Morris: From ‘Radical Chic’ to ‘Woke’ in 50 Years

June 15, 2020

by Leo Morris

It has been a spring packed with surreal moments, but one in particular stands out for me.

About a week after protests started in downtown Fort Wayne, the marchers were joined by the police chief, City Council members and the mayor, who linked arms with protesters and declared the city “a community” in which we can, “despite our differences,” all “work as one.”

There is a jarring contradiction there. Who in that crowd was protesting, what were they protesting, and to whom?

When those who are identified as the oppressor class march with those who identify as the oppressed, that is not a protest.

It is a parade.

So now, in addition to the patriotism of Memorial Day parades, the traditionalism of Thanksgiving Day parades and the fraternalism of old favorites like St. Patrick’s Day parades and newcomers like the Gay Pride parades, we have the egalitarianism of the We Hear You parades.

In my darker moods, it’s tempting to see this as a precursor to revolution.

The five great revolutions that helped shape the modern world – starting with the English in the mid-17th century and ending with the Chinese in the mid-20th – share some common characteristics. These include a galvanizing incident that ignites long-simmering complaints against the power structure, leading to widespread protests that frequently erupt into violence.

And, somewhere along the way, defections by members of that power structure, who can feel the tide turning and want to get ahead of the engulfing waves.

Today we have seen the nation’s top military commander apologize for walking with the president, our leading newspaper firing its editorial page editor for allowing the publication of unorthodox views, members of Congress kneeling to ask forgiveness for their sins, TV shows cancelled for the unforgivable sin of making the police look too good . . . the list goes on and on.

But that possibility seems far-fetched.

Populist outrage – which in this country begat both Donald Trump’s presidency and Black Lives Matter – is worldwide and has led to uprisings and insurgencies around the globe. There is near-universal displeasure with political leadership, elected and otherwise. Nobody should pretend to understand what it all means, but it’s a fair guess that a worldwide revolution is not upon us.

Another explanation is that the Establishment finally gets it. Policy makers and institutional custodians now understand that they must find a way to provide justice for all. And once they understand this commitment, the disadvantaged and discarded will come to the table, and we will at last get started on the frank dialogue we have always needed.

About that.

When I got back from Vietnam in 1968, I was sent to Fort Hood, Texas, where I found that soldiers were being trained for crowd control, just in case police departments and National Guard units weren’t able to handle the riots that seemed on the verge of destroying our greatest cities. It was a scary time, and a lot of people today would be horrified to know just how elaborate and detailed military plans for intervention in civilian matters was.

But some saw reason for hope as well. Also on the table, from earlier that year, was the Kerner Commission report on the causes of and possible solutions for urban unrest. It proposed, among other things, billions in commitments from the federal government along with the billions already pledged for LBJ’s Great Society programs.

The report’s authors declared it “an honest beginning” that would require for fruition a commitment from every American to “new attitudes, new understanding, and; above all, new will.”

And here we are. It’s not difficult to imagine that in 50 years, people will look back on today with the same exasperation we look back on 1968.

I reluctantly arrive at the admittedly cynical conclusion that what we are seeing today is a new version, greatly magnified, of the Radical Chic phenomenon associated with Tom Wolfe’s 1970 New Yorker evisceration of Leonard Bernstein for the fund-raiser he hosted on behalf of the Black Panthers. It described the fun way liberal elites dabbled in social causes while still flaunting their extravagant lifestyles.

Today’s dabbling commitment is to “wokeness” – what an awful word – the self-declared purity of those who have suddenly discovered that racism is evil and must destroy anyone who doesn’t see it all the time everywhere, including deep inside their own privileged bones.

Yes, there are many earnestly sincere reformers in this, as in any, movement. But they don’t get a pass.

Bernstein was a dedicated civil libertarian who thought the Black Panthers deserved the same fair criminal justice treatment as anyone else and weren’t getting it. But he had to acknowledge the baggage he was picking up, including his beneficiaries’ Marxism, virulent anti-Semitism and commitment to violence.

And today’s woke warriors have to deal with the unsavory tenets of their allies, including a determination to vanquish all dissent and a belief that “defund the police” is a sane policy idea.

“Violence cannot build a better society,” the Kerner Report said way back in 1968. “Disruption and disorder nourish repression, not justice.”

Love to see that trending on Twitter, but it would be another surreal moment.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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