Chances are good that someone you know owns a Che t-shirt. Romanticized versions of Ernesto Guevara Lynch’s bearded face are popular on campuses and elsewhere — so popular that the American chain store Urban Outfitters planned to release a whole line of Che-inspired fashion items, and dozens of other websites offer a wide range of Che paraphernalia.
Guevara was a Marxist who was born in Argentina, earned a position in Cuba as Fidel Castro’s economic minister, and died in a skirmish with soldiers in Bolivia.
But here is the puzzle. In real life, Guevara was an equal-opportunity jailer, torturer, and killer. Whether it was advocates of free speech, homosexuals, those in favor of freedom of religion or who liked rock and roll music, business owners, or ideological enemies — and whether men, women, or children — he favored imprisoning, tormenting, and murdering them.
“To execute a man,” Che once said, “we don’t need proof of his guilt.” In the early days of the Cuban revolution, Che wrote home to his father about shooting a peasant guerrilla: “I’d like to confess, Papa, at that moment I discovered that I really like killing.” Much of the story is very ugly.
So how did a killer become a fashion icon?
Almost amusingly — and perhaps inspired by American fashion capitalism — a Cuban state company recently announced plans to release a line of “Ernesto” and “Hugo” perfumes in honor of Che Guevara and Venezuela’s now-deceased socialist dictator Hugo Chavez. That plan was shot down by higher-ups in the government and appropriate punishments are apparently forthcoming for those who suggested something so sacrilegious.
Less amusingly, in 2008 a heroic 12-foot bronze statue of Guevara was unveiled in his birth city of Rosario, Argentina.
Back in the USA, the culture war continues with anti-Che merchandise such as a shirt with a picture of Adolf Hitler and the caption “My Che shirt is in the laundry.” Or shirts with Che’s image and a subtle caption reading “My other shirt is a Hitler.” (See the gallery at the end of this article.)
The point of course is that no one would think of using a Nazi thug to make a fashion statement. Or maybe not in these strange times of ours — as Hitler iconography is also making a comeback in some circles. To their credit, Urban Outfitters did decide to abandon their Che line in response to protests from the Cuban-American community and this open letter published in The Huffington Post by Thor Halvorssen of the Human Rights Foundation.
(I rather like the edgy irony to the perfume and shirt-in-the-laundry ideas, though, as Che rarely bathed, according to his complaining companions.)
The problem is not so much Guevara himself — he’s been dead now for half a century. The problem is the Che legend and its symbolism, which has had a hold on the minds and hearts of a subculture of young people for two generations now. The facts about Che’s brutality are not unknown. But the power of legend and myth often outstrips the power of facts. And in our market-friendly culture of free speech, there will always be a market for those who want anti-market and anti-freedom stuff. The size of that market is a cultural indicator worth watching.
For some, Che is a symbol of socialist revolution. For others, he stands more vaguely for revolution of some sort. Or for merely being against the status quo. For yet others, Che means being a relatively-youthful martyr for a cause. For sophisticated commentators, Che merchandise is kitsch — the banal statement of pampered American college kids who want to join the scene and, as a bonus, to shock Mom and Dad and the other squares.
But for all variants, Che symbolism is a statement of how one counter-culture sees itself.
Patrick Symmes’s travel book Chasing Che is to my mind the best representative. Symmes is a thoughtful man of the eclectic left, and he was inspired to recreate part of Che’s journey through several South American countries. Che started his journey on a motorcycle, but much like the Cuban economy he was later in charge of, the motorcycle broke down and Che didn’t know much about how such things worked. Che and his travel partner, Alberto Granado, then bummed and mooched their way for the rest of the trip. Symmes, by contrast, was organized and knew how to maintain his BMW motorcycle — and he brought his well-trained journalistic eye to telling a good story of the peoples and landscapes he encountered in his journey along Che’s path from Argentina to Chile and Peru.
But you’d barely know from Symmes, and then only in the book’s later pages, that Guevara tortured and killed indiscriminately. We instead get a sensitive portrait of a young man on a quest of self-discovery and social reform. There is genuine sympathy for the powerless and appropriate outrage for the injustices done by powerful governments and their crony business partners, along with an understated sense that Che’s brutality was perhaps an excusable response. And we get a strong impression that the only alternative to Latin American semi-feudalism is some sort of egalitarian socialism.
All of that suggests that our Che problem is really a philosophical one. It’s not just that Guevara was an activist who was widely read in the deep thinkers — Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, and of course Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It’s that all of us since Che are battling over the abstract significance of his legacy. What’s true and what’s myth? What ideals and evils are at stake? And, as the fashion battle demonstrates — what’s cool and hip? That is to say, to use philosophers’ labels, that the Che battle is about epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics.
Another way to put it is this: The problem is not Che Guevara, it is Che Guevara-ism.
If we are ever to get past the disasters of socialism in the twentieth century and to prevent their recurrence in the twenty-first, then greater awareness of the real Che is important to counter the whitewashing and myth-making. But more important to counter are the philosophical ideas that led so energetic a young man as Ernesto Guevara Lynch onto such a violent and destructive path.
Don’t miss last week’s column: Where are All Those Free-Market Economists Who Caused the Financial Crisis?
Click through the Che Guevara below.
Che Guevara - Symbol of FreedomSource: RodolfoGrimaldi.com
Hitler T-ShirtSource: 7bucktees.com
I have a dream...Source: No Caption Needed
All I Got Was This Lousy T-ShirtSource: Ultimate Guitar
Che CobainSource: Buy Something Awesome
The Che IronySource: OssifiedOnline
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Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at ProfessorHicks@EveryJoe.com.