Politics & Policy

Guevara Angst, Musical Anecdotes, (Others’) New Year’s Resolutions, and More

As subscribers to National Review know, I have a piece in the current issue on Che Guevara and the paraphernalia devoted to him. It is called “Che Chic: It’s très disgusting.” It certainly is.

We have had a mini-eruption of Che episodes, as I detail in that piece. You may remember the Burlington Coat Factory boycott–it succeeded. The store was selling a Guevara shirt (at least one), and advertising that shirt on television. The ad was called–can you believe it?–”Values.” Anyway, Cuban Americans protested mightily, and the store desisted. But not before someone there referred to the protesters as “provocateurs,” “fanatics,” and “extremists.”

As I note in NR, the store needs to get with it: The preferred Castroite term for Cubans and Cuban Americans who like democracy and human rights is gusanos, Spanish for “worms.” I have heard many U.S. leftists refer to my friends as gusanos.

La La Ling is not like the Burlington Coat Factory. It is made of sterner stuff.

What is La La Ling, you ask? It’s a store in Los Angeles that sells a “onesie,” or, as the ad copy reads, an “awesome baby onesie”–stamped with Che’s picture. A onesie, I gather, is a one-piece garment for infants, or toddlers. Wanna see the Che one? Here you go.

Cool, huh? Or, as the store puts it, “there’s no cooler iconic image than Che!”

Cuban Americans have protested La La Ling, too, but management is unbowed. The owner confirmed to me that she is still selling the onesie. And she had this to say to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: “[The item] is one of our top sellers. The Che image is just trendy right now [right now?!]. . . . I don’t think people are buying the shirt necessarily because of his exact politics. I have a baby store, and in my eyes it’s just a T-shirt.”

This is a statement I discuss at some length in my piece, for it is an important one. I also wish to commend to you www.babalublog.com, a spearhead of righteous activism.

And how about the Che Guevara watch, at the New York Public Library? Remember that one (from a previous Impromptus)? The library’s gift shop was selling a “Permanent Revolution” watch, with Che’s face on it. Cuban Americans protested mightily there, too–and the library withdrew the watch. Or rather, it decided not to “restock” it, refusing to say what impact the protests had.

Leading the hullabaloo was the remarkable and wonderful Maria Werlau, head of the Free Society Project. Her father fought alongside Guevara, against Batista. He knew him well. Maria knows him too–which is why she works to counter his glorification, however inadvertent, ignorant, or innocent that glorification is.

She and many others wrote letters to the library, pleading with its officials to see reason. One of those writers was Ricardo Pau-Llosa. I was particularly moved by this passage: “I recall my deceased friend, the novelist Enrique Labrador Ruiz, telling me how the communists emptied his private library in Havana and tormented him, saying they would use the books to fill potholes in the streets.” And I remind you that some of the bravest and most inspiring political prisoners come from the independent-library movement.

Another writer concluded his plea as follows: “I would urge you to at least read the . . . essay [on Guevara] from Slate by Paul Berman, a writer with ample liberal credentials.” Berman’s is a very good piece — here it is–and I quote it in mine. But I have always thought it a shame that liberals are more likely to be trusted on Castro’s Cuba than are conservative anti-Communists–especially Cuban Americans. After all, no one knows Cuba better than a) its residents and b) its exiles.

Listen to what Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the Miami congressman, has to say about Che. I doubt the New York Public Library would trust it–but you can: “Guevara was an Argentinian loser who alleged he was a doctor even though he couldn’t give a simple flu shot. What he was good at was killing people, and he became one of history’s cruelest serial killers. He was Castro’s primary henchman, murdering hundreds of innocent people without due process, usually finishing off the work of the mass-production firing squads with shots to the back of the neck. He was and will always be the most despicable, disgusting figure of the Castro killing machine, the foreigner who was made a serial killer of Cubans by Castro, and got great pleasure from his role.”

Indeed, he did. Guevara, famous as he is–famous as his mug is–is little known. He was, as Diaz-Balart says, Castro’s number-one revolutionary thug. He presided over those summary executions at La Cabaña–the old fortress that Guevara commandeered–and he very much enjoyed administering the coup de grâce. He also enjoyed parading people past El Paredón, the reddened wall against which the victims were killed. Viva Cristo Rey! (“Long Live Christ the King!”) they would sometimes yell.

Remember this, too: Guevara founded the labor-camp system, in which countless Cubans–judged “deviant” by the regime–would suffer and die. This is the Cuban gulag; it is Che’s legacy.

Oh, how our “liberals” love him–always have. Why? Well, I’m no psychologist, but Guevara was pure, in a way. He was willing to drench his hands in blood, to do the necessary revolutionary work. He was no salon liberal; he wasn’t a theoretician. He was a bold, romantic man of action. Don’t stand there, dithering, gimme that gun! Bang.

Back when I was writing about Clinton’s pardon of Susan Rosenberg–the Weather Underground terrorist–I asked someone what sympathy Clinton and his people could possibly have with her and her gang. I mean, Clinton might have liked a little nookie, but he was not a terrorist. The answer came, “Well, you know, the’60s liberals, like Bill and Hillary, always looked a little longingly at Susan and her type. The terrorists were purer than they. They were ‘liberals’ in a big, big hurry–and willing to bomb and murder to get there. They weren’t doing namby-pamby things like running for office and trying to increase taxes a little.”

But I digress (somewhat).

Do you know how our own National Institutes of Health describes Guevara? Get this: He was an “Argentinian physician and freedom fighter.” No, really: The NIH link is here. And bear in mind that NIH is a U.S. government body. Is this our official position?

As I remark in NR, Guevara was a physician sort of like Elena Ceausescu was a chemist. In truth, Hitler was probably a better artist than Che was a doctor (or than Mrs. C. was a chemist). As for “freedom fighter” . . . Well, I think of “Kafka-esque” and “Orwellian”; I can’t think of an adjective not attached to a famous novelist’s name.

It’s true, however, that Guevara was Argentinian, as NIH asserts. But even that’s not quite so, because he took Cuban citizenship. Anyway . . .

A word about that movie–you know which one I mean, The Motorcycle Diaries. I will merely cite Tony Daniels, who wrote about the movie, and its subject, Che, in The New Criterion: “It is as if someone were to make a film about Adolf Hitler by portraying him as a vegetarian who loved animals and was against unemployment. This would be true, but . . . rather beside the point.” The Motorcycle Diaries is the product of Robert Redford, one of the most dedicated Castro apologists in Hollywood. I need not tell regular readers of this column that that is saying something.

There’s another movie apparently coming out next year, directed by Steven Soderbergh. According to the PR on the movie–whose working title is Che — the good doctor “fought for the people.” Obviously, this flick will be Redfordesque (or is that Soderberghesque?).

I know a prominent Cuban American who lunched recently with a movie star, to discuss a Guevara movie–one that tells the truth. The star was entirely sympathetic, but said that, politically, it was out of the question. Perhaps Mel Gibson would disagree?

But I have a dollop of good news. Ron Radosh–the great scholar of Communism and anti-Communism–says that he saw a movie, or a miniseries, that keeps faith with history: Fidel: The Castro Project, a 2002 presentation of the Showtime channel, now available from Netflix. So, we got that goin’ for us (to paraphrase Bill Murray in Caddyshack).

I remember, years ago, walking into the photography section of the Metropolitan Museum. There was the most romantic picture of Castro, nice as you please. None of any Nazi–as many Cuban Americans would be quick to point out. Indeed, they reach for the Nazi button as soon as you mention the Che paraphernalia: You’d never see Himmler or Eichmann on a shirt or watch, would you? For them, there is no difference–only one of scale.

Another thought (and I will close soon, I promise). It could be that the ’60s liberals will never give Guevara up, no matter how much they know. They have too much invested in him. It would be like turning their backs on themselves, or smashing their Beatles LPs.

Last spring, when I was writing about John Kerry and his history with Latin American politics, I found something striking in the memoirs of Felix Rodriguez, the legendary CIA agent. He was in Bolivia, when Guevara was killed there. Flash-forward to the 1980s: Kerry hauls Rodriguez before his notorious subcommittee. (This was when the senator was trying to screw the Contras and Rodriguez’s friend Vice President Bush.) Kerry questions Rodriguez intensely about Che. “He wanted to know all the details,” according to Rodriguez in his memoirs. “He even asked me somewhat sarcastically why I did not fight harder to save Che’s life.”

Sure. Call me a McCarthyite, but I dare say that Kerry’d sooner wear a Che shirt than a Reagan shirt (despite his rhetoric in the recent campaign). (Now that the campaign is over, Kerry can stop pretending.)

Of course, many celebrate Guevara without knowing anything about him. He is a vague vehicle for the expression of all sorts of things. In the run-up to the Iraq War, some of us at NR had the opportunity to interview Bernard Kouchner, the great Frenchman who founded Doctors Without Borders. We asked why so many of his countrymen seemed enthusiastic about Saddam Hussein. He answered that this was like their fondness for Che–basically a way of saying, “Go to hell, America.”

I will close now, as promised. But I leave you with this: As I was made aware last month, there are many people in this country whose parents or other loved ones were executed under Guevara’s eyes. There are people whose parents were killed personally by Guevara. Imagine being one of them, and seeing those shirts and such, all around you. Imagine, further, being in the Cuban gulag, and knowing that thousands–millions?–in free countries were sporting Che’s image on their chests.

Again: disgusting.

‐The question of, Why are we so tough on Nazis, but not on Communists? is an old and sad one. Just so you know: The best treatment of it–for my money–is by the sociologist Paul Hollander, in a 1994 essay for National Review–and published in Hollander’s magnificent collection, Discontents. (My review of it can be found here.)

‐I’ve spent so much time ranting about Che and the Commies and the semi-Commies and the Com-symps, I’ve left little room for everything else under the sun. And my Impromptus file is bulging. Oh, well.

A quick word about Bob Matsui, the California Democrat who just died. It so happens that, for a recent piece in NR, I was talking with a man who worked for years with Matsui. I said that I’d always liked him, from a distance. He seemed my kind of Democrat: dignified, reasonable, not a hater. My source said that he was a man of supreme decency.

‐What else? Something a little light, to leaven the heavy? The New York Times had a headline that said, “College Bowl Scene Is Flush with Corporate Dollars.” Now, I think that was deliberate, don’t you?

‐An article in the New York Post referred to the doomed heroine of Madama Butterfly as “Ciao-Ciao San.” (Her name is Ciò-Ciò San.) But for a Japanese lass in an Italian opera, “Ciao-Ciao San” sounds kind of right, doesn’t it?

‐An op-edist wrote a column in the New York Times on lip-synching. Toward the end, he said, “In the 1960’s, it was a matter of pride for musicians as varied as Vladimir Horowitz and Dave Brubeck to refuse touch-ups on their live recordings.” I don’t know about Brubeck, but I know about Horowitz: On at least one (famous) occasion, he had some notes cleaned up, because the faulty ones were an “act of God.” What did the pianist mean? As I recall, sweat had fallen from his brow, making the keyboard slippery, and . . .

“Act of God,” he kept muttering, in self-defense. I can just hear him.

‐Long as we’re on music: On Friday night, I was at Avery Fisher Hall (Lincoln Center), for the New York Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. After, one and all sang “Auld Lang Syne”–this included the audience. I happened to be standing with a veteran bass of the Metropolitan Opera. He did not sing a note. Neither did I. As we walked out, I said to him, “Ordinarily, I would have joined in the singing, but I didn’t dare, with you there.” He patted my face and said, “Awww . . .”

I have no point. I’m just telling nice stories, to make up somewhat for the Che rant.

‐To stick with nice: Al Hunt’s farewell column in the Wall Street Journal had so much charm and grace, I could almost . . . almost . . .

Well, it was a charming and graceful column, making one–making me–forget a lot.

‐In a recent New York Times crossword puzzle, the clue was “Moralist’s target,” and the answer was “smut.” I thought that was a little strange: moralist’s target?

‐An ad for a movie called In Good Company bills a young actor named Topher Grace as “a worthy successor to Tom Hanks.”

Cripe, has time flown. Tom Hanks needs a successor?

‐A New York Post gossip page said, “Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t always a successful movie star.” Think about that.

‐The Post queried some celebs–including movie stars successful and unsuccessful (though still stars)–about their New Year’s resolutions. My favorite was Diahann Carroll (nice spelling of Diane, by the way): “To be more selfish and think more about myself.” You go, girl! And Dan Aykroyd said, “To look [others] in the eye for the fond, warm embrace that wafts across this great, free land, and let us remember this phrase: ‘Death to our enemies! Go, Marines!’”

Gee, somehow I don’t think he means, “Death to our enemies! Go, Marines!” Do you?

‐For those who care for music criticism, I’ve got links galore. (By the way, do you object to “I’ve got,” in place of “I have”? I don’t–obviously.)

For a review of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, in a Christmas concert, please go here.

For a review of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Katya Kabanova–and a review of the New York Philharmonic under Sir Colin Davis, with mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson–please go here.

For a review of a performance of (half of) Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, at St. Bartholomew’s Church (the Park Avenue cathedral where a young Leopold Stokowski was organist), please go here.

For a midseason roundup–kind of a best-of–please go here; and for a companion piece on worthy CDs, please go here.

That oughta do it, huh? (For some reason, “oughtta” looks better to me, but “oughta” is more common.) Oh, then there’s today’s piece, kind of a double piece, on the return of Kurt Masur to the New York Philharmonic, for a subscription series and that New Year’s Eve concert, offering Beethoven’s Ninth: here.

‐See you next time, for a combination of ranting and fun (not that ranting can’t be fun). Happy New Year!

We can say that, right? It’s “Christmas” we can’t say. But we can here at NRO, baby. Big-time.

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