Blowing up stuff

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J. Edgar Hoover

On March 6, 1970, the same day that bombs went off by mistake in a Greenwich Village townhouse, leveling the entire building and killing three members of the Weather Underground – who had supposedly been acting on their own, without the approval of the organization’s national leadership – unexploded bombs were found in an alley next to the headquarters of the Detroit Police Officers’ Association and in a ladies’ room in the 13th Precinct of the Detroit Police Department. The combination of the New York explosion and the discovery of the bombs in Detroit (which went unreported at the time in major newspapers) not only strongly suggested that the Greenwich Village bombers, far from being renegades, were in fact working in collusion with Weathermen in other cities, but also led J. Edgar Hoover to take the Weather Underground seriously as a domestic threat. (The discovery in late March of a “bomb factory” in Chicago only further emphasized the danger.) In the months that followed, the FBI hunted down leaders of the group, who went underground.

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Weatherman Mark Rudd

The Greenwich Village explosion was far from the beginning of the Weathermen story. On February 12, 1970, Weathermen set off pipe bombs next to police cars parked near the Berkeley, California, police department headquarters. One policeman’s arm was permanently mangled, and several other policemen suffered minor injuries. But some of the bombers were disappointed because nobody had died. On February 21, firebombs went off at several locations in New York – at the home of the judge in a then-ongoing Black Panther trial, at a police car, at two armed forces recruiting stations, and at the Low Library at Columbia University. On March 2, the group firebombed a policeman’s home in Cleveland. On March 12, three Manhattan skyscrapers were bombed, and 300 bomb threats phoned in; while there were no deaths, thousands of people were evacuated from office buildings. On June 9, eight policemen were injured in a bombing of New York City police headquarters. (One scary aspect of this crime was that the bomb had actually been planted inside the building.) And on August 24, a Weathermen-connected group of radicals in Madison, Wisconsin, destroyed the Army Mathematics Research Center in that city with a truck bomb, killing a researcher and injuring several others.

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Phil Ochs

Such was the spirit of the era, at least in certain circles, that many public figures saw the Weathermen not as despicable sowers of mayhem and destroyers of innocent lives but as heroic rebels. As Arthur M. Eckstein writes in his splendid history of the group, Bad Moon Rising, folk singer Phil Ochs, whose concert at Carnegie Hall on March 27, 1970, was disrupted by a bomb threat that was possibly phoned in by the Weathermen, was tickled pink by the prospect of that storied venue being leveled by a Weather Underground bomb. “It’s be great!” he said.

J. Edgar Hoover didn’t agree. He wanted to destroy the Weathermen. More on that tomorrow.

Loving the Black Panthers?

She studied PR and “Leadership Studies” at Hampton University, then got a Master’s Degree in “Music Business” at NYU. She’s now at Yale, earning another Master’s – this one in Divinity. She “loves good music, down time with friends, & ice cream!” Sounds like a good life.

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Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes

And she seems like a good person. Last year she and several other Yale Divinity School students went to Flint, Michigan, to “hold a pastors roundtable conversation on the intersection of ecology and theology and distribute water filters and hygienic items.” She explained her motivation as follows: “As a Christian, I find that everything I do is affected by my faith. In this instance, I wanted to see the Christian community rally around these residents to make change. I was seeing assistance here and there from other organizations but I didn’t see any support from the church universal. While the church does overseas mission work well, we sometimes ignore the needs of our own nation. I didn’t want to see that happen any longer.”

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Wilkes on The O’Reilly Factor

So it was a shame to hear what Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes had to say in mid February during an appearance on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor. Wilkes, a bright-eyed young black woman who exuded cheer and charm, was there to talk about a couple of Yale-related news stories. The first story concerned an effort by students and faculty to remove the name of John C. Calhoun from one of Yale’s residential colleges. Calhoun was one of the great statesmen of the nineteenth century, serving as Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Senator from South Carolina, and as Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Unfortunately, he was also a slave owner, which is why a movement arose to change the name of that college. When asked by host Bill O’Reilly, Wilkes affirmed that she supported the change. But that’s fine – something that reasonable people can argue about.

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.
Armed Black Panthers take over the California State Capitol on May 2, 1967, to protest a gun-control bill

It was what she had to say on the second topic that was so disturbing. Wilkes, it emerged, was one of a group of students at Yale who wanted to hold a campus event marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Black Panthers. Some of them, including Wilkes, had recently crossed the country to attend what was apparently a sort of learn-in at the Oakland Museum. Their goal was “to learn the history” of the Panthers; they went, she said, “as student archivists.” “Did you come away with a favorable impression of the Black Panther movement?” asked O’Reilly. “Oh, absolutely!” gushed Wilkes. O’Reilly then played a tape of Black Panther co-founder Stokely Carmichael ranting about “the honkey” (a Black Power-era term for white people). After also mentioning the killings and violence committed by the Black Panthers, O’Reilly asked: “How can you look favorably upon that group?”

Not entirely seeming to grasp the question, Wilkes started to comment about the “long history of racism in this country.” Interrupting her, O’Reilly suggested that the Panthers themselves were racists. She rushed in quickly to insist that they weren’t anti-white but pro-black. “It makes me a little uneasy,” said O’Reilly, “that a very intelligent woman like yourself could even think that these people were worthy of being considered in Black History Month.” Wilkes either was genuinely surprised by this point of view or did a very good job of feigning surprise – or perhaps she was just mocking him: “Oh, that’s INTERESTING!” she replied. “Oh, REALLY?”

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The Black Panthers in their heyday

And that was pretty much the gist of it. O’Reilly was kind and respectful to Wilkes, apparently having pretty much the same reaction to her that we did: that while it’s disturbing to hear anybody praising the Black Panthers, it’s especially disturbing to see a young black woman who seems so decent and well-meaning celebrating their memory. Perhaps instead of devoting so much time to the study of PR, the music business, and so on, she would have done well at some point to read one or two honest, comprehensive histories of the Black Power movement. She wouldn’t have even had to go all the way to Oakland to find copies of them.

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.