Radical chic

Radical chic
New York magazine photograph of Leonard Bernstein (seated at center), his wife Felicia Montealegre (left) and Don Cox (standing), Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party in the Bernsteins' 13 room penthouse on Park Avenue in Manhattan, January 14, 1970.[1]

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."[2] 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).


Origin and meaning

The phrase "radical chic" originated in a 1970 New York article by Wolfe, titled "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s",[1] which was later reprinted in his books Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers and The Purple Decades. In the essay, 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.[3] 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.
—Michael Bracewell, "Molotov Cocktails"[2]


The concept of 'fashionable' espousal of radical causes by members of wealthy society in this case had been argued against by Bernstein's wife, Felicia Montealegre, prior to the publication of "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's", a fact Wolfe details in it. The essay appeared in the June 8, 1970 issue of New York, 20 weeks after the actual fund raiser at the Bernstein residence was held on January 14. The first report of the event appeared the following day in a piece by New York Times style reporter Charlotte Curtis, who was in attendance. Curtis wrote in part: "Leonard Bernstein and a Black Panther leader argued the merits of the Black Panther party’s philosophy before nearly 90 guests last night in the Bernsteins’ elegant Park Avenue duplex." According to Wolfe, the release of the story worldwide was followed by strong criticism of the event: "The English, particularly, milked the story for all it was worth and seemed to derive one of the great cackles of the year from it."[1]

The negative reaction prompted publication of an editorial in the Times on January 16 entitled "False Note on Black Panthers" that was severely critical of the Black Panther Party and Bernstein:

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.[4]

Felicia Montealegre wrote and personally delivered a response to this editorial to the Times offices, however the newspaper did not publish her letter until several days later.[5] In her response she wrote:

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.[5][6]

Terrorist chic

A 2002 political cartoon by Carlos Latuff depicting Che Guevara wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh.

Terrorist chic (also known as "terror chic" or "militant 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[7] or fashion.[8] 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.[9] Other cases that have been labeled terrorist chic include: the Prada-Meinhof fashion line (a pun on Prada and the Baader-Meinhof Gang) [10][11] and the wearing of keffiyehs outside of the Arab World.[12][13]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Wolfe, Tom (8 June 1970). "Radical Chic: that Party at Lenny's". New York. http://nymag.com/docs/07/05/070529radical_chic.pdf. Retrieved 1 March 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Bracewell, Michael (November–December 2004). "Molotov Cocktails". Frieze Magazine. http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/molotov_cocktails. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 
  3. ^ Foote, Timothy (1970-12-21). "Fish in the Brandy Snifter". Time Magazine. Time Inc.. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,904627,00.html?. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 
  4. ^ "False Note on Black Panthers". The New York Times. January 16, 1970. 
  5. ^ a b Wolfe, Tom. "Tom Wolfe on Radical Chic and Leonard Bernstein's Party for the Black Panthers". Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's. New York. http://nymag.com/news/features/46170/index15.html. Retrieved 11 December 2010. 
  6. ^ Bernstein, Felicia M. (January 21, 1970). "Letters to the Editor of The Times: Panthers' Legal Aid". The New York Times. 
  7. ^ Daly, Susan (2008-11-08). "Is the war over for terrorist chic?". Independent.ie. Independent News & Media. http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/news-gossip/is-the-war-over-for-terrorist-chic-1528669.html. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 
  8. ^ Herr, Cheryl (July 2004). "Terrorist Chic and Marching Season Style". The Vacuum. Factotum. http://www.thevacuum.org.uk/issues/issues0120/issue17/is17artterchi.html. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 
  9. ^ Miller, Henry K (2002-10-28). "Fatal attraction". New Statesman. http://www.newstatesman.com/200210280033. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 
  10. ^ Connolly, Kate (2002-10-06). "Astrid Proll's journey to Terror Chic". The Observer. Guardian Media Group. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/oct/06/germany.kateconnolly. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 
  11. ^ Smiley, Shannon (2005-02-20). "Germany Debates 'Terrorist Chic': Art and Fashion Stir Memories of Leftist Violence in '70s". The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A38447-2005Feb19.html. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 
  12. ^ Hernandez, Daniel (2006-04-09). "'Terrorist Chic' and Beyond". Los Angeles Times. Tribune Publishing. http://articles.latimes.com/2006/apr/09/magazine/tm-terrorchic15. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 
  13. ^ Lando, Michal (2007-01-19). "US chain pulls 'anti-war' keffiyehs". The Jerusalem Post. Mirkaei Tikshoret Ltd.. http://fr.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1167467767600&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull. Retrieved 2009-04-05. 

Further reading

  • Herr, Cheryl (1994). "Terrorist Chic: Style and Domination in Contemporary Ireland". In Benstock, Shari; Ferriss, Suzanne. On Fashion. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. pp. 235–66. ISBN 0813520339 .
  • Selzer, Michael (1979). Terrorist Chic: An Exploration of Violence in the Seventies. New York: Hawthorn Books. ISBN 0801575346 .

External links

Lists of examples
Essays & editorials

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