Barack Obama has taken umbrage at Sarah Palin’s lack of respect for the sacred profession of community organizer. To help explain what that widely-lauded but little understood job entails, here are excerpts from the classic 1970 work of sociology:
Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers
by Tom Wolfe
Going downtown to mau-mau the bureaucrats got to be the routine practice in San Francisco. The poverty program encouraged you to go in for mau-mauing. They wouldn’t have known what to do without it. The bureaucrats at City Hall and in the Office of Economic Opportunity talked “ghetto” all the time, but they didn’t know any more about what was going on in the Western Addition, Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, the Mission, Chinatown, or south of Market Street than they did about Zanzibar. They didn’t know where to look. They didn’t even know who to ask. So what could they do? Well … they used the Ethnic Catering Service … right … They sat back and waited for you to come rolling in with your certified angry militants, your guaranteed frustrated ghetto youth, looking like a bunch of wild men. Then you had your test confrontation. If you were outrageous enough, if you could shake up the bureaucrats so bad that their eyes froze into iceballs and their mouths twisted up into smiles of sheer physical panic, into shit-eating grins, so to speak–then they knew you were the real goods. They knew you were the right studs to give the poverty grants and community organizing jobs to. Otherwise they wouldn’t know. …
It got to be an American custom, like talk shows, Face the Nation, marriage counseling, marathon encounters, or zoning hearings. …
The poverty office was on the first floor and had a big anteroom; only it’s almost bare, nothing in it but a lot of wooden chairs. It looks like a union hall minus the spittoons, or one of those lobbies where they swear in new citizens. It’s like they want to impress the poor that they don’t have leather-top desks … All our money goes to you …
So the young aces from the Mission come trooping in, and they want to see the head man. The word comes out that the No. 1 man is out of town, bu the No. 2 man is coming out to talk to the people.
This man comes out , and he has that sloppy Irish look like Ed McMahon on TV, only with a longer nose. …
“Have a seat, gentlemen,” he says, and he motions toward the wooden chairs.
But he doesn’t have to open his mouth. All you have to do is look at him and you get the picture. The man’s a lifer. He’s stone civil service. He has it all down from the wheatcolor Hush Puppies to the wash’n’dry semi-tab-collar shortsleeves white shirt. Those wheatcolor Hush Puppies must be like some kind of fraternal garb among the civil-service employees, because they all wear them. They cost about $4.99, and the second time you move your toes, the seams split and the tops come away from the soles. But they all wear them. The man’s shirt looks like he bought it at the August end-of-summer sale at the White Front. …
He pulls up one of the wooden chairs and sits down on it. Only he sits down on it backwards, straddling the seat and hooking his arms and his chin over the back of the chair, like the head foreman in the bunkhouse. It’s like saying, “We don’t stand on ceremony around here. This is a shirtsleeve operation.”
“I’m sorry that Mr. Johnson isn’t here today,” he says, “but he’s not in the city. He’s back in Washington meeting some important project deadlines. He’s very concerned, and he would want to meet with you people if he were here, but right now I know you’ll understand that the most important thing he can do for you is to push these projects through in Washington.”
The man keeps his arms and his head hung over the back of his chair, but he swings his hands up in the air from time to time to emphasize a point, first one hand and then the other. It looks like he’s giving wig-wag signals to the typing pool. The way he hangs himself over the back of the chair–that keeps up the funky shirtsleeve-operation number. And throwing his hands around–that’s dy namic … It says, “We’re hacking our way through the red tape just as fast as we can.”
“Now I’m here to try to answer any questions I can,” he says, “but you have to understand that I’m only speaking as an individual, and so naturally none of my comments are binding, but I’ll answer any questions I can, and if I can’t answer them, I’ll do what I can to get the answers for you.”
And then it dawns on you, and you wonder why it took so long for you to realize it. This man is the flak catcher. His job is to catch the flak for the No. 1 man. He’s like the professional mourners you can hire in Chinatown. They have certified wailers, professional mourners, in Chinatown, and when your loved one dies, you can hire the professional mourners to wail at the funeral and show what a great loss to the community the departed is. In the same way this lifer is ready to catch whatever flak you’re sending up. It doesn’t matter what bureau they put him in. It’s all the same. Poverty, Japanese imports, valley fever, tomato-crop parity, partial disability, home loans, second-probate accounting, the Interstate 90 detour change order, lockouts, secondary boycotts, G.I. alimony, the Pakistani quota, cinch mites, the Tularemic Loa loa, veterans’ dental benefits, workmen’s compensation, suspended excise rebates–whatever you’re angry about, it doesn’t matter, he’s there to catch the flak. He’s a lifer. …
One of the Chicanos starts it off by asking the straight question, which is about how many summer jobs the Mission groups are going to get. This is the opening phase, the straight-face phase, in the art of mau-mauing.
“Well,” says the Flak Catcher–and he gives it a twist of the head and a fling of the hand and the ingratiating smile–”It’s hard for me to answer that the way I’d like to answer it, and the way I know you’d like for me to answer it, because that’s precisely what we’re working on back in Washington. But I can tell you this. At this point I see no reason why our project allocation should be any less, if all we’re looking at is the urban-factor numbers for this area, because that should remain the same. Of course, if there’s been any substantial pre-funding, in Washington, for the fixed-asset part of our program, like Head Start or the community health centers, that could alter the picture. But we’re very hopeful, and as soon as we have the figures, I can tell you that you people will be the first to know.” …
So one of the bloods says, “Man, why do you sit there shining us with this bureaucratic rhetoric, when you said yourself that ain’t nothing you say that means a goddam thing?”
Ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram–a bunch of the aces start banging on the floor in unison. It sounds like they have sledge hammers.
“Ha-unnnnh,” says the Flak Catcher. It is one of those laughs that starts out as a laugh but ends up like he got hit in the stomach halfway through. It’s the first assault on his dignity. So he breaks into his shit-eating grin, which is always phase two. Why do so many bureaucrats, deans, preachers, college presidents, try to smile when the mau-mauing starts? It’s fatal, this smiling. When some bad dude is challenging your manhood, your smile just proves that he is right and you are chickenshit–unless you are a bad man yourself with so much heart that you can make that smile say, “Just keep on talking, sucker, because I’m gonna count to ten and then squash you.”
“Well,” says the Flak Catcher, I can’t promise you jobs if the jobs aren’t available yet”–and then he looks up as if for the first time he is really focusing on the thirty-five ghetto hot dogs he is now facing, by way of sizing up the threat, now that the shit has started. The blacks and the Chicanos he has no doubt seen before, or people just like them, but then he takes in the Filipinos. There are about eight of them, and they are all wearing the Day-Glo yellow and hot-green sweaters and lemon-colored pants and Italian-style socks. But it’s the headgear that does the trick. They’ve all got on Rap Brown shades and Russian Cossack hats made of frosted-gray Dynel. They look bad.
Then the man takes in the Samoans, and they look worse. There’s about ten of them, but they fill up half the room. They’ve got on Island shirts with designs in streaks and blooms of red, only it’s a really raw shade of red, like that red they paint the floor with in the tool and dye works. They’re glaring at him out of those big dark wide brown faces. The monsters have tight curly hair, but it grows in long strands, and they comb it back flat, in long curly strands, with a Duke pomade job. They’ve got huge feet, and they’re wearing sandals. The straps on the sandals look like there were made from the reins on the Budweiser draft horses. But what really gets the Flak Catcher, besides the sheer size of the brutes, is their Tiki canes. These are like Polynesian scepters. They’re the size of sawed-off pool cues, only they’re carved all over in Polynesian Tiki Village designs. When they wrap their fists around these sticks, every knuckle on their hands pops out the size of a walnut. Anything they hear that they like, like the part about the “bureaucratic rhetoric,” they bang on the floor in unison with the ends of the Tiki sticks–ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram–although some of them press one end of the stick onto the sole of their sandal between their first two toes and raise their foot up and down wih the stick to cushion the blow on the floor. They don’t want to scuff up the Tiki cane. …
Of course, the next day nobody shows up at the poverty office to make sure the sucker makes the telephone call. Some how it always seems to happen that way. Nobody ever follows it up. You can get everything together once, for the demonstration, for the confrontation, to go downtown and mau-mau, for the fun, for the big show, for the beano, for the main event, to see the people bury some gray cat’s nuts and make him crawl and whine and sink in his own terrible grin. But nobody ever follows it up. You just sleep it off until somebody tells you there’s going to be another big show.
And then later on you think about it and you say, “What really happened that day? Well, another flak catcher lost his manhood, that’s what happened.” Hmmmmmm … like maybe the bureaucracy isn’t so dumb after all … All they did was sacrifice one flak catcher and they’ve got hundreds, thousands … They’ve got replaceable parts. They threw this sacrifice to you, and you went away pleased with yourself. And even the Flak Catcher himself wasn’t losing much. He wasn’t losing his manhood. He gave that up a long time ago, the day he became a lifer … Just who is fucking over who … You did your number and he did his number, and they didn’t even have to stop the music … The band played on … Still–did you see the look on his face? That sucker–
When black people first started using the confrontation tactic, they made a secret discovery. There was an extra dividend to this tactic. There was a creamy dessert. It wasn’t just that you registered your protest and showed the white man that you meant business and weakened his resolve to keep up the walls of oppression. It wasn’t just that you got poverty money and influence. There was something sweet that happened right there on the spot. You made the white man quake. You brought fear into his face.
Black people began to realize for the first time that the white man, particularly the educated white man, the leadership, had a deep dark Tarzan mumbo jungle voodoo fear of the black man’s masculinity. This was a revelation. For two hundred years, wherever black people lived, north or south, mothers had been raising their sons to be meek, to be mild, to check their manhood at the front door in all things that had to do with white people, for fear of incurring the wrath of the Man. The Man was the white man. He was the only man. And now, when you got him up close and growled, this all-powerful superior animal turned out to be terrified. You could read it in his face. He had the same fear in his face as some good-doing boy who has just moved onto the block and is hiding behind his mama and the moving man and the sofa while the bad dudes on the block size him up.
So for the black man mau-mauing was a beautiful trip. It not only stood to bring you certain practical gains like money and power. It also energized your batteries. It recharged your masculinity. You no longer had to play it cool and go in for pseudo-ignorant malingering and put your head into that Ofay Pig Latin catacomb code style of protest. Mau-mauing brought you respect in its cash forms: namely, fear and envy. …
Brothers from down the hall like Dudley got down to the heart of the poverty program very rapidly. It took them no time at all to see that the poverty program’s big projects, like manpower training, in which you would get some job counseling and some training so you would be able to apply for a job in the bank or on the assembly line–everybody with a brain in his head knew that this was the usual bureaucratic shuck. Eventually the government’s own statistics bore out the truth of this conclusion. The ghetto youth who completed the manpower training didn’t get any more jobs or earn any more money than the people who never took any such training at all. Everybody but the most hopeless lames knew that the only job you wanted out of the poverty program was a job in the program itself. Get on the payroll, that was the idea. Never mind getting some job counseling. You be the job counselor. You be the “neighborhood organizer.” As a job counselor or a neighborhood organizer you stood to make six or seven hundred dollars a month, and you were still your own man. Like if you were a “neighborhood organizer,” all you had to do was go out and get the names and addresses of people in the ghetto who wanted to relate to the services of the poverty center. That was a very flexible arrangement. You were still on the street, and you got paid for it. You could still run with the same buddies you always ran with. There was nobody looking over your shoulder. … It was true that middle-class people who happened to live in the target areas got the top jobs, but there was still room for street types.
That was one reason why Summer Jobs was such a big deal. That was what the whole session between the Samoans and the Flak Catcher was over, summer jobs. The jobs themselves were nothing. They were supposed to be for teenagers from poor families. It was an O.E.O. program, and you got $1.35 an hour and ended up as a file clerk or stock-room boy in some federal office or some foundation–hell, they didn’t even need one half the people they already had working for them, and so all you learned was how to make work, fake work, and malinger out by the Xerox machine. It is true that you learned those skills from experts in the field, but it was a depressing field to be in.
Nevertheless, there was some fierce ma-mauing that went on over summer jobs, especially in 1969, when the O.E.O. started cutting back funds and the squeeze was on. Half of it was sheer status. There were supposed to be strict impartial guidelines determining who got the summer jobs–but the plain fact was that half the jobs were handed out organization by organization, according to how heavy your organization was. If you could get twenty summer jobs for your organization got five, then you were four times the aces they were .. no lie … But there were so many groups out mau-mauing, it was hard to make yourself heard over the uproar.