Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers Critical Essays

Tom Wolfe


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1223 words.)