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.

Bernstein’s noble savages

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Jean-Jacques Rosseau

The belief that primitive peoples are naturally endowed with goodness and purity, and that civilization poisons these attributes, is as old as civilization itself. The idea is embodied in the term “noble savage,” which first appeared in a 1672 play by John Dryden. The Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), whose views helped shape modern Western thought, routinely sang the praises of primeval man, untainted by what he saw as the decadence of civilization. During the Romantic Era of the late 1700s and early 1800s, authors, poets, and painters all over Europe depicted in an idealized way the lives of unlettered, uneducated men whom they saw not only as living in nature but as parts of nature themselves, as pure as the country air they breathed or the unpolluted streams from which they drank.

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Kirkpatrick Sale

Back then, many a European aristocrat embraced romantic images of the native peoples of the Americas, Asia, and Africa; more recently, authors like Kirkpatrick Sale, in books like Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (1990), have proffered the puerile fantasy that before European voyagers found their way to what they arrogantly called the New World, the natives led lives of peace and harmony, enjoying a rare bliss that the newcomers replaced with cruelty and destruction.

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Tom Wolfe

Plainly, this is a mentality that was much in evidence at the Leonard Bernstein party immortalized by Tom Wolfe in his essay “Radical Chic.” For Bernstein and many of the moneyed celebrity friends whom he invited to his home on the evening of January 14, 1970, the Black Panthers who were the party’s special guests were just that – noble savages. It was an offensive attitude, a racist attitude, a patronizing attitude – an attitude, in fact, that enabled them to belittle the very real danger that the Panthers obviously represented. In his essay, Wolfe quotes a “Park Avenue matron” who, at one of the pre-Bernstein “Radical Chic” parties, exclaimed about the Panthers: “These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—these are real men!”

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Felicia Montealegre, Richard Bernstein, and Black Panther Field Marshal Donald Cox

In other words, they weren’t drab, dull, law-abiding middle-class blacks – they were real-life noble savages, embracing their nobility and their savagery! Such views on the part of Bernstein’s movers and shakers, needless to say, represent prejudice at its ugliest – prejudice dressed up as sensitivity and tolerance.

Among the Black Panthers who attended the Bernsteins’ fête that night were Robert Bay, who only a couple of days earlier had been arrested in Queens on a gun charge; Don Cox, the group’s Oakland-based “Field Marshall,” Henry Miller, its “defense captain,” and Ray “Masai” Hewitt, its Minister of Education and a member of its Central Committee.

Also present was lawyer Leon Quat, who at the moment was busy defending no fewer than twenty-one Black Panthers who, as Wolfe noted, “had been arrested on a charge of conspiring to blow up five New York department stores, New Haven Railroad facilities, a police station and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.”

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Frank Stanton

Mingling with these criminals in the Bernsteins’ thirteen-room Park Avenue duplex were such nabobs as high-society bandleader Peter Duchin, CBS president Frank Stanton, popular songwriters Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) and Burton Lane (Finian’s Rainbow), New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, and the wives of such eminences as chic photographer Richard Avedon, film director Arthur Penn, and singer Harry Belafonte. Wolfe quoted Cheray Duchin, spouse of the bandleader, as telling society columnist Charlotte Curtis, who would break the story of the party in the next day’s New York Times: “I’ve never met a Panther—this is a first for me!”

More tomorrow.

Bernstein’s Maoists

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Fashion + Fidel = Fun!

Last year, we wrote here about a garden party held by fashion designer Stella McCartney (Paul McCartney’s daughter) at her Manhattan home. The theme was “Cuba Libre.” High-profile guests, such as Maggie Gyllenhaal, Alicia Keys, and Liv Tyler, enjoyed Cuban treats and snapped selfies with two actors who’d been hired for the occasion to dress up as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

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Anna Quintana

The Hollywood Reporter, Women’s Wear Daily, Vogue, and other major media found the whole thing just adorable; so did one after another of the leading fashion websites. One discordant note was sounded by Anna Quintana, a young Cuban-American style writer, who lodged this complaint: “I find it hard to process how a designer I have long admired…could feature a garden party with walking caricatures of Castro and Che Guevara, two figures that many, if not all, in the Cuban-American community would consider to be the epitome of cruelty.”

Why, indeed, would Stella McCarthy, who has spent her entire life enjoying all the privileges afforded to the daughter of the world’s richest musician, celebrate monsters like Fidel and Che, who, if her father had been Cuban, would likely have thrown him in prison or put him in front of a firing squad?

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Tom Wolfe

In his classic 1970 article “Radical Chic,” which we began looking at yesterday, Tom Wolfe identified the attraction of the cultural elite of forty-five years ago to totalitarian thugs like the Black Panthers – who sought to overthrow the U.S. government and replace it with a system just as brutal as Castro’s – as an example of nostalgie de la boue. Meaning what? Literally: “nostalgia for the mud.” The term refers to the attraction of many foolish people at the top of the ladder to those at the bottom of the ladder – and not just any of those at the bottom (certainly not the hard-working, law-abiding drudges), but those whom the people at the top view as the most exotic, colorful, violent, primitive, dangerous.

On May 2, 1967, Black Panthers amassed at the Capitol in Sacramento brandishing guns to protest a bill before an Assembly committee restricting the carrying of arms in public. Self-defense was a key part of the Panthers' agenda. This was an early action, a year after their founding.
The Black Panthers held their own soiree on May 2, 1967, at the State Capitol in Sacramento

At this site, we’ve touched before on the Black Panthers – and on the perverse eagerness of many decent, civilized people to makes heroes out of them. 

Last December, discussing a documentary about the Panthers by Stanley Nelson, we noted that the movie was nothing less than a group hagiography, presenting the Panthers as (in our words) “an endearing crew of human-rights activists who were devoted to charity work and whose repeated clashes with police reflected not any predilection to violence on their own part but the cops’ ferocity and racism.” The film’s cockeyed portrayal of the Panthers won cheers from film-festival audiences and from reviewers for places like the Hollywood Reporter.

Black-Panther-Party-armed-guards-in-street-shotgunsIt was Michael Moynihan of The Daily Beast who provided a reality check, pointing out that the Black Panthers, guided by “the revolutionary works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Chairman Mao, Comrades Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Che, Malcolm X, and other great leaders of the worldwide people’s struggle for liberation,” were responsible for innumerable “revenge killings, punishment beatings, purges, [and] ‘disappearances.’” In their official newspaper, they ranted about “racist imperialist faggot honkey[s],” ran paeans to Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-Sung, and Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.

And yet the crème de la crème of New York’s beau monde invited these people into their houses and dug into their pockets to contribute to their “cause.” How to make sense of it? Tune in tomorrow.

East Side Story

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Leonard Bernstein, 1955

Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) was a genius – a profound, remarkably versatile genius. He was arguably the first world-class American symphony conductor, waving his baton at the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 and serving as guest conductor of other major orchestras around the world. He was a gifted composer of classical music – producing innumerable symphonies, operas, chamber works, choral works, and even a Mass.

He composed the background music for On the Waterfront, which won the Academy Award for Best Film of 1954. He supplied the tunes for such classic Broadway shows as On the Town, Wonderful Town, and West Side Story, including such standards as “Some Other Time,” “Tonight,” and “I Feel Pretty.” He penned several absorbing, illuminating books about music for the general reader. And he hosted a series of network television programs that did a truly brilliant job of introducing young people to serious music.

But he could also be a fool. In the years after World War II, his close ties to several Soviet front groups led the FBI to pay close attention to his activities. Ultimately, the FBI concluded that he was just a naïf, not a Communist. Yet what a naïf! Tom Wolfe proved, once and for all, in a deathless 25,000-word article entitled “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” just what a naïf Bernstein was. Indeed, he was not just any naïf – he was the naïf whose naïveté, thanks to that brilliant June 1970 cover story for New York Magazine, became the very archetype of late Sixties and early Seventies liberal-establishment naïveté in the face of the trendy revolutionary politics of the day.

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Tom Wolfe

Wolfe’s article, as the title itself indicates, was all about a party. Specifically, a party at Bernstein’s “13-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue,” where he lived with his wife, Felicia Montealegre. It wasn’t just any party. Held the previous January, it was, in fact, one of a series of parties thrown by various members of the Manhattan haute monde so that their hoity-toity friends could meet, mingle with, and contribute money to various radical-left groups.

This was a time, it should be remembered, when many prominent, privileged members of the American Establishment were getting their jollies, perversely, by identifying with fanatics who were hell bent on bringing down that Establishment and crushing its privileges. It made no logical sense.

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Sidney Lumet

But it happened. Only a week before the Bernsteins’ party, film director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, The Verdict) had held a soirée for the Black Panthers. A week earlier, a prominent publisher had also hosted the Black Panthers. Jean vanden Heuvel, a.k.a. Jean Stein, the socialite mother of current Nation publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, had welcomed the Chicago Eight rioters  to her home; a week after the Bernstein bash, philanthropist Eleanor Guggenheimer would hold a get-together for the Puerto Rican radical group the Young Lords

These upper-class hosts and hostesses were all, in their various ways, useful stooges, aiding and abetting some of the most virulent, totalitarian-minded enemies of the free, democratic capitalist societies in which they themselves had thrived. But thanks in large part to Wolfe’s article, Bernstein became the very personification of that memorable historical moment when thesmart set” showed its very stupid side. More tomorrow.

“The embodiment of all we hold dear”

davislifeYesterday we met Angela Davis, who in August 1970 supplied guns for a courtroom raid and hostage-taking incident in Marin County, California, that was intended to free her boyfriend, a felon then confined at Soledad State Prison. The incident ended in several deaths, and when the authorities became aware of Davis’s role, she was charged with murder, conspiracy, and kidnapping. Instead of surrendering to the police, Davis – who at the time was an active member of both the Communist Party and Black Panthers – became a fugitive from justice.

During her months underground, the FBI put her on its Ten Most Wanted List. She became a household name. Some American Communist leaders wanted to expel her from the Party and brand her a terrorist; but they lost out to other Party honchos, who decided to give Davis the Party’s full support and publicly identify her as a noble crusader against – and tragic victim of – racist, sexist, and capitalist oppression. 

American activist Angela Davis, shortly after she was fired from her post as philosophy professor at UCLA due to her membership of the Communist Party of America, 27th November 1969. (Photo by Lucas Mendes/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Davis in 1969

Davis was finally tracked down and arrested at a New York motel in October 1970. When she went on trial in February 1972, she was represented by the American Communist Party’s general counsel. At the same time, the Party, in league with its sister parties in the West and under the direction of the Kremlin, spearheaded a high-profile worldwide movement promoting sympathy for her “cause” and calling for her release.

This movement won the support of a number of useful celebrity idiots. The Rolling Stones dedicated a song, “Sweet Black Angel,” to Davis; John Lennon and Yoko Ono also recorded a song about her, “Angela.” (It began: “Angela / They put you in prison / Angela / They shot down your man / Angela / You’re one of the billion political prisoners in the world.”)

Among Davis’s fervent supporters were Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. In the USSR, thousands of people signed petitions demanding her freedom; Soviet children mailed postcards to President Nixon pleading with him to let her go.

In the end, Davis was acquitted, despite mountains of incriminating evidence. Ron Radosh later compared the verdict to that in the O.J. Simpson murder trial; so did Roger Kimball, writing: “How did she get off? In part, for the same reason that O.J. Simpson got off: celebrity, edged with racial grievance mongering.” What’s more, the jury was heavily compromised: one of its members was Mary Timothy, an activist who would later become romantically involved with Communist Party official Bettina Aptheker, a friend of Davis’s and founder of the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners.

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Davis in Cuba with Fidel Castro

Following her acquittal, Davis flew to Cuba, a country that she hailed as a model of socialism and racial harmony. In 1975, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn criticized her for having refused to speak up for prisoners in Communist countries. In 1977, she expressed enthusiasm for Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple cult in Guyana, over 900 of whose members, in one of the signal events of that decade, would die in a 1979 mass murder-suicide. Also in 1979, Davis went to Moscow to accept the Lenin Peace Prize. Russian writer Vitaly Korotich, who met her there, later said that she was “a useful tool for the Brezhnev government, used to bolster Communist ideals and speak out against the West during the Cold War.”

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Davis in Moscow, 1972

During those years, the media followed Davis everywhere she went and covered her public activities and statements extensively. An opponent of all American military ventures, Davis gave a thumbs-up to the Soviet invasions of both Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. Prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain, she received honorary doctorates from two institutions in Warsaw Pact countries, Lenin University and the University of Leipzig.

davis3In 1980 and 1984, she was the Communist Party’s candidate for Vice President. In the 1980s she taught Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University; she was later hired by the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she was a member of both the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies departments. The current profile of Davis on the website of UC Santa Cruz includes the following sentence: “Professor Davis’s long-standing commitment to prisoners’ rights dates back to her involvement in the campaign to free the Soledad Brothers, which led to her own arrest and imprisonment.” An interesting way of referring to the fact that Davis supplied Jonathan Jackson with those guns. 

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Davis speaking at the Brooklyn Museum

Today, she is hailed as a hero of feminism, of black civil rights, and of social-justice causes generally. In 2012, Ron Radosh noted that the Superior Court building in Washington, D.C., was hosting “a photo exhibit celebrating renowned black women” – and that one of those honored was none other than Angela Davis. Then, in early June of this year, came the news that Davis had won the Sackler Center award, presented to women at the top of their fields. At the ceremony, Elizabeth Sackler, chairwoman of the Brooklyn Museum, said that Davis was “the embodiment of all we hold dear” and that her very name was “synonymous with truth.” In fact, the award was only one more deplorable example of the contemporary elevation to heroic status of enemies of freedom and champions of totalitarianism.

Angela Davis, first in her field

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Angela Davis (center), with Gloria Steinem and Elizabeth Sackler

In early June, the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art –which is named for the historian who is the current president of that museum – presented Angela Davis with the 2016 Sackler Center First Award, which honors “women who are first in their fields.”

Who is Angela Davis? Her name may mean nothing to most younger Americans. To those over a certain age, however, she’s a very familiar figure.

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Davis in her heyday

Born in Alabama in 1944, Davis joined the American Communist Party at an early age. While studying at the University of Frankfurt, she took part in activities sponsored by the radical Socialist German Student Union and attended May Day celebrations in what was then East Berlin. She later joined the Black Panthers and received a doctorate in philosophy from Humboldt University, also in East Berlin. She went on to teach at UCLA, where the regents fired her in 1969 because of her Communist Party membership. Rehired by the university on orders from a judge, she was fired again after using “inflammatory language” (such as calling the police “pigs”) in several speeches.

Then she became world-famous. It happened like this.

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George Jackson

Davis was in love with, and secretly married to, a gangster named George Jackson, who, like her, was a Communist and Black Panther leader. After he committed five armed robberies, he was caught, tried, convicted, and incarcerated at Soledad State Prison in California. The Black Panthers later published a collection of his prison letters; Davis, for her part, spearheaded an effort to secure his release, along with that of two fellow Marxists who were also confined at Soledad. The men were collectively known as the Soledad Brothers. 

On August 7, 1970, Jackson’s 17-year-old brother, Jonathan, entered a Marin County courtroom in which another punk, James McClain, was on trial for murdering a prison guard. Jonathan brought with him plenty of weapons, which he handed to McClain and to two other convicts who were present in the courtroom as witnesses. Jonathan and the three jailbirds then took hostage the presiding judge, Harold Haley, a father of three, along with the prosecutor and three of the jurors. 

- - Group leaves the the Civic Center with a shotgun taped around Judge Harold Haley's neck. The inmate at left, James McClain, was fatally wounded in the van as it attempted escape. (IJ photo/Roger Bockrath)
James McClain (with gun, left), Jonathan Jackson, and comrades leave the the Marin County Civic Center with Judge Haley and other hostages (note the shotgun taped around Haley’s neck)

Jonathan and the convicts took their hostages out of the courthouse and drove off with them in a van. Jonathan’s goal was to hijack a plane, fly the hostages to Cuba, and exchange them for his brother’s freedom. But he didn’t get that far. At a roadblock, he and his pals got into a shootout with police. Jonathan, Judge Haley, and the two convicts were killed; the prosecutor was paralyzed for life; and a juror was injured. It was soon discovered that some of the guns Jonathan had brought into the courtroom had been purchased by Davis only days earlier. Charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder and placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, Davis took it on the lam; after a few months underground, she was tracked down by cops at a Howard Johnson’s motel in Manhattan.

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Davis is taken into custody

Meanwhile George Jackson had died. Using a gun smuggled into his cell (he was now at San Quentin), perhaps by his lawyer, Jackson, in consort with six fellow prisoners, took three guards hostage, bound them, and cut their throats. Jackson was then shot to death trying to make his escape. His comrades in the American Communist Party described it as a “murder.”

As for Angela Davis, she went on trial. Among American Communist leaders, there was disagreement about what position the Party should take on her case. For some, her actions were a bridge too far. For others – well, we’ll get around to that tomorrow.