Monday, April 04, 2005

In, well, "defense" of Che

Radical chic is underfire again. This past weekend, Humberto Fontova, author most recently of Fidel: Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant, took an angry shot at Carlos Santana on In “Che at the Oscars,” Fontova wrote:

“Did you catch Carlos Santana’s grand entrance at the Oscars?

“Well, the famed guitarist couldn’t contain himself. He stopped for the photographers, smiled deliriously and swung his jacket open. TA-DA! There it was: Carlos’ elegantly embroidered Che Guevara t-shirt. Carlos’ face as the flashbulbs popped said it all. ‘I’m so COOL!’ he beamed. ‘I’m so HIP! I’m so CHEEKY! So SHARP! So TUNED IN!’

“Tune in to this, Carlos: in the mid 1960’s Fidel and your charming t-shirt icon set up concentration camps in Cuba for, among many others, ‘anti-social elements’ and ‘delinquents.’ Besides Bohemian (Haight-Ashbury, Greenwich Village types) and homosexuals, these camps were crammed with ‘roqueros,’ who qualified in Che and Fidel’s eyes as useless ‘delinquents.’

“A ‘roquero’ was a hapless youth who tried to listen to Yankee-Imperialist rock music in Cuba.”

Put more bluntly, Carlos Santana’s chic t-shirt on Oscar night displayed the symbol of a regime that made it criminal to listen to Santana’s music!

Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia almost four decades ago. And as years pass, we learn more and more horrible things about the man. But his “radical chic” status continues, through the t-shirts, the posters, the books, and the recent movie The Motorcycle Diaries.

How come?

Shortly after Che’s death, the great Murray Rothbard posed that very question in an editorial written for the journal Left and Right. “How come?” wrote Murray. “Surely not because Che was a Communist. Precious few people in this country or anywhere else will mourn the passing, for example, of Brezhnev, Kosygin, or Ulbricht, Communist leaders all. No, it is certainly not Che’s Communist goals which made his name a byword and a legend throughout the world, and throughout the New Left in this country.”

So what is it? Answered Murray:

“What made Che such an heroic figure for our time is that he, more than any man of our epoch or even of our century, was the living embodiment of the principle of Revolution. More than any man since the lovable but entirely ineffectual nineteenth-century Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, Che earned the title of ‘professional revolutionary.’ And furthermore, to paraphrase Christopher Jencks in a recent perceptive, if wrongheaded, article in the New Republic, we all knew that his enemy was our enemy — that great Colossus that oppresses and threatens all the peoples of the world, U.S. imperialism.”

Murray was right in 1967. And I think his editorial still rings true. I’m not going to defend Che Guevara the man. But despite everything I know today about Che, I still can’t help but be stirred by that image of the professional revolutionary...just as I was 35 years ago in high school. That famous Che image, whether on a poster or t-shirt, is the equivalent of a defiant fist raised in the air. The truth about the man behind that image may be hideous, but the image is now bigger than the man. Whether you like it or not, to most people — including me — it doesn’t represent Communism, or Cuban concentration camps, or state socialist regimes.

It represents a revolutionary spirit.


At 2:32 PM, Blogger freeman said...


1. I understand what you're saying about Che specifically, although I've come to view Che regalia as part of a larger communist chic. I also see shirts with the hammer and sickle, and there is a store in my town that sells Mao and Lenin shirts right next to the Che shirts. Even if you wanted to lump Mao and Lenin together with Che regarding the promotion of revolutionary spirit, what about clothing showing off the hammer and sickle?

2. I understand and agree with your comparison over at my blog between Che gear and the Confederate flag. However, there will always be people who equate the Confederate flag with racism, and those people will likely always be a majority. Likewise, there are people who will always equate Che with his dark side as opposed to his revolutionary spirit. For that reason, I'll always be steering clear from both images.

At 11:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Che Guevara = the most complete human being of our age.


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