The 1960s

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Mad Men and American Liberalism in 1968, by Ed Driscoll.

A brilliant recap of just what a very wild year 1968 was.

I plan to have my high school students read this to help understand America’s Suicide Attempt: The 1960s.


We have a new kitten in house. Various names have been suggested. Amelia almost stuck (cat = female aviator?). Then it was shortened to ‘Melia. Recently I have noticed the children referring to the kitten as Meow-Meow, which has inevitably been shortened to Mau-Mau (or is it Mao-Mao?).

All of which got me to musing this morning over coffee with Cyndy about Tom Wolfe and his wonderful essay “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” which was published in 1970. Dating myself, I know, but Wolfe remains arguably the best writer on the curiosities of American culture from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” is an incomprehensible  title these days. What the heck is meant by  “Mau-Mau?” It seems to be a verb form of a noun, but what’s a “Mau Mau?” “Mau-Mau” is a reference to the rebellion of the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya against British colonial rule from 1952-1960. The British referred to it as the “Mau Mau uprising” or the “Mau Mau rebellion.” Nobody is quite sure of the etymology of the term. The rebellion is little known now, but it dominated the news out of Africa during the 1950s. There were atrocities on both sides – and the Mau Mau rebels acquired a reputation for being fierce, militant, and brutal. Mau Mau entered the popular vocabulary as a synonym for violent, militant, black nationalism.

“Flak-catcher” is a neologism coined by Wolfe – he also gave us such phrases as “radical chic,” “the Me decade,” “the right stuff,” and “good ol’ boy.” I’m not kidding you – the phrase “good ol’ boy” was coined by Wolfe in a 1964 essay for Esquire about stock car racer Junior Johnson.

Back to “flak-catcher.” According to Wolfe, the flak-catcher is the No. 2 or the No. 3 guy in any organization (or any assistant to the top guy) who is assigned the onerous task of handling complaints – especially complaints delivered in person by a group of angry people. Here’s a relevant passage describing an underling fielding questions from an angry mob of militants, “And then it dawns on you… This man is the flak catcher. His job is to catch the flak for the No. 1 man.”

Mau-mauing then, as described by Wolfe, is the kabuki theater in which members of an ethnic group stage a confrontation with authorities in order to extract money, grants, jobs, and other concessions. Wolfe spent some time observing how these performances were choreographed in San Francisco as various ethnic groups assembled at social service offices and demanded redress for their grievances.

“Mau-mauing the flak catcher” is the art of assembling a group, demanding a public meeting, presenting your demands, doing one’s best to appear threatening and scary, and then grudgingly accepting the money and other compensation proffered by the flak catcher.

Here’s how Wolfe describes it:

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.

The art of mau-mauing is still going on. . .

And our new kitten (whom I have tenderly nicknamed “psycho-kitty”) is the master of mau-mauing. She glares and threatens mayhem until you give in to her demands.

* flak, by the way, is a German abbreviation from WW2 which has found it’s way into English. When allied pilots encountered heavy anti-aircraft barrages during bombing runs over Germany, they referred to it as heavy “flak.” FLAK itself is the acronym for a Flieger-Abwehr-Kanone, or Flyer-Defense-Cannon – except that Germans don’t use hyphens in compound nouns, so they spell it Fliegerabwehrkanone. Aren’t you glad you asked?

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It’s been a day to reminisce about the Jesus Movement and the 1970s. In 1975, I was sophomore in college and teamed up with Bill Boyd (my future brother-in-law!) to host a Christian Music Show on Sunday mornings at WDAV. About all we had were a half-dozen albums by II Chapter of Acts, Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Barry McGuire, and later Pat Terry & James Ward. Keith Green came along a bit later.

Today, at church, we had a delightful 20 minute set by Randy Stonehill. He still has the wry sense of humor and commanding presence. “King of Hearts” brought tears to my eyes.

This afternoon, I watched “Fallen Angel,” the documentary on the life of Larry Norman. Larry was a revolutionary and a prophet and a musical genius. The movie will have its premier this week in Nashville. Here’s a preview:

More info on the film’s web site, here:

In 1978, and 1979, I was part of the Inter-Varsity graduate group at Stanford. We arranged for a public lecture by Larry Norman (he brought his guitar and played a few songs as well), and then a full-bore concert by Randy Stonehill in the auditorium on campus. Randy brought the full band and played LOUD! But we loved it. Good times.

Here’s a clip of Larry singing one of his best-known songs, The Outlaw:

Here’s Randy singing King of Hearts:

I’m afraid James Ward and Pat Terry haven’t made it to YouTube, though I suppose there might be videos out there which will eventually be uploaded. They both have their own web sites though!

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Yesterday was my day to cover “America’s Suicide Attempt” in my year four western civ class. That’s Paul Johnson’s title for the chapter from Modern Times in which he describes events in the USA during the 1960s. He starts with the election of Kennedy, discusses the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missle Crisis, the Berlin Wall, the Assassination, Johnson election in 1964, the escalation of the Vietnam War and the overblown Great Society and War on Poverty initiatives that nearly wrecked the US economy. He mentions the riots in Detroit and LA and the social uproar in the US from 1968 & 1969. My students were a bit puzzled trying to grasp the mood of the country.

I showed this video from 1970 which my students found both sobering and helpful in catching the mood of the country at the end of the 1960s.

Gil Scott Herron wrote and recorded this provocative and wry piece. It is an example of black beat poetry that foreshadowed the later development of rap.

Take 2 minutes and listen [language warning at 1:40 for a couple of seconds]:


Still resonates, I think.

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