Letter from the Editor

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Socialism, Obama, and the Che t-shirt

A good history teacher will tell you - learn from the past, or you may be doomed to repeat it.

It was just a matter of time. I saw my first "Che" t-shirt in Storm Lake today. For a moment I considered asking the wearer if he had ever actually read a history book, but from his trendy shag haircut, manicured hands and checkered shoes, it was pretty obvious. Trust-fund mallrat college student, not a Marxist guerilla.

Don't get me wrong, comrade, I could care less what you have on your shirt, it's a free country, or at least what is left of one. It's just that I seriously doubt it you know Che Guevara from Sponge Bob.

There is no denying, though, that socialism is the new American catch-phrase in the age of Obama, and Che Chic is so darn trendy it is almost laughable. Heh.

For some reason, though, I wasn't laughing. I'm a child of the Cold War, when communist and totalitarianism wasn't something you decided was cute while browsing the shopping mall.

Fathers and grandfathers in our families died fighting dictatorship. I have to tell you, seeing people wearing Che Guevara and Chairman Mao t-shirts makes me wonder exactly what our society is promoting. It feels - icky. Like we're not supporting the home team, people.

It doesn't bother me to see famously brooding expat Johnny Depp on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing his blingy Che medalion, models on the runway in Che bikinis, Madonna in concert in guerilla warfare garb, the announcer on "Access Hollywood" doing his reports in a shirt with a big red communist hammer-and-sickle logo, or Cameron Diaz having to apologize for her tacky Mao purse while on vacation (in Peru, where 70,000 people were murdered by the Maoist regime. Um, whoopsie, Cam baby.) They are celebrities, not necessarily deep thinkers. Whatever.

So what if the most talked-about movie of the decade is the 4 and a half hour, two-part epic "Che" in which a man known to many as "The Butcher" is made out to be a shining hero figure? Anyone who has five hours to waste at a movie isn't really a decent socialist anyway, they are unemployed.

Strange how quickly societies forget. When movements responsible for killing millions of people are treated as fashionable and nostalgic, you can only shake your head.

It is the very art of unique American free self-expression that allows the wearing of stupid t-shirts and divisive slogans. In fact, in all of those regimes I have mentioned and that are so celebrated on all that mall crap, such an act of individualism would have gotten you summarily ventilated by a firing squad. Or, still will.

Of course, "socialism" as a hot-button term came back to the forefront in the 2008 political election. Barack Obama had to spend half his campaign fending off the label as tossed about by people who mostly have little clue what it means. I read articles calling John McCain a socialist, too. FDR, LBJ and JFK had all been called the same thing in their eras. Critics once claimed that Social Security, and Medicare, would each turn America into a socialist stalag when they were proposed to care for our elders.

So we're all talking about socialism these days, it's in all the glossy magazines and on the talk shows, you know. Some in favor, and some in fear, without really saying (or knowing?) what it is.

As I recall hazily from a Politics and Government class in junior high, for which I admittedly signed up only because of a brief infatuation for a blossoming French exchange student with a pony tail (oui oui!) you might say that Socialism is "Communism Lite."

See Karl Marx's communist manifesto from 1848, and consider that Marx saw socialism as the halfway point in taking the world from capitalism to complete communism. Or you can find Che's speeches on the web, and see if they remind you of the bearded guy hiding out right now in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan.

In essence, I guess, modern socialism is a system believing in the state owning the economy and all means of productions of its goods, and the workers getting their "fair" slice of the spoils - supposedly eliminating the gap between classes. It hasn't worked so super in practice.

Problem is, socialists like Che (in the footsteps of Marx, Mao and his Cuban fellow revolutionary Castro) must exert complete control over their society. No freedom to write, produce art, or make music, except what is approved by the regime. No justice system. If you don't care for the rules, you are murdered. Buzzkill there, brah.

Problem B, Che was a failure. His Cuba was isolated from the world and impoverished, and in every country he tried to "liberate" guerrila Che was beat down.

Che was a charismatic leader to be sure - and so was a guy named Hitler. Che was a talented poet, a doctor and a philosopher and a warrior of note. Worth study. He perhaps started to fight for the poor, but lost his morality and his life to his own greed for revolutionary power. He was a stone-cold killer.

Out of it, he becomes today's hero of the vapidly trendy - people with vague leftist sympathy and no real sense of history, but a sharp eye for a sweet shirt.

I find it odd that the hottest bar in New York- where all the hip literary types hang out, is called "KGB" - full of Soviet communist propaganda. Same in a hotspot called "Pravda" in Toronto, "Red Square" in Vegas, and many others from Athens to Australia. The hot place to eat in LA. is "Mao's Kitchen." A hotel in Berlin creates a theme of living under Soviet iron rule in the good old GDR.

It's apparently suddenly all hip and cute. We're forgetting way too fast. Tyranny nostalgia. Odd.

I did a little checking. You can buy Che cigarette lighters, Che berets, Rap songs about Che. Che beer. Target, which ones banned Salvation Army kettles, had to pull music CDs with pictures of Che wearing Ipod earphones. The Taco Bell dog appears in commercials wearing Che gear. The shirt gets big play on the Colbert Report. You can buy toddler "onesies" with his face on them, for gosh sakes. What next, Kim Jong-Il underpants? Saddam Hussein hoodies?

The beautiful irony here is this. Che's whole celebrity was his all-consuming, utter battle to destroy what he hated most, U.S. capitalism - and now he is the biggest symbol of it that ever lived on a cheap tee or pimped a burrito. Gotta be spinning in his grave like a ticked-off top.

Bad news Che, and all the hipster shoppers. You went to the revolution, and all you got was this lousy t-shirt.