The disadvantages of being a writer, who is often written about, are numerous. I begin with an enthusiastic call to my 81-year old mother, hoping to share my enthusiasm from an assignment abroad. "Hey ma…" "I know," she says, "You’re on Jupiter, it’s all over the Internet. They say you’re cavorting with the planet’s president! They say he’s anti-earth! And Sean, why is your hair so big in the pictures?" I muse, "Lack of gravity?" "That’s what Hannity said!!" she tells me. It seems that American movies are pretty popular in far away places, and one must dance a bit to avoid being more a spun story, than the true story one intends to tell. However, there are also grand upsides.
I have been in the public eye to varying degrees, for most of my 48 years, and had many occasions to sit in the front row of popular and political culture. I can speak in firsthand, to bearing witness to an often untruthful, reckless and demonizing media. Yes, in many cases, the smoke would prove an accurate expectation of fire. But, the fact is, that our most respected, call that mainstream media, in print and on television are, in part, conscious manufacturers of deception. In one case, I have photographic evidence. It was widely reported that I had commissioned my own photographer to self-promote my involvement among many other volunteers in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. This simply did not happen. Though the notion of self-promotion had not occurred to me, I did later regret that I had not gotten some snaps of the devastation I saw. I will probably bring someone along to document the next fuck-up of media or government. Meanwhile, I challenge anyone to hunt up the few pictures that were taken by the random photojournalists who’d stumbled upon me, and find a single one that would’ve passed the test of my own narcissistic scrutiny. But a benefit greater than the insight offered by this front row seat, is finding that having a public persona, inclusive of a perceived open mind to the qualities of countries outside one’s own, may grant breathtaking access.
Who’d a thunk? There I was with the biggest hair on the planet. Oh yeah. Big, big hair. It does that in the tropics. It gets big. And I mean American big, baby. And there I was with my big, American hair, finding faith in American democracy in the unlikeliest of places. Sitting in the Salon de Protocol at the Convention Palace in Havana’s Miramar district, all I had to do was tell the five-foot-six bespectacled man who sat in the chair across from me in his khaki dress militaries, that these words would not be published until after the American election. And with that, granting his first ever interview to a foreign journalist since the beginning of the 1957 Cuban revolution, President Raul Castro smiled warmly and simply said, "We want Obama." His initial reluctance was due to a concern that an endorsement by a Cuban president might be detrimental to the Obama candidacy. And this is where the faith came in: Though Obama would be the 11th American president in the long history of the Castro brother’s reign, and despite tumultuous U.S. Cuban relations since what Henry Cabot Lodge called, "the large policy," as justification for American violations of the Teller amendment in the late 1800s. Despite multiple assassination attempts by the CIA on his older brother Fidel, the destabilization tactics of Robert F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, The Platt Amendment with the taking of Guantanamo Bay, and even despite an endless and unjustified embargo (in effect: blockade) on Cuba by the United States, here we were in 2008, and Raul Castro said flat out that if the American people, who today stand with candidate Barack Obama, continue to stand with President Barack Obama, then "meaningful and productive advances could be achieved in Cuba and the world."
In my anticipation of a brief interview, I pulled from my pocket the dwindling remains of my small note pad. Again, Castro smiled, and slid a fresh, full pad across the small polished table to me. We would spend the next seven hours together.
TWO WEEKS EARLIER.
Pausing a channel-surf session, I watched CNN’s former chunky ex-junkie blowhard Glenn Beck’s dissertation on Wall Street’s collapse. For the self-proclaimed "thinker," there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The failure of Wall Street was "not a failure of free market capitalism," but rather, one of "greed." I remember a host of bloated black and white "thinkers" in need of attention by way of glib speech from my school days — loud in class, loud in the school yard, and loud on the bus home. And just like them, Glennie-boy was ignoring substance to maximize the short window of attention he could muster. Free market capitalism and greed in the hands of humans are, in fact, a marriage that never rids itself of the demon. They are of one body. It can be said that Ronald Reagan marked the end of the Roosevelt era, and perhaps, that Barack Obama may mark the end of Reagan’s. But historically, our system is a swing, we raise high to the breeze at our back, swing low, nearly taking off our feet, then sway high again to the wind in our face. But that low swing, never low enough to pick up the men and women on the ground. It is a human cycle subject to a monetary one. But with population exploding globally, we seem to tighten up the links and raise the seat higher with every cycle. More and more are left off the swing below. In the last days of this year’s presidential campaign, the outcry from the right, and the cry out from the left, has rejuvenated the fears, the possibilities, the values, and the necessity to consider aspects of socialism.
As Americans, we are citizens of a complex society, and the aspiration, at least, is to think with the complexity that will match it. In the best of times, in my life as an American, there have been several Americas. There is the America of the wealthy and corporate elite. An America of the middle and lower middle-classes. And there are the millions of poor, plagued by joblessness, inadequate education, inadequate or no healthcare, racial prejudices, and a trickle down philosophy of economics, where what trickles is caught and recycled before it ever reaches bottom. It is what, in my first meeting with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, he referred to as "an unsustainable society." Should our country fear socialism, while blindly advocating capitalism? Are there models of sustainable societies? Do we prefer unsustainability to change if any aspect of that change could be defined as "socialist?"
It was Tuesday, September 11th, when the United States government financed the coup that overtook and assassinated the democratically elected socialist leader of Chile, Salvador Allende, in 1973. And our illustrious Secretary of State Henry Kissinger celebrated "the victory" by installing General Augusto Pinochet. It has been our pattern since the early 1900s to attempt to demonize socialist leaders, destabilize socialist countries, and exercise the will of American banking and raw material interests in those countries (Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, and quite notably, Cuba). But perhaps more than ever, it is in America’s self-interest to re-educate itself and collaborate, as the human faces of socialism increasingly mirror our own.
But here’s the thing: I’m not a socialist. Or at least not entirely so. As an American, I’ve got a little Al Capone in me. I like the idea of individual achievement. Just not against a background of hopeless oppression.
Playwright David Mamet posed a notion in a monologue spoken by the Al Capone character in his screenplay for The Untouchables:
A man becomes preeminent; he is expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms. What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which give me joy? Baseball.
A man. A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team.
Looks, throws, catches, hustles, part of one big team. He bats himself the live-long-day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on: if his team don’t fieldÉyou follow me? What is he? No one. Sunny day, the stands are fulla fans. What does he have to say? I’m goin’ out there for myself. But I get nowhere unless the team wins!
Enthusiasms. I’m enthusiastic about exploring socialism. Personal achievement. Well, in this case, I hope to achieve the reader’s continued interest.
On a 2005 family Christmas trip to Cuba, traveling under the auspices of religious tourism, my wife, our children and I were received in a private midnight meeting with then-President Fidel Castro and the great Colombian novelist and nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Prior to our departure from the United States, I had sat my children down with documentaries of the Cuban revolution. In particular, my daughter had been offended by the history of oppression toward homosexuals in Cuba, and had made it clear to her father, that if offered the opportunity to meet directly with Castro, she would refuse it. Marquez invited us to his house. We walked in, and there, in the living room alone, sat Fidel Castro. Taken by surprise by the meeting, and being a polite then 14-year old, my daughter took her place in the room and waited her turn to attack.