Filed under: Americas
Needless to say, I am popping open a bottle of champagne. The 40th anniversary of the death of Che Guevara is a cause for celebration. Doing so, and on other days like this, are sure to keep you pretty drunk 365 days a year (all the more reason to do so). The biggest problem I have with this day though is that, for every one person like myself celebrating his death, there is at least one person out there celebrating his life. I divide us into three groups: people who knows the truth, idealist idiots who don't, and blind intellectuals. We all see a different side of who Che was, though obviously the latter two see simply half-truths.
The idealistic idiots are the college students who hang banners emblazoned with his face up in their dorm rooms, wear the t-shirts, and generally feed the ironic Che money making machine. I had a friend from college back in Boston who had one of those flags hanging above his bed. Underneath the caricature of Che were the words, "Hasta la victoria siempre." Very strange, given that he's a white, upper-class Bolivian guy, but nonetheless very idealistic and perhaps just not knowledgeable.
It really made me want to puke sometimes. Not only is Marxist revolutionary rhetoric nauseating to me, but to be so close to it makes me asthmatic.
I remember asking him about it. He did know the background of Che, as he well should, where most people did not. But fully knowing this, he said that he looked up to him not for what he was, but for what he represents. Notice the change from past tense to present -- what he was, but for what he represents today. And what does he represent? Fearlessness, bravery, a desire to change the world. These are the things every college kid, among others, sees in Che without bothering to look any further into his story. In reality, these are in many ways true. Yet it is not the whole truth, simply an exaggerated single side of this personality cult exaggerated by the marketing of his face.
The latter, the blind intellectual, is called so because he is a smart man who knows what he sees in front of him, but turns a blind eye to it perhaps unconsciously in favor of the better traits that he sees. The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre once called Che "the most complete human being of our age." He was completely enamored of the Cuban revolution from the very beginning, and as history goes, fell in love with the intellect and actions of Che Guevara that so surpassed his own. The hundreds of executions committed alongside his brother in arms Raul Castro could be overlooked. In fact, they were not noteworthy, because they lacked the sparkle of his testaments, poetry, and words. Sartre latched on to one side of Che because that's the side he liked; his humanity, supposed desire for justice and equality for all, is hard to reconcile with his absolute disdain for black Cubans when considered. He had obviously never seen the writings where Che writes of his lust for blood either.
Just like anyone who believes in the promises of Marxism, Sartre was enamored by the words rather than the inherent contradictions present in the actions taken to achieve the ongoing victory. The blind intellectual sees a godlike figure where really there is a beast that can speak.
The truth about Che is more complicated than either of these views, but we cannot deny them completely. Even before he was put on t-shirts, the very base of his actions -- fighting for what he believed in, regardless of your agreement with it -- inspired people all over the world. And while he is not personally inspiring to me, I have met people working for democracy in their countries who are, in that very base amount, inspired simply by the bravery of fighting for ones beliefs rather than the beliefs Che actually had.
And even while the atrocities committed are well-known, some still to this day find beauty in his words. This essay I found on the internet is written by someone who, fully knowledgeable, is able to find beauty and truth in the words of a man he knows to have not lived up to them.
So who is Che Guevara? The question is almost pointless to answer, because regardless of the constant dissemination of whole information, people will continue to choose which pieces to filter out in order to fit their views regardless of the truth. One can can that he is a people person, a racist, a demagogue, an idealist, a revolutionary, a mass murderer, a poet, a beast, "the most complete human of our age," or a cold-hearted bastard. More than anything, though, the word that may best describe him is contradiction.
However, I cannot subscribe to such a soft word. While the latter two groups may see all of these good qualities as mitigating factors, a true humanist cannot mitigate the horrible things he did to others based on perceived personal good qualities. I will go with the phrase "racist demagogue mass murderer beast cold-hearted bastard." To me, this best describes the truth of the real Che Guevara, based not on any perceptions about him, but simply based on his lasting impact on other people and the world.
- A lot more discussion today at The Belmont Club. Just scroll.
- Val Prieto obviously has tons worth scrolling as well.