I know this is a few weeks old, but over at the Irish Independent, Darragh McManus has a column--"He's the face that launched a thousand T-shirts, but was Che a villain or a hero?"--that provides exactly the kind of nuanced perspective that's sorely lacking in our contemporary understanding of the rebellious icon. It seems that the Galway City Council is considering building a statue in Che's honor, as it turns out that Che's great-grandfather was named Lynch and hails from the area. Some people in the area object to their government lionizing a mass murderer, but helpfully McManus provides some context:
He disagreed with most of the tenets of democracy: properly free elections, due process, private property ownership. He was damned for ordering the execution of hundreds of Batista supporters, although many, it was alleged, were guilty of war crimes.
Che declared, chillingly: "To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail... A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate."
However -- and it's a big however -- we must assess these actions in context. It's easy to retrospectively damn terrorist violence, unfortunately though, people rarely cede power voluntarily or solely on account of political agitation.
Certainly not a vicious dictator like Batista, and the CIA spooks and corporate interests supporting him. But it's amazing how quickly people will listen when you carry a big stick into negotiations. Violence, sadly, is often a necessary precursor to liberation.
Yes, Che was ruthless and fanatical and sometimes murderous. But was he a murderer? No, not in the sense of a serial killer or gangland assassin. He was one of those rare people who are prepared to push past ethical constraints, even their own conscience, and bring about a greater good by doing terrible things.
Whether morally justifiable or not, there is something admirable in that -- pure principle in a world of shabby compromise. Maybe this is why Che remains such an icon, both in image and idea.
It's true that "violence, sadly, is often a necessary precursor to liberation," regardless of what values that violence is in the service of. That's why Cuba remains a shining beacon of freedom to this day. Were it not for Che's liberating violence, it would be just another Carribbean country with bourgeois conventions such as "private property" and "freedom of speech." But I'm in total agreement that Che's uncompromising willingness to push past ethical constraints that makes him such compelling figure. On that score, allow me to share my favorite Che Guevarra anecdote that I think really cements precisely what's so admirable about the man, the myth, the legend:
The apex of absurdity came [in 2005] when Carlos Santana performed the theme from the other recent Che flick, "The Motorcyle Diaries," at the Academy Awards. He performed the song wearing a crucifix over one of the ubiquitous Che T-shirts, an act that prompted Cuban jazz great Paquito D'Rivera to write a letter to El Nuevo Herald castigating Mr. Santana, translated in a New Republic article last year: "One of those Cubans [at La Cabana, a prison in Cuba run by Guevara] was my cousin Bebo, who was imprisoned there precisely for being a Christian. He recounts to me with infinite bitterness how he could hear from his cell in the early hours of dawn the executions, without trial or process of law, of the many who died shouting, 'Long live Christ the King!'"
In the end, I can think of nothing more appropriate than an Irish government entity memorializing a mass perpetrator of religious violence.
(Link via twitter feed of Michael C. Moynihan, who you really should be following.)