The death and rebirth of Radical Chic

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Peace protesters mock a line of soldiers with the military police during a protest against the Vietnam War outside the Pentagon in Washington DC. Photo credit: Getty Images

What’s cool in politics these days? God knows it’s not me, a thirty-year-old who lives in the suburbs and remembers when libertarians were hip and Tamagotchis too.

One thing that is undoubtedly cool is defying the “establishment”. And not just the establishment as in the ruling class, but also the expanded and amorphous establishment first defined in 1955 by the conservative writer Henry Fairlie. Fairlie coined the term to despise those in power who defended two British officials who had relocated to the Soviet Union, and it included prominent politicians, members of the press and influential socialists under its heading. But not all of them shared Fairlie’s opprobrium. In America’s early 1960s, the establishment even got stylish when Jack and Jackie Kennedy rose to the top of the White House and introduced a new belief in well-coiffed, educated elites.

It didn’t last. The storm of the 1960s was brewing and when Kennedy was assassinated, when Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam War, the establishment quickly lost its luster. The “children” of this decade viewed it as corrupt and bloodstained, the handmaid of death in Indochina and the enforcers of white supremacy at home. The ubiquitous (if haunted) conformity of the 1950s gave way to a Rousseauian impulse to turn any type of establishment on its head. Respect for the elders has been replaced with “don’t trust anyone over 30”. Sexual convention gave way to the button that was once put on display by Bernardine Dohrn: “Cunnilingus is cool, fellatio is fun.” Freedom of expression was also demanded and valued by the radicals of the 1960s when they resisted those in power.

During this time, the journalist Tom Wolfe coined another term: “radical chic”. The title of an essay he published in 1970 Radical chic documented a party by the famous composer Leonard Bernstein in his lavish duplex on Park Avenue for a delegation of Black Panthers. It was the kind of scene the mischievous (and more than a little conservative) Wolfe longed for: social tensions between unequal classes of people that threatened to erupt before finally plummeting into absurdity. “Radical Chic” quickly got into the dictionary. The approximate definition was: When elites identify with revolutionary left causes in order to feel cool and egalitarian. Or: when an establishment claims to oppose itself without making significant changes. To be radically chic meant to signal that she weren’t like those other stuffy squares she supported the emancipation of the lower classes (as soon as José finished cleaning the pool).

We could add that too she assisted sexual liberation, she donated to the ACLU, she were all for positive action, she were appalled by the brutality of the police. From the 1960s onwards, a new generation of leaders came along who had embraced the ethos of the decade. And while the panthers may have rested while Richard Nixon could have fathered Ronald Reagan, the radicals won in a very important sense: counterculture became culture. The children of the 1960s occupied powerful idea generation institutions including journalism, science, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party. Yet even when they accepted these high altitude accommodations, they never let go of the notion that they were cruising against the established power. The establishment remained somehow systemic racist, patriarchal-centric, thrown down in front of billionaires in need of the flame, though it was now dominated by those who claimed to oppose such things.

Radicalism was still trendy, and radicalism always takes an establishment to loathe, no matter how exaggerated or fictional. But the temptations of power also began. After the left had once fully supported free expression, it began to enforce its own parameters: hate speech censorship, breaking off culture – how easily classical liberalism falls away when one is no longer in the minority and does not need its protection. The Obama administration ushered in a new generation of progressives in government who were less concerned with overthrowing the system than with using it to pursue their own ideas of justice. The license of the 1960s gave way to a kind of technocratic paternalism when the left took over the cockpit of the leading state. They were now shakier, more relaxed, and focused more on gradual economics than on lightning-fast ideas of liberation and freedom.

That’s not to say that radical chic was dead. it still reared up now and then. The most notable example was the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police last summer, when academics and CEOs skipped over to show solidarity with the often violent protests that followed. (Although even then the line du jour was that the demonstrations were more “mostly peaceful” than that the militancy was justified, more denial than solidarity.) At best, radical chic coexisted uncomfortably with a left that even gave up proxy participation in the Faust would have. increased revolution. The funniest example of this tension was Vox writer Ezra Klein, who, after Floyd’s death, wrote a lengthy essay imagining how wonderful it would be to be in a completely nonviolent state. This was the same Klein who had cheerleaded for Obamacare and his individual mandate for the past decade, neither of which would have worked without the implicit threat of state violence.

If the Obama administration had changed the left, the Trump administration would have postponed it even further through a polarizing effect. Trump railed against the deep state; they hugged it. Trump hated the establishment; was John Brennan really that bad? Even when many leftists allegedly supported radical goals – the abolition of gender, for example – that thinking was still far more accepted among the elite organs than even the most casual Trump support. They no longer needed men in berets pounding the living room carpet. Even the Che Guevara shirts had gone out of style and were being replaced by Black Lives Matter t-shirts, which were available on Amazon in black and navy. The left had won, and to defend the society they had reshaped, they became institutionalists, even a little Burkish.

Then came the uprising in the Capitol, the horrific images of the carnage that killed five people, including a police officer. It was the kind of scene that without a few million stars and stripes could have intoxicated the remaining 1960s. The radical Weather Underground bombed the Capitol five decades ago, cheered on by the cool kids. Four years earlier, in 1967, leftists in the Pentagon had sparked an uprising to protest the Vietnam War. (Abbie Hoffman, in his usual floridity, explained her intentions as follows: “We’re going to dye the Potomac red, burn the cherry trees… Girls will run naked and piss on the walls of the Pentagon, wizards will swim, witches, voodoo, warlocks, medicine men and speed freaks will be theirs Hurling magic on the faded brown walls. “Reminds of a certain Viking cosplayer, doesn’t it?)

But our policy had changed since then. The progressives no longer tried to rally the working class against their own country. Instead, they had divided the proletariat by race and gender, while some of them were suspected of white supremacy. The change they wanted now came from elite institutions, not from below revolutionary fantasies. And so you have chosen correctly. They sided with the man, extolling the Capitol Police and calling for the National Guard to be called up. Radical chic suddenly seemed an anachronism, though its hypocrisy still lingered. It’s been less than a decade since Robert Redford made a movie called The company you keep, a nostalgic puff piece about the terrorists from Weather Underground. Just five months ago NPR celebrated the author Vicky Osterweil, who wrote a book with the title In defense of the looting.

Perhaps the radical chic on the left will return, albeit with a weaker pulse, once the fisted crowd rejoins a pre-approved cause. In the meantime, we can safely say that radical chic has switched sides. For the past four years, conservative elites have opened their French doors to those they know only as the unfortunate ones. Celebrity Republicans wash down filet mignon bites with chivas before lightly passing on their latest plans to take over the establishment. Like the left, the right split into strange and ideologically boutique factions in the 1960s (“I am a post-liberal ultramontane Catholic integralist!”). Each of these sects claim some kind of solidarity with the working class, but each would also be utterly unfathomable to anyone who has ever worn a helmet. (Try explaining the libertarian / nationalist divide to your average Michigander and he’ll likely kick you out of his house. Try explaining to your average West Virginian and he’ll likely shoot you.)

In other words, we are now the most radically chic. Except as opposed to these Pentagon rioters, our immediate cause, that of a single presidential ego, is neither fair nor true. January 6th, Andrew Bacevich said, was our Altamont moment; The question now is how much more radicalism are we willing to accept?



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