Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries," with Robert Redford as executive producer, 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." When it goes into wide release Friday, it's bound to induce a whole new generation of disaffected youth to hitch their dreams of liberation and freedom to this handsome rebel.

Paul Berman marvels at the strange sort of 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. Tonight, almost three dozen little children lie dead on a street in Baghdad, and more lay moaning in hospitals with their legs blown off, thanks to the "Minuteman" 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 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 of the kind of insurgent "revolution" Che would have sought.

"[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.
"Oso Raro" is the kind of lefitst who has no use for hero-worship of Hugo Chavez, which she connects to its eternal torch-carrying for Che. In her book, the "Che Complex" is the new "Orientalism."
The Che Complex refers to the dismaying habit of the Western Left to aggrandize symbols of Latin American resistance with little or no understanding (or care) for the histories or tangible effects of these politics on the people living under these revolutionary regimes. Some good political examples of the Che Complex would be, aside from Che (natch): Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende, (at one time) The Sandinistas, (at election time) Lula, and most recently Bolivia's Evo Morales. Some good cultural examples would be Frida Kahlo, Gabriel García Marquez and the literary genre of magical realism, and the Buena Vista Social Club. I include the cultural along with the political because the Che Complex is a holistic approach to Latin American authenticity: radical, fecund, disordered, natural, native, real, as opposed to our synthetic, processed, unnatural lives in the developed West. What differentiates the Che Complex from old-fashioned exoticism is its explicitly leftist political orientation, its romanticisation of Latin American socio-political upheavals, and an interest in revolutionary transformation that for many in the West seems impossible in their own national milieu. The Che Complex is at heart transference, a displacement of one's own desires for political transformation onto others, and as such, also reveals the psychosocial dimensions of this transference for the Western mind.

This gesture is also one that is incredibly problematic, for it reproduces the historic and unequal colonial dynamic of centre and margin, just with a progressive political face. As the West has used the developing world "other" for centuries to define itself, as what it is not, so again this system exists in the Che Complex: while we, for whatever reasons, cannot effectively battle the forces of capitalism and corruption in the metropole, our brown brothers and sisters in the outré-mer can.

One of the most delightful details from a news story this year concerns the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian politicians kidnapped by leftist guerillas in 2002, and rescued, along with 14 other hostages, by Colombian security forces.
The T-shirts with images of Ernesto "Che" Guevara convinced Ingrid Betancourt. She assumed the men with the iconic revolutionary on their chests were ushering her into the helicopter for transfer to yet another rebel camp.

Instead, Betancourt, along with 14 other hostages, was taking her first steps toward freedom after six years of captivity at the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Less than 24 hours later, she would be reunited with the two children she hadn't seen since her capture.

The white helicopter Betancourt climbed into was piloted by Colombian troops, and the six men wearing Che shirts were soldiers who tricked the rebels into following "orders'' to move the prisoners.

... "The helicopters arrived, and these absolutely surreal characters came out," said Betancourt, gripping rosary beads after she landed at Bogota's military airport. "They were wearing Che Guevara shirts and I thought, it's the FARC."

... After the unmarked helicopter flew over the jungle and out of range of the FARC camp, the hostages saw the men in Che T- shirts spring on their captor. Gerardo Antonio Aguilar Ramirez, known by his alias as Cesar, was tied up, stripped and blindfolded. Then the Colombian troops revealed their identity.

To think that those contemptible T-shirts celebrating that heartless murderer and fool will cease to be the height of celebrity counterculture chic. To think that the image of Che now will arouse suspicion of duplicity and mole-paranoia in leftist authoritarian "freedom fighters." It ranks up there with Betancourt's freedom, Chavez' chagrin, and the Colombian military's competence as good outcomes of this good news.

Oh, how I hope that gets around.


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© July 4, 2008 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"