I wrote this in 2009. Tom Wolfe is still a twit. Hence the re-blog. Enjoy!
The Wolfe in his lair
Tom Wolfe’s famous new journalism is nothing but an abdication of the traditional journalistic ideal of objectivity. What makes him so beloved of white, middle-class, status-quo lovers is that he presents the ‘freaks’ of society exactly as they wish to see them. Peering out from his WASP bubble he offers no insight; only his own prejudice, funkily punctuated. Far from being revolutionary he is reactionary.
His 1970 essay Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is Wagnerian. He plays every finely tuned instrument of white middle-American fear and loathing with masterful aplomb. It starts with a statement: “the poverty programme encouraged you to go in for mau-mauing.” You don’t know yet what ‘mau-mauing’ is, only that it is encouraged by “the poverty programme” – a vague bureaucratic entity endowed with a definite article. This is a beautiful piece of disinformation. There is not now, nor at any point in American history has there been, anything that could be described, accurately, as the poverty programme. Governmental attempts to succour, redistribute, endow, benefit, aid, or otherwise un-disenfranchise its economic laggards are desultory, peculiar, and limited. Wolfe knows this because he isn’t quite brave enough to give “poverty programme” the initial capitals called for by that “the”.
Over the next few paragraphs a rough sketch of “mau-mauing” begins to emerge. His breathless sentences tap-tap into the brain. The ones doing the mau-mauing are: “hard-to-reach hard-to-hold-hard-core hardrock blackrage badass furious funky ghetto youth.” Not like you and I, whispers beneath the shout. Them. People who mess everything up with their hard-to-hold hard-core hardrock. Hammering chunks out of language itself. I’ll show you how they do it, he beckons.
“There was one man called Chaser. Chaser would get his boys together and he would give them a briefing like the U.S. Air Force wing commander gives his pilots in Thailand before they make the raid over North Vietnam.” This, people, is war. Those furious funky ghetto youth are an invading army, they are braced and coming at you, in your suburban homes and Lay-Z boy recliners and apple-pie-and-ice-cream Sundays. Beware.
Chaser “used to be in vaudeville. At least that was what everybody said.” Old journalism couldn’t get away with substituting “that’s what everybody said” (Who is ‘everybody?’ When and where did they say it?) for fact checking. Did or did not Chaser used to be in vaudeville? Why not ask Chaser? That would ruin the rhythm. What matters is not where Chaser learned his gift of the gab but the image caught up in that word vaudeville. Cheap light entertainment. Minstrel shows. Something tacky, tawdry, archaic. Like Chaser, who “always wore a dashiki, over some ordinary pants and a Ban-lon shirt. He had two of these Ban-lon shirts and he alternated them.” Wolfe pulverises Chaser’s credibility with every phrase. He wears a dashiki over ordinary pants (he’s inauthentic) and he only has two shirts (he’s poor). By the time Wolfe describes him as a “born leader” the words hum mockery. Born leader to dumb ghetto youths too high on their blackrage badass to know you don’t follow men who alternate their shirts and might have been in vaudeville.
The putative ex-vaudevillian wing commander exhorts his troops: “when you go downtown, y’all wear your ghetto rags…see… don’t go down there with your Italian silk jerseys on and your brown suede and green alligator shoes and your Harry Belafonte shirts… And don’t go down there with your hair all done up nice in your curly Afro… you go down with your hair stickin’ out… and sittin’ up… looking like a bunch of wild niggers.”
Wolfe’s phrasing lingers in sweet, heavy warning notes. Ghetto rags are a fiction perpetrated by slick-shod, Italian silk jersey-wearing, chocolate-coloured con artists trying to separate the God-fearing white taxpayer from his money by mau-mauing the poverty programme. Don’t even consider for a minute there might be real poverty down in that ghetto. Turn your back and they’ll all be in their Harry Belafonte shirts sporting nice curly Afros. Be wise to their jiveass. If they look poor it’s because they want to look poor. Don’t be a sucker.
It isn’t just the shifty slick-talking bloods leeching on: “before long everybody in the so-called Third World was into it.” The “so-called” (like “everybody said” before it) permits the double-barrelled phrase: Third World. These people aren’t even from here. You, dear reader, belong to the First World. They come from somewhere else, belong somewhere else. They aren’t your problem, the “Chinese, the Japanese, the Chicanos, the Indians” and especially not the Samoans who “were like the original unknown terrors… everything about them is gigantic…. They’ll have a skull the size of a watermelon, with a couple of little squinty eyes and a little mouth and a couple of nose holes stuck in, and no neck at all. From the ears down, the big yoyos are just one solid welded hulk, the size of an oil burner.” Hang on a second and listen while the nuances whisper out of those words: a skull the size of a watermelon; little squinty eyes – like pigs; not even a nose but nose holes like a fright mask; big yoyos; one solid welded hulk. They might be vegetable, animal, monster, mineral or machine but they definitely ain’t human. Not like you and I.
We know, now, who does the mau-mauing. Enter the flak catcher. This passage calls for subtlety. Tamp down the hard-hitting rhythm section, let the woodwinds carry the next segment through on their modulated breath. The “blacks, Chicanos, Filipinos, and about ten Samoans” confront (in all their oil-burner sized, “Day-Glo yellow and hot-green sweaters and lemon-coloured pants”-wearing glory) a single man who has that “sloppy Irish look like Ed McMahon on TV.” Read between them lines: you’ve never worn hot-green sweaters and lemon-coloured pants, but you sure as hell know what Ed McMahon on TV looks like. That’s someone you can recognise and root for. The levee holding back this colourful flood wears “wheatcolour Hush Puppies [and a] wash’n’dry semi-tab-collar shortsleeves white shirt.”
We know the bloods have “brown suede and green alligator” shoes at home; time to learn that “wheatcolour Hush Puppies… cost about $4.99, and the second time you move your toes, the seams split and the tops come away from the soles.” Don’t feel sorry for them. Don’t be a sucker. Look down again. The Samoans are wearing sandals and the straps “look like they were made from the reins on the Budweiser draft horses.” Dear god. Someone, or something, has to keep a check on these massive animals. Just as white America shifts anxiously on its sofa, half-hearing terrifying trampling feet Wolfe plays a silken note of assurance: “Nobody ever follows it up. You can get everything together once, for the demonstration… to see the people bury some gray cat’s nuts and make him crawl… but nobody ever follows it up.” They, the Third-Worlders. Huge. Threatening. Noisy. Ultimately harmless. Foiled not by the obfuscation of wheatcolour bureaucracy run by gray cats but by their own ineradicable indolence.
There is more to mau-mauing. Plenty more. A virtuoso teardown of sucker whites slices through the: “middle-class white intellectual women… with flat-heeled shoes and big Honest Calves” and their students who “would have on berets and hair down to the shoulders… and jeans, but not Levi’s… jeans of the people, the black Can’t Bust ‘Em brand, hod-carrier jeans that have an emblem on the back of a hairy gorilla” (Wolfe overlooks the subject-object confusion in his rush to hang the words black and hairy gorilla together).
He is wise to it, and he wants you to be wise too. Don’t get hoodwinked by those twinkling alligator shoes. “Boys don’t grow up looking up to the man who had a solid job… because there weren’t enough people who had such jobs.” Don’t think he’s gonna dwell on the whys and wherefores of there not being enough people who had such jobs, though. Your honour, the witness refuses to answer the question in the grounds that it may incriminate him. Slide fast to the details about “$150 Sly Stone-style vest and pants outfit from the haberdasheries on Polk and the $35 Lester Chambers-style four-inch-brim black beaver fedora” and the men wearing them who slid into neighbourhoods peopled by “the bums, the winos, the prostitutes with biscuits & gravy skin, the gay boys, the flaming lulus, the bike riders” and got “a grant of nearly $100,000”. That’s what happens when civilisation gets mau-maued by the Third-World; the ghetto youth get their grasping – “hanging limp at the wrist with the forefinger sticking out like some kind of curved beak” – hands on “a $937,000 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity.”
Any do-gooder, white middle-class intellectual fool who thinks any of this makes a difference ought to think again. Give them jobs? What for? “The jobs themselves were nothing…. You got $1.35 an hour and ended up as a file clerk or stock-room boy in some federal office… all you learned was how to make work, fake work and malinger out by the Xerox machine.” Moreover, Wolfe can explain why “Nevertheless, there was some fierce mau-mauing that went on over summer jobs”. Not because the community needed those jobs or even wanted those jobs but because “the plain fact was that half the jobs were handed out organisation by organisation, according to how heavy your organisation was. If you could get twenty summer jobs… when the next only got five, then you were four times the aces they were… no lie.” Your taxpayer dollars at work: propping up the egos of pimp-swaggering furious funky ghetto youth.
There is one final movement, a violin-swelling, cymbal-clashing, curtain-call guaranteeing flight of earlicking fancy that makes the Ride of the Valkyries sound like a lullaby. There were so many groups mau-mauing, see, “you had to show some style, show some imagination.” Like Bill Jackson, who calls himself Jomo Yarumba and marches on City Hall with a “children’s army… sixty strong, sixty loud, sixty wild they come swinging into the great plush gold-and-marble lobby… with hot dogs, tacos, Whammies, Frostees, Fudgsicles, French fries, Eskimo Pies, Awful-Awfuls, Sugar-Daddies, Sugar-Mommies, Sugar-Babies, chocolate-covered frozen bananas, malted milks, Yoo-Hoos, berry pies, bubble gums, cotton candy, Space Food sticks, Frescas, Baskin-Robbins boysenberry-cheesecake ice-cream cones, Milky Ways, M&Ms, Tootsie Pops, Slurpees, Drumsticks, jelly doughnuts, taffy apples, buttered Karamel Korn, root-beer floats, Hi-C punches, large Cokes, 7-Ups, Three Musketeer bars, frozen Kool-Aids… a hurricane of little bodies… roaring about with their creamy wavy gravy food and drink held up in the air like the torches of freedom, pitching and rolling at the most perilous angles, a billow of root-beer float here… a Yoo-Hoo typhoon there.. a hurricane of malted milk, an orange blizzard of crushed ice from the Slurpees, with acid red horrors like the red from the taffy apples and the jelly from the jelly doughnuts… every gradation of solubility and liquidity known to syrup – filling the air, choking it, getting trapped gurgling and spluttering in every glottis – ”
The words scamper around like that hurricane of little bodies with their perilously angled food and drink. There is a racing pulse to the rhythm, ecstatic as a sugar high. You feel giddy just reading it. Every name snaps on your synapses like bubblegum popping. Without really knowing why you feel your throat filling with the solubility and liquidity of the syrup filling the air choking it getting trapped. You can feel the tide rising. Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood, only this time the savages are going to drown you in creamy wavy gravy Yoo-Hoo typhoon acid red horrors.
Thirty pages ago you didn’t know to be afraid. Didn’t know how the furious funky born leader pimp true artists of the mau-mau are just waiting to rise up out of the ghetto and wash over your hallowed gold-and-marbled halls in “purple sheets of root-beer” but now you do. Because you “didn’t know where to look…. Didn’t even know who to ask” until Tom Wolfe came rolling through your door in his white pimp-sharp suit with his fedora and silk handkerchief and (probably) Italian-style socks. The man is a “rare artist” of the mau-mau.