Deep breath. Exhale. Out with the bad…
I was an American abroad, working overseas on this recent election night 2016. By midnight Dublin-time, having watched tidbits of news coverage, I was able to put myself to sleep, confidently, arrogantly, supremely certain that the election would go to Hillary Clinton, if not the Democrats at large.
When I woke, I woke to the new norm. Donald Trump, a petty, narcissistic, hate-mongering, reality show star who had spent his entire business life ripping off the less-privileged had prevailed. I went numb, then got up and like many, I suppose, dragged myself through a day of utter bewilderment.
Somewhere deep, deep inside though, I knew I should’ve known better. I’d spent much of my October promoting a book by author Pappy Pariah that predicted Trump’s victory. Its protagonist is seemingly defeated and in an imagined post-election epilogue, checks himself into a retirement home “branded with the new president’s name.” The implication was clear. Yes, Pariah knew what I couldn’t. Wouldn’t.
Now, I’ve just returned to the United States and the dark reality is settling in. But this is less an article from a defeated liberal’s view of American politics, pollsters, premonitions, or the decline of journalism, than it is a musing on the state of our country’s mental health.
One need not look far to see the delusional go-tos of a human nature that will always first seek comfort. I know what my colleagues in the movie business are doing. Most of them anyway. Those who lean left and care little. Some will say, “Maybe this will be a good thing after all.” It won’t. For others, the election of Donald Trump will be an opportunity to bitch about how stupid our “hick” country is. Some may even take the Monday morning opportunity to bitch about Hillary Clinton, a woman who offered her exceptional mind and experience, and bravely took a bashing like no other simply to serve the American people. And then there will be the worst of the lot. The self-righteous liberals who refused to back Clinton if only to block Trump. (Noam Chomsky had some choice words for them.)
So now, settling back into the United States, getting over jetlag, I lie in my bed and flip the channels wondering what anybody won. A climate change denier is running the EPA transition for the president elect. A White House counsel will come into the new administration so burdened with conflict of interest issues, lawsuits and the fear of depositions, that the only remedy may be to count on the new Attorney General and a right-leaning Supreme Court, to whitewash and bend us away from American principles simply so that this incoming Commander in Chief may politically survive his four years. A scent of impunity fills the air.
Winning trumps all, and regressing to America’s “great again” happy place wins for Trump. What have the 75,000 coalminers—yup, that’s the total they number in the U.S.—won in a world that will die without clean energy? In a competitive job creation scale, in which in California alone there are already 550,000 jobs in renewables? (Subsidized re-training, anyone? Or is brown-lung a romantic tradition we can’t live without?)
This is way too out-there to be about stupid hicks. To be simply about stupidity at all.
We are as healthy as our planet, and man, that’s an alarming thing. Case in point: I just flipped on CNN. The president-elect is dancing, or tweeting actually, “Fidel is dead!” I can hear him singing it to the tune of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.” Cut to an image of mostly third-generation Cuban Americans (not munchkins) in front of the Versailles restaurant, a place that caters to the likes of Luis Posada Carriles, a right-wing anti-Castro ex-CIA activist and alleged terrorist often named as the architect of the 1976 Cubana DC8 bombing. Thousands dancing in delight at the restaurant’s façade, perhaps Carriles among them. Indeed, dancing at the death of another human being. Of Fidel Castro. Unlike the dancing at death that Donald Trump falsely claimed of New Jersey Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, this grotesquerie is actually happening.
CNN centers its reporting on the death of Castro in the bastion of right-wing Cuban conservatism. Not in Cuba, but rather in the United States. Would they have polled the Birmingham Etiquette Society for comment in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination?
They have brought in one of their Spanish affiliate commentators for his expert analysis. He offers a comparison between what is going on in Miami and what happened in Madrid upon the death in 1975 of Spain’s Generalissimo Francisco Franco. I don’t need my map. Madrid is a city in Spain! The Spanish who’d suffered directly under Franco’s oppression did indeed dance with delight, and understandably so. But what’s wrong with this picture?
Surely, in any revolution, in any fog of war, there will be those who suffer unfairly. Surely it was not only the elite collaborators of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, his corruption, and oppression who would suffer in the settling fog of the Cuban revolution. Surely atrocities and tragedies occurred whether directly or indirectly attributable to Castro or the revolution. Just as certain are the nuances of military and economic interventions and acts of terrorism against Cuba that arguably sustained a continuation of tragedies and atrocities. It is in regard to these nuances that the objective among us have the highest responsibility.
We will be moved when we look into the eyes of a mother or a father in Miami who lost their child to the sea from a collapsed refugee raft; an elderly immigrant whose brother was killed by firing squad, or one who simply lost home and profession. No one would expect them not to cast sole blame for their heartache and loss on the actions of a “brutal dictator.”
But if in our compassion we blindly submit to classifications as defined by the broken-hearted or the bitter, then we better damn well be ready to accept the NRA, too, as a “brutal dictator” when we talk to the mothers and fathers of Newtown. We better submit to declaring all voters who supported a candidate owned by the NRA, as “brutal dictators” of the ballot box. And, lest we forget, the twisted disgrace of vitriolic adults submitting a motherless child named Elian Gonzalez to the trauma of a violent SWAT team extraction in order to hype their own cause.
In truth, we are humanly, morally obliged to clarify an intellectually honest history, the kind that if learned, might not repeat itself. But we invest in these cyclical myths on behalf of the powerful and political who cash in on the blood, pain, and rage of others.
I’m reminded of Steven Weinberg’s suggestion, “If you want to make good people do bad things, you’ll need religion.” In this case, that religion is the denunciation of a leader who was far more a profound symbol of revolution than he was a boogeyman or beast.
So, to see fellow Americans in the year 2016 dancing at the death of this formidable and complex man, Fidel Castro, and to see American news stations focusing their attention, not on the actual history of the Cuban revolution, not even on the country or the people who live there, but on this grotesque reaction, well…
I traveled to Cuba the first time on a family trip in December 2005. The United States was two years deep into the Iraq war. I had traveled twice to Iraq. The first time, simply out of curiosity to discover for myself the origins and nature of a conflict independent of its reporting in my own country’s media outlets. The second time, in 2003, I went to Baghdad as an essayist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Following that trip, my young children had expressed interest in joining me on one of my exploratory travels abroad. Clearly, taking them to a warzone was not under consideration. (Though they did request that.) So, I suggested Cuba.
I shared several documentaries about the Cuban revolution with them. My then 14-year old daughter had school chums who were already openly gay. Among the indictments of Castro and the Cuban revolution had been the treatment of Cuban homosexuals. My daughter was appalled. “Dad, I know you,” she said. “And if we go to Cuba, you’re going to want to meet Fidel Castro.” She continued. “I’m interested in going to Cuba. But I will not shake that man’s hand.” This is Claire Underwood’s daughter, after all. A very tough chick.
“Dylan,” I said, “I just want to eat cool food, listen to cool music, meet the Cubans on the street, and see the old American cars before they go.”
She looked me straight in the eye. I knew she didn’t believe me. “I will not shake that man’s hand,” she repeated.
“Cool!” I said. “So we’re going to Cuba.”
And we did, securing a travel waiver under the religious tourism clause.
Through some connections, we had an extraordinary week in Havana, meeting largely with artists—painters, sculptors, musicians, and poets, most of whom from what we could tell constituted the metaphoric opposition. They were the ones who registered their complaints toward the system in balanced expression and coded creativity so that they may speak and yet be spared a prison sentence. Indeed, Castro made no bones about the penalty for dissent, later telling me that the choice of Cuban citizens was to support the revolution—or to bring their own. And yes, for that, there would be “sacrifices.”
After a culture and culinary rich week, it was our sixth and last full day in Cuba, we would be leaving the following morning. A call came from the Ministry of Culture. The great writer Gabriel García Márquez was in town, they told me.
I had worked with García Márquez briefly some years before on a film project we’d never gotten off the ground. The person from the Ministry told me that García Márquez would like to host a party in the diplomatic zone in honor of my family’s visit to Cuba. Many who would attend would be from among the artists we’d met, but also, there would be some representatives of the Cuban government, principally from the Culture Ministry and Ministry of Tourism. I checked with my family and we accepted the invitation. That evening, we hired a car and traveled from the Hotel Nacional to the diplomatic zone.
We joined the party graciously hosted by Mr. García Márquez. It was about six o’clock. By eleven o’clock, with our children fading, my then-wife and I were about to say our goodbyes. García Márquez himself had left some 20 minutes earlier. As I stood from a couch in the center of the main room, I noticed that the novelist had returned. He was standing at the doorway leading to the street and trying to keep out of sight from the other guests. He indicated for me to join him with a stealthy wave. I had a feeling I knew what was happening. But a daughter cannot punish her father for a “feeling.”
I had no certain knowledge, and had played no direct role in what was about to happen. I collected my family, we said our goodbyes and joined García Márquez outside in front of the house.
“I’d like to introduce you to someone,” he said. Dylan, I thought, was tired enough that her radar for such things might be diminished. And after all, she had been charmed by the very charming and extraordinary author. He walked us across the dark and empty street to a small, single-level house, where an old Daimler-Benz sat in the driveway. Behind the wheel, a solitary soldier. He nodded at García Márquez as we approached. We moved to the front door of the house. García Márquez opened the door, and there before us on the living room couch, accompanied only by a female translator, Fidel Castro himself in his indelible green khakis and cap.
It was less to me the reveal of a man than the living sculpture of so much intertwining history between my own country, Cuba, and the world.
The day I was born, Eisenhower was a sitting president. So was Castro. Nearly half a century later, here he still was. He stood, removed his cap, and offered me his hand. As I took it, I could feel my daughter’s eyes burning through the back of my head. My son, a shy 12-year-old and my then wife greeted him politely. My daughter avoided a handshake or a “hello” and sat on the couch opposite where Castro had been sitting. I played off her rigidity toward the Commandante to gloom of teenage years, knowing it in fact, to be a silent explosivity.
Fidel Castro was many things. His shift from the socialist advocate of democracy to a form of totalitarian communist is one worthy of great study, and has provoked significant debate. (Worthy also of consideration from outposts beyond Miami, Florida.) His enemies today, the rational and the irrational, the knowledgeable and the unknowledgeable, have a podium that is speaking loudly enough for itself.
As we sat down that night, the practiced, brilliant, and philosophical Castro began the conversation, engaging my young son, Hopper. For a straight half hour, he was quizzed on the distance between the sun and the moon, and other bits of knowledge hard-won for the average American grade-school student, unlike his better-educated Cuban counterparts.
Sitting between my children on the couch was the diminutive, cherubic García Márquez, his feet not touching the carpet.
Castro moved on to conversation with me. He was very interested, or at least said so, in my trips to Iraq. He spoke very specifically to what I had written in the San Francisco Chronicle. “What we can say about Saddam Hussein is that he’s a brave man,” Castro said. “But he has oppressed his people too much. He has not learned to let the steam off the kettle.” The contrast with himself was left implicit. Perhaps his attribution of the word “brave” to Hussein was meant diplomatically? Whatever the case, I thought, yes, courage came easily to Hussein’s madness.
Our conversation as a group went on for hours. My daughter sat silent throughout. At 1:30 a.m., Castro finally turned to Dylan, the volume of her silence now deafening.
“Something is bothering you,” he said.
“Yep!” she curtly responded.
Boy, did she. This 14-year-old wonder-whip snapped into an extraordinary riff, virtually documenting one human rights abuse after another toward Cuban homosexuals throughout the history of the revolution.
I watched Castro as he listened, often silently nodding, absorbing as she went through her disquisition, which lasted for about fifteen minutes. The room was left silent.
Then, Castro replied, “We did not invent homophobia in Cuba, but we are of a lineage of Latin machismo. A quality of sometimes blinding superficiality. We have made many mistakes, including the ones you’ve spoken about. We are continuing to make some mistakes, but we are also continuing to learn.”
There was nothing in his tone or demeanor that one could call defensive. He was disarmingly matter-of-fact. His attitude of respect for my daughter and her criticisms was clear, and that seemed to offer her an opportunity to consider him anew.
My wife and I talked to Dylan and Hopper at some length once we had returned to the United States, cumulatively processing the dark and light of what we had seen in Cuba, the kind and gracious spirit of its people, the color and music of its culture, the high regard most Cubans, and even many of his greatest opponents seemed to hold for Castro.
No matter their position towards their leader, the basic nature of Cubans is so alive with pride and community that once again, in recollection, I am struck by the arbitrary terminology “brutal dictator” being attributed to Castro. Just take one look at the brainwashed robots of North Korea, and perhaps even the critics of Castro may temper their words and contextualize their emotions.
I’ve thought since then about the state of countries such as Haiti, which perhaps may have done well to have had its own sustainable revolutions—something to prevent the gross interventions that had added to the plagues upon that society and its sovereignty.
Cuba is a poor country, but it lives without road rage, and with healthcare. It lives without raging lawlessness and with literacy, a country that exports more doctors worldwide than any other.
We should look very hard at the pride of Cubans who live in Cuba, so much of it built on their own commitment to an ideological revolution and its leader, to its sovereign resilience, as well as those sober critics in search of their greater dreams. And we should compare that to the pride now absent in so many Americans today toward our own incoming leader and what has become such an abhorrent abuse of our system and our language.
As for Castro, he himself has said that history will absolve him. “I do not overlook the difficulty of my circumstances. Or the complex of cowardice, confusion and the mediocrity that infects the environment,” he once said. We will see.
As we left the house that night, my son and daughter took a picture with the Commandante. It’s a treasured memory of the opportunity we’d had, if only briefly, to meet Cuba, its people and its leader. In the picture, Castro stands between them, arms over shoulders, green cap on.
“Commandante, people will see this picture and accuse me of raising my children into revolutionaries,” I said in good humor. He smiled, looked me in the eye and said, “Better to raise them into the white coats of doctors.” Fidel Castro and I had a couple of exchanges of letters in the years that followed. I’d returned several times after, but never saw him again.
I’m back in the U.S. post-election 2016, and watching CNN, its pundits for the most part regurgitating propaganda, putting most of the attention on the opposition, and I catch myself feeling badly for the reporters, for the journalists, many of whom are talented and deeply caring. But I understand it. They have an impossible job that reminds me of my own and that of my colleagues in film.
The near impossibility today of nuanced filmmaking in a business that backs creative dreaming and open expression into a self-censoring mind-fuck of budgets based on the statistics of their star’s past box office performance, and the genre friendliest to a current audience. And what do we do? Do we fight it? Really fight it? Or do we tell ourselves there’s a breath of deeper meaning as a justification to be the pawns of human adding machines and therefore, promote their mind-and-soul poisoning corruption of the spirit.
Film can be powerful medicine, but only if its integrity is preserved by those respecting their own vocation. So it is in journalism where journalists are backed into a 24-hour news cycle, rendering them incapable of the processing or the diligence necessary to fulfill the extraordinary service that journalism begs to be. It’s now so much a make-it-up-and-sequelize-it as you go along business. Sound like Hollywood to anybody?
Growing inured, accepting of emptiness, and an all-pervasive madness fills the void. Too many of the practitioners of film, journalism, and advertising have contributed to the sickness of our senses, and they have done so just as much with their greed and hunger for personal acceptance as any stupid hick may have through their need and pre-ordained ignorance.
Any solution has to be counter-intuitive. Maybe we have to just slow down. To just stop. To reboot our factual and moral navigation systems. Listen. As Fidel Castro listened to my daughter. I am not dancing at the death of Fidel Castro. Nor am I celebrating him. I’m remembering him. I’m thinking. Trying to protect the clarity of my own thoughts against this fog of pervasive simplification and anger.
Deep breath. Exhale. Out with the bad…