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Nostalgie de la boue in Manhattan: 1970 and 2016

Wednesday, 9 March, 2016

Today’s BuzzFeed headline reads: DeRay McKesson To Hold Fundraiser At Banker’s Manhattan Home. For those who may not know him, DeRay McKesson is a “full-time activist” and the most public face of the Black Lives movement. “People have been voting since the civil rights movement & we are still here,” is a typical elliptical DeRay McKesson statement. McKesson will speak tonight in the Upper West Side home of Ted Dreyfus, a former Citibank executive, who has also worked for the Clinton Foundation.

Nostalgie de la boue is a 19th-century French term that means “nostalgia for the mud,” and its white guilt connotation was leveraged by Tom Wolfe in one of the all-time great piece of modern journalism. Published by New York magazine in June 1970 and titled Radical Chic it captured the craziness of those times perfectly.

Background: The scene that Wolfe so (in)famously depicted took place in the Manhattan apartment of Leonard Bernstein. The legendary conductor, composer and Democratic Party supporter assembled many of his wealthy friends to meet members of the Black Panthers to discuss how they could help their cause. Black Panther The director Otto Preminger was there and so, too, was the TV reporter Barbara Walters. With their armchair agitation and high fashion, they were, in Wolfe’s eyes, the “radical chic” pursuing revolutionary ends for social reasons. Snippet:

“One rule is that nostalgie de la boue – i.e., the styles of romantic, raw-vital, Low Rent primitives – are good; and middle class, whether black or white, is bad. Therefore, Radical Chic invariably favors radicals who seem primitive, exotic and romantic, such as the grape workers, who are not merely radical and ‘of the soil,’ but also Latin; the Panthers, with their leather pieces, Afros, shades, and shoot-outs; and the Red Indians, who, of course, had always seemed primitive, exotic and romantic. At the outset, at least, all three groups had something else to recommend them, as well: they were headquartered 3,000 miles away from the East Side of Manhattan, in places like Delano (the grape workers), Oakland (the Panthers) and Arizona and New Mexico (the Indians). They weren’t likely to become too much… underfoot, as it were. Exotic, Romantic, Far Off… as we shall soon see, other favorite creatures of Radical Chic had the same attractive qualities; namely, the ocelots, jaguars, cheetahs and Somali leopards.

When Time magazine later interviewed a minister of the Black Panthers about Bernstein’s party, the official said of Wolfe: “You mean that dirty, blatant, lying, racist dog who wrote that fascist disgusting thing in New York magazine?”

When DeRay McKesson speaks tonight, will BuzzFeed have its Tom Wolfe on site? Will the Manhattan dialogue captured in 2016 match the music and madness that Tom Wolfe put down on paper in 1970?

Quat is trying to steer the whole thing away — but suddenly Otto Preminger speaks up from the sofa where he’s sitting, also just a couple of feet from Cox:

“He used von important vord” — then he looks at Cox — “you said zis is de most repressive country in de vorld. I dun’t beleef zat.”

Cox says, “Let me answer the question —”

Lenny breaks in: “When you say ‘capitalist’ in that pejorative tone, it reminds me of Stokely. When you read Stokely’s statement in The New York Review of Books, there’s only one place where he says what he really means, and that’s way down in paragraph 28 or something, and you realize he is talking about setting up a socialist government —”

Preminger is still talking to Cox: “Do you mean dat zis government is more repressive zan de government of Nigeria?”

“I don’t know anything about the government of Nigeria,” says Cox. “Let me answer the question —”

“You dun’t eefen listen to de kvestion,” says Preminger. “How can you answer de kvestion?”

“Let me answer the question,” Cox says, and he says to Lenny: “We believe that the government is obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income . . . see . . . but if the white businessman will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessman and placed in the community, with the people.”

Lenny says: “How? I dig it! But how?”

“Right on!” Someone in the back digs it, too.

“Right on!”

Julie Belafonte pipes up: “That’s a very difficult question!”

“You can’t blueprint the future,” says Cox.

“You mean you’re just going to wing it?” says Lenny.

“Like . . . this is what we want, man,” says Cox, “we want the same thing as you, we want peace. We want to come home at night and be with the family . . . and turn on the TV . . . and smoke a little weed . . . you know? . . . and get a little high . . . you dig? . . . and we’d like to get into that bag, like anybody else. But we can’t do that . . . see . . . because if they send in the pigs to rip us off and brutalize our families, then we have to fight.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more!” says Lenny. “But what do you do—”

Cox says: “We think that this country is going more and more toward fascism to oppress those people who have the will to fight back —”

“I agree with you one hundred percent!” says Lenny. “But you’re putting it in defensive terms, and don’t you really mean it in offensive terms —”

“That’s the language of the oppressor,” says Cox. “As soon as —”

“Dat’s not —” says Preminger.

“Let me finish!” says Cox. “As a Black Panther, you get used to —”

“Dat’s not —”

“Let me finish! As a Black Panther, you learn that language is used as an instrument of control, and —”

“He doesn’t mean dat!”

“Let me finish!”


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