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Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, Tom Wolfe’s fourth book of social commentary, consists of two devastatingly funny essays, closely related in theme and substance, dealing with political stances and social styles in a status-minded world. In “Radical Chic,” Wolfe describes an intriguing phenomenon of the late Sixties: the courting of romantic radicals-Black Panthers, striking grapeworkers, Young Lords-by New York’s socially elite. He focuses primarily on one symbolic event: the gathering of the radically chic at Leonard Bernstein’s duplex apartment on Park Avenue to meet spokesmen of the Black Panther Party, to hear them out, and to talk over ways of aiding their cause. Tom Wolfe re-creates the incongruous scene-and its astonishing repercussions-with high fidelity. But he gives us more than just a wry account of life among the Beautiful People; he also provides a historical perspective on that impulse of the upper classes to identify themselves with what they imagine to be the raw, vital lifestyle of the lower orders.
In the companion essay, Wolfe travels west to San Francisco to survey another meeting ground between militant minorities and the liberal white establishment: the newly emerging art of confrontation developed by young blacks, Chicanos, Filipinos, Chinese, Indians, and Samoans in response to the bureaucracy that grew up in and around the poverty program. Wolfe’s account of the performances of such masters as the Mission Rebels, the Youth for the Future, and the New Thang, and the responses of the catchers of the flak, including the Mayor himself, makes for uproarious farce. But the points he makes about racial and ethnic game-playing in America’s class wars are inescapably valid.
Radical Chic article first published in the Jun 8, 1970 issue of New York
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970
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