Friday, July 04, 2008

The sixties: Tom Wolfe and "Radical Chic"

One literary contribution to the early "culture war" narrative about the snobby elitists who supported liberal-radical-hippie causes was "Radical Chic" by Tom Wolfe, which first appeared in New York magazine June 1970, and was later published in book form in Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970).

The "Radical Chic" essay was a rambling meditation and subjective report on a fund-raising event that the famous composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia held in their New York City home to benefit a group known as the Panther 21. This was a group of Black Panther Party members who were arrested in 1969 and charged with plotting to bomb several locations and to kill cops. This obituary of civil rights attorney Sanford Katz, who won the acquital for the 13 that evenutally went to trial, gives some background (Sanford M. Katz, 75, Lawyer for Defense in Panther 21 Trial, Dies New York Times 10/13/05):

Mr. Katz was known for representing unpopular defendants in politically charged cases. His most famous was set in motion in the late 1960's, when the New York Police Department planted undercover agents in the Black Panther Party. In 1969, 21 party members were indicted on charges that included conspiring to bomb various sites in New York - police stations, department stores and other public buildings - and to kill police officers.

Though only 13 defendants were eventually brought to trial, the group was known as the Panther 21. The case became a cause célèbre, moving Leonard Bernstein to hold a cocktail party for the group's legal defense in his elegant Park Avenue duplex.

The trial began on Sept. 8, 1970, and ran for eight months. On May 13, 1971, after deliberating for barely three hours, the jury acquitted the defendants on all counts. (my emphasis)
It's amazing what you can learn from reading obituaries. Seriously.

This letter from a philosophy professor expressing support for the Panther 21 was published around the same time Bernstein was holding his benefit fundraiser, Philosophers & Panthers by Kai Nielsen New York Review of Books 07/02/1970 talks about the problems in the handling of the case and said, "Unfortunately, it would appear necessary in the course of any thorough investigation to consider the possibility that this case is part of a nationwide 'police conspiracy' to destroy the Black Panther Party." Now, of course, we know that there was literally such a conspiracy, directed largely by the FBI's COINTELPRO program.

So, Bernstein was supporting raising money for a the legal defense of group of black radicals who had been arrested on charges so dubious that all of them who went on trial were later acquited, and were being effectively denied bail and reportedly mistreated in custody. "In jail they have been the victims of gross brutality," Nielsen wrote. In other words, Bernstein was neither alone nor irrational in his desire to see that these men received a fair trial.

Wolfe doesn't give his readers any of this background in his own voice. After pages of jive talk about how strange it was to see Black Panthers in leather jackets at a party with respectable wealthy white people, he puts what factual account he gives into the introductory speech of attorney Leon Quat, after spending a page or two ridiculing Quat.

And if you cut through Wolfe's sneering society-column chit-chat, you see that Bernstein and his guests actually engaged in a fairly spirited dialogue, challenging the lead Black Panther speaker, Don Cox, on a number of points.

But not everyone was happy about the notion of wealthy benefactors raising money to help black radicals get a fair trial when faced with very dubious charges. The Times obituary quoted above mentioned Berstein's fund-raiser. But it did not mention how the editorial board of the Times had held Bernstein up to ridicule in an editorial which Wolfe quotes as follows:

Emergence of the Black Panthers as the romanticized darlings of the politico-cultural jet set is an affront to the majority of black Americans. [For whom, of course, the New York Times editorial board felt qualified to speak.-Bruce] This so-called party, with its confusion of Mao-Marxist ideology and Fascist para-militarism, is fully entitled to protection of its members' constitutional rights. It was to make sure that those rights are not abridged by persecution masquerading as law-enforcement that a committe of distinguished citizens has recently been formed.

In contrast, the group therapy plus fund-raising soiree at the home of Leonard Bernstine, as reported in this newspaper yesterday, represents the sort of elegant slumming that degrades patrons and patronized alike. It might be dismissed as guilt-relieving fun spiked with social consciousness, except for its impact on those blacks and whites seriously working for complete equality and social justice. It mocked the memeory of Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was solemnly observed through the nation yesterday.

Black Panthers on a Park Avenue pedestal create one more distortion of the Negro image. Responsible black leadership is not likely to cheer as the Beautiful People create a new myth that Black Panther is beautiful.
Short version: wealthy white people should not help African-American radicals raise funds or generate publicity to ensure a fair trial for those accused on thin evidence.

Demonstration in support of the Panther 21, New York 1969

Now that he was safely dead, the New York Times was holding King up as a saint of proper conduct on the part of African-Americans. But three years before, when King was still alive and gave his Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War, the same Times editorialized that King was screwing up the civil rights movement by coming out against the war and his "recklessly comparing American military methods to those of the Nazis". The respectable Life magazine called King's 1967 speech "a demagogic slander that sounded like script for Radio Hanoi". It was only death that made Martin Luther King ultra-respectable to the white Establishment.

Daniel Moynihan, later a Democratic Senator from New York but also a counselor of Richard Nixon's in 1970, also used the Bernsteins' fund-raiser for the Panther 21 as an example of how those who Nixon considered his enemies in what soon came to be known as Moynihan's "benign neglect" memo:

In it Moynihan had presented [Bernstein] and Felicia and their "party" as Exhibit A of the way black revolutionaries like the Panthers had become "culture heroes" of the Beautiful People. Couldn't you just see Nixon sitting in the Oval Room and clucking and fuming and muttering things like "rich snob bums" as he read: "You perhaps did not note on the society page of yesterday's Times that Mrs. Leonard Bernstein gave a cocktail party Wednesday to raise money for the Panthers. Mrs. W. Vincent Astor was among the guests. Mrs. Peter Duchin, 'the rich blond wife of the orchestra leader,' was thrilled. 'I've never met a Panther,' she said. 'This is a first for me.

On February 29 [1970] someone leaked the damned memo to the damned New York Times, and that did it. Now [Bernstein] was invested, installed, inaugurated, instituted, transmogrified as Mr. Parlour Panther for all time. The part about their "cocktail party" was right in the same paragraph with the phrase "benign neglect." And it didn't particularly help the situation that Mrs. Astor got off a rapid letter to the Times informing them that she was not at the "party." She received an invitation, like all sorts of other people, she supposed, but, in fact, she had not gone. Thanks a lot, Brooke Astor.
If Wolfe is to be believed, this negative publicity put an immediate damper on what he called Radical Chic among wealthy New Yorkers. Though since he's more focused in the essay on spinning pretty, smug phrases, it's kind of hard to tell. He doesn't even make it clear what Bernstein's own reaction was. Wolfe tries to leave the impression that Bernstein backed off his support for the Panther 21's legal defense. But he quotes Bernstein as saying that the fund-raising meeting's purpose was to defend civil liberties:

"If we deny these Black Panthers their democratic rights because their philosophy is unacceptable to us, then we are denying our own democracy." He now made it clear that he was opposed to their philosophy, however. "It is not easy to discern a consistent political philosophy among the Black Panthers, but it is reasonably clear that they are advocating violence against their fellow citizens, the downfall of Israel, the support of Al Fatah and other similarly dangerous and ill-conceived pursuits. To all of these concepts I am vigorously opposed and will fight against them as hard as I can."
For a civil libertarian, this doesn't sound like backing off to me. That quote just shows Bernstein saying that even though there are aspects of the Panthers' conduct with which he disagrees, even hates, he still sees a larger significance in what was happening to the Panther 21.

Author Tom Wolfe

Wolfe's essay provides a look at how the notion that wealthy liberals were an elite who favored liberal and even radical viewpoints that were hostile to the needs of those regular people for whom Chris Matthews loves to speak was cooked up in "the sixties". The same script that has seemingly become part of the Republican Party's political DNA. After all, when you're running the government and foreign policy blatantly for the benefit of Halliburton and oil giants and turned over much of writing the laws directly to business lobbies, you need some way to make your Party look like the defender of regular folks.

"Radical Chic" is a political tract disguised as light-hearted style and society-page reporting. The real point of the essay is to ridicule the radicals of the day and especially "respectable" people who might find anything about them to support. Wolfe adopts what is apparently meant to be the tone of a wealthy New York socialite to ramble about topics like the need to have white servants at events where the Black Panthers are featured. "So the current wave of Radical Chic has touched off the most desperate search for white servants."

The whole essay is full of such sarcastic-sneering observations. Here is one paragraph that gives a good flavor of the tone Wolfe strikes in this essay:

Shoot-outs, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Vietcong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade. The Panther women—there are three or four of them on hand, wives of the Panther 21 defendants, and they are so lean, so lithe, as they say, with tight pants and Yoruba-style headdresses, almost like turbans, as if they'd stepped out of the pages of Vogue, although no doubt Vogue got it from them. All at once every woman in the room knows exactly what Amanda Burden meant when she said she was now anti-fashion because "the sophistication of the baby blacks made me rethink my attitudes." God knows the Panther women don't spend thirty minutes in front of the mirror in the morning shoring up their eye holes with contact lenses, eyeliner, eye shadow, eyebrow pencil, occipital rim brush, false eyelashes, mascara, Shadow-Ban for undereye and Eterna Creme for the corners ... And here they are, right in front of you, trucking on into the Bernsteins' Chinese yellow duplex, amid the sconces, silver bowls full of white and lavender anemones, and uniformed servants serving drinks and Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts -
After years of having our leading politcal pundits treat us to their Deep Thoughts about Al Gore's suits, Hillary Clinton's cleavage, John Edwards haircut and now Barack Obama's lapel pins, this kind of style reporting has since been assimilated into mainstream political commentary. At least in 1970, it was taken to be a literary essay that was based on some actual event.

But, like our Big Pundits today, Wolfe for the most part doesn't give us direct quotes from individuals who attented Bernstein's fundraiser about what they actually thought. Was anyone but the writer himself obsessing about whether female Black Panthers were "shoring up their eye holes with contact lenses, eyeliner, eye shadow, eyebrow pencil, occipital rim brush, false eyelashes, mascara, Shadow-Ban for undereye and Eterna Creme for the corners". Did he ask any of the female Panthers themselves if they used eyeliner or false eyelashes? Or was he too afraid they would sock him if he asked such a dumb question?

But if you actually wanted to know something about the political meaning or legal significance of the Panther 21 case, or even about Leonard Bernstein's political outlook, you wouldn't know very much after reading this essay.

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