Elian, politics and the Roman Empire

Readers write about the Gonzalez family's telenovela temperament; the cognitive dissonance of liberals; and Diocletian and that damned horse.

By Camille Paglia

Published June 8, 2000 7:05PM (EDT)


Regarding your comments on the Gonzalez drama: Thank you so much for calling a spade a spade!

As a clinical psychologist, I have been watching this situation unfold with deep fascination. One of the things that has struck me is how shy the media have been about examining this family in Miami with any kind of objectivity, and how willing they have been to give the Miami relatives such an open forum to broadcast their opinions.

Every time I hear Elian's histrionic cousin, Marisleysis, described as his "surrogate mother" I groan in disgust. All that I can see is that she has become profoundly enmeshed with this young boy, and over-identified with him. Now that she has been anointed as his "mother figure," her hysteria has been accorded a degree of legitimacy that utterly belies its self-serving emptiness.

What could have been an act of compassion, for the Miami family to take young Elian in temporarily after his rescue at sea, and provide him a place of comfort and safety before he could be reunited with his father, has instead become the shameful exploitation of a child at his most vulnerable, in order to use him as a weapon in their fight against Castro.

Of course, they were never going to relinquish him voluntarily to his father. Between the machismo you rightly point out, and the extreme reaction they would have encountered from the Cuban-American hardliners, Reno was fooling herself to think that patient diplomacy was going to pay off in the end. By the way, did you see her interviewed on "Nightline"? In all my years of clinical practice, I've rarely seen such a degree of suppressed vitality; it was chilling to watch after a while.

--Dr. Andrew L. Parker

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I totally agree with your interpretation and insights into the Gonzalez saga. I am a Canadian, and Canada has economic and political relations with Cuba.

My friends were there in March, and were not impressed, but they observed that Cubans had a life. I think Castro is a dreadful man, but a little boy should be with his father, not with flaky distant relatives who seem to think it is better to be an orphan than a Communist.

--Beryl Dorey

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Thanks once again for laughing out loud at the attempts of the media to "Oprah-ize" the Elian Gonzalez saga. As the product of a mother from a fairly traditional Lebanese-American family and a father of skinny hard-drinking Scots-Irish farmers and lawyers (all from Meridian, Miss. ... think about that!), I heartily concur.

The idea of smothering any combination of these folks in the polyester boucle of forced "public intimacy" and ramming chumminess and American Pasteurized Processed niceness down their throats to help resolve their "issues" has proved ludicrous. I shudder to think of trying it on Big or Little Havana! My cousin Beverly transcended the problem nicely by winning the title of Miss Mississippi years ago.

--W. Michael Williamson

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I've been to Cuba several times. All my Cuban friends believe Elian should be with his father. There's no justification for taking the boy at gunpoint, we wouldn't do it with anyone else.

I do think the thing keeping the embargo in place, and therefore the Cuban government in power, is the sugar subsidy. The Cuban-American grower that Bill Clinton was talking to while Monica blew his harmonica, was also the first guy to give Bill a fundraiser after the impeachment, and owns something like half or two-thirds of the cane sugar production. So we pay double the world price for sugar, and a bunch of money goes back to the Democrats.

I don't think Bill wants to end the embargo. Every time Congress talks about ending the embargo, Bill announces some half-hearted steps to take the wind out of their sails, and Castro says or does something provocative to annoy everyone.

--Brad Jensen
Tulsa, Okla.

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Hurray! Someone has finally seen that the whole Miami Gonzalez Clan is severely dysfunctional, and I believe are actively dangerous to the psyche of that poor little kid. It was never about what was or is best for the boy -- it was a selfish and really kind of weird attempt of a frustrated old man to wave his limp organ at Castro for taking away his toys back in the day.

And that girl, what is her trip? -- she spends more time in the emergency room than George Clooney ever did. She's a poster child for the vapors!

--Sandy LoSchiavo

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I am also an Italian-American, not a Cuban exile as they call themselves. They are an insult to our mentality. Why did they get this publicity in the first place, I cannot understand. I blame Kennedy for babying these people who made this their home yet do not accept the perks they receive.

I rejoiced when they took the young Elian from those crazed people. Any excuse to cause chaos to Castro. Who cares about him too? Go home and fight your own battles as others have done in the past. They want us to fight their battles. Never, never.

--Milicent Santora

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While I disagree with you on the Elian case as a whole, I hope you will join me in a chuckle when we see the inevitable nostalgia program in say, 2019, showing Elian selling Hyundais somewhere outside of Jupiter, Fla.

--Dennis Hoban

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It is refreshing to read someone who understands the "telenovela temperament" inherent in Latino (my) culture and exemplified perfectly in the Elian Gonzalez case. The writers over at Univision or Televisa could not come up with a better plot -- the tragic scene at sea, the rescue, the overbearing uncle, the hysterical woman-child who appropriates the little boy, the handsome father "trapped" in Cuba, etc. And, as is usual in Latino soap operas, the Norte Americanos make their cameos and seem stiff and uncomfortable on camera.

It so happens that there is a soap opera being broadcast on Univision called "El Nino Que Vino Del Mar" -- The Boy Who Came from the Sea. Taped last year before the Gonzalez case. I think it is a funny coincidence.

Of course, there's going to be a movie of the week and book deals. It will be a long time before the media (or the Republican Party) gives up on this story.

--Toni Salazar Loftin
Austin, Texas

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In all this mess, I've never read what this poor boy's great-uncle and woodpile cousin (read "surrogate mother") do for a living. Are they employed? Do they have jobs? Or is Elian the best meal ticket ever to come their way? Mind you, they will make out -- book, screenplay, movie rights, et al.

Also I have read that some of the adult "cousins" that visited him had arrest records for gun possession, drugs, assault and drunken driving. Some environment, eh? Give 'em hell, Harriet!

Monica Finch

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I was in Miami yesterday and saw this piece in the Miami Herald. I thought it might amuse you. Here's a teaser: "It is Marisleysis," said the anonymous caller on the 911 tape. "She was nervous. Someone made a bad impression on her. She passed out."

--Jason Perri
New York City

Excerpts from a May 26 Miami Herald article on Marisleysis Gonzalez:

... as recently as two weeks ago, she was still turning up in 911 emergency medical calls. Records of the calls show that Gonzalez continues to be afflicted by anxiety attacks and illness -- the latest incident just two weeks ago.

On May 4, Gonzalez fainted in a LeJeune Road movie lobby, and a bystander called 911. "It is Marisleysis," said the anonymous caller on the 911 tape. "She was nervous. Someone made a bad impression on her. She passed out."

The medical emergency two weeks ago was her ninth since Elian's arrival last November. Fire-rescue billing records over several years show that Gonzalez suffers from "acute emotional anxiety" and "panic attacks." In the 12 times she has been treated by fire rescue since 1996, she has exhibited a variety of stress-related symptoms: severe intestinal pain, repeated vomiting, fainting, semiconsciousness and shallow breathing.

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President Clinton has announced an initiative to end sex discrimination whereby women are paid only 75 cents on the dollar for the "same work." My question is why the profit motive hasn't already taken care of this problem.

If I can hire a female widget maker to produce 100 widgets an hour for $15 an hour at the same time I am paying males $20 to produce 100 widgets, why don't I simply get rid of the male widget makers and hire only female workers, thereby forcing the men to offer their services for the same price as do the women?

Is there something in male psychology that makes male employers willing to spend billions of dollars on unnecessary wages just for the pleasure of being unfair to women? That seems implausible, given the emphasis our economy places on "the bottom line."

--Joe Willingham
Berkeley, Calif.

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Subj: Danger! No vote for Nader

Ralph Nader is a whiny, miserable socialist. The Green Party is socialist but with more environmental wackoism. They advocate state-run health care. They advocate government-run industry. Just look at the Greens in Europe, very left of center.

With regard to Nader he hates all corporations (except Ben and Jerry's ice cream). It is reported that he only has three suits because more would be "excessive consumption." His self denial is one of a Trappist monk. He exudes guilt. Guilt and angst at living in a prosperous country. He has loony ideas about executive pay. Believes the state should determine executive pay through complex formulas. He also looks very wound up like he hasn't been laid for a long time. He needs to go to Vegas and spend a solid week in the brothels.

I personally like corporations. I like Wal-Mart with the high quality low cost goods. I like Home Depot, Circuit City and the Gap. In the much-touted Scandinavian countries you live in a fucking shoebox, pay 5 bucks a gallon for gas, thermostat is set on 55 degrees and a beer costs 8 bucks.

Can you imagine Nader as commander in chief? Conflict resolution and anger management with the North Koreans?!

--Kurt Schultz
New Orleans

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As someone who really hopes the Green Party will get off the ground in the United States (and who plans to vote for Nader if he happens to appear on my state ballot), it drives me crazy that opportunistic, hypocritical, corporation-fellating conservatives have gotten away for so long with painting themselves as the guardians of morality.

What worries me is that I don't see that kind of fire in enough Greens -- or rather, in the right Greens. The "fundies" have it, all right, but it's all funneled into pet causes. The "realists," who have the better program if they want to appeal to the mainstream, are well-meaning types with constantly pained expressions who can't figure out how to push their cause without causing offense to anyone inside or outside the party.

If you want people to embrace your platform, you have to have enough conviction in the existence of right and wrong that people will believe you when you say you're right and the corporate stooges are wrong.

Also, the Greens really need a media advisor. At their state conventions, they're still showing home-edited videotapes featuring camcorder footage of butterflies. There's enough in their platform to give them a landslide victory if they just knew how to phrase it in mainstream language. Right now, I'm afraid they're still wedded to Leftspeak.

Personally, I'm going to vote for them anyway, because the major parties have forfeited their right to be in charge and because it's better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it (or to not vote at all and still get what you don't want).

--Keith Ammann

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I write to you now as a New Yorker in self-imposed exile to express my outrage and disappointment at your description of Mayor Giuliani's handling of the recent events involving the NYPD as "relatively minor misjudgments." What's going on in NYC at present is quite close to the occupying army you hint at in your column.

Once upon a time, in my early teens, I used to go to nightclubs in New York where the decadent underground flourished. At dawn, when their business began to slow down, prostitutes would come into the club and dance half-naked among the other night creatures. I found myself in a sublime environment that gloriously celebrated all things pagan. Artistic personalities bounced ideas off each other. Olympian deities looked upon us approvingly.

But Giuliani's regime had then just begun. Soon police raids became a common occurrence. It wasn't long before these sacred pagan temples were forced out of business in part because of Giuliani's campaign to improve quality of life in New York. From that moment on the Giuliani administration has gone on harassing and abusing New Yorkers and turning that city into a city where only the bourgeoisie can afford to live. The working and lower classes are being driven out of their ghettos even, so that some real-estate developer can build new luxury buildings and charge outrageous rent that no starving artist can afford.

But mayors come and go, and when his time is up Giuliani's only legacy will be one of injustice and fascism. That's what he'll mainly be remembered for. Hillary is guilty of usurping the position of Senate candidate that rightfully belonged to another, but for recklessly fomenting a race war in my beloved New York, only Giuliani is to blame. Giuliani's pugnacious spirit is a threat to the civil liberties of New Yorkers. The police, like many other institutions in New York, follow Giuliani's orders. So does the police commissioner. I urge you to reconsider your position when it comes to this dangerous man.

--Jan Zubiaurr

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Re: the recent shooting of Patrick Dorismond, I realize you dislike Hillary Clinton (I'm not a fan either) but letting Rudy off the hook with a statement like "minor misjudgments in his handling" of the Dorismond shooting is outrageous!

Yet another totally innocent, unarmed citizen was gunned down in the street, having had committed no crime -- and don't try to tell me his (truly) minor past record had anything to do with it -- and instead of communicating sympathy to the family, or promising to investigate fully, Giuliani illegally released the victim's sealed court record and then proceeded to demonize him!

This is not a "minor mishandling," it exemplifies Giuliani's blatant and arrogant disregard for the basic human rights of his constituents, as well as for the rule of law. As for Rudy's bogus claim that he wanted to "inform" the supposedly anti-police press of "the facts," then why hasn't he pointed out that the shooting officer has a disciplinary record which includes being cited for pulling his gun in a bar argument while off-duty, among other serious issues? Giuliani has a near-pathological problem with what I perceive as his sublimated racism and is temperamentally unsuited to hold elected office in the nation's most august body of legislators. The guy's a punk!

--Phil Ballman

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I enjoyed your column about Elian, but I would have to say that the prospect of a Republican president along with a Republican-dominated Senate and Congress sends shivers down my spine. Do you think under such a scenario the U.S. would ever ratify the test ban treaty? It would obviously pursue its insane Star Wars plans. I fear for the future of the world.

Your Democratic Party is already right-wing enough, please spare us the Republicans!

--Paul O'Donnell
New Zealand

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I guess it's all in the eye of the beholder. George W. Bush's "swagger" strikes me more as that of a country-club punk who knows daddy and his cronies are going to buy him the club chairmanship. Furthermore, every time I see his trademark smirk, I can't help but think that he has jerked off into the clam chowder and is about to watch everyone slurp it down at the annual clam bake.

On the biological level, I find Al Gore's plume-like hair and puffy chest as birdlike and picture him pecking at the bird feeder in my backyard. It's his rounded, post-pregnancy pelvis that bugs me and projects that "effete" image you referred to.

Still, the overall effect strikes me as one of those obsequious corporate CEOs who might ride the Metro-North out to Fairfield County in Connecticut. If you happen to find yourself between one of these geeks and an object of his affection, the jackal teeth come out and it's not pretty.

--Richard Oehmler

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What do Liddy Dole, Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton all have in common with Al Gore? They all talk to the voters and the press like third-grade teachers lecturing a class. Bad third-grade teachers. Their pedantic diction -- and the breathtaking that gives rise to it -- makes me want to throw a brick through the TV screen.

I'll vote for Al Gore, but only because I live in Sweden and won't be hearing his infuriating I'll-speak-slowly-to-make-sure-you-understand statements on a daily basis.

And has anyone noticed the Nixonian falseness of Gore's body language and of his speech -- on those occasions when he tries to be less wooden? Hearing him raise his voice and watching him wave his arms on the stump is like watching a high school actor play the part of a politician in a school play. A bad high school actor.

--Seth Chandler

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Bob Jones University missed a golden opportunity when the media began blasting them for their anti-Catholic rhetoric.

They should have immediately removed every printed word regarding Catholicism from their official documents. Then the art students should have erected a giant crucifix and submerged it in urine.

The media would have hailed them as edgy cultural critics and they probably would have gotten some federal funding out of it.

--Dan Hickman
Glen Allen, Va.

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Just so you don't think that your reader was a lone kook, I'll chime in with my observations of Gov. Ann Richards.

At the time of her election I was a Democrat and I was happy as hell that she got elected over Clements, who was the poster boy for the Texas Good Ol' Boy network.

Unfortunately, as your reader suggests, Ann Richards turned out to have no clue how to administer the state government, instead spending her time posing as Annie Oakley for Texas Highways magazine and celebrating her foul-mouthed, substance-lacking "tough talk."

I can credit her for one thing, however. When I saw her speak with Bill Clinton in Houston in '92, I began to wonder if I was crazy to be helping him get elected. My enthusiasm didn't wane at that moment, but it was certainly a memorable experience and one that I can now look back on as the first rumblings of cognitive dissonance I now associate with modern liberal ideology.

--Wil Upchurch

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How can you admire Margaret Thatcher? I am English and I admire her courage and fortitude but as a human being I don't rate her.

She went into politics helped by an oil executive husband who could afford a nanny for their young twins and then she had the cheek to tell people they should get up off their bums and work too. I had preschool children and couldn't afford a nanny.

She sent British boys off to fight a war about sheep and rocks thinking she was Winston Churchill. Her own idiot son got himself lost in the desert pleasure riding and was found at great expense and poor Maggie's blubbing her eyes out. Her buddy is Pinochet. Do you admire him too?

--Anita Schofield
Winnipeg, Canada

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I was surprised to learn of your fascination with the two huge transitional periods in the ancient Mediterranean world. If you are interested in a cogent, libertarian explanation about the fall of great empires, than you may consider reading "The Rise and Decline of Nations," by Mancur Olsen.

The late Mr. Olsen, once a professor at the University of Maryland, argues that stable societies are conducive to the growth of an ever-increasing number of self-interested organizations that eventually erode the economic strength of that society.

The analysis, however, is not limited to just economic entities; Olsen extends his thesis to explain both the caste system in India and the class structure in Britain. Although the book does not discuss the Roman Empire, it may provide a useful framework in which the events that mark the decline of the empire may be placed.

--Erik Schneider

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I'm sorry if this is beating a dead horse (so to speak), but having spent the previous semester at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome and written my final paper on Diocletian, I am disturbed by some of your readers' vehemence against him. I hope you do not take them too seriously, because Diocletian was one of the most fascinating and dynamic of Rome's emperors, the last truly pagan one, and I am sure that you and he would have got along swimmingly.

As for his affronts to the Senate, I am sure that you have seen the Roman forum for yourself. The Senate house that stands there dates from the reign of Diocletian.

Ever since Vespasian marched into the city in A.D. 69 and established the Flavian dynasty with the legions from Judea at his back, the really important political power lay more and more in the army, and less and less with the Senate. As the empire became poorer in the third century because it was not expanding and no longer had cheap slaves flowing in, this already present trend became dominant as the urban elite became poorer and less powerful and the legions became less satisfied and more assertive.

The Senate became a glorified city council by reason of these historical trends, not because of the fiat of Diocletian. Diocletian was careful, however, to pay tribute to the Senate and its old city out of a soldier's respect for tradition. He rebuilt the old Senate House from the time of Caesar that his predecessors had allowed to deteriorate. He also refurbished many other buildings in the city, and built the baths whose ruins can now be seen by the Piazza Republica.

Diocletian was a gruff old soldier with a soldier's love for stability and order. He brought the empire out of the chaos of the third century, ensuring that it would be a going concern in the West for almost two more centuries, and in the East until the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century. Truly, he was the sort of man whom Machiavelli praised for valuing his city above his soul. There is a certain nobility to that ethic, and I am sure that you of all people will be able to appreciate it.

--Gareth E. Driver

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Thanks for relaying the enlightening comments about the question of who made his horse a consul, Caligula or Diocletian. A reader said that the misunderstanding may have begun with Disraeli. Actually, I have read this verse, attributed to Pope on the occasion of Colley Cibber being made poet laureate:

"Now I ask you, which is the worse
Caligula or Grafton's Grace?
The one made a consul of a horse,
The other, a laureate of an ass."

--Michael Huggins

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The letter in your column from Greg Bayan reminds me of yet another similarity between Clinton and Emperor Nero. When Nero wasn't engaging in weird sexual excesses, he was performing for his subjects. He would play musical instruments or sing for excessively long time periods while the audience members would not dare leave.

Jay Leno's refusal to outdo the president in his comedy routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner (and the audience's dutiful applause and laughter for the president) bear ominous similarities to Nero's participation in the chariot races at the Olympic Games. Despite losing (while sometimes falling out of his chariot) Nero would be declared the winner anyway by judges who knew what was good for them. Nero was perfectly happy to accept his trophies.

This obsequious sycophancy contributed to Nero's narcissism and to the horrifying brutality which characterized his reign (and the immediate aftermath). How ironic that the most recent display of sycophancy by the media and Hollywood elite comes amid plans for increased government controls in every area by the administration.

--David J. Lanza

Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

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Al Gore Bill Clinton Cuba George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani