By Tony Hicks
Contra Costa Times
APART FROM TIMES of extreme irony, I've always been a big believer
that if you have logos and pictures on clothes and bumper stickers,
they're endorsements. If you wear the colors, you've got to be behind
the cause and you'd better be able to explain why.
Usually this isn't a problem (unless, of course, the shirt is awesome
and/or possibly free). I like the bands whose shirts I wear. I don't
fly too many political banners. My opinions, while occasionally
strong, are mine alone, and it seems far-fetched to think a bumper
sticker will change anyone's mind. Although I did stick one on my car
once because it was so sarcastic, I thought it made a rather good
point. The jury's still out on the "I (heart) Ranch Dressing" sticker
someone gave me, sitting in my cubicle.
With that in mind, I saw a woman in her early 20s driving next to me
on the Bay Bridge last week. She was singing along with her stereo in
an older car with a dream catcher hanging from the review mirror. She
also had a bumper sticker featuring the iconic portrait of
20th-century communist revolutionary Che Guevara, outlined in black
with the red background that seemed to be everywhere during the '90s.
The back story?
I couldn't help but wonder if she knew enough about the man to drive
around with his face on her bumper in clear conscience. And, if so, I
hoped the opinion wasn't based on a movie.
I actually received a Che shirt some years back as a gift, but never
wore it because, while I had an idea of who he was (or, at least the
popular idea), I'd also heard enough to wonder if this is someone I
wanted on my chest. I didn't know either way. So, without much ado, I
stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it until now (mostly because
the person who bought it for me was in the car with me last week, saw
the sticker and asked whatever happened to that shirt).
So now, years after receiving it, it may be time to decide exactly
what to do with that Che shirt.
The full story
I read enough to know this is far more complicated than an image
appearing on a coffee mug or a car bumper. And it's not just this
particular figure, whose legacy has gone from revolutionary to martyr
to pop culture icon. We tend to glorify people and things without
knowing enough about them, because we need a quick method of telling
others who we are. Most our heroes are publicly flawed one way or
another so, in most cases, it's up to us to decide what bad qualities
to pack away in favor of the good.
If you're a William Burroughs fan, are you endorsing reckless gun
play and heroin use? If you go to a Chris Brown concert and buy a
tour shirt, does that mean you're OK with violence against women?
Does having a "Chinatown" movie poster mean you have no problem with
Roman Polanski's alleged child molestation?
There's a way we deal with these questions that's pretty
cut-and-dried. We separate the art from the artist.
But someone like Che is different in that his personas weren't
necessarily mutually exclusive. Che was a counterculture leader, a
comrade of Fidel Castro's, a doctor and a social reformer who, like
many, passionately believed that elevating the poor through armed
revolutionary and dictatorial ouster was a just, even heroic, cause.
Theoretically, that's certainly understandable "... once you omit the
reality of dictatorships replacing dictatorships.
But Che was also known to be ruthless and violent, often ordering
executions for former comrades trying to desert during the Cuban
revolution. During his stint running Castro's prisons, he supposedly
signed off on hundreds (perhaps thousands) of executions without
trials. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was quoted in the Daily
Worker, a British socialist newspaper, as saying that if Cuba
controlled the missiles instead of the Soviet Union, it would have
fired them at the U.S. There were stories of Castro and Che wanting
to bomb civilian targets in New York. Which, in the language of this
century, would be called terrorism.
I won't bother arguing whether some of these allegations are true
(although I have to say, for the record, that I'm firmly against
shooting nukes at anyone especially us). But I can argue that
people shouldn't wear a face on a shirt unless they can defend that
face. They should also know why they support him. And they should
also know that buying something emblazoned with the visage of a
fervent socialist who loathed capitalism buying Che souvenirs at a
record store is laughably ironic. For that reason alone, I'll keep
my shirt in the drawer.