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Fashion claims another symbol

As a supporter of the Palestinians ever since I went up to Cambridge in 2002 – I am now president of the university’s Palestine Society – I wonder how I should respond. Do I quietly celebrate this adoption of the emblem of Palestinian nationalism, or do I bitterly resent these Johnny-come-latelies and the ignorantly casual way they swing the black and white scarf over their shoulders? As it is safe to assume that those sporting keffiyehs are not new card-carrying members of Fatah, is this phenomenon a “good thing”?

You might say that this anxiety is typical of the miserable left, moaning about the gradual acceptance by the trendsetters and taste-makers of a cherished symbol of resistance. To combine cliches, we never miss an opportunity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But it is not as simple, or uplifting, as that.

In the past few decades, radical icons have been appropriated by market forces and rendered politically impotent. The archetypal commoditisation is Che Guevara or, more accurately, a picture of him. Once confined to posters in student digs, Che’s mugshot has since appeared on, well, mugs, along with T-shirts, beer mats and other merchandise. He is now high-street fashion attire, at best worn in a spirit of ironic acknowledgement of his radical politics.

It’s not just symbols that undergo a revision; entire moral and intellectual legacies can be transformed. Martin Luther King has become a contemporary saint in the US, complete with a holiday named after him. He has become a marketable meaninglessness, providing suitable quotations for all occasions, and reinforcing self-comforting American ideas of democracy. Meanwhile, his attacks on US foreign policy and the military-industrial complex are forgotten.

The keffiyeh could be heading in the same direction. Rather than its increased popularity signifying a politicisation of fashion, it simply means more people will be wearing something they know little about and which represents something they do nothing for.

Published in the New Statesman.

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