Rude Sustenance

Every family’s path is a story.  One does not have to reach far into the generations to find that their history and the world’s are deeply intertwined.  We are all children of history.

And my ancestors are the Cold War.

My father’s Cuba was less than a century removed from the pivot point where it decided not to become part of the United States.  The freshly independent colony styled its flag after the American flag and built undreamed-of wealth through its rich, mountainous soil and glorious climate.  It did so with a permissive business environment that let a whole new upper class grow itself out of the island’s natural resources while subjecting yet larger numbers of people to the kind of privation that only laissez-faire, libertarian economics can create.  My father’s family ascended through the social ranks in this developing society, as they tell it, through business acumen, quintessentially Cuban inventiveness, and a sprinkling of luck, beginning a story that could not have been more American if José Martí had failed to convince Cubans of their island’s distinctiveness.

My father was born in 1957, 59 years after Cuba’s independence from Spain was realized and with Fidel Castro’s revolutionary warpath through the island already beginning.  By the time he escaped the island eleven years later, the Gonzalez family’s holdings had been expropriated, Cuba was a Soviet satellite, and my grandfather had already been imprisoned for taking out that insult on the Communists during the 1961 American attack.

Dad got his American start as a child refugee fleeing a Communist government that stole everything his family had built.  He spoke no English, was accompanied only by his ailing mother, and would not see his father again until years later, in a story I do not yet fully understand.  He landed in New Jersey, long one of the United States’s receiving grounds for those who could no longer live in their original homelands and one of the country’s most vibrantly multicultural regions.

I will never fault him for the irrepressible, fiery drive that propelled him through school, taught him English, kept him working multiple jobs to help support his sick family, and got him into college-preparatory programs without a great deal of the aid that a modern student in similar straits would have received.  I will never fault him for the well-honed social intuition and work ethic that helped him rise, against his own desires, through the ranks of grocery-store management when his mother’s medical needs prevented him from continuing with school.  I will never fault him for the financial genius that got him into flipping houses in the 1970s and 1980s.  I will never fault him for the sheer willpower that kept him working full-time and renovating houses for sale the rest of the time, while Mom was doing the same, for over 15 years.  I will never fault him for the accumulated, experiential wisdom that enabled him to sell most of his investment properties and enter a loan-sharking semi-retirement at age 50 while putting three kids through university with no student loan debt.

I would not be an American if I did any less than beam with pride at my parent’s story.  It’s something that Horatio Alger might have written—the classic American tale of starting with nothing and ending with everything.

But it’s also the kind of story that affects how people see the world.  Poverty and struggle shape one’s mind and leave scars that no lifetime of riches to follow can ever dispel.

Dad collects things.  I’m not talking about the souvenir shot glass he brings home from every tourist destination he visits.  Dad had a basement full of old air conditioners that ultimately got sold for about $100 as scrap.  Dad used to buy furnished houses and sell them unfurnished.  We have never had fewer than three refrigerators at any time; right now we have more than we have appropriate electrical outlets.  There are at least 50 brooms in our garage.  That is a habit one acquires quickly in poverty, when a windfall of absolutely anythingis something to keep and guard in case it becomes useful, because you probably won’t be able to buy an equivalent if you end up needing it.  That’s a habit one keeps well into the middle class, when buying new things is suddenly possible but still not something that one can do on a whim.  That’s a habit that has served me well in my graduate school life, making a fair fraction of the items in our apartment a batch of mismatched foundlings from all over Ottawa.

It’s also made sure that Dad’s political views align neatly with the way they’d have to be for saying grace to make sense.

When one gets their start in as inimical a culture as revolutionary Cuba and then restarts in the ruthlessly competitive USA, it’s easy to develop a siege mentality.  Add the kind of cultural pride that prevents a person from asking for help even if they know they’ll get it, and it’s guaranteed.  One develops a prevailing view of a world that is almost sentient in its hostility to you and yours, requiring avoidance and combat.  One starts to subdivide everyone that isn’t in one’s immediate moral circle into things and people that are beneficial to you, to be cultivated and encouraged as much as possible without deliberately hurting anyone else; things that don’t alter your fortunes, to be ignored; and things that harm your interests and those of the people you care about, to be defeated, exiled, and bombed into a plain of fused glass.  The very idea of caring about things that affect other people seems like a luxury one cannot afford.  The very idea that someone who scares you might not actually be the bad guy is too much to process over the mad adrenaline rush to keep one’s children safe from perceived danger.  It’s safer to regard everyone and everything as “enemies” by default and sort them out later, after you build your castle.

One stops seeing people who aren’t citizens of one’s country as people, and starts seeing them as an invading force here to take what you’ve fought tooth and nail to acquire.  One stops seeing the waves of undocumented Mexicans that sneak across the Rio Grande and overstay tourist visas as fellow sojourners after the American dream and starts seeing them as the reason why Florida’s public schools are a national laughingstock.  One starts to see the ordinary Pakistani farmers that bounty hunters sell as “terrorists” to American military contractors to settle village political spats as acceptable collateral damage in the “war on terror,” and not as a war crime that the US is committing.

One starts to think that it’d solve problems, instead of make the world a worse place for everyone, if parents had to prove their legal status before putting their children in public school and got deported on the spot if they could not, because that would reduce the imagined load on the school system and, from there, Florida’s property tax, leaving you more money to spend on you and yours.

One starts to think that patriotism is believing that something becomes right by virtue of one’s country doing it, and that recognizing treating undocumented migrants like subhumans and buying people to put in prison without charges or trials are crimes against the human race is treasonous.  One starts to find it easier to say, “go ahead and look through my phone records; I’ve got nothing to hide and you’ve got terrorists to annihilate to keep me safe” than “You know, the spying programs that Edward Snowden leaked are blatantly illegal and against everything the country that received me from an actual totalitarian dictatorship stands for, and that is an outrage.”  Because not supporting one’s team puts it in danger and the world is a hostile, besieging force that capitalizes on any such weakness.

And American media and politics are all too keen to capitalize on that noxious fear.  Entire political movements have built themselves around the fear of labor unions, black people, immigrants, adequately funding education, Communist takeovers, western Asian people, southern Asian people, eastern Asian people, and virtually every other possible subset of American society that might be construed as a threat to a recently enhanced economic position.

This is a motivation and a mindset that does marvellously well in business and which tugs at my sympathy profoundly.  Looking out for number 1—and 1a and 1b and 1c and 1d—there’s nothing more natural than that.  This is a parent’s love pitted against an inimical, uncaring world, the simplest of noble emotions.

And it renders us into reflexive, terrified, self-destructive beasts if we don’t temper it with information.

This is a view that makes it extremely difficult to see society-level benefits that are the smallest bit complicated or non-business-oriented.  The idea that telling black people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that they’ve had over a century to ascend to the same ranks this Spanish-speaking Cold War pawn did in a few decades, so what the hell is their excuse, is GROTESQUELY insulting?  That doesn’t occur to this mindset.  Such people do not deserve sympathy, sayeth the Cold War baby, and expecting him to help them with his own resources (i.e., taxes or charity) is telling him to put his own family in jeopardy to help someone else’s.  The idea that a society without the punishing racially-motivated income inequality, law-enforcement racism, and other forms of discrimination that plague black communities would be better for everyone, not just for black people…that takes a lot of effort to demonstrate to such a person’s satisfaction.  They only see a parade of black faces on the crime section of the nightly news, and shed all sympathy for those associated with it.

This is a mindset that cannot easily get past the idea of “illegal immigrants taking my jobs and raising my taxes” toward the unfathomable economic boon that immigration represents, no matter its legality, so they promote draconian measures to make sure that anyone with the temerity to seek a better life in the US faster than our magnificently dysfunctional legal system will permit is treated significantly worse than, say, people serving life sentences for murder.  To encourage them to leave.  This is a mindset for which actively making the country their kids inhabit a worse place is an acceptable solution to other people wanting to live and work in it.  So that it keeps on being just for them.

This is a mindset that learns that heroin addiction is a dreadful and extremely dangerous health condition that prods desperate people toward crime, and throws the proverbial book at anyone who’s ever been in the same room as a street intoxicant, rendering someone with the misfortune of a drug habit that got ahead of them into a persona non grata for essentially every conceivable resource that could get them or keep them out of a criminal tailspin after that.  To “scare” desperate people into not easing their desperation that way.  So that drugs “disappear” and never get near their kids.

When fear takes over, empathy is suppressed.

When one builds a successful life behind the castle walls of zero-sum thinking, the idea of a broader society—city, state, country, species, planet—becomes an inchoate fantasy of pampered bleeding-hearts who, paradoxically, don’t care about their families or personal affairs enough to focus on them instead of on these broader causes.   The idea that one can improve the lot of the people they care about by improving everyone’s lot, by making this country a more equal and more caring place for everyone, does not come easily.

If there’s any idea I wish my father had taken from his brief stretch in a totalitarian Communist state, I wish that instead of being weirdly okay with intrusive surveillance of his every digital move and with treating prisoners, black people, and undocumented immigrants like particularly unwelcome cockroaches, it’d have been that.
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