I have been fortunate enough to hear Tom Wolfe speak in person about his writing several times over the last 40 years. The first time was in 1970, when he gave the Carolyn Cockefair Benton Lecture at U.M.K.C.
Wolfe talked about the book he was then writing; “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.”
The first essay gave rise to a term that endures in political discourse to this day, “Radical Chic.” This refers to the way it is fashionable to espouse left-wing beliefs among the educated and affluent as a badge of one’s intellect and sophistication.
The second essay was less celebrated, although its description of the way organized pressure groups intimidate bureaucrats into giving into their demands is still as topical as the latest headlines from colleges and universities all over the country.
I thought of Tom Wolfe’s phrase several months ago when I attended an event held at the downtown Kansas City Public Library. It was a fund raising dinner for the Literacy Kansas City Project, a volunteer program to help adults to learn to read and write. The Creative Writing Department at U.M.K.C. provides teachers to Literacy K.C. to encourage an interest in writing fiction by those participating in the program.
At the dinner held in the lobby of the old bank building where the library is now located, we were treated to a recitation by three recent graduates. Two young African-American men and a young African-American woman took turns at the microphone set up on the stage for the occasion. Each began their performance by singing the chorus from “O-o-h Child!”
“Oo-wee child, things gonna get easier, Oo-wee child, things’ll get brighter!”
One of the young men explained that the song was a lullaby sung by African slave mothers to their children in “the bowels of slave ships.” It was further explained (in the form of rhyming doggerel, hip-hop style) that such songs were morally imperative to keep black people, then and now, from sinking into despair. What else could you expect when their daily lives were lived to a backdrop of “gun shots, “ “horse whips,” and “the clank of chains and foot shackles”?
The three performers continued in this vein for 20 minutes. In rhyming (sort of) couplets, they described their own lives as living hells, denied by white racism access to sustenance, to education, to the fruits of their labor, concluding with “Access Denied, period!”
This cheerful litany was rounded out by a couple of swipes at American capitalism (“corporate greed”, “pocket-the-profit”) and militarism (“money spent on bombs, missiles, and drones, and not medicine”). Interspersed throughout was the endlessly repeated mantra, “Change must come!” (Translation, “Give us your power and your money!”)
Naturally, all the rich white liberals in the audience thought this was great. After all what could be better than paying hundreds of dollars to have people you’re trying to help insult and excoriate you?
It was just like the scene in Wolfe’s Radical Chic, where Leonard Bernstein and his wife are shown fawning over members of the Black Panther Party in a 1970 fund raiser at their Park Avenue apartment. Wallowing in guilt before an audience of like-minded rich white liberals, Bernstein reveals himself to be a near-masochist in his determination to grovel and apologize to the radical blacks who are his guests (and who ultimately have the decency to be embarrassed for him!).
Nothing has changed in the progressive mindset between Lenny’s Radical Chic evening and our own liberal guilt fest last November.
Nothing’s changed since 1964 when philosopher James Burnham wrote the following:
“Along one perspective, liberalism’s reformist, egalitarian, antidiscrimination, peace seeking principles are, or at any rate can be interpreted as, the verbally elaborated projections of the liberal sense of guilt. I, who have enough to eat and a sufficiently comfortable life, feel guilty – even though I have no direct personal relationship with you – because you are hungry or deprived of civil rights or suffering political oppression. More exactly, the sequence is the following: I feel guilty, and I do not know why, you are hungry, etc: I attach my guilt to your unhappy state, trying to explain my guilt to myself, to give it some sort of objective, motivating structure. All this may be too obvious to need saying. And it is obvious, but it is necessary to insist it is not self-evident and not an inevitable outcome for the guilt experience. “ Suicide of The West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism
One final note – the song “Oh-o-o child” was a rhythm and blues number recorded by a group called The Five Stairsteps in 1970.
The song writer was a Polish-American from Chicago, Stanley Chrochowski. Any sentient person in the audience should have known the song was from the modern era. (Why would an African mother on a slave ship be singing a lullaby to her baby in English?)
This was a deliberate falsehood, with a bogus evocation of slavery not heard since the adenoidal whining of Neil Young’s “Southern Man”. It was playing the guilt card by passing off a mediocre pop song as a slave’s lament, when it wasn’t even written by a black person, let alone a slave. The performers insulted our intelligence on top of everything else.
Literacy Kansas City has seen the last of me and my checkbook.
I’ve seen enough of gullible liberals’ imperviousness to the threats and insults of those on whom they are anxious to shower applause, praise, and money.