Whose Phone Is It, Anyway?

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Some people think — and I wonder about this myself — that it would be my duty as a libertarian to side with Apple in its contest with the United States government about the question of whether the company may justly be compelled to assist the government in opening the cellphone of the (dead) San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook. The government is looking for terrorist associates of Farook who may have left traces in the guts of his phone.

The legal issues and history have been ably summarized by Gabriel Malor, on the website of the libertarian-conservative Federalist Society. He concludes for the government. But what is chiefly of interest to libertarians is the question of whether the government has a moral right to invade the privacy of Farook’s phone, and by possible implication millions of other phones, such as the one sitting beside me as I write this Reflection.

The government hired and maintained in its employ a person who, not without previous indication, turned out to be an activist for a genocidal foreign state.

For me, there are real claims to privacy, and there are spurious ones. Much neglected in the discussion of Mr. Farook’s phone is an issue mentioned by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME): “The phone was not even owned by the terrorists; it was owned by the county for whom he worked, and the county has given the FBI permission to search the contents of the phone.” Apple concurs on the issue of the phone’s ownership.

So while being anxious about the government’s creating a precedent by forcing a company to assist it in extracting information from a cellphone, perhaps we should also be laughing at the joke: the government hired and maintained in its employ a person who, not without previous indication, turned out to be an activist for a genocidal foreign state; the government gave him a cellphone to use in its service; and the government lost track of the contents of his cellphone, perhaps with future hideous results.

Only one thing is lacking in this picture: the government’s usual claim that the data it “owns” must be retained as a deep secret in the bowels of its HR departments, so that the privacy of its employees can be maintained in primordial sanctity. Today it is a private organization that is making the meretricious claim to privacy.

Libertarian anarchists will disagree, but here’s the story as it appears to me. If there’s a fire in my neighborhood, the government has a legitimate power to make me open a gate so the fire engines can get through. It also has a legitimate power to enforce a warrant to enter someone’s property, looking for the source of the neighborhood’s fires. In this case, the gate is Apple’s, and the property is — the government’s!




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Now the Majority

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Amid all the hoopla surrounding the elections, the nation passed a milestone worth noting. We now have right-to-work (RTW) laws in place in the majority of states. This is a cause for quiet celebration.

Earlier this month, West Virginia — long a stronghold of Big Labor (specifically, the United Mine Workers) — voted to become the nation’s 26th RTW state. This was as surprising as Michigan’s decision a couple of years ago.

Workers find their dues used to elect politicians who want to close down the very industries that employ those workers.

It took maneuvering. The law had narrowly passed the Republican-dominated legislature the week before, but Democrat Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed it. However, the state constitution allows the legislature to override a veto with a simple majority. The Republican-dominated legislature did just that, by 18–16 in the Senate and 54–43 in the House.

Undoubtedly the driving force for this change is something I have long noted in these pages. Ever since FDR, there has long been an unholy alliance between Big Labor and the Democratic Party. Labor unions freely used enormous amounts of workers’ money to elect Democrats, who then passed laws favorable to unions, but often opposed to the desires of workers. Over the past 20 years, and especially with the election of Obama, Big Labor has elected Democrats who are environmental extremists. This is the ultimate in irony: workers find their dues used to elect politicians who want to close down the very industries that employ those workers!

That is especially true in West Virginia. Of course, the state has long had major coal-mining operations. But Obama’s campaign against coal has devastated those industries. This has been the major reason that West Virginia has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation — 6.5%, or about a third higher than the average.

Workers of the country, unite, and throw off the chains with which the vicious environmentalist Democrats have shackled you! Not only will you be free — you may just keep your job!




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The Bad and the Ugly

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I suppose that everyone who has been chained to a sofa and forced to watch the presidential “race” (which is actually a horrible, slow crawl, relieved only by an occasional fall off a cliff) has compiled a mental list of the best, better, worse, and worst verbal performers. Here’s my list.

The Best performer, I believe, was Carly Fiorina. Trailing badly in the polls, she was willing to speak at any time, on any subject — and every time I saw her, she was crisp, clear, and well-informed. She was actually, on occasion, informative. She said things that conveyed knowledge that I, at least, hadn’t possessed before. She could surprise you that way. She didn’t completely avoid clichés, but she had a lower cliché count than the other candidates, and she had practically no “uh” count.

This is very rare among politicians, and should be greeted as a miracle after seven years of Obama, whose rate often goes up to 40 “uhs” a minute. Saying “uh” all the time commonly indicates that a person is trying to hold the stage long after running out of anything to say. Obama is the best example in the present era. If you counted the time he has spent on substantive remarks, and compared it with the time he has lavished on “uh,” you’d end up with a ratio of about 1 to 100. But Fiorina never wasted your time. And she, virtually alone in the pack of presidential contenders, never evaded a question by proclaiming that the American people don’t care about that; what they care about is blah, blah, blah. She was likable, and I liked her.

She was actually, on occasion, informative. She said things that conveyed knowledge that I, at least, hadn’t possessed before.

In any context except that of an American political campaign, none of the other candidates would be regarded as even a tolerable public speaker. Most of them would be considered sickening bores, heartless charlatans, or dangerous lunatics. In that sad context, however, they can still be ranked as better or worse.

Marco Rubio is a case in point. Chris Christie, in the best rhetorical moment of his own campaign, told Rubio that he was onto him: Rubio had a thing that he said all the time, something about Obama trying to make America into a European socialist country; and while that happened to be true, Rubio said it on every occasion, in answer to every question, and that was going too far. Christie noticed it, and made an issue of it in debate with Rubio, and his comments had a devastating effect on Rubio’s campaign. Rubio actually apologized to his supporters for screwing up so badly. In my opinion, Christie’s reproof of Rubio was the verbal high point of the campaign, so far.

But notice the difference between Christie and Rubio. Christie is great in dealing with hecklers, and in giving sharp answers to the kind of inside-the-beltway questions that turn other candidates into bores. Beyond that, he’s a bore himself. He could not manage to argue for own candidacy. But Rubio, who was on the losing side in his exchange with Christie, is actually a pretty good public speaker. Most of his time is occupied with denouncing Obama, which is easy to do, but he manages to do it without the overt ranting that is one of Ted Cruz’s besetting sins (about which more, below). Rubio’s “uh” count is low, and although he seldom has anything informative to say, he’s fluent and well organized and occasionally puts a little vibration in his voice that passes for inspiration.

In any context except that of an American political campaign, none of the other candidates would be regarded as even a tolerable public speaker.

On February 8, two days after his disastrous exchange with Christie, Megyn Kelly interviewed Rubio on Fox News and tested him by popping a quick series of questions about niche issues: should kids be legally required to get vaccinations? should “racist” Hallowe’en costumes be outlawed? etc. Rubio replied to all her queries rapidly and incisively, without the hedging to which most candidates resort when they don’t want a minor issue to make them the victims of pressure-group mayhem.

Ben Carson was an unusual candidate and an unusual speaker. I enjoyed his understated manner. He was too slow, but with him slowness suggested thoughtfulness, not lack of substance. His tendency to generalize was unfortunate, because it associated him with professional politicians and other people who seldom have anything specific to say. Carson did know what he was talking about, most of it, until he got involved with foreign policy — which was too bad, because his lack of knowledge in that field implied (I think falsely) that he didn’t know much about other fields, either.

My lack of bias in this assessment of speaking skills is demonstrated by my placement of Jeb Bush, whose nepotistic sense of entitlement I very much disliked, in the ranks of the Better speakers, with Rubio at the top of the Betters, Carson someplace in the middle, and Bush at the still-honorable bottom. Despite the mean things that Donald Trump kept saying about him, Bush was not notably lacking in energy or enthusiasm (as I certainly would have been if I had spent every waking hour of the past few years indulging a greed for public office). His tone was too even to inspire or surprise, and his constant references to various obscure and uninteresting successes in “running” Florida gave him the gravitas of a lead pipe. Nevertheless, he was a reasonably coherent speaker and much more circumspect in diction than the majority of his opponents. I say this despite his many obnoxious statements about “growing” things that cannot be “grown,” such as the economy.

Bush’s real problem wasn’t his lack of enthusiasm for the race but his audience’s lack of enthusiasm for his politics. His salient proposals, examined either singly or together, attracted no one except the crony capitalists and RINOs and Chamber of Commerce types. Whenever Jeb said anything, he was reasonably suspected of relaying the doubletalk of those core supporters, and of his brother — a language in which “immigration reform” means “open borders,” “I don’t believe in nation-building” means “I do believe in nation-building,” and so on. For normal listeners, that was not a source of enthusiasm.

As politicians go, however, Jeb did a much better than average job. There’s something to be said for the quality that ancient rhetorical theorists would call his ethos, the character he projected. I can hardly think of anything more demoralizing than to be regarded as my party’s inevitable nominee, and be backed by maybe a hundred million dollars in contributions and pledges, and then fall into the swamp, and stay there. Yet Jeb maintained to the end the same ethos, dull but sturdy, with which he began. Even Dr. Carson finally yielded to the temptation of public bitterness, as he found himself sinking in the polls. But Jeb did not. That was the best thing about him.

Jeb Bush’s real problem wasn’t his lack of enthusiasm for the race but his audience’s lack of enthusiasm for his politics.

Exchanging, now, the Better for the Worse, we come to Ted Cruz. Cruz is a trained debater. If you read his speeches, he often comes across as a clever verbal strategist. But when you hear him deliver them, the effect is different. He is nasal, uncomfortably gestural, and full of the little pauses that say, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. This is going to be one of my best statements.”

He has been criticized — indeed, portrayed as weird — for using the Bible, even when, in celebration of his victory in Iowa, he turned to Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” That verse, familiar to most Christians, and cited with considerable effect not just by Cruz but by such people as Gene Debs, the socialist leader, struck media commentators with astonishment. What was the guy saying? Was that the Bible? How can we find out? Well, there are such things as Bible concordances, scores of which you can find online, if you know the word “concordance.” But we shouldn’t suppose that the educators of the populace will themselves be educated people. The problem for me was that Cruz’s Iowa victory speech, like many of his other efforts, was mercilessly long and frothy, indicating nothing so much as a delight in hearing himself talk — a problem that can only grow worse, should his electoral success, such as it is, continue. Another bad, bad tendency is pandering to his audience, not once but over and over again. The occasional Bible verse is one thing, but his evangelical buzzwords are another. Even the evangelicals must be bored by them.

I’m tiptoeing toward the Worst.

I am not the only person who’s said it, but the political success of Bernie Sanders is almost entirely attributable to the fact that he is not Hillary Clinton. The claim has been made that he’s buoyed by his own ethos (if an ethos can keep you from drowning, which it usually can’t). But ask yourself: if he were your neighbor, would you like or respect him? Sure, he’s sincere, in the sense that he believes the nonsense he spouts, but must we assume that every crank or crackpot is sincere? That’s the question H.L. Mencken asked about William Jennings Bryan, and his answer was No. The idea is that if you have cancer, and I offer to cure it by having you place your hands on your television and chant, “I am the 99%,” the concept of sincerity does not apply. If you sincerely want to cure cancer, why don’t you become a physician? Why don’t you read a book? As Mencken said, “This talk of sincerity, I confess, fatigues me.”

Cruz is nasal, uncomfortably gestural, and full of the little pauses that say, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. This is going to be one of my best statements.”

Sanders cares too much to read a book. And his is not a passive but an aggressive ignorance. His speeches are nothing but rants. You realize that when you hear his words, but the awful thing is that you get the same impression when you turn down the volume and just look at him. He is the male equivalent of the Witch of the West. A person who looks like that when he talks, or yells, can hardly be said to have a persuasive ethos. And when, with reluctant hand, you turn the volume back up, you get the full horror of Bernie Sanders. The words are idiotic. That whole business about one-tenth of one percent owning 90% of the nation’s wealth . . . You’d have to redefine 20 common terms in 20 peculiar ways in order to get to that figure, and even then, I don’t see how you could. No, it’s crap, and it’s obvious crap, and nobody with an ounce of integrity would spout it.

But there’s a Worst of the Worst, and everyone knows who it is. It’s Mrs. Clinton. A delight to all opinion journalists, she is the person about whom nothing is too bad to say. Even among people who intend to vote for her there is almost universal loathing of her public performance and private character. Of all serious presidential candidates in American history, she is undoubtedly the most repellent. No list of adjectives can exhaust her repulsive qualities, and one of the most repulsive is that the people who support her know it and feel it themselves. A person who can command a leading campaign under these circumstances does indeed have something going for her, but it has nothing to do with the old categories of ethos, pathos, and logos.It has to do with the fact that she is a pathetic fool, hopelessly twisted by her lust for money and power, and therefore irresistibly attractive to wealthy people of similar character.

Well, but what happened to Donald Trump? What shall we think of him?

This is a problem. What kind of public speaker is Donald Trump? As I said in last month’s column, he’s a person who blurts out his message, whatever it is, in slogans and fragments of observations and whoops of glee (“We’re gonna win so much, and you’re gonna be so happy . . . !”). None of this leaves much room for literary analysis. He is not Daniel Webster. And he is not “presidential” in any normal sense. John Kasich — whom I haven’t discussed in this column, because he is far too dull — was correct in suggesting that Trump lacks the ethos of a president. But his candidacy demonstrates, for good or ill, that you can become president without that ethos. So he, too, must have something.

The political success of Bernie Sanders is almost entirely attributable to the fact that he is not Hillary Clinton.

Look — If I tell you that Franklin Roosevelt had persuasive charm, are you going to attack me for favoring the New Deal? I don’t favor the New Deal, and the New Deal has little to do with an assessment of Roosevelt’s rhetorical techniques. Please apply the same logic to what I say about Trump. My assessment of Trump’s rhetoric is that it’s done a lot of harm and a lot of good. The harm is that it’s narrowed the gap between competition for the world’s most potent office and the kind of thing one reads in entertainment magazines. When Trump talks about political issues, he does it in the style of a Hollywood columnist, full of breezy anecdotes, flashy claims, and satirical remarks.

That’s the bad part. The good part is . . . well, you’d have to possess a heart of stone not to enjoy the satirical remarks. But the really good part is that he has broken the bonds of media correctness.

When Trump began his campaign, you were not supposed to say that Bill Clinton is a bad man, and that his wife has been his enabler. You were not supposed to say that there are millions of people in this country illegally, and that their presence depresses wages for people who are in the country legally. You were not supposed to say of any candidate for the presidency that he is lifeless and weak. You were not supposed to say that an unpopular foreign leader is someone we need to come to terms with. Now, whether such things are true or not, they are on the minds of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, and they should be spoken about, so they can be debated. What kind of political process is it that forbids such obvious topics from being introduced? It’s a corrupt political process, a process in which every type of social pressure is exerted against the expression of unpopular ideas and even of popular ones.

This is new, and terrible. But Trump successfully defied the ban. He showed that he just didn’t care what the managers of public discourse thought about him. He didn’t care that they wanted to shame him and shut him up. He just went on saying things — many of them goofy or tasteless or just plain wrong — and it soon became evident that the other candidates and their managers and the pressure groups who support them and the analysts and the academics and the would-be censors weren’t smart enough to know how to answer him. This general unmasking has to be good for the country, and perhaps for the world.

Every victory for Trump that I can think of has not been a victory so much for his specific ideas as for his refusal to be shut up.

If there is a sacred cow on this planet, it’s the pope. Heaven forbid you should say something against the Pope o’ Rome, especially such a wonderful, sympathetic, warmhearted man of the people as the current wearer of the triple crown. But the problem with prelates is that they always want to intervene in politics. That’s what Pope Francis spends a lot of his time doing, and that’s what he did when he called Trump “unchristian” because he wants to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States. The pope denounced him for wanting to build walls rather than bridges — and you’d have to look a long way before finding a more inane comment, unless you looked through some of the pope’s other statements. Trump immediately blasted back, and the pope sent out a public relations man to say that Francis didn’t really mean Trump, and didn’t really mean to intervene in politics . . . “This wasn’t, in any way, a personal attack or an indication on who to vote for [sic]. The Pope has clearly said he didn’t want to get involved in the electoral campaign in the US and also said that he said what he said on the basis of what he was told [about Trump], hence giving him the benefit of the doubt.”In short, the Vatican could come up with nothing better than an obvious lie, soaked in obvious bilge. It was another victory for Trump.

In fact, every victory for Trump that I can think of has not been a victory so much for his specific ideas as for his refusal to be shut up. He has shown that if you don’t pretend to respect people and opinions that you do not, indeed, respect, you can keep on talking, and you may also find yourself winning friends and influencing people. Does that mean that Trump’s talk is any good? Certainly not. But I would like to live in a world in which I am free to criticize the pope, or to call Hillary Clinton an enabler of vice. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

To tell you the truth, however, what I really want to do is to stop talking about any of the candidates. I probably won’t get my wish. But I did think it was my duty to say something about them now, before people forget who most of them were.




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A New Kind of Superhero

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Wade Wilson, better known as "Deadpool," is a sarcastic, sometimes schizophrenic, violent, nonsensical comic book character who assassinates people for a living.

He's also one of the only characters in the history of the medium to be aware that he's inside a comic book, which means that he gets to break the fourth wall to talk about writers, artists, and pop culture and make jokes at other characters' expense in a way that can be downright hysterical.

Created by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza as a spoof of rival DC Comics' "Deathstroke" (aka Slade Wilson), Deadpool was originally a minor character who occasionally got to play around in the X-Men and X-Force universe, cracking jokes and generally causing trouble for the real heroes. But he quickly became a popular comic book character in his own right. As anyone who has been to a comic book convention can attest, everybody loves Deadpool.

I'm not alone in suspecting that the film industry is going to learn the wrong lessons here.

It's easy to understand why. He has a great look. He's witty, sharp, and hysterically funny. He has a great superpower (self-healing) as well as skills that lend themselves well to high-octane action stories. And he's always getting into shootouts, swordfights, and other assorted brawls. But here's the thing: he's not actually a nice guy.

He swears like a sailor. He spends his time with hookers and other mercenaries. He makes fun of his own audience. He gets in the way of real heroes when they're trying to help people. And did I mention that he murders people for a living?

Don't get me wrong . . . he's a wildly original and entertaining character, but there's simply no way around the fact that this comic book character is not written for kids.

But what's really strange is that there was actually a small but ridiculous push from some parents for Fox to make a PG-13 version of the movie. Somebody even started a Change.org petition asking for a toned-down cut of the movie.

The trouble is, it is impossible to capture the essence of Deadpool on film in a PG or PG-13 movie, and for a long time, director Tim Miller and producer and star Ryan Reynolds struggled to get the now record-breaking movie greenlit at Fox because no one had really done an R-rated superhero movie in the Marvel blockbuster era, and studio heads worried about shutting out the lucrative young-teen and preteen audience. When they finally leaked some test footage and got the ball rolling, one of the biggest fears fans of the comics had was that Fox would try to water down the character to make a "four quadrant" picture — one that plays equally well to kids, adult males, adult females, and elderly people — “fun for the whole family!”).

In what would ultimately go on to become part of the greatest social-marketing campaign for a film in recent memory, one of the first advertisements for Deadpool was an April Fools Day prank video featuring Mario Lopez breaking the "news" that it would indeed be rated PG-13.

Childproofing violent antiheroes in an attempt to please everyone is a vote of no confidence and a surefire path to box-office doom.

Once fans realized that the video was a joke and that the producers were actually going for an R rating, the conversation changed. Fears of studio meddling ruining the movie turned into excitement that just kept building until last weekend, when Deadpool nabbed the biggest opening weekend ever for an R-rated movie.

Unfortunately, I'm not alone in suspecting that the film industry is going to learn the wrong lessons here. Already Universal announced that the next Wolverine movie will be rated R, as though the lesson from Deadpool is that a racier rating will ensure higher box office revenues. Frankly I think Wolverine always should have been rated R. Like Deadpool, he is not a very nice guy, and in X-Men II he kills a half a dozen guys in Xavier's mansion, mostly in front of children, but because somehow no actual blood is seen anywhere, it earned a PG-13.

Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn said via Facebook:

After every movie smashes records people here in Hollywood love to throw out the definitive reasons why the movie was a hit. I saw it happen with Guardians. It ‘wasn't afraid to be fun’ or it ‘was colorful and funny’ etc etc etc. And next thing I know I hear of a hundred film projects being set up ‘like Guardians,’ and I start seeing dozens of trailers exactly like the Guardians trailer with a big pop song and a bunch of quips. Ugh.

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

Deadpool wasn't that. Deadpool was its own thing. THAT'S what people are reacting to. It's original, it's damn good, it was made with love by the filmmakers, and it wasn't afraid to take risks.

For the theatrical experience to survive, spectacle films need to expand their definition of what they can be. They need to be unique and true voices of the filmmakers behind them. They can't just be copying what came before them.

So, over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you'll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool. They'll be green lighting films ‘like Deadpool’ — but, by that, they won't mean ‘good and original’ but ‘a raunchy superhero film’ or ‘it breaks the fourth wall.’ They'll treat you like you're stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn't do.

I couldn't agree more.

Studios should not go out of their way to make comic book movies darker or edgier on the theory that Deadpool was successful because it had sex, violence, and bad language. Making Superman or Spider-Man into badasses won't make those iconic characters' movies better. But likewise, childproofing violent antiheroes in an attempt to please everyone is a vote of no confidence and a surefire path to box-office doom.

Deadpool is succeeding because it is a ridiculously entertaining movie featuring a classic, well-told story, and because the filmmakers embraced all the things that made the source material great instead of cowing to pressure from parents and studio executives to water down the essence of the character. Miller and Reynolds deserve an enormous round of applause for making a film that was true to Deadpool's comic origins.

Not every film needs to be made for all audiences, and that's actually OK.


Editor's Note: Review of "Deadpool," directed by Tim Miller. Twentieth Century Fox, 2016, 108 minutes.



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Antonin Scalia, R.I.P.

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This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing. Stephen Cox's elegy is here. - See more at: http://libertyunbound.com/node/1519#sthash.dl79qO6R.dpuf
This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing. Stephen Cox's elegy is here. - See more at: http://libertyunbound.com/node/1519#sthash.dl79qO6R.dpuf

This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing.
Andrew Ferguson speaks ill of the dead here.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who died on February 12, was a person of intransigent mind, with a well-justified contempt for the intellectual weakness and silliness of his professional colleagues. He was the greatest influence on the Supreme Court in its present period and the Court’s best writer since, perhaps, the 1930s. He was devoted to the idea that the Constitution means what it says, not what a momentarily prestigious legal philosophy thinks it should say. He tried to interpret the Constitution according to its actual words, not according to the results he himself might have preferred. For that reason, his passing is a disaster for everyone who believes in constitutional, and therefore limited, government.

Among other good things, Scalia:

  • Attempted to keep organs of the executive branch from becoming “junior varsity Congress[es],” establishing rules, procedures and “guidelines” that had the force of law.
  • Spoke for the Court in denying government the power to circumvent the Constitution’s search-and-seizure provisions by the use of new electronic methods.
  • Spoke for the Court in denying government the right to use claims of “hate speech” to circumvent constitutional rights.
  • Spoke for the Court in maintaining Americans’ rights to gun ownership in the crucial Heller case, and dissented forcefully when the Court declined to consider more advanced Second-Amendment cases.
  • Spoke for the Court in maintaining the right to sell ultraviolent video games.
  • Memorably opposed the majority decisions upholding Obamacare: “The Court holds that when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says ‘Exchange established by the State’ it means ‘Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government.’ That is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so.”
  • In connection with the same decisions, stripped the mask of impartiality from his colleagues’ sorry faces: “Perhaps the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will attain the enduring status of the Social Security Act or the Taft-Hartley Act; perhaps not. But this Court’s two decisions on the Act will surely be remembered through the years. . . . And the cases will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.”
  • Provided the deciding vote for freedom and fairness in eminent domain, in the Williamson Country Regional Planning case.
  • Was strongly influential in arguing against the use of “balancing act” criteria in decisions about constitutional rights.
  • Was strongly influential in arguing against the use of “legislative history” as a way of qualifying or reversing the explicit meaning of statutes.

This list might be greatly extended. I could also compile a list of Scalia’s inconsistencies and blindnesses. But the fact is that for decades Scalia was the intellectual leader of the Court, whenever it admitted of any intellectual leadership, and the best bulwark of constitutionalists against the ability of modern-liberal judges to make the constitution what their ideology thinks it ought to be.

Scalia was an unembarrassed believer in the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted in the same way as any other text — by reading what is there and not what we want to be there.

Many libertarians don’t like Scalia, because of his particular rulings. So be it. But the disagreement often goes deeper. It goes to the philosophy of interpretation that many libertarians maintain. They think the Constitution was written to express broad principles of individual freedom and that its wording must always be interpreted in that light. Like modern liberals, who frequently refer to the Constitution as a “living entity,” the meanings of which are not bound by its actual wording, they want judicial decisions to embody a wide range of rights (i.e., a right to “privacy”) that never come close to being mentioned by the Constitution. If you want a judge to find them there, how can you object when the judge finds a lot of other things that aren’t there, and enforces them? This is what modern liberal jurists have been doing for several generations, and libertarians should not try to wish it away by appealing to essentially the same philosophy.

It was in his opposition to such ideas that Scalia truly distinguished himself. He was an unembarrassed believer in the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted in the same way as any other text — by reading what is there and not what we want to be there. He knew he would be despised as unsophisticated, at best, and as a mere advocate of his own bigotries, at worst. He repaid scorn with scorn — and who would not be scornful of the sophistries of Chief Justice Roberts, cynically arguing for the constitutionality of Obamacare immediately after he had argued for its unconstitutionality, or the inanities of the four modern liberal justices, who never saw a modern liberal law they didn’t like? What reflective person would deny Scalia’s contention that "the risk of assessing evolving standards is that it is all too easy to believe that evolution has culminated in one's own views"? When Scalia joined the Court, this idea, though obvious, had been evaded for far too long, with devastating effects on the constitution’s system of limited government. Scalia’s aggressive advocacy of “textualism” gave it new importance, made its intellectual power impossible to ignore.

The truth is that the Constitution, if interpreted in the light of what it says, not of the pleasant emanations we sometimes feel radiating from its penumbra, would give us a world incomparably more libertarian than the one we currently inhabit. It would not be a world governed solely by principles of individual right, because the Constitution was not written solely to do that. But it would be a world so free that it would be a pleasure to suggest the few revisions that would complete the picture — instead of spending immense amounts of time and money fighting off attacks by modern liberals and conservatives who believe in legislating from the bench. And this is what people who care about individual freedom will now have to do, during the long, intellectually dismal period between Justice Scalia’s death and the confirmation of his successor.




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Antonin Scalia, R.I.P.

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This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing.
Stephen Cox's elegy is here.

Antonin Scalia, longtime associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was a talented writer whose position afforded him innumerable chances to wield his pen in forceful argument for his often curiously shifting but nonetheless deeply felt views. He was also by some distance the most public justice, often giving speeches laying out his judicial philosophy and thoughts on upcoming jurisprudence, sometimes to the point that he had to recuse himself from a case.

Scalia’s pompous blowhardity made him a gleefully divisive figure in the highest court of a land drifting ever farther away from his own conservative, masculinist Catholicism. After Harvard Law and a little while in private practice, Scalia taught for several years at the University of Virginia Law School, and would later return to academia at the University of Chicago. His own jurisprudence bore the hallmarks of his time as a teacher: his opinions—which, unlike many justices, he did not largely hand off to his passel of clerks—were didactic, condescending, and all-too-aware of the distance between his enrobed augustness and all else outside the cloakroom.

As a public figure, Scalia devoted himself above all else to the preservation of executive-branch powers, whether actually enumerated or distantly dreamed. He scarcely met a presidential prerogative he didn’t like, whether the right to order the torture of supposed enemies, deny due process at will, or pursue “interstate commerce” into the individual home. Despite his famed “faint-hearted originalism,” Scalia was never far from trampling over the Ninth and Tenth Amendments in the service of executive might. Even when his decisions favored a broadly libertarian policy, such as eliminations of gun control or overturnings of illegal searches, they often did so in a way that declined to limit future exercises of the power of the state. More often, though, when he looked to the Constitution, he found justifications for his own predilections to expand use of the death penalty even to the mentally disabled, criminalize homosexual acts, and sign onto four separate dissents against gay marriage.

Scalia devoted himself above all else to the preservation of executive-branch powers, whether actually enumerated or distantly dreamed.

It is, in one sense, ironic that the first response of Republican legislators to the death of their originalist hero was to defy constitutional statements clearly allowing the sitting president, no matter how lame a duck he might be, to suggest a replacement for the fallen justice. But it’s certainly not surprising: in this, the GOP is simply following Scalia’s own example (as well as that of basically every other politician), honoring and vociferously upholding the Constitution when it supports their own tribal position, and ignoring it as soon as it suits them to do so.

There remains a great deal to sort out in the wake of Justice Scalia’s sudden death. Any cases for which decisions have not been rendered, even those which have been argued and voted upon, will not take Scalia’s vote into account. In the short term, this means public unions nationwide get a reprieve from right-to-work measures, and President Obama’s climate change plan is likely to survive a little longer. In the medium term, it means a nasty confirmation fight, as Obama tries to get a justice though a Republican Congress with no intention to allow one. (Probably the worst case here, actually, is a compromise candidate in the form of a socially moderate, tough-on-crime-and-terroists type, à la David Barron.) In the long run, the court has lost its most entertaining and most self-consciously intellectual jurist. We could do with a few less like him.



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The Less You Know, the Better

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My daughter Hayley wrote her senior thesis demonstrating an inverse relationship between how much a movie trailer reveals about the movie’s plot and the quality of the film; if you can predict the whole plot just from watching the trailer, it’s likely to be a dog. Conversely, the less you know about the plot from the trailer, the more likely it is to be a great movie. Test her theory for yourself, and you’ll see that you could save yourself a lot of money on predictable (and predictably bad) movies.

Better yet, test the reverse of her theory by going to see the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! this weekend. As I watched the trailers over the past month, I had no idea what the movie would be about. Roman epic? Backstage musical? Film noir? Time travel sci-fi? Hayley’s theory holds up: Hail, Caesar! is one of the wittiest and most enjoyable comedies to come along in ages.

What’s not to love about this movie? Channing Tatum tap-dancing in a sailor suit. Wayne Knight (Seinfeld’s nemesis, Newman) reclining in a toga. Scarlett Johansson struggling out of a mermaid suit. Ralph Fiennes keeping his upper lip stiff as a snippy, officious, British director. A producer named Skank. A singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) who is simply swoony with his curly hair, dimpled chin, and aw-shucks accent. Tilda Swinton portraying not one, but two, gossip columnists. Frances McDormand cameo-ing as a gruff, chain-smoking film editor. And let’s not forget George Clooney, whose kidnapping early in the film drives the plot (yes, there is one.)

The less you know about the plot from the trailer, the more likely it is to be a great movie.

Anchoring the frivolity are two meaty themes that kept my audience-mates — mostly intellectual film buffs — chortling for two hours. (Who but intellectual film buffs comes to the movies in the middle of the afternoon on opening day in a college town and laughs knowingly throughout the film?) I laughed knowingly right along with them.

The first theme has to do with the film’s inside look at the art of filmmaking in the 1950s, and despite the fact that it’s a self-deprecating comedy, we observe some serious skills displayed by the fictional directors, actors, and editors of the movies being made within the movie. It is an impressive reminder that moviemaking is a true art form, one that we often overlook as we are drawn into the magical world presented to us on screen.

The other theme involves a decision that studio exec Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) faces. As a production manager, his job is to keep every film on schedule and under budget. That means he has to wrangle thespians who drink too much, box-office stars who can’t act, extras who aren’t paid enough, starlets who get into trouble, and gossip columnists who could torpedo a movie with one disparaging article about its leading man — and that’s just what Eddie does before lunch. Meanwhile, he’s being courted by a big corporation that wants to hire him as a top executive with job security, high pay, good retirement benefits, and the promise that he can be home in time for dinner with the missus every night and baseball with the kid every weekend. Should he take the offer?

His dilemma leads to a powerful speech about the factors of production that would make the whole film worthwhile — even if it wasn’t one of the wittiest films I’ve seen in months.

Oh — and did I mention those communists from The Future?

 

Hail, Caesar!, directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Mike Zoss Productions, 2016, 106 minutes.




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Report From Iquitos

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I am writing from Iquitos, a town in Peru, encircled by the jungle of the Amazon. The only connection to the external world is by air. Boats — loaded with cattle, exotic animals, human beings, and forest-produce that in the US would put you in prison for several lives — go downstream and upstream, providing access to smaller villages and tribes, but not to anything beyond. Iquitos is very spacious and well-planned. The mighty Amazon and its tributaries surround the town, and most people have come here from its tribal areas.

For less than $40 a day, I can have a very good style of life. It costs me $22 for a good, clean, air-conditioned hotel, with full breakfast included. A tip of 30 cents a day gets me all the attention I want. A very good meal at an “expensive” restaurant costs me $8. The cost is much less — about $3 — if I go to a good, busy place for locals. Most taxi rides cost 60 cents. Yet because most things are flown in, Iquitos tends to be about 25% more “expensive,” in my estimation, than similar places I have visited in Peru.

During 30 minutes of my sitting in a boat one evening, several fish jumped in, without a need for bait.

I tend to eat at local places. I buy fruit from roadside vendors; a handful costs me 30 cents. This helps the local economy the most, for the money that I spend in touristic areas mostly accrues to the well-connected, entrenched interests. Moreover, spending money directly with locals ensures that their emotions get aligned with my interests and safety — eventually they will go out of their way to win my favors. People are very friendly.

The Amazon offers cheap and good food. During 30 minutes of my sitting in a boat one evening, several fish jumped in, without a need for bait. Fruit trees are easy to find. It is hard to go hungry.

Not too far away is dense jungle and animals of all sorts, all of which are hunted down, irrespective of the diktats of the federal government, the World Wildlife Fund, and so forth. If something “protected” is not killed, it is because its meat is not tasty. In the local market every endangered or protected species can be bought. Locals might show revulsion if you asked them directly whether they hunt monkeys and dolphins. But ask them subtly — without evoking any implanted defences — what dolphin and monkey meat tastes like, and they will describe it.

I feel very free in Iquitos. But for locals it is not a libertarian paradise, not even close. Outside the core, touristic area, Iquitos is very dirty, because people utterly lack the concept of hygiene.

The receptionist at my hotel works every single day, from 3 PM to 11 PM. She works 365 days a year, with no vacation or weekends. This is how they all exist. In the morning she looks after her younger siblings while her own parents go to work. She has nine siblings, all younger, six of them are girls. When asked, she had to count to remind herself how many there are. All of them share a couple of small, dark rooms. Every woman is loaded with children, mostly girls.

The rule is babies first, with whomever, with no thought whatsoever about the future.

There is something about this area that results in a high female-to-male ratio. Some say there might be twice as many — or more — female births than male births in this area; anecdotal evidence shows this. One possible reason is a local fruit called aguaje, which apparently encourages certain hormones in women, although I failed to find a properly researched document to support this.

Girls here want to get pregnant quickly, partly because they have very strong maternal instincts, and being a single mother is perfectly acceptable socially — in fact this is the only way. The rule is babies first, with whomever, with no thought whatsoever about the future. My travel guide, who speaks fluent English, sees absolutely no reason why he should have any discussion with his daughters about the risks of unplanned, early, single motherhood. At the age of 23, he has three daughters, from three different women. Mostly he does not care what the woman he has a relationship with does when he is not with her. Incest is not uncommon.

People have enough to eat, so major crimes do not happen. But when crime must be controlled, it is through fear of punishment and much more importantly through real-time policing; those who cannot think much into a future don’t worry about punishment tomorrow. This reminds me that in many parts of Africa there is no word for “tomorrow” or “future.”

As I have seen elsewhere among people lacking reflective, critical reason — which is the situation in most of the non-Western world — petty crime, such as seizure of cellphones, is not considered immoral and hence is very common. The police and military must stand on every corner.

The area around Iquitos could be better than Switzerland. It isn’t. But you cannot blame lack of resources, lack of space, or even lack of educational possibilities. People here have a very high time-preference. A remote village of 500 people that I went to, about two hours away by boat from Iquitos, started getting surplus money through its interactions with jungle-related tourism, so it set up a night club and two bars. Not a piece of machinery was bought.

Contrary to what a rational person might have expected, Iquitos isn’t a peaceful paradise — the situation got worse with the influx of money.

Any excess money over basic needs gets spent on pleasure, right away. Iquitos is very noisy, because people like loud music and other loud sounds. Girls in very short skirts stand outside shops to attract people to buy motorbikes, TVs, and big, high-capacity sound systems, all playing at full blast. Casinos (and I am told brothels, in this rather promiscuous society) are everywhere, showing how bored people are. They are addicted to constant distractions.

Any rational person would have expected the surplus to go into investments in capital. But of course, the World Bank with its Ivy League educated “economists” must be happy, for they want consumption to go up. Contrary to what a rational person might have expected, Iquitos isn’t a peaceful paradise — the situation got worse with the influx of money.

Outside the supermarket here, there are several women sitting with scales, to let people weigh themselves for a few cents. None has business. There are shops after shops after shops, all well stocked, selling exactly the same wares, with none too busy. Hundreds of women sit next to one another selling exactly the same vegetables and fruit, all staring in oblivion, from early morning to late in the evening. Everywhere people, including the receptionist at my hotel, sit glued to the soap operas on their TVs. Soap operas are packed with fighting and exaggerated emotional dramas.

Anyone who tried to understand the situation might come, quite contrary to what the mainstream developmental economists would suggest, to the conclusion that in the final analysis the problem here — as elsewhere in the developing world — is not lack of capital, space, resources, safety, or property rights; nor is it overpopulation. The World Bank, the IMF and most economists are looking in the wrong direction.

The problem of poor societies is their lack of imagination, creativity, and reason, which is the dominant characteristic of the non-Western world. Modern education has completely failed to inculcate these human qualities. Perhaps it has made the situation worse, for education has been marketed to people in the non-Western world as something that offers a better material future, not a bigger vision of life. This has encouraged rote learning, not a passion for understanding the universe. In the end the education instilled in such students becomes just another baggage of beliefs, burdening them and distancing them from imagination, creativity, and reason.

Material prosperity without intellectual and spiritual growth does not add up and is not sustainable.

In most parts of the poor world (Africa, India, Peru, Central America, the Middle East, etc.) economic growth — the kind encouraged by international institutions — has had many bad consequences. These regions did not develop the concept of reasoning, planning, and strategic thinking. In the absence of these things, removing people from their tribal lives leads to emptiness and confusion. Any money they get goes into showing off and into too much drinking and partying. Noise, smell, chaos seem to develop quickly wherever surplus money comes to exist. Obesity and other lifestyle diseases are growing rapidly in all of these poor countries. And most rational people in the West fail to understand the situation: rational people’s rationality preempts them from understanding how irrational the developing world really is.

In such places wealth does not lead to peace, hygiene, improved health, and enlightened living. Even what could be an oasis becomes noisy, dirty, and diseased. The developing world has been the economic beneficiary of easy imports of technology, almost all of it attributable to the internet and telephony — both of which, during the past two decades, opened the floodgates of quick economic growth. Contrary to the claims of international institutions, growth in most of the developing world cannot be shown to be a product of liberalization, the spread of democracy, or public education.

For now, the World Bank and the IMF can justify their existence, but correlation is not causation. Liberalization didn’t really happen, although democracy is rearing its ugly head everywhere in the developing world. It has involved masses of people in public policy, masses who cannot think and reason, and are mostly driven by the desire for bread and circuses. Public education hasn’t delivered.

At the core, material prosperity without intellectual and spiritual growth does not add up and is not sustainable. Now the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and growth rate in the developing world is falling rapidly. The consequences of overconsumption and lack of capital investment are becoming visible.

A true developmental economist should look at the reality beyond the superficial economic numbers. I am extremely happy and free in Iquitos, but what a tourist and an outsider with money can experience is not the full reality. Never trust economists who do a quick fly-in and fly-out of a poor country and while there get driven around in Mercedes cars and stay in five-star hotels. Ask them if they have been to Iquitos, and the jungles with mosquitoes and naked tribes.




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Closing the Circle

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We may be approaching one of the most significant events of our time: the end of the Castro regime in Cuba. So long have Fidel Castro and his friends reigned in Cuba that it is hard to get perspective on the regime and its history. The history of Cuba itself remains little known to Norteamericanos.

Fortunately, there is Robert Miller. A longtime contributor to Liberty, Robert was reared in Cuba, as a member of a prominent family. He has spent most of his life in the United States but has followed events in his homeland closely. When Liberty discovered that Robert was writing a memoir of his family’s life in Cuba, their flight to the United States, and their adventures here, we asked Robert if we could print parts of his work. Robert agreed. We will be featuring it in several segments, of which this is the first.

The memoir is not a work of political science; it is something much more: an introduction to ways of life, parallel to those of North Americans, and connected at many points, but always pungently different. We think our readers will find this view of Cuba, before and after the Castro Revolution, strange, unpredictable, charming, funny, tragic, and always very interesting. — Stephen Cox

* * *

Part I

“Fidel does not have cancer. I’m very well informed . . .

Nobody knows when Fidel is going to die.”              — Hugo Chavez   

My mother, Ana Maria, died on July 14, 2000 at 78 years of age. For 40 years, ever since our flight from Cuba in 1960, she’d clung to the hope of outliving Fidel Castro Ruz, a man four years her junior. Almost more galling than having Castro outlive her was having her saint’s day fall on July 26, the anniversary and official title of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement. To a Cuban, one’s saint’s day — the birth date of the Catholic saint after whom one was named, in this case Santa Ana — is a personal holiday second only to one’s birthday. After our flight following the revolution, first to Mexico and then to the United States, she never again celebrated anything on that day.

My family has deep roots in Cuba. My maternal grandmother, also Ana Maria, was a third-generation Spanish émigré from the Canary Islands. John Maurice, my maternal grandfather, was an American contractor in Aguascalientes, Mexico when the 1910 Mexican Revolution erupted, so he fled for Havana where prospects seemed better.

Both were stern and imposing, with bulldog jowls, sharp, no-nonsense eyes, Grecian noses, and thin, locked lips, ever vigilant against any whiff of impertinence. Nonetheless, it must have been love, because in 1914 they married.

A massive man, a rigid disciplinarian, and a heavy drinker and gambler with a streak of willfulness that could turn violent, John Maurice was also an ambitious wheeler-dealer. He soon worked his way as a primary subcontractor into Cuba’s biggest construction projects under President Gerardo Machado.

Cuba was a faded canvas awaiting, if not a Michelangelo, at least a Jackson Pollock.

Nineteen-fourteen Cuba was caught in a time warp. It had achieved independence only 12 years before. Tiny next-door Haiti had been independent since 1804, besting what was then the world’s most powerful army, the Grande Armée of Napoleon. Since Cuba’s independence from, first, Spain and then, in 1902, from the United States — a facilitator in the first effort — it had experienced only five chief executives, two of whom were governors appointed by the US during post-independence interventions. Only three were duly elected presidents. And only one, Tomas Estrada Palma, the first, was considered uncorrupt.

In some ways Cuba in 1914 was like the US in 1804, when the War for Independence was a relatively recent memory, and its heroes still played a significant political role. But unlike the US in 1776 — a thriving outpost of a British Empire that was nowhere near its potential peak — Cuba was a distant province of an increasingly decrepit, inept, and corrupt Spanish empire. Slavery had been abolished only in 1886. Spanish investment in Cuban infrastructure was nearly nonexistent. There were no paved highways, and dirt roads were impassable after rains. What few railroads existed charged exorbitant monopoly prices for oxcart speed delivery. Cuba was a faded canvas awaiting, if not a Michelangelo, at least a Jackson Pollock. But first it needed reframing, restretching, restarching, stapling, and a solid foundation on a hardwood easel.

In 1925, Brigadier General Gerardo Machado, a hero of the War for Independence from Spain, ran for president under the slogan “water, roads, schools,” promising to end corruption while serving only one term (as the 1901 constitution dictated).

When he was elected, Machado kept his promise, building a beautiful new capitol building in Havana, with rotunda and wings modeled on the US Capitol, a paved trans-island highway, an enlarged and modernized University of Havana, a modern, progressively designed federal prison, the Hotel Nacional and Hotel Presidente, the Asturia Building (today the National Museum of Fine Arts), the Bacardi Building, and an expansion of health facilities. But he was not as successful in attacking corruption. In 1927 he pushed through Congress an amendment to the constitution that allowed him to run for a second successive term — a term that turned out as clean as the still undependable Havana tap water.

John Maurice was a beneficiary of the Machadaso, as Machado’s steamroller public works program was nicknamed. His first big commission, the capitol building, was completed in a scant three years. Begun in 1926 by the Purdy Henderson Co., it took 8,000 men to complete by 1929.

He then joined the big push to complete the Carretera Central, Cuba’s main trans-island artery; also built all at one go between 1927 and 1931. Family lore holds that John Maurice also worked on the Carcel Modelo (or model prison), the federal penitentiary on the Isle of Pines (the insular comma off the southeast coast of Cuba) that was built between 1926 and 1928, at the same time as the Capitolio and the Carretera Central. The three projects must have been a logistical challenge for the 41-year-old contractor. How he juggled these many responsibilities remains a mystery, though it is not uncommon for contractors to spread themselves thin by taking on multiple projects (often to the irritation of their employers).

Sometimes she’d field long distance calls from Ernest Hemingway, whom she always recognized by his unintelligible Spanish. He insisted on using it anyway.

When my mother turned 13 she was shipped off to a Louisiana Sacred Heart convent to learn English. After graduation she was offered a full scholarship to a Sacred Heart college in Missouri. It was not to be. With the Great Depression in full swing and the war in Europe about to break out, her father, John Maurice suddenly died of a kidney infection, leaving the family nearly penniless and saddled with his gambling debts. So instead, Ana Maria attended secretarial school, graduating quickly and putting her new earning power immediately to use as a bilingual telephone operator back in Cuba.

Sometimes she’d field long distance calls from Ernest Hemingway, whom she always recognized by his unintelligible Spanish. He insisted on using it anyway. When my mother, in turn, insisted that he speak English so she could understand him, he’d demand to know if she was aware of who he was. “No,” she always answered tersely.

“I’m Papa,” he’d impatiently retort. When no acknowledgement was forthcoming, he’d testily add, “Papa Hemingway!”

My mother’s answer, “I don’t know who you are,” was always followed by a torrent of profanity. Ana Maria not only didn’t care, she disliked arrogance, pretension, the concept of celebrities, Hemingway’s writing, and Hemingway himself.

With time these outbursts became more frequent. It seemed — to her anyway — that her imperious prudishness egged him on, something that gave her great satisfaction. With time and little patience, she took to hanging up on him — another “no” he interpreted as a “yes.”

Ana Maria had developed into a strikingly beautiful, statuesque woman. Tall for her times, with a ready laugh, she was indispensable in her social circle. Nicknamed Mina — a practice universal in Cuba — her friends called her Minita, the diminutive being more expressive. Nonetheless, she was not frivolous and had inherited her parents’ sedateness and instinctive disgust toward all manner of filth and uncouth behavior, malas palabras (obscenities) and the bodily functions to which they referred, including bodily odors. She always accused anyone who sweated profusely as stinking like a “guaguero de la Ruta 43,” a Havana Route 43 bus driver.

During WWII, Mina worked for the US Office of Censorship in Miami. After the war she returned to Havana and got a job with the newly founded American International Company (now American International Group, or AIG). The Havana AIC branch was established by my father, Howard Wesley Miller, who had been a principal in the founding of C.V. Starr & Co., the parent company of AIG in New York.

In need of a bilingual secretary, Howard was assigned Ana Maria. A trusting man of few words and a forced smile, he found Ana Maria’s regal reticence attractive (not to mention, as they say in Cuba, that she was “mas bella que pesetas” — more gorgeous than dollars), so he immediately fired her. Already married, he didn’t quite trust himself. When his wife unexpectedly died, Ana Maria was rehired. They were married in 1948.

Howard, born in 1898, 1899, or 1900 — the uncertainty owing to his forging of papers in order to enlist in the Navy during WWI (a ruse Mina was later to use to obtain a driver’s license before her time) — was more than 20 years Mina’s senior. He had already packed a lot of living into those years.

After two years as a gunner’s mate in the Atlantic theater, he was discharged in 1919. The war had kindled a spark of adventure. With an Belfast Irish buddy from the Navy, he bought a used Model T Ford and crossed the United States along the old National Trails roads; a disjunct network of pioneer trails, oftimes poorly maintained state highways, municipal streets, unmarked rural roads, and confusing and braided connecting easements — the majority consisting of unconsolidated sand and dirt that turned to mud after rains.

Still restless, Howard then headed to Havana to learn Spanish and serve an apprenticeship in public accounting, a trade he’d briefly studied in Chicago. In 1921, immersing himself deeper in the Latin American milieu, he went to Buenos Aires, rooming — by chance — with Aristotle Onassis, another expat also looking to make his fortune. Both applied for jobs with Standard Oil of New Jersey, then just starting to exploit possibilities in Argentina and Bolivia.

The Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal regulatory environment were the perfect challenge. If he could turn a profit under such adverse conditions, imagine what he could do in boom times.

Onassis didn’t make the cut: his language skills — in either English or Spanish (I never got that straight) — weren’t up to snuff (not that Howard’s Spanish merited any gold stars). Still, for some unknown reason, Standard Oil hired Howard, assigning him his own mule as an exploratory geologist’s assistant, prospecting for promising deposits across South America’s Chaco region. Eschewing traditional gaucho garb (or even a hat), and parting his hair straight down the middle, Howard, a native New Yorker and third-generation German immigrant, donned Wellies, jodhpurs, a white dress shirt, and wire-rim glasses. Though he stood out for his mildly eccentric outfit among the Chaco gauchos, it was his brains that were soon noticed. In no time, he was promoted to field clerk in a drilling camp in Patagonia and, before his 30th birthday, became Officer and Director of Standard Oil’s Argentine and Bolivian subsidiaries. That was when his earlier acquaintance with Onassis came into play.

Not one to pass up a good grudge, Onassis — by then well on his way to acquiring the world’s largest privately owned shipping fleet — had refused to carry Standard Oil products because of their earlier rebuff of him. But Howard needed tankers, and only Onassis’ fit his needs. Over a meeting I can’t possibly imagine — my father being neither garrulous nor guileful, and neither a big eater nor drinker — the two men sat down to resolve the problem. What was said, promised, or done, only the two men knew, but, their differences resolved, Onassis added Standard Oil to his list of potential clients.

Twelve years in Latin America — ten with Standard Oil — had taken their toll on Howard: he had contracted malaria, a condition that would bedevil him for the rest of his life. However, more importantly, he was still restless. He decided to call it quits and returned to the states. The Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal regulatory environment were the perfect challenge for him. If he could turn a profit under such adverse conditions, imagine what he could do in boom times.

During the following ten years he became, successively, comptroller of the Sphinx Trading Corporation, then Treasurer of Bush Terminal Buildings Company — a commercial property developer — and then controller of the Oxford Paper Company of Rumford, Maine, at the time the world’s largestpaper company under one roof.

Although in his early forties when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Howard immediately volunteered for the Navy, his old service branch. He was given a desk job, this time as an auditor. But for some unknown reason — perhaps his recurring malarial attacks, he served for only six months before being discharged. In 1942 he joined Starr, Park & Freeman, Inc., the initial precursor of what would much later become AIG, as Assistant Treasurer. In 1946 he returned to Havana as president of the American International Company, which supervised American International Underwriters operations throughout Latin America. That’s when he met my mother, Ana Maria.

Howard and Mina got married in Manhattan in January 1948. He returned to New York with a promotion: as treasurer and director of AIU. They settled in Massapequa, Long Island. The newlyweds planned on having children, adding some siblings to Howard’s 13-year-old son, John, from his first marriage. Howard was in a position to call his own shots, so the return to the United States had an ulterior motive: my parents wanted to ensure that their children were born in the US, in case they ever wanted to run for president.

I, Robert (soon to be nicknamed Baten, in the Cuban fashion), was born on November 19, 1949, proving — contrary to some opinions — that I am not a bastard. My sister Anita (Nana — from hermana, ‘sister’ or Nani, in diminutive) was born the following year, with little Patsy — my earliest memory — arriving in 1953.

Howard, now Pop to us, and Mina (mami or mima) lived in a Tudor mansion on a magnificent estate with an enormous lake behind it — or so it seemed to this three-year-old kid. They had brought Cuba along with them in the form of Mina’s mother, my Abuela (grandmother), Ana Maria Diaz y Otazo; a Cuban tata (nursemaid) to care of us kids; and a Cuban cook. Tata would often take us to the lake for an outing — in the summer, to pretend to fish; in the winter, to pretend to ice skate, an undertaking so thoroughly befuddling to her, and one that scared her so much, that she always invoked the saints and cut it short. Few Cubans had ever seen ice in situ.

My exposure to my parents being fitful, my first language was Spanglish, with a bias toward Spanish. We had a Dalmatian named Freckles (nicknamed Paca) who had his own fenced mini-estate. My brother John — at this time strictly an English speaker — and I loved to play with Paca. John attended a military boarding school and, with his sharp uniform, impressed me no end. Like his father Howard, John was a man of few words.

In fall 1953 — just after Fidel Castro launched his first failed coup on July 26 — and when Patsy was just barely old enough to travel, Pop sold the Massapequa estate and moved the family back to Havana. It was my first plane ride and one that I thoroughly enjoyed, pampered by the beautiful stewardesses and immersed in an illustrated book on American Indians and one on the animal kingdom.

Tata would often take us to the lake in the winter to ice skate, an undertaking so thoroughly befuddling to her, and one that scared her so much, that she always invoked the saints and cut it short.

Howard and Mina settled in Alturas del Vedado, one of Havana’s poshest neighborhoods, in a two-story concrete house near the dead end of Calle 43, next to a tributary gorge of the Almendares River. Terrazzo-floored throughout, the salmon colored house was high-ceilinged, spacious, and airy. My sisters shared a room, while my brother — whom I seldom saw — and I shared another room. Pop had gotten him an accounting internship at AIC’s Havana office. John would invariably come home late and leave early. When he reached majority, John left Cuba to seek his fortune in the US.

Kitty-corner across the street lived the just-deposed ex-mayor of Havana, Nicolas Castellanos, with whose children and grandchildren I’d later come to hang out. Directly across the street lived Luis Echegoyen, the star of MamaCusa, one of the top-rated comedy shows on Cuban TV, somewhat reminiscent of Jonathan Winters’ "Maude Frickert" character. His sons, Yoyi and Luis, about my age, became frequent playmates. One block away stood the Mexican Embassy, and two blocks away, the Peruvian Embassy.

Afraid I’d lose what little English I’d acquired, Pop and Mina enrolled Nana and me in Ruston Academy, an American school. The arrangement didn’t last. Mina was disgusted with their low academic standards and their emphasis on drawing, naps, and play time. It seemed that we were learning nothing and paying a high price for it. After a short while, she transferred Nani to the local Academy of the Sacred Heart, while I was transferred to La Salle, a Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers, many of whom were Spanish (at the time, Cuba had been independent from Spain for only 53 years, and the ties were still strong). President Fulgencio Batista’s children attended La Salle at the same time, but whether I was aware of this, knew who Batista was, or might have cared, I don’t recall. The students would ceaselessly ridicule the Brothers’ (to our minds) effeminate Castilian pronunciation of ‘Ds’ and ‘Ss’, always lisped in the most affected manner. But they got back at us: their fire-and-brimstone approach to catechism instilled the fear of God, hell, and sex in me for the next 20 years.

Catholic school didn’t quite have the same effect on Fidel Castro, who attended Belen, a Jesuit school in his time. The boilerplate catechism instilled in him the virtues of sacrifice and a strong empathy for the poor. As for sex . . . Castro hasn’t been nicknamed El Caballo (the stallion) for nothing. El maximo philanderer’s sheer number of affairs, assignations, and marriages rivaled the length of his speeches, the longest of which, delivered on January 1968, was 12 hours.

* * *

Pop and Mina were hands-off parents. Pop worked every day, but had also taken up golf at the Havana Yacht & Country Club, where I’d occasionally accompany him on rounds.

Neither Nani nor I remember spending any time with mami, with one exception. Later, after we’d moved into the mayor’s house, my bedroom connected to my mother’s dressing room through a common door. Most non-school mornings I’d hang out with her while she “put on her face” applying make-up and becoming a sounding board for whatever outfit she tried on. Mina’s vanity, L-shaped and entirely mirror-lined with decorative smoked edges, was extensive and packed with brushes, lipstick, curlers, mascara, talcums, creams, lotions, and myriad unidentifiable devices and concoctions. Mina was an excellent amateur painter and she approached her face as she would a blank canvas. The conversation flowed easily and we enjoyed each other’s company. Intermittently, she’d get up and head for the walk-in closet to try on an outfit. She never directly asked my opinion as to how it looked. To this day we still wonder how our mother passed her days in Cuba. Mostly, our tatas — now two, one for baby Patsy and one for Nana and me — took care of us. But I do remember our Havana debutante ball.

We children were strangers in a strange land. Soon after arriving, our parents engineered a birthday party to end all birthday parties, in order to introduce us to every possible playmate available in this new country. Every little cousin — no matter how distant (even in-law cousins) — every child of Mina’s or Pop’s friends, or business colleagues, or friends-of-friends’ kids, every kid in the neighborhood was invited. They all came. Pop and Mina hired a mini-amusement park, set up in our large back yard with an electric train, a mini-montaña rusa (roller coaster), ponies in a circle, a petting zoo — mostly goats and rabbits — and who knows what other childish delights. It was all meant to be a surprise — and it was.

Castro hasn’t been nicknamed El Caballo (the stallion) for nothing. El maximo philanderer’s sheer number of affairs, assignations, and marriages rivaled the length of his speeches.

There were 30 children there — not a single one smiling in surviving photographs. I well remember my own reaction: resentment at sudden, forced fun, friendship, and camaraderie. What were all those people doing there? Why did I have to “enjoy” myself? I had always been the master of my days, each one a blank canvas that I filled creatively according to my whims and plans. When someone imposed an agenda on me, it was a violation of my autonomy. Nani, even more sour-looking in photos than nearly all of the other children, particularly resented having to share a birthday with me, older and a boy to boot. I tried to hide, but someone dragged me out (in a not unkindly fashion). A gift of cowboy cap guns with holsters cheered me up, so I donned an Indian headdress and shot little girls at close range.

One of those little girls was Sara Maria, the skinny, curly haired daughter of Mina’s best friend. She and Nana had become friends. Sari, as we called her, wasn’t your typical doll-clutching, let’s-play-house little girl, so I put up with her. After immigrating to the US, we kept in touch. She was to marry Luis Luis, an academic, who was later to become the Organization of American States’ (OAS) chief economist, and whose insightful studies of the post-Castro Cuban economy became the basis for many of my articles about the island.

We didn’t last long at that house. Pop was doing well and, feeling a bit restless, cramped, and ambitious (he rued being from Brooklyn, at that time a run-down, unsavory neighborhood), approached Mayor Castellanos with a proposition. He and Mina bought the ex-mayor’s residence. Castellanos in turn built himself an even bigger house on the empty lot next door.

Now, at the time, Cuban elections had always been relatively free, that is, when compared with voting practices in countries such as Mexico or Guatemala. Nonetheless, the most ambitious party could always find ways of digging up dependable votes: union leaders controlled their workers; businessmen squeezed their employees; ministries rewarded civil servants with illegal bonuses; and a high percentage of voting cards lacked the requisite photographs and so could be used by anyone. The system had produced only one laudable administration, the very first one after independence, that of Tomas Estrada Palma. And at that, only his first term. By his second, he’d been soured by the lack of reciprocal idealism and turned vengeful, venal, greedy, and power mad.

The 1952 election started out no differently than any other: in Cuban-cigar-smoke-filled rooms with Mayor Castellanos cajoling together a grand coalition of anyone and everyone who had a claim on a piece of the action. Together they would apportion power and spoils uncontroversially and multipartisanly. But this time Fulgencio Batista, one of the primary contenders, didn’t want to share.

Batista was a tragic figure. He was nicknamed “the Okie from Banes” (el guajiro de Banes) and “el negro” because of his modest education, lack of sophistication, and dark complexion. According to the scuttlebutt of the time, he was one of the last surviving mixed-blood, indigenous Carib Indians — noteworthy because the Spanish conquistadores had — unwittingly — almost annihilated Cuba’s entire aboriginal population. (Cuba was now European, African, or mulatto). Batista had only risen to the rank of sergeant when, in 1933, he stepped into history. That year, during the unrest that followed the overthrow of Gerardo Machado, who had become a dictator, he led a popular, behind-the-scenes, intra-army “Sergeants’ Coup” that wrested power from the commissioned officers and, in an absurd reversal of traditional chain-of-command logic, conferred power unto the lower noncommissioned ranks — the sergeants themselves.

Prior to the coup, the army had been kept out of politics through a spoils sharing program whereby politicians paid off the higher officer ranks to secure their loyalty. The sergeants wanted a fairer redistribution of the loot. After the insurgency, Batista turned the government’s loyalty-buying racket into an overt army-extortion racket that benefited all ranks. Now that he ruled the armed forces, he promoted himself first to colonel and later to general. Batista, in effect, yet behind the scenes, ruled Cuba for seven years. In 1940 he ran for president, won, and ruled more-or-less competently — competently according to the standards of the time, with economic development programs, infrastructure improvements, and health and education investments.

At the end of his term in 1944 he had become immeasurably rich, but his marriage was falling apart, his popularity was at an all-time low, and he still hadn’t been asked to join the exclusive Havana Country Club. More important, his party surprisingly lost the election. In the midst of a midlife crisis, the Okie from Banes divorced his wife of many years, married a young socialite, and fled to Florida, into self-imposed retirement to enjoy his wealth and new-found connubial bliss. In 1952, restless, ambitious and more popular than ever in his own mind, he returned to Cuba to contest the 1952 elections.

A gift of cowboy cap guns with holsters cheered me up, so I donned an Indian headdress and shot little girls at close range.

Nicolas Castellano’s coalition could easily have defeated Batista; but not one to quibble, the ex-sergeant launched a second military coup on March 10 and named himself president of Cuba once again. The coup cost Castellanos the mayoralty. More importantly, it was the casus belli that launched Fidel Castro on the road to the revolution that rules Cuba to this day.

On July 26, 1953, and just before our new, five-member family had moved to Havana, Fidel Castro — precipitately, unprepared, and with a handful of loose cannons (both literally and figuratively) — attacked the Moncada Army Barracks in the province of Oriente. Some of his contingent even traveled by public bus. They were quickly defeated and brutally rounded up. Most were shot on the spot. Castro escaped with his life only because he’d married into the family of one of Batista’s ministers. Imprisoned for life in Carcel Modelo on the Isle of Pines, he declared, “History will absolve me.”

Pop rented our first house in Havana to an American by the name of Phillips, whom my mother said was a CIA operative. Nani, my sister, recalls, “All I remember about the Phillips family is that there was a girl close in age to me who spoke very little Spanish and that one Easter they invited me over for an ‘Easter Egg’ hunt, a bizarre concept to me at the time, and even weirder because the eggs were NOT CANDY but REAL HARD BOILED EGGS! YUCK! These Americans are CRAZY!”

Pinpointing the identity of that Phillips is a hit-or-miss affair, based on a last name, the memory of a little girl’s playmate, and my dead mother’s off-hand remark made years ago. Luckily, a David Atlee Phillips, CIA operative in Havana at the same time, wrote a memoir, The Night Watch, with many details that can be cross-checked against our meager bits. If Pop’s renter isn’t David Atlee Phillips, the coincidences verge on the miraculous.

Our new house at 130, Calle 36, was located on what, arguably, was Havana’s highest terrain. All the land around it sloped down. No wonder it was called Alturas del Vedado (Vedado Heights). It had all the amenities one might expect from the residence of the second most powerful man in Cuba.

Along with four bedrooms and bathrooms (all with bidets), one of which, the master suite, had a large adjacent makeup room lined with mirrors on every wall, the house boasted the following: a banquet-sized dining room (also lined with mirrors); a spiral terrazzo staircase leading upstairs from a grand entry foyer; four living rooms, one upstairs, and one with a six-foot aquarium; a small upstairs kitchen; a large office; a main kitchen with a built-in breakfast counter island, which could sit 12 people; and a built-in, industrial, 6-door, stainless steel refrigerator with an additional 2 doors facing the opposite room — a bar with curved counter adjacent to a patio; a multi-car garage with chauffer’s quarters; an attached L with maid’s, cook’s, and tata’s quarters; and, finally, a small, triangular chemistry lab, one which I soon put to good use with a 1950s-vintage, definitely-not-child-safe, riddled-with-warnings, skulls-and-crossbones chemistry set. Not good enough for pop, he immediately added a swimming pool with adjacent shower and changing room next to the already existing wading pool.

And the grounds! Three large, fenced yards, each with a patio, thick with bougainvillea, hibiscus, and all sorts of flowering tropicals only adults could identify; a breadfruit tree, a mango tree, and a flamboyant tree, with its huge, distinctive seed pods, and overarching, protective canopy.

The breadfruit tree, next to the columpio, or swing set, was a disgusting botanical specimen. The breadfruit — large, flesh-colored, wrinkled bombs, like a fat old woman’s oversize breasts — would drop to the ground when overripe and plop open disgorging a viscous, off-white, vomit-like, foul-smelling interior. This was unimaginable as a food source but wonderful for mortifying my sister, whom I would try to push into the putrid glob. I had once tried to pick up a portion of a felled fruit, carefully holding it by its skin, to lob at her, but the glutinous mass had no integrity and I ended up covered in breadfruit glop.

I came to idolize our driver and, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, declared, “un negrito chusma del solar” — a black bum from the sticks.

Life in the new, big house — especially now that I was a bit older — was an opportunity of possibilities. Pop would, on occasion, read me to sleep. His staples were Zane Grey and Winnie the Pooh, about the only English I was exposed to, but one that paid a dividend. One of Pop’s business associates from the US would occasionally come to visit. He’d always bring his little daughter, Kathy, with him. For some strange reason — in spite of little boys’ general aversion to little girls — we took a shine to each other. Not more than six or seven years old, Kathy and I would seek nooks and closets to hide in and kiss. We were not overly concerned with being discovered — other objectives being more pressing at the time — except by my sister Nani, who would try to exploit the knowledge to tease me (to no avail).

We acquired a black Chrysler limousine with foldout middle seats, and a black chauffeur, Jesus, to match. And yes, it’s true, Cuban chauffeurs always had a great collection of dirty magazines. Jesus and I became buddies. For some unknown reason, I never saw the rest of the household staff associating with him. He and I would take to hanging out, talking about absolutely nothing of consequence. His strong and unaffected, easy Cuban Spanish entranced me. It flowed so unencumbered and atonal. All the Ds and Ss, and many of the Rs became slight aspirations, or vanished. The Vs and Bs became indistinguishable. Most GUs became Ws. All fricative and lingual obstacles somehow disappeared. Even the consonants seemed to slouch. I came to idolize him and, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, declared, “un negrito chusma del solar” — a black bum from the sticks.

One day, stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the Barnum & Bailey circus (a rarity in Havana), right at an intersection, a car in the cross street T-boned into our limousine, scaring us all to death. “Ay, Dios mio!” exclaimed Abuela. It was our very first car crash and proved to be the end of both the limousine and the chauffeur. Jesus, who knows why, was let go. I suspect Pop and Mina weren’t totally accustomed to being chauffeured people. Pop then bought, in quick succession I think, first a Cadillac, then a Ford Fairlane.

After only one year at La Salle, Pop and Mina transferred me to the St. Thomas Military Academy, another Catholic school. Since I was a little angel, I can only surmise their reasons for the transfer. For one, it was a partial boarding school, in that I left home at 7 AM and returned at 7 PM, was fed three meals a day, and showered. Additionally, it was an arrangement that had suited my brother John so well when he was in grade school, that he chose it willingly when he entered high school. Finally, Mina’s brothers, John and Robert, had both gone to military school. But they were scamps of the worst sort and needed discipline like a broken bone needs a cast. Looking like twins, they’d often cover for each other when one got into trouble.

St. Thomas was located outside the city, in the middle of manicured parade grounds, athletic fields, and open space, all surrounded by giant trees that blocked any outside view. Its focus was discipline, and it was instilled under many guises. Students were assigned a number; mine was 119. Woe betide him who forgot his number. Marching drills with rifles alternated with kickball played on a baseball diamond. Students wore starched white shirts with sharp grey and black uniforms topped by either a crushable garrison cap or a billed dress winter cap — and black patent leather shoes shined and buffed to perfection.

My father retired from AIC in 1955 because of failing health. It wasn’t just the malaria. He returned home one afternoon looking very serious. Mama told us not to disturb him; he’d been diagnosed with a heart condition, angina pectoris, and would henceforth have to take dynamite pills. I was incredulous that dynamite could be used as a medicine. He was also advised to give up smoking.

I watched Pop go into the living room farthest from the center of the house, sit down, and pull out his pack of unfiltered Pall Malls. He stuck a cigarette in his mouth, lit it with his Ronson pocket lighter, and took a big drag.

I didn’t understand.

“He’s enjoying his last smoke,” my mother whispered. After he was done, he got up, threw the remainder of the pack away, and became his old, cheerful self. He never smoked again. It was a lesson in self-discipline I never forgot.

Pop was only 57 when he retired from AIC, but he was full of dreams still unfulfilled. Politically he was a moderate social democrat. He was one of those extremely successful capitalists with a strong sense of noblesse oblige — he wanted to do good while doing well. So he introduced the 1950s version of the Model-T Ford to Cuba: the Volkswagen bug.

VW’s first Latin American foray had been in Brazil, where the bug became very popular. Pop’s Autos Volkwagen de Cuba S.A. building, a combination showroom and mechanical plant, was outside Havana, near Rancho Boyeros, the airport (now Jose Marti), and Mazorra, the insane asylum. Pop was proud of his new venture and took us all to tour it. In the spirit of things, he sold our Ford Fairlane and brought home a red and white VW microbus. Such a strange-looking contraption! And so much fun! We loved to ride around in it. In no time he had orders from tour companies who wanted to use the multi-seated vans — with sun roofs — for sight-seeing groups. Even Fidel Castro got to test-drive one of these new “People’s Car."

Pop wanted to do good while doing well. So he introduced the 1950s version of the Model-T Ford to Cuba: the Volkswagen bug.

Early after the triumph of the Revolution, before the sugar cane curtain descended, before the endless rationing queues and shortages taught Cubans the lost virtue of patience, before the busybodies of the neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution killed all spontaneity and much of the nation’s humor, before physical and moral despair enveloped the island, while he was still popular, even idolized, Fidel Castro liked to appear in public unpredictably, followed — of course — by his retinue of guards. It wasn’t just vanity; he wanted to keep his finger on the pulse of the progress of the Revolution.

Dropping into a restaurant, he struck up a conversation with a pretty girl nicknamed Kika. One thing led to another, and he ended up going home with her in her VW bug, surrounded by his caravan of vehicles full of guards.

“You’re a very good driver,” Fidel told her, but added that the Bug was uncomfortable for anyone over six feet tall. The primus inter pares was too big for a proletarian car. Nonetheless, he was impressed. In the famous speech he delivered in March 1959, the one during which a white dove alighted on his shoulder, Fidel promised every Cuban a Volkswagen Beetle. Whether this would have been a windfall or a disaster — windfall if Castro bought the cars, disaster if he confiscated them for distribution — Pop’s reaction to Castro’s pledge went unrecorded.

But to return to the age before Castro: Batista, to improve his poll ratings, decided to amnesty all political prisoners. On May 15, 1955 Castro was released. In June he flew to Mexico to lick his wounds, reorganize, and plan an invasion of Cuba. One year later, on November 24, 1956, he sailed for Cuba with 82 men aboard the critically overloaded yacht Gramma.A week later they landed on the southwest coast of Cuba. Only a dozen survived or evaded capture. Those 12 men made their way into the Sierra Maestra mountains, regrouped, and rebuilt a force that would soon become a minor thorn in the government’s side. That thorn slowly infected and spread sickness to the entire island.

But I wasn’t aware of any of that. I was now old enough for my first communion, a Catholic ritual that marked entry into the age of reason, when a child was old enough to cope with the mystery of transubstantiation and understand that the bread and wine ingested at communion were the body and blood of Christ — literally. It would be many years later that, as an anthropologist, I would interpret communion as ritualized, symbolic cannibalism, a practice shared by many religions. But for now, I was torn by conflicting emotions.

Wine! I’d get to drink wine! At dinner, Pop already let me sip his Hatuey beer, a bottle of which always accompanied his meal. I was ambivalent about its taste, mostly just wanting to imitate and bond with my father. But wine! That was some real grownup stuff.

On the other hand, I was filled with foreboding at the gravity of the holy sacrament and my responsibility to do my best in the eyes of God. Unfortunately, this required participation in another sacrament: confession. I’d been taught that, when confessing one’s sins to a priest, two things were essential: full disclosure and full contrition. It was never easy for me, especially if I thought the priest knew me. I didn’t mind God knowing my sins, but another person? Especially one who was my teacher at St. Thomas Military Academy, where the event would take place? It seemed an undignified violation of one’s sovereignty, but one which I soldiered up to . . .

. . . Until I came up with a brilliant idea for my confirmation a year or two later, an idea somehow, no doubt, inherited from Pop’s affinity for accountancy.

I didn’t mind God knowing my sins, but another person? Especially one who was my teacher at St. Thomas Military Academy?

Confirmation, a rite-of-passage meant to ratify and seal the Catholic faith in the recipient, is an acknowledgement of the child’s doctrinal maturity. I was going to become a foot soldier of Christ, and I took my prospective responsibilities very seriously, especially since the sacrament was going to be administered by a bishop, my first ever contact with a Prince of the Church. The ceremony took place at our parish church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help of the Redemptorial Fathers.

For that confession, instead of divulging every sordid detail, I’d tally the number of violations against each commandment and present the results as if they were on a ledger: “Bless me father, for I have sinned,” I’d begin, followed by:

1st Commandment: no sins
2nd Commandment: no sins
3rd Commandment: no sins
4th Commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother”: no sins

(Had I known that Catholic doctrine includes, by extension, siblings, a confession of these transgressions would have been in the double, perhaps triple digits.)

5th Commandment: no sins
6th Commandment (“Thou shalt not commit fornication”): 20 sins
7th Commandment: no sins
8th Commandment: no sins
9th Commandment: no sins
10th Commandment: 2 sins

(Not being able to distinguish between greed, envy, and admiration, I always admitted to a couple of sins in this category, just to be sure I covered all my bases.)

Notice the 6th Commandment.

* * *

Life was perfect. It was a timeless time, a time to explore life. The hands-off parenting really suited me. No rules were imposed other than being home for dinner on time, never lying or stealing, and getting As in school. I had the run of the neighborhood, and it was the perfect neighborhood for a kid to have the run of. Four parallel dead-end streets, accessed from a marginal avenue with little traffic, butted up to a tributary barranca of the Almendares River. A continuous concrete wall, doubled at the street ends with a concrete barrier, separated the 200-foot precipice from the homes, empty lots, and dead-end streets atop the highest ground in the city, Alturas del Vedado. Kids didn’t stray far. All the routes on the other three sides out of the neighborhood led downhill and into congestion.

Three blocks away stood the Parque Zoologico — the zoo, actually the zoo park, because it wasn’t just a zoo; it included large playgrounds with swing sets, slides, and sandy play areas. Carmen, our tata, would often take us there to pass the time. Those times always included the awkward experience of “making friends” — meeting up with kids you didn’t know, or barely knew; kids you hadn’t been introduced to; little strangers whom you didn’t know whether you wanted to know at all; little kid bodies that hid cruel little bullies inside that were impossible to escape from once engaged; but whom, if you didn’t make some sort of connection with, you’d be stuck playing with your sister or, even worse, stuck playing with your sister and the little girls she’d managed to befriend. Anyway you looked at it, it was pure hell for a shy, private little boy.

A giant entry moat full of fat, catatonic crocodiles guarded the park entrance. We’d throw kilos — pennies — onto their hides to get them to stir. None ever did. One could roughly estimate a croc’s last move from the number of pennies on its back. Once we spied one so laden that the kilos added up to near a peso, so we alerted the keeper that he was dead. The keeper laughed, saying that that giant was particularly lazy.

Zoo visits were always a treat, in spite of the disconcerting social scene. The roasted peanuts vendor sold a hot, paper cone-full for un medio — a nickel. Once, when Pop took me there, he stopped at a roadside cafecito stand for a sweet Cuban espresso on our way back home. The attendant eyed me to see if the order was for two. I looked at Pop silently asking if it would be all right if I had a demitasse. He ignored the silly question. Today we were two men, sharing a drink. Though my siblings and I, seven-, six-, and three-year-old children, already drank café con leche for breakfast, it was my first shot of 100-proof Cuban espresso. We each had two.

A giant entry moat full of fat, catatonic crocodiles guarded the park entrance.

Coca Cola was popular in Cuba at the time as it was in the US, a staple of Cuba Libres — rum and cokes — but kids gravitated toward Malta, a thick, rich, very sweet, carbonated malt soft drink — somewhat like a Guinness without the alcohol and lots of sugar — or Ironbeer, a soft drink still very popular in Latin America. Coke was, however, reserved as a special treat when mixed with condensed milk — a nectar imbibed only at home or when one was a guest.

After the US embargo was instituted and Coke was no longer available, the Cuban government created TuKola, bottled and sold by the Cerveceria Bucanero. Someone ought to have been investigated for subversion, or an excessive sense of humor. Tu cola means, literally, your tail, or more accurately, your butt. Because of the Cuban obsession with glutei, it has become an endless source of catcalls, innuendos, and, now, very old jokes.

A cast of colorful characters plied their trades on our streets, either with horse-drawn carts or pushcarts. “Granizado, granizado!” The shaved ice vendor would clarion. He was my favorite, followed by the ice cream man. Un medio, a nickel, was always forthcoming from Abuela, and would buy anything I wanted. We ignored the tamale man, Cuban tamales being somewhat bland, with the pork chunks mixed in with the corn meal.

Early in the morning — earlier than I was usually up — the bread vendor would come by. Little Patsy’s preferred breakfast was a fresh roll smothered in olive oil accompanied by café con leche, hot milk and coffee in equal amounts, with lots of sugar. Nani and I, introduced to scrambled eggs, wouldn’t eat them without ketchup (a condiment we also liberally poured on black beans and rice).

The produce cart appeared in mid-morning, with mostly local goods: “Malanga! Boniato! Mamey! Mango! Guanabana! Frutabomba! Yuca! Platanos verdes y maduros! Piña! Kimbombo!” The vendor would shout, never missing an item. Sometimes I’d accompany the cook out to the cart to watch the transaction and help carry the produce in.

I remember the lottery vendor, a staple of the Cuban street scene, appearing at our back door only once. He never returned. Either the gambling bug hadn’t hit our household staff, or he was asked not to come back.

During mosquito season, a fumigating jeep plied the neighborhood roads, fogging entire blocks with the sweet-smelling DDT. I was fascinated by the process, knowing that the fog was poisonous, yet widely and regularly used. At night, we slept under white mosquito nets, made bearable when the new, window-model air conditioners were installed.

The local cop, a pasty-faced, pudgy cherub with the ubiquitous pencil-thin mustache, made no enemies, but he kept a sharp eye on the neighborhood. He once picked me up after dark — I must have been nine years old — during that fateful week in 1958 between Christmas and New Year’s when Batista had fled Cuba but the rebels hadn’t yet reached Havana. For those few days Cuba had no government, and it wasn’t a good time to wander the streets after dark with a gun to make you a target.

During mosquito season, a fumigating jeep plied the neighborhood roads, fogging entire blocks with the sweet-smelling DDT.

But not everyone on the streets was, to me, a welcome sight. Gerardito was my neighborhood bête noir. A bit older than I was, he always approached with a wry smile — a conman’s smile — and engaged me with some line or other until he could trip me up. Then he’d pounce. The first time he tried talking me into tasting an habanero pepper right off the vine, saying it was delicious. Since Cubans don’t eat and are not familiar with chilies — the cuisine being more Spanish than Mexican — and at eight years of age I wasn’t a fan of raw vegetables, I didn’t bite. When he became pushily insistent and wouldn’t take a bite himself, I suspected something was up. Finally, he grabbed a pepper and squished it all over my face, concentrating on my mouth and eyes.

He didn’t laugh. He just watched me scream and run away. Secure bullies simply enjoy the quiet satisfaction of success.

The next time I saw him, he had a broomstick in his hand. One end was whittled to a dull point. I immediately ran away. But being bigger and older, he caught up with me. As I struggled to escape, he rammed the stick into my right nipple, repeating, “See what happens when you run away from me?”

The injury soon festered and grew so large that Mina called our doctor. Dr. Ferrara came right away, diagnosed a cyst, and declared it had to be removed in a hospital. It was my first operation with full anesthesia. Years later, in American schools, I’d be asked why I had only half a nipple. “I was caught up in a street fight in Cuba during the Revolution,” I’d respond.

Later, after the Revolution had triumphed, Gerardito adjusted well. He was the only kid we knew with an electric toy car, one you could actually ride in. Carnival, at the beginning of Lent, was a big affair — as it still is in New Orleans and Brazil. In Cuba, where ancestral Spanish ties were still strong, clubs and associations based on the region of Spain from which one’s family hailed — Asturias, Valencia, etc. — would sponsor Carnival floats, marching bands, bagpipers, commercial displays, dance troupes, and just about any homegrown spectacle that would instill pride and provide delight. Children would dress up in regional Iberian costumes, complete with mantillas, castanets, and painted-on mustaches.

In 1959, Gerardito broke with tradition. Riding solitary between floats in his little electric car, he’d dressed up as Castro, with a fake white dove of peace attached to his epaulet, and a vain, arrogant smirk on his face. Fidel wouldn’t have objected.

For those few days Cuba had no government, and it wasn’t a good time to wander the streets after dark with a gun to make you a target.

Our household staff managed to be more inconspicuous yet more informal than most servants in more temperate climes. Carmen, Nana’s and my tata, was thin as a sugarcane stalk, dark haired, and with a face lined by country living that did not reveal her age. She was very relaxed but serious. After Pop, Mina, and we kids left the country, our house became the property of “The People.” It was deemed too large for Abuela, the single resident — according to the new regime’s housing laws. So our grandmother invited Carmen and her entire family to move in. They did, and were allowed to remain. Carmen sent us letters every month or two, keeping us informed on the condition of Abuela and the house.

When January of 1958 dawned, it only hinted at what the future held for the island. The previous year had been pretty uneventful, except in two important respects.

Throughout 1957, Fidel Castro’s 12 men — reduced to nine soon after landing — had managed to entrench themselves in the Sierra Maestra mountains in Oriente Province, on the western extremity of Cuba’s easternmost province, grow to a respectable force, and even win a few skirmishes. But they had gained little ground.

They were lucky. Batista had been tipped off about the landing and had sent the army and air force to welcome them. With a casualty rate of 73 men out of 82, armed forces commanders were convinced that the invaders had been neutralized. They radioed headquarters that Castro and his men had been annihilated. As far as the government was concerned, no follow-up action was required, and Castro was left alone to reorganize.

Two weeks later, Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times made his way into the Sierra Maestra and interviewed Castro in his redoubt. The interview and storybrought Fidel Castro to the attention of the world with both print inchage and television footage. It was the moment when Castro stepped onto the world stage — and into people’s hearts and imaginations. Matthews portrayed the bearded rebel as serious, humble, honest, and idealistic, a role Fidel fitted — or played — to a tee.

Still, various attempts at widening the struggle had failed. The next year, however, was another story.

On January 31, 1958, an expeditionary force of 16 men and one woman, with a large quantity of arms, left Miami in a small yacht, the Thor II. They landed near Nuevitas, in Camagüey province, in the middle of the island, where Cuba’s northernmost coast protrudes up like a dowager’s hump. They broke up into smaller units and, with the aid of supporters and new recruits, began the arduous, 120-mile march into the Escambray mountains, due south, near the southern coast of the island. Along the way they engaged two army units, one by ambush.

Under the joint command of Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, a Spaniard whose family were Republican veterans of the Spanish Civil War, and William Morgan, an idealistic American soldier of fortune, the men reached their new base of operations in the mountains within a few weeks. At the end of February they published their Escambray Manifesto, laying out the objectives of their movement.

A second front, completely independent of Castro and his July 26 Movement — but with common cause — was now established.

Aqui, Radio Rebelde, la voz de la Sierra Maestra!” The voice of the Revolution, set up by Che Guevara, began broadcasting in February. Between 5 pm and 9 pm, all of Cuba listened in to the daily battle accounts and Fidel’s speeches. Rumors that anyone listening would be arrested and tortured dissuaded no one, and only titillated audiences. Listening in made everyone feel like a participant in the Revolution; it made people feel that they were getting away with something — a hard-to-resist guilty pleasure.

We didn’t need Radio Rebelde to tell us about the bold incursion of M26 — as Castro’s rebel movement was known — into central Havana that February. It was all over the news. Two men had gone into the Lincoln Hotel and kidnapped Juan Manuel Fangio, the Argentine Formula One world champion racecar driver. Although semi-retired, he was in Cuba for the island’s Grand Prix. Fangio had dominated the first decade of Formula One racing,winning the World Drivers' Championship five times, thus making a record that stood for 47 years. To the boys at St. Thomas, he was a big celebrity, and it was all we could talk about.

It was the moment when Castro stepped onto the world stage — and into people’s hearts and imaginations.

The kidnapping was meant to embarrass the Batista regime by canceling the Cuba Grand Prix. But Batista insisted that the event go on. Police set up roadblocks and checkpoints everywhere, but Fangio could not be found. The rebels treated him well, installing him in comfortable quarters and allowing him to monitor the race on the radio. They tried to win him over to their revolutionary plans, with very limited success, since the Argentine was apolitical. After 29 hours Fangio was released, after forging friendships with the young idealists.

The publicity stunt was a great success. Fidel Castro and the July 26 Movement were on everyone’s lips — and not just as a distant guerrilla effort. The kidnappers were never found, adding to a growing perception of the regime’s incompetence. Public opinion sensed that Batista was losing his grip on power.

In March, Fidel Castro took another big gamble: he divided his forces and started another front in Oriente. Raul Castro, with a force of 60 men, marched east of the Sierra Maestra to the Sierra Cristal on Oriente’s north coast, opening up the Frank Pais — a third front — in the war against Batista. The revolution was morphing into a real war.




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The Few, the Proud, the Insufferably Entitled

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Students at the University of Oregon have demanded that a quotation by Martin Luther King, Jr., be removed from the wall of their student union building because King’s remarks were not “inclusive” enough. The offending words? “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream . . .”

It seems that King did not acknowledge the LGBT community when he argued for racial equality, and that makes him privileged and insensitive. So, off with his head — and his quotation.

Never mind that King was risking his own life to lead the way for racial equality (a risk that ended in his murder). Never mind that he was a minority voice with no political power save the art of persuasion. Never mind that his dream of his children being judged by the content of their character can include minorities of all kinds, or that the LGBT community and the feminist movements were blazing trails of their own at the time. King is privileged and insensitive for not including them specifically.

When you’re blazing a trail, you cut away the biggest obstacles first, and leave the paving of the road for those who come behind.

Change is a process. You install new carpet and then realize the walls need new paint, which makes the curtains look dingy so you replace those, and before long you have a whole new room of furniture. Yet these same students who are so self-righteously criticizing the leaders of the past have no idea whose rights they are ignoring — or even trampling — today.

It was, in fact, Oregon students who 30 years ago demanded that the university replace its motto, “Leader in the quest for the good life for all men,” with the King quotation, after feminists objected that the motto did not include women. Too bad they didn’t think of the LGBT community back then. (And too bad they didn’t realize that the word “men” originally was inclusive of both genders.) The point is, when you’re blazing a trail, you cut away the biggest obstacles first, and leave the paving of the road for those who come behind. It’s a process, not a destination.

This same criticism is made against the Founding Fathers because they did not address the slavery issue when they declared independence from Great Britain. And yes, they were Founding Fathers. Not a single woman signed the Declaration. But that doesn’t mean women weren’t involved. They were managing family farms, running family businesses, overseeing their children’s education, maintaining home security, and ensuring there would be enough income and capital to allow their husbands to focus on freedom. These were partnerships, even if the women’s names didn’t appear on the documents.

I dream of a time when people will be judged by the culture of their own times, and not by the social progress of the future.

Should they have emancipated the slaves at the same time? From our perspective, of course. But the country wasn’t ready for that much change. Slavery had been an economic institution for millennia, and few people realized that you could persuade people to do the grunt work without a whip, simply by paying them a good wage. It was a revolutionary idea to think that a country could be governed of, by, and for the people without a monarch in charge. To proclaim that everyone had been born with certain inalienable rights took six bloody years to prove. They blazed the trail. Blacks and then women would pave it.

I dream of a time when people will be judged by the culture of their own times, and not by the social progress of the future. I forgive the imperfections of past leaders, because they were blazing new trails for me, cutting through oppressive underbrush and battling archaic beliefs, so that I could travel their broad highways while searching for new trails to blaze.




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