Being a sunny-side-up kinda guy, the sight of college students, protesters, and/or retarded celebrities consuming Che Guevara-branded merchandise (as memorably rendered in today's terrific reason.tv video on Che-chic), makes me laugh more than seethe, not least because of what Cuban jazz great Paquito D'Rivera observes at the end of the clip: There's something hilariously perverse about a violent anti-capitalist becoming a Western marketing icon. With rare exception, I don't expect much in the way of historical knowledge from Che-shirters, not least because few have been to the island-prison themselves.
Ah, but some have, and still retain their jock-sniffing totalitarian apologia, and this is what makes my brown eyes blue. A decade ago I went to a secretive gathering at a house in Havana, where rebellious youth sat around indulging in the disapproved and even dangerous behavior of … listening to the Beatles. It was an underground society of sorts, where the kids danced, sang, and gaped at the wonders of the G-sixth chord. None of them could understand what kind of evil, micro-managing jerkoff would criminalize "She Loves You" … well, except for the American woman who was nice enough to bring me there, a graying hippie named Karen Wald. Yeah, Castro might have gone a bit too far, she said, but it was an "understandable" defense in the face of "Western cultural imperialism."
If you have never lived or visited a totalitarian country, the concept of political prisoners, show trials, or even government murder are somehow … abstract. Enemy combatant outrages aside, we generally don't have stuff like that here. But there is something immediately recognizable in the insanity of banning pop, rock, or (another favorite commie target) jazz. It was the 1976 arrest of Czech art-rock band The Plastic People of the Universe, after all, that spurred Vaclav Havel to create the most influential anti-totalitarian dissident group of the past half-century: Charter 77. "Everyone understood," he wrote about the experience later, "that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life."
Such attacks on "the real aims of life" advertise the fundamental insecurity of regimes (if two-part harmony gives you the vapors, you've got some bigger fish to fry), but they also ooze with a familiar paternalistic contempt for the choices individuals would make if they could. Wald's defense, alas, continues to hold some sway in ostensibly grown-up countries such as Canada and France, where Fear of an American-Pop Planet still informs cultural policy and provides endless fodder for academic seminars. And there's an equally dunderheaded version here in the U.S. and A., where Mexifornia-phobes fret about the "Balkanization" of the very American culture that the rest of the world fears.
Luckily, most people aren't like Wald (or Jacob Weisberg!). When they go to Cuba, they see a country of very nice people who are poor, proud, starved for information, and oppressed. As Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told us in another memorable reason.tv production, every American should visit Castro's incarnation of Che's paradise. Nothing will disabuse you of juvenile anti-capitalism quicker than seeing the results of 50 years trying it the other way.