Radical Chic

There was a time when I refused to wear my Che Guevara t-shirt (actually, it was my housemate Tope’s shirt, but I’m sure he didn’t mind) to the mall. The idea of bringing an image of the Argentinian revolutionary leader to the altar of crass commercialism did not sit well with the radical in me. It was almost blasphemous, an act of treason to the cause of revolution. As if wearing a Che shirt was that much of a political act.

But I was young and naive then, and guilty of that now-famous claim by Bobbie Malay, articulated in response to the “linyado” Isao Sugiyama: “Kayo talagang mga YS [that’s ‘youth sector’] kayo, you’re sooo dogmatic! You’re freaking me out!”

But that was the 90s, years before the Che image became something of a fashion statement, like an image of some pompous rock star everyone recognizes but hardly anyone really knows. Sure crass commercialism did not happen overnight, and the 90s as a historical period was as much guilty of crassness as the conservative Thermidor of the 80s’ Reagan-Marcos era. Like my friend Baba who during the 90s dreamt of making a commercial of Levi’s with the First Quarter Storm of 1970 as backdrop/setting (think muscular, shirtless men strutting the streets, battling the police — in Levi’s 501 shrink-to-fit originals!). Or when some student groups began to say “di na uso ang pagrarali,” as if it was all a matter of fad. Or during the mid 90s, when UP Fair began to take in corporate sponsors, prefiguring those corporate-sponsored campus “rave parties.”

The 90s surely had its share of “ugh” moments. But lately it has only gotten much, much worse.

Now it’s all about the medium, as Marshall McLuhan said, and Che is cool and his rebellion a “safe” one for kids as long as Che is worn by moronic matinee idols and detached from its historical value. Worse, even Lenin and Mao’s images are sold at Top 40s. Funny that Andy Warhol’s criticism of pop culture has now been totally lost on kids who wear his Mao and Campbell soup paintings without a hint of the irony of it. It seems we have gotten to a point when it has become necessary for capitalism to appropriate even anti-capitalist images.

Thing is, though, when I see famous people and yuppies wear Che and Mao, I could not help but feel a glint of pride. I was a product of the 90s and its generation of activists who wear tubao and mojos, faded jeans and Che shirts, during mobilizations. Activists wore them amid looks of consternation from passersby. I’d like to think that we were part of the reason why Che and Mao are enjoying revivals today. I’d like to think that through sheer persistence, activists of the 90s forced t-shirt enterpreneurs to reexamine their marketing ploys: “Look at these kids. I don’t understand a word they say but it looks like they may be getting tired of the demonic-looking black shirts of hardcore bands.”

I’d like to think of it as an affirmation that the social movement is getting somewhere, for how else on earth would Clusivol do a commercial with a rally as backdrop if rallies have not become a staple of urban life? How do you explain FHM’s editors taking time off their nude photography sessions to react to Gabriela statements? Or Satur Ocampo gracing the pages of Jessica Zafra’s Flip magazine? Or Teddy Casiño’s wedding getting newspaper front page attention?

I don’t feel insulted, but rather feel elated, when I see people like Dino of Brownman Revival wearing shirts of progressive partylists (Bayan Muna, Gabriela, Anak ng Bayan). More so with Dino, who seems to be consciously plugging the partylists everytime he’s onstage, even gracing activist events and being an activist himself.

The point is that progressives do not have to shun pop culture. Just as we use every arena available and every weapon at our disposal, so must we use pop culture to creatively ventilate our grievances and state our aspirations. That way we don’t have to hate those Che shirt-sporting matinee idols and yuppies. When we pass them by in malls, we would feel proud. We can even venture to tell them, “Nice shirt. Do you know Che was a communist?”


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