuity of a Jomo Yarumba (formerly Bill Jackson), who led sixty Youth of the Future members into San Francisco’s City Hall. They threatened to stay all night and despoil the hallowed lobby with candy, soda pop, and other junk food, until Mayor Joseph Alioto himself came out and promised to purchase some sewing machines for Yarumba’s dashiki factory. That was small change compared to the $937,000 grant which Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers had extorted the previous year.

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