Revolutionaries and Radical Chic: 1793, 1966 … and 2016?



Today is May Day: an international holiday in honor of working people like us, although if you work in the US, you may not know it. And you won’t get tomorrow off. (Which is odd, when you remember that May Day was originally founded by Americans).

In South Bend, about 100 of us honored the day by watching a cool film called Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015; Stanley Nelson, dir.), the first feature-length documentary to explore the controversial Black Panther Party (1966-1982). At the post-film panel discussion, the one student speaker said she couldn’t really relate with the Panthers, because it was her parents’ generation. Anyway, she said, with the internet things are really different now.

Oh yeah?  It is true that  #BlackLivesMatter has achieved much by organizing with use of electronic devices, but I’m sure any organizer would tell you that what you really need is committed people.

And for committed people, the Black Panthers were phenomenal. Although the film was a little skimpy on coverage of the crucial women who made up the majority of the membership at one point, and kept things rolling when the men were being held by the police, it does provide an amazing roll call of charismatic, handsome black men who stepped forward to run the movement:  Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey Newton, among others. All ideology aside, in their gorgeous young selves and fabulous style of afro, black beret, black leather jacket, and sunglasses, they formed a modern-day counterpart to the beautiful, and equally doomed, Vendéens of Western France in the mid-1790s.

Just look at the pictures here: Bobby Seale (left) and Huey P. Newton look feisty as hell in the late 1960s, and Henri de la Rochejaquelein looks equally determined to give it to The Man in 1793. He would be gunned down by the State’s troops in January 1794, at the age of 22, just as many Black Panthers were slaughtered by American police forces in their young adulthood. Check out the tall black leather boots, the tight riding coat, white silk scarf, and black hat. Each of these men has “it,” if you know what I mean, that irresistible radical swag and a bigger-than-life attitude (often combined with poor political judgment and a short lifespan, alas).

Naturally, all of this reminds me of Enjolras, Coufeyrac, Bossuet and the other doomed revolutionaries, whom Marius meets among les amis de l’ABC in Les Misérables. Although Hugo doesn’t describe their clothing much, he does note that they are “virile” and “angelic,” and they too give moving speeches about the future, before taking down some Pigs (the Parisian police force and French army).

But tonight while watching Sixty Minutes, I espied a new kind of look, among leaders of the so-called Fintech Revolution who are aiming at another avatar of The Man: banks.

And while I’ll suspend judgment on their political mettle, the first thing that hit me about these men was their utterly innocuous fashion sense, or to put it more directly, their boring style.

Patrick Collinson, (age 27; that’s him above) and his brother John (age 25), founders of Stripe, set in San Francisco, will allow you to create an on-line business in five minutes from their site. In five minutes, you can start receiving payment from people for whatever product you feel like selling. Selling things fast and in new ways, is the goal of Fintech, making money as easy to send as email.

This new kind of revolutionary looks like a nice kid. When he was younger, he may have been a bagger at a grocery store. He apparently shops at the cool tech person version of J. C. Penney or Gap, and wears T-shirts and hoodies, like an adolescent. He pads around quietly in loafers or tennis shoes instead of ass-kicking boots. He has an earnestness about him that inspires trust, at least among other middle- or upper-class people. He may be of any race, but his most prevalent vibe is “nice.”  What he’s selling is not liberation. Except from banks.

But maybe that is even more impressive than taking on the State…  What Banks have done to The People is pretty messed up, when you think about, over the long run…

Will the so-called Fintech Revolution change the Way Things Are in ways that other revolutionaries couldn’t, thanks to the internet?  And will techies ever develop style?

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