Friday, November 4, 2011

This Woman Was a Prophet

Ellen Willis's writings are trickling onto a Tumblr run by her daughter, though the links keep breaking almost as soon as they are linked. But it gives me the chance to see some of her articles I hadn't seen before, like this New York Press piece on the Elian Gonzalez controversy. For those who've forgotten the case, five-year-old Elian was rescued from the waters off Florida after his mother and several other adult Cubans had drowned trying to reach the US. His parents were separated and his father, back in Cuba, hadn't consented to the project, so he demanded Elian's return, with Cuban government support. US Immigration ruled that Elian should go home, but his relatives and other Cuban exiles in Miami created a political circus that raged for seven months. In the end, federal agents raided his great-uncle's house in Miami just before dawn, took the boy, and returned him to his father.

I remember it vividly because I happened to be visiting a friend with a TV that weekend, so I saw the coverage. It occurred to me that perhaps the raid went so smoothly (and it did: no one was hurt, and despite theatrical wailing from his great-aunt, Elian was found and rescued without difficulty) because a deal had been worked out between the government and the relatives, to save face for the latter. Why had they kept a little boy up all night, till 5 a.m.? How did an AP photographer get there so fast? (At first I thought he'd been there when the raid began, even more suspicious; but I was wrong.) The relatives had threatened armed resistance -- as Willis wrote, "Elian was both their prize and their hostage. They had no scruples about putting him in danger" -- but luckily those threats were empty. The friend I was staying with, a heterosexual of conservative politics with a father's-rights focus, was a bit conflicted: on one hand he thought Elian should be 'allowed' to stay in the Land of the Free; on the other, he thought his father's wish for his return trumped his relatives' wish to keep him with them. Another even more reactionary masculinist I knew felt the same way.

Anyway, it's history now, and little Elian is now grown up. This retrospective is amusing, though, for its blatant dishonesty:
As you can see, Elian looks like a normal boy. His cuteness factor though, has dwindled because of what he now stands for. But he's 16-years old so he can't be blamed; we can probably thank his country's government for corning him into that. While Elian Gonzalez and his family originally fled their native country to escape Fidel Castro's communist regime, these pictures were taken of him at a Young Communist Union meeting.
"Corning him into that"? I have no idea what that means, and I don't think I want to know. But it's false that "Elian and his family originally fled their native country," because Elian was only five (a five-year-old taken to Cuba by his mother -- without his father's knowledge! -- would not have been described in the US as having fled George Bush's imperialist regime), and his father remained in Cuba.

But back to Ellen Willis. What I want to pass along is her judgment on the Clinton administration, though Democrat-wise, not much has changed since then.

The far right has lost the culture war. Americans may be social conservatives, guilt-ridden about sex and self-righteous about the undeserving poor, but they don't like theocrats, sex police and antigovernment fanatics. Nor can they whip themselves into a frenzy about Castro, in this 11th year since the fall of the Berlin Wall. They much prefer Clinton's mushy corporate neoliberalism, not to mention his softer brand of masculinity. The irony is that Clinton, who thinks a principle is someone who runs a school, never met a reactionary he didn't want to appease. He has pandered to the right on family values and welfare. He has been its staunch ally on censorship and the drug war. He allowed the Elian crisis to burgeon out of control by not ordering [Janet] Reno to take action back in January. He stayed silent on Elian until the last possible minute and then spoke with all the passion of Alan Greenspan announcing a rise in the interest rate. Al Gore was even more pathetically eager to lie down for the Miami Cubans; never mind that he can expect as many votes from them as Giulani could from blacks in New York City. Hacking at a sponge with a razor blade, the right manages to look both ridiculous and insane. Yet somehow they keep afloat, waiting for their next chance at something like a coup.
I wonder what Willis (who died, too young, in 2006) would have to say about the Obama administration if she were still alive. (This 1992 letter to the New York Times on corporate violence is suggestive, as is this 1998 Nation piece on the need for a radical left movement.) Obama, too, never met a reactionary he didn't want to appease, and has pandered to the right when he hasn't been its staunch ally. I think Willis's reading of the American public is correct too; only a small, if vocal, fringe wants theocrats, sex police, and antigovernment fanatics in charge of the country. The Democrats continue to try to win these frothers over, instead of brushing them off, let alone confronting them, which turns off the majority. The hopeful sign is the recent emergence of a third option, not asking either party for its support. I'm not sure it will succeed, but it appears that the Occupy movement is not going to be intimidated by Red- or hippie-baiting, so it might manage to survive. And then we'll see.