“What did you want to take my dad?” I hop into my dad’s car and he doesn’t even try to hide his curiosity about the gift I told him I wanted to visit the cemetery to leave with my grandfather.
“A drink,” I reply, holding up a flask. It’s my first chance to visit the cemetery with my father since Fidel Castro passed — it’s been about a week. In case you didn’t know this already, I’m a second-generation Cuban-American, y soy guajiro.
The spartan green flask is filled to the cap with Havana Club — El Ron de Cuba. Fitting. Founded in 1934, it was one of the many businesses nationalized at the heels of Castro’s revolution in 1959. For those new to how La Revolución worked, ‘nationalized’ means a guy or forty show up in a guerrilla uniforms with rifles slung across their backs, and they take your land and everything on it. In the name of the revolution.
They keep taking to the tune of $25 billion worth of private property and assets owned by 1960 (that’s Cubans only, excluding foreign-owned assets). Cuba was a nation of 7.1 million in 1960. That’s roughly $3,520 per person. Adjust for inflation, and that’s over $28,000 in buying power, per person. On a Caribbean island.
But I digress. Back to the rum. Havana Club is the 5th-best selling rum worldwide, but it’s not available in the United States. However, it commonly makes its way into the US via travelers — which is how I came to have a bottle. It was a 30th birthday present from a Chilean friend that had just visited family back home.
That’s how most Cuban-Americans like me have grown up: relegated to experiencing anything Cuba might have to offer through the offerings and anecdotes of others. This is the great disconnect of the experience of exile: your roots become something you can almost never experience first-hand.
You can’t go home again, and so on.
Anyway, I shared most of the bottle with friends, and poured the last bit into that green flask — intent on slipping it into a jean pocket before sliding out the door on some forgotten Miami night.
The forgotten night I imagined in my mind never came. Instead, the flask sat atop my bar for nearly two years, waiting for some unknown moment.
When Castro passed, I thought of my grandfather’s sacrifices to get my family from Cuba to the United States. I thought about how, with a third-grade education and not able to speak a word of English, he provided a home my grandmother still lives in and put two sons through college. And I knew who I had been saving the rum for, because I never really got the chance to thank him.
As we draw closer to our destination, my dad reminisces on how he was my age, 31, when his father passed away at 66. He tells me something he’s never shared before:
“He waited for me — when he was dying. He asked my mom to call me, because he wanted to hear my voice.” After they spoke for a moment, my grandfather passed away with my father on the line.
We sit in silence as we approach the cemetery gates. I don’t ask what they spoke of. What mattered was that my grandfather waited — and my father picked up.
Since Trump’s election, every would-be professor with a blog and History 1101 on their transcript has drawn parallels between Trump’s rise and the downfall of the Roman Empire. In a word:
In a few more words, spare me the comparison between the guy who brought America this:
and Julius Caesar. There is no poignant parallel to be drawn between the guy in that video and the guy who crossed the Rubicon, started and won a civil war, was proclaimed “dictator in perpetuity” and ruled until the Roman Senate decided the only way to get rid of him was to assassinate him.
Spare us the cliche, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper,” subtext. I can appreciate that “the empire is falling” is catchy headline fodder. But the man in that video hasn’t actually done anything in office yet, he’s no general and no one thinks we’ll have to kill him to get rid of him. With the right candidate, Trump is sent packing in 2020.
Maybe not if what takes the place of yesterday’s politically correct leaders is a President that takes to Twitter to personally retort with an ad hominem attack to every jab someone with an IMDb page takes at him, uses press conferences as a bully pulpit to belittle and mock reporters trying to provide the American people with a free press, and rationalizes war crimes. And does all of this before getting started with — you know — the actual job.
That being the state of affairs, the fall of the Roman Empire is a fitting analogy for what happens under President Trump only in some journalistic reality that escapes me. So does the world in which it’s fun to read or write about analogies between world history and Donald J. Trump.
So let’s do it a little differently. Let’s not make a parallel between the politicians and historical cliches we’re all tired of talking and hearing about.
Let’s talk about ourselves. Let’s draw a parallel between what’s happening to us as a society and a slice of pop culture history that’s decidedly a bit more modern. Let’s talk about how our media, politicians, and technology have put us into an intellectual exile — and how now is the time to come out of it.
And let’s look at it all through the lens of one of my personal favorite historical exiles: The Rolling Stones’ 1972 album, Exile on Main St.
The album runs the gamut of all sounds Americana. As it does, it transports you to every forgotten locals-only venue, hopeful gospel choir crescendo, and dimly-lit street corner with a guitarist cathartically humming through 12-bar blues across a disjointed 1950’s – 70’s America.
What does any of that have to do with Trump’s America? Is this just more fake news? The answers may shock you.
“Always in a hurry, I never stop to worry,
Don’t you see the time flashin’ by.
Honey, got no money,
I’m all sixes and sevens and nines.
Say now, baby, I’m the rank outsider,
You can be my partner in crime.
But baby, I can’t stay,
You got to roll me and call me the tumblin’,
Roll me and call me the tumblin’ dice.”
Living in America today means for too many—one way or another — feeling like you’ve been watching the greatest show on earth get away from us.
This is true if you’re a liberal that thinks we need to get corporate money out of politics. This is true if you’re a conservative that legitimately wants to make a visibly fractured America great again.
This is true if you think we need to drain the swamp. This is true if you’re perplexed that to drain it, we chose a crocodile of a man possessing obvious conflicts of interests. This is true if you think the people that wanted to task a politician with draining the swamp thought that one out using only the reptilian part of their brains.
You’ve felt like something has been getting away from us if you’ve noticed that our dictionary of terms canonical terms like “left” and “right” are becoming increasingly useless for parsing out our mutual interests or coming close to describing what’s actually going on in our country.
You feel it’s getting away from us when more and more people get their news from social media, and then you consider how social media rewards engagement (i.e., entertainment) over useful, empowering information (i.e., insightful, opinion-informing content).
It’s true if you feel more and more like a pair of tumbling dice someone else gets to roll. Or if you feel more and more like the dice are loaded against a bet we’re all asked to make — and should make — on ourselves.
As a nation, we’re similar in many ways to The Stones during the Exile era.
We both have some very amazing, inspiring and often very black influences. Similarly to how The Stones synthesized the worlds of white and black music in an unprecedented way, we’re also an unprecedented synthesis of cultures struggling to find common ground in world that tries to define us as one genre or another.
We both have enjoyed improbable and welcome longevity, in spite of our enemies, misfortunes and streaks of self-destructiveness. We’ve both changed “our sound” and lineups to adapt to new cultural eras, while still managing to remain tethered to our roots.
We’re masters of advertising and propaganda. We love symbols and logos.
We can ask if we’re the best show on earth, and we’re also the ones who get to answer that question.
Maybe we’ve also been on the run from a figurative tax. Maybe we’ve pushed ourselves to a level of excess our creativity might not outpace. Maybe tensions between different groups have grown to an irreconcilable fever pitch.
Maybe we’ve stopped caring that what was, even if only for a brief moment, the greatest democracy in the world get away from us.
Stop Breaking Down
“Stop breaking down, mama, please, stop breaking down.
Stuff is gonna bust your brains out, baby,
Gonna make you lose your mind.”
In the 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, a reporter asked Chomsky about the “filters that propaganda is sent through, on its way to the public.” Here’s an except from his reply:
“It’s extremely important if history is going to be shaped in an appropriate way, that certain things appear, certain things not appear, certain questions be asked, other questions be ignored, and that issues be framed in a particular fashion. Now in whose interests is history being so shaped? Well, I think that’s not very difficult to answer.
Now, to eliminate confusion, all of this has nothing to do with liberal or conservative bias. According to the propaganda model, both liberal and conservative wings of the media — whatever those terms are supposed to mean — fall within the same framework of assumptions.
In fact, if the system functions well, it ought to have a liberal bias, or at least appear to. Because if it appears to have a liberal bias, that will serve to bound thought even more effectively.
In other words, if the press is indeed adversarial and liberal and all these bad things, then how can I go beyond it? They’re already so extreme in their opposition to power that to go beyond it would be to take off from the planet. So therefore it must be that the presuppositions that are accepted in the liberal media are sacrosanct — can’t go beyond them. And a well-functioning system would in fact have a bias of that kind. The media would then serve to say in effect: Thus far and no further."
Chomsky’s incisive words long-painted an accurate model for our media. With present-day corporate media seeking to hold on to this way of life, it is still very accurate in many ways.
That said, this election cycle challenged and repudiated the media’s role in establishing and predicting consent — evidenced by how blindsided they were by the rise of two populist candidates in Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Both found success in ideas squarely outside of what most would have considered the Overton Window before the election cycle. Trump’s were outside the window in their overt xenophobic and nationalist appeal. Sanders’ ideology was outside the window by virtue of welcoming the label of “socialist,” a word once considered political anathema.
On December 5, 2016, Noam Chomsky and Harry Belafonte appeared on stage together in conversation in front of an audience of several thousand at Riverside Church in Manhattan. During the conversation, Chomsky noted:
“We should also bear in mind what a remarkable phenomenon the Sanders campaign was. I mean, there’s — here’s somebody unknown, came from nowhere; practically no one in the country knew who he was. He was using words like “socialism,” which used to be a real curse word. No corporate support, no media support, no support from the wealthy — everything that has always been crucial to winning elections. Mostly we have bought elections. Had none of it and practically took over one of the two major parties — and could have taken it over if it hadn’t been for shenanigans we know about. That’s — and it was primarily driven by young people. All of these are very hopeful signs.”
Chomsky speaks poignantly about the remarkability of Sanders’ campaign. What’s the obverse reality we’re actually living in? Trump’s campaign, regardless of your position on the man, was also a remarkable phenomenon.
I mean, there’s — here’s somebody politically unknown, came from nowhere; practically no one in the country took him seriously. He was using words like, “expanding nuclear capability” and “pussy,” which used to be real curse words. Little corporate support, little media support, no need for support from the wealthy — everything that has always been crucial to winning elections. Mostly we have bought elections. Had none of it and took over one of the two major parties — with the help of shenanigans we know about. That’s — and it was primarily driven by forces outside of the political establishment.
Unlike Sanders, there isn’t anyone arguing that these are all very hopeful signs. But Trump’s rise means a couple of things are certain:
 Methods of establishing consensus have been challenged and shattered.
 As Belafonte put it to close out the conversation, “There’s some ass kicking out here to be done. And we should do it.”
Shine a Light
“Oh, couldn’t see to get a line on you
My sweet honey love”
Before we knew the GOP could be commandeered by handing out nicknames like “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary,” there was a moment when many thought the possibility of another Clinton vs. Bush election was the worst thing imaginable.
The idea of a choice between a Clinton pseudo-monarchy and Bush pseudo-monarchy — aside from not seeming like much of a choice at all—provided a much greater ideological dilemma for many than whether their party of choice would win the election.
20 of the 32 years I’ve been alive have been spent with a Clinton or Bush in the White House. But for Obama’s unlikely rise in the 2008 Democratic Primaries, that might have been 28 of 32 years.
So why the surprise many millennials siphoned votes to third parties or stayed home?
It seems none of us can afford another election cycle where we’re force-fed a candidate embodying somebody else’s ideals.
If an established party can’t provide us with a candidate, platform or workable proposals that treat our problems and outcomes with intellectual honesty, can we set aside some room in our discourse for a party and candidate that can?
Can we agree that in Trump’s America, the rudderless Democratic Party is not a viable political alternative? Can we demand better?
“Wounded lover, got no time on hand.
One last cycle, thrill freak Uncle Sam.
Pause for bus’ness, hope you’ll understand.
Judge and jury walk out hand in hand.”
There’s a shifting paradigm in politics: the concepts of who’s on the “left” and “right” are becoming increasingly unhinged from 20th-century definitions of liberal and conservative.
To maintain political relevancy in an increasingly global world, the shift demands we look past 20th-century post-industrial questions — like healthcare, equality, gender and civil rights. That’s difficult to do in world where so many are still struggling through healthcare, equality, civil rights and gender-related issues on a daily basis.
But making room for 21st-century talking points in our discourse is necessary in a world where the incumbent Commander in Chief rushed the oval office by answering 21st-century questions of globalization — albeit in regressive, impracticable ways.
What galvanizing answers was Clinton able to provide for any of the decidedly more 21st-century questions framing this past election:
What to do with our borders? How to react to outsourcing and automation?How to be proactive about repurposing our workforce? How to reconcile economic abundance with lack of opportunity? How to recapture economic rents privatizing value built by the public sector? What to do about terrorism? How to combat crony capitalism?
What does the DNC’s failure to provide galvanizing answers to those questions suggest? We bought the wrong product? Or they offered the wrong alternative?