Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ross, Bernstein, Wolfe

Not being a classical music buff, I wasn't super interested in Alex Ross's piece on Leonard Bernstein a while ago in the New Yorker, but I was glad to have read this part:

One night in 1970, Felicia Bernstein hosted a fund-raiser on behalf of twenty-one associates of the Black Panther Party who had been indicted for conspiring to bomb buildings and kill police. Her husband arrived late from a rehearsal of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” and, perhaps charged up by that tale of oppression and liberation, he inserted himself into the discussion, voicing sympathy for the Black Panthers’ egalitarian aims but quizzing Donald Cox, the Panther field marshal, about the group’s propensity for violence. Two journalists were present: Charlotte Curtis, of the Times, and Tom Wolfe, of New York. “If business won’t give us full employment, we must take the means of production and put them in the hands of the people,” Cox said at one point. According to Curtis, Bernstein replied, “I dig absolutely.” In Wolfe’s account, Bernstein said, “How? I dig it! But how?” Bernstein later tried to explain that Cox had ended his statement with a “You dig?” and that he was simply answering in kind. Whatever the particulars, the reports conjured up an unsympathetic picture: America’s Great Conductor trying to talk jive with extremists. After Curtis’s article ran, the Times’ editorial page accused Bernstein of “elegant slumming” and stated that he had “mocked the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Protesters appeared outside the Bernstein apartment building. Waves of hostile mail landed on the couple and also on their guests.
Wolfe’s piece, which ran under the famous title “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” was a tour de force of dispassionate hostility, characterizing Bernstein as a “more than competent composer” and then mocking him as “the Great Interrupter, the Village Explainer, the champion of Mental Jotto, the Free Analyst, Mr. Let’s Find Out.” Wolfe reduced Bernstein’s passion for African-American music to a caricature of racial tourism, pushing the idea that his subject was obsessively fixated on the figure of a “Negro by the piano” (perhaps a case of projection on the part of the author). Felicia Bernstein was derided for the “million-dollar-chatchka look” of the apartment. She avoided reading the article, but she could hardly avoid hearing about it, and the episode had a devastating effect on her. At a panel discussion with members of the family at Carnegie Hall, Jamie Bernstein, one of the couple’s three children, recalled, “There was this sense that our mother never recovered from the heartbreak and shame of this incident. No one was all the way to happy again.”
When the F.B.I.’s files were opened, years later, radical chic turned out to be more than a case of a musician making an ass of himself. Many of those angry letters had been generated by operatives in J. Edgar Hoover’s counter-intelligence program; one memo notes that the correspondence was scripted to highlight the Black Panthers’ “anti-Semetic posture and pro-Arab position”; the misspelling points up the hypocrisy of the enterprise. Richard Nixon, too, followed the case, marking Bernstein as the personification of “the complete decadence of the American ‘upper class’ intellectual elite.” (This was written in the margins of Daniel Moynihan’s memo encouraging a “benign neglect” of African-American issues.) If, as William F. Buckley, Jr., said, Bernstein was parroting the lingo of fanatics, Wolfe was, in his own way, a mouthpiece, his fashionably tart prose advancing the new art of wedge-issue politics. In retrospect, the entire episode reeks of hysteria, and Bernstein was by no means the most hysterical person in the room.

I thought of this passage when I read this account, from the New Yorker's Book Bench blog, of a recent event featuring Wolfe. Somebody asked him what he thought of the Internet and blogs, and this was his response:

At one point television had altered the sensory balance of the young—it literally changed their moral circuitry. This was turning them tribal. Tribal people don’t trust something you’ve written out and handed to them. They assume it’s a trick: why else would you have gone through all this trouble? Tribal people only believe in rumors; they only believe what someone’s told them. At the same time, they don’t believe anything somebody’s told them.

Well, there you have the blogosphere. It’s a tribal institution, and some of them are, in a way, marvellous to read. You’ll be reading along and the writer will say, “Tim Harris who was born in…I forget where he was born, I think it was the Midwest.” This is not very reassuring, but if you’re tribal, you’re not thinking about reassuring.

“You’re not going to be starting your own blog then?” the young man pressed.

“If I do,” Wolfe said, “You can trust it from here to eternity.”

Wolfe presents himself, perhaps impishly, as a paragon of trustworthiness, but Ross suggests that the "dispassionate hostility" of his journalism in fact served the ideological interests of J. Edgar Hoover and his ilk. 

Journalistic objectivity, it seems to me, is mostly an illusion. I don't think we've become more "tribal" with the advent of the Internet or TV. People have always been suspicious of what they read and hear, have always believed what they want to believe, and have always trusted some sources more than others. Often with good reason. 

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