Afterimages | The Nation



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Casey also displays an uncertain grasp of US history in the late 1960s, claiming that "the culture and politics of the '68 youth movement in the United States were dominated by the antiwar, pro-peace hippies." Casey believes that the version of Che embraced by the American left in 1968 had been thoroughly defanged by peaceniks. There were certainly lots of hippies involved in antiwar activism in 1968; but there were also lots of intensely political radicals in groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)--the first unmentioned in Che's Afterlife, the second appearing only in a footnote. And, for better or worse, these radicals already knew a great deal about Comandante Guevera, and they weren't engaged in any of the "softening" Casey attributes to the hippie peaceniks. Greg Calvert, SDS national secretary, told a reporter from the New York Times in May 1967 that "Che's message is applicable to urban America as far as the psychology of guerrilla action goes.... Che sure lives in our hearts." Two months later, in July 1967, SNCC chair Stokely Carmichael traveled to Havana, where he was elected as an honorary delegate to the founding meeting of OLAS. According to the account published in the Times, "Mr. Carmichael said that he had decided to come to Cuba because of a message last April attributed to the vanished Cuban guerrilla leader, Maj. Ernesto ('Che') Guevara. This message called on Latin-American revolutionaries to create two, three or more Vietnams. He said that the guerrilla leader was an inspiration to American Negroes." Following the Columbia University student strike in April 1968, SDS founder Tom Hayden adapted Che's "two, three" Vietnams slogan to the struggle on American campuses in a manifesto published in Ramparts calling for the creation of "Two, Three, Many Columbias."

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Maurice Isserman
Maurice Isserman teaches history at Hamilton College. He is the author of The Other American: The Life of Michael...

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Casey also lacks a basic understanding of the chronology of the era. "Especially after the death of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968," he writes, "civil rights leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, Eldrige [sic] Cleaver, and Malcolm X became vocal advocates of a more militant struggle for black Americans." Malcolm, of course, had been assassinated more than three years before King (and shortly after praising Che), while Carmichael and Cleaver had been vocal advocates of "militant struggle" for quite some time before April 1968. For the sake of his pet marketing analysis, Casey seems to want to infantilize and trivialize all '60s radicals, depicting them as just so many naïve groupies bowled over by the Guerrillero Heroico consumer style: "Guevara the warrior fit the hippie stereotype of beauty--strong and handsome, but sensitive and loving at the same time." No doubt there were youthful communards who pinned silk-screened posters of Che on the wall next to one of Jimi Hendrix and couldn't quite tell the two apart after a few tokes of Panama Red. But is that really the appeal and meaning Che held for Carmichael or Hayden--neither one a hippie softie--or their numerous followers?

Casey can't answer the question, because his study lacks a comparative dimension. Che's image was not uniquely popular among Western radicals in the 1960s--it was not the undisputed "defining icon" of the era, as Casey would have it. There was the famous photo of Malcolm X in full rhetorical flight, finger pointing in accusation. There was Huey Newton sitting in a wicker chair, with a rifle in one hand and an African spear in the other. There were anonymous Vietcong soldiers, men and women, clutching AK-47s, the Guerrilleros Heroicos of another struggle, their images a regular feature in the pages of New Left Notes and similar publications. There were even enough posters of Chairman Mao to provoke the Beatles to sing in 1968, "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain't going to make it with anyone, anyhow." Could John Lennon not think of anything to rhyme with "Che"?

Jose Yglesias died in 1995, late enough to have watched the Che myth evolve through its later manifestations but too soon to have seen an undoubted expert on the subject also use religious imagery to define Che's legacy. On the occasion of John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba, where he preached in a Havana plaza dominated by a steel sculpture of the "Guerrillero Heroico" visage, a journalist is reported to have asked the pope for his thoughts on Che Guevara, a "protagonist in recent Cuban history." His Holiness is said to have replied, "He is now before God's Tribunal. Let's let our Lord judge his merits. I am certain that he wanted to serve the poor."

Che was a hard man--a fighter, a zealot, an idealist with blood on his hands. History is full of similar figures--Oliver Cromwell, John Brown, Leon Trotsky. And yet I still understand why some of their examples, and especially Che's, might appeal to contemporary young activists (and ones far less bloody-minded than I once was). Even Casey rejects the idea that those drawn to Korda's photo in the twenty-first century can be classified simply as the useful idiots of a failed totalitarian experiment or, contradicting his earlier emphasis on style and marketing, as passive consumers of Che's charismatic appeal: "It is not only Guevara's high cheekbones, long eyelashes and cool bomber jacket that make this photo desirable. Its appeal also lies in its spirituality, in its ability to feed people's longings for a better world and to encourage them to dream of defeating death.... Korda's Che keeps hope alive."

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