What Do You Make of This?

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Years since the war in Afghanistan began: 17

Percentage of Afghanistan currently controlled or contested by the Taliban (most favorable estimate to the US): 44

Years since the war on drugs began: 104

Percentage of Americans 12 years of age or older who use illegal drugs (2016 estimate): 10.6

Years since the war on poverty began: 54

Money so far expended on the war on poverty (2014 estimate): $22 trillion

Percentage of Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 13

Percentage of African Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 22

National debt, 1970, as percentage of GDP: 35

National debt, 2017, as percentage of GDP: 104

Years served in the House of Representatives (5 samples):

  • Don Young, (R-AK): 45
  • Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI): 39
  • Steny Hoyer (D-MD, minority whip of the House): 37
  • Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, minority leader of the House): 31
  • Maxine Waters (D-CA): 27

Years served in the Senate (5 samples):

  • Patrick Leahy (D-VT): 43
  • Orrin Hatch (R-UT): 41
  • Mitch McConnell (Addison Mitchell McConnell, Jr., R-KY, majority leader of the Senate): 33
  • Diane Feinstein (D-CA): 26
  • Patty Murray (D-WA): 25

Total years of service of politicians just mentioned: 347

Members of Congress proficient in practical mathematics: no known instances




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Is the Libertarian Movement Moving Anymore?

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It’s been a long time since there was a new libertarian book I wanted to read. Or a libertarian argument I itched to join.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence. I think it peaked in the ’90s.

Think back on that time. In 1994 the Republicans rallied against Hillary Clinton’s health insurance plan and took back the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and with a staying power they hadn’t had in 70 years. Bill Clinton tacked to the right, famously saying in 1995, “The era of big government is over.” Whether or not Bill meant it, it meant something that he said it.

Politicians get their proposals from ideas current at the time. If the New Deal was socialistic, it was because in the first half of the last century, socialism was in the air. Similarly, Bill Clinton did some pro-market things in the ’90s that Democrats wouldn’t have done 70 years before.

Libertarian thought isn’t what it used to be. Nor libertarian influence.

The reigning ideas had changed. When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from the free-market economists, principally Martin Anderson and Milton Friedman. Starting under Jimmy Carter and continuing under Ronald Reagan, the federal government followed the advice of the economists and ripped away price and entry controls over airlines, trucking, and natural gas. It opened up the telephone industry to competition and removed interest-rate controls on banks. The New York Stock Exchange freed itself of controls on commissions. The Supreme Court freed professionals of controls on advertising. When unions failed to seed themselves in the new tech industries, they lost their grip on most of the private economy.

Under Clinton, the government supported the extension of private property into the radio spectrum and into the North Pacific fisheries for halibut and black cod. Clinton signed the Republicans’ North American Free Trade Agreement and the Republicans’ welfare reform.

In the last half of the ’90s came the dotcom boom. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and others became cultural figures in a way businessmen hadn’t since the 1920s. The Democrats were happy with the dotcom boom. Al Gore even claimed parenthood of the Internet.

When Richard Nixon got rid of the draft, the idea came from free-market economists.

All this was totally unlike the reigning Democratic thought of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s.

And in the ’90s there came peace. For the first time since Adolf Hitler, America had no enemy. That was a new thing, and a wonderful thing.

None of this is hardcore libertarianism, but think of what libertarianism really is. The essence of it is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life. Well, the biggest threat to private life is war. From 1940 through 1973, the military could pluck a young man out of private life against his will, put a gun in his hands and make him bellow, “Yes, Sir!” But even with the draft gone, war still skews thought and feeling. It limits what a society can afford, what it can allow, or even what it can discuss. Remember the time after Sept. 11, 2001.

Libertarians like to say their philosophy is about freedom, but it is a particular brand of freedom. The Left offers a brand of freedom: “Just let us control your work and property, and you can be free of worry about food, shelter, schooling, public transit, sickness, and old age.” The Left dismisses the libertarian’s freedom as “the freedom to starve” — which, among other things, it is. The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face. And if enough individuals crash and burn, people may decide the system that allows it is not worth it. The libertarian’s freedom requires a large dose of self-reliance — and in the ’90s, self-reliance was pushing forward with welfare reform and the most entrepreneurial economy since the 1920s.

The essence of libertarianism is that your life belongs to you, not the community. We celebrate the private life.

Regarding self-reliance, the frontier political struggle was for private accounts within Social Security. Here was a proposal to phase down payments out of a common pot under government control and phase in individual accounts under private control. Libertarian purists were prissy about it, because the individual’s control was going to be limited and the contributions would still be compulsory, but these are not realistic people, and nothing was ever going to satisfy them. The limited Social Security “privatization” would have been a big change, a culture-shifting change. The Left sensed how big it was, and denounced it in an emotional fury as a Wall Street plot to make financiers rich. And it wasn’t. I knew who the proponents were. I had interviewed some of them and written about them. I had read their books. They weren’t trying to make money; they were trying to make the world better. The most credible ones, the ones from the commercial world, made an economic case that had to do with individual wealth, not Wall Street’s profits. (For example, see The Real Deal: The History and Future of Social Security, bySylvester Schieber and John Shoven, published by Yale University Press in 1999.)

We forget that in the private sector, individual accounts did push aside “common-pot” pension plans. They’re called 401(k) plans. They increase the individual’s chance to gain and also his risk of loss — a net gain for self-reliance. They were put in by employers, not by employees. But with Social Security, the Democrats appealed to employees’ fear of loss, and the “privatizers” were defeated — decisively. Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s. And those who keep predicting that Social Security will fail are wrong. It won’t. Congress will fix it by raising taxes, probably by eliminating the cap on taxable income. If they have to, they’ll cut benefits in some gentle and technocratic way.

The freedom to venture out includes the freedom to fall on your face.

It has been years since Republicans talked about private accounts in Social Security. It’s a dead body they don’t want to be reminded of. Donald Trump vowed never to go near it, and he won’t.

The ’90s were the time of greatest libertarian momentum. By my reckoning, they ended with several events.

The first event was the protest against the World Trade Organization in my hometown, Seattle, on November 30, 1999. The Left came out — tens of thousands of them — against trade. I had imagined that the Left had withered away like the Marxian state, but I was wrong. They were here. They would come again in the Occupy Wall Street demos, and in the Bernie Sanders campaign, loud and obnoxious.

The second event was the end of the dotcom boom in early 2000. You can extend the rules of capitalism when there is a surplus of happiness. Not otherwise.

Given a choice, Americans stuck with the system designed in the 1930s.

The third event was the attacks of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

After the war came another recession, worse than the one before it. Bankers and capitalists were seen to be bad, and Alan Greenspan was ejected from the people’s hall of heroes.

And then came Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump.

Can anyone argue that we’re progressing?

Has there been a libertarian moment to compare with the ’90s? There were the campaigns of Ron Paul — which amounted to what? What did they achieve? Paul has not changed his party, as Barry Goldwater famously did. Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party, and into an anti-immigrant, anti-trade, resentful mess. Ron Paul’s son is still in the Senate, but one man does not a movement make. Note the exit of Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona — not a good omen.

George W. Bush wasn’t going to be a free-market president. He was going to be a war president, if he had to start one himself.

So where are we, now? Here in Seattle, with my city council putting a (since-retracted) head tax on Amazon in order to succor the squatters on public land — and passing out tax-funded vouchers to donate to dingbat political candidates — it feels like a socialist moment. I also read in the press that Democrats across the country have turned left, and are toying with such Bernie-style ideas as free college for everyone, Medicare for everyone, and a guaranteed job for everyone. There is even babbling out there for UBI — universal basic income.

For everyone.

Those are all hobgoblin ideas until you think of the typical American Democratic politician we all know trying to define them, sell them, and get the average American to love them and pay for them. I imagine that, and I feel better. I think the socialists are selling something Americans won’t want to buy.

Anyway, I hope so.




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Trump: Right on Iran?

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On May 8 President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). By doing so he isolated the US diplomatically (only Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some small states in the Persian Gulf support US abrogation of the agreement), and drew the ire of globalists, liberals, and the establishment media. But was Trump in fact right to pull out of the agreement?

I should mention that I have advocated détente with Iran since the 1990s. I even published an essay on the subject in Liberty back in March 2007 (“Engage Iran: A Way out of Iraq"). I still look upon the Iranian people as potentially our best friends in the Middle East. Iranians in general are more pro-Western than any of the Arab peoples. Sadly, we derailed Iran’s progress toward a western-style democracy when in 1953 we and the British overthrew the first and only democratic government in the country’s history. The Islamist tyranny that took over Iran in 1979 and still rules there today is the result of the coup d’état staged by the CIA and MI6.

The Iranian people are still potentially our best friends in the Middle East.

Obviously, we can’t turn back the clock. But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome. We did something like this with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, by denying it credits and technology transfers, and by luring it into an arms race it could never win. Trump, by abrogating the 2015 nuclear accord, has begun to take Iran policy in a similar direction.

Despite Trump’s fulminations against the 2015 accord, the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration wasn’t really a bad deal. It ended Iran’s covert program to develop a nuclear weapon. Some 97% of Iran’s nuclear material was removed from the country. The inspection regime was adequate, even robust in some respects. The main weakness of the agreement was that it allowed Iran to resume enriching uranium for peaceful purposes after a 15-year hiatus. Objectively speaking, however, this was not a sufficient reason for us to withdraw from the agreement only three years after it was signed — and particularly so since the other signatories had no intention of leaving with us.

But if there exists a reasonable chance of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship crumbling from within, then perhaps we should do what we can to facilitate that outcome.

A secondary purpose behind the agreement, as the Obama administration saw it, was to promote a thaw in US-Iranian relations, with the hope that before 15 years had passed we would witness the end of the Islamic Republic and the evolution of a moderate, pro-Western regime. It has to be said, however, that the current leadership of Iran has shown no signs of softening its anti-American views. At the same time, the lifting of most sanctions on Iran after the agreement was made provided the regime with some economic relief (the Iranian economy and financial system were definitely hurt by sanctions) — and political relief, too, in that the people felt that their lives would improve once sanctions were removed. The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Moreover, Iran has continued to expand its influence in the region — in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and as supporter of the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Iran’s activities threaten to destabilize the Middle East generally, and are particularly worrisome when it comes to Saudi Arabia, its rival across the Persian Gulf and our most important ally in the Arab world. Although the US no longer needs to import Middle East oil, a crisis in the Gulf or, worse, the collapse of the pro-American regime in the world’s largest oil producer would roil energy markets and indeed the world economy.

Equally important is the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has initiated a program of reform in the kingdom that holds out the prospects of, first, bringing Saudi Arabia into the 21st century and, second, ending the plague of Sunni jihadism that has infected Saudi society and large swathes of the Muslim world. If Prince Mohammed is successful in this, he will have rendered a service not only to his country and the region, but to humanity as a whole. The West has a big stake in his ultimate success.

The nuclear agreement was, arguably, a lifeline thrown to a regime that was already in the process of sinking.

Containing Iran is good for almost everybody – including, ultimately, the Iranian people. The only loser would be the Iranian regime itself. Supporting a reformist Saudi regime against Iranian mischief may help damp down Islamic radicalism and terrorism worldwide. And re-imposing sanctions on Iran, as Trump has done, may be the final straw that breaks the back of a regime beset by enormous economic problems.

I could never be a Trump supporter. His personality, behavior, and many of his policies are anathema to me. He has shown no real understanding of the nuclear agreement that he decided to tear up. That said, abrogating the agreement and reimposing sanctions on Iran seems to me a legitimate geostrategic play which, if it succeeds, will have enormous benefits for the US, the world, and, it is to be hoped, the Iranian people. With his dramatic move on May 8 Trump may very well have stumbled into the right policy.




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Cuba, Race, Revolution, and Revisionism

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When Cuba’s serial and multiple African military interventions began in 1963 with Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence from Portugal, Fidel Castro selected black Cuban soldiers and conscripts to man his liberation regiments. Dead black bodies in Africa were less likely to be identified as Cuban, according to Norberto Fuentes, Castro’s resident writer and — at the time — official biographer, confidant, and a participant in the later Angolan wars.

Cuba’s African — and Latin American — adventures were made possible by agreements reached among the USSR, Cuba, and the United States to end the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. One of those protocols was a promise from the US that it would respect Cuban sovereignty and refrain from invading the island. To Castro, this was a green light to build Cuba’s armed forces for the liberation of the world’s downtrodden instead of having to concentrate his resources for the defense of the island.

Ochoa was the only subordinate who could speak uninhibitedly with, and even kid or tease, the humorless, haughty, and overbearing Fidel Castro.

However, when it came to deploying his black brigades, Castro found himself short of black commanders. Enter Arnaldo (“Negro”) T. Ochoa Sánchez.

Ochoa had been part of Castro's 26th of July Movement ever since its creation, and by March 1957 he had joined Castro's guerrilla army in the Sierra Maestra, fighting against the Batista dictatorship. It was then that Ochoa and Raúl Castro forged a close friendship, one that also led to a certain intimacy with Raúl’s brother, Fidel. According to Fuentes, in his book Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, Ochoa was the only subordinate he knew who could speak uninhibitedly with, and even kid or tease, Fidel Castro — a humorless, haughty, and overbearing caudillo.

Ochoa, of humble Oriente peasant origins, had distinguished himself in the Revolution and during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, subsequently attending the Matanzas War College and Frunze Military Academy in the Soviet Union and rising to the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee. But he really distinguished himself in the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict. Cuba aided Ethiopia in this USSR vs. China proxy war, since both boasted Marxist regimes. Ochoa brilliantly defeated the Somalis in the tank battle of the Ogaden. For that he was dubbed “the Cuban Rommel.”

The problem was that Ochoa wasn’t really “black,” a racial classification that could apply to almost anyone in Cuba, especially if one uses the rule of thumb once common in the United States: that anyone with any black ancestry, no matter how distant or dilute, is black. (This author’s DNA test reveals a 1–3% West African ancestry, a detail not noticeable in his phenotype.) Ochoa is very swarthy, in a Mediterranean sort of way; yet his phenotype fails to show any classic “Negroid” features. It was Raúl Castro who nicknamed him Negro (black) by bestowing on him a promotion to “Black” General. The Armed Forces Minister wanted a black commander for the black troops he sent to Africa because he lacked a qualified, real black general who would realize both his political and his military objectives.

Ochoa brilliantly defeated the Somalis in the tank battle of the Ogaden. For that he was dubbed “the Cuban Rommel.”

Now, Cuba’s armed forces actually did include black commanders, among them General Víctor Schueg Colás (see below) and Juan Almeida Bosque. Almeida was a veteran of the assault on the Moncada Army barracks that launched the 26th of July Movement. Along with the Castros, Almeida was caught, imprisoned, amnestied, and exiled to Mexico after that defeat. He was on the Granma yacht as it landed survivors in Cuba, and he fought against Batista in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Later he was promoted to head of the Santiago Column of the Revolutionary Army. Wikipedia, without any sense of irony, says that “he served as a symbol for Afro-Cubans of the rebellion's break with Cuba's discriminatory past.” In his book Como Llegó la Noche, Huber Matos, third in command of the Revolutionary armies after Fidel and Raúl — though later to be purged — describes Almeida as unsuited for military command, a “yes” man. He says that Fidel kept him purely for his loyalty and as a symbol of the Revolution’s inclusiveness of Afro-Cubans. Almeida was the only black commander during the Revolution. He was Fidel Castro’s token black.

Ochoa took the nickname Negro in stride and probably even affectionately, fully understanding the political rationale behind the dubbing. In this author’s opinion, his attitude towards race (and by extension, Fuentes’ attitude) is pretty representative of one general streak of Cuban racial attitudes. Here is my translation of Norberto Fuentes’ description of Ochoa’s reaction to the moniker:

Ochoa, besides being mestizo, was very obstinate. When anyone alluded to Raúl’s reason for the nickname — that the Minister didn’t have any competent, real black generals — Ochoa would begin to vigorously shake his head. And he would continue this stubbornness even when reminded of General Víctor Schueg Colás — el Negro Chué — as he was generally known: a black Cuban general.

Ochoa responded that “el Negro Chué was not a negro who was a general.”

“And what kind of BS is that, Arnaldo?” asked a member of the group.

“He is a general who is black, and that’s not the same thing as a black who is a general.”

For a second I [Fuentes] thought Ochoa was about to write a second volume to Alex Haley’s Roots. My mind reviewed the list of black Cuban generals.

“And what about Kindelán? And Silvano Colás? And Moracén? And Calixto García? And Francis?” I challenged him.

“None of those are either generals or black,” he declared.

“But then what the fuck are they, Arnaldo?”

“Fictions, my friend. Nothing more than nonsense,” he blithely answered.

If you, dear reader, can’t make sense of that, don’t worry. It’s Ochoa’s way of saying that race doesn’t matter, that race is irrelevant, that concerns about race are nonsense. One Cuban-American academic, quoted in Guarione Diaz’ The Cuban American Experience: Issues, Perceptions and Realities, averring that humor is an essential trait of the Cuban personality, describes the archetypal Cuban as “one who jokes about serious matters while taking jokes seriously.” In that vein, there is a deeper intent in Ochoa’s flippancy that Fuentes, in a stream of consciousness rant, then goes on to elaborate.

The Castros were recapitulating the trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse: shackled by the ideological chains of a monomaniacal dictator and sent back to Africa.

His idea is that Ochoa, in his own irreverent way, was seeking redemption for the tragedy of Cuba’s “stoical, forced, brave, sweet and immense blacks” who had to carry — since 1965 — the full brunt of the Revolutionary Armed Forces’ guerrilla campaigns in Africa, because the Castros believed that dead black bodies in Africa couldn’t really be traced back to Cuba. They didn’t contemplate any POWs.

In Fuentes’ view, the Castros were recapitulating the trans-Atlantic slave trade in reverse: two centuries ago, in physical chains across the Atlantic to the Americas; in the late 20th century, shackled by the ideological chains of a monomaniacal dictator and sent back to Africa.

To Ochoa, race was a trivial issue; to the Castros it was an essential component of their revolutionary tool kit in their struggle for universal social justice. When, according to Diaz, Cubans began leaving the island in droves to escape the repressive regime, “the revolutionary government denied exit visas to Blacks more than to Whites to show the international community that Cuban Blacks supported the revolution and did not flee Cuba.”

Castro himself, coming down to Girón, interrogated the black prisoners — just before their sham execution — accusing them of treason both to their country and to their race.

The Castros’ revisionist racial attitude reared its ugly head again during the Bay of Pigs fiasco when the invading members of Brigade 2506 surrendered or were captured. Black prisoners were singled out for extra abuse. They were perceived as traitors since, in the Castro calculus, the Revolution had been fought — in part — for them. Haynes Johnson, in his book, The Bay of Pigs: The Leaders’ Story, adds that “of all prisoners, Negroes received the worst treatment.” They didn’t fit Castro’s Revolutionary narrative, and their presence on the invasion force infuriated him. He himself, coming down to Girón, interrogated them — just before their sham execution — accusing them of treason both to their country and to their race. Osmany Cienfuegos, a Minister in Castro’s government and brother of Revolutionary Commander Camilo Cienfuegos, second in popularity only to Fidel, lined them up against a wall and told them: “We’re going to shoot you now, niggers, then we’re going to make soap out of you.”

One notable exchange during the prisoners’ trial was with Tomás Cruz, a paratrooper of the 1st Battalion. “You, negro, what are you doing here?” Castro asked, reminding Cruz that the Revolution had been fought for people like him, and of the swimming restrictions at some tourist resort hotels before the Revolution (a pathetic concession to attract American tourists).

Cruz, with all the dignity he could muster, responded, “I don’t have any complex about my color or my race. I have always been among the white people, and I have always been as a brother to them. And I did not come here to go swimming.”

Black is White and White is Black

Broadly speaking, in Cuba, race — in this context meaning skin color — is a relatively unimportant issue, on par with other physical traits such as weight, height, pulchritude, hair color, and even disposition. Unlike in the US, where large proportions of black people distinguish themselves from the broader population with distinctive clothing, hair styles, music, linguistic flourishes, political attitudes, and other traits, all kinds of Cubans share cultural values, patois, styles of dress, music, etc. Even religious affiliation, which in the Unites States often makes a visible difference between the races, tends toward a high degree of syncretism, with ancestral roots and beliefs to the fore instead of any racial overtones — a theme that the Castro regime has falsely exploited by preferential treatment of Santeria over other religions, treating it as compensation to a previously “oppressed” race (in Castro’s revisionist ideology). American hypersensitivity to race is unknown in Cuba.

In Cuba, slaves could marry, own personal property, testify in court, and run businesses.

But how did race virtually disappear as a contentious issue in Cuba, while persisting until modern times in the United States — especially considering that the former eliminated slavery 21 years after the latter?

In spite of the awful conditions of the sugarcane fields, slavery under Spanish colonial rule was nothing like what it had become in the United States by the eve of the Civil War. According to historian Jaime Suchlicki in Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond, “Spanish law, the Catholic religion, the economic condition of the island, and the Spanish attitude toward the blacks all contributed to aid the blacks’ integration into Cuban society.” After all, the Spanish had lived for centuries under the comparatively tolerant rule of Moors.

In the American south, negritude — to any degree, i.e., the notorious “one drop rule” enacted in several states — equated skin color with a deprivation of rights. In Cuba, slaves could marry, own personal property, testify in court, and run businesses. One 18th-century observer noted that many had become skilled craftsmen, “not only in the lowest [trades] such as shoemakers, tailors, masons and carpenters, but also in those which require more ability and genius, such as silversmith’s craft, sculpture, painting and carving.”

Joining the US became a nonstarter during the US Civil War when Cubans realized how badly Negroes were treated in the South.

Additionally, Spain’s liberal manumission policy “resulted in almost 40% of African-Cubans being free in 1792,” reports Andro Linklater in his book on the evolution of private property, Owning the Earth. The diverging legal and social attitudes toward race in Cuba and in the US presaged future developments in each country. The paradoxical contrasts are striking. Whereas Reconstruction in the US institutionalized policies that had grown more nakedly racist since Independence — equating skin color with the presence or absence of rights and talents — the opposite was true in Cuba. Under the influence of the Catholic Church, the fundamental humanity of Africans was uncontroversially established early on; slavery and skin color were philosophically separated. In the time of Cuba’s Wars of Independence, Antonio Maceo, an Afro-Cuban, became second-in-command of the rebel armies.

At about the time of these wars, a notable segment of Cuban intellectuals favored the Texas model: declare independence from the colonial power and petition the US Congress for admission to the Union. The idea was so popular that the proposed Cuban flag was modeled on the Texas flag: a single star on the left, stripes on the right, and the whole rendered in red, white, and blue. However, joining the US became a nonstarter during the US Civil War when Cubans realized how badly Negroes were treated in the South. It wasn’t just the exploitation of slaves (which also happened in Cuba), but rather the contempt for dark skin color that denied a person’s humanity.

Cuba has always had an amorphous racial climate, one mostly misunderstood or puzzling to Americans. Racism, in the sense of hating or fearing a person for his skin color, is unknown. Skin color was never an impediment to respect. But skin tone snobbery (rarely surpassing trivial tut-tutting or even semi-serious priggishness) was not uncommon. Color gradations, like degrees of body mass index ranging from the skeletal to the morbidly obese, extended into categories of people Americans would consider “white,” with the too-pale also looked at askance, as if they were anemic and rickety.

Fulgencio Batista, while president, was denied membership in the Havana Yacht Club: he was considered too swarthy; although his son, Jorge Luis, was admitted. That he didn’t take the rejection personally and, as a dictator, did not take reprisals, is inconceivable to an American. Instead, the president donated a marina to the Havana Biltmore Yacht & Country Club, as swanky a venue if not more, and, voila! he and his family became members of that club.

Racism, in the sense of hating or fearing a person for his skin color, is unknown in Cuba. Skin color was never an impediment to respect.

This nonchalant — politically-correct Americans might say insensitive — attitude is related to Cubans’ tendency to nickname everyone, even strangers. A person with epicanthic folds will be called Chino, a very black man Negro, a fat person Gordo (my own nickname after immigration), a starkly white-skinned person Bolita de Nieve (Snowball), a skinny woman Flaca, a large-nosed man Ñato, a full-lipped person Bembo (hence, Negro Bembón for a full-lipped black man), a pug-nosed man Chato . . . You get the picture.

But the irreverence also gets manifested post-ironically, in the same vein as Ochoa’s nonchalant whimsy: a very black man might be nicknamed Blanco or Bolita de Nieve, a fat woman Flaca (skinny), and so on.

My favorite example of this is Luis Posada Carriles’ nickname. Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile militant, is considered a terrorist by the FBI. He is generally thought to be responsible for the bombing of Cubana flight 455 in 1976, which killed 73, including 24 members of Cuba’s National Fencing Team. In addition, Posada Carriles is said to have been involved in the planning of six bombings at Havana hotels and restaurants during 1997. His rap sheet is much too long repeat here. Posada Carriles’ nickname? Bambi.

But I digress. Overtones of Americans’ racial (a term I hesitate to use, as you’ll see below) attitudes are making inroads into the Cuban-American experience. One white Cuban-American informant admitted to being fearful of and avoiding groups of black men after dark in the US, a behavior that had never crossed his mind back in Cuba. Would one call his reaction in the US “racism”? I wouldn’t. I’d call it adaptability based on experience, a phenomenon that black economist Thomas Sowell has explicitly addressed in his writings.

The Color of Culture

Americans, both black and white, are quick to cry racism in any untoward exchange between people of different hues when someone is being a boor or a snob or experiencing a misunderstanding or, more often than not, when mild ethnocentricity is at work. Ethnocentricity . . . a big word that simply means the tendency of most people to exercise a preference for congregating with like-minded, like-speaking, like-dressing and like-looking people — people they can easily “relate to.” Expressed hierarchically, people’s instinctive loyalty is first to their family, then to their clan (extended family), town, state, religion, in-group, political party, culture, nation, etc. One can see this in the popular slogans “buy local” and “buy American.”

Imagine you’re a small business owner looking for a sales rep. You interview two applicants, one black and one white. The white applicant is sloppily dressed, needs a shower, doesn’t speak clearly, and seems distracted. The black applicant, on the other hand, is fully engaged, is dressed smartly, and seems keen to join your operation. It’s a no-brainer — the black applicant has more in common with you; skin color is not a factor.

We all share a tendency to look at other cultures solipsistically: we see through the lens of our own values, evaluating people according to preconceptions originating in our own standards and customs.

Now imagine the opposite scenario: The black applicant displays plumber’s crack, reeks, and is unintelligible; while the white wears a coat and tie, speaks in your local accent and displays overwhelming enthusiasm. Again, a no-brainer, with skin color again not a factor; instead of that, it is shared values that determine your choice.

Ethnocentrism does, however, have its extremes, the ones you’ll most often come across in a dictionary, without the nuances of an Anthropology 101 course. The first — and one that we all share to some degree — is a tendency to look at other people and cultures solipsistically: we see through the lens of our own culture and values, evaluating other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of our own milieu. More extreme is the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own ethnic group or culture — an attitude that, taken to an absurd limit, can breed intolerance, chauvinism, and violence.

The Origin of Races

What is race? One doesn’t need to understand race in order to be a racist or accuse someone of racism. Contrary to popular opinion, skin color is not a determining factor of race. H. Bentley Glass and Ching Chun Li were able to calculate from blood group data that North American Negroes have about 31% white ancestry (cited in Stanley M. Garn and Charles C. Thomas, Readings on Race [1968]). For practical or political reasons, biologists and physical anthropologists are divided as to the validity of the concept.

First, the more practical biologists. In biology, race is equivalent to variety, breed, or sub-species. In a nutshell, it is incipient speciation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, race is “a group of living things connected by common descent or origin” — as uncontroversial and far from the whole-picture definition as one can dream up. But to understand race one first has to understand species.

Contrary to popular opinion, skin color is not a determining factor of race.

A species is a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, just below genus — yet even this is by no means a simple or clear-cut concept. Think of horses, donkeys, mules, Jennies, zebras and zorses (a horse-zebra hybrid); or dogs, wolves and coyotes. These animals can interbreed, with various rates of fertility success, but do not normally interbreed in the wild. To account for this, the classic definition of species was amended by the addition of a qualifier, that the group of organisms in question must not only be able to interbreed but must also do so regularly and not under extraordinary or artificial circumstances.

To further complicate things (or was it to simplify?), Ernst Mayr, one of the 20th century’s leading evolutionary biologists and taxonomists, formulated the theory of ring species (aka formenkreis) in 1942 to explain a natural anomaly in the distribution of closely related populations. According to Wikipedia, “a ring species is a connected series of neighboring populations, each of which can interbreed with closely sited related populations, but for which there exist at least two ‘end’ populations in the series, which are too distantly related to interbreed, though there is a potential gene flow between each ‘linked’ population.”

The term ‘ring species’ is a vestigial remnant of some of the first ring species identified, but the populations need not be in a ring shape. Examples include the circumpolar Larus herring gull complex, Ensatina salamanders, the house mouse, trumpet fish, drosophila flies, deer mice, and many other bird, slugs, butterflies, and others. Most natural populations are bedeviled by such complexities, including our closest relative, Pan troglodytes, among whom the East African subspecies shweinfurthii is separated by the Congo River and half a continent from the West African variant verus.

Gould believed that the concept of "race" had been used to persecute certain human groups to such an extent that it should be eliminated.

So that brings us back to race, or incipient speciation. Charles Darwin, in Origin of Species, identified the speciation process as occurring when a subpopulation of organisms gets separated from the larger group, fails to interbreed with them, and interbreeds strictly with itself. This process increases the smaller group’s genetic complement while reducing — again, within the smaller group — the larger group’s greater genetic diversity. The eventual result may be that the smaller group becomes distinct enough to form a new species. This part of the process is labeled “genetic drift.”

Two other factors usually contribute to speciation: genetic mutation and adaptation (through natural selection) to a new environment or way of life. Here “adaptation” does not carry the sense of individuals “getting accustomed to” a new situation but rather the sense of individuals carrying genes that are detrimental in that situation dying before they procreate — in time deleting those genes from the smaller group. This is called “natural selection.” After a subgroup separates from the main population and before it becomes a new species…this is when the term “race” properly applies.

But Darwin understood the limitations:

Certainly no clear line of demarcations has as yet been drawn between species and sub-species — that is, the forms which in the opinion of some naturalists come very near to, but do not quite arrive at the rank of species; or, again, between sub-species and well-marked varieties, or between lesser varieties and individual differences. These differences blend into each other in an insensible series; and a series impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage.

Of course, a race may never become a new species; it may well, for any number of reasons, reintegrate back into the main population — which brings us back to human races and the more political anthropological concepts.

Some experts, the late Marxist paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould to the fore, believed that race, as applied to humans, was unhelpful, even invalid. He believed that the concept had been used to persecute certain human groups to such an extent that it should be eliminated. And forget “variety” (humans aren’t flowers) and “breed” (they aren’t dogs) and “subspecies” (the Nazis’ use of unter ruined that prefix).

On the other side stand the Physical Anthropologists (Stanley Garn, Paul T. Baker, Bentley Glass, Joseph S. Weiner, et al.) with the late physical anthropologist Carleton S. Coon, who pioneered the scientific study of human races under the Darwinian paradigm of adaptive and evolutionary processes.

Coon divided Homo sapiens into five races with origins in some distant past, distant enough that genetic and phenotypical differences appeared: the Caucasoid, Congoid, Capoid, Mongoloid and Australoid races. These had diverged not only because of genetic drift, but also as adaptations to their local conditions. The oldest races were the darkest: African Blacks, Australoids and Papuans; while whites, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians diverged later. Skin color varied according to sun exposure. For example, northern European climates favored fair skin to improve Vitamin D synthesis, while dark skin was a shield from Vitamin D overdose. However, in extremely hot and sunny climes such as the Sahel, too-black a skin would tend to heat a body too much, favoring a more swarthy tone. Along the lands of the upper Nile, tall, lanky bodies helped radiate accumulated heat.

When sickle-cell anemia was discovered in white populations, it clinched the notion that racial adaptations were responses to local environments and independent of adaptations such as skin color

On the other hand, the Inuit were physically well adapted to extreme cold: compact bodies to conserve heat; little facial hair to prevent frozen breath condensation that might freeze the face; lightly protruding noses to protect it from freezing; epicanthic eye folds to reduce the area of the eyes to the elements and yellow or yellow-brown skin. The yellow skin likely evolved as an adaptation to cold temperatures in northern Asia. The yellow color resulted from a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, visible through translucent outer layers of skin.

A more recent adaptation was lactose tolerance, which apparently evolved in whites, permitting adult consumption of milk following the domestication of cattle about 6,000 B.C. But one of the most curious adaptations was sickle cell anemia, a debilitating genetic disease that nonetheless provided partial immunity to malaria to the carrier of one allele. First discovered in black African populations, it was first considered a Negroid feature. However, when it was discovered in white circum-Mediterranean populations, it clinched the notion that racial adaptations were responses to local environments and independent of other adaptations such as skin color — a curious vestigial association from more unenlightened times.

Coon’s classifications — mostly unbeknownst to him because the later fine points post-dated him — were already a mélange built on a vast diversity of prehistoric Homo: neanderthalensis, sapiens, denisovans, floriensis, erectus, habilis, etc. Some scholars define these as separate species, others as separate races. I would argue that it is impossible to define an extinct species within a genus from bone remains alone. (Conversely, albeit ironically, modern skeletal remains often yield their race.) DNA researcher Svante Päävo, one of the founders of paleogenetics and a Neanderthal gene expert, has opined that the ongoing “taxonomic wars” over whether Neanderthals were a separate species or subspecies as the type of debate that cannot be resolved, “since there is no definition of species perfectly describing the case.”

Human evolution, ignoring all the tedious debates, continues to surprise us.

Luckily, some Neanderthal DNA has been sequenced and it was discovered that Sapiens includes some of those brutes’ genetic material — about 2% — in northern European populations. In our history, studies suggest there may have been three episodes of interbreeding. The first would have occurred soon after modern humans left Africa. The second would have occurred after the ancestral Melanesians had branched off — these people seem to have thereafter bred with Denisovans, 90% of whose genetic material is extant in modern Sapiens. The third would have involved Neanderthals and the ancestors of East Asians only, whose percentage of Neanderthal genetic material nears 20%.

One difficulty with Coon was his overly distinct racial categories. To some degree he realized this, even while recognizing many subraces, racial mixtures, and incipient formenkreis (before the phenomenon had a name). The problem was that these incipient races kept interbreeding at their verges (and even farther afield; consider Vikings, Mongols, and Polynesians), and accelerating racial mixture after 1500, when human populations began interbreeding willy-nilly, because of globalization.

And that, dear reader, is why Gould and others eschew human racial classifications.

Meanwhile, human evolution, ignoring all the tedious debates, continues to surprise us. The April 21 issue of The Economist reports the discovery of a new human racial variant in the Malay Archipelago. The Bajau people spend almost all of their lives at sea. “They survive on a diet composed almost entirely of seafood. And . . . spend 60% of their working day underwater . . . They sometimes descend more than 70 meters (240 feet) and can stay submerged for up to five minutes . . . They have lived like this for at least 1,000 years.” The evidence suggests strongly that these astonishing abilities are genetic, the result of mutations and natural selection.

The Bajau spleen, an organ that acts as an emergency reserve of oxygenated red blood cells, is 50% larger than those of neighboring populations — “a difference unconnected with whether an individual was a prolific diver or one who spent most of his time working above the waves on a boat. This suggests that it is the Bajau lineage rather than the actual activity of diving, which is responsible for a larger spleen,” continues The Economist.

There is nothing in any of this to suggest that race should be used for political purposes by governments and demagogues — Hitler, Castro, and others.

DNA analysis tells a similar story: a series of Bajau genetic mutations controls blood flow preferentially to oxygen-starved vital organs; another that slows the build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream and one that controls muscle contractions around the spleen.

What to make of all this? Human racial differences, both behavioral and phenotypic, exist and are worth studying: for medicine, forensic science, DNA studies and just for basic scientific knowledge. Genes are not destiny; they encode broad parameters for modification, in the uterine environment, through nurturing, and now through technology (for better or worse). There is nothing in any of this to suggest that race should be used for political purposes by governments and demagogues — Hitler, Castro, and others.

Will Americans in general ever achieve Arnaldo Ochoa’s insouciance about race? We can only hope. After a Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, segregation, and Civil Rights, we’re now experiencing a heightened sensitivity in the finer details of race relations — probably a good indication of the tremendous progress that has been made in the fundamentals.




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Run for the (Sea)Wall

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Every Memorial Day for the past 30 years a now-grizzled convoy of Viet Nam vets astride choppers swarms the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Groups of two, ten, twenty and more, hailing from every corner of the continent, converge at minor and major crossroads into a host of hundreds of thousands. This grassroots commemoration is known as the Run for the Wall. It was started in 1989 by two vets on Harleys. By last count the run numbers 350,000.

At the nation’s capital, Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force; enlistees and draftees; non-coms and warriors; enlisted men and officers, relatives and sympathizers; WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Afghanistan, Iraq, and, yes, Bay of Pigs vets (everyone is welcome) — all long in the tooth, mostly hirsute, amply girthed and outfitted in Harley Davidson garb — cry like spurned orphans as their fingers graze the black granite of remembrance searching for the names of long lost comrades. The tears are contagious. Onlookers mist up or avert their gaze in respect and abide the circumstance.

The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

This past Christmas Eve, an entirely different group of vets commemorated its 55th anniversary of freedom. On Christmas Eve, 1962, the last of the 1,113 Bay of Pigs POWs of Brigade 2506 were released after nearly two years of incarceration in Fidel Castro’s prisons. My cousins Carlos “Cachorro” León Acosta and Armando “Armandito” Lastra Faget, both 19, were the first to taste liberty that day. For Carlos, that was the night he was born again.

The Brigade had signed up to liberate Cuba from Castro’s communist fist. For a variety of reasons, and in spite of inflicting nearly 5,000 casualties on the Castro troops and suffering only 67 combat deaths, the Brigade was unable to achieve its goal.

Contrary to the narrative Fidel Castro has popularized — that the Bay of Pigs operation was a US CIA invasion manned by mercenaries — the true nature of that debacle has seldom been put into words. This is mainly because the freed prisoners were sworn to press silence, to avoid offending either the Castro or the Kennedy government and imperiling nascent and fragile agreements between the two countries. The men harbored much resentment and bad blood: against Castro for their inhumane treatment; against Kennedy for condemning the operation to defeat.

Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

In contrast to Castro’s narrative, the true version is that the Bay of Pigs invasion was part of a civil war in which one side was supplied with arms, money, and training by the USSR, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, while the other side was supplied with the same kit by the US, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. If anyone doubts this version, let him examine the event’s rules of engagement, to which both sides scrupulously adhered: US forces never fired a shot at Castro’s combatants, and Castro’s forces never attacked offshore US support ships. Fidel knew this was a Cuban vs. Cuban affair, and that if his forces fired on the US, the behemoth would retaliate and taps would sound on his revolution.

The Bay of Pigs was the second climax in a Cuban civil war that began on March 10, 1952 when Fulgencio Batista wrested control of Cuba in a coup. Immediately, a variety of disparate groups declared resistance to the new regime, Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement being only one of many. The first climax in these civil wars was Castro’s triumph over Batista on December 31, 1958.

Within four days of Castro’s victory, a nascent resistance — reading the writing on the wall and unrelated to the Batista regime — declared against Castro. The Bay of Pigs invasion two and a half years later was the second climax in the ongoing civil war.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful.

The Bay of Pigs veterans are dwindling in numbers, many having added their eternal energy toward Cuba’s liberation. Only 550 are left. My cousin Armandito died in 2010. The latest to pass away was Maximo “Ñato” Cruz just a short while ago, on November 26. Cruz was an exceptional hero, the leader of F Company, 2nd Battalion, who distinguished himself in combat during the Battle of the Rotonda to such a degree that he received the only battlefield promotion during the fight.

Whenever the next climax occurs and whatever it brings, it will be peaceful. All of the exile and resident anti-Castro groups have renounced violence in achieving their aim of a free and democratic Cuba.

To commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs veterans’ release, a small group of vets and vets’ relatives — in sincere flattery and imitation of the Run for the Wall ride — participated in a real (pedal) bike ride from the Bay of Pigs Memorial in Little Havana to Key West — as close to Cuba as possible. We called this our Run for the (Sea)Wall. Here’s my account of the journey.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized. Ubiquitous are Cuban coffee (espresso brewed with sugar), Cuban sandwiches (roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles stacked between sliced French bread and ironed in a plancha, a waffle press-like flat grill), and black beans (as a standard side in nearly all restaurants). We heard Spanish more often than English, though everyone, except for the very recent arrivals (mostly Venezuelans), speaks both languages and uses them interchangeably. Unlike immigrant enclaves elsewhere, south Florida is no “enclave” of struggling refugees lacking in skills, knowledge, or financial nous and isolated from its native residents. On the contrary, the mélange is dynamic, inspiring, and surprisingly free of cross-cultural frictions.

My wife Tina and I left Boca Raton on fully loaded bikes in a drizzly dawn, aiming first for Miami. We’d been staying with my Venezuelan cousin, Marta, who’d finally gotten her green card two years ago. Our next destination was Key Biscayne, 72 miles away, where another cousin, MariCris — a Cuban this time — would put us up at her corporate condo.

Forget Little Havana and Calle Ocho — they’re full of gringo and European tourists. All of south Florida has become Cubanized.

We reached Key Biscayne in one day, and on the next met with the president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, Humberto “Chino” Argüelles, and a handful of veterans and family members at the Casa, the museum and headquarters of Brigade 2506. I was presented with a Brigade 2506 emblem and flag. One 82-year-old vet, Emilio “Ernesto Guerra” Martinez Venegas, had not been a member of the invasion force. Instead, he’d been a key participant in the subsequent infiltration programs, had been captured, and had spent 15 years in Castro’s prisons.

After touring the Casa and meeting with some of the veterans, we proceeded to Calle Ocho’s Bay of Pigs Monument, where — over the noise of traffic and tourist passersby — I explained the purpose of our ride: “Today we don’t mourn [the fighters’] defeat; we celebrate their freedom.” Our ride was "in remembrance of the patriots who gave their life, fortunes, and honor for Cuba’s liberty. Today we are all Cubans. Viva Cuba Libre!”

Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.Launch of the ride. L to R: Carlos "Cachorro" León; the author; Humberto "el Chino" Arguelles. At the eternal flame, Bay of Pigs Memorial, Little Havana, Miami.

One passing Danish tourist, captivated by the event, offered to photograph our entire group in front of the monument. Carlos, a veteran paratrooper of the Bay of Pigs (and the cousin earlier mentioned) handed over his camera. Afterward, the Dane asked Carlos if he’d fought “on the Cuban side.” The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public. Carlos, momentarily baffled yet no stranger to such ignorance, just answered “Yes.”

He then offered to take his family members to lunch. I suggested Versailles, the iconic Cuban exile restaurant where the movers and shakers of the Cuban community had met for years to impress one another, argue politics, and concoct financial and insurrectional plans. He gave me the same look he’d given the Danish tourist, saying, “Versailles’ food is no longer what it used to be; Cubans no longer go there; it’s a tourist magnet with long lines. I know a better place.”

He led us to a Spanish restaurant full of old Cubans — all of whom he knew — taking advantage of the $12.95 set lunch, and introduced Tina and me to all of them. He flirted with the waitress — he was a regular — and she reparteed back. After she took our order, Carlos leaned over and said, “She’s Russian.” The fortyish blonde was the daughter of minor Russian functionaries once assigned to Cuba, where she’d grown up and learned Spanish.

The query was symptomatic of how pervasively the Castro narrative has permeated the public.

After a delicious meal of caldo gallego, merluza a la plancha and flan, we went to Books&Books in Coral Gables. It’s the flagship of south Florida’s best book store, and a microcosm of south Florida’s intellectual milieu. Books&Books is old fashioned: huge, rambling, encyclopedic — with books arranged thematically, irrespective of language, on the same dark oak shelves — liberal with easy chairs for tome dipping, and hosting a sophisticated coffee and snack bar. The staff is multilingual, knowledgeable, and very helpful. Apparently, the many customers in the aisles were unaware of the “death of the independent book store.” (And yes, they carried my book, Closing the Circle: A Memoir of Cuba, Exile, the Bay of Pigs and a Trans-Island Bike Journey. Whew!)

The next day we saddled up early and headed for the Florida Keys, along Miami’s M-path, a dedicated bike trail under the city’s elevated tramway. Carlos met us partway on his bike for a photo op along a defile of Royal Palms, the Cuban national tree. Because of injuries acquired at the butt end of a rifle from a sadistic guard in Castro’s Modelo Prison, Carlos has to lay down his bike, step into its triangular frame, lift it up, and step out of the frame to straddle the bike in order to mount it. Afterward we joined him for breakfast at the Rinconcito Cubano, an unassuming breakfast and lunch joint where, again, he knew all the patrons and waitresses and introduced us to them all.

Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga.

By lunchtime we reached Homestead, home of the Air Force base that welcomed the freed Bay of Pigs prisoners back on that Christmas Eve in 1962. Alina Lastra, sister of my late cousin Armandito Lastra, met us along the dedicated, tarmacked bike path. Armandito had been an outsized character at the Battle of the Rotonda in the Bay of Pigs operation, muscling a .30 caliber tripod machine gun continuously during the 48-hour siege of Playa Larga. Again, we took pictures — this time with the Brigade 2506 flag and a rendition of the MAGA hat with “America” replaced by “Cuba.”

But now we faced the Everglades’ aptly named Overseas Highway, a single traffic lane each way, with a divider, over 20 miles long, connecting the tip of Florida to Key Largo over swampland and sea. But that is merely the first key in an improbable island chain that stretches 113 miles to Key West (Cayo Hueso). Luckily, the shoulder was six feet wide — wide enough to shield us from the impatient, albeit 55 MPH controlled, continuous traffic. Boring and stressful!

Key West was first connected to the road grid in 1928, with a couple of intermittent ferries. All the bridges along the way, including the famous seven-mile bridge, were completed and open to traffic in 1938, when FDR toured the finished highway. We did not enjoy the amenities of his tour, but after a 64-mile day, we were relieved to find a motel on Key Largo and indulge in a pricey blackened Yellowtail dinner.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

An iguana, on the way. It would be hard to leave him out.

Of course, winter’s cold seldom finds the Florida Keys. New Year’s Eve welcomed us with 70 degree temperatures under bright sunshine in the morning. Hurricane Irma debris lined Highway 1 and sometimes blocked the adjacent bike path, a dedicated trail that often included its own connecting bridges separate from the vehicular bridges. Fishermen, some with tents and BBQs, lined these long bike and pedestrian spans. At times we had to dodge colorful iguanas, which otherwise mostly sunbathe on abandoned abutments and supporting berms, scurrying away when troubled.

Fifty-two miles to Marathon Key. Our tiredness and the isolation of our motel shielded us from the New Year's celebrations — raucous in a population given to no-shirts, no-shoes, and lots of recreational boozing.

* * *

Over the years Key Largo and Marathon Key have played a little-publicized but outsized role in US-Cuba relations. After the serial imposition of progressively stricter US embargos on the island, the Castro nomenclatura found itself in want of both luxuries and specialty technical apparatus. Even when these items could be obtained through convoluted schemes involving passthrough countries or ingenious smuggling, little foreign exchange was available to pay for them. So Fidel — or someone close to him who provided plausible deniability to the Comandante en Jefe — came up with a two-part idea implemented by the De la Guardia twins, Tony and Patricio, heroes of the Angola war, with popular (second only to Fidel) General Arnaldo “Negro” Ochoa, also from the Angola (and Somalia) war playing a supporting role.

Some funds for the operation were generated by charging Colombian drug runners a safe passage fee when traversing Cuban territorial waters. These funds were laundered by Fidel’s criminal asylee, Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier. Another part of the scheme involved stealing luxury yachts from Florida marinas. Since these were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued. As Nobel-nominated author Norberto Fuentes, best friend with Ochoa and Tony De la Guardia, relates in his book, Dulces Guerreros Cubanos, the yachts were then employed in the “Caribbean Express,” smuggling Marlboros, specialty arms, and technology obtained through the services of shady Florida arbitragers and go-betweens. The delivery, loading, payment, and shipping took place on Key Largo and Marathon Key. Everyone involved skimmed and squirreled away thousands of dollars (the principals, hundreds of thousands of dollars) — insurance policies, commissions and brokerage fees being frowned upon in socialist Cuba.

Since these stolen yachts were heavily insured and were owned, after all, by rich capitalists, the insurance companies reimbursed the owners promptly, and little fuss ensued.

In 1989, for reasons that I can’t — yet — quite understand, Ochoa, the De la Guardia twins, and author Fuentes, all intimates of the Castros, were purged in a series of show trials reminiscent of Stalin’s in the 1930s. The charges had to do with drugs; the ostensible reason was the Castros’ desire to improve their image before international opinion. But there were other, murkier reasons, all too complex to elaborate here.

Ochoa and Antonio De la Guardia went to the firing squad. When Raúl Castro announced the verdict to Cuba’s rubberstamp constituent assembly, he was drunk and tearful and wore a bullet-proof vest; Arnaldo Ochoa was one of his best friends. Norberto Fuentes was saved through the special pleading of Fidel’s friend, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer. Fuentes now lives in Miami surrounded by his Castro-era memorabilia, in the same building as my cousin Carlos’ son. Fuentes and Carlos were schoolmates before the Revolution.

And the stolen luxury yachts? These became part of the fleet that takes rich tourists out on exclusive fishing excursions around Cuba.

* * *

The run down to Key West, at 48 miles, was our shortest — and most expensive, with a basic Best Western room costing over $300, not untypical of Key West prices. Carlos tells a story of impetuously driving down to Key West 30 years ago on New Year’s Eve for his honeymoon. At the first likely lodging he encountered, he inquired about a room. The attendant asked if he had a reservation.

“No,” answered the newlyweds. The attendant immediately began laughing. Carlos avers that, to this day, the man is still laughing. He adds that every subsequent motel they tried — even as they then began driving back to Miami — was fully booked. Nevertheless, we had our Best Western room and at 5 p.m. headed for El Siboney, a popular Cuban restaurant only two blocks away, hoping to avoid the crowds that are given to much later, Latin eating habits. Still, Tina and I — by now our small group had been reduced to just the two of us, for a variety of reasons, most having to do with age, health and the holidays — had to wait in line.

End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.End of the ride. Author and his wife unfurling the Brigade 2506 flag, Key West.

Then, on January 2, at dawn, we packed up and headed the three blocks to the monument that marks the southernmost point of the US and declares in bold print, “90 Miles to Cuba.” It was a blustery day with tourists already posing before the giant faux buoy for pictures. We waited our turn. Then we posed our bikes before the monument, unfurled the Brigade 2506 flag, and recited José Martí’s La Rosa Blanca:

Cultivo una rosa blanca                            I cultivate a white rose
en junio como en enero                              in June as in January
para el amigo sincero                                 for the sincere friend
que me da su mano franca.                        that proffers his open hand.
Pero para el cruel que me arranca             But for the knave that rips out
el corazón con que vivo,                             the heart that gives me life,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo,                              I cultivate neither thistle nor nettle,
cultivo la rosa blanca.                               I cultivate a white rose.

I then pivoted towards Cuba, saluted the Castros with a single finger, folded our flag, and headed back to Boca.

* * *

After enduring nearly two years in Castro’s prisons, 240 out of approximately 1,400 Bay of Pigs veterans enlisted in the US military. Most fought in Vietnam. Both operations ended in defeat. Both sets of vets were widely spurned upon their return to the United States. But that attitude is finally changing.




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Collateral Allegory

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Hostiles is an elegant and moving western that challenges viewers to look beyond the western genre to examine something larger and more contemporary. It begins in the way many great westerns have: a wide-angle shot of blue skies and golden prairie zooms in to a homesteader’s cabin, where the inhabitant, Wes (Scott Shepherd) is working in the yard and his wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is teaching a grammar lesson to their daughters. When a band of Indians swoops over the horizon, Wes rushes his family out the back door while he stays to fend off the attackers — who are soon tracking Rosalie through the woods. Her fear is palpable. We are in the trees with her, hiding under the log, terrified of being caught.

Cut to the next scene. We hear the offscreen wails of a woman and see a closeup of our hero, Captain Joe Blocker. We know he’s our hero because this is Christian Bale in an Army uniform, and we are certain that he has arrived to rescue Rosalie. But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here; his men are rounding up a family of Natives and dragging them off to the local fort. This juxtaposition of brutal attacks on two peaceful families of opposite backgrounds sets us up for a film that is going to challenge our social, cultural, and political values.

But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here.

Blocker has been working most of his career on the western frontier, rounding up Indians and bringing them to Army stockades. About to retire, he is given one final assignment: by order of the president (who is concerned about public opinion), he must take a dying Cheyenne chieftain (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana, where they will be allowed to remain. Blocker doesn’t want to do it; it goes against everything he has done throughout his career. But he’s an Army man. If his commander tells him to dig a hole just to refill it tomorrow, he’ll do as he’s told. He doesn’t have to like it.

The rest of the film is a typical trail-ride western, with the typical conflicts among the troops, attacks by the enemies (both white and red), bouts of bad weather, and pensive conversations under the stars. There’s even a discreet romance. And the acting is first rate, especially by Bale and Pike.

"Hostiles" is a parable, all right, but not of the American West.

But it’s hard to watch a “typical western” about cowboys and Indians these days; our sensibilities bristle at the way indigenous people have been treated and portrayed. Mainstream reviewers don’t seem to know what to say about this movie. One wrote, “There's a good movie here, but it's buried by too many attempts to be something it's not, most egregiously some kind of great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” Well, excuse me for disagreeing, but I think the “something it’s not” is a “great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” And if you think that’s what it’s about, you’re going to be confused by the ambiguity of the tone and the characters.

Another reviewer wrote that it “works as a contrived but effective parable of the American West, [with] its painful legacy, and small measures of redemption.” Hostiles is a parable, all right, but not of the American West. The American West is being used here as an allegory of the Middle East. Its very name should offer the first clue; “hostiles” is the word modern soldiers use to identify the enemy. And Hostiles is a subtle parable about modern war.

Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get

We see officers obeying orders simply because “that’s my job.” We see peaceful families suffering the collateral damage of a prolonged war. We see “good Indians” and “bad Indians” representing the difference between good Muslims and jihadist Muslims. We see soldiers ravaged by PTSD and torn by the guilt of having killed. We see other soldiers struggling with the realization that in one circumstance killing is considered murder, but in another it’s considered heroic. Most of all, we see the importance of judging individuals by their character and their actions, not by their label or their group. Hostiles asks us to focus on what makes us human instead of what makes us enemies. Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get. Sometimes truth is that self-evident.

The body count for Hostiles comes close to that of a Quentin Tarantino movie (or Hamlet, for that matter) but without the gratuitous blood and guts of Tarantino. It’s tense and suspenseful because we care about the characters, but there’s a distance from the killing, just as there is a distance between these broken and dysfunctional characters. The pace is slow at times and the story is somewhat predictable. But what it subtly says about the personal, psychological ravages of war is important. And the final scene is so exquisitely moving and perfectly acted, it’s one of those moments in film that you never forget. Well worth the two and a half hour trail ride, just to get there.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hostiles," directed by Scott Cooper. Entertainment Studios, 2017. 134 minutes.



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War from the Individual Perspective

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It’s a sunny blue-sky day in a charming French provincial town, when propaganda leaflets start raining down from the sky. Three soldiers walk into the foreground until the camera rests on the handsome young face of one of them, the story’s eventual protagonist (Fionn Whitehead). He spies a hose coiled next to a house and falls to his knees, upending the coil so the standing water drips into his mouth. I can taste the stagnant warmth of the water even as I feel its wet relief on his parched throat. The day may be sunny, but it’s far from bucolic.

Shots ring out and the men begin running toward a fence, joined by other soldiers equally determined to escape the Germans. One by one they’re picked off by the bullets. Only our unnamed and unvoiced hero makes it over the fence. My heart races with empathic panic and I think of how desperately he needs that helmet he took off to drink the water. How can I be so invested so quickly in the life of a character who is virtually unknown? I realize that the tension in my heart is being controlled by the tension of the music and the pace of the action, as it will be controlled throughout this movie.

Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed?

I went to Dunkirk expecting to learn about the strategic significance of the battle that was waged there, when nearly 400,000 Allied troops were stranded near the beaches of France, waiting either for reinforcement or evacuation. Much has been written about the decision of German leaders not to press forward to annihilate the Allied troops, and British leaders’ hesitation to send a full barrage of support. It is considered the greatest defeat and the greatest triumph of the Second World War. I’ll be on the beaches of Dunkirk and Normandy next month, and I thought that watching this movie would enhance my appreciation of visiting the site.

But that’s not what the movie is about.

If you didn’t already know what happened at Dunkirk, the movie might make you think it was a minor skirmish involving a handful of soldiers, a couple of fighter planes, a few queues of Brits lined up to wait (unsuccessfully) for the next transport ship, and a single fishing boat crossing the channel to rescue them all, with a few random German bombers and snipers causing unexpected havoc along the way. We’re aware of the crowds of soldiers on the beach and the boats in the water, but they don’t have the vast impact of the same scene in films such as Atonement (2007); they seem almost like set dressing. And the French soldiers who kept the Germans at bay have no place in this film. In fact, the only French soldier in Dunkirk is portrayed as something of a coward.

Instead, this film focuses on our unnamed soldier and the inexplicable randomness of survival. Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed by strafing or blown up by bombs? Why does he survive while those “fortunate enough” to board the rescue boats are lost? Director Christopher Nolan deliberately cast young unknown actors to emphasize the youth and inexperience of the soldiers at Dunkirk and the senseless serendipity of who survives and who does not.

The score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer.

Meanwhile, Captain Dawson (Mark Rylance) of a small fishing vessel hurries across the channel with a boatload of life vests, teamed only with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a family friend, George (Barry Koeghan). Dawson seems a sad sack of a man, but his small stature belies his strong character; he is determined to get those boys home. His character is loosely based on Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, a Titanic survivor who at Dunkirk rescued 55 soldiers in his personal yacht, the Sundowner, when he was 66. (Dawson’s boat is called the Moonstone.) Rounding out the rescue team are two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), whose job is to take down the German planes that are targeting the rescue ships, and two officers, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), who are overseeing the evacuation in France.

The film is impressionistic in that each of these groups is representative of a larger whole, and the story is neither chronological nor complete. You’ll be confused by the juxtaposition of seemingly simultaneous scenes set in daylight and dark until you realize that one of the scenes is a flashback. Nolan explained that the alteration of time was necessary in order to bring the three storylines together, one taking a week (on the beach) one taking a day (on the ocean) and one taking an hour (in the air). In sum, Dunkirk provides an impression of the battle rather than a chronological history, and the sooner you realize that, the easier it is to follow the movie.

Dunkirk doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect.

Contributing significantly to the film’s success is its quiet, relentlessly rising musical motif based thematically on Elgar’s “Nimrod” and scored by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer used a pocket watch that Nolan sent to him as an instrument in the orchestration to create the underlying pulse that subconsciously controls the viewer’s heartbeat, while Elgar’s theme and Zimmer’s use of cellos at the limits of their normal pitch creates a sense of anxiety. They also incorporated a technique called the “Shepard Tone,” which is a kind of musical version of M.C. Escher’s never-ending staircase that gives the impression of a never-ending rise in pitch. All of this leads to the continuous, unresolved tension. The resulting score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer. The Shepard Tone is also mirrored visually in Nolan’s juxtaposition of the three storylines (shore, sea, and air), in which one is always beginning, one is always climaxing, and a third is always ending.

Dunkirk is not a typical war movie. It doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect after the gruesome realism Spielberg introduced in the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan 23 years ago. It’s a quiet film about individual courage, cowardice, suspicion, randomness, and the unrelenting desire for home.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dunkirk," directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers, 2017, 106 minutes.



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Race to the Top

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What might it look like if the libertarian vision prevailed over that of the “progressive” Left? If the Democratic Party, and the statist Left in general, is to be repealed and replaced, then something must take its place. Merely repealing it, with no replacement, won’t get rid of it. As long as people believe that it fills a need — no matter how badly it may accomplish that — they will at some point, and in some form, welcome it back.

The Libertarian Party has a platform that answers every Democratic crusade with a superior solution. We really can offer those in poverty the hope that they might enjoy a better life instead of a life sentence in their present condition. Our vision of human rights, based on the understanding that we all derive them not from the circumstances that differ but from the humanity we share, would elevate our status beyond that of pawns on a political chessboard. By concentrating on responsible behavior instead of a phobic obsession with drugs or guns — anything inanimate and utterly harmless unless abused — we can stop banning everything and encourage people to stop abusing one another. When we liberate education from the grip of the teachers’ unions and offer real choice to parents and kids, the lessons in liberty they will learn can turn the tide of human thought toward freedom.

Studies show that of the overall population, about 20% are on the hardcore Right and 20% on the equally hard Left. These people will never be moved. That leaves 60% somewhere in the middle. It is these folks who determine the outcome of elections and other decisions affecting us all. The statist Left survives because a majority of those 60% think it performs a necessary function. They may not all think it does its job well, but they at least tolerate its existence, and endure its idiocies, because they can’t imagine anything taking its place.

Libertarians really can offer those in poverty the hope that they might enjoy a better life instead of a life sentence in their present condition.

Statist leftism and liberalism — the latter being the openness to new discoveries, trust in rationality and belief in individual freedom that has given libertarianism its name — are two different concepts entirely. That mammoth standard-bearer for the Right, Rush Limbaugh, evidently ignorant of the difference, bellows about destroying “liberalism.” That isn’t going to happen, and it wouldn’t be a good thing if it did. Liberalism is as much a part of our Western, Judeo-Christian tradition as conservatism. To speak of lopping off half of our tradition is as foolhardy as it would be to advocate the extraction of half of our chromosomes.

Until we figure out how to make the Left obsolete, we will never repeal and replace the Democratic Party. As long as there are marginalized and discontented people — even though the Democrats are largely responsible for their marginalization and discontentment — the donkeys will never be sent out to pasture. Leftism has always been a powerful influence on the modern Democratic Party, and during the Obama years it tightened its stranglehold. Post-Obama, it has throttled the life out of every moderating philosophy.

There truly is a difference between how libertarians might pursue objectives formerly monopolized by the statist Left and the way “progressives” have done so. If every attempt we might make is blasted by our own side as “capitulation,” we need to recognize the message that will send. It will be an admission that the leftists are correct when they lump us all into the “far Right” and claim that they alone can move society forward. Those who have had it drilled into their heads that without their Democratic champions they’d be friendless and hopeless will be more convinced than ever that they can’t live without the authoritarians who supposedly care more about them than they do about themselves. Our lack of interest in replacing what we want to repeal — and in clearly articulating how we can do it — will be taken as an admission of defeat.

To speak of lopping off half of our tradition is as foolhardy as it would be to advocate the extraction of half of our chromosomes.

A crucial difference between libertarianism and the statist Left is our approach to social problems. Contrary to what our adversaries so often assert, many of us do understand that these problems exist, and we are by no means unconcerned about them. But we believe that problems are to be solved, not used as a basis of political employment. Because they think that if those problems disappeared, they themselves would no longer be needed, “progressives” merely perpetuate them. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty must never be seen to diminish. The strangeness of a political movement that can never take credit for its successes — because it dares not admit that any real progress has been made, yet keeps insisting that progress is direly needed — never occurs to its adherents.

Libertarians will always be needed, because liberty will always need to be defended. Problems are impediments to freedom, unless they are solved. But libertarians have no incentive to perpetuate misery into infinity. People who are free to find solutions to their problems are happy, and not susceptible to “progressive” quackery.

The notion that liberty can only be defended by waging war is now widely shared by Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps the most important contribution a Libertarian challenge to the GOP could make would be an end to perpetual war. We would spread American ideals through peaceful trade. Instead of offering the world death and destruction, we might help it to attain a higher standard of living. What if the terrorists held a recruiting drive and nobody came?

The only political war worth fighting is the war for freedom. Government is the number one perpetrator of violence and the biggest threat to liberty. All it knows how to do is force people to conform to its dictates, so no political party dedicated to increasing its power can defend liberty. The political struggle in our country must include one major combatant that fights for freedom — because even if the Democrats magically vanished overnight, the Republicans would still be authoritarians. The GOP must be substantially and consistently challenged by a rival committed to uncoerced cooperation, based on mutual trust.

Perhaps the most important contribution a Libertarian challenge to the GOP could make would be an end to perpetual war.

We can trust that our fellow human beings are not idiots, and that they truly can govern themselves — even when they’re not like us. Each of the big-league political parties portrays the members of its opponent as vile — almost subhuman. They are comic-book villains: godless commies or gun-crazy deplorables. Political contests have degenerated into races to the bottom. Like manic limbo dancers, each side feels compelled to compete with the other by seeing how low it can go.

As it abandons faith in every principle but force and fraud, the Democratic Party is unraveling. If the Libertarian Party were to reach major-league level, it would bring its principles with it: faith in peaceful persuasion, respect for every individual human being, and optimism about our country’s future. Instead of a race to the bottom, competition between the Libertarians and the Republicans might become a race to the top. The repeal and replacement of the Democratic Party could herald a whole new direction for America.




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Out of the Silence

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Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan during the mid-16th century, and Christianity initially flourished, with over 100,000 converts. But as the church’s influence over the people grew, the civil government resisted, banning Jesuit missionaries in 1587 and outlawing Christianity completely in 1620 (ironically the same year when oppressed Christian pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock). Many Japanese converts abandoned the church, while others went underground and practiced their religion secretly. Many of those were tortured and killed.

Silence is set against this backdrop of silent, secret worship. When church leaders hear that a beloved priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has recanted his testimony and converted to Buddhism, two of his protégés, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe the rumor of his apostasy and resolve to travel to Japan in search of their mentor.

In Japan Rodrigues and Garupe discover a community of secret Christians who greet them with joy and beg them to stay. The priests hide in a mountain hut during the day and perform furtive ordinances of baptism, communion, and confession at night. The literal darkness of these scenes contributes to the spiritual darkness of the film. Despite being about sacrifices made on behalf of faith, it is utterly without light or hope.

Many Japanese converts abandoned the church, while others went underground and practiced their religion secretly. Many of those were tortured and killed.

We see people anxious to make confession and priests willing to absolve them, but we see no actual change in their moral character resulting from their Christian experience; in fact, the only consistency about one person is his continual backsliding and serial confession for the same treacherous sin. We see villagers eager to receive Father Rodrigues’ humbly crafted crosses and the beads he shares by disassembling his own rosary, but no visible improvement in their lives. We see torture and brutality, but we see no evidence of what motivates faith. We hear no homilies or scripture stories to promote conversion or stave off apostasy. We see people willing to die for their religion, but no apparent reason to live for it. Even Father Rodrigues, who has sacrificed everything for his faith, begins to question the Silence he hears from God. When Father Ferreira turns to teaching medicine and astronomy instead of Christianity, he sighs, “It’s fulfilling to finally be of use in this country.”

In short, what we don’t see in this film about religion is any real experience of religion. Despite the serenity of the gorgeous landscapes and the sincerity of the acting, there is a vast spiritual emptiness in this film that purports to be about unwavering faith. The torture feels gratuitous and the sacrifice of these souls unnecessary. No good comes from their torture and deaths. No one lives because they die. Their resistance to the ban against Christianity begins to feel more like arrogance than submission to God. When Rodrigues devoutly refuses to step on a tile image of Christ, even though his parishioners will be tortured until he does, the Japanese Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) scoffs, “The price for your glory is their suffering!”

Rodrigues’ anguish for the people is palpable, but is his stand truly noble? Christ died so that others could live. He endured immeasurable suffering at Gethsemane, and withstood mockery and humiliation from his tormentors, with patience and forgiveness. Would he really be so terribly offended if a priest stepped on his picture in order to save a community of faithful Christians? Or would he be glad that Rodrigues gave up his pride in his own spiritual strength, in order to protect them? Making a false statement with fingers crossed was designed exactly for this kind of moment. The Inquisitor doesn’t even care whether the recantation is sincere. He urges, “You don’t have to believe it. Just do it.” So do it, I thought, and let these poor Christian villagers go free.

We see torture and brutality, but we see no evidence of what motivates faith.

Rodrigues’ resistance demonstrates, ironically, a lack of faith in the mercy and love of Christ. Peter himself denied knowing Jesus in the hours before the crucifixion (an event alluded to in the movie with the crowing of a rooster at a significant moment), but Jesus did not condemn Peter for it. In fact, the false denial might have been the reason that Peter remained alive and free. Days later, Jesus met him on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and called him with the words, “Feed my sheep.” Peter then served as the leader of the church until his death. Sometimes the expedient choice is the correct one, especially in the face of tyrants.

In Silence, Andrew Garfield is fully committed to his character. He imbues Father Rodrigues with pitiable angst and heartache. I have no criticism to bring against his acting skills, or those of Adam Driver (who lost 50 pounds for his role) or the others in the fine cast. I also admire the cinematography skills of Rodrigo Prieto, whose work on this film has been nominated for an Oscar. But they couldn’t rise above the misguided script.

Let’s compare the spiritual emptiness ofSilence with the noble richness of Hacksaw Ridge, another film in which Andrew Garfield portrays a Christian driven by spiritual commitment, in this case to perform herculean deeds. In Hacksaw Ridge, his character risks his life for something grand and important, something well worth the sacrifice.

Desmond Doss was the first conscientious objector to serve as a medic at the battlefront. He didn’t carry a gun, but he saved the lives of at least 50 Marines at the battle for Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa. Witnesses put the number at closer to 100; in awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor, officials set it at 75. The movie about that terrible battle is inspiring, brutalizing, and sometimes overwhelming in its alternating beauty and horror.

Sometimes the expedient choice is the correct one, especially in the face of tyrants.

Act I offers a slice of Blue Ridge Americana, filmed in bright airy daylight that contrasts with the dark, smoky scenes of Act II, during the battle. That first act opens on young Desmond (Darcy Bryce) and his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) racing through the sunny woods and up the face of a cliff. We meet Desmond’s parents and his rural community, and we see his sweetly innocent courtship with the angelic Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a courtship that includes a romantic climb to the top of the mountain. We get it — despite his slight build, Desmond has spent a lifetime building endurance and strength.

Two events lead to Desmond’s decision never to take up arms. First, he nearly kills his brother with a brick in a boyhood tussle. Second, his drunken, abusive father nearly kills his mother with a gun, and Desmond nearly uses that gun to protect her from him. Shaken by the strength of his own anger, he vows never to touch a gun again. Nevertheless, he is determined to serve in the military. And with good reason — he sees how “survivor guilt” has affected his father.

Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), Desmond’s father, is a veteran of World War I. He fought bravely and was decorated twice. But he was overcome by the guilt of returning alive, while most of his buddies returned in a box. He returned from the war safe, but not sound. His sullenness, his drinking, and his wife-beating are a direct result of his guilt and the senseless deaths of his friends. Tom argues eloquently about the futility of war, and for a libertarian viewer, his lines are some of the best in the film. Nevertheless, Desmond joins up. “I had to enlist,” he tells Dorothy on the day he proposes to her. “I can’t stay here while all of them go fight for me.”

At boot camp Desmond encounters a different argument, this one favoring war. “We fight to defend our rights, and to protect our women and children,” Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) tells him, and Desmond agrees. One could argue the relative merits of leaving those women and children at home while traveling thousands of miles across the sea to defend them, but at least Howell argues for defense rather than expansion and plunder. When Desmond adamantly refuses to pick up a gun, even for target practice, Howell tries to have him sent home. Again, his reasoning is sound. “A unit is no stronger than its weakest member,” Howell says, and a member who can’t or won’t defend himself seems as weak as they come. Protecting a conscientious objector in the fray of battle could become a deadly distraction. In a situation that recalls the central conflict in A Few Good Men, Howell and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) do their best to get rid of Doss. The derision, the beatings, and even a court martial serve only to strengthen him for what lies ahead.

Tom argues eloquently about the futility of war, and for a libertarian viewer, his lines are some of the best in the film.

Knowing director Mel Gibson’s penchant for gruesome realism, I braced myself for the battle scenes. In the first few moments of the climactic battle, as the soldiers scale the ridge and move forward toward the enemy, the remains of the previous day’s battle reminded me of the set dressing at Universal Horror Nights: dismembered guts and body parts strew the ground, but they seem rubbery and painted. I relax. I can handle this. Then the actual battle explodes, and holy moly, does it become gruesome! One soldier picks up the torso of a dead man, blood dripping from where the legs used to be, and uses it as a shield while he runs forward, shooting into the oncoming lines. I learned what eyelids are made for and used them judiciously for the next half hour. But the screaming and explosions of war are inescapable (and their realism led to Oscar nominations for both sound and sound editing).

The brutality of these scenes is graphic but not gratuitous, as it prepares us to understand more fully what Desmond Doss experienced that night. Surrounded by gunfire, grenades, and flamethrowers, he scrambles through the carnage to find the wounded, administer field dressings and morphine, and drag people to safety. Even when the rest of the regiment is ordered to withdraw to safety while it regroups, Doss remains behind until at least 75 wounded men have been rescued. At one point he looks to the sky and cries out, “What do you want of me? I can’t hear you!” I thought of Father Rodrigues’ discouraged prayer in Silence. But on Hacksaw Ridge, there is no such silence. The answer screams from the field: “Help me!” Doss gets to work. Throughout the night, as he searches and hauls, and dodges the enemy whom he refuses to kill, this mantra carries him through the exhausting night: “Please, Lord, help me get one more! Help me get one more . . . one more . . . just one more.”

Seeing Hacksaw Ridge the first time, I was moved to tears by the humble courage and determination of the heroic protagonist. Seeing it the second time, I was impressed even more by the subtle ways Gibson used Act I to foreshadow Act II, especially the scenes in which Doss is running and climbing cliffs with his brother and later with Dorothy. The sunlit grandeur of his childhood climbs belies the dark forbidding face of Hacksaw Ridge. His closing scenes are equally artistic and evocative. Gibson is not well liked in Hollywood because of his drunken rant during a traffic stop a decade ago and because of his conservative political views, so I was shocked — pleasantly — when the Academy voters recognized the quality of the filmmaking and the heroism of the story and nominated Hacksaw Ridge for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. For me, in a year when the competition is tight and every single Best Picture nominee is, in my opinion, worthy of the grand prize, Hacksaw Ridge is the best film of the year.


Editor's Note: Review of "Silence," directed by Martin Scorsese. EFO Films, 2016, 161 minutes; and "Hacksaw Ridge," directed by Mel Gibson. Cross Creek Pictures, 2016, 139 minutes.



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Better than Advertised

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If you encountered the trailers for War Dogs, you would probably expect to see a typically raunchy Todd Phillips and Jonah Hill road trip, set untypically in the Middle East. But you would be wrong, and that’s a good thing. While there is indeed a wild ride from Jordan to Iraq as Mr. Hill’s character is being chased by Fallujahns wielding AK-47s, War Dogs is a surprisingly satisfying and informative film. It’s based on the true story of an unlikely pair of entrepreneurs who managed to live as fat as drug dealers in Miami by procuring supplies for the military.

David Packouz (Miles Teller) is working as a door-to-door massage therapist when middle-school chum Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) comes back into his life and invites him to help in his new business — providing materiel for the military. Partly as a reaction to the profits Dick Cheney made in the Middle East through his company Haliburton, Congress changed US policy in the ’90s so as to require multiple bids in procuring supplies. Efraim realized that big companies only wanted to bid on big contracts, and that created a niche for him. “Everyone’s fighting over the same pie and ignoring the crumbs,” he explains to David. “I live off the crumbs.”

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop.

Soon the two are in business together, living off more than crumbs in their newly purchased Miami beachfront condos and poring over contract listings to search for the buttons, belts, and bullets that other companies are likely to ignore. “It costs $17,500 to outfit one American soldier,” David, who narrates the story, tells the audience. You can make just as much money selling helmets and gloves as you can selling tanks and airplanes. Sometimes more, as Efraim and David discover. One deal is for more than $300 million. All of this is legal, and necessary. Competitive bids, after all, should keep the price down, and provide some relief to the taxpayer.

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop. Or how they work with shady characters around the world to fulfill the orders they’ve promised to supply. Or how they circumvent embargoes and other regulations to make sure their deliveries go through. They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

Efraim is wild, unpredictable, greedy, and self-serving — a role tailor-made for Jonah Hill. By contrast, David is a family man with a new baby and a conscience. He wants a better life for his family than what he can provide as a massage therapist, but he doesn’t want to destroy his relationship with his partner Iz (Ana de Armas) in the process. The dynamic between these two character types, one virtually amoral and the other morally connected, drives the conflict of the film and creates a satisfying storyline.

They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

As the film came to an end on the night I saw it, and the audience stood up to leave, I was struck by the number of young men who had come in packs. I don’t think they were Iraqi veterans looking to reminisce about their latest tour of duty. They had come for a mindless, raunchy Todd Phillips comedy, à la The Hangover Part IV: Iraqi Nights or something like that — the film the trailer promised to deliver. What they got was something else — something you could also say about the characters in the film. From the conversations I overheard, they didn’t seem disappointed. War Dogs is entertaining throughout, with well-developed characters and a healthy underlying cynicism about war.

Narrator David asks us, “What do you know about war? They’ll tell you it’s about patriotism, democracy. . . . But you wanna know what it’s really about? . . . War is an economy. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.” David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli were both — they were in on it, and ultimately they were stupid. Nevertheless, he continues, “War dogs [are] bottom feeders who make money off of war without ever stepping foot on the battlefield. It was supposed to be derogatory, but we kind of liked it.“

Whether they’re bottom feeders or not, I kind of liked this film.


Editor's Note: Review of "War Dogs," directed by Todd Phillips. Green Hat Films, 2016, 114 minutes.



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