Thursday, June 21, 2007

Where Have All the Rock Stars Gone? (by David, Shumway, the Chronicle of Higher Education)

Where Have All the Rock Stars Gone?


James Brown's death last December was a much more pointed, and poignant, marker of the changing role of popular music in American culture than the current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love.

While the San Francisco counterculture did exemplify the importance of music to the 1960s youth movement, Brown stands out as one who became more than just a musician. He was not only the inventor of funk and the Godfather of Soul; he was also Soul Brother No. 1, a leader about whom Look magazine could ask on its cover, "Is this the most important black man in America?" Today there is no popular musician, black or white, about whom something similar might be said. Brown's televised concert in Boston the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated helped prevent riots in that city, while Los Angeles and Detroit burned. His "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud," released later that year (1968), became the anthem of the black-power movement. Through it all, Brown never made stylistic concessions to attract a crossover audience, yet, as he himself observed, he lived the American dream, going literally from rags to riches.

James Brown, like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and the Grateful Dead, was and remains a cultural icon. Those performers and others of their era had broad cultural currency; they had meaning for people who did not like or even listen to their music. Is there any figure who has emerged recently in popular music of whom that can be said? This is not meant to be one of those laments about artistic decline, in which the younger generation is compared unfavorably to the great achievements of past ones. I have no doubt that more recent generations of performers may be more skilled and at least as talented as their musical forebears. Rather, my point is that the cultural position of popular music and its stars has diminished.

Popular music, of course, remains a very important part of young people's lives. Many of our students seem attached to their iPods as if they were life-support systems. But the prevalence of iPods illustrates a reason why popular music has lost its centrality. The 1960s equivalent technology to the iPod was the car radio, but the radio was public while an iPod is private. Not only did young people ride around listening in groups, but everyone listening to a station — or, indeed, during the heyday of the Top 40, to almost any station — heard the same records. Even in the late 1960s, after bands like the Grateful Dead became influential without benefit of AM radio, such music was still often experienced communally around a stereo, usually while sharing a joint. Now, each listener creates his or her own playlist, taking individual songs and, typically, ignoring their presentation within an album.

It sometimes seems as though this new technology is the major change in the popular-music scene. People may therefore assume that the continuing decline in CD sales represents merely a shift to music downloads. In fact, the decline is greater than that explanation would allow. People are buying less music today than in previous years. While the effects of downloading are often discussed, it's not just the music-delivery system that has changed. What we have long considered to be mass culture has increasingly become a collection of niche cultures. That is true for media in general, as the three broadcast television networks became the 100- plus channels of digital cable or satellite, and mass-circulation magazines like Life gave way to special-interest periodicals, both in print and on the Web.

In popular music, the decline of a genuine mass audience has meant that it is harder and harder for a performer to attain recognition beyond his or her niche. Those whose recordings now top the charts usually seem to be the least culturally significant, often lacking either the musical distinction or the political commentary that one can still find among less popular performers. But the bigger issue is that even this music reaches a small fraction of the total audience. One could argue that the term "popular music" itself has become outdated because no style of music reaches a broad enough audience. My undergraduate students typically know the music from my college years — the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, and so on — but it is often difficult to find more than a few who are all familiar with the same current releases. As a result of this audience fragmentation, popular music and its performers have lost the cultural centrality they once enjoyed, and that means that fewer people are interested enough to pay for the product.

This is not to say that music celebrities now fail to inspire great devotion in their fans. Celebrity, if anything, has become a larger element of popular culture since the 1960s. But celebrity is not the same as stardom. The phenomenon properly denoted by the word "star" is best illustrated by the movie stars of the 30s and 40s. Stars like Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, and Cary Grant transcended both the particular parts they played and the medium itself, and in the process became cultural icons. They stood for various qualities associated with physical beauty, successful personality, or even personal integrity (in the case of stars like Shirley Temple and James Stewart), and they provided people with compelling models with which to identify. They were typically understood to deserve their fame because of their talent, skill, or inherent magnetism.

Popular singers and jazz musicians were also stars during that period, but they were much less prominent than movie stars, in part because popular music was understood to be of special interest to youth rather than to the population as a whole. But neither music nor movie stars before the end of World War II were understood as having much political significance. The production code kept political controversy out of the movies, and Hollywood's contribution to wartime propaganda was regarded as patriotic rather than political. The love songs that Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra crooned threatened no one. In that era, popular culture was sometimes regarded as morally suspect, but it was not thought to play a role in political controversy or in society at large.

After the war, that began to change. The cold war and the accompanying domestic red scare suddenly made popular culture controversial. The leading star of the postwar era, John Wayne, was popular mostly because of the political positions with which he was associated. The movie industry committed itself to presenting America only in a positive light, but, ironically, the need to compete with television led the movies to risk controversial subjects, such as anti-Semitism, homosexuality, and juvenile delinquency. In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean, one of the most popular movie stars of the 1950s, came to embody the delinquent, helping to set the stage for the first great rock 'n' roll star.

When Elvis Presley was dubbed the king of rock 'n' roll in 1956, he had no intention of becoming a political symbol, but he couldn't avoid it because of the ways in which he unintentionally defied society's definitions of race, class, and gender. Because of his popularity — no performer had ever before reached as large an audience — Elvis unwittingly had a huge social impact. In the process of becoming America's first rock star, Elvis began to change how the nation perceived popular music and musicians.

Elvis and his introduction of what came to be known as rock 'n' roll to a white, mainstream audience solidified the association between youth and popular music. By the 1960s, the music helped to establish for teenagers a powerful sense of generational identity. As Todd Gitlin put it in his history of the New Left (The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage), "It was rock 'n' roll that named us a generation." Were it not for the upheavals of the 1960s, the significance of rock 'n' roll would probably have been no greater than that of ragtime or swing. While the civil-rights movement peaked and the New Left, the antiwar movement, the counterculture, second-wave feminism, and gay liberation emerged in the 60s, the student or youth movement was referred to more generally as including activism in favor of many or all of those causes. Music was the glue that held young people together, something shared that transcended any particular politics except that of youth itself. The Woodstock festival could bill itself as "three days of peace and music," and the connection was obvious to anyone who might consider attending.

The vast popularity of the Beatles played a role in this new perception, especially since they attracted a college-age audience to rock 'n' roll. But Bob Dylan is certainly the central figure in the emergence of rock 'n' roll's cultural importance. Dylan had established himself as the leading young folk-music performer and as a writer of powerful topical songs. When he went electric in 1965, he gave to rock 'n' roll a seriousness that it had hitherto been denied. That was not because Dylan's rock songs were explicitly political, as his folk songs had been, but because he presented himself as an artist and his music as art. Under Dylan's influence, the Beatles also began to see themselves as making art, as their increasingly innovative albums, starting with Rubber Soul (1965), attest. The ambition to produce not only art but great art spread even to already-established groups: Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys reportedly began working on Pet Sounds after hearing Rubber Soul.

While not everyone was willing to concede that rock 'n' roll was art, the media began to treat it as if it were. English majors named Dylan their favorite poet, and some poets agreed he should be considered one of their number.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Dylan's lyrics became a major part of the rhetoric of the New Left, less because of what they said about politics than because of what Dylan represented — the power of a generation to express itself. Rock 'n' roll became the soundtrack of "the movement," and the music became increasingly associated with marijuana and LSD, both of which were understood to be more than just recreational. They were touted as having the potential not only to temporarily alter an individual's mental state, but also to permanently change public consciousness. Stars like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix embodied that conception of personal and cultural transformation.

By the early 1970s, rock stars had moved from the margins to the mainstream of American popular culture. The Rolling Stones were the epitome of the new entertainment royalty. The word "entourage" may have first been used about the retinue of staff, friends, celebrities, and other assorted hangers-on who accompanied them on their tours of 1969 and 1972. Truman Capote — then himself a significant celebrity in the wake of the success of In Cold Blood and by virtue of his assignment to cover the Stones' 72 tour for Rolling Stone magazine — appeared on TV talk shows with gossip about the band and the excesses of its decadent lifestyle. Robert Greenfield, then the associate editor of Rolling Stone's London office, who also covered the 72 tour, wrote: "With the golden days of Hollywood long gone, and the movies having given way to pop music and pro sports as America's prime fantasy obsessions, a new kind of star had come along. The rock star."

It is symptomatic of the current popular-music scene that the Rolling Stones' 2005 tour was the largest-grossing such event in history, at $162-million; their 2006 tour ranks third, at $138.5-million. While U2's 2005 tour grossed $138.9-million, no newer groups have come close. Mick Jagger remains a bigger star than any performer who has emerged in the last 20 years. Bono, whose political advocacy in the courts of real-world power has expanded his reach, may have been the last rock star to capture the imagination of a broad spectrum of the public. But even this case reveals a change. Bono's advocacy does not seem to be of a piece with his role in U2, the way, say, John Lennon's antiwar activism seemed to be a natural continuation of his role in the Beatles.

The rise of rock stars in the 1960s meant that popular music would be treated differently afterward. Performers would never again be dismissed out of hand as mere purveyors of silly love songs. Even today, the news media are inclined to assume that popular musicians have something to say about serious matters — and many of them do. But the fragmentation of mass culture has meant that they are able to say it to smaller and smaller portions of the population.

The fate of hip-hop may be the best illustration of the increasing marginalization of popular music and its impact on American culture. Hip-hop is arguably the last great innovation in popular music, the successor to ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll. All of those forms emerged out of African-American culture and changed the tastes of Americans of all races. Hip-hop also attracted a large audience of young white listeners, but it did not come to dominate public consciousness the way its predecessors had. That has less to do with the particular qualities of hip-hop than with the fragmentation of the market. Most Americans didn't hear the music routinely, so it remained foreign to their ears.

Early hip-hop stars like Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy were at least as critical of American society as Dylan ever was, and they led some commentators to imagine hip-hop artists as authentic and politically significant spokespeople for poor, urban African-Americans. But in the last 10 years or so, even though hip-hop artists like Jay-Z are popular music's most innovative contributors, the form has become less political, and its performers seem less culturally central.

In a different, more unified market, hip-hop stars might have become leaders like James Brown. As it is, popular music seems headed back to the margins of cultural life, and that is a loss for all of us.

David Shumway is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. He is finishing a book on rock stars as cultural icons, to be published by New York University Press.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Che Guevara: The Killing Machine (By Alvaro Vargas Llosa, the New Republic)

Che Guevara, who did so much (or was it so little?) to destroy capitalism, is now a quintessential capitalist brand. His likeness adorns mugs, hoodies, lighters, key chains, wallets, baseball caps, toques, bandannas, tank tops, club shirts, couture bags, denim jeans, herbal tea, and of course those omnipresent T-shirts with the photograph, taken by Alberto Korda, of the socialist heartthrob in his beret during the early years of the revolution, as Che happened to walk into the photographer's viewfinder--and into the image that, thirty-eight years after his death, is still the logo of revolutionary (or is it capitalist?) chic. Sean O'Hagan claimed in The Observer that there is even a soap powder with the slogan "Che washes whiter."

Che products are marketed by big corporations and small businesses, such as the Burlington Coat Factory, which put out a television commercial depicting a youth in fatigue pants wearing a Che T-shirt, or Flamingo's Boutique in Union City, New Jersey, whose owner responded to the fury of local Cuban exiles with this devastating argument: "I sell whatever people want to buy." Revolutionaries join the merchandising frenzy, too--from "The Che Store," catering to "all your revolutionary needs" on the Internet, to the Italian writer Gianni Minà, who sold Robert Redford the movie rights to Che's diary of his juvenile trip around South America in 1952 in exchange for access to the shooting of the film The Motorcycle Diaries so that Minà could produce his own documentary. Not to mention Alberto Granado, who accompanied Che on his youthful trip and advises documentarists, and now complains in Madrid, according to El País, over Rioja wine and duck magret, that the American embargo against Cuba makes it hard for him to collect royalties. To take the irony further: the building where Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina, a splendid early twentieth-century edifice at the corner of Urquiza and Entre Ríos Streets, was until recently occupied by the private pension fund AFJP Máxima, a child of Argentina's privatization of social security in the 1990s.

The metamorphosis of Che Guevara into a capitalist brand is not new, but the brand has been enjoying a revival of late--an especially remarkable revival, since it comes years after the political and ideological collapse of all that Guevara represented. This windfall is owed substantially to The Motorcycle Diaries, the film produced by Robert Redford and directed by Walter Salles. (It is one of three major motion pictures on Che either made or in the process of being made in the last two years; the other two have been directed by Josh Evans and Steven Soderbergh.) Beautifully shot against landscapes that have clearly eluded the eroding effects of polluting capitalism, the film shows the young man on a voyage of self-discovery as his budding social conscience encounters social and economic exploitation--laying the ground for a New Wave re-invention of the man whom Sartre once called the most complete human being of our era.

But to be more precise, the current Che revival started in 1997, on the thirtieth anniversary of his death, when five biographies hit the bookstores, and his remains were discovered near an airstrip at Bolivia's Vallegrande airport, after a retired Bolivian general, in a spectacularly timed revelation, disclosed the exact location. The anniversary refocused attention on Freddy Alborta's famous photograph of Che's corpse laid out on a table, foreshortened and dead and romantic, looking like Christ in a Mantegna painting.

It is customary for followers of a cult not to know the real life story of their hero, the historical truth. (Many Rastafarians would renounce Haile Selassie if they had any notion of who he really was.) It is not surprising that Guevara's contemporary followers, his new post-communist admirers, also delude themselves by clinging to a myth--except the young Argentines who have come up with an expression that rhymes perfectly in Spanish: "Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué," or "I have a Che T-shirt and I don't know why."

Consider some of the people who have recently brandished or invoked Guevara's likeness as a beacon of justice and rebellion against the abuse of power. In Lebanon, demonstrators protesting against Syria at the grave of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri carried Che's image. Thierry Henry, a French soccer player who plays for Arsenal, in England, showed up at a major gala organized by FIFA, the world's soccer body, wearing a red and black Che T-shirt. In a recent review in The New York Times of George A. Romero's Land of the Dead, Manohla Dargis noted that "the greatest shock here may be the transformation of a black zombie into a righteous revolutionary leader," and added, "I guess Che really does live, after all." The soccer hero Maradona showed off the emblematic Che tattoo on his right arm during a trip where he met Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In Stavropol, in southern Russia, protesters denouncing cash payments of welfare concessions took to the central square with Che flags. In San Francisco, City Lights Books, the legendary home of beat literature, treats visitors to a section devoted to Latin America in which half the shelves are taken up by Che books. José Luis Montoya, a Mexican police officer who battles drug crime in Mexicali, wears a Che sweatband because it makes him feel stronger. At the Dheisheh refugee camp on the West Bank, Che posters adorn a wall that pays tribute to the Intifada. A Sunday magazine devoted to social life in Sydney, Australia, lists the three dream guests at a dinner party: Alvar Aalto, Richard Branson, and Che Guevara. Leung Kwok-hung, the rebel elected to Hong Kong's Legislative Council, defies Beijing by wearing a Che T-shirt. In Brazil, Frei Betto, President Lula da Silva's adviser in charge of the high-profile "Zero Hunger" program, says that "we should have paid less attention to Trotsky and much more to Che Guevara." And most famously, at this year's Academy Awards ceremony Carlos Santana and Antonio Banderas performed the theme song from The Motorcycle Diaries, and Santana showed up wearing a Che T-shirt and a crucifix. The manifestations of the new cult of Che are everywhere. Once again the myth is firing up people whose causes for the most part represent the exact opposite of what Guevara was.

No man is without some redeeming qualities. In the case of Che Guevara, those qualities may help us to measure the gulf that separates reality from myth. His honesty (well, partial honesty) meant that he left written testimony of his cruelties, including the really ugly, though not the ugliest, stuff. His courage--what Castro described as "his way, in every difficult and dangerous moment, of doing the most difficult and dangerous thing"--meant that he did not live to take full responsibility for Cuba's hell. Myth can tell you as much about an era as truth. And so it is that thanks to Che's own testimonials to his thoughts and his deeds, and thanks also to his premature departure, we may know exactly how deluded so many of our contemporaries are about so much.

Guevara might have been enamored of his own death, but he was much more enamored of other people's deaths. In April 1967, speaking from experience, he summed up his homicidal idea of justice in his "Message to the Tricontinental": "hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine." His earlier writings are also peppered with this rhetorical and ideological violence. Although his former girlfriend Chichina Ferreyra doubts that the original version of the diaries of his motorcycle trip contains the observation that "I feel my nostrils dilate savoring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood of the enemy," Guevara did share with Granado at that very young age this exclamation: "Revolution without firing a shot? You're crazy." At other times the young bohemian seemed unable to distinguish between the levity of death as a spectacle and the tragedy of a revolution's victims. In a letter to his mother in 1954, written in Guatemala, where he witnessed the overthrow of the revolutionary government of Jacobo Arbenz, he wrote: "It was all a lot of fun, what with the bombs, speeches, and other distractions to break the monotony I was living in."

Guevara's disposition when he traveled with Castro from Mexico to Cuba aboard the Granma is captured in a phrase in a letter to his wife that he penned on January 28, 1957, not long after disembarking, which was published in her book Ernesto: A Memoir of Che Guevara in Sierra Maestra: "Here in the Cuban jungle, alive and bloodthirsty." This mentality had been reinforced by his conviction that Arbenz had lost power because he had failed to execute his potential enemies. An earlier letter to his former girlfriend Tita Infante had observed that "if there had been some executions, the government would have maintained the capacity to return the blows." It is hardly a surprise that during the armed struggle against Batista, and then after the triumphant entry into Havana, Guevara murdered or oversaw the executions in summary trials of scores of people--proven enemies, suspected enemies, and those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In January 1957, as his diary from the Sierra Maestra indicates, Guevara shot Eutimio Guerra because he suspected him of passing on information: "I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain.... His belongings were now mine." Later he shot Aristidio, a peasant who expressed the desire to leave whenever the rebels moved on. While he wondered whether this particular victim "was really guilty enough to deserve death," he had no qualms about ordering the death of Echevarría, a brother of one of his comrades, because of unspecified crimes: "He had to pay the price." At other times he would simulate executions without carrying them out, as a method of psychological torture.

Luis Guardia and Pedro Corzo, two researchers in Florida who are working on a documentary about Guevara, have obtained the testimony of Jaime Costa Vázquez, a former commander in the revolutionary army known as "El Catalán," who maintains that many of the executions attributed to Ramiro Valdés, a future interior minister of Cuba, were Guevara's direct responsibility, because Valdés was under his orders in the mountains. "If in doubt, kill him" were Che's instructions. On the eve of victory, according to Costa, Che ordered the execution of a couple dozen people in Santa Clara, in central Cuba, where his column had gone as part of a final assault on the island. Some of them were shot in a hotel, as Marcelo Fernándes-Zayas, another former revolutionary who later became a journalist, has written--adding that among those executed, known as casquitos, were peasants who had joined the army simply to escape unemployment.

But the "cold-blooded killing machine" did not show the full extent of his rigor until, immediately after the collapse of the Batista regime, Castro put him in charge of La Cabaña prison. (Castro had a clinically good eye for picking the right person to guard the revolution against infection.) San Carlos de La Cabaña was a stone fortress used to defend Havana against English pirates in the eighteenth century; later it became a military barracks. In a manner chillingly reminiscent of Lavrenti Beria, Guevara presided during the first half of 1959 over one of the darkest periods of the revolution. José Vilasuso, a lawyer and a professor at Universidad Interamericana de Bayamón in Puerto Rico, who belonged to the body in charge of the summary judicial process at La Cabaña, told me recently that Che was in charge of the Comisión Depuradora. The process followed the law of the Sierra: there was a military court and Che's guidelines to us were that we should act with conviction, meaning that they were all murderers and the revolutionary way to proceed was to be implacable. My direct superior was Miguel Duque Estrada. My duty was to legalize the files before they were sent on to the Ministry. Executions took place from Monday to Friday, in the middle of the night, just after the sentence was given and automatically confirmed by the appellate body. On the most gruesome night I remember, seven men were executed.

Javier Arzuaga, the Basque chaplain who gave comfort to those sentenced to die and personally witnessed dozens of executions, spoke to me recently from his home in Puerto Rico. A former Catholic priest, now seventy-five, who describes himself as "closer to Leonardo Boff and Liberation Theology than to the former Cardinal Ratzinger," he recalls that "there were about eight hundred prisoners in a space fit for no more than three hundred: former Batista military and police personnel, some journalists, a few businessmen and merchants. The revolutionary tribunal was made of militiamen. Che Guevara presided over the appellate court. He never overturned a sentence. I would visit those on death row at the galera de la muerte. A rumor went around that I hypnotized prisoners because many remained calm, so Che ordered that I be present at the executions. After I left in May, they executed many more, but I personally witnessed fifty-five executions. There was an American, Herman Marks, apparently a former convict. We called him "the butcher" because he enjoyed giving the order to shoot. I pleaded many times with Che on behalf of prisoners. I remember especially the case of Ariel Lima, a young boy. Che did not budge. Nor did Fidel, whom I visited. I became so traumatized that at the end of May 1959 I was ordered to leave the parish of Casa Blanca, where La Cabaña was located and where I had held Mass for three years. I went to Mexico for treatment. The day I left, Che told me we had both tried to bring one another to each other's side and had failed. His last words were: "When we take our masks off, we will be enemies."

How many people were killed at La Cabaña? Pedro Corzo offers a figure of some two hundred, similar to that given by Armando Lago, a retired economics professor who has compiled a list of 179 names as part of an eight-year study on executions in Cuba. Vilasuso told me that four hundred people were executed between January and the end of June in 1959 (at which point Che ceased to be in charge of La Cabaña). Secret cables sent by the American Embassy in Havana to the State Department in Washington spoke of "over 500." According to Jorge Castañeda, one of Guevara's biographers, a Basque Catholic sympathetic to the revolution, the late Father Iñaki de Aspiazú, spoke of seven hundred victims. Félix Rodríguez, a CIA agent who was part of the team in charge of the hunt for Guevara in Bolivia, told me that he confronted Che after his capture about "the two thousand or so" executions for which he was responsible during his lifetime. "He said they were all CIA agents and did not address the figure," Rodríguez recalls. The higher figures may include executions that took place in the months after Che ceased to be in charge of the prison.

Which brings us back to Carlos Santana and his chic Che gear. In an open letter published in El Nuevo Herald on March 31 of this year, the great jazz musician Paquito D'Rivera castigated Santana for his costume at the Oscars, and added: "One of those Cubans [at La Cabaña] was my cousin Bebo, who was imprisoned there precisely for being a Christian. He recounts to me with infinite bitterness how he could hear from his cell in the early hours of dawn the executions, without trial or process of law, of the many who died shouting, 'Long live Christ the King!'"

Che's lust for power had other ways of expressing itself besides murder. The contradiction between his passion for travel--a protest of sorts against the of the nation-state--and his impulse to become himself an enslaving state over others is poignant. In writing about Pedro Valdivia, the conquistador of Chile, Guevara reflected: "He belonged to that special class of men the species produces every so often, in whom a craving for limitless power is so extreme that any suffering to achieve it seems natural." He might have been describing himself. At every stage of his adult life, his megalomania manifested itself in the predatory urge to take over other people's lives and property, and to abolish their free will.

In 1958, after taking the city of Sancti Spiritus, Guevara unsuccessfully tried to impose a kind of sharia, regulating relations between men and women, the use of alcohol, and informal gambling--a puritanism that did not exactly characterize his own way of life. He also ordered his men to rob banks, a decision that he justified in a letter to Enrique Oltuski, a subordinate, in November of that year: "The struggling masses agree to robbing banks because none of them has a penny in them." This idea of revolution as a license to re-allocate property as he saw fit led the Marxist Puritan to take over the mansion of an emigrant after the triumph of the revolution.

The urge to dispossess others of their property and to claim ownership of others' territory was central to Guevara's politics of raw power. In his memoirs, the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser records that Guevara asked him how many people had left his country because of land reform. When Nasser replied that no one had left, Che countered in anger that the way to measure the depth of change is by the number of people "who feel there is no place for them in the new society." This predatory instinct reached a pinnacle in 1965, when he started talking, God-like, about the "New Man" that he and his revolution would create.

Che's obsession with collectivist control led him to collaborate on the formation of the security apparatus that was set up to subjugate six and a half million Cubans. In early 1959, a series of secret meetings took place in Tarará, near Havana, at the mansion to which Che temporarily withdrew to recover from an illness. That is where the top leaders, including Castro, designed the Cuban police state. Ramiro Valdés, Che's subordinate during the guerrilla war, was put in charge of G-2, a body modeled on the Cheka. Angel Ciutah, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War sent by the Soviets who had been very close to Ramón Mercader, Trotsky's assassin, and later befriended Che, played a key role in organizing the system, together with Luis Alberto Lavandeira, who had served the boss at La Cabaña. Guevara himself took charge of G-6, the body tasked with the ideological indoctrination of the armed forces. The U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 became the perfect occasion to consolidate the new police state, with the rounding up of tens of thousands of Cubans and a new series of executions. As Guevara himself told the Soviet ambassador Sergei Kudriavtsev, counterrevolutionaries were never "to raise their head again."

'Counterrevolutionary" is the term that was applied to anyone who departed from dogma. It was the communist synonym for "heretic." Concentration camps were one form in which dogmatic power was employed to suppress dissent. History attributes to the Spanish general Valeriano Weyler, the captain-general of Cuba at the end of the nineteenth century, the first use of the word "concentration" to describe the policy of surrounding masses of potential opponents--in his case, supporters of the Cuban independence movement--with barbed wire and fences. How fitting that Cuba's revolutionaries more than half a century later were to take up this indigenous tradition. In the beginning, the revolution mobilized volunteers to build schools and to work in ports, plantations, and factories--all exquisite photo-ops for Che the stevedore, Che the cane-cutter, Che the clothmaker. It was not long before volunteer work became a little less voluntary: the first forced labor camp, Guanahacabibes, was set up in western Cuba at the end of 1960. This is how Che explained the function performed by this method of confinement: "[We] only send to Guanahacabibes those doubtful cases where we are not sure people should go to jail ... people who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals, to a lesser or greater degree.... It is hard labor, not brute labor, rather the working conditions there are hard."

This camp was the precursor to the eventual systematic confinement, starting in 1965 in the province of Camagüey, of dissidents, homosexuals, AIDS victims, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests, and other such scum, under the banner of Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción, or Military Units to Help Production. Herded into buses and trucks, the "unfit" would be transported at gunpoint into concentration camps organized on the Guanahacabibes mold. Some would never return; others would be raped, beaten, or mutilated; and most would be traumatized for life, as Néstor Almendros's wrenching documentary Improper Conduct showed the world a couple of decades ago.

So Time magazine may have been less than accurate in August 1960 when it described the revolution's division of labor with a cover story featuring Che Guevara as the "brain" and Fidel Castro as the "heart" and Raúl Castro as the "fist." But the perception reflected Guevara's crucial role in turning Cuba into a bastion of totalitarianism. Che was a somewhat unlikely candidate for ideological purity, given his bohemian spirit, but during the years of training in Mexico and in the ensuing period of armed struggle in Cuba he emerged as the communist ideologue infatuated with the Soviet Union, much to the discomfort of Castro and others who were essentially opportunists using whatever means were necessary to gain power. When the would-be revolutionaries were arrested in Mexico in 1956, Guevara was the only one who admitted that he was a communist and was studying Russian. (He spoke openly about his relationship with Nikolai Leonov from the Soviet Embassy.) During the armed struggle in Cuba, he forged a strong alliance with the Popular Socialist Party (the island's Communist Party) and with Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, a key player in the conversion of Castro's regime to communism.

This fanatical disposition made Che into a linchpin of the "Sovietization" of the revolution that had repeatedly boasted about its independent character. Very soon after the barbudos came to power, Guevara took part in negotiations with Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet deputy prime minister, who visited Cuba. He was entrusted with the mission of furthering Soviet-Cuban negotiations during a visit to Moscow in late 1960. (It was part of a long trip in which Kim Il Sung's North Korea was the country that impressed him "the most.") Guevara's second trip to Russia, in August 1962, was even more significant, because it sealed the deal to turn Cuba into a Soviet nuclear beachhead. He met Khrushchev in Yalta to finalize details on an operation that had already begun and involved the introduction of forty-two Soviet missiles, half of which were armed with nuclear warheads, as well as launchers and some forty-two thousand soldiers. After pressing his Soviet allies on the danger that the United States might find out what was happening, Guevara obtained assurances that the Soviet navy would intervene--in other words, that Moscow was ready to go to war.

According to Philippe Gavi's biography of Guevara, the revolutionary had bragged that "this country is willing to risk everything in an atomic war of unimaginable destructiveness to defend a principle." Just after the Cuban missile crisis ended--with Khrushchev reneging on the promise made in Yalta and negotiating a deal with the United States behind Castro's back that included the removal of American missiles from Turkey--Guevara told a British communist daily: "If the rockets had remained, we would have used them all and directed them against the very heart of the United States, including New York, in our defense against aggression." And a couple of years later, at the United Nations, he was true to form: "As Marxists we have maintained that peaceful coexistence among nations does not include coexistence between exploiters and the exploited."

Guevara distanced himself from the Soviet Union in the last years of his life. He did so for the wrong reasons, blaming Moscow for being too soft ideologically and diplomatically, for making too many concessions--unlike Maoist China, which he came to see as a haven of orthodoxy. In October 1964, a memo written by Oleg Daroussenkov, a Soviet official close to him, quotes Guevara as saying: "We asked the Czechoslovaks for arms; they turned us down. Then we asked the Chinese; they said yes in a few days, and did not even charge us, stating that one does not sell arms to a friend." In fact, Guevara resented the fact that Moscow was asking other members of the communist bloc, including Cuba, for something in return for its colossal aid and political support. His final attack on Moscow came in Algiers, in February 1965, at an international conference, where he accused the Soviets of adopting the "law of value," that is, capitalism. His break with the Soviets, in sum, was not a cry for independence. It was an Enver Hoxha-like howl for the total subordination of reality to blind ideological orthodoxy.

The great revolutionary had a chance to put into practice his economic vision--his idea of social justice--as head of the National Bank of Cuba and of the Department of Industry of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform at the end of 1959, and, starting in early 1961, as minister of industry. The period in which Guevara was in charge of most of the Cuban economy saw the near-collapse of sugar production, the failure of industrialization, and the introduction of rationing--all this in what had been one of Latin America's four most economically successful countries since before the Batista dictatorship.

His stint as head of the National Bank, during which he printed bills signed "Che," has been summarized by his deputy, Ernesto Betancourt: "[He] was ignorant of the most elementary economic principles." Guevara's powers of perception regarding the world economy were famously expressed in 1961, at a hemispheric conference in Uruguay, where he predicted a 10 percent rate of growth for Cuba "without the slightest fear," and, by 1980, a per capita income greater than that of "the U.S. today." In fact, by 1997, the thirtieth anniversary of his death, Cubans were dieting on a ration of five pounds of rice and one pound of beans per month; four ounces of meat twice a year; four ounces of soybean paste per week; and four eggs per month.

Land reform took land away from the rich, but gave it to the bureaucrats, not to the peasants. (The decree was written in Che's house.) In the name of diversification, the cultivated area was reduced and manpower distracted toward other activities. The result was that between 1961 and 1963, the harvest was down by half, to a mere 3.8 million metric tons. Was this sacrifice justified by progress in Cuban industrialization? Unfortunately, Cuba had no raw materials for heavy industry, and, as a consequence of the revolutionary redistribution, it had no hard currency with which to buy them--or even basic goods. By 1961, Guevara was having to give embarrassing explanations to the workers at the office: "Our technical comrades at the companies have made a toothpaste ... which is as good as the previous one; it cleans just the same, though after a while it turns to stone." By 1963, all hopes of industrializing Cuba were abandoned, and the revolution accepted its role as a colonial provider of sugar to the Soviet bloc in exchange for oil to cover its needs and to re-sell to other countries. For the next three decades, Cuba would survive on a Soviet subsidy of somewhere between $65 billion and $100 billion.

Having failed as a hero of social justice, does Guevara deserve a place in the history books as a genius of guerrilla warfare? His greatest military achievement in the fight against Batista--taking the city of Santa Clara after ambushing a train with heavy reinforcements--is seriously disputed. Numerous testimonies indicate that the commander of the train surrendered in advance, perhaps after taking bribes. (Gutiérrez Menoyo, who led a different guerrilla group in that area, is among those who have decried Cuba's official account of Guevara's victory.) Immediately after the triumph of the revolution, Guevara organized guerrilla armies in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Haiti--all of which were crushed. In 1964, he sent the Argentine revolutionary Jorge Ricardo Masetti to his death by persuading him to mount an attack on his native country from Bolivia, just after representative democracy had been restored to Argentina.

Particularly disastrous was the Congo expedition in 1965. Guevara sided with two rebels--Pierre Mulele in the west and Laurent Kabila in the east--against the ugly Congolese government, which was sustained by the United States as well as by South African and exiled Cuban mercenaries. Mulele had taken over Stanleyville earlier before being driven back. During his reign of terror, as V.S. Naipaul has written, he murdered all the people who could read and all those who wore a tie. As for Guevara's other ally, Laurent Kabila, he was merely lazy and corrupt at the time; but the world would find out in the 1990s that he, too, was a killing machine. In any event, Guevara spent most of 1965 helping the rebels in the east before fleeing the country ignominiously. Soon afterward, Mobutu came to power and installed a decades-long tyranny. (In Latin American countries too, from Argentina to Peru, Che-inspired revolutions had the practical result of reinforcing brutal militarism for many years.)

In Bolivia, Che was defeated again, and for the last time. He misread the local situation. There had been an agrarian reform years before; the government had respected many of the peasant communities' institutions; and the army was close to the United States despite its nationalism. "The peasant masses don't help us at all" was Guevara's melancholy conclusion in his Bolivian diary. Even worse, Mario Monje, the local communist leader, who had no stomach for guerrilla warfare after having been humiliated at the elections, led Guevara to a vulnerable location in the southeast of the country. The circumstances of Che's capture at Yuro ravine, soon after meeting the French intellectual Régis Debray and the Argentine painter Ciro Bustos, both of whom were arrested as they left the camp, was, like most of the Bolivian expedition, an amateur's affair.

Guevara was certainly bold and courageous, and quick at organizing life on a military basis in the territories under his control, but he was no General Giap. His book Guerrilla Warfare teaches that popular forces can beat an army, that it is not necessary to wait for the right conditions because an insurrectional foco (or small group of revolutionaries) can bring them about, and that the fight must primarily take place in the countryside. (In his prescription for guerrilla warfare, he also reserves for women the roles of cooks and nurses.) However, Batista's army was not an army, but a corrupt bunch of thugs with no motivation and not much organization; and guerrilla focos, with the exception of Nicaragua, all ended up in ashes for the foquistas; and Latin America has turned 70 percent urban in these last four decades. In this regard, too, Che Guevara was a callous fool.

In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, Argentina had the second-highest growth rate in the world. By the 1890s, the real income of Argentine workers was greater than that of Swiss, German, and French workers. By 1928, that country had the twelfth-highest per capita GDP in the world. That achievement, which later generations would ruin, was in large measure due to Juan Bautista Alberdi.

Like Guevara, Alberdi liked to travel: he walked through the pampas and deserts from north to south at the age of fourteen, all the way to Buenos Aires. Like Guevara, Alberdi opposed a tyrant, Juan Manuel Rosas. Like Guevara, Alberdi got a chance to influence a revolutionary leader in power--Justo José de Urquiza, who toppled Rosas in 1852. And like Guevara, Alberdi represented the new government on world tours, and died abroad. But unlike the old and new darling of the left, Alberdi never killed a fly. His book, Bases y puntos de partida para la organización de la República Argentina, was the foundation of the Constitution of 1853 that limited government, opened trade, encouraged immigration, and secured property rights, thereby inaugurating a seventy-year period of astonishing prosperity. He did not meddle in the affairs of other nations, opposing his country's war against Paraguay. His likeness does not adorn Mike Tyson's abdomen.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Graduates (by Louis Menand, the New Yorker)


The Graduates
by Louis Menand May 21, 2007

On your first sleepover, your best friend’s mother asks if you would like a tuna-fish-salad sandwich. Your own mother gives you tuna-fish-salad sandwiches all the time, so you say, “Sure.” When you bite into the sandwich, though, you realize, too late, that your best friend’s mother’s tuna-fish salad tastes nothing like the tuna-fish salad your mother makes. You never dreamed that it was possible for there to be more than one way to prepare tuna-fish salad. And what’s with the bread? It’s brown, and appears to have tiny seeds in it. What is more unnerving is the fact that your best friend obviously considers his mother’s tuna-fish salad to be perfectly normal and has been eating it with enjoyment all his life. Later on, you discover that the pillows in your best friend’s house are filled with some kind of foam-rubber stuff instead of feathers. The toilet paper is pink. What kind of human beings are these? At two o’clock in the morning, you throw up, and your mother comes and takes you home.

College, from which some 1.5 million people will graduate this year, is, basically, a sleepover with grades. In college, it is not so cool to throw up or for your mother to come and take you home. But plenty of students do throw up, and undergo other forms of mental and bodily distress, and plenty take time off from school or drop out. Almost half the people who go to college never graduate. Except in the case of a few highfliers and a somewhat larger number of inveterate slackers, college is a stressful experience.

American colleges notoriously inflate grades, but they can never inflate them enough, because education in the United States has become hypercompetitive and every little difference matters. In 1960, Harvard College had around five thousand applicants and accepted roughly thirty per cent; this year, it had almost twenty-three thousand applicants and accepted nine per cent. And the narrower the funnel, the finer applicants grind themselves in order to squeeze through it. Perversely, though, the competitiveness is a sign that the system is doing what Americans want it to be doing. Americans want education to be two things, universal and meritocratic. They want everyone to have a slot who wants one, and they want the slots to be awarded according to merit. The system is not perfect: children from higher-income families enjoy an advantage in competing for the top slots. But there are lots of slots. There are more than four thousand institutions of higher education in the United States, enrolling more than seventeen million students. Can you name fifty colleges? Even if you could name a thousand, there would be three thousand you hadn’t heard of. Most of these schools accept virtually all qualified applicants.

What makes for the stress is meritocracy. Meritocratic systems are democratic (since, in theory, everyone gets a place at the starting line) and efficient (since resources are not wasted on the unqualified), but they are huge engines of anxiety. The more purely meritocratic the system—the more open, the more efficient, the fairer—the more anxiety it produces, because there is no haven from competition. Your mother can’t come over and help you out—that would be cheating! You’re on your own. Everything you do in a meritocratic society is some kind of test, and there is never a final exam. There is only another test. People seem to pick up on this earlier and earlier in their lives, and at some point it starts to get in the way of their becoming educated. You can’t learn when you’re afraid of being wrong.

The biggest undergraduate major by far in the United States today is business. Twenty-two per cent of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in that field. Eight per cent are awarded in education, five per cent in the health professions. By contrast, fewer than four per cent of college graduates major in English, and only two per cent major in history. There are more bachelor’s degrees awarded every year in Parks, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies than in all foreign languages and literatures combined. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which classifies institutions of higher education, no longer uses the concept “liberal arts” in making its distinctions. This makes the obsession of some critics of American higher education with things like whether Shakespeare is being required of English majors beside the point. The question isn’t what the English majors aren’t taking; the question is what everyone else isn’t taking.

More than fifty per cent of Americans spend some time in college, and American higher education is the most expensive in the world. The average annual tuition at a four-year private college is more than twenty-two thousand dollars. What do we want from college, though? It is hard to imagine that there could be one answer that was right for each of the 1.5 million or so people graduating this year, one part of the college experience they all must have had. Any prescription that had to spread itself across that many institutions would not be very deep. One thing that might be hoped for, though, is that, somewhere along the way, every student had a moment of vertigo (without unpleasant side effects). In commencement speeches and the like, people say that education is all about opportunity and expanding your horizons. But some part of it is about shrinking people, about teaching them that they are not the measure of everything. College should give them the intellectual equivalent of their childhood sleepover experience. We want to give graduates confidence to face the world, but we also want to protect the world a little from their confidence. Humility is good. There is not enough of it these days. 

Monday, June 04, 2007

Waxing Philosophical, Booksellers Face the Digital (by Motoko Rich, the New York Times)

video link
Waxing Philosophical, Booksellers Face the Digital
Published: June 4, 2007

John Updike would not be pleased.

A year ago that literary lion elicited a standing ovation in a banquet hall full of booksellers when he exhorted them to “defend your lonely forts” against a digital future of free book downloads and snippets of text. But this year, at BookExpo America, the publishing industry’s annual convention that ended yesterday, the battering ram of technology was back.

Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine who made his own splash last year with his book “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More,” returned to the convention to talk about the possibility of giving away online his next book — which he fittingly intends to title “Free” — to readers who were willing to read it with advertisements interspersed throughout its pages. (He still intends to sell the book traditionally to readers who’d rather get their text without the ads.)

Google and Microsoft both had large presences at the expo at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, where about 35,000 publishers, booksellers, authors, agents and librarians attended the four-day carnival of promotion for the all-important fall lineup of titles. A panel sponsored by, the social networking site, drew a standing-room-only crowd, as did another discussion on the influence of literary blogs. Vendors offering to digitize books proliferated.

There were also the usual flashy parties, giveaways and autograph signings at the convention, which is not open to the public. Celebrities sold out $35-a-head breakfasts and lunches (Stephen Colbert, Alan Alda and Rosie O’Donnell all had books to hawk), and impersonators stalked the exhibition hall. (Elton John, Borat and a twinkling star who could be mistaken for a banana with arms were all sighted.) And publishers and booksellers attempted to figure out the Next Great Book (popular galleys included Denis Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke,” Alice Sebold’s “The Almost Moon” and “Loving Frank,” a debut novel by Nancy Horan.)

But in what has become another rite of the BookExpo in recent years, the industry continued to grapple with its evolving techno-future with a mixture of enthusiasm, anxiety and a whiff of desperation.

“I think there is going to be a lot of sturm and drang before we figure this out,” said Eamon Dolan, editor in chief of Houghton Mifflin. “There is a huge undertaking ahead. It is going to be rocky.”

Many of the independent booksellers, who have been buffeted by technological change for years, seemed quite philosophical about the need to move forward. Clark Kepler, president of Kepler’s Books and Magazines, an independent store in Menlo Park, Calif., visited a booth for a company that scans books and digitizes them, a technology that, on the face of it, would seem incompatible with a physical bookstore’s mission.

“In terms of the traditional bookstore it would not be good for us,” acknowledged Mr. Kepler, whose store closed its doors nearly two years ago because of financial problems set off in part by fierce competition from online retailers like He was able to reopen shortly afterward when venture capitalists from Silicon Valley and other community members invested in the store. “But ultimately I think it is good for all of us as readers and seekers of knowledge to have that information available, so as a bookseller I need to rethink my position instead of saying, ‘I wish the world would stand still,’ ” he said.

In a pavilion outside the main exhibit hall Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House and the creator of the Anchor Books paperback imprint, and Dane Neller, founders of, demonstrated their Espresso Book Machine, which can print a small paperback book on site in less than five minutes. “This could replace the entire supply chain that has been in existence since Gutenberg,” Mr. Epstein said.

Chris Morrow, whose parents founded Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., three decades ago, said he would be installing one of the machines. He said he planned to print local histories and Northshire-brand titles from the public domain, like “Middlemarch” or “Moby-Dick.”

“There are lots of challenges in bricks-and-mortar book selling, and I see this as a way of expanding our business,” Mr. Morrow said.

The idea that technology could enlarge, rather than replace, existing sales intrigued David Shanks, chief executive of Penguin Group (USA). “There are millions of gadgets out there where we could sell a lot of product digitally,” said Mr. Shanks, before turning his attention to the keynote address by Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, who appeared with his wife, the NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, to promote Mr. Greenspan’s forthcoming memoir, “The Age of Turbulence.” (Penguin is hoping to sell a lot of copies of the book — in whatever form — to recover the $8.5 million advance it is paying Mr. Greenspan.)

Other uses of technology provoked unease. At a dinner party given by Alfred A. Knopf for some of its authors, Vivien Jennings, president of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan., railed against authors who link from their Web pages to or even sell autographed copies of their books directly to consumers. “We host a lot of book signings,” Ms. Jennings said. Authors who sell their own books “are particularly hurtful to us.”

Tina Brown, the former editor of both The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, who appeared at a lunch at the Modern to promote “The Diana Chronicles,” Ms. Brown’s book about Diana, Princess of Wales, was more concerned about the possibility that authors’ work could be offered free online.

“Giving an author’s book away for nothing on the Web as a way to market books seems a mirage to me,” Ms. Brown wrote in an e-mail message after the lunch. “All it does is feed the hungry angles of journalists and bloggers who plunder it without any of the author’s context or nuance and makes the reader feel there is nothing new to learn from the genuine article when it finally limps on its weary way to a book shop.” Although “The Diana Chronicles” will be excerpted in Vanity Fair, Ms. Brown pointed out that both the author and publisher are generally paid for such excerpts.

Back in the aisles of the exhibition floor Deal Safrit, a wiry bookseller from Salisbury, N.C., boasted of a well-worn method for coping with technological developments. “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it,” he said. “We just do what we can do well. We are determined to sell books that we think people should read.”