Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Playing The Kid Card

The Elián González case reveals that a cynical hostility toward children runs beneath the surface of American culture

By Michael Bronski

APRIL 17, 2000:  Elián González is the most popular Cuban child in America since Little Ricky arrived during the January 19, 1953, episode of I Love Lucy. Like Little Ricky, the Elián we have come to know is a fiction. He has become a series of little Eliáns: the poster boy for anti-Castro political activists, pro-Cuba forces, fathers'-rights advocates, child-welfare workers, and champions of fairer immigration policies. Americans love these Eliáns because the story of the motherless boy, caught between his fanatically anti-Castro Miami relatives and his Cuban father, has struck a raw social nerve.

That's why the story became so big, of course: it tapped into a larger cultural phenomenon. We've seen this before. The O.J. Simpson trial, which on a storyboard would have looked like a second-rate Hollywood thriller, became a national debate on race. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings aired a miasma of conflicting feelings about he-said/she-said gender politics. Monicagate unleashed a tumultuous public discussion about privacy, sex, and political figures. And in some visceral way the story of Elián González has uncovered -- though it has not particularly illuminated -- the enormous anxiety and ambivalence that many Americans feel about children.

On the surface, we are obsessed with the welfare of kids: "Save the children" is a common rallying cry. Save the children from cigarettes, from porn on the Internet, from violence on television. Save them from sex, from drugs, from cults, from guns. Save them from people trying to save them from something we think is okay. But instead of showing how much we care about children, these examples actually demonstrate how willing we are to use children to achieve our own political ends. That's not to say, of course, that young kids should smoke, drink, get stoned, or shoot each other. But the national rhetoric about saving children is just that: rhetoric. It's easy to manipulate public opinion, votes, and campaign contributions by playing the kid card.

If you want to see what lies beneath the save-the-children rhetoric, just look at our social policies. We are more than willing to discuss the notion that children as young as 11 should be prosecuted as adults if they shoot and kill other kids. But we're less than willing to break the stranglehold the National Rifle Association has on lawmakers over the no-brainer issue of safety locks on guns. Nor are we willing to enact policies that would make it hard for children to gain access to firearms -- even in view of tragedies such as the recent case in Michigan, where a six-year-old shot and killed a classmate who had made fun of him. Yet we continue to support measures that would give district attorneys more latitude in prosecuting children who commit crimes -- as if this would somehow protect all our children. In the meantime, one in 910 children will be killed by a gun by the age of 20, according to the Children's Defense Fund. Children under the age of 18 are 16 times more likely to be murdered with a gun in the US than in any other Western country.

We are a nation that trumpets the importance of family and "family values" (though different constituencies may define that term in different ways). Yet we have gradually dismantled a half-century's worth of social programs designed to make sure that children in poor families have decent housing, basic health care, and enough to eat. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, for example, has profoundly hurt children. Mothers who have been forced into workfare programs, or into taking minimum-wage jobs (which almost never offer health benefits), often lose the health coverage that Medicare once provided for themselves and their children, and they often have no access to affordable day care for preschoolers. In 1998, 13.5 million children -- one in five -- lived beneath the poverty line, according to the Children's Defense Fund. And one in 12 now lives in a family whose income was less than half the poverty level. In 1997, according to an ABC News report, 11.8 million people depended on food stamps; half of them were children. In 1998 a Government Accounting Office report showed that many states were unfairly, and often illegally, denying food stamps to families where children were eligible. The Children's Defense Fund also reports that in 1999 fewer than one-quarter of medium-to-large companies paid 100 percent of family health-insurance coverage, a benefit that almost all such employers provided in 1980. No surprise, then, that one in six US children has no health insurance, according to the advocacy organization, even though most of those children live in families in which one or both parents are employed. And one in 26 American children is born with only late prenatal care, or none at all. The US ranks 22nd out of 25 industrialized countries for infant mortality: according to the Centers for Disease Control, a baby dies every 18 minutes in America.

As we search for common ground between our rhetoric about protecting children and our demonstrated willingness to relinquish responsibility for them, we have turned to the media to create huge-scale myths about endangered children. Rooted in some basic facts, these stories thrill and enthrall us. We avidly watch and read about scenarios in which children are abandoned, jeopardized, even killed. And we use them to project our own confused fantasies about the possibilities of saving -- or not saving -- those children.

Elián González is merely the latest in a long line of larger-than-life child victims. In 1932 the Lindbergh baby's kidnapping blazed across newspaper pages for months, catching the imagination of families that were worried about their own security in the midst of the Depression. Meanwhile, Shirley Temple -- with her childish yet seductive demeanor -- created a happy alternative myth that was a top draw at the box office.

A more recent example is what Time called "one of the most followed stories of the decade": the rescue of "Baby Jessica" McClure, a three-year-old who fell into an abandoned well in Midland, Texas, on October 16, 1987. For more than two days, the media bombarded the country with the details of her 58-hour ordeal. In November of that year, the plight of Lisa Steinberg, the illegally adopted child of New York lawyer Joel Steinberg and writer Hedda Nussbaum, made national headlines when the girl died as a result of Steinberg's beatings. Little Lisa became a symbol for domestic abuse of children. In 1995 the nation was gripped by the fates of three-year-old Michael Smith and his 14-month-old brother Alex, who drowned when their mother, Susan Smith, secured them with seat belts and pushed her car into a North Carolina lake. And, of course, the unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey -- who is alternately portrayed as a sexualized beauty queen and an innocent child -- is still a favorite topic of tabloids, special reports, morning news shows, and made-for-television movies. Elián González is now the emblem of the innocent youth, "tempest-tost" on the endlessly roiling sea of life.

From the beginning, Elián González has been plagued by people trying to "save" him, or whichever one of the myriad media-produced Eliáns they believe he is. First it was his Cuban-American relatives demanding to save him from Castro. Then his father's wish to have him returned to Cuba escalated into a plea to save him from his Miami relatives. Florida senator Connie Mack wants to save him from Communism, Attorney General Janet Reno wants to save him from the Miami Cuban political community, and Al Gore wants . . . well, he just wants to save his own presidential campaign. None of this is about Elián. It is about political and personal agendas, saving face, getting votes, getting elected.

Elián González should have been returned to his father as quickly as possible after his unfortunate adventure at sea. By not doing so -- and by turning him into a series of cheap political symbols -- the adults around him have not treated this boy with dignity or respect. His Miami relatives have, in fact, treated him as disrespectfully as American politicians treat American children when they use kids for rhetorical fodder while neglecting their actual welfare.

And the American public that can't get enough of the minute-by-minute reports from the battlefront that has become Elián's life? We are as complicit as the politicians in refusing to view him as a real person and not a media sensation, a child who has undergone a terribly traumatic experience. Save Elián: turn off your television, stop your voyeurism. This is not I Love Lucy. This is real life.


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