National Post

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Friday, December 17, 1999

Better no dad than a red dad?
Ronald F. Maxwell
National Post

Children don't need mom and dad! They need Disneyland! They don't need love and affection. They need toys.

Watching the spectacle of Elian Gonzalez' relatives showering their long-lost kinsboy with every bauble our conspicuous-consumption culture can offer a six-year-old called to mind the story of Pinocchio, an Italian children's story also expropriated by Disney, albeit brilliantly. Who can forget that scene where Pinocchio is taken to the Isle of Pleasures by his manipulative older pal, only to grow the ears of a donkey?

We needn't question the motives of Elian's Florida relations. We can assume they want what's best for him -- in their eyes -- the same "what's best for him" attitude that grips many families caught in custody fights. But if custody boiled down to who could shower a child with the most gifts, the parent with the most money and least restraint would always win. And in these kinds of situations, what message is getting to these impressionable children? The parent that spoils you, the parent that buys you is the best parent?

In the eyes of many Americans there is only one reason why this boy should not be returned to his father -- summed up in one word -- Cuba. John McCain and everyone else who seeks to gain from waving the flag over this tragedy has chimed in on the side of keeping the boy here. The latest to join the queue is New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is considering inviting Elian to ring in the New year in Times Square. According to one aide, he represents "what America means -- freedom, the right to choose." It appears the old slogan has morphed to, "Better no dad than a red dad."

I don't know what it's like living in Elian's home in Cuba, but I suspect that even for a six-year-old it's very different than life in the U.S. First of all, there's no Disneyland. Imagine what it would be like to grow up in a world with no Disneyland and no Epcot! How did children ever manage?

From the dawn of mankind, whether that dawn was in the Olduvai Gorge or the Garden of Eden, every night for a million, million nights children were nestled up close to their parents and grandparents. From their parents they heard the tales of their people and the stories of their land. This storytelling served as a cohesive bond across the generations, connecting parent with son, great-grandparent with great-grandchild.

Somewhere along the passing of the ages man learned to write. The oral tradition began to be recorded for the greater posterity. Now even we, thousands of years later, know the stories of Moses and Odysseus, of Wotan and Gilgamesh. My father read to me before I could read. I read to my children before they could. In my childhood, the effect, authenticity and appeal of these stories was in no small way influenced by the fact it was my very own father who was sharing these stories with me. In this way, in our own personal communion, we repeated a ritual as old as time. It wasn't entertainment or diversion -- it was the very stuff of life. In retrospect, we weren't just passing the time -- together we were travelling to the far reaches of its great expanse. Together.

But now we live at the turn of the millennium. Parents are not expected to tell stories or read to their young. The young are not expected to await with fascination and excitement the tales of their elders. Now there is Disneyland and Epcot!

Now every child must hear the same story, from the same videotape, at the same volume, for the same price, with the same music at regular identical intervals. They must eat the same fast food in the same plastic containers in identical feeding halls from Kennebunkport to Mission Bay. And parents -- they get to be the chauffeurs and babysitters -- checking in and out of the same hotels in the same RVs eating the same high-fat, low-protein tasteless muck. And once in a while, lately quite often, something really weird happens, like the kids shoot their classmates and teachers when they get a little older. Sometimes even their parents.

Elian lives in what North Americans consider to be a backward, repressive place. It is probably both. Backwards compared to our material comforts and repressive compared to our cherished freedoms. But you don't have to begrudge our marvellous modern conveniences or belittle our hard-won freedoms to see Cuba is not at the inner circle of hell and its children are not falling into its pit.

As an unintended benign result of its isolation and catastrophic controlled economy the country is free of many of the dehumanizing and degrading influences we are so fond of -- our materialistic culture, our worship of celebrity, our greed, our suburban sprawl, our colossal traffic jams and traffic deaths, our epidemic of drugs and crime, our lamentable modern architecture, our pop entertainment banalities, the destruction of our old neighbourhoods and main streets, the wholesale harvesting of our forests, the loss of wilderness, the annihilation of wild animal habitats, and the demolition of childhood. I'll say it again -- the demolition of childhood.

One has to ask one's self. Would Elian be safer growing up in a Cuban or an American school? And returning to the image that prompted this polemic, would he be better off getting his fairytales from the multinational world renowned corporation called Disney or from his little-known father and anonymous grandparents at home?

Ronald F. Maxwell wrote and directed the movie Gettysburg, and is working on a film on Joan of Arc.

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