Thursday, June 05, 2008

Marketing a Mass Murderer

In a piece from the June 1 Los Angeles Times, Ben Ehrenreich looks at the enduring popularity of terrorist mass murderer Ernesto "Che" Guevara:

Snapped in March 1960, Alberto Korda's iconic image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara is possibly -- who's counting? -- the most-reproduced photograph in the world. Some version of it has been painted, printed, digitized, embroidered, tattooed, silk-screened, sculpted or sketched on nearly every surface imaginable. Brick and mortar city walls. Poster board waved high above a crowd. Gisele Bündchen's bikini.

And though he never went away -- except in the strictly mortal sense -- Che is suddenly everywhere again. In October, an Iranian student militia organized a "Che Like Chamran" conference, attempting to enlist the martyred Marxist in the Islamic revolution. (They made the mistake of inviting his daughter, who pointed out that her dad did not believe in God.) Hollywood is at it as well: Steven Soderbergh's long-anticipated, two-part Che biopic ("The Argentine" and "Guerrilla") premiered May 21 at Cannes, with Benicio Del Toro playing the legendary Argentine-doctor-cum-internationalist-revolutionary. And "Chevolution," Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez's documentary on the mass dissemination of the Korda image, is now making the film festival rounds.

(link via Hot Air)

You may be wondering if Soderbergh's "long-anticipated" films will include the part in 1959 where Guevara oversaw the execution of hundreds of prisoners who were convicted before kangaroo courts without the benefit of habeas corpus and due process? Sadly, no. According to Variety, Soderbergh appears to have left out that part of the Che Guevara story. (link via Libertas)

However, cinematic hagiographies are merely one part of the cult of Che. As Ehrenreich points out, the Guevara brand name is used to sell all manner of products:

"You think it's funny," the Clash once sang, "turning rebellion into money." Maybe not funny but quite a trick: There's Che beer, Che cola, Che cigarettes, the inevitable Cherry Guevara ice cream. Online at, you'll find Che's face on hoodies, beanies, berets, backpacks, bandannas, belt buckles, wallets, wall clocks, Zippo lighters, pocket flasks and of course, T-shirts. La La Ling in Los Feliz sells Che onesies for the wee 'uns. I bought my 3-year-old niece a plush Che doll one Christmas. She abandoned him for Dora the Explorer.

Online I found a T-shirt for sale depicting Homer Simpson sporting an arm tattoo of Che, and then there is the famous New Yorker cartoon featuring Che wearing a T-shirt depicting Bart Simpson (and now a T-shirt itself). What could it possibly mean? Only that the Che tee has itself become a symbol, shorthand for posture drained of ideology, rebelliousness as fashion statement. Other notable wearers of Che tees: Kyle from "South Park," Prince Harry, Jay-Z, who rapped on "The Black Album," "I'm like Che Guevara with bling on," which is about as likely as Che the jihadi, but never mind.

Actually, I'm not sure that "Che the jihadi" would be all that unlikely. He certainly had the murderous fanaticism down pat. Besides, according to Alvaro Vargas Llosa, "after taking the city of Sancti Spiritus, Guevara unsuccessfully tried to impose a kind of sharia, regulating relations between men and women, the use of alcohol, and informal gambling—a puritanism that did not exactly characterize his own way of life."

Anyway, I'm curious if any of the empty headed individuals who sport Guevara t-shirts have ever given a thought to his victims? Probably not. After all, none of the hundreds murdered by Che ever posed for cool, iconic photographs.

But despite that, and despite the selling and sampling and all the multilayered appropriations, Ziff maintains that Che's image still means something, even if it's something as generic as protest, nonconformity, a wish for change. "It's diluted," Ziff says, but "I don't think it's ever lost its edge."

Allow me to submit my own thoughts on what the popularity of Guevara and his image mean: that our society has grown so morally and intellectually bankrupt that many will cheerfully sport the image of a totalitarian butcher while being oblivious to his actual record. Obviously this does not bode well for the future. I can hardly wait for when in 20 or 30 years the first Abu Musab Al Zarqawi merchandise starts hitting stores. I'm sure the plastic beheading knives will be especially popular with the kids.

If you want to read about the real Che Guevara, see the articles written by Paul Berman and Alvaro Vargas Llosa.


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