Saturday, July 05, 2008

The sixties: Tom Wolfe and "Radical Chic" (2)

Jason Epstein reviewed Tom Wolfe's little tract Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) in Journal du Voyeur New York Review of Books 12/17/1970 (link behind subscription).

He gave this account of the background to Leonard Bernstein's fundraiser for the Panther 21, which I discussed in a previous post:

Sometime in December, [wrioter Murray] Kempton, at the suggestion of the Panthers' lawyers, asked some well-connected and respectable friends who have a town house on the East Side whether they would arrange an evening at home to raise money for the Panthers' defense. Not only were the defendants desperately poor, but Kempton felt it important that their situation be publicized; for, as he wrote at the time, "If they cannot be saved from being tried as strangers, they have no chance to be tried fairly at all." Liberal New Yorkers are quick to respond to such appeals, especially where civil liberties appear to be in jeopardy. Furthermore, the Panthers had by this time gained a certain interest—not to say glamour—as the authentic voice of black misery and rage. One tended to hear in their violent language and the shallow Marxism that accompanied it not the sound of revolution but the cry of pain. What liberals found most interesting and hopeful about the Panthers were their efforts to supply dignity and political direction to black street people. Their talk of violent revolution, their identification with third world political leaders, and even the weapons they carried seemed, by contrast, largely rhetoric and theater.


To many liberals it also appeared that the Panthers were right to claim that federal and local officials were out to destroy them. Attorney General Mitchell had begun to talk of preventive detention. Fred Hampton, the Illinois Panther leader, had been shot in his bed by a posse of Chicago police, and Bobby Seale, the national chairman, had been bound and gagged by Judge Hoffman at the Chicago conspiracy trial for having repeatedly demanded no more than his constitutional right to defend himself. Moreover, evidence of the torture and murder of Alex Rackley in New Haven—a crime with which Seale had also been charged, to which two Panthers had already confessed, and for which a third was later to be found guilty—had not yet been made public; nor had any other evidence of Panther violence been produced, including whatever evidence Hogan might have had against the New York Panthers. In any case, what was on Kempton's mind was not the guilt or innocence of the defendants but the need to raise money for their defense and to make them visible.

Thus Kempton's friends sent out their invitations. About forty people came, including Felicia Bernstein, wife of the conductor. The Panthers who addressed these guests were articulate and calm. Their problems were obviously genuine. They talked about their breakfast program for ghetto children and said nothing to suggest that they were terrorists. They did, however, insist that they were revolutionaries, an admission that did not deter Mrs. Bernstein from agreeing to arrange a similar meeting at her own house some two weeks hence. Soon thereafter she sent elegantly engraved invitations, in her name but not in her husband's, to perhaps a hundred people who might be interested in the case. Meanwhile, Charlotte Curtis, the society reporter for The New York Times, who had been in touch with Kempton on other matters, learned of his interest in the Panthers and said she would like to write a piece on their wives. Kempton thought this would be useful to the defendants and suggested that she come along to the Bernsteins' party.

Tom Wolfe was another guest whom Mrs. Bernstein had not herself invited, but who came anyway.
Epstein also sees Wolfe's posture in "Radical Chic" as his own version of Nixonian ideology:

This notion, though not the term itself, derives, according to Wolfe, from the sociological theories of [neoconservative scholars] Seymour Martin Lipset and Nathan Glazer, among others. Presumably it would also describe Edna St. Vincent Millay's interest in Sacco and Vanzetti, Theodore Dreiser's in the coal miners of Harlan County, and Robert Kennedy's in Cesar Chavez.

With equal facility one might propose a theory in reply to the one that Wolfe offers: that his invidious generalization derives from resentment and envy of the rich and talented, fear of the alienated poor, and anxiety over his own precarious situation in between. It is this same resentment of effete snobs and fear of the undisciplined poor that Mr. Agnew, among others, imagines to be the main preoccupation of most Americans.
Epstein's verdict on Wolfe's sneering essay is a good one:

Unself-conscious as always, Wolfe missed what must be the heart of the matter. What he calls Radical Chic is, in fact, only the unhappy residue of the broken promises and defeated politics of the Kennedys, the still flickering desire of an impotent and aristocratic liberalism to restore citizenship to the poor—not, as Wolfe says, to "integrate" the politics of the poor with their own, but to engage the poor as citizens in the political life of the country.
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