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.
And who’s this imam? As Chesler reports, he’s the successor to Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha, who blamed 9⁄11 on Jews and said that if Americans had known the truth about that atrocity, “they would have done to Jews what Hitler did.”
Chesler sets the scene:
I arrived at the Jewish Community Center and found that a protest organized by Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, and Christian activists was in progress. Banners held aloft read: “What Are Muslims Doing for Peace? Burning Churches, Honor Murdering Women. Where is the Muslim Protest?” “Since 9⁄11, Radical Islamists Committed 11,961 Attacks, Killed 75,038, Injured 115,255.”
Inside, the panelists tip-toed through the tulips and landmines, with a well-meaning, well-practiced display of earnestness, “goodness,” love, mutual admiration, and perhaps some self-admiration as well. There was no mention of terrorism, Islamism, or Islamic gender and religious apartheid.
Ms. Clinton, poised and very blonde, noted that “We are being protested against” which she considers a “positive sign. That means we are talking about something important.”
While “Rabbi Schneier was stiff, pompous, and self-important,” Chesler reports, the imam was “very likeable and charming,” although “his stances on key issues are less so.”
Chesler quotes the self-important rabbi as saying that “seven years ago, my friend, Russell Simmons, challenged me to close the divide, narrow the chasm between Muslims and Jews. And now, we are now the international address for Muslim-Jewish relations.“ So what have the name-dropping rabbi and the deceptively charming imam accomplished together? Well, one thing they’ve done is to jointly protest Rep. Peter King’s extremely important hearings about radicalism among American Muslims. They’ve also sponsored so-called “twinning” programs, each of which brings together members of one synagogue and one mosque on an annual basis, presumably to talk about peaceful co-existence and such. As Chesler notes, these programs take place in North America and Europe but not, ahem, “in the Arab Middle East or in Muslim Asia.” Chesler also mentions “the colossal failure of their Buffalo ‘twinning’ program,” which apparently led to an unpleasant confrontation between some “well-intentioned Rabbis” and a “Jew-hating radical Sheikh.” Gee, who’d have expected that?
Ultimately, Chesler found the evening at the Jewish Community Center “disappointing” and “boring” because “too much was avoided. Too much ‘feel good’ Kool-aid was passed around. Everyone seemed to be drinking it. What was not said was far more important than what was said.” Chesler is far less rough on the imam than she is on the rabbi, whom she describes, not (it appears) without ample justification, as “a dangerous Court Jew who is profiting from the gravy train of the ‘interfaith’ business. He is profiting from his fiddling while Israel and the world burns. He is part of a grand taqiyya effort to present Muslims in a time of Islamism as peaceful partners. He is on a mission to persuade Jews to become agreeable dhimmis ‘for their own good’; otherwise, things will go badly for them and for other infidels. He thinks of himself as a great man. We have seen his sort before.”
Indeed. At the Bernstein party, the beverage of choice was also feel-good Kool Aid. What was not said on that evening in 1970, too, was much more important than what was said. While the Black Panthers were committing all kinds of violent mischief, Bernstein (though not “fiddling,” strictly speaking, but rather tickling the ivories and waving a conductor’s baton) was eager to present supporters of Maoist revolution as peaceful partners in a quest for a better world, just as Rabbi Schneier is out to whitewash the religion of jihad. Bernstein and friends bowed and scraped to the Black Power movement in hopes of escaping the firing squad should the Panthers’ hoped-for revolution ever materialize; in the same way, Schneier is on a campaign to dhimmify his flock for, as Chesler rightly puts it, “their own good.” And just like the Bernstein party, the event that Chesler has now immortalized was clearly, in its own way, a sociological study that shines a bright light on (among other things) upper-class New York narcissism and self-congratulation, shameless social climbing, nostalgie de la boue, and a truly repellant condescension toward the purported prejudices (read: legitimate concerns) of the lower orders.
But there’s one major difference between then and now, between the Bernstein party in 1970 and the Islamophobia event in 2012. “Radical Chic” appeared in New York magazine, which was then the Sunday supplement of the Herald-Tribune, New York’s “other” serious newspaper. After the Bernstein party, moreover, the New York Times – believe it or not – actually ran a stern editorial criticizing the Park Avenue elite for romanticizing thugs like the Panthers. Today, which New York establishment media organ would publish a piece like Chesler’s? And need I add that none of us are holding our breaths waiting for a Times editorial denouncing “Combating Islamophobia”?
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