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In the June 8, 1970, issue of New York magazine, Tom Wolfe published an article that has been recognized ever since as having perfectly captured a critically important moment in the history of the American cultural elite. “Radical Chic” was Wolfe’s devastating, unforgettable account of a party he had attended at the Park Avenue duplex penthouse apartment of Leonard Bernstein, then at the height of his fame. The guest list broke down into two categories. Category #1 was a who’s-who of world-class artists, celebrities, and New York high-society types: actor Jason Robards, comedian Mike Nichols, playwright Lillian Hellman, artist Larry Rivers, composer Aaron Copland, photographer Richard Avedon, choreographer Jerome Robbins, songwriter Stephen Sondheim, Hollywood director Otto Preminger, Today show host Barbara Walters, and many, many more. Category #2 was a selection of Black Panther leaders from around the country, among them one Robert Bay, who just 41 hours earlier, as Wolfe noted, had been “arrested in an altercation with the police, supposedly over a .38-caliber revolver that someone had, in a parked car in Queens at Northern Boulevard and 104th Street or some such unbelievable place, and taken to jail on a most unusual charge called ‘criminal facilitation.’”
One of the Panthers addressed the gathering. His theme: although, for example, “21 members of the Black Panther Party” had been indicted recently “on ridiculous charges of conspiring to blow up department stores and flower gardens,” the Panthers were a peaceable group whose real concerns were indicated by the clinics and children’s breakfast programs they were setting up around the country. “We recognize,” he said, “that this country is the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world. The pigs have the weapons and they are ready to use them on the people…ready to commit genocide against those who stand up against them…..All we want is the good life, the same as you. To live in peace and lead the good life, that’s all we want.” The Panthers’ lawyer compared the prosecution of the Panthers to the Reichstag fire – both being efforts by tyrannical governments to eliminate the opposition. And then the Panthers solicited contributions, in response to which the glitterati shouted out pledges – a few hundred dollars here, a few thousand there.
And then an art-gallery owner, depicted by Wolfe as a social climber who had recently arrived from Chicago, shouted out: “Who do you call to give a party?” Because this wasn’t the first and it wouldn’t be the last party for the Black Panthers to be held in a fancy Manhattan home. Holding parties for Black Panthers, in the upper-class Manhattan of the very late Sixties and very early Seventies, was the height of chic. While presented as an act of high morality, it was in fact, as Wolfe explained, an example of “nostalgie de la boue, or romanticizing of primitive souls.” It was also a way for upper-crust folks to distinguish themselves from the earnest, middle-class types who supported earnest, middle-class civil-rights groups like the NAACP. At the root of it all, the fact was that the category #1 people at Leonard Bernstein’s party had everything, except for one thing – namely, the freedom from guilt that goes with not having everything. And so – as an act of atonement, of expiation – they held and attended these parties, thereby not only liberating themselves from limousine-liberal guilt but also lifting themselves up, in their own eyes, to a moral high ground from which they could look down upon the middle class with a pure, guiltless, delicious condescension that made their lives, and their privilege, complete.
As Wolfe’s article made clear, in order to have a successful Panthers party one had to steer delicately around certain awkward details, such as the reality of these people’s violent criminal activity, the reality of their revolutionary goals, and the reality of their profound racism and anti-Semitism (Wolfe quotes a virulently anti-Semitic poem from a Black Panther publication). Instead, one had to keep the focus on the illusion that the Panthers were heroes of their people, innocent victims, believers in All Good Things who had been utterly misrepresented by a hostile media establishment.
Cut to March 14, 2012, and another address in Manhattan – namely, the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side. The occasion: a panel discussion entitled “Combating Islamophobia.” The panelists: a rabbi, Marc Schneier, and an imam, Shamsi Ali. The moderator: Chelsea Clinton. Among the 225 people in attendance, fortunately for us, is the author Phyllis Chesler, who has now recorded this event for posterity. Like Tom Wolfe in 1970, she has captured a twisted moment in the history of the New York cultural elite in all its moral vacuity, social irresponsibility, and unblushing self-congratulation.
For those of us unfamiliar with Rabbi Schneier, Chesler provides a brief and helpful résumé: “He has landed in the media many times both for his marital woes (four divorces) and for his interfaith work. He runs a very popular synagogue in Westhampton Beach on Long Island, which offers non-stop entertainment, lectures, films, gatherings, communal hot lunches and dinners, as well as religious services. He is also the son of Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the long-time rabbi of Park East Synagogue who began the tradition of having politicians and celebrities address his congregants.” One gets the idea.
Schneier is also “Principal Officer” of something called the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which “reported gross receipts of $825,638.00 for 2010” and “receipts totaling nearly 3.7 million dollars for the period between 2006 and 2010.” Among the foundation’s directors is billionaire Alexander Machkevitch, so “one might conjecture that he has funded some of the work of this Foundation.” In addition to his foundation income, Schneier earns “a handsome salary and a rabbinical allowance” from the Westhampton Synagogue.
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