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Rupa Subramanya: What AOC’s empty 'Tax the Rich' dress tells us about Trudeau and Singh

National Post logo National Post 2021-09-14 Rupa Subramanya
a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Aurora James attend The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City. © Provided by National Post Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Aurora James attend The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City.

In a masterpiece of long form journalism from 1970, “ That party at Lenny’s ”, writer Tom Wolfe coined the now legendary term “radical chic.” He was referring to celebrity classical musician Leonard Bernstein hosting a party at his posh Manhattan apartment for members of the Black Panthers, a controversial black rights political movement far removed from the elite social milieu in which Bernstein and his friends moved. Wolfe’s coinage was getting at the incongruity and even hypocrisy of the well-heeled and fashionably left leaning New York elite engaging with grassroots or working class movements while ensconced within their upper class lifestyles.

Radical chic was on display in a big way at the annual Met Gala, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, a fixture on New York’s high society calendar. This year’s event was headlined by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, universally known by her initials, AOC. Sporting an evening gown, with “Tax the Rich” splashed in red on the back, AOC took to Instagram and claimed that the “medium is the message,” referring to another legendary coinage, this time by the famous Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan. For McLuhan, the carrier of a message could be as important as the message itself, a then novel idea when he proposed it back in 1964.

But what was AOC’s message? In her Instagram post, she drew attention to the fashion designer Aurora James, founder of the Brooklyn-based fashion label, Brother Vellies. She referred to James as a “Black woman immigrant designer,” which is true — except that James had immigrated all the way from Toronto via Los Angeles. AOC then pivoted somewhat incongruously to her main message: “The time is now for childcare, healthcare, and climate action for all. Tax the Rich.” If the medium is the message, how exactly is wearing an exclusive designer gown to a bastion of wealth and privilege such as the Met pitching for child care, health care, or combatting climate change? But her motto, “tax the rich”, is clear enough, sending a signal to her Bronx and Queens constituents, many of whom are poor and immigrants, that she is really batting for them after all, and the Met is just a stage set.

Video: Designer of AOC's 'Tax the Rich' dress responds to criticism (CNN)


But there are holes in AOC’s narrative. To further justify her presence at an event at odds with her political persona and alien to her constituency, her Instagram post continued: “And yes, BEFORE anybody starts wilding out — NYC elected officials are regularly invited to and attend the Met due to our responsibilities in overseeing our city’s cultural institutions that serve the public. I was one of several in attendance.” It may well be true that elected officials are routinely invited to all kinds of events but it does not follow that they should accept all such invitations especially if they’re at odds with that official’s politics or ideological persuasion. What’s more, the Met is a private institution and does not even fall within AOC’s congressional district.

Unfortunately, this brand of politics, where the medium is necessarily the message because there really is no message other than the medium, is gaining currency in Canada, too. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs no lessons from AOC in how to be fashionably progressive and look good while doing it, but we know that his track record, including the shameful decision to appear in “blackface,” entirely contradicts his fashionably progressive persona. AOC has even more of a kindred spirit in New Democratic Party leader, Jagmeet Singh, who never fails to make a fashion statement with his bespoke suits, Rolex watches, and vintage bikes, to say nothing of his stardom on TikTok.

Here too, the medium is the message, because you would be hard pressed to find a serious social democratic ideology behind the welter of fashionable but shallow promises such as capping cell phone bills or subsidizing rent. A far cry from the founding socialist principles of the NDP, this is more like petty bourgeois populism. What’s worse, most of the cliches that Singh spouts including “tax the rich,” are unoriginal and carelessly borrowed from AOC’s playbook, and have little resonance in a country which is way more egalitarian, and where the rich are far more heavily taxed, than the United States. Yet, there seems little if any introspection amongst the ranks of NDP supporters that a party which helped give Canada universal health care has been reduced to a party of memes, TikTok videos, and hipster slogans and ideas borrowed from south of the border.

Speaking of which, the lasting image from the Met gala shouldn’t be AOC’s dress, but as Glenn Greenwald observed caustically , the image of “a maskless elite attended to by a permanently faceless servant class,” which to him epitomizes America’s “cultural and social balkanization.” In that sense, the new left elite who’ve apparently stormed the Bastille are in reality the new gatekeepers rather than genuine revolutionaries — truly, radical chic.

National Post

Join us Wednesday Sept. 15 for a live online debate. From universal social programs and high taxes to “greening” the economy: what kind of government should Canadians have in their lives — and how much of it?


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