Leonard Bernstein was a fine midcentury American composer and conductor. He also achieved notoriety as one of the postwar period’s first and most visible celebrants of extreme leftwing attitudes. Bernstein’s garden parties for the Black Panthers in their baddest days evoked the phrase radical chic, which entered our language as an early marker of what since has become known as lifestyle liberalism.

Rebellion in the Russian province of Chechnya recently has elbowed aside Bosnia as the foreign segment of our media diet, and it is this rebellion that has provided the latest occasion for radical chic. In fairness, it is not only lifestyle liberals who are engrossed with the Chechen. Republican internationalists nostalgic for the Cold War have taken an interest in Russia’s stumbling response. Bob Dole, who has been lurching into one hollow “statesmanlike” posture after another as preamble to his doomed presidential bid, has muttered darkly about resurgent Russian imperialism. This grumbling is familiar and thoroughly bogus. Those who danced with Brezhnev cannot plausibly claim distress about the suppression of a tiny province of Muslim fundamentalists.

But it is precisely the Chechens’ exotic ethnicity that liberals find so thrilling. Brezhnev’s crushing of the Czech spring in 1968 may have discomfited them a bit, but in the midst of the Vietnam War they did not want to criticize the Russians overmuch. Besides, the Czechs were so boringly Western, part of our culture for 2,000 years. How could liberals with hearts aflame for the Vietcong glamorize white people who love Mozart and the Catholic Church?

The Chechens are a different matter, just the kind of dashing hoodlums that liberals find attractive, at a distance. Consider some of the breathless commentary from a newly minted “expert” in the Northeast’s most liberal paper. Our freelancer recalls the glamorous Imam Shamil, “a holy Muslim warrior” who proclaimed a jihad against the troops of the czar. “I lis horsemen were unequaled!” enthuses the cub reporter quoting from her Worldbook. “Navigating the high terrain like mountain goats”—what an inventive simile—”they swooped down with reins between their teeth and hacked the Russian soldiers to pieces as they struggled up the narrow mountain passes.” How exciting to envision the slaughter of a bunch of incompetent Christian white boys, scions of men who for 500 years fought to protect themselves, and people further west, from the onslaught of Tartars and Mongols.

But politically correct attitudes are nothing new to bored middle-class attitudinizers. “Shamil was a heroic figure in European capitals. Victorian ladies embroidered his black banner in needlepoint.” So radical chic was alive and festering in 19th-century England. It was just that mixture of aesthetic and imperial attitudes that led some English to glorify and assist the Confederate states during our own Civil War.

There is more in this matter that reflects the liberal habit of losing abroad what they hate at home. Listen to the pack; “Violence and carrying weapons is a Chechen way of life. In the Caucasus, warriors wrote poems to their daggers.” Even better, “blood feuds and vendettas still exist.” Those infatuated with this portrait of violent, gun-toting natives are the same liberals who demonize the National Rifle Association and any American who seeks to retain his right to a rifle. Such double standards are a signature of radical chic and the reason normal folks resent it.

Last but not least are careerist reasons for idealizing the Chechens. If there is a protracted battle with many deaths, there will be a lot to write about, many picturesque and horrid scenes to be described with piquant sympathy for the Third World rebels. “Already volunteers are signing up for a holy war,” our cub writes with an almost lubricious fervor. Chechen brutality and fanaticism will dissolve into visions of turbaned horsemen writing poems to their daggers and jigging in the village square.

Our own national interests will become obscured as well. While the Russian army flounders as it did during World War I, and Yeltsin’s control of his country fractures as did the czar’s, a coup becomes dangerously possible. Our goal must be stability in Russian governance, with or without Boris Yeltsin. If we will not go to the mat for the Czech Republic or Poland with their integral links to Western culture, we must not pick fights for Chechnya, a province the size of Massachusetts and a republic only in name.

With our limited political influence and energy and our need to reform our own government and cultural values, one can only hope that the odd alliance of Cold War reflexes and radical chic will not obscure our main interests concerning Chechnya. There as elsewhere, we need statesmen who can distinguish travelogs from history and who decline to satisfy the transient fascinations of our jaded elite.