My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It’s a tiny bit arrogant of people to go around worrying about those less fortunate.
—Whit Stillman, Metropolitan
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it is a year or two into a conservative presidential administration—one that follows an epoch-making liberal one, and that was carried into office on a wave of resentful white populism. Social and cultural changes that once looked permanent now feel a bit insecure. An alliance between the cultural and economic elite with progressive causes, including some of those causes’ more radical exponents, starts to break. Satire overwhelms earnestness. The ideological and demographic constituencies of the broad political left itself begin to fall out: socialist vs. liberal, working class vs. middle class, African-American vs. Jewish. The ethical status of the state of Israel is a particular flashpoint. And the New York Times increasingly appears to side, at least in matters cultural, with the political right.
Is this America? Is this 2018? It is indeed America, but I am describing the Nixon years, and you can read all about it in the late Tom Wolfe’s 1970 classic of embedded and excitable reportage, “Radical Chic.” The titular phrase, by the way, is one—among others—that Wolfe introduced into the language; it signifies the temporary adoption of left-wing ideology by the rich as a matter of fashion. (The word woke now means roughly the same, at least in its ironic usage, where it is spoken in imagined quotation marks to suggest a privileged white liberal’s patronizing adoption of black slang.)
Upon the white-suited author’s recent death, I wanted to read something of his, preferably not a 900-page novel in the mode of a zany Zola, so I chose this diptych on hearing “Radical Chic” commended on social media as especially relevant to the politics of the present. I just didn’t realize how relevant it would prove, even though I am the one always saying history is likely more circle than line.
“Radical Chic” famously narrates a party and/or meeting and/or benefit (the nature of the gathering actually becomes a point of contention in its controversial aftermath) held in the home of celebrated conductor Leonard Bernstein in 1970 wherein he hosted a number of Black Panthers alongside his more customary guest list of VIPs (Otto Preminger, Barbara Walters, Harry Belafonte—to cite a few names still in circulation). The event itself goes awry when Bernstein and his cohort begin interrogating their new guests not so much on racial politics, but rather on the Panthers’ avowed revolutionary goal of overthrowing capitalism—obviously an unwelcome prospect to this gathering of the haute bourgeoisie. Further, there is the tense subtext of worsening relations between the black and Jewish communities, exacerbated by the Panthers’ Third Worldist politics and concomitant hostility to Israel. When a columnist somewhat mockingly reports on the party in the New York Times the next day, it becomes a watchword for the delusions of fashionable bien pensance at the end of the 1960s.
While Wolfe artfully restricts his narrative timeline to the present of Bernstein’s party and its immediate aftermath, his own authorial voice ranges through the history of status wars between old and new money in New York City. Because America has no landed aristocracy, Wolfe explains, there are always new rich emerging from new bases of wealth (railroads, oil, steel, etc.) who need to set themselves apart with new status symbols. Often this takes the form of nostalgie de la boue, or “romanticizing of primitive souls”—essentially, slumming. Making matters more complicated, the new rich of the midcentury, who made their millions in media and culture, come from the ranks of the formerly impoverished immigrant groups: they are Catholics and Jews. These groups, especially the latter, have an understandable historical connection to the political left without compare among previous Protestant cohorts of the new rich. For this reason, they are especially divided between their self-interest and their desire for social justice, and are accordingly susceptible to radical chic, a fundamentally dishonest way of reconciling these incompatible commitments, and one moreover accompanied by an exploitative aestheticization or fetishization, even a consumption, necessarily de haut en bas, of the objects of their pity:
These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—
—no more interminable Urban League banquets in hotel ballrooms where they try to alternate the blacks and whites around the tables as if they were stringing Arapaho beads—
—these are real men!
Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade. The Panther women—there are three or four of them on hand, wives of the Panther 21 defendants, and they are so lean, so lithe, as they say, with tight pants and Yoruba-style headdresses, almost like turbans, as if they’d stepped out of the pages of Vogue, although no doubt Vogue got it from them. All at once every woman in the room knows exactly what Amanda Burden meant when she said she was now anti-fashion because “the sophistication of the baby blacks made me rethink my attitudes.”
Radical chic is the anti-racism that is really just racism.
Now Wolfe could not explicate this history and its results so knowledgeably without some sympathy for the subjects of his investigation. His attitude is not simply one of contempt; there is too much understanding in it for that. But there is satire, especially in the piece’s opening explanation of how Bernstein and friends clamored to hire white (largely Hispanic) rather than black servants in preparation for their encounter with the Black Panthers.
Wolfe largely spares the Black Panthers themselves his satirical scrutiny. I suspect he sees them as honest political players, pursuing their interests in the open sans the complex codes of the comme il faut among the jet set, codes that often operate precisely to conceal conflicts of interest. In the slighter second piece in this volume, “Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers,” he is more unsparing, and here his conservative politics come to the fore as he presents an elaborate game between community organizers and poverty programs in San Francisco. The staid bureaucrats, he explains, require the organizers to intimidate and harass them to justify getting anything done, though what they bring to the communities they ostensibly serve is often make-work amounting to little. Wolfe allows that this characteristic exchange of administrative liberalism helps to bring self-reliance to otherwise desperate constituencies, but here his derision is withering, especially in his depiction of a climactic parade through the gilded and marble City Hall of children, grotesquely eating junk food and headed by an organizer in a dashiki.
But if “Radical Chic” helped me to understand aspects of elite media in the Age of Trump, “Mau-Mauing” helped me to understand why the last president—himself a former community organizer—often implored his audiences to push his ostensibly moderate government toward more radical goals; according to Wolfe, this is a longstanding technique for change in urban politics. While “Radical Chic” exhibits a certain tact in writing about the Black Panthers that prevents the piece’s satire from lapsing into racist invective, “Mau-Mauing”—with its eponymous mocking allusion to anti-colonial revolt—does no such thing: its author is the anthropologist as insult artist, and the field report is acidly cartoonish, even if written with contemptuous relish.
The progression in this book, then, is the one narrated by this book: a rightward shift, a growing impatience with the attempt to display sympathies whose honest extension would mean your own undoing. It is true that this can be a cold and unfeeling doctrine, a Nietzschean call to the right of might, but on the other hand at least it does not have that particular reek of hypocrisy. And anyway, Wolfe seems to suggest in his relatively respectful allowance of voice and distance to the Black Panthers, better an open conflict of interests than the cheat that is the power-play of pity. Wolfe’s own justly celebrated writing style, its dandiacal energy unimpeded by guilt or condescension, is the literary correlate of such an aristocratic politics.
The effect of Wolfe’s satire against the high-low alliance made by radical chic is to shield the middle classes, the “silent majority,” from the scorn of the cultural elite and the anger of the insurgent oppressed; yet Wolfe is certainly not of this middle realm himself. His overture to them—like so many we see today—is possibly only another unworkable and hypocritical partnership across the line dividing the cultural haves from the have-nots. As Flaubert claimed he was Emma Bovary even as he anatomized her delusions, so Wolfe might have to acknowledge a kinship with Leonard Bernstein. But I doubt the maestro is the doppelgänger Wolfe would have chosen out of his own text. Perhaps as he gazed across Bernstein’s parlor, over the heads of the cringing liberals, he saw—in a moment of nostalgie all his own—the Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party as his own self-image in photo negative: the stylish warrior.
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