Radical Chic

radical chic

Radical chic is a term coined by journalist Tom Wolfe in his 1970 essay ‘Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,’ to describe the adoption and promotion of radical political causes by celebrities, socialites, and high society. The concept has been described as ‘an exercise in double-tracking one’s public image: on the one hand, defining oneself through committed allegiance to a radical cause, but on the other, vitally, demonstrating this allegiance because it is the fashionable, au courant way to be seen in moneyed, name-conscious Society.’

Unlike dedicated activists, revolutionaries, or dissenters, those who engage in radical chic remain frivolous political agitators. They are ideologically invested in their cause of choice only so far as it advances their social standing. ‘Terrorist chic’ is a modern expression with similar connotations. This derivative, however, de-emphasizes the class satire of Wolfe’s original term, instead accentuating concerns over the semiotics of radicalism (such as the aestheticization of violence).

Wolfe used the term to satirize composer Leonard Bernstein and his friends for their absurdity in hosting a fundraising party for the Black Panthers—an organization whose members, activities, and goals were clearly incongruous with those of Bernstein’s white elite circle. Wolfe’s concept of radical chic was intended to lampoon individuals (particularly social elites like the jet set) who endorsed leftist radicalism merely to affect worldliness, assuage white guilt, or garner prestige, rather than to affirm genuine political convictions.

‘[Wolfe’s] subject is how culture’s patrician classes – the wealthy, fashionable intimates of high society – have sought to luxuriate in both a vicarious glamour and a monopoly on virtue through their public espousal of street politics: a politics, moreover, of minorities so removed from their sphere of experience and so absurdly, diametrically, opposed to the islands of privilege on which the cultural aristocracy maintain their isolation, that the whole basis of their relationship is wildly out of kilter from the start. … In short, Radical Chic is described as a form of highly developed decadence; and its greatest fear is to be seen not as prejudiced or unaware, but as middle-class.’

The negative reaction prompted publication of an editorial in the ‘Times’: ‘Emergence of the Black Panthers as the romanticized darlings of the politico-cultural jet set is an affront to the majority of black Americans. …the group therapy plus fund-raising soiree at the home of Leonard Bernstein, as reported in this newspaper yesterday, represents the sort of elegant slumming that degrades patrons and patronized alike. It might be dismissed as guilt-relieving fun spiked with social consciousness, except for its impact on those blacks and whites seriously working for complete equality and social justice.’

Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre responded: ‘As a civil libertarian, I asked a number of people to my house on Jan. 14 in order to hear the lawyer and others involved with the Panther 21 discuss the problem of civil liberties as applicable to the men now waiting trial, and to help raise funds for their legal expenses. … It was for this deeply serious purpose that our meeting was called. The frivolous way in which it was reported as a ‘fashionable’ event is unworthy of the ‘Times,’ and offensive to all people who are committed to humanitarian principles of justice.’

‘Terrorist chic’ is a more recent and specific variation of the term. It refers to the appropriation of symbols, objects, and aesthetics related to radical militants, usually in the context of pop culture or fashion. When such imagery is deployed subversively, the process exemplifies aestheticization as propaganda. Regardless, because terrorist chic derives its iconography from groups and individuals often associated with violent conflict or terrorism, the term carries a greater pejorative tone than ‘radical chic.’

Instances of terrorist chic have variously been interpreted as morally irresponsible, earnestly counter-cultural, ironically hip, or benignly apolitical. According to Henry K. Miller of the ‘New Statesman,’ the most well-known example is the ubiquitous appearance of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in popular culture. Other cases that have been labeled terrorist chic include: the Prada-Meinhof fashion line (a pun on Prada and the Baader-Meinhof Gang) and the wearing of keffiyehs outside of the Arab World.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.