“The Southerner is usually tolerant of those weaknesses that proceed from innocence,” observed Southern Gothic author and native Georgian Flannery O’Connor. But what about those weaknesses that don’t? Well, then the offender may require rebuke, and, depending on the gravity of the offense, and the character of the offender, that might range somewhere between a polite reprimand to being run out of town on a rail.
Or, if you’re Tom Wolfe, it might be a many-thousand-word essay dripping with subtle (and not-so-subtle) mockery. Such was certainly the case with Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, the Virginia-born author’s stinging portrayal of wealthy white Americans who promoted the latest radical, racial causes, a book that last year enjoyed its fiftieth anniversary. Indeed, perhaps one might say that only a Southerner like Wolfe — and one with his literary talents — was capable of writing an essay like Radical Chic.
Wolfe’s tale begins at a January 1970 evening party at the thirteen-room Park Avenue home of Leonard Bernstein, where the famous composer and his wife are hosting a mix of New York high-society and members of the Black Panthers. The absurdity of that social intersection is immediately appreciable, little roquefort cheese morsels in crushed nuts, asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs pretites au Coq Hardi are offered to men in turtlenecks and blazers, women in cocktail dresses, and Black Panthers in tight pants and leather coats. A giddy socialite declares: “I’ve never met a Panther — this is a first for me!”
The servants, of course, are white — “if you are giving a party for the Black Panthers… you can’t have a Negro butler and maid,” Wolfe explains. Nevertheless, trying to navigate the complexity of race and class results in a complicated dance. He continues:
When talking to one’s white servants, one doesn’t really know whether to refer to blacks as blacks, Negroes, or colored people. When talking to other… well, cultivated persons, one says blacks, of course. It is the only word, currently, that implicitly shows one’s awareness of the dignity of the black race. But somehow when you start to say the word to your own white servants, you hesitate. You can’t get it out of your throat. Why? Counter-guilt! You realize that you are about to utter one of those touchstone words that divide the cultivated from the uncultivated , the attuned from the unattuned, the hip from the dreary…. Such are the delicious little agonies of Radical Chic.
Such remain the agonies of our own times, when every aspect of life is politicized and racialized to such a degree that few are capable of keeping in step with the latest words or actions that protect one from being labeled bigoted or racist. “That’s what I hate about the times we live in, the terms,” observes another socialite. She could have said it yesterday.
Indeed, Wolfe’s account will cure you of thinking that anything of what we experience today in a world driven mad by identity politics is original. One Black Panther denounces the deceitful tactics of “the power structure.” Another cites Huey P. Newton, who had labeled America as “the most oppressive country in the world.” The Radical Chic lifestyle is described in religious terms, as the elites eat “a little sacramental pone” in order to better relate to the black experience.
Wolfe sees right through the hypocrisy and virtue-signalling. He notes how the New York social justice warriors believe “one must have a weekend place… It is hard to get across to outsiders an understanding of how absolute such apparently trivial needs are.” He describes with dripping irony how they nod approvingly when one of the Black Panthers asserts that some of his audience “may have some feelings left for the Establishment, but we don’t. We want to see it die.” The enraptured audience does this all while taking another bite of little roquefort cheese morsels in crushed nuts and sipping their luxury cocktails.
A few audience members retain a shred of reason. One, speaking of the Black Panther, observes, “He’s a magnificent man, but suppose some simple-minded schmucks take all that business about burning down buildings seriously?” Another seeks to correct the resistance leader, incredulously asking in a thick German émigré accent, “Do you mean dat zis government is more repressive zan de government of Nigeria?” Eventually the visitors depart and dutiful white servants quietly clean up, “wip[ing] the drink rings off the Amboina tables.”
The second half of Wolfe’s book describes the ways in which black (and other racial minority) activists learned how to employ publicity stunts and intimidation tactics (“mau-mauing”) to press government bureaucrats, or “flak catchers” into funding various urban anti-poverty programs. In cities like San Francisco, such methods were remarkably successful, not necessarily in reducing poverty in various minority communities, but in lining the pockets of enterprising individuals, while invigorating racially-themed contempt and resentment.
This all seems so very familiar, doesn’t it? In 2020, corporations, celebrities, politicians, and the media tripped over each seeking to burnish their woke, anti-racist credentials. One wonders, for example, what the corporate investors in the newly-christened Washington Football Team had for dinner the day they succeeded in persuading the team’s ownership to jettison its name because the racist connotations caused negative outcomes for disenfranchised indigenous communities? Or how about the median income of Americans who took the time to post “Black Lives Matter”-themed content on their social media accounts? Not to worry, I’m sure their $100 donation to BLM — rather than say, some veteran, charitable organization in their immediate community — will be used for a good cause. Like new anti-racist education curricula.
Or how about the burgeoning anti-racist industry, whom activists like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo have so effectively exploited as they make millions? As Darel E. Paul noted in an excellent piece at First Things, Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility sold hundreds of thousands of copies in 2020 alone. DiAngelo has made millions of dollars with her anti-racist workshops, in which participants are lectured in the nuances of white supremacy and white fragility. Another private diversity consultant, Howard Ross, has billed the federal government millions of dollars for his anti-racist training. Do you think any of these events are catered? Or include an exclusive happy-hour or luxury dinner afterwards?
The relevance of 1970 Radical Chic to 2020 wokeism is obvious… and painful. Yet what was it about Tom Wolfe that enabled him to perceive the hypocrisy and absurdity of the intersection of white guilt and black rage? Perhaps it was his Southern sensibilities. Wolfe, after all, was a native of Richmond, Virginia, and a graduate of Washington & Lee College (remarkably and admirably he turned down admission to Princeton).
In a 2006 lecture entitled “What is Southern Today,” Wolfe expounds on the unique mentality of the Southerner. To be a Southerner, one evinces a down-to-earth common sense, says Wolfe. He is suspicious of complicated processes, especially those that emanate from government bureaucracies. He is willing to make jokes, even about himself and his own culture, because he understands, at a particularly personal and visceral level, its idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies. Wolfe, for example, wryly notes that as a child in Richmond, he was taught to say a prayer thanking God not only that he grew up in the greatest country in the world, but the greatest state in the union, because it is the home of eight presidents, and no other state can boast that.
I would press Wolfe’s analysis further. Because of the Christian consciousness so deeply embedded in the Southern psyche, Southerners are a humble people, well aware of their own flaws and proclivity for pharisaism. When a Yankee criticizes the South for its hypocrisies, be they religious, racial, or economic, the Southerner admits, “well, sure…. Are y’all any different?” The South is conservative, yes, but very able to critique or lampoon itself and its foibles — just read any Faulkner, O’Connor, or Penn Warren novel. Is any other American subculture so honest about its inadequacies? In contrast, it is a wokeism defined by a blind, puritannical self-righteousness that believes itself capable of transcending the limits of sinful human nature.
This is why, I suspect, Wolfe was well-positioned to identify and deride the preposterous moralizing of chic elitists who attempted to demonstrate their sympathy with the latest radical cause, while still maintaining their name in the social register and summer home in the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard. He could see the charade, while the Leftist elites remained too oblivious to appreciate the hilarity of their activism. Perhaps, then, what is required in 2021 is a new Tom Wolfe, one capable of both deftly maneuvering within woke activism circles, and cleverly and insightfully exposing the risibility of wealthy white liberals’ tokenism . The women’s book club that discusses the latest offering by Ta-Nehisi Coates while sipping rosé and mimosas. The Ivy League student who joins BLM protests right before leaving for his internship on Wall Street. This is the radical chic of our time. And it is ripe for the picking.