[I don’t know why I give a shit...]
I am tempted to call Glenn Beck’s style of argument “anecdotal” in the worst sense. He habitually infers very broad trends from particulars numbering close to zero. But he combines this with a penchant for simply making shit up.
For instance, a five-minute random sampling of his show (conducted by myself in the spirit of Al Franken vs. Ann Coulter’s book) yielded the charge that “American public schools” are promoting “earth worship.” Beck’s sole evidence is a single poster hung in one of the nation’s 100,000 public schools urging students to “pledge allegiance to the earth.” Of course, this is hardly the action of “public schools.” But even if every teacher in every school made those posters, it still wouldn’t amount to “earth worship.” While to worship something is to pledge allegiance to it, the reverse is simply not the case. And it is doubtful that Beck considers the morning Pledge to constitute a call to worship of the flag or Republic.
Often, this anecdotal-plus approach occurs in layers. Beck’s views on Che Guevara are a great example. He uses a false interpretation of one of Che’s statements to discredit “Che the man,” and from Che the man to discredit very “socialism” itself. (Not to mention equating this “socialism” with anything Obama is doing.)
He combines this in turn with “bad idealism,” according to which human mind-states count more in political discourse than actual, material outcomes. Again, with Beck this is not just your garden variety bad idealism but manages to be more perverse with the addition of counterfactuality: In his assessments of Obama, for instance, not only is he overconcerned with the President’s “thoughts and feelings” about things, but he thinks these mind-states matter even when they cannot find expression in action at all. It is always about what Obama “wants to do” or how he “would remake the country if he got his way.”
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But onto Beck’s analysis of Che, as given on his Jan. 22 “expose” of communist historical figures.
He spends most time trying to establish that Che was an anti-black racist. The evidence is the following quote, which Beck (or his guest) actually gets wrong. As quoted by Che’s biographer:
The black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on frivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving which follows him to this corner of American and drives him to get a head, even independently, of his own individual aspirations.
Here we have a young man’s single, private impression on seeing black people for the first time. Note that these are particular black people; there is no evidence Che would extrapolate from his localized experience in a Caracas slum to “the black race” in a general sense. As a diary entry, it was a thought which happened to be written down, unfiltered, unedited, unintended for publication. While chauvanistic, naive and snooty in a vein typical of the writer’s upper-class Argentine background, the quote is not particularly nasty. (As with Barbara Bush’s observation that the Superdome was a vacation for the Katrina refugees, it isn’t clear the speaker has bad feelings toward his subject.) It was written—for fuck’s sake—in 1952, prior to even the relative “progress” of “separate but equal” in the states.
Beck supplies the quote, and nothing else. From this alone he argues for Che’s racism. He summarizes the man as “a racist”—not “an ex-racist,” not “a man capable of bad ideas about race.”
Is that enough, though? Is the quote (is any quote?) so bad that there is absolutely nothing the speaker might have conceivably gone on to think or say or do in his remaining years which might have atoned for or mitigated it? Is there nothing else that matters—that could matter?
We can dick around over the severity of the statement. The point is that, whatever it means, Che changed his fucking mind. We know that he went on to condemn racism explicitly, privately and publicly, and in terms far less ambiguous than the above “affirmation.” He went on to lead one of the most effectively “unracist” lives in history:
In his 1964 address to the UN, Che railed against color segregation in the American south, which persisted despite the recent passage of the Voting Rights Act. Arguing the federal government hadn’t done enough to restrain the KKK:
Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the color of their skin, those who let the murderers of blacks remain free—protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men…How can those who do this consider themselves guardians of freedom?… The time will come when this assembly will acquire greater maturity and demand of the United States government guarantees for the life of the Blacks and Latin Americans who live in that country, most of them U.S. citizens by origin or adoption.
In the same speech, Che called slain Congolese president Patrice Lumumba a “hero” for resisting the white Belgian colonists; lauded the black singer Paul Robeson, who brought the Negro Spiritual into American pop culture and who was persecuted by American intelligence for socialist ties; and condemned South African apartheid when nobody in the West was talking about that issue.
Following the military success of the Cuban revolution, Che aided the African independence struggle in the Congo. He led an all-black contingent of a dozen Cuban soldiers and native Congolese against the colonial forces, requiring him to shoot at white South African mercenaries. Later, Che met with leaders of Mozambique’s independence struggle, offering similar help to the black FRELIMO army (which was declined). (Of course, as Cuba’s own population is largely black, Che’s assistance to that revolution falls in the same category as the above.)
Che also led the integration of Cuban schools years before Brown v. Board of Education. Finally, at risk of playing the “some of my best friends are black” card, Che’s most constant companion during the revolution (and consequently his personal bodyguard) was Harry “Pombo” Villegas, who was, like almost all the men in the units Che led, a black Afro-Cuban. Pombo is, to my knowledge, still living, and has in his memoirs attested to Che’s anti-racist credentials. (In this assessment, he joins black leaders like Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Stokely Carmichael.)
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The broader point speaks to that hyper-idealism of Beck’s: Not only is a diary entry not “Che,” but Che is not “the Cuban Revolution.” However Che “felt” about anything, the Cuban revolution effected real, tangible progress on race in a historical sense—no small thanks to Che’s actions.
The greatest literacy bump in history occurred after the Revolution. Illiteracy went from nearly a quarter of the population to less than four percent in under a year. This mostly affected Cubans of color.
The Revolution instituted an immediate 50 percent reduction in rents and subsequently granted tenants full ownership of these houses. As a result, more blacks per capita own their homes in Cuba than in any country in the world.
Cuba’s revolution is well known internationally for its aggressively anti-racist foreign policy. Most impressive was Cuba’s role in the helping end the racist South African apartheid regime. From late 1975 to 1988, 300,000 Cuban internationalist volunteers participated in the war in Angola, routing the invading South African armed forces, thereby hammering a final nail in the coffin of apartheid. Angolan textbooks will forever teach this episode to elementary school children.
Just as a youthful, renounced diary scribble is not “Che,” neither is Che, nor the Cuban Revolution, “socialism.” To this end, who gives a shit what Che thought, or even did? Those things are an interesting historical aside, but they don’t bear the load Beck wants them to. Social science/activism isn’t religion; condemning the prophet has no power to indict the theory, or anyone else’s practice of the theory.
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Predictably, Beck’s other bear is the “Che killed a bunch of people” modality. In truth, nobody has sound figures on how many “loyalists” died in the Cuban Revolution. In any case, Che did run a prison for a brief time, and some people were tried and executed there. Unless Beck is against the death penalty in every case whatsoever, he must give us more. He must critique the trials themselves, the evidence used and soforth. Note also the death penalty was largely applied, and summarily so, as a humane preventative to the locals’ mobbing the prisoners—their former brutalizers—limb from limb. This is acknowledged by the most unsympathetic historians of the episode. Justifiably or not, however, none of this business amounts to “Che killing people.”