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Is the Occupy movement this generation's 'Radical Chic?'

Demonstrators gather in Downtown Los Angeles for the
Demonstrators gather in Downtown Los Angeles for the "Occupy L.A." protest
Eric Richardson

The Occupy movement has spread its influence so far now that it's inappropriate to limit it to just Occupy Wall Street. Some common cause is also emerging. Occupy Wall Street, which started out on the lawn in front of City Hall, has declared its intent to march on Los Angeles' financial sector this weekend. This is not Burning Man. This is a movement with a mission.

I know, I know — You didn't even know LA had a financial sector, right? It does, but more importantly, the Occupy movement is now focusing on a coherent foe. "We are the 99%" has decided that they're protesting the 1% — and by that they mean the financial elite. Those who control most of the nation's wealth and through their leverage with high finance, have plunged the U.S. and the world (Hello? Greek debt default?) into chaos and misery.

You may disagree with the blow-by-blow of that story, but it would be hard to accuse the 99% of delivering the financial crisis. Let's make sure we give credit where credit is due!

If the protestors seemed kind of intellectually disorganized before, they seem less so now. It's helped that people like Paul Krugman have begun to provide Occupy with a platform that could actually relate to real change in the real world.

This will help Occupy evade the problem of bygone protest movements — a problem captured in semi-timeless fashion by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 essay "Radical Chic." That term has become shorthand for insincerely adopting the trappings of social protest in order to seem stylish. This is from a great 2004 article by Michael Bracewell in Frieze, a British art magazine that I actually wrote for long ago:

The tone of Wolfe’s prose is one of such finely balanced irony (with much of the essay written in the style of gushing, mannered gossip) that the reader is left in no doubt that the target of his argument is the stratospheric status-consciousness of a certain kind of privileged culturati, for whom the upholding of their own sense of social superiority – by whatever means possible, you could say – is their principal occupation. 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.

Occupy, by contrast, has begun to paint a bullseye squarely on the hindquarters of Wall Street's...well, its bull, that symbol of thundering markets, which are now being blamed for making very few Americans very rich at the expense of everyone else's future.

In the 41 years since "Radical Chic" was published, it seems that our protest culture has become much more disciplined. And the political and economic elites who would to a degree have to betray their class to join its cause have learned from their old mistakes. Protest: it's better, faster — and smarter.

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