Date: Fri, 15 Mar 2002 16:44:45 -0500
Reply-To: grok <grok@SPRINT.CA>
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: grok <grok@SPRINT.CA>
Subject: Che Lives On In Hearts, On Chests
The popularity of a long-dead radical as holiday wear suggests a disaffection in middle Australia, writes Rachel Roberts.
In my hometown, Byron Bay, Ernesto
Che Guevara lives
and breathes. I see him regularly. Sometimes at the
Railway Friendly Bar, where he comes most nights to
drink and listen to live music. Other times in cafes
sipping coffee, nodding and looking intense among
friends. Often I stand behind him in the queue at the
post office, where he comes to send postcards of
dazzling beaches and sherbet-coloured sunrises to
relatives and colleagues he has left behind, although
temporarily, in Sydney and Melbourne.
Naturally I don't mean the real Che Guevara, the guerilla revolutionary who joined Fidel Castro in overthrowing Cuba's repressive Batista regime in 1959. As most of us already know, he died long ago, executed deep in Bolivia by Bolivian soldiers shortly after 1.10pm on October 9, 1967. The Che Guevara I am referring to is the one I see displayed over chests of all shapes and sizes on the streets of Byron Bay. The iconic picture of Che we all know so well, young and compelling, printed over khaki, red and rainbow-coloured T-shirts wherever I look. Given that visual images are frequently adopted to communicate political trends, what might Che's growing contemporary popularity mean?
Few of us would argue that the picture isn't wonderful. Captured in 1960 by the official photographer of the Cuban revolution, Alberto Korda, it invokes our deeply rooted romantic understandings of revolution: our concepts of intellectualism, political defiance, liberation and, ultimately, martyrdom. There is an unsurprising blaze to Che's stare, one that speaks of profound idealism and dark resolve. Unsurprising, because the photograph was taken at a memorial service for 75 people killed and several hundred others injured when the French munitions ship La Coubre mysteriously exploded in Havana harbour. Cuba believed the explosion to be a US-assisted counter-revolutionary strike, and against the backdrop of that suspicion, the service became not simply a commemoration of the lives that were lost, but an opportunity for Castro to denounce US imperialism and affirm Cuba's commitment to socialism.
How the Che photograph came to leave Korda's control and enter the hands of another is a fascinating story of entrepreneurialism and injustice in itself. Nevertheless, what is equally interesting to me is why the image has captured the imagination of a new kind of person of late. Formerly a symbol embraced mostly by students and radicals, the image and myth of Che Guevara have seeped, it seems, into the heretofore unconverted ranks of the urban professional middle classes. Fleeing the cities on their annual holiday to Byron Bay, Sydneysiders and Melbournites rush to buy the T-shirt in their droves, wear it happily around during the one or two weeks they stay there, only to abandon it then to the bottom drawer on returning to their normal white-collar lives.
Why this is so is open to interpretation. On the one hand, you could convincingly argue that we are drawn to Korda's image of Che because it is cool, evocative and, quite simply, sexy. A marketer's dream come true primarily because Che is dead, therefore neither can his face age, nor can his mystique be shattered. (And when you think about it, when have any of us seen T-shirts of poor old Fidel for sale?) On the other hand, perhaps the popularity of the image represents a broadening disaffection among the middle classes with the global and domestic political environment that keeps them desk-bound for much of their lives. In particular, it may be a way of trying to resist capitalism and mass corporatisation in the only way many of us know how - by buying a product and letting it do the talking for us. It is becoming harder and harder to be subversive these days. The pull of capitalism and economic rationalism co-opts us in so many ways that it is difficult to survive in a truly radical way. Let's face it, we all have to live.
It could suggest that the Prime Minister, John Howard, has misjudged the mood of his much-loved middle Australia, reflecting instead its lack of support for the Coalition's performance in relation to matters of public conscience, not least the uncompromisingly cold-hearted policies on refugees and the stolen generations. Or maybe, in the wake of September 11, donning the T-shirt denotes the wearer's sympathy for Che's own antipathy towards the US and what many of us see as its alarming gung-ho nationalism and insidious cultural colonialism.
Whatever the reason people buy and wear Che T-shirts, one thing is sure - someone must be doing well out of his unique appeal. In Byron they sell for about $25. They couldn't cost more than a few dollars to produce.
Che's bones must be turning in his grave.