Radical Chic Redux

Only the gifted pen of a Tom Wolfe could have minted the generation-defining sobriquet, radical chic. It first appeared in a long monograph in New York magazine in 1970, where the author wrote a withering piece describing a fashionable cocktail party at the West Side apartment of Leonard Bernstein. The impresario had invited the glitterati of Manhattan’s Café Society to fawn over a group of revolutionaries called the Black Panthers.

It was a classic exercise in self-loathing. Here were the pacesetters of the culture pleading absolution of a deplorable underclass of violent thugs. Wolf’s depiction of the event’s high pathos won his essay immemorial status in the annals of cultural criticism. Such imbecility would thenceforth never be able to hide beneath the skirts of respectable activism.

Until now. Human nature, being what it is, always suffers the fate of moral amnesia. Lessons once thought to have left their indelible mark easily fade, but soon return to take advantage of easy dupes. Lenin called them “useful idiots.”

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Welcome to the radical chic redux. Its dangerous enthusiasm can be seen today in the stance of not a few political leaders who have stood by and let our cities burn. Looters are elegized as avatars of a new order of humanity. Their crudities are hailed as prophetic tokens of a brave, new world.

Try digesting this sampling. Mind you, these are not radical outliers, but elected political leaders:

“What I don’t want to hear is to be civil. Why does looting bother people?” asked Tammy Morales, a Seattle councilwoman.

“It is time to defund the police department and replace them with rapid response social workers,” declared a New York Times editorial on June 1.

“A looter’s statement is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” observed Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey. “Yes, America is burning, but that’s how forests grow.”

Meanwhile John Creuzot, Dallas’s district attorney, has announced that he will not prosecute any looters.

Investigating the source of this fanaticism brings us quickly to our universities and colleges. Of the multiple examples, let it suffice to cite as typical Northwestern University’s Professor of Journalism, Steven Thrasher, in a recent issue of Slate:

The destruction of a police precinct is not only a tactically reasonable response to the crisis of policing, it is a quintessentially American response, and a predictable one. The uprising we have seen this week is speaking to the American police state in its own language up to and including the use of fireworks to mark a battle victory. Property destruction for social change is as American as the Boston Tea party.

This is the chilling stuff of 1789, 1848 or 1917.  Truth to be told, its systematic chaos has been simmering in America for quite a time.

Norman Mailer’s 1957 novel, The White Negro, was already tilling the soil for anarchic overthrow:

It can of course be suggested that it takes little courage for two or three 18-year old hoodlums, let us say, to beat the brains of a candy-store keeper… Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak 50-year-old man, but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown.

Simon Schama summarized this cri de guerre with perceptive insight in his masterpiece on the French Revolution, Citizens: “From the storming of the Bastille onward it was apparent that violence was not just an unfortunate side effect… It was the Revolution’s source of collective energy. It was what made the Revolution revolutionary.”

America coped with this type of organized terror in 1968 and imagined that, after a few years, it would eventually dissipate. It did not. Rather, it regrouped and discovered its natural petri dish in the universities. Much contempt for civilization in general, and Western civilization in particular, has been fueled by the mighty higher education establishment, to which parents have happily been paying their pound of flesh for decades now.

Within a short span, Sixties’ street radicals armed with Molotov cocktails became tenured radicals more effectively armed with blackboard and chalk. Given a few decades more to gestate, the university apparatus has become the assembly line for the Far Left to groom the young. A quick glance at the rioters reveals a rather large contingent of white-privileged youth, coddled by their parents’ indulgence and weaponized by their universities.

An example is the Inclusive Communications Task Force at Colorado State University. Its latest speech guide directs students not to call people “American” because it “erases other cultures.” Do not say, “you guys”—but, rather, “all folks.” Of course, “male” and “female” are out; “man,” “woman,” and “gender non-binary” are in.

This argot would baffle even Huxley and Orwell, surpassing “newspeak” itself. More seriously, it threatens the very survival of the republic.

Then there are the journalists. While not quite parroting the sharp antinomian rantings of a Mailer, Ginsberg, or Thrasher, most of America’s mainstream journalists couch them in a more palatable language. Hiding behind the atrocious murder of a black man, they deftly utilized it to peddle their disruptive agenda. More alarming is how readily the bourgeois upper class is anxious to be scolded and coaxed out of their common sense.

One of the major national news programs interviewed a prosperous fortyish gentleman. From his manner and dress, he could easily have been your typical hedge fund manager or Fortune 500 CEO. He had decided to descend from his well-appointed East Side apartment with his two daughters, who looked school-aged and right out of a Nancy Drew novel. He confessed to the reporter that he felt he needed to teach his daughters the lessons of insurrection and protest, and the daughters nodded their heads, as though giving pious assent to a newly learned creed.

Add to this the uppermost layers of America’s entertainment elite. A-list Hollywood stars and revered sports icons have publicly committed themselves to funding the “struggles” of rioters. Since our celebrities represent the new priestly class for many Americans, this is an ominous perfect storm.

The genealogy of this cultural suicide can be traced to Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values. This was his prescription for the apotheosis of the abnormal. All the fixed verities of good and bad, and right and wrong, had to be bent into a hitherto unrecognizable form. Disequilibrium was the new normal. Its toxicity was to extend to every field, especially art and literature. All that was familiar had to be exorcised. Man must find himself and his world in a vertiginous free fall. The common sense normal was proscribed.

The success of Nietzsche’s program can be traced in the rise of the censorious dicta of politically correct language, the rise of identity politics tribalism, and the new regimes of anti-free speech. For instance, the avant-garde of the 1970s decided that proper hospitalization for the mentally ill was actually a form of unjust incarceration. Psychiatric patients were post-haste released upon the streets, as a token of Nietzschean transvaluation. As a result, these poor unfortunates colonize our major cities, and our political leaders leave this desperate population to lie abandoned in our streets. They have become pawns in the cynical Left’s strategy of convincing a once-sane American population that their sane norms of societal order were only instances of moral insanity.

This is of one cloth with the bizarre positions of the deconstructionist philosopher Michel Foucault in his Discipline and Punish, when he proposed the emptying of jails. The truly normal (he taught) were the jailed criminals. The abnormal are those who are unjailed—you and I.

As we have seen many times in the past two thousand years, it is only the Roman Catholic Church which can face such derangement and right it. Sadly, those Catholic tools lie buried in cobwebs. This momentous task is now left to the good Catholic faithful, who will rediscover those divine tools and wield them. For, I fear, too many Catholic leaders have fallen beneath the spell of the radical chic.

Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images


  • Fr. John A. Perricone

    Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona University in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies. He can be reached at www.fatherperricone.com.

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