Sitting down this week to watch Che, Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant, four-hour-long meditation on the mechanics of revolution disguised as a biopic of the t-shirt industry’s favorite son, I was visited by the ghost of adolescence past.
Fifteen years ago, I reminisced—as a sanguine Benicio Del Toro mumbled another bit of lovingkindness to a beatific looking peasant before rushing off to blow up some Batistudas in the green hills of Cuba—15 years ago, a movie like Che would have made me shiver with excitement.
Back then, I belonged to that most beautifully sad of species, the high school revolutionary, all Marxist aphorisms and impotent rage, reading Che and Trotsky and Marcuse and humming “The Internationale” as most of my peers were rocking to Ace of Base. Had some daring director brought the story of Havana’s finest guerilla to life back in 1993, I might have been tempted to comb back my platinum-blond Mohawk (forgive us, O Lord, the sins of our youth), lace up my Doc Martens, and march on the teachers’ lounge, demanding a moratorium on homework and other manners of capitalist oppression. In 2009—with normal hair, sensible shoes, and, I hope, a somewhat more complex political outlook—all I could muster was nostalgia.
A few days later, however, my inner barnstormer was once again reawakened as I immersed myself in another story of a political trailblazer, a freedom fighter who had faced down a mighty oppressor, a revolutionary so intense he makes both Mr. Guevara and Mr. Del Toro seem impish in comparison: Moses.
Here he is, in this week’s parasha, delivering the final three plagues on Egypt and its smarting tyrant, all hot rage and holy spirit. I read the portion with joy: given my aforementioned political past, I have always relished the Exodus story, which I interpreted as one of history’s greatest examples of glorious revolution. Having just watched Che, I was looking forward to “Let my people go.”
And yet, as I reread the parasha, something strange happened: I noticed a passage I had never noticed before. “And the children of Israel did according to Moses’ order, and they borrowed from the Egyptians silver objects, golden objects, and garments. The Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they lent them, and they emptied out Egypt.”
My head felt light, my throat dry, my forehead swelled. What was this business about robbing Egypt? In my memory, the Israelites were just and beleaguered and in such a rush to get out of town that we’re all still condemned to an annual week of consuming the abominable abdominal punishments of unleavened bread. And yet, with all the hastening and the light travel”the Israelites, we are told, fled with only “their leftovers bound in their garments on their shoulders””they somehow managed to schlep silver, gold, and garments? Taken, mind you, not from the Pharaoh’s bottomless vault, but from ordinary, hardworking Egyptians, who might have invested in the garments and the gold as a retirement fund? Moses as Madoff? It was more than I could take.
For days, the question haunted me: why the thievery? Why not just leave with what was rightfully theirs and be thankful for their redemption? The more I thought about it, the more I meditated on Moses and Che and my 15-year-old self, the more obvious the answer became. Moses had to bankrupt Egypt for the same reason Che refused to rest on his laurels after dethroning Batista and I refused to attend my prom, plotting instead a failed hostile takeover of the school’s public address system in an attempt to shout out sassy slogans and shock the gathered crowd of dolled-up teens: a real revolutionary never rests. A real revolutionary is equally engaged in construction and destruction. A real revolutionary must not only deliver his people from evil but also despoil his opponent for good. Simply put, in taking Egypt’s gold, Moses played it out like a desert Tony Montana, saying to Pharoah that if he’d like to play rough, he’d have to say hello to Moses’s little friend.
This, I realized, was a message that even decidedly non-revolutionary souls could find deeply useful. Take President Obama, for example: as he pushes forth his economic stimulus package, he may do well to summon his inner Moses and wage total and destructive war against some real and vicious enemies. Like Merrill Lynch’s John Thain, say, or the nitwits of Citibank, the same greedy Goliaths who devastated our economy and are now purchasing nifty new corporate jets or spending a cool million on redecorating their offices. Confronted with these marauders, Obama, usually the coolest of cats, might do well to rebel, not only by passing sound policy but also by doing to the malicious moneymen the same thing the Israelites did to Egypt: robbing them of all their silver, garments, and gold, and making sure the evil empire never again rises to enslave and oppress.
Then again, it’s far more likely that we’ll all keep our cool, keep away from revolutions, and keep ourselves amused: after all, Steven Soderbergh’s next project is another biopic, this time of Liberace.