Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Commerce of Che

Isn’t it odd that in Europe, a land of towering intellectual icons, the image of Che Guevara, an ineffective South American rabble-rouser, would be as prevalent an image as the cross, the European Union flag, or even relics of European royal history? In the same countries that da Vinci, Luther, Bach, Goethe, and Michelangelo created masterpieces that would forever dictate the course of western civilization, an alien to Europe would have guessed that a bearded discontent lionized in a simple black and red portrait had more of an impact on the continent. Merchants everywhere sold his mug on t-shirts, and graffiti paid homage to the man lauded as socialism’s greatest guerilla warrior. It made me wonder again and again: what did this Che guy do that has allowed his influence to grow, four decades after his death, even in countries that had been failed communist experiments only a few years before?

Perhaps the most disappointing depiction of Che was on the Berlin Wall itself. Given the Berlin Wall’s infamy as a wall that forcibly kept people imprisoned inside a communist prison state, it is highly ignorant, or perhaps simply evil to depict a communist like Che in any sort of positive light here of all places. Of course, the fact that the Berlin Wall was an enforced border to keep people in has been lost on many in my generation. Peacenik sensibilities have led them to believe that all walls are bad, so they decry the building of any wall, be it one that would keep illegal immigrants out of the US, or one that keeps terrorists out of Israel. The Berlin wall was not one such wall; its building served one purpose only: to disallow those from the East to migrate to the West. But the irony is that this wall seems to be one that gets a pass. These communists have claimed it, in a sense, as one that was good because it preserved communism. It is, in a sense, the communist wailing wall, the last vestige of that deplorable religion where communists can gather together to mourn.

But my run-ins with Che were no limited to graffiti.While walking around Berlin we stumbled across some disenchanted communists who were protesting that communism as a political party was outlawed in Germany several decades before. And whose face did they parade as they silently protested for their right to be legal communists? Who else? Che! I would have respected these demonstrators more if they bothered to champion communists from German history, and they didn’t pick such a cliché like Che (I just noticed the pun). Alas, Che has made his way to Germany to champion guerilla warfare in a country that hates war, and is only now seriously studying WWII. The irony never ceases.

And who was Che, anyway? This article, a review of “The Motorcycle Diaries” gives a wonderful account of Che’s true legacy: failed coup attempts, labor camps (that were not exactly friendly to leftist causes like homosexuality and AIDS), and totalitarianism, all in a context of anti-catholic imagery he himself adopted. He was a champion of violence, yet somehow, his legacy is one of justice. Generations X and Y apparently find Che’s legacy appealing, but I would doubt many of them actually know anything about him. Do they ever consider that he was a terrorist, in the truest sense of the word? Would they parade around a t-shirt with a picture of Bin Laden on it? Or do they just hate America so much, and find the concept of communism sexy enough to adopt Che long enough for a superficial fashion statement?

It was not only Germany that Che was so popular but Italy as well. And not only in tourist traps and graffiti, but also in art. In Martin Luther’s very home is a painting of him sitting at a table with Che, as though Luther’s Reformation and Che’s revolutions were equitable. I started to wonder if I could go anywhere without seeing this guy!

What I find deliciously ironic is the popularity with Che among the bourgeois. As his shirts sell for $15-20, and a whole range of products from hats to backpacks to cigarette lighters make some entrepreneur very rich, I can’t help but feel that capitalism had the last laugh for poor little Che. Everyone from t-shirt vendors to book publishers and movie producers are making a mint off this guy, and I can’t imagine they have to pay many royalties to do it.

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