Is Keffiyeh Part of the Rebel Sell?

Author’s Note: Allow me to establish two points: First, I believe the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have crossed a morally acceptable line in their response to the October 7th pogrom. Second, the claim that George Soros is the main architect of the current mayhem seems too conspiratorial to me.

Let’s examine the keffiyeh, a garment often worn by protesters in American universities. It has been adopted as a symbol of woke coolness, a way for activists to show solidarity with Arabs who resist Western imperialism. But is this use of the keffiyeh truly a genuine expression of political activism, or is it just another trend in the world of fashion?

Of course, protesters fail to notice that the keffiyeh has become a means of expansion for another empire. Long ago, the Chinese realized that there was enormous potential in the keffiyeh, as anti-system youngsters in the Western world were eager to wear it. So, in their newfound voracious capitalism, the Chinese embraced this niche and have been massively manufacturing the keffiyeh for years. The Chinese do not wear it; they export it.

In essence, the keffiyeh is a twenty-first century makeover of the Che Guevara sweatshirt—another apparel produced and marketed by the voracious textile industry of late capitalism. They are a continuation of James Dean’s leather jacket in the 1950s: rebelliousness as a fashion statement. Jim Stark, Dean’s character in the famous 1955 film, had no qualms about being a rebel without a cause. Communists and pro-Palestinian protesters pretend to have a just cause in their rebellion, but by and large, they are all in for the hipness. It’s all about form over substance.

Sociologists have long been aware of how these dynamics take place in capitalism. Corporations are constantly on the hunt for new concepts. They need to sell customers the idea of non-conformism, making them believe that by buying a particular product, consumers are on the vanguard and are, therefore, unlike the rest of society. However, by purchasing this product, consumers become precisely the opposite. They camp out, carry protest signs, occasionally wreck stuff, and wear the keffiyeh, thinking that in doing so, somehow, they are rebels. They do not realize that they have become yet another sheep in the herd.

Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter beautifully explained it twenty years ago in The Rebel Sell: “the overwhelming majority of what gets called radical, revolutionary, subversive or transgressive is nothing of the sort … This is the rebel sell. It’s a sell that has been used not only to sell ordinary commercial goods, but also to sell a myth about the way that our culture works.”

Now, how can we be sure that the pro-Palestinian protests are part of the rebel sell and not the real deal? It would only be fair to admit that some people in the campus protests may genuinely feel the pain of oppressed people worldwide. But there are many indications that, by and large, this is more about the hipness of the keffiyeh than about the intricacies of a conflict that has spanned over seven decades.

If this were indeed about combatting oppression and colonialism, why are the activists coming out now all of a sudden? Why not protest the recent ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh? Where were the activists when the Rohingya were expelled from Myanmar a few years ago? Where are the manifestations against the current treatment of the Uyghurs in China?

To some, these questions may be a form of whataboutism. But I do not think these inconsistencies can be dismissed so easily. In fact, they are powerful evidence that the current protests are largely superficial tirades of privileged kids in search of coolness. The Uyghur, Armenian, or Rohingya causes are mostly invisible because they are not part of the rebel sell. The regimes that carry out those instances of oppression are non-Western, and for that very reason, those causes are simply not marketable.

The Palestinian cause has been marketed very efficiently because its antagonist is a Western nation. The keffiyeh may be made in China, but it needs to have some Western reference to thrive in the market. For the product to be appealing, Westerners need to be involved in some capacity. If it is people of color oppressing people of color in some nation of the Global South, nobody cares, and whatever products are associated with those causes will flop. This constant reference to Western centrality is a bizarre new form of cultural imperialism.

Many campus activists had become quite aggressive against Jewish students, and many commentators fear a new wave of antisemitism is in the making—perhaps not unlike Europe in the 1930s. I understand their concern, but I think they are missing the point. This is not about hatred of the Jews per se. This is more about being on the quest for coolness and finding it in counterculture. To some, “From the River to the Sea” may sound antisemitic, but I view it instead as another version of the vacuousness of “Just Do It.”

This is all the more tragic since, as I acknowledged, I do believe that there are legitimate reasons to protest against the excessive military actions of the IDF. However, the fact that these students protest injustices only when Westerners are the perpetrators does great harm to their credibility. It is up to a new generation of youngsters who are genuinely committed to justice to stand up to the task and be consistent with their commitments. Otherwise, to this writer—and many others—they will just be Jim Stark-like lost souls desperately trying to gain the upper hand in the conquest of cool.

Photo by Alisdare Hickson — Flickr


3 thoughts on “Is Keffiyeh Part of the Rebel Sell?

  1. First, I believe the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have crossed a morally acceptable line in their response to the October 7th pogrom.

    And I don’t — what did Hamas think would happen when they attacked Israel? Israel has tried being nice to these savages, tried for decades, and it hasn’t worked. And the purported casualty numbers are being fabricated, it’s now come out that they can’t find names for 10,000 of them — real people have names….

    Second, the claim that George Soros is the main architect of the current mayhem seems too conspiratorial to me.

    Possibly, but the campus Hamas chapters existed 30 years ago.

  2. “From the River to the Sea” may sound antisemitic, but I view it instead as another version of the vacuousness of “Just Do It.”

    Just No ! It means just what hamas says.Any thing else is being disingenuous.

    1. I suggest that it could be both vacuous and antisemitic — and that there is historical evidence of similar things in the past.

      Take, for example, the Klan lynchings of a century ago. We have the old photographs, that were pre-photoshop so we know what’s actually pictured there actually happened. And what’s pictured is truly chilling — families having a picnic under the bodies of the lynched Black men, the lynchings being a social event.

      When you realize that most of these idiots have no idea WHAT river or WHAT sea they are chanting about (and could never find either on a well-labeled map), you have to realize that “Kill the Jews” has become the equivalent of “Yankees Suck” in Red Sox Nation. It’s shouted at football games.

      The antisemitism has become institutionalized, which is actually worse. And I argue that the underlying Marxist nilhism is even worse yet.

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