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Six Hypotheses about Che Guevara

Friday, December 31, 2004 by Jeff

See the previous post for background. I'm restricting myself to hypotheses that are testable with magazine data, for now. Magazines are relatively easy to access, easy to code, and they represent a wide range of popular interests (political and non-political) and viewpoints (left and right). No, I don't actually have this data. If you can think of more, I'd love to hear them. Popularization

H1: As the visibility of Che in non-political contexts increases, his visibility in political contexts will decline. H2: As the visibility of Che in non-political contexts increases, political critiques of him (both positive and negative) will become more superficial.
National and ethnic identities
H3: Che is more likely to be invoked with reference to ethnic identity in Latin American contexts than in Anglo-American contexts. H4: Che is more likely to be invoked in a nationalist (rather than internationalist) context by Cubans than by other nationalities.
Period effects
H5: After September 11, 2001, Che is more likely to be invoked in the context of terrorism. H6: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Che's role in the Cuban government will be mentioned less frequently.

The Many Lives of Che (pt. I)

Wednesday, December 29, 2004 by Jeff

In the mass media, Che Guevara is almost invariably invoked with a snide critique of what the Washington Post calls his "T-shirtification." Among intellectuals, few are not critical of his devolution into popular culture, but reviews of the man himself are mixed. Time Magazine admires:

"The powerful of the earth should take heed: deep inside that T shirt where we have tried to trap him, the eyes of Che Guevara are still burning with impatience."

Others admonish:
"The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster." -- Slate
Still others struggle to come to grips with the popular fascination he inspires:

"What is everyone trying to prove? Is it a sign of rebellion? Or are we more focused on his political views? If so, I'm shocked to see we have so many Marxists at DePaul [University]." -- The DePaulia

How does a man become an icon? What does "el Che" mean for us today? How has the commodification of his image changed that meaning? Sid Tarrow (1998) writes that social movements, upon fading away, leave traces in popular culture. What popular culture then does with those traces, he says nothing about.

What then of the widespread belief that pop culture cheapens, weakens, distorts, and co-opts. Whether an admirer or adversary, there is little doubt that the icon, Che Guevara, has changed since he emerged as a silk-screened superstar. Less than a year after the successful revolution in Cuba, the New York Times dubbed him "the enigma of the Castro regime," "Cuba's éminence grise," and the "shadowy power behind Castro." Yet, up to that point, it reports, "the Cuban people [had] never wholeheartedly taken Major Guevara as a revolutionary hero" (NYT 11/27/59; 6/19/60). Within two years those same Cuban people were parading his image through Havana alongside the likes of Karl Marx. From an unknown Argentine doctor to the economic mastermind of the Cuban Revolution, Che became a national hero. But his influence didn't stop there.

"In the last few months, an international Guevara cult has developed among young ultraleftists who are tired of the ideological disputes that are fracturing Communism, and who yearn for action...Mr. Guevara...has become an inspiratoin to youthful romantics throughout Latin America who likened him to Simón Bolívar, the Liberator." -- New York Times, Sept. 23, 1967 (emphasis added)

From Cuba to Africa, Pakistan, and the United States, his image has in the past thirty years turned up on coffee mugs, ashtrays, posters, album covers, music videos, and of course T-shirts. Here in Tucson, "Che's Lounge," while not a cooperatively organized bar for indigenous and local peasants, does serve up good, cheap drinks. So, now that it's mass produced, what does the Che Guevara icon mean? Or, as the student at DePaul put it, "what is everyone trying to prove?"

It's unlikely that Che means the same thing to the Tucson bar owner and the people of Cuba in 1959, or the anti-Neoliberal globalization protestors and the teenager who hangs him next to Bob Marley on his bedroom wall. His meaning differs among people who "consume" him, and their different uses of him in turn create new meanings. So, who consumes Che, and in which contexts is he invoked?

Bringing Institutions In

Monday, December 06, 2004 by Jeff

How do institutions shape the emergence, dynamics, and outcomes of social movements? Political Process theories answer this question with regard to political institutions, and Resource Mobilization theories have answered in terms of making resources available to movements. What they lack is a sophisticated institutional analysis of any institutions other than the polity that take into account either a) the unique institutional contexts of religion, education, science, economy, and family, or b) the general features of institutions (and their relations to each other) as they affect social movements.

Do we have reason to believe that institutional contexts matter? A lot of existing research suggests that the answer is yes. The U.S. movement against the Vietnam War appears to have caused an unintended cultural shift in the sciences (Moore 1999). The Civil Rights Movement emerged with the convergence of religious, educational, and political institutions (Morris 1981; McAdam 1982). Gandhian non-violent tactics were adopted by that movement as a result of its religious institutional foundation, just as teach-ins are said to be adapted by student activists from Southern universities (Morris 1981). The earliest movements of the 18th and 19th centuries adapted organizational models from economic and religious groups for political purposes (Tarrow 1998). Tactics used by student anti-apartheid activists diffused among universities situated in structurally similar institutional positions (Soule 1997). Recruitment strategies have been known to be shaped by religious beliefs (Snow et al. 1980).

Clearly, examples abound. The question of how institutions matter then deserves more systematic attention. Some have already begun this project. Mische's (unpublished) work develops a perspective of movement dynamics using a socialization framework. By observing waves of incoming activists' and their prior institutional commitments, she draws conclusions about the changing character of the movement. Gamson (1992; 1995) examines the role of mass media (economic institutions) in framing processes. Smith (1996) has examined the role of religion in not only providing resources, but also shaping collective identities, tactics, and cultural symbols.

None, however, has drawn on the insights of new institutional theories. Are movements and movement organizations subjected to legitimacy pressures in the ways that schools and museums are (Meyer & Rowan 1977; DiMaggio & Powell 1983)? What are the sources of these pressures? To the extent that movements are confined to political contention, existing research does provide some answers. SMOs are often dependent on external sources for resources (e.g., foundation grants, celebrity endorsements, participants, etc.) and so must respect the constraints of legitimate political behavior (e.g., non-violent tactics, reformist political goals, familiar organizational forms, etc.). These ideas are not controversial, but neither have they been systematically developed within a neo-institutional framework.

Some organizational scholars who draw on this perspective are raising new and interesting questions about the role of social movements in institutional processes. They all seem to agree that movements emerge at the margins of existing institutions and are the source of cultural innovations (e.g., Rao et al. 2000; Clemens 1993; Lounsbury et al. 2003). But we might also ask whether the field of social movements itself serves as a source of legitimacy pressures and models of beliefs and behaviors. When movements emerge in highly disparate institutional contexts and yet adopt similar rhetoric, organizational forms, tactics, and frames, can we say that a relatively independent social movement institution exists?

Time keeps on slipping, slipping...

Saturday, December 04, 2004 by Jeff

I can't independently confirm this, but something strange is happening. In any other situation I'd certainly question my sanity, or at least my clock batteries. But it's true, it's really happening: time has sped up.

I first noticed about a week ago. I was in the middle of grading my students' papers and taking a break from reading the book I'd be lecturing about the following morning. The phone rang. It was Heather.

Where was I? I was supposed to meet her for a six o'clock dinner twenty minutes ago, and the movie we're seeing starts at 7:30. I must have lost track of time. I grabbed my coat and dashed out the door. Over an unusually spicy meal, we talked about the two research papers I'm working on and the latest adventures of her sixth-grade students. We were paying the bill when I first noticed that something was strange. It was 7:45.

We missed the movie! We must have lost track of time, we lamented, and off we went to the video store for a rental. The next morning, I woke up late. My alarm clock said eight A.M. when I first hit the snooze button, but I know very well that I had set it for seven. If the same thing had not happened again the very next morning, it probably never would have occurred to me to do what I did next.

Lying it bed, thinking, I realized that time may be moving faster. If I'm going to find out for sure, I need to time the clock. That is, I need to find a way to test the calibration of time itself. The problem: what does a person use to test such a thing. What could I calibrate time with? A clock? A stopwatch? The magnitude of the thought of that existential moment brought out a nervous laugh.

For the past couple of days I've been pulling my hair out trying to find a way to time time. My first experiment (which in hindsight seems naive) began with a well-worn recipe for my delicious chocolate chip cookies. I've made them enough times to know that fifteen minutes in the oven will produce beautifully golden-brown cookies. If time has indeed sped up, as I suspected it had, the cookies will be raw at the end of fifteen minutes (which, in a state of accelerated time is really less than fifteen minutes). In went the cookies. I closed the oven and sat down at the computer to address an unending accumulation of unanswered emails. Fifteen minutes passed and removed the cookies - they were charred black!

I know now that when time speeds up, it doesn't leave cookies behind. Indeed, everything I cook burns much faster than I expect. Cleaning up afterwards takes longer than ever before. My twice-daily dog walks used to be brief, but now take a serious chunk out of my day. Making dinner, returning phone calls, watering the plants, going to school and back, meeting with students, answering emails, scanning the news headlines, grading papers, getting books from the library, prepping for class, reading a book chapter, writing a research paper - it all takes longer now than it ever did before.

A series of inconclusive experiments followed the cookie fiasco, until I stumbled upon a sure-fire test. If I'm going to confirm that I'm not going insane, that time is actually moving faster, I have to go to an outside auditor: Mom. I called her at five o'clock this evening and explained my situation. Without hesitation, nor question of my sanity - I can always count on Mom - she immediately agreed to help. We decided to stay on the phone for a while and then compare our clocks to see if time was only moving faster for me (in which case, I very well might be insane).

Now, my mother is quite a talker, so killing an hour on the phone is not at all difficult. We talked about my childhood friends, making cookies together when I was seven, the several cats that we've raised from birth to death, introducing her to my prom date. In fact, we talked about most of the major milestones in my thirty-two years, a remarkable span of time and experiences that, with my mom, is easy to cover in a single conversation. I finally remembered to check the time. I asked her to do the same.

That's when it hit me. Our clocks were identical. This was no hallucination confined to my own little world, time had in fact sped up everywhere!

Tonight, I've been reflecting on the week's events and the implications of my discovery. I feel a little more relaxed, despite the severity of the situation. Even though a fundamental dimension of reality has changed, I at least now have an answer. No, I'm not crazy. Yes, there are indeed too few hours in the day. And now, I can't spare any more time to write this - it's already time for bed.

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Jeff A. Larson
Sociologist, Arizona.


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