During the winding conversation about counterfactuals, Megan McArdle made a remark almost in passing that is worth revisiting in light of another conversation about the new film, Che, and its director, Steven Sonderbergh. McArdle wrote:
Nor does almost anyone in the United States put the IRA, or its cause in the same mental basket as that of the Northern Irish. Imagine, if you will, a blockbuster film being made about a plucky Arab terrorist leader finally winning freedom for his people by slaughtering large numbers of Israeli/British/French soldiers, along with, of course, any informers or traitors in his own organization. In Irish, it’s known as Michael Collins.
If you grew up learning the mythology of the 700 years of oppression, the Easter Rising and how Collins broke the Castle’s intelligence operation, valorizing Collins doesn’t seem so odd. When Americans watch Michael Collins, if they aren’t already familiar with his story, they already know which side they’re supposed to find sympathetic. All of this is true despite the knowledge that Collins was a violent militant who would have appeared to most British subjects (including a fair number of Irishmen in both north and south) to be a traitor and a criminal, because this is essentially what he was in the eyes of the law. However, unless you grow up with a certain brand of left-leaning politics or learned a similar mythology about Latin American history, it makes little sense to treat Che the same way.
As for the plucky Arab terrorist, it is unimaginable that you would ever see such a film. The conventions on this are quite clear and stretch across decades: when Arabs are fighting with Lawrence on behalf of the British, it is permissible to romanticize their struggle to some extent, and if some Arabs can serve as useful diversions against, say, Nazis in The Last Crusade, they can be portrayed favorably, but there would be no audience (especially at present) for stories about leaders of Arab anti-colonial rebellions. For that matter, you would not even be able to have an adaptation of the life of Michel Aflaq, an intellectual and not a man of violence, much less for any of the people who followed his ideas. Irish republican nationalist-socialist heroes will probably always find a sympathetic audience in the West; Arab republican nationalist-socialists, not so much.
Much of this is a matter of cultural and ethnic affinities, but most of all it is a matter of politics. Lincoln, Wilson and FDR–each of them was responsible for far more deaths and far more destruction than Che Guevara or any of a number of Arab nationalist figures ever was, but two important things separate them in the eyes of the general public: they did not personally kill anyone, and the causes for which their armies killed and destroyed are widely considered to be the just and right ones. That is to say, the exact same moralizing, or rather anti-moralizing, that the ends justify the means that Che used in rationalizing revolutionary violence is employed to praise and sanctify approved figures who authorized much larger slaughters for the “right reasons.” Not only have sympathetic, shoulder-shrugging, anti-moralizing stories been told about these men, but we have built large physical monuments to them (or at least to two of the three mentioned above), which is rather more troubling in its way than silly people who wear T-shirts or directors who minimize the moral failings of their main characters.