Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers by Tom Wolfe
I had no idea what this book was about when I purchased it. But having read several of Tom Wolfe’s other collections of “New Journalism” essays, there was little doubt that it would be interesting, entertaining, and informative.
“New Journalism” was coined after Tom Wolfe’s unique style of reporting the news. He became famous in the 1960’s for a new style of writing in which he objectively presented factual information… laid out however, in the form of a short story. Wolfe worked for several major newspapers and magazines where he contributed many of these “New Journalism” essays. In each he would demonstrate the ability to accurately characterize a decade, an era, an incident, or phase of American history. Keeping his finger on the pulse of America, he intellectually described the mood, culture, customs, and attitudes in a precise, candid and unbiased manner… often humorous, and always “right on”.
This particular book includes 2 such essays, both of which occur in the late 1960s.
Radical Chic takes place on Park Avenue in New York City. Characters include high-society left wing intellectuals and celebrities such as Leonard Bernstein, Otto Preminger, and Barbara Walters. The trend amongst Manhattan social climbers was to ostentatiously give generously to any charitable organization that would result in personal public attention. No altruism here… just an arrogant attempt to demonstrate superiority over each other and the dreadful middle class. In fact, there was no interest in helping the middle class. But coming to the aid of poor black radicals was alluring….”primitive, exotic, romantic”. It just happened at the time that the Black Panthers were involved in terrorist anti-war activities and were seeking funds to pay for attorney fees. So all up and down Park Avenue, social climbing elitists were inviting the leaders of the Black Panthers into their penthouse suites and throwing fund raising parties. You won’t want to miss Tom Wolfe’s report on one party in particular… and the very amusing outcome.
The second essay Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is about community organizing. Have you ever wondered exactly what community organizing is, where it started, and how it evolved? Tom Wolf’s essay goes right to the heart of these questions. While Saul Alinski was community organizing in Chicago, the ghetto blacks were doing it in San Francisco… all with the government’s blessing.
Mau-Mauing takes place in 1968 in San Francisco where emerging government agencies aiming to help the poor became an attraction for tough black ghetto youth. The original intent was to help the poor with occupational training and jobs- but nothing ever seemed to change- so most of the budget eventually went into community organizing… the bureaucratic term for ‘power to the people’. It was a term that meant identifying the gang leaders of the ghetto and helping them organize the poor to uprise against the social system. Mau-mauing was the term used to describe the intimidating confrontation tactics used by the blacks. “Bad dudes were out mau-mauing at all the poverty agencies, at boards of education, at city halls, hospitals, conventions, foundations, schools, charities, civic organizations, all sorts of places”. All they had to do was come up with a fancy name like Head Start or ACORN… send a few thugs to mau-mau the government “flak catchers”, and they were suddenly on the government payroll. Tom Wolfe compares community organizers to pimps… “the aristocrat of the street- a job that paid a lot of money and you did nothing.”
I doubt Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers had much impact on readers at the time of publication in 1970. It all seemed so harmless and irrelevant to the big picture. The entitlement bureaucracy was in it’s infancy stage… with the consequences unforeseen.
Once again Tom Wolfe manages to document events that seemed at the time to escape everyone else’s attention. In this case, events that help bring clarity and understanding to why and how our country is in such a mess today. Thank you Tom Wolfe.
Rated 5 Stars.
All contents © 2015 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.