Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries,” with Robert Redford as executive producer, opens in wide release today. It got a standing ovation at Sundance film festival and has been praised in the press as “an inspiring coming-of-age tale and buddy-bonding road trip full of wondrous vistas, earthy humor and universal emotions whose last stop may be the Oscars.” A whole new generation of disaffected youth is about to discover this handsome rebel.
But Paul Berman marvels at the strange sort of Hollywood culture that makes a martyr-hero out of Che Guevara.
Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won.
Che presided over the Cuban Revolution’s first firing squads. He founded Cuba’s “labor camp” system — the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che’s imagination. In the famous essay in which he issued his ringing call for “two, three, many Vietnams.”
Che’s phrase was echoed, perhaps consciously, in March 2003, by Columbia University professor Nicholas De Genova, a professor of anthropology and Latino studies, at a faculty meeting to oppose the American invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
“Peace is not patriotic. Peace is subversive, because peace anticipates a very different world than the one in which we live — a world where the U.S. would have no place. U.S. patriotism is inseparable from imperial warfare and white supremacy. U.S. flags are the emblem of the invading war machine in Iraq today. They are the emblem of the occupying power. The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military.”
And he added, “I wish for a million Mogadishus.”
I wonder if De Genova is happy now that his wish is unfolding in Iraq. A few nights ago, three dozen little children lay dead on a street in Baghdad, and more lie moaning in hospitals tonight with their legs blown off, thanks to the “minutemen” heroes who detonated their cars in the interest of an anti-American revolution. Che would applaud.
Che has far more in common with a modern-day Islamist suicide bomber than he does with the people who are fixing power plants, building schools, and lining up to vote in Iraq and Afghanistan — or with the dissident liberals rounded up and jailed recently in Cuba. Take Che at his word:
“Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become.”
And so, in the name of a nasty medieval religious fundamentalism, they are doing across the Middle East. That’s the trouble with selling Che to a new generation of youth as a “radical.” That steely stare of the young Argentine in those old ’60s posters, it’s not looking forward. It’s firmly fixed on the past. Berman writes:
Che was an enemy of freedom, and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice. He stood for the ancient rigidities of Latin-American thought, in a Marxist-Leninist version, and he has been celebrated as a free-thinker and a rebel.
The current repackaging of Che in the U.S. no doubt has a streak of ’60s nostalgia. Those silk-screen Che posters in red and black were icons of “counterculture” interior decoration. As one fawning Web site about him puts it, “Che became the poster boy (literally) for revolution.”
Salles’ movie apparently trades on many of the mythic themes of Latin American history. I wonder if he didn’t overlook one: the vampire. It’s as if the ’60s generation, bitter under Bush and bypassed by history, is trying to vampirize a modern anti-war youth movement that is otherwise wary of the dippy excesses and failures of 1969. It as if Redford et al have said, “We can plant the seeds of Che in their brains — mix him up with Jack Kerouac and Holden Caulfield and make him every teen’s idol — and ‘the revolution’ will live on for another generation, even as we totter off to the grave.”
I trust the truth will keep the domestic myth-making within bounds. And I pray that the future in Iraq will refute the kind of “revolution” Che would have wanted there.
“[H]e was killed in Bolivia in 1967, leading a guerrilla movement that had failed to enlist a single Bolivian peasant. And yet he succeeded in inspiring tens of thousands of middle class Latin-Americans to exit the universities and organize guerrilla insurgencies of their own. And these insurgencies likewise accomplished nothing, except to bring about the death of hundreds of thousands, and to set back the cause of Latin-American democracy — a tragedy on the hugest scale.