»  National Review

May 22, 2000

   Elián Nation


Once in a while some issue in our public life — not necessarily an issue of great intrinsic importance — acts like a flare sent up over a night-time battlefield, throwing all the contours into sharp relief and shedding light on dark places. The Clarence Thomas hearings were such an issue; the impeachment was of course another. (And I note, in passing, how the fact of the President's having been impeached is being nudged gently down the memory hole. I nowadays regularly encounter references to the "attempted" or even "failed" impeachment of Bill Clinton. Hey: the guy was impeached.)

The affair of Elián González has been one of these battlefield flares, casting deep shadows across the landscape of our national conversation. It has, for example, shown clearly that reflective thought and intellectual complexity are now exclusive to the political Right, while the Left is more monolithic and thinking-impaired than ever. As a colleague on this magazine expressed it to me: "I am torn on this, really torn. But my liberal friends are not torn, none of them. They are bright and breezy; they know exactly what they think." It is not so much a case of Yeats — "the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of a passionate intensity" — as of Tolstoy: happy liberals are all alike, while each conservative is distraught in his or her own way.

There has, in fact, been no uniformity of opinion on the Right. Some very thoughtful and respectable voices — the editorialists of the New York Post, for example, and commentator Mark Steyn, a writer I admire very much — have from the beginning favored returning Elián to his father. There is even some anti-Elián feeling on the Right. A friend of mine with strong Buchananite views has told me that if the boy were allowed to stay here he would become "a poster child for unrestricted immigration." Now, I yield to no-one in my disgust with current U.S. immigration laws, which seem to be machine-tooled to achieve precisely the opposite of what a sane immigration policy should aim at, and to be enforced — when they are enforced at all — with near-perfect lack of reason or humanity. However, any conceivable immigration policy would allow for exceptions in extraordinary cases, and Elián's case ought surely be treated as extraordinary, if only to honor his mother's sacrifice. Similarly with those who believe that a child belongs with his father under any circumstances whatever. Any circumstances? Father a plantation slave? Father in Auschwitz? George Will, in a fine muscular essay in the May 1st Newsweek, referred to this child-to-father-at-any-cost line of thinking as "making a fetish of biology." And on the larger issue of relations with Cuba, I think there is actually a majority on the Right — I am speaking of sentiment, not working politics — for lifting the embargo on trade. We trade with China (my friends point out); we traded with the U.S.S.R. even in the darkest days of Stalinism; why not trade with Castro? Those of us that cleave to the nuke-Havana policy line are now a diminishing minority among conservatives.

The Left, by contrast, is confident and united. All the familiar features on that side of the battlefield have come out sharp and plain: the dishonesty; the credulity; the snobbery; the sentimentality; the fierce hatred of religion; the disdain for guns and military matters combined with a readiness to use both in overwhelming quantity to attain leftist policy goals; the lingering affection for communism joined with a tenacious, burning, never-forgiving, never-relenting anti-anti-communism.

Speaking for myself, as a product of the provincial English working class, it has been the snobbery of the Left that I have found most offensive. Behind media coverage of Lázaro González, his family and his neighborhood, you can hear the gilded sneer of John F. Kennedy dismissing Richard Nixon: "No class!" Show a liberal a small, cheap tract house with a chain-link fence around it and plaster statues of the Blessed Virgin on the mantel, and watch his lip begin to curl. Who do these people think they are? Why, they haven't even been to law school! Lázaro González's two DUI convictions have been well advertised in the media, though they are not sensational in a proletarian neighborhood and many of us would regard DUI as less flagitious than, say, subornation of perjury. Washington Post writers seem to be especially intent on rubbing in the deplorably non-chic lifestyle of the González family. Richard Cohen: "How pathetic. An auto repairman stared down the United States government." Mary McCrory: "I watched Lázaro González, an auto mechanic, standing up to the Attorney General of the United States …" Neither of these writers is happy about the disgraceful lèse-majesté of Sr. González. Neither has a clue that when an auto repairman can stare down the full power of the government, democracy is alive and well. They prefer Cuba, where such a thing could never happen.

And what moues of distaste on NBC's Today program when Andrea Mitchell revealed to Katie Couric that Donato Dalrymple, the man trying to hide Elián in that closet, was not a fisherman, as previously reported, but a house cleaner. Being a fisherman is sort of respectable: Kennedys go sea fishing, after all, and isn't there something about fishermen in that Bible thing? But a house cleaner! Eeeeuw!

Another manifestation of Left snobbery is their disdain for the poor media skills of the Miami Gonzálezes — as if plain working people, suddenly thrown into the media spotlight, can fairly be criticized for not displaying the PR sophistication of Hollywood tycoons. Instead of scripted presentations and posed photographs of unknown date and origin, instead of secure locations populated by Secret Service minders, Cuban intelligence operatives and government psychiatrists (first thing we do, let's kill all the shrinks), Elián's time in Miami was spent largely in public view, playing on a Toys'R'Us swingset or being chased round the tiny yard by his cousins, who were obviously spoiling him disgracefully. This, we learned from Andrea Mitchell on the evening news, was child abuse: "The noise, the crowds, the late night rallies, the home video. Being on constant display." Mitchell's guest, Professor David Elkind of Tufts University, chimed in: "I think that the family has really abused this child … He's been exposed to such media hype."

But what were the family supposed to do, given their resources and vulnerability? Build a twelve-foot wall around their property? Tell their supporters to go away? Keep the kid shut in his room? Suddenly adopt the child-raising practices of Georgetown yuppies? In the media contest, as in the final confrontation with Reno's palace guard, the family of Lázaro González were playing David to a mighty, arrogant and hostile Goliath. There was a time when the Left stood up for the underdog — for the worker against the boss, the maladroit against the polished, the lone individual against the state. No longer: liberals speak now for money and power and scoff unashamedly at those who do not share elite values or practice elite lifestyles.

The religiosity of Lázaro's family and their supporters has drawn particular scorn from liberal commentators, who hate religion even more than they hate working-class white people. The story of dolphins helping Elián to stay afloat on the open sea has been the subject of much mockery, though it is not particularly implausible — dolphins are very playful creatures, and do actually behave like that. Gary Wills, writing in the New York Times, seems to believe that this little fable justified major force all by itself: "That kind of superstition … shows why resistance had to be anticipated and precluded in Miami." In other words: people who are this religious must be demented and dangerous (see under "Waco"). Conversely, those places from which all religion has been purged — places like Castro's Cuba — are havens of sanity and nonviolence. Newsweek, April 17th: "In some ways young Elián might expect a nurturing life in Cuba, sheltered from the crime and social breakdown that would be part of his upbringing in Miami. The boy will nestle in a more peaceable society that treasures its children." Larry King, on his CNN program, April 20th, with Al and Tipper Gore as guests: "One of the things that Elián González's father said that I guess it would be hard to argue with, [is] that his boy's safer in a school in Havana than in a school in Miami." (This was too much even for a Gore: Tipper made a feeble protest.)

Liberals have their own superstitions, of course, some of them so thoroughly internalized they have the appearance of reflex actions. For example: you must never flatly condemn any Leninist society without at the same time pointing out some redeeming feature. Thomas L. Friedman in the Times, speaking of the Castro regime: "It is an awful government that has taught its people to write — and then forced its most educated to become taxi drivers … in order to feed their families." [My italics.] Friedman's piece is a sort of condensation of all liberal follies, packing the sentimentality and credulity of the liberal mind into a couple of sentences: "I was warmed by the picture of Elián back in his father's arms. Some things you can fake — like a 6-year-old wagging his finger on a homemade video and telling his father to go back to Cuba without him — and some things you can't fake." Apparently Mr Friedman believes that it is easier to fake video footage than still photographs. In fact the opposite is the case, by a very long way. I can produce a perfectly convincing fake photograph in an hour or so with a $99 software package called Paint Shop Pro, and sometimes amuse my children by doing exactly that; I have no idea how to fake videos.

Surveying media coverage of the "rescue" of Elián González from those posturing, abusive white-trash religious cultists in Miami back into the warm bosom of Fidel Castro, it is difficult to pick out truly egregious cases from so much ignorance and dishonesty, but I am going to try. Among TV commentators the most reliable mouthpiece for the Castro-Clinton line has been Dan Rather. Rather set the tone for all that followed in his April 16th interview with Juan Miguel González for Sixty Minutes, during which he modestly restricted his role to prompting Sr. González through the scripts provided for him by his Cuban handlers. On the Saturday morning of the Miami raid Rather was on the air for over five hours. It was a long and shameful performance, with two especially low points. The first: a suggestion to the CBS legal consultant that Sr. González might sue his Miami relatives for "allowing the child's privacy to be, as they might say, trampled in this case." The lawyer, of course (he's a lawyer!), eagerly concurred. Then, later, this: "Among the many images and sounds of this morning, this has to be one that really gets through to the heart. That the immigration service says that the female agent who carried little Elián from his home, from the home of these distant relatives in Miami, talked to him in Spanish and she says the message, worked out in advance, to the child, was, and I quote: "This may seem very scary, but it will soon be better …" At which point Rather cracked up and actually wept. Those agents — so warm, so caring! This was what sitcom writers call "the moment of s**t." And note that gratuitous, disgraceful adjective "distant" — as if Elián's father's uncle should have been turned away from the hospital where the child lay blistered and delirious after his ordeal at sea. Until a few days ago, the extended family was supposed to be one of those charming folksy characteristics of the many and diverse immigrant cultures in our glorious national mosaic. It Took a Village to Raise a Child. Suddenly only a Dad will do. Not even Stalin could switch the party line faster than our corrupt, amoral, power-obsessed elites. Is the sexual servicing of male boss by female employee an outrage this year, a manifestation of the unrestrained domination of the Patriarchy, or just alpha male behavior to be smiled at indulgently? It is so hard to keep up with liberal fashions in morality.

Among print journalists, I think Douglas Montero of the New York Post deserves special mention. Either Mr. Montero is a paid agent of Fidel's Ministry of Truth, or he is a fool for doing the work unpaid. His columns are simply direct conduits for Cuban government propaganda — the stuff just comes straight through without touching the sides. On April 25th he filed a report from Miami entirely given over to the sufferings of Cuban children whose parents, at the time of Castro's revolution, had been panicked by a CIA psy-war operation into sending the tots to America unaccompanied. "The kids were stuffed into cramped living conditions and, in some cases, abused and even raped by their church caretakers … The U.S. government prevented the parents from travelling to the United States to be with their kids." Just like Elián, see? And with child abuse, anticlericalism and a CIA plot thrown in — what a story! It turns out that Mr. Montero is reading to us straight from a book just published by the Cuban government. Nobody has been able to find evidence of such a plot. No doubt this book, when translated, will get a glowing review in the New York Times — whose front page, the day after the Miami raid, ran the staged picture of father and son back in Cuban custody, with the stunning AP photograph of the gun-toting G-man seizing the child buried on page 16. But back to Douglas Montero, with whom I confess a sort of awe-struck fascination — awe, I mean, that anyone who holds a job writing newspaper commentary can be so ignorant of what has happened in the world this past 83 years. On April 27th his column was given over to a classic exposition of moral equivalence: "Castro plans to instill communism in the boy's mind because he thinks it's right, just like the Miami exile community wants to shove capitalism into the mind of this child." Back in Cold War days, Bernard Levin used to deal with this stuff by pointing out that if you looked very closely at the brave souls who risked their lives to get over the Berlin Wall, they were all headed in the same direction.

The Cold War is over, of course, and many in the media are puzzled to know why we should feel any animosity towards Castro when his significance to our national security has been downgraded from threat to nuisance. There are no issues of national security involved, we are told; the interests of little Elián are paramount. Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, on MSNBC's Hardball, April 25th: "That we're re-fighting the Cold War, now that we're finally past it, is ridiculous." Al Hunt, writing in the April 27th Wall Street Journal, denounced those who think differently: "The reason the political demagoguery of the critics hasn't worked is simple. Unlike them, the American public is less interested in any political agenda and more in what's best for a six-year-old-child." Unfortunately this is true. Probably no large part of the American public believes there is any issue here but the welfare of a child. To those of us from other places, where nations jostle against each other more abrasively, and have much longer histories of folly and miscalculation to draw lessons from, this belief is terribly mistaken. It might have been tenable when the case was one of simple child custody, but once Fidel Castro began to politicize it, raison d'état kicked in, and the interests of the United States had to be taken into account, even if — especially if — they contradicted the interests of the child.

" Raison d'état" is not a phrase that trips easily off American tongues; but this nation really does have enemies, who watch our affairs with close attention, and lay their plans accordingly. Does anybody really believe that the spectacle of our government's highest officials scurrying to do the bidding of Fidel Castro can be anything other than harmful to this country? What lesson will be taken by other nations that seek to vex, humiliate or intimidate us? America, as every foreigner knows, wants to be loved. This is endearing in its own way, but it is no basis for national self-assertion. Whether Americans like it or not, this nation is the sole superpower, and the standard-bearer of the highest civilized values — "the hope of the world," as Bertrand Russell said. It is proper for the U.S. to display a proud and confident attitude, and an undoubted determination to defy and harass those who have the impudence to declare themselves her enemies. Oderint dum metuant, said the Romans — "let them hate us, so long as they fear us." The U.S., which is not an imperial power, need not be quite so ferocious; but surely contemnant dum ament  — "let them despise us so long as they love us" (I hope I have got my subjunctives right) — is not a proper posture for a great nation. Fidel Castro is our enemy, as he never ceases to remind us. Let us treat him accordingly.

Detestation of Castro, and determination to thwart his designs, is nothing to do with Cold War nostalgia, as is often charged both by the Castro-swooning Left and the isolationist Right. It is a simple matter of national self-assertion — a practice to which, if I may say so, I think we should give more attention. A nation should behave like a nation, just as a man should behave like a man. (Such unfashionable sentiments! Yet whose heart did not skip a beat when John McCain, in the course of the spring primaries, told the pouting Governor John Engler to "Be a man"?) In particular, a nation should not permit itself to be pushed around by another nation, if it has the power to do anything about it.

When Argentina invaded the British Falklands Islands in 1982, the Buenos Aires mob took to the streets chanting: "The Queen is in a rage! The Queen is in a rage!" Margaret Thatcher did what she had to do, not as a move in the Cold War — the Argentine junta used to shoot communists when they found them, and so presumably were on our side in the Cold War. Thatcher simply knew, by infallible instinct, that if a nation allowed such an outrage to stand, her country would lose respect; and the same instinct told her that respect is a tangible asset in international affairs. Soon the Argentine mob was singing a different song; and a little while after that, as a consequence of the national humiliation they felt at losing the Falklands War, the people of Argentina dumped their dictator and embraced democracy.

Some weeks or months from now little Elián González will be paraded on a float through the streets of Havana while Castro's mob chants: "Uncle Sam is in a rage!" Who will change their tune? Who will help them towards democracy?