What if Elian Were Pug-Ugly? Or Black?

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I have received almost 200 e-mails in the last day or so regarding Elian Gonzalez. Most of them agree with my thought that the personal has better claims than the political, and that long-time Cuban hatreds should not override the bond of father and son.

I must admit that a few of those who agree with me make me nervous enough to doubt my case, and that, while I think I am correct overall, those who disagree with me have a powerful point about life under Castro.

With each day that passes, however, Elian's Miami relatives are establishing facts on the ground: the embattled nest in Little Havana, more permanent with each news cycle; the boy's obvious emotional ties in the new home, especially to the young cousin who is now called (by whom?) a "surrogate mother" to him. So with each day, it comes to seem — what is the word? — more "natural" for Elian to remain in Miami, while the truly natural thing (a son returning to his father) comes to seem proportionately unnatural. The media circus takes on a life and ritual of its own; the boy swings endlessly in that swing, a film clip of fierce, unnaturally energized normality. Angry Cuban exiles form a human barricade. Police and television crews stand by.

The case is being adjudicated in the court of public relations. The moralizing dynamics of daytime television supersede, almost, the rule of law. The father is now portrayed as subtly responsible for Fidel Castro's sins, or at least, complicit in them. The father morphs (subconsciously) into the dictator. Good God, he was trying to make the boy sing revolutionary songs over the telephone! He's a fraud! A monster!

For those who watch, the case is a Rorschach test — the responses passionate, telling, and on occasion, depressing.

A couple of points still worth making, especially because courtroom sentiment runs the other way:

  • If the mother were the one waiting in Cuba (that is, if it had been the father who drowned in the straits), then there would have been no question, from the start, about sending the boy back to her. It would be taken for granted that Castro or no Castro, the child's place is with his mother, the quicker the better. The Miami relatives would probably not seek to interfere with a mother-and-child reunion.
  • But as it is the father who survives, there is an astonishing inclination to think — or rather, to feel, making unarticulated, corner-of-the-eye assumptions — as follows: What the hell, the father's a man. Men are a problematic business, a kind of bad weather. They are unreliable, untrustworthy, given to unpredictable temper, maybe even to violence, or, in any case, to rotten behavior of one kind or another. The cultural assumption — Susan Smith notwithstanding, and much human experience of unstable, unreliable, alcoholic, drug-addicted or otherwise rotten women to the contrary — is that men, being men, are a source of unhappiness, and women, being women, a source of happiness. The truth, that men and women are just about equal in their virtues and their defects, as parents and as human beings, gets lost in a welter of tendentious anecdote.
  • Those e-mails are filled with stories. From fathers come tales of being abused by the courts, of children torn away from them by the assumption that the mother is right, and even if she is not right — she is the mother! From wives and ex-wives come some notes of sympathy, but mainly contrary tales of woe, of the obdurate male swinishness.

I add two final points in hopes of perspective:

  • If Elian were black, as is more than half of Cuba's population, I do not believe that there would be anything like this outpouring of emotion. Send him back. Case closed.
  • If Elian were not so cute, so winning, if, indeed, he were a sullen, homely kid with a runny nose and bottle-bottom glasses, why then the indifference to this particular immigration case would be massive. The politics of exile flourishes in the theater of the adorable.