What motivates a person to enter politics? In the midst of an interesting breakdown of his landmark 1970 article “Radical Chic,” as part of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard’s “Annotation Tuesday” series, Tom Wolfe explains one big reason. But first, early in the liner notes, Wolfe first mentions his theory of “Information Compulsion:”
[T]his is my one contribution to psychology: There’s something called “information compulsion,” which makes you feel good when you supply information to someone. You got a few little status points because that person needed what you knew, and you gave it to him. On the other hand, if you’re asked something that you can’t answer, you think, What are you coming to me for?
And with that as background, much later in the interview, interviewer Elon Green asks Wolfe, “Do you think that’s why powerful people, despite it not being in their best interest, will talk to journalists?”
Yeah, I think so. I remember talking once to Abe Ribicoff. When I was a graduate student, they have these weeks where distinguished people come and make themselves available to all kinds of student organizations. We had a little thing called the American Studies Club. During the course of the week, Abe Ribicoff agreed to come. I asked him, very naively, “What is it that motivates politicians? Is it the money, the power? What is it? The publicity?” And he said, “Well, it’s certainly not the publicity. You get so used to it that you just expect it.” And then he said, “Unless you’re an idiot, it’s not the money.” And he says, “You find out that even at the federal level, you don’t really have that much power. There are very few people who you can point to, and say, ‘You do this and you do that.’” But, he said, “The real kick is seeing them jump.” I said, “Seeing them jump?” “Yeah,” he said. “You come into a room and everybody jumps up! Everyone offers you whatever seat you want. If you even hint that you might be hungry, 10 people want to go out and get you something from the restaurant.” He said, “Seeing ’em jump. That’s what it’s all about.” Of course, this was a student organization, and there was no one there with even an interest in publishing it. But he was really letting you in on something there, and you could really get a kick out of your own sophistication, if you say something like that.
Which sums up quite a bit about today’s politicians, and perhaps even our bloated and ever-expanding class of permanent bureaucracy, and their sheer paranoid bug-eyed terror in response to anyone who wished to take that frisson of joy of “seeing ’em jump” away from them.
Read the whole thing, which in addition to the above conversational detour is quite fascinating, considering the impact of that period on today’s politics is still being felt. Far from divesting themselves of radical chic, Democrats have wallowed in it, to the point where the New York Times runs fawning profiles of former Weatherman Bill Ayers and his kin, former matinee idol Robert Redford recently directed a film in defense of the radical chic, Ayers helped birth Obama’s political career, and the Black Panthers’ namesake successors advertised on Obama’s Website in 2008, and were tacitly defended by his attorney general. And share some fascinating interconnections:
[jwplayer player=”1″ mediaid=”73501″]
(Part two of that video is here.)
Though there’s one moment and the end of the new interview with Wolfe that I disagree with. As Wolfe has told numerous interviewers over the years, he arrived at the party for the Black Panters given by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein because he saw an invitation sitting on the desk of fellow journalist David Halberstam while visiting the offices of Harper’s Magazine. At the conclusion of the new interview with Wolfe, his interviewer says to him, “Seems to me that David Halberstam and a Leonard Bernstein Black Panther party is an odd mismatch of temperaments.”
But possibly not of sympathies: Halberstam was, to mix metaphors, at Ground Zero of a sea change in liberal ideology in the mid-1960s, one of the first liberal journalists to turn against the Vietnam War, a thoroughly liberal enterprise, as David Gelernter wrote in 2012’s America-Lite, making Halberstam one of the first what James Piereson would later dub the “Punitive Liberals.” So the idea of throwing a few bucks into the coffers of the Black Panthers, and/or giving them some positive publicity might well have appealed to him. As Wolfe told his interviewer, Leonard and Felicia “assumed if you were there, you were there for the Panthers.”
For the 99.9 percent of Americans who find radical chic rather disdainful, we were lucky that one person at the party wasn’t, realized the lunacy of what he was witnessing and brought his notepad and awesome literary skills to document the event. As Wolfe once told the American Spectator:
I just thought it was a scream, because it was so illogical by all ordinary thinking. To think that somebody living in an absolutely stunning duplex on Park Avenue could be having in all these guys who were saying, ‘We will take everything away from you if we get the chance,’ which is what their program spelled out, was the funniest thing I had ever witnessed.
If only more journalists today had the eyes to both see the pure absurdity that surrounds life in the 21st century, and to report on it, rather than enable it.