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: 847

In June of 1970, at the time when the first version of “Radical Chic” was published in New York magazine, Tom Wolfe was considered by many to be America’s foremost exponent and practitioner of what had come to be called the New Journalism. Spawned by the turbulent 1960’s and more opinionated than the old-fashioned, who-what-where-when-why school of objective reportage, “participatory journalism,” as it was sometimes dubbed, was experimental in style, sardonic in tone, and intimate in point of view. In The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Wolfe had employed language and grammar to fashion moods that were dazzling, rhythmic, and almost surreal. Like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965) and Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968), Wolfe’s best work seemed a blend of truth and imagination, forming a new genre: the nonfiction novel. More important, Wolfe was a consummate satirist of contemporary popular culture, or more aptly, the plethora of subcultures representing variations on the pursuit of the American Dream. Casting a jaundiced eye, he invented new methods of dissecting and capturing the myths, mores, and flawed nobility of various groups within the social landscape. Thus, his essays have sociological importance as well as relevance as primary source works for students of contemporary American history.

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As the title suggests, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers consists of two separate, distinct stories about black rage and white guilt, the first approximately twice the length of the second, but each easily consumed in one sitting, like a novella or a full-course meal. Both focus on bizarre, ritualistic meetings between ghetto residents and Establishment figures—in one case elite social aristocrats, in the other case government bureaucrats. A New Yorker who had documented San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury subculture in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe was familiar with both East Coast and West Coast locales. In “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” he satirizes the confrontations which angry militants were staging as a sidelight to President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The custom of “mau-mauing,” Wolfe quips, had become by 1968 almost as American as marathon encounter sessions or zoning board hearings. In fact, the Office of Economic Opportunity encouraged the charade in order to identify and placate minority leaders in the Bay area. Since, in Wolfe’s opinion, the poverty experts did not know any more about ghetto culture than about Zanzibar, they waited for self-styled militants to come to them—or, more specifically, to a designated toady or lifer whom Wolfe nicknamed a “flak catcher.” The most menacing and outrageous “mau-mauers” generally received money for their ghetto programs.

On the East Coast, meetings between activists and the Establishment took a different form. “Radical Chic” describes a cause party held on January 4, 1970, hosted by maestro Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, at their thirteen-room Park Avenue residence. The avowed purpose was to raise money for the legal defense of twenty-one Black Panthers, who had been indicted on charges of conspiring to bomb five department stores, a police station, a railroad facility, and the Bronx Botanical Garden. Bernstein’s reputation as a popularizer of classical music assured a glittering turn-out among New York’s East Side townhouse set—including writer Lillian Hellman, actor Jason Robards, photographer Richard Avedon, director Otto Preminger, journalist Barbara Walters, Julie Belafonte (wife of Harry Belafonte), civil rights spokesman Roger Wilkins, and Charlotte Curtis, women’s news editor of The New York Times. This party was at least the fourth such fashionable fund-raiser for the paramilitary Panthers. As Wolfe observes with tongue in cheek, radical chic had also spawned “soirees” for grape pickers, American Indians, Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Lords (a Puerto Rican group), G.I. Coffeehouses (an antiwar group), the University of the Street (a counterculture group), the Friends of the Earth (an environmental group), and the financially strapped radical-liberal editors of Ramparts magazine.

By and large, despite periodic breakdowns in communication, the Bernstein fund-raiser seemed to go well. Charlotte Curtis’ account in The New York Times was uncritical. Yet it inspired a scathing editorial rebuttal, which characterized the affair as “elegant slumming” that degraded both the patrons and the patronized. Picked up by the wire services, the news account of the party played to a chorus of horse laughs and jeers. Conservative columnist William F. Buckley called it an object lesson in liberal masochism. Ridiculed as “Mr. Parlour Pink” and attacked by Jewish groups, Bernstein tried to explain that he had merely convened a meeting, not to endorse the Panthers but to ensure the protection of their civil liberties. Even so, thereafter, identification with the Panthers was no longer chic. Once the Panthers became pariahs, it was safer and more fashionable to worry about sables and leopards and other endangered animal species. Faced with a threat to their status, Bernstein’s circle of New Society nabobs modified their behavior. Hardly surprising, as Wolfe writes, because “Radical Chic, after all, is only radical in style; in its heart, it is part of society and its traditions.”

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65

Coyne, J. R. Review in National Review. XXIII (January 26, 1971), p. 90.

Edwards, T. R. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXV (November 29, 1970), p. 4.

Epstein, Jason. Review in The New York Review of Books. XV (December 17, 1970), p. 3.

Foote, Timothy. Review in Time. XCVI (December 12, 1970), p. 72.

Howe, Irving. Review in Harper’s Magazine. CCXLII (February, 1971), p. 104.

Mewborn, Brant. “Tom Wolfe,” in Rolling Stone. November 5, 1987, pp. 214-219.

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