Sunday 14 April 2024

Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers - Tom Wolfe


It's January 1970 and world-famous composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife are hosting a party in their Manhattan penthouse duplex, and it's the kind of party you'd be silly to decline an invitation to. Not everyone is there, of course. There's no Mia Farrow, Jack Nicholson or even Salvador Dali but that's only because they're not in Leonard Bernstein's immediate circle of friends and neighbours. Those who are there, however, are extremely rich and in their own ways significant movers and shakers. They are people of influence. People who form a strata that could be called 'jet set'.

Hosting such parties is a 'thing'. It's a form of socialising and networking that is as far from jelly, cup cakes and sausages on sticks as you could get. Abigail's Party and playing Demis Roussos on the record player these parties are not. Rather, there are maids and butlers to wait upon the guests, serving them exquisite and expensive snacks and tasty morsels with the most delectable wines. These are elite parties for elite people where part of the entertainment comes with gathering around the piano to soak up some classical sonata performed by whatever world-class composer might be in the room. Which all begs the question in regard to Leonard Bernstein's particular party: What is Tom Wolfe doing there? Whether he's been invited or has gatecrashed isn't really clear and whether Leonard Bernstein is aware of it or not, Wolfe is taking notes and recording the evening's events.

Some who have genuinely been invited and are, in fact, guests of honour are a contingent of Black Panthers including Don Cox, the Panthers' very own Field Marshal General. He's there to talk about and to raise funds for the defense of the Panther 21 who have been in jail for the past year awaiting trial for supposedly conspiring to blow up the Bronx Botanical Gardens. Just why anyone would want to blow up these Gardens is anyone's guess but that's the charge.

Everything and everyone is very sincere, very serious, very purposeful and very 'right on'. The only person there who seems to be taking a somewhat dim, critical and sarcastic view of it is Tom Wolfe who from this party and other similar ones has coined a phrase that encapsulates and sums up the whole scenario, the whole trend and the whole scene where white guilt meets the rage of the oppressed. That phrase being 'Radical Chic'.

Nowadays, the kind of people attending such a party might be called 'Champagne socialists' but Tom Wolfe got there first by identifying the phenomena and labelling it, rather than labelling the participants. Times have now changed, of course, and lessons have been learned particularly by the rich and by those possessed of political nous. In fact, it could be said that the world has now been turned upside down though not in the way Gerrard Winstanley might have imagined but more in the way that Martin Luther King Jr once called it out as being 'socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor'. The rich nowadays - and very blatantly so - rather than being at each others throats are all nods and winks and I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine, whilst the poor have been given a world of dog eat dog and then thrown to the dogs. The world as it is today is a special brew. An alphabet soup where the scum still rises to the top whilst the main body boils and ferments into weird new flavours that seem to have an addictive quality about them. And it's maggot infested.

Tom Wolfe was a perceptive writer whose particular skill was in being able to read between the lines and in doing so enable him to see what was going on and to see what was coming. He got there first in regard to the emerging hippy movement by latching on to Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he identified the 'Me Decade' in an essay of the same name, and defined a form of writing called 'New Journalism'.
Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers is actually the titles of two separate essays published in one book, with both essay titles coming to form the title of the book. If that makes sense? The Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers essay is almost frivolously racist, concerning itself with the hustling of anti-poverty programs in San Francisco. The Radical Chic essay is the one in which the Black Panthers are the evening's entertainment at Leonard Bernstein's duplex and to be fair, the Panthers don't come out of it too badly. It's obvious they're only there to secure some money from the hosts and their guests, and who can blame them? How else are they meant to raise funds for the Panther 21 trial where even the bail for each person has been set at a ludicrous $100,000?

Don Cox is given free rein to explain the Panthers' cause with Tom Wolfe quoting him liberally, and he makes a good case. It's the hosts and their other white guests who are tied up in knots and it's this that Tom Wolfe observes. There have been other similar parties hosted by other rich socialites before this one, raising funds for such people as the grape workers of California, the Chicago Eight, Friends of the Earth, Ramparts magazine, even Irish civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin. The Black Panthers, however, are somewhat different. They are, essentially, Maoist revolutionaries and are considered to be 'the real deal'. Also different is that this time Tom Wolfe is present with his eye on the pulse and his finger on his pen to record the whole spectacle - and spectacle it is.

The term 'hoisted by their own petard' comes to mind though it's not one that Wolfe uses himself. Instead, Wolfe simply records everything and allows Leonard Bernstein's saying of 'Right on', for example, in response to Don Cox to hang there and subsequently speak volumes about the ridiculousness of it all. He records vividly and in detail the surroundings of Bernstein's home and all the accoutrements and luxuries that come as a direct result of the same system that oppresses the black community and other members of the working class. The dichotomy is glaring.

Much less kind about the Black Panthers than Wolfe is the New York Times that in an editorial piece two days after the party rubbishes the notion that the Panthers are in any way representative of the black community, and accuses Bernstein and his fellow 'Beautiful People' of 'elegant slumming'. Bernstein obviously is insulted. It wasn't a party, he insists, it was a meeting - and he's never been a member of 'the jet set' in his life. The mud, however, sticks. None of which, moreover, is helpful to the Black Panthers at all as it almost immediately puts paid to anyone else wanting to host any such similar party for fear of ridicule and the wrath of the New York Times, subsequently shutting down an avenue of fund-raising and starving the Panthers of money.
The American Establishment, clearly, were out to put a halt to the Black Panthers activities by any method at their disposal. Or as Malcolm X would put it: By any means necessary. Proving at the same time that unfortunately, though a very good writer, Tom Wolfe for the FBI and their Counterintelligence Program was nothing more than a useful idiot.
John Serpico

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