What the Bernsteins probably did not realize at first,” wrote Tom Wolfe toward the end of his historic 1970 essay “Radical Chic,” was that after Charlotte Curtis’s story about the party at which Leonard and Felicia Bernstein‘s society friends had mingled with Black Panthers was distributed worldwide by the New York Times News Service, it provoked “an international chorus of horse laughs or nausea, depending on one’s Weltanschauung. The English, particularly, milked the story for all it was worth and seemed to derive one of the great cackles of the year from it.” The Times itself – then a very different organ from the paper that currently goes by that name – ran an editorial that harshly criticized the “[e]mergence of the Black Panthers as the romanticized darlings of the politico-cultural jet set,” calling this development “an affront to the majority of black Americans” and charging that the Bernsteins’ party “mocked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Indeed. Alas, the Bernsteins’ shameless shindig didn’t marked the end of something but its beginning – namely, the birth of a deeply institutionalized practice, on the part of the American cultural, media, and political establishment, of idealizing, credentializing, and rewarding radical race warriors (and, later, pseudo-radical race hucksters, hustlers, and shakedown artists) instead of affording attention and respect to those who have addressed with wisdom and frankness the hard questions about the terrible pathologies afflicting inner-city America. Wolfe’s term “radical chic,” of course, entered the language – and justifiably so, because it perfectly captured the superficiality and faddishness the characterized the support by various cultural elite types for violent movements explicitly dedicated to their death and destruction.
In any event, the Bernsteins and their friends soon showed just how shallow their dedication to the Black Panthers was. After Charlotte Curtis’s news article and Tom Wolfe’s essay exposed their folly for the world to see, they scattered like rats. Yes, most of them transferred their loyalty to other harebrained far-left causes – or found other ways to broadcast their moral virtue to the world.
Bernstein, for example, composed “MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers,” which was performed at the September 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and described by New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg in his review as “a pseudo-serious effort at rethinking the Mass that basically is, I think, cheap and vulgar.” Schonberg might well have been recalling Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers when he wrote, in his review, that “MASS” was “a very chic affair” that offered “a sentimental response to great problems of our time” by “a musician who desperately wants to be with it.” (At the piece’s climactic moment, a Christian cross is destroyed.)
In later years, Bernstein’s dedication to superficial virtue-signaling persisted: among other things, he lent his strong support to the Kremlin-backed 1980s movement for unilateral nuclear disarmament by the West.
But the Black Panthers? In 1970, after the news of their silly party had traveled around the world, Bernstein and company dropped the Panthers like a hot potato. Not because they had learned anything, not because they had grown wiser, but only because they were more worried about being mocked than about being murdered.