Slumming with Lenny

A young Cuban man rides a bicycle in front of the huge apartment blocks in Alamar, a public housing periphery of Havana, Cuba, 9 February 2011. The Cuban economic transformation (after the revolution in 1959) has changed the housing status in Cuba from a consumer commodity into a social right. In 1970s, to overcome the serious housing shortage, the Cuban state took over the Soviet Union concept of social housing. Using prefabricated panel factories, donated to Cuba by Soviets, huge public housing complexes have risen in the outskirts of Cuban towns. Although these mass housing settlements provided habitation to many families, they often lack infrastructure, culture, shops, services and well-maintained public spaces. Many local residents have no feeling of belonging and inspite of living on a tropical island, they claim to be “living in Siberia”.
The imperiled beauty of Havana

Today we might call it slumming. For many of those who’ve lived charmed, safe lives in free countries, there’s something remarkably attractive about the combination of poverty, tyranny, and violence – all those things they’ve never actually experienced themselves. On this site, we’ve written several times about the plaints of various Westerners who fret that capitalism, if and when it’s truly and fully implemented in Cuba, will destroy the “magic” and “charm” of that ruined, broken-down country. They wouldn’t want to live there themselves, of course, but they find it thrilling to know that all that glamorous destitution and oppression is only a few hours’ plane ride away.

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Leonard Bernstein

Naturally, what makes it thrilling for them rather than terrifying is the knowledge that, after paying a visit to the place, they can fly back to New York or L.A. or London and resume their lives in a free, prosperous society. In the same way, Leonard Bernstein could stand in his own luxurious Park Avenue apartment, surrounded by his rich friends, and listen with equanimity while leaders of the Black Panthers explained their plans for destroying American democracy and replacing it with a dictatorship by them.

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Tom Wolfe

For Bernstein and many of his chums, a kind of doublethink (to borrow Orwell’s useful term) seems to have been operating in this particular instance. Even as they pledged money to help bring on the Panthers’ revolution, they couldn’t really imagine any such revolution happening. Or else their wealth and privilege had bred in them such utter confidence in their own unshakable security that they believed that they, personally, would somehow be magically exempt from the Reign of Terror that would surely follow any successful revolt by these bloodthirsty Maoist rebels.

blackpanthers1Tom Wolfe, in his classic 1970 essay “Radical Chic” (which we’re talking about this week), quoted a guest at one of the Black Panther soirées as saying about one of the thugs: “He’s a magnificent man, but suppose some simple-minded schmucks take all that business about burning down buildings seriously?” To these moneyed Manhattanites, the “schmucks” were those who actually took the Panthers at their word; they themselves, in their own view, were infinitely more sophisticated, choosing to interpret the Panthers’ rhetoric as – what? – a kind of poetry? A fanciful vision of murderous revolution that would, in reality, be manifested as an eminently sensible program of rational reform?

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Otto Preminger

To be sure, not all of Bernstein’s gilded guests were entirely complacent or deluded. Movie director Otto Preminger challenged one Panther’s claim that America’s government was the most repressive in the world. Barbara Walters expressed concern about her fate in a post-Panther Revolution America: “I’m talking as a white woman who has a white husband, who is a capitalist, or an agent of capitalists, and I am, too, and I want to know if you are to have your freedom, does that mean we have to go!” But both of them stopped short of standing up and leaving in disgust. Preminger, indeed, after berating one of the Panther leaders, made a point of shaking the would-be mass murderer’s hand to show there were no hard feelings.

We’ll finish up with this tomorrow.

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