Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, by Tom Wolfe
The Party’s Over . . .
Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.
by Tom Wolfe.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 153 pp. $5.95.
The Leonard Bernsteins’ evening with the Black Panthers was not an event parallel to the draining away of moral authority in the French monarchy under Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the last days of the ancien régime. Nor was it in any way comparable to the incursions of the Visigoths during the twilight of the Roman Empire. Although it may have called such episodes to mind for people with a heightened sense of history and a taste for the dissolution of civilizations, it of course represented nothing so grand. For the Bernsteins and their friends, if not exactly for the Panthers, it appeared to be just another night out, which, as would later become evident, was to prove part of the problem. If the evening’s historical significance was slight, culturally it provided an exquisite moment of lunacy: a crazy scramble of values that had Jews inviting acknowledged anti-Semites into their home, the flower of bourgeois society tippling with lumpen-revolutionaries, and a crowd of first-nighters gathered together for a glimpse of the Third World.
If Felicia Bernstein had only let them eat cake! But, a delicate and elegant hostess to the end, she chose instead hors d’oeuvres of Roquefort cheese rolled in crushed nuts, asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi. If these had been set on plain trays on a sideboard, or on coffee tables, or even atop her husband’s two grand pianos, it might have helped; but, no, the hors d’oeuvres were served, as on any other social evening at the Bern-steins’, on silver trays carried by uniformed South American maids followed by a butler toting drinks. If she had simply telephoned a handful of friends to come round to her apartment to hear about, and possibly contribute to, a cause, this might have made the evening, in retrospect, look a bit less ridiculous; but instead, not one to condescend, she arranged for her stationer to send out engraved invitations. There were scores of other little touches, details seen after, and doubtless customary extravagances allowed to go uncur-tailed, all of which would later conduce to make Mrs. Bernstein, her husband, and their friends seem so quintessentially those stock figures of democratic humor—the idiot rich.
The major detail the Bernsteins overlooked that evening, as everyone now knows, was keeping the journalist Tom Wolfe the hell out of their Park Avenue duplex. But by the next day, even without Wolfe, the Bernsteins must have known they had a disaster on their hands when an account of their evening with the Black Panthers, which they had deemed a serious political occasion, appeared on the society page of the New York Times. Things worsened the following day when the Times came thumping down on the Bernsteins in typically heavy-handed fashion with an editorial accusing them and all who had been at their home of “elegant slumming.” Still, the whole affair might well have been forgotten if not for Mr. Wolfe, who made of it, in “Radical Chic,” the center of a minor comic masterpiece.
The Bernsteins’ evening with the Black Panthers is a subject Tom Wolfe might almost be said to have been born to write about. Wolfe has long been interested in the cultural fringes of American life, and he has always been marvelously attuned to all the nuttiness of the small gradations of status that play so large a role on these fringes. He also has an extraordinary ability to enter into the spirit of an event or occasion. Whether his subject be men’s tailoring, stock-car racing, or disc-jockeying, he is invariably able to convey a vivid sense of what it is about these things that exhilarate those who go in for them—what it is, in short, that turns people on. Sometimes one can be put off by the fireworks of his prose style; one can be uninterested in the particular cultural fringe that is absorbing his interest at the moment; or one can dislike the need his kind of writing often has to be superior to its subject. But in “Radical Chic” the fireworks of Wolfe’s prose are in fact held to a minimum; the cultural fringe he is describing really is important (whatever one may think of the people gathered at the Bernsteins’ apartment, they do, in their respective fields, constitute something of an elite); and Wolfe has no need to display any superiority to his subject, for, so inherently ludicrous was the event he set out to describe, that a properly cold-eyed description suffices to do the job.
Yet, ostensibly, there is nothing funny about the subject. Certainly there is nothing funny about the Black Panthers. As Wolfe characterizes the Panthers in the other of the two essays in this book, “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” which is about the attempts of various “Third World” ethnic groups to get a piece of the anti-poverty-program action in San Francisco, they are not comical in the least:
Everybody has his own angle and his own way of looking at black power. The Panthers were on a very special trip. The Panthers were fighting the Pig. And the Pig was fighting the Panthers. If you joined the Panthers, you had to be ready to fight the police, because that was the trip you’d be on. One of the main things you stood to get out of it was a club up side your head, or a bullet. If you were a man who had really been worked over by the police, then you could relate to that and you were ready for that fight. . . . But as bad as things were in the ghettos, there weren’t but so many aces who were ready to play it all-or-nothing that way.
Nor was the ostensible reason that Felicia Bernstein decided to have her evening for the Panthers funny either. It was to help raise bail money and legal expenses for fourteen of the twenty-one Panthers indicted and then jailed for allegedly having plotted a series of terrorist bombings in New York City in the spring of 1969. What the Bernsteins were supposedly trying to accomplish was not merely to raise money for the Panther legal defense but also to publicize, and thereby make visible, what they considered an injustice done against the Panthers. None of this is funny.
What made for comedy, however, was the fact that, despite their tremendous dissimilarities in almost every other regard, both groups, the Panthers and their wives and the Bernsteins and their friends, were equally locked in their equally rigid styles. The Bernsteins could no more contemplate an evening without servants than the Panthers could disavow violence or let up on their dreary rhetoric. Beyond this common rigidity, the only other point of commonality one can make out between the two groups were the black turtlenecks worn both by the Panthers and Mr. Bernstein.
Wolfe pretty much lays off the Panthers, restricting himself to describing their dress and reporting their occasional comments and the speech of Don Cox, the Panther field marshal who was the evening’s main attraction. He never attempts to tell us, as he does for the whites in the room, what the Panthers must have been thinking of this extraordinary night—and God alone knows what precise combination of awe, contempt, and a hundred other emotions they felt at finding themselves in such surroundings and under such circumstances. Yet however sad, misguided, or even frightening one might think the Panthers generally, on this particular evening at least their motive was clear: they were on Park Avenue to get money.
The motives of the Bernsteins and their friends had to be much more mixed. They were there, it is true, to aid the Panthers’ legal-defense fund. But they were also there to view the Panthers up close, caged as it were in the newest kind of political minstrel show: “I’ve never met a Panther—this is a first for me!” said Cheray Duchin, the wife of the society piano player. They were there for personal therapy: “God,” Mr. Bernstein remarked at one point in the evening, “most of the people in this room have had a problem being wanted.” And they were there, finally, because it was fashionable to be there. Their sin, and sin in this instance it most assuredly was, was the sin of unseriousness.
Wolfe has his own theory about the evening. He sees it as a classic instance of nostalgie de la boue, the 19th-century European upper-class phenomenon of imitating, whoring after, and generally romanticizing the primitive lower classes. There is something to this, though one suspects that the correspondences between the Bernsteins’ set and 19th-century aristocratic circles probably ought best not be pressed too firmly. In any case, more precise historical analogies are nearer at hand, for alliances between the elite and the mob are not unknown to our own century. As with the Bernsteins’ set and the Panthers, brought together by a common hatred of ordinary middle-class life, such alliances rested, in Hannah Arendt’s words, “largely on [the] genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability.”
Yet, as Wolfe also makes clear, Radical Chic is really very much a double-track affair; while the Black Panthers, as the funkiest and most far-out of black militants, provided a special frisson, on the other hand neither were the people gathered at the Bernsteins’ wholly insensitive to what they deemed the Panthers’ desperate situation. Here too there are historical precedents. Tocqueville remarks that in the decade preceding 1789 in France there was, among the upper classes, “much compassion . . . shown for the poor, there was constant talk about their wrongs, and frequent attempts were made to find remedies for them. . . . And as a rule the terms in which these new, charitable sentiments were expressed were as ill-advised as the callousness displayed in former years.”
However comfortable they might otherwise feel in the world, in the matter of social justice the Bernsteins and their friends proved perfect parvenus. All they had to go on, apart from their need to differentiate themselves from the ordinary middle class, was their sense of style, and the inappropriateness of their particular style to the matter at hand supplies Wolfe with some of his most telling comic effects. His continual references to such items as Dior Boutique Pyjamas, Pucci clings, Gucci shoes, Capucci scarves, Billy Baldwin sofas, and so on, far from being—as some of his critics have charged—beside the point, are right on target. For the essence of Radical Chic is precisely that it is devoid of content. At the moment in America it runs much lower down the social scale than the Leonard Bernsteins of Park Avenue. At least in part, it is behind such phenomena as the radical professors (those guerrillas with tenure, in Irving Howe’s phrase), closet revolutionists working at high salaries for large corporations, and upper-middle-class students in search of a political high. What the Bernsteins’ evening accomplished, with the indispensable aid of Tom Wolfe, was, by exaggerating an already bizarre phenomenon, to show it up for the foolish, misguided, and ultimately self-destructive tendency it really is.