In the 1970s it was called ‘Radical Chic’: the toe-curling tendency of well-heeled liberals to consort with revolutionaries in the hope that the glamour of violence would rub off. The phrase was coined by the journalist Tom Wolfe in a satirical article he wrote for New York magazine about a fundraising party hosted for the Black Panthers by composer Leonard Bernstein.
Cage, the Islamic-focussed advocacy organisation, is the new equivalent of the Black Panthers and, for years celebrities, journalist, politicians and human rights organisations have been happy to assuage their liberal guilt and bask in the reflected glory of the Guys from Guantanamo. Vanessa Redgrave, Victoria Brittain, Peter Oborne and Sadiq Khan have all at some time done their piece of endorsing Cage: often making legitimate points about the mistreatment of terrorist suspects just as Bernstein raised the pressing issue of police harassment of black people in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Roddick Foundation gave it the funding and legitimacy it needed to function. Amnesty International, in turn, provided the human rights cover. If any of the individuals choosing to consort with Cage had read Wolfe’s essay, they had certainly not taken it to heart. What Wolfe recognised was that, in reality, such posturing challenges nothing. As he wrote in 1970: ‘Radical Chic, after all, is only radical in style; in its heart it is part of society and its traditions.’
Five years ago Gita Sahgal, head of Amnesty’s gender unit, raised her concerns about the organisation’s relationship with Cage Prisoners, as the group was then known. In an episode that demonstrates how far the organisation had drifted from its founding principles, she was first told to shut up and then drummed out of Amnesty altogether. On the Today programme this week, while discussing Cage’s links to Mohammed Emwazi, Amnesty’s Steve Crawshaw simply had no answer to Sahgal’s central criticism: that the human rights group had crossed a crucial line. Amnesty had been right to highlight the treatment of Guantanamo prisoners, but it should not have stood shoulder to shoulder with the ideologues of Cage. In the end, he was forced to admit that Amnesty would not make the same mistake again.
It must have looked different back then. On one side stood a group of charismatic revolutionaries with wild beards and wilder opinions, who had suffered at the hands of the Americans and on the other, a quietly spoken feminist with years of experience of highlighting the abuse of women around the world. Amnesty chose Radical Chic against principle. I bet they are regretting it now.
Martin Bright is former political editor of the Jewish Chronicle and New Statesman
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