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To Che or Not to Che

First, I should say that this post should’ve been written several months ago... I’m just slow, that’s all. Second, though in this post I link to Extremist, my more catty comments are not intended for him at all.

My first fall as a degree-toting professor, I too wore a bow-tie or two. That day, though, I was not. However, I was in my navy blue, Brooks Brothers job-interview suit and headed to my first Masters Oral Examination. Little did I know, I was more than over dressed when compared to my very casual colleagues. He slipped in, a vision in red and black, just as the doors of the elevator were closing. I had hoped that I would be able to take my ride up to this exam alone.

He looked at my suit and tie, rather contemptuously.
I looked at his shirt, and said… Nice shirt..
He responded, “These days… You gotta chose which side your on. ‘Num sayin’... Plus, I like the colors.”
I got off and went to the exam.

This past spring, at the end of the second year of my unproductive Commie-style professoring (that routinely has me up till 1 and 2 in the morning reading, writing, grading papers, planning class, and hopefully helping ingrates make more money than I… but money’s not why you get into academia. It’s the perks), a student who had me the fall of my first year asked me:
“Are you gonna teach that class where you guys read that book by Che this coming fall? He’s one of my heroes.”

She was refering to a travel literature class that I taught the spring of my first year as a Commie-indoctrinating professor. That same fall, the one of my first year, while preparing the course for the spring, I had seen The Motorcycle Diaries, and since all professors, whose jobs depend on filling their classes with students, try to find ways to lure the unsuspecting into their classroom, I shamelessly decided to both assign the book and promote my class as one where that book would be read.

Most of those in the class had seen the movie… most LOOOOVED the Che. And so we talked about the book. We looked closely at the various introductions to the book and at the publication history to know who was publishing this and how they wanted us to read this book. And we read the book. Aesthetically, it’s a non-event. But, these sorts of texts are just that. However, this one more than most that make into print is riddled with the Bohemian cliches of the well-to-do kid who rejects his upper-middle class existence to preach revolution. At the end, he (well, the much older Che) even waxes poetically about the upcoming turmoil and the need to harden one’s heart to meet the task at hand—a prefiguration of his later declamation on the need to learn hate in order to be able to kill. I was happy as a clam. They were learning Latin American history while developing their abilities to read. We even contrasted the movie and the book and noted how the movie turns him into a Christ-figure and washes away any hint of the confused tramp (by this I mean wandering and lying hedonist) that is the 20-something Che in this book.

When the 2-3 page reaction/analysis papers came in, most were rather bland… I say this realizing that most of my grad school work was nothing but pablum, only less nutritious. One, though, stood out. She told me that I had offended her beyond repair and that I had lied to the class simply by assigning a book written by the Che. She had come into the class thinking we were going to read the personal memoir of a great moral hero, someone who would be an example of an authentic life… and here we were reading the writings of a man who mercilessly killed hundreds of people in cold-blood. How could I?

The most curious thing, though, was her final presentation. (Well, the most curious thing that semester was actually this.) She did a full exposè on the Che and his war crimes. And then talked about her shock at finding Che paraphernalia marketed to kids. At the end of her presentation, however, she mentioned that the actual merchandise she brought to class (a bong, a mouse pad, a beaded necklace, all with the Che’s image) were from her own store. She asked, “So, what should I do? Stop selling it? But it makes me money.”

 

Comments

Fascinating. . . I am reminded chiefly of a review of The Motorcycle Diaries by Stuart Klawans in The Nation, October 4, 2004:

I’ll let you in on a secret: Just as Dr. King was more than a fat man with a dream, Che was more than a longhair motivated by feelings of great love. He devoted much of his adult life to activities of the kill-or-be-killed variety. That, of course, is something that a culture of liberal self-congratulation would prefer not to contemplate. We’d rather get the T-shirt Che, only prettier. We don’t know exactly what he’ll do after The Motorcycle Diaries, but he sure is going to be famous.

I think you need a subscription to read the whole thing. If you lack that or database access and want the whole thing, let me know.

the essay is linked to in the links… and here

I grew up in a pretty liberal (by Latin American standards) home. My parents are Costa Rican artists who almost lean left by profession. I have learned to temper my intuitive idolization of “heroes” like Fidel, Che, and now Mr. Chavez. What strikes me about all of these icons is not their justification for committing the same atrocities they are fighting against. “The ends justify the means” is probably temptation #1 for being in power. What befuddles me is why the Latin American people put up with it? Time and time again they get shafted by corrupt politicians. They may notice it. They may even oust them. But then almost inevitably, ten years later, that same politician will run for office and get elected. Anyone care to explain?

So you’re saying, BT, that Latin Americans are predisposed (culturally, genetically?) to love despots?

This is a great piece. I admire your trickery, and I hope I can learn to duplicate it in my classroom: design a course about trendy topics, including a popular means for culturally dominant students to feel connected to revolutionary ideas and “bad boy” politics, then hope that at least one of them gets the point. Nice job, teach.

is this an allusion to peru’s recent election?

when you say the latin american people… to which nation/social/ethnic group are you refering?

i should explain, i don’t ascribe to the concept of “latin american people,” and only with reservations to i accept something like the peruvian people… the argentines, a little more… but not the mexicans

Only if you’re teaching undergrads, JRB. Speaking of, FYI: congressional hearings (transcripts freely available) on controversial popular topix (e.g. censorship, those which have famous folk testify) make for primo texts for to teach political/legal/moral rhetoric with.