America’s #1 Commie

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Cornel West

Cornel West, the former Harvard and Princeton professor and author of Race Matters, has called him “a long distance runner in the freedom struggle against imperialism, racism and capitalism.” Howard Zinn, the late author of A People’s History of the United States, praised his memoir as “a humanizing portrait of someone who is often seen only as a hard-line revolutionary.” Among his other admirers are Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, the author of Race Rules, and activist Cindy Sheehan.

The man in question? Bob Avakian, longtime chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP). Now 73, he’s been a veritable Zelig of the American far left, described in a 2005 profile as “the marathon man of the international anti-imperialist struggle.”

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Bob Avakian

Attracted in his youth (he was an undergraduate at – where else? – Berkeley) to various New Left groups – among them the Students for a Democratic Society, the Free Speech Movement, the Weathermen, and (although he’s white) the Black Panthers – Avakian became a community organizer in Richmond, California, where he sought to convert workers to Communism. In 1968, he and several Bay Area comrades founded their own organization, the Revolutionary Union, which took its inspiration from both Stalin and Mao, whose deadly Cultural Revolution was then in full swing.

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Mao Zedong

During a 1971 visit to China, Avakian experienced the Cultural Revolution firsthand, finding it “wondrous”; four years later, under his leadership, the Revolutionary Union morphed into the Mao-besotted RCP. Though upset by Mao’s death the next year and by China’s subsequent embrace of capitalism, Avakian soldiered on, declaring that, with Beijing’s betrayal, he and his RCP brethren were now “the true upholders of Maoism” on the planet. Around this time, the RCP shifted its emphasis from “workplace organizing [to] an increasingly hysterical militancy in the streets”; after he and other party members were arrested for rioting, assaulting cops, etc., etc., during Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 visit to Washington, D.C., Avakian skipped bail and fled to France from what he has called America’s “suffocating climate of intolerance.”

stalin1Ever since, Avakian has consistently insisted on the greatness of Mao and Stalin. “If the bourgeoisie and its political representatives can uphold people like Madison and Jefferson,” he wrote in his memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond, “then the proletariat and its vanguard forces can and should uphold Stalin.” And he’s devoted his life to the RCP, which runs a newspaper, a website, and a chain of stores called Revolutionary Books, all of which serve to advance the cause of Mao and Stalin.

But in addition to promoting Mao and Stalin, Avakian has unashamedly promoted himself. As Mark Oppenheimer wrote in a 2008 profile, the RCP – thanks in part to Avakian’s Stalin-like purges of other party leaders – gradually became “a cult of personality focused on him.” One tool in Avakian’s effort to turn himself into a cult figure was invisibility: for a long time almost nobody knew where he lived, and he never appeared in public; in his frequent writings (as in North Korea and Mao’s China, the shelves of his bookstores groan with copies of the Dear Leader’s works), Avakian continued to describe himself as being in exile, even though all charges against him were dropped in 1982, and even though he returned to the U.S. from Europe some time after the turn of the century. As Oppenheimer put it, “the chairman is still on the run, even if nobody is chasing him.”

More tomorrow.

George Ciccariello-Maher, tenured radical

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George Ciccariello-Maher

Until just a few weeks ago, George Ciccariello-Maher had a dream career in the academy. In 2010, after studying government and political science at St. Lawrence University, Cambridge, and Berkeley, he had neatly settled into a sinecure at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, where he was Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies.

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One of Ciccariello-Maher’s books

He’d published precisely the kind of stuff you need to produce in order to attain such an exalted position: in addition to articles for such far-left journals as Monthly Review and Radical Philosophy Review and for such equally “progressive” general-audience outlets as The Nation, Salon, and Counterpunch, he’d written a couple of book-length billets-doux to chavismo entitled We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (2013) and Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela (2016). He also had a third tome – ready to be published this year – with the delectably postmodern title of Decolonizing Dialectics. As if all this weren’t impressive enough, he was co-editor of a new book series called Radical Américas. And most of this stuff bore the colophon of the today’s top academic publisher, Duke University Press, which may well be responsible for the dissemination of more pretentious, politically radical gibberish than any other such establishment on the planet.

As indicated by his choice of book topics, Ciccariello-Maher was especially enamored of Venezuela – or, more specifically, of what Hugo Chávez did to it. His several articles on the subject in Jacobin Magazine (self-described as “a leading magazine of the American left”) have offered little in the way of original reporting, acute observation, or incisive analysis, but have made up for those failings by being fervently on the right – which is to say, the left.

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Frantz Fanon

His formula: one part glib mockery of hard-working, middle-class Venezuelans who were justifiably alarmed to see an economically illiterate socialist ideologue dragging their country’s economy into the toilet (and whom Ciccariello-Maher ridiculed, perversely, for their excellent, unaccented English); one part equally glib enthusiasm for working-class chavistas rooted not in any real concern for or understanding of their specific plight but, rather, in his own coldblooded ideological imperatives and in an inane romantic association of their role with that of the sans culottes in the French Revolution of 1789 (without a trace of irony, Ciccariello-Maher praised these revolutionaries as “proudly violent”); all tossed lightly and mixed in with plentiful admiring references to Frantz Fanon, whose 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, with its sympathy for underclass violence and the wholesale destruction of bourgeois values and wealth (not to mention bourgeois men and women) influenced such heroes of the earth’s wretched influenced (among others) Che Guevara and Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver and is one of the founding texts of today’s pernicious academic postmodernism.

In short, Ciccariello-Maher had made splendid use of his sympathy (faux or not) for the downtrodden peasants of Venezuela to make a lucrative career for himself in the academia norteamericana. But then he did something that put all of it at risk.

He sent out a tweet.

More tomorrow.

Top ten stooges, part two

Yesterday we revisited five of our top ten useful stooges of 2016. Here are the other five, who happen to have one thing in common: a readiness to defend Islam, the premier totalitarian force of our time. 

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Ben Norton

He hates Israel, calls the U.S. a “rogue state,” celebrates the legacy of the Black Panthers, and reflexively responds to each new act of terrorism by fretting about anti-Muslim backlash and smearing critics of Islam. He’s boy scribe Ben Norton, who when he’s not writing for Salon – an execrable enough venue – can be found at such vile pro-jihad sites as Electronic Intifada and Middle East Monitor. Instead of condemning the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in January 2015, Norton slammed the victims as racists. Instead of writing about the massacres in Boston, San Bernardino, and Orlando (media attention to such events, he argues, only boosts bigotry), he penned an entire article about a white lady who’d jumped a hijab-clad woman on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk.

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Laurie Penny

Laurie Penny was born into a prosperous family (both her parents were lawyers), went to a posh English public school, studied at Oxford, and was soon a highly successful journalist and author. But she’s still (as she constantly whines) a victim of sexism, a member of an “oppressed class.” And every man’s an oppressor – except, note well, for those Muslim males who act on the permission their religion gives them to beat, rape, and even kill women with impunity. So it was that when gangs of “refugees” committed mass rape in Cologne last New Year’s Eve, Penny turned her ire not on the rapists, but on the “racists” who responded to this crime by criticizing Islam. 

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Sally Kohn

It sounds like a set-up for a bad joke: a Jewish lesbian defending sharia law. But it’s no joke – it’s Sally Kohn, who after holding a series of jobs as a sleazy political operator and PR flack is now a CNN talking head. Even worse than her utter lack of a decent education is her utter lack of embarrassment about it: when an editor commissioned her to write about Amsterdam, she admitted she didn’t even know what country it was in – but that didn’t keep her from visiting it for a few days and banging out a piece accusing the natives of (what else?) Islamophobia.

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Owen Jones

“Modern capitalism is a sham,” advises British lad Owen Jones, and “democratic socialism is our only hope.” A Guardian columnist, Oxford grad, and son of Trotskyite parents, Jones is a consistent whitewasher of Islam who turns every act of jihadist terror into an excuse to denounce critics of Islam.

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Will Smith

Finally, there’s movie star Will Smith, who this year called for “cleans[ing]” America by eliminating Trump supporters. (He didn’t say how we should do it.) He also condemned America’s “Islamophobia” and extolled Dubai, which, he claimed, “dreams the way I dream.” Never mind that the UAE, where Dubai is located, is a sharia-ruled country where you can get stoned to death for being gay: Smith, a self-styled “student of world religion,” claimed that if Americans have a bad image of the place, it’s entirely the fault of Fox News.

Happy New Year!

Bernstein: after the ball

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Bernstein and wife

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.”

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Charlotte Curtis

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.

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The curtain call at the premiere of “MASS”

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.

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Harold Schonberg

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.)

bppIn 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.

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.