MSN article: What's So Bad About Socialism Anyway? (ridicules Che idolization)Submitted by Flame on Fri, 02/27/2009 - 15:43
What's So Bad About Socialism, Anyway?
by Stephen Marche
Just like they don't really know what the Che T-shirt means, Generation O doesn't really care if you call them — or their new president — socialist. They want answers beyond the message.
Roland Barthes, the French theorist and semiotician, once wrote that sex is everywhere in America, except in sex. For the past 40 years, the same has been true for socialism, which has been simultaneously nowhere and everywhere in America, falsely denied by its politics and falsely claimed by its popular culture. As the federal government puts the finishing touches on its plan to effectively nationalize America's banking system, Steven Soderbergh's four-and-a-half-hour epic Che is opening in select theaters, and its hero could have scarcely imagined that it would be America's first M.B.A. president who would oversee the proletariat's glorious march to the workers' control of the means of production. Alan Greenspan, meanwhile, the prophet of capitalism, has traded his coat of many colors for Job's sackcloth and ashes ("I found a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works"), and though Obama spent the month of October denying that he is a socialist, his inauguration is upon us and the point is moot. Socialism, real, perceived, or simply misunderstood, has exploded into prominence, and Americans are scrambling to make sense of it in this new age of Obama.
Since the '60s, the Hollywood Left has preferred its socialism vague and mushy — a feel-good unattainable ideal, preferably starring Warren Beatty — rather than a system of government that can actually be put into practice (as it is in Europe). And though Soderbergh has made a movie that even Castro likes — El Jefe approved it for screening at the Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana — Che will hopefully cause people to ask themselves whose face they're wearing. If you believe in the freedom of the press, the right to belong to a political party of your choice, the due process of law, and/or private property, then Che Guevara was a monster, plain and simple. But even with that knowledge, it's unlikely that Johnny Depp will get rid of his Che medallion. And it's unlikely that all the pseudo-hipsters who buy their Che T-shirts at Urban Outfitters will stop wearing them. No. These T-shirts send a message, which effectively boils down to this: I have vague left-wing sympathies but don't read history. I am educated enough to want nonconformity but not intelligent enough to avoid conformity. I believe in supporting the wretched of the earth but happily purchase products from multinational corporations.
It's all part of a long history of reducing the genuine struggles of peoples around the world for social justice to pretty baubles, from Jane Fonda's Radio Hanoi broadcasts to Madonna mugging in guerrilla gear to TV personality Tim Vincent wearing a hammer-and-sickle shirt on Access Hollywood. In 2007, Cameron Diaz carried a Maoist messenger bag while sightseeing in Peru and was forced to apologize — 70,000 Peruvians were murdered by the Maoist Shining Path in the '80s and '90s. At least with Che chic, the idiocy is dreamy and romantic and you can pretend that wearing his face is all about being young, riding motorcycles, and having South American-level sex; Mao was responsible for the death of 60 million people — he makes Hitler look like an amateur.
Cameron Diaz is not, of course, a communist. She's a ditz — that's her ideology. Her Mao bag was tasteless, not evil. And she's far from alone in her tastelessness. The coolest literary bar in New York is KGB in the East Village — the 92nd Street Y for young writers — and it's full of Soviet propaganda. In Toronto, I was once in a bar called Pravda that had, alongside Lenin and Che, a picture of Felix Dzerzhinsky on the wall: He founded the Cheka, Lenin's secret police, and described his own job as "organized terror." There are communist-chic bars and restaurants in Melbourne, Australia, and Singapore, too, and the trend has recently returned to its birthplace. In Berlin, the hotel Ostel re-creates, in minute detail, the experience of living under Soviet rule in the GDR. You check in at "Border Control." Images of party leaders stare down from the walls like the Big Brothers of yore, and Ostel even has a roll of GDR-era toilet paper under glass in the lobby. Hilarious. Nothing shows the defeat of tyranny more thoroughly than its reclamation by nostalgia.
And so dead politics return as public dreams, with the same process neutering the kaffiyeh, the cooling head scarf traditionally worn by Palestinian peasants that now warms the necks of trust-fund kids. Here's how this erstwhile symbol of solidarity with the downtrodden became a status totem: Yasir Arafat → sympathetic old-lady professors at Berkeley → their worshipful students → the guys they go to Sam Roberts concerts with → Rachael Ray in a Dunkin' Donuts ad. With each exposure, the political symbol loses meaning. Which is why Che's face isn't appropriate for community organizers anymore; it suits pro poker players at Vegas nightclubs much better.
Obama has promised fresh politics, new in substance, new in style. We'll see. Like FDR and LBJ before him, he has had to reject the title of "socialist." But let's face it: McCain was on to something back in October when he croaked in a radio address, "At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are up-front about their objectives." (Obama was busy texting his supporters.) BHO's predecessors cloaked their agendas with camouflage terminology, the "New Deal" and the "Great Society," and Obama may yet find some similarly palatable euphemism for his attempt to strengthen the core of the federal government through massive infrastructure overhaul, universal health care, and, yes, higher taxes and redistribution of wealth. But already the way we perceive and process world events is changing. Shepard Fairey's Obama posters have been the most successful political art in half a century — the grimy, brutalist images reminiscent of nothing so much as the socialist-realist propaganda from World War II and the Spanish civil war, the era when America crushed fascism and built the strongest middle class in the world. What the Fairey posters show is that Generation O is embracing the political aesthetics of their grandparents, and like many of their grandparents, they don't really care what you call them. Socialist, pragmatist, vegetable, mineral: Obama's followers want results, on the financial crisis, the environment, and the war in Iraq. Who has time to watch four-and-a-half-hour movies about dead guerrillas?