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Journal du Voyeur

Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers

by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 153 pp., $5.95

On April 2, 1969, twenty-one Black Panthers were indicted in New York for having plotted to bomb the Botanical Gardens, a police station, and several retail stores, including Alexander’s and Abercrombie and Fitch. According to District Attorney Hogan, these bombings were to have occurred at the height of the Easter shopping season; in fact, he said, the bombs were to have gone off on the very day that the indictments were announced. Several Panthers went underground before the police could arrest them. One was held as a juvenile offender and thirteen others, of whom two were women, were imprisoned for want of bail that ranged from $25,000 in one case to $50,000 in two others, and $100,000 for each of the remaining ten.

The gravity of their conspiracy was such, according to the district attorney, that the city would not be safe if these thirteen remained at large pending their trial. Since Hogan is thought to be a cautious man, unlikely to make such claims on insufficient evidence, the courts ignored the arguments of defense counsel that such high bail was excessive in the case of defendants who had no record of serious crime, and the Panthers went to jail.

Shortly thereafter Murray Kempton undertook to write a book about the case, came to know the Panthers’ wives, friends, and attorneys, and soon became absorbed by his subjects. He also came to sympathize with them, as one might sympathize with anyone caught in the toils of criminal justice in New York.

From the start Kempton doubted that these Panthers were the menace that the district attorney had charged. For one thing, the Easter bomb plot seemed rather fanciful, more likely the product of inflamed imagination than the scheme of serious revolutionary terrorists. Was it possible that literalminded police spies had infiltrated the Panthers, mistaken their rhetoric for action, and convinced a credulous district attorney of a plot when there had been nothing more than fantasy and loose talk?

Furthermore, the Panthers, whatever their intentions may really have been, had not gone so far as a group of white terrorists who had actually exploded several bombs throughout the city and were arrested in the act of planting still another. But these white defendants had been granted lower bail than the Panthers, and one had already posted her bond and was free. It may therefore have seemed to Kempton, as it did to other liberals at the time, that perhaps the Panthers had been victimized for their revolutionary political views and because they were black.

In pleading for high bail, the assistant district attorney in charge of the case seemed to confirm the first of these suspicions when he said that “these defendants are not ordinary run of the mill criminals. They are terrorists.” The courts accepted this opinion and the Panthers were sent separately to various jails throughout the city. As Kempton later wrote, “For the first five months of their detention, their lawyers were permitted to confer with them as a group for a total of less than three hours.” But the indignity that most aroused the sympathies of liberals was the treatment of Lee Berry, an epileptic who had been taken from his hospital bed by the police and placed in an isolation cell. There he languished for four months until finally he was returned to the hospital, too ill, according to his doctors, even to appear in court, much less remain in jail.

Sometime in December, 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. The present book is the result of his visit.

According to Wolfe the people who attended Mrs. Bernstein’s party for the Panthers were moved not by an innocent love of justice but by a snobbish infatuation with the unruly poor. It was, he says, “nostalgie de la boue“—what used to be called slumming—and not a quixotic interest in fair play that brought these rich, fashionable, and clever people together to hear Donald Cox, a Panther field marshal, describe the Panther program and the plight of the thirteen defendants.

Not only does Wolfe deny that the Bernsteins’ guests were genuinely concerned that such high bail might have been an injustice; what they actually wanted, in his opinion, was to distinguish themselves from what he calls the “hated middle class” by “taking on certain styles of the lower orders.” This, Wolfe says, is one of the two ways in which the new rich “certify” their arrival in society. The other is “by taking on the trappings of aristocracy.” In other words, they hire fashionable decorators and plenty of servants; then they go to Harlem where they learn the frug and eat corn pone, a recipe for which Wolfe supplies in the present book. When they go further and “integrate the fashionable new politics” of the wayward poor, they are guilty of Radical Chic.

This notion, though not the term itself, derives, according to Wolfe, from the sociological theories of 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.

Two years ago the president of the New York City teachers’ union anticipated Wolfe’s hypothesis and its reflection in the political tactics of Mr. Agnew. He complained that the city’s bitter school strikes had nothing to do with failures within the school system itself, but resulted from a conspiracy between aristocrats at the Ford Foundation and Mayor Lindsay in league with ghetto revolutionaries. What they wanted, according to the teachers’ union, was to destroy the middle-class professionals who had devoted their lives to running the underfinanced schools overrun with “culturally deprived” children.

Two months ago an Ohio grand jury concluded that the trouble at Kent State was the fault of an elitist and permissive administration that had indulged an unruly minority of alienated campus radicals. Recently the editor of Commentary has complained that the present turmoil in America has nothing to do with the “urban crisis,” for in fact there is no such crisis except in the minds of treacherous intellectuals whose irresponsible criticisms of American society inspire naïve readers to despair of democratic values. (In the Soviet Union, to be sure, things are far worse. Andrei Amalrik will spend three years in a prison camp for having written critically of his country.) No wonder Wolfe’s essay reverberated so when it appeared in New York magazine last spring.

But Wolfe is different from these others: more voyeur than partisan and considerably less sure of who he himself is. For example, he is a considerable snob in his own right. When he accuses the rich of hating the middle class, he supplies as evidence only his own feelings toward these people, not those of the Bernsteins’ guests, of which he can have had no such intimate knowledge. He knows what

…it is like to be trapped in New York Saturday after Saturday in July or August, doomed to be a part of those fantastically dowdy herds roaming past Bonwit’s and Tiffany’s at dead noon in the sandstone broil, 92 degrees, daddies from Long Island in balloon seat Bermuda shorts….

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