Radical Chic?

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For most of the thirteen years that Philadelphia journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal has sat on death row for allegedly killing a police officer, The New York Times, like other mainstream media outlets, has ignored the contested facts and racial tensions surrounding his conviction and imprisonment. But when a long list of celebrities and literary figures, including Naomi Campbell, Roger Ebert, David Byrne, Norman Mailer, Oliver Stone, Susan Sarandon, Spike Lee, Paul Newman, Maya Angelou, and Joyce Carol Oates added their signatures to full-page pro-Mumia newspaper ads this past August, the paper of record had much to say about the matter. Dubbing the signatures the return of radical chic (a la Tom Wolfe's satire on Leonard Bernstein's cocktail party for the Black Panthers some 25 years ago), writer Francis X. Clines cried elitism and professed sympathy for the nation's 3,009 other death row inmates who can only sit in silence while Mumia, an attractive exception to the lumpen felons, attracts all the celebrity patrons.

In an angry rebuttal in The Nation (Sept. 11, 1995), columnist Katha Pollitt exposed The Times assessment as inaccurate and hypocritical. 'I can't speak for Jacques Derrida,' said Pollitt. 'But I signed that ad because I oppose the death penalty and am disquieted by the questions raised by the original trial.' Radical chic is a term that connotes dilettantish frivolity, she added, something that can hardly be said of E.L. Doctorow, Henry Louis Gates, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie and many other co-signers who have been advocates for human rights and racial justice all of their adult lives.

While Mumia's case actually raises relevant issues -- a police vendetta, a biased judge, a political trial, a ferocious sentence for cop killing -- Pollitt adds that Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson, multimillionaire celebrities accused of crimes against women and defended by flocks of lawyers, have received far more attention as test cases of racial treatment in the justice system. Few journalists or news organizations took up the Mumia case, and even National Public Radio withdrew an offer for a regular slot for Mumia on All Things Considered due to pressure by police groups. If the Free Mumia movement is finally gaining steam, it is because a tireless group of defenders who have, over the course of many years, attracted the support of unions, Amnesty International, and human rights groups to bring the case to national consciousness. 'Given this history,' says Pollitt, 'it is beyond me how anyone can portray Mumia Abu-Jamal as the darling of the wine-and-cheese circuit or lampoon his supporters as radical chic.'

Even more curious is why, if The Times cares so much about lesser known, tongue-tied inmates on death row, it fails to bring their cases to public attention. And therein lies the paradox of the coverage granted to the pro-Mumia ads: As Pollitt questions, 'Isn't the mainstream media, which ignored Mumia for so long, what makes it politically necessary to harness famous names to a cause?'

Original to Utne Reader Online, September 1995.