September 24, 2004


The Cult of Che: Don't applaud The Motorcycle Diaries. (Paul Berman, Sept. 24, 2004, Slate)

The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. 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," he also spoke about martyrdom and managed to compose a number of chilling phrases: "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 on. He 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.

The present-day cult of Che—the T-shirts, the bars, the posters—has succeeded in obscuring this dreadful reality. And Walter Salles' movie The Motorcycle Diaries will now take its place at the heart of this cult. It has already received a standing ovation at Robert Redford's Sundance film festival (Redford is the executive producer of The Motorcycle Diaries) and glowing admiration in the press. 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. And thus it is in Salles' Motorcycle Diaries. [...]

The modern-day cult of Che blinds us not just to the past but also to the present. Right now a tremendous social struggle is taking place in Cuba. Dissident liberals have demanded fundamental human rights, and the dictatorship has rounded up all but one or two of the dissident leaders and sentenced them to many years in prison. Among those imprisoned leaders is an important Cuban poet and journalist, Raúl Rivero, who is serving a 20-year sentence. In the last couple of years the dissident movement has sprung up in yet another form in Cuba, as a campaign to establish independent libraries, free of state control; and state repression has fallen on this campaign, too.

These Cuban events have attracted the attention of a number of intellectuals and liberals around the world. Václav Havel has organized a campaign of solidarity with the Cuban dissidents and, together with Elena Bonner and other heroic liberals from the old Soviet bloc, has rushed to support the Cuban librarians. A group of American librarians has extended its solidarity to its Cuban colleagues, but, in order to do so, the American librarians have had to put up a fight within their own librarians' organization, where the Castro dictatorship still has a number of sympathizers. And yet none of this has aroused much attention in the United States, apart from a newspaper column or two by Nat Hentoff and perhaps a few other journalists, and an occasional letter to the editor. The statements and manifestos that Havel has signed have been published in Le Monde in Paris, and in Letras Libres magazine in Mexico, but have remained practically invisible in the United States. The days when American intellectuals rallied in any significant way to the cause of liberal dissidents in other countries, the days when Havel's statements were regarded by Americans as important calls for intellectual responsibility—those days appear to be over.

Every essay from the pen of Paul Berman over the past few years has struck a note of anguish at what has become of the Left that he still imagines himself a member of. Take his first sentence: "The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time." Strike the "our time" and replace it with "the Left" and you've got the truth he can't quite face.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 24, 2004 11:00 AM

Also, strike our "Ernesto Che Guevera" and replace with any one of a number of like-minded killer-heroes.

Posted by: Peter B at September 24, 2004 11:11 AM

I certainly don't enjoy seeing all the
Che-related books, movies and novelty items, but
on the other hand The cult of the gangster
(which is really what it is) covers a wider
range of territory (Godfather).


Those who revere Sherman, Grant and Licoln
(while having better taste) surely must
be aware of the brutality of those men?

Posted by: J.H. at September 24, 2004 12:15 PM

Throw in Custer, Jackson and Cortez for the
heck of it.

Posted by: J.H. at September 24, 2004 12:16 PM

Except that Che Guevarra liked brutality, and was brutal when other (and better) options were available. He was a sadist with the power to inflict his fantasies.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 24, 2004 12:42 PM

When the actuary tables finally catch up with Castro, it's going to be oodles of fun watching all the the leftist from the U.S. and elsewhere get cursed and harranged by the Cuban population the first time they show up on the island spouting their Che/Fidel platitudes.

Posted by: John at September 24, 2004 1:15 PM

Somewhere I've seen a T-shirt that has Che with Mickey Mouse ears on the front, and "Real Revolutionaries Don't Support Centralized State Authority" printed on the back. Kinda cute in a wonkish libertarian way.

Posted by: Twn at September 24, 2004 2:04 PM

More interesting is the question of why some people, exposed to oppression, respond by becoming oppressors themselves; and some don't.

Hugh Thomas calls himself a meliorist. He's no fan of the kinds of events that (allegedly) horrified Guevara.

The Guevara reaction is hard (for me at least) to figure.

Almost as interesting, though, is the counter, counterrevolutionary stance, on display daily at brothersjuddblog: He was a bad man, therefore whatever he objected to really was good, despite superficial appearances.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 24, 2004 2:43 PM

What we are really seeing is the love affair between tht left and their romantic dreams projected onto the silverscreen just in time for the election.

JFKII was pushing for Che's followers in the 80's when he gave the Xmas in Cambodia speech. They are all imprisoned in that dream. Go rent "The Way We Were."

Only when they wake up and shake off that dream will they be able to particpate in American political life.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 24, 2004 3:45 PM

He executed with his own pistol an 11-year-old kid for pilfering the platoon's food. It's all you need to know about this guy.

That, and the fact that as treasurer his signature on the Cuban currency read simply, "Che."

"Che" means "Kid."

Posted by: George at September 24, 2004 4:35 PM


The mistake you are making is to give too much credit to young people upset by injustice, to the point where that warps everyday rules of morality and human reality. The left is actually quite good (seriously) at ringing alarm bells about this or that evil or wrongdoing, but leftist thought impels them to abstract, apocalytpic solutions and to insisting that the injustice they are so exorcised about is the everyday experiece of "the people" and that only gargantuan changes in our notions of right, wrong, good evil, etc. will cure the malignancy. Then, full of righteousnes about their brilliant insights, they send in the commissars to help people see clearly. When you speak on behalf of "the people", you are definitely empowered.

Think of the concerned citizen who starts by trying to clean up a fetid local river and ends up at the UN making speeches about how we are all going to hell in a handbasket if we don't "completely change the way we see things."

Posted by: Peter B at September 24, 2004 7:12 PM

Peter, I wasn't speaking only about leftists.

Plenty of rightists display exactly the same path.
The Falangists, for example. Pope Pius XII

Idealism is a bad thing from any direction.

I was brought up to believe different, but I had my mind changed by reading the memoirs of survivors of the death camps.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 25, 2004 2:57 PM

The Falange (especially once taken over and manipulated by Franco) and Pius are heroes of WWII, their Catholicism having led them to resist Hitler and the Holocaust. Spain and the Church were saving Jews while the French were shipping them East and FDR was listening to Eleanor and her lovers.

Posted by: oj at September 25, 2004 5:03 PM

Orrin, you need to get out more. Pius XII was blessing the Croats for killing Jews.

Franco supplied Hitler with everything Hitler wanted from him, as long as Hitler stayed on the north side of Spanish border.

The idea that Catholicism opposed Naziism is absurd.

Try 'Hitler's Pope'

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 25, 2004 10:28 PM

Do you read the Protocols to find out about Jews?

Posted by: oj at September 26, 2004 12:18 AM

Harry, Harry, Harry..

Here I leave you a wide open opportunity to come roaring in with Hitler and Mussolini and you whine in with Pius X11 and the Spanish Falangists. I don't think I would be as laudatory as Orrin about the latter, but Franco was not a member. He was a brutal, old-fashioned caudillo the likes of which Spain and South America have seen many. He stood for church, family, tradition and nation and managed a coalition of all those interests. He was far removed from the ideological diseases of the 20th century.

As to Pius, irrefutable scholarship and testimony has proven conclusively that you are a frothing loon on that one.

The point I was trying to make is, left or right, there is no continuam between addressing individual wrongs and injustices concretely and advocating abstract new "orders" that will cure all that ails us. The bane of our times is that so many think there is.

Posted by: Peter B at September 26, 2004 8:26 AM

And, Harry, that applies as much to secular millenialists as to the theocratic kind.

Posted by: Peter B at September 26, 2004 9:04 AM