I have resisted writing about the Elián González story for four months. Maybe it was the disproportionate amount of attention given to one child in the sea of this world’s suffering. I bristled with the thought that we have little concern for the kids of Iraq, the children of Haiti or the poorest babies of the United States. Why was there this intensity of interest and opinion over one boy? Then again, maybe my reluctance was related to a suspicion that, under a mask of moral outrage and ethical passion there was merely outrage and passion.
Slowly the Elián controversy became an inescapable media "environment." Newspapers and television programs gave the story the kind of attention usually reserved for O. J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey. Rush Limbaugh pontificated about it for so long he had to rebut e-mails questioning its importance and his balance. The April 17 issue of Time had a picture of Elián on a back yard slide, his arms spread out across the connecting two-by-four, a young crucified icon for Holy Week. The caption read, "I Love My Son." In whom I am well pleased? The scriptural and epic dimensions of Elián’s plight inevitably haunted conversations from business offices and dining rooms to ball fields.
Even now, as I capitulate to the cultural clatter and offer my bit of opinion, I have yet another reason for avoiding comment on the boy saved by dolphins and fishermen. Any nuanced judgment is liable to infuriate everyone. That’s understandable; almost every scene of this drama, almost every commentator as well, has infuriated me.
1. The father. Juan Miguel González’s great deficit is, for many North Americans, the fact that he is a citizen of Cuba. "Oh, but he’s not a citizen, he is an automaton, a slave, a mindless robot." But think a moment: If all the people in Cuba are robots subservient to Castro, why have so many Cubans had the independence of mind to fly, swim or row to freedom? A sub-text is the latent contempt for the "Cubanness" of the father. When Mr. González came to the United States, he wore new shoes. This occasioned a lot of jokes. I suppose those who ridiculed his new clothes thought a Cuban father would prefer to arrive in bare feet, sandals or second-hand Nikes. Tony Snow, on the Fox News Roundtable ("Fair and Balanced as Always") snickered that González was the "Best Dressed Cuban since Ricky Ricardo." The father was also chided for not going to the Miami relatives who had accused him of child abuse and wife beating. I’m afraid the man cannot win this battle, with Castro on one side and us fair-minded, free and objective Americans on the other.
2. The mysterious mother. We are told that Elián’s mother had one goal: to get her son safely to the pleasure-dome of American culture and free enterprise. We are not even to imagine that she may have been lured to the fated boat by the fact that she chose to remain with the man she loved. But what if the reason for her journey was as simple as this: She did not want to be separated from her lover or the child she loved, so she left Cuba and brought the boy with her. Would she have made the trip at all, if it were not for the man? Maybe her last will and testament was not "to have her boy in the United States," but to have her boy with her. If you are an ideological thinker, such intimacies make no sense.
3. The Castro haters. The old ruthless revolutionary, no doubt, wants to use the boy as a trophy, a pawn. According to Castroism, he will have to be deprogrammed, lest he say something nice about Disneyland, cell phones, new shoes and bright automobiles. But was not the same boy a trophy to those who detest the dictator, a child to be placed in the presence of Diane Sawyer and then videotaped in a home video mouthing his suddenly discovered hatred for Cuba? Elián will likely be "brainwashed" by Castro. I have no doubt that he has also been brainwashed since he reached these shores. The same goes for all of us.
4. The Clinton haters. It is true that Clinton has hid behind the skirts of "the tall old woman" (who, by the way, has exhibited more conviction and grit than "the most engaged vice president in our history," the bold critic of the administration, now demanding what is best for everybody). But the haters of Clinton have allowed themselves to affirm the very proposition they have loathed: that any state is more important than the most basic and intimate of relationships. As one of the signs in the "Little Havana" crowd had it: "Freedom supercedes fatherhood." This could mean, of course, that we ought to challenge any arbitrary authority or unfair constraint that a father may impose. But I suspect it means more in this charged atmosphere: better to have no father at all than a Communist father. If that, indeed, is what it means, it is a weird statement of family values, worthy of a state ideology, right or left.
5. The boy. Elián González is a child so profoundly bereft and used that he will recover only with grace and the truth that love requires. Few will admit this, so fervent is allegiance to issues rather than persons. Only rarely will you find an opinion not dictated by racial, ideological and party lines. But if the intimacy of a parent and child still means anything, and if Elián and Juan Miguel have that special grace, no U.S. political or cultural "splendor," as Brit Hume put it, will come between them. Nor will Castro.