Mostly since John Milton’s Satan, we’ve perversely preferred our villains seductive: charming, witty, brilliant, and physically graceful—sometimes precariously more so than the tale’s presumptive hero.
Weren’t millions enraptured—with Pauline Kael’s imprimatur—by an idealized Bonnie and Clyde? Isn’t it safe to assume that exponentially more Darth Vader action figures have been sold than ones of that beige little drip Luke Skywalker?
Two words: Hannibal Lecter.
Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar—dim-witted, vulgar, psychotic, and undeservedly vain—may be the only bad guy in Hollywood history with zero redeeming or attractive qualities. (Even Cody Jarrett loved his mother.) Robinson’s Rico personifies the “banality of evil” better than Arendt’s flesh-and-blood subject, Adolf Eichmann. (Incidentally, she didn’t even sit through Eichmann’s trial all the way. Women.)
Another “little Caesar,” surnamed Chavez, has also failed to attain the degree of secular sainthood that other dubious liberal household-name “heroes” of the 1960s and ’70s achieved.
Cesar Chavez, who unionized migrant farm workers and led a world-famous grape boycott back when “Latinos” were still “Chicanos,” was a beige little drip himself, nowhere near as eloquent as Martin Luther King or as handsome as RFK. Besides being devoid of sex appeal to an unnerving degree, Chavez also neglected to die young. And that UFW logo? Way too fascist-looking to compete with the peace sign and the “happy face.”
A few predictable gestures—a postage stamp, a PBS doc—simply reinforce Cesar Chavez as an afterthought, the Zeppo of hippiedom’s Marxist brothers. His biopic was long trapped in development hell. His cult remains regional. His “holiday” isn’t federal.
Then two weeks ago, President Obama declared “La Paz,” Chavez’s home in California, a national monument.
Liberal gatekeepers haven’t been as protective of the Chavez mythos as a cynical right-winger might expect. That’s why we now know that he was basically Jim Jones without the body count.
In Caitlin Flanagan’s exquisitely written exposé in the Atlantic, we learn that Chavez fell in with a 70s-era EST-type cult called Synanon, “an alternative lifestyle community” inhabited by females with shaved heads.
Chavez was particularly taken with a Synanon practice called “The Game,” another Maoist “struggle session” ripoff of the sort so popular at the time, refashioned to accommodate the imaginary “needs” of rich, guilty white Western liberals.
Chavez’s inner circle could hardly be described in those terms, but that didn’t prevent him from foisting this radioactive ritual of accusation and humiliation on his employees at La Paz. Those who refused to participate were expelled.
Shortly after Obama’s benedictions at the scene of these freaky stunts, NPR interviewed Matt Garcia, a professor at Arizona State and author of a candid book about Chavez and the UFW. Garcia talked about taking his students to hear archived tapes of meetings Chavez held with staffers:
[M]y students would walk out of from listening to those tapes and say, I hate Cesar Chavez….And I started listening to it, as well, and we started transcribing it and there are moments of vulgarity.
Despite NPR’s presumed possession of functional (taxpayer-funded) audio equipment, producers didn’t think to broadcast actual excerpts, in which Chavez can be heard saying:
Every time we look at them, they want more money. Like pigs, you know. Here we’re slaving, and we’re starving and the goddamn workers don’t give a shit about anything.
After all, these “pigs”—shades (or should that be “smears”?) of the Manson Family there—detracted from Chavez’s true goal: personal sainthood, not improving the lives of migrant workers (some say they’re worse off today than they were before he showed up—except for the handful who qualify for the UFW’s $100-million pension fund).
A psychologist chided once-famous professional Trappist monk Thomas Merton: “You want a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it saying ‘Hermit.’” Cesar Chavez was cut from the same coarse cloth. He “once used his union connections to keep a plane grounded so that he could make his flight to see the pope.”
With his awfully public fasting and peregrinations, Chavez treated penance as a publicity stunt.
For a time, it worked. Yet as those half-assed “memorials” and “honors” make clear, Chavez was ultimately denied his spot in the highest echelons of the boomer “action figure” pantheon.
During his NPR interview, professor Garcia noted:
I remember the day that Cesar Chavez died and kids broke into tears. These were mostly Mexican immigrant children and they were crying because they thought it was Julio Cesar Chavez, the boxer.
How does that song go again? “No, you can’t fool the children of the revolution.”
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