Saturday, December 23, 2006

Target's Che Icon Misstep

Target has decided to pull its new Che Guevara-emblazoned cd cases from the shelves this season after conservatives went nucular. An editorial in Investor's Business Daily was particularly shrill about the retailer's foray into left-wing radicalism:
"The big box retailer has jumped onto the Guevara bandwagon, selling the murderous revolutionary's image as if it had just turned its stores into Marxist rally stalls.

"What next? Hitler backpacks? Pol Pot cookware? Pinochet pantyhose? Target gives this monster a pass, while using common sense on almost everything else it sells."
No, Hitler backpacks are not next. Any moron can tell you that. There are two things wrong with this reaction. First, no one in mainstream America thinks Che Guevara was a "murderous revolutionary." Whatever he did in actuality, public opinion has him pegged between two categories: freedom fighter and kitsch icon. Yes, the Cuban exile community is different, and yes, the right-wing blogosphere begs to differ, but to the rest of America: Che's that guy on t-shirts, right?

Second, any further commercialization of Che Guevara only serves to dilute his radicalism. The more we see his image, the less it means. You'd think a business daily would understand this. And maybe celebrate it.

Chinatown gets it. A few years ago, I bought a porcelain bust of Chairman Mao in San Francisco's Chinatown. For this mass-produced item, which doubtless cost pennies to make, I paid $19.99. It came complete with a gold foil sticker on the back that said "Made In China." I bought it because I was amused by the fact that I could overpay for an image of a Communist leader, made in bulk for export by the country he led. I don't know if Chinese factories churn out kitchy busts of Mao in order to subvert his message (I think they make them because they see an opportunity to sell things), but that's what it does.

The point is that virtually no one buying or selling busts of Mao -- or Che Guevara pictures -- these days feels any sort of ideological connection to what these men stood for. Nor do many of us actually care, much less understand, what they stood for. They are now the property of pop culture. They have none of the weight of a swastika or a burning cross.

"All this reflects an indifference to history," Investor's Business Daily writes. Exactly. As the icons of radical politics get sucked into the popular culture with all of its marketing, branding, materialism, and short-term memory, all the truth, all the meaning and intention are rinsed away. Think about how disgusted a man like Che Guevara would be if he could have known that a Minnesota big box retailer would make thousands of copies of his face for throw-away plastic disc holders. Think of how upset he'd be if he knew how thoroughly misunderstood his legacy was in America.

Target isn't guilty of any faux pas greater than misreading the market.

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