Edward Said reviews:
- Going to Miami: Exiles, Tourists and Refugees in the New America by David Rieff
Bloomsbury, October 1987
- Miami by Joan Didion
Simon and Schuster, October 1987
Despite the media’s unending stream of patriotic talk about ‘America’, one occasionally has a sense of the country’s disunity, its unmanageable extremes, the foreignness of some of its parts to other parts. Riding the Broadway bus recently, I was struck by the driver’s almost beatific reaction to a passenger’s rudeness to him. Instead of screaming back at the offending person, he smiled gently, saying with an air of contentment: ‘Scream all you like. That’s OK. In California they don’t just argue – they shoot each other.’ He was referring to the spate of freeway incidents near Los Angeles, in which impatient or stalled commuters picked each other off with rifles and handguns in the midst of the vast traffic jams.
Suddenly one realised again that California and New York were not, in fact, two States in a comfortable union, but countries like, say, Britain and Bulgaria co-existing somehow on the same continent. There is, as every traveller to America has said, a stratum of monotonous sameness in the country, of regimented, mass-produced uniformity, of a pervasive unchanging pallidness that one associates with the Middle West or the Plains, which communicates the tremendous loneliness and anonymity to be found in American life. Yet it is no less true that the New America is a great deal less provincial and regimented. Much of this is due to the emergence of a counter-culture of the Left and of the Right in the Sixties, a mass counterculture whose affiliation with non-American currents of thought, habits of life – styles of radical will, in Susan Sontag’s phrase – have continued well past that now excoriated decade. But a great deal of the change in the country has to do with re-configurations in demography and economic power.
Regional characteristics, once as stable and as predictable as any stubborn cultural stereotype, are now bewilderingly volatile. The Sun Belt with Texas at its heart, formerly booming, enterprising, extravagant, is in a deep slump. New England has never been more prosperous. The Middle West, with its farms and its grain and commodity exchanges, has receded in importance as the financial and service centres, in New York and California, rise and fall with Gatsby-like flair. Those frightening actualities of foreign provenance – trade deficits, Aids, terrorism, Soviet evil, immigrants – have recently overtaken the society as a whole, reduced its distance from the rest of the world, made it less impervious to sudden changes or catastrophes: Ronald Reagan’s SDI-fixation is, I think, partly to be understood as a placebo for these overseas ills, a defence to end all defences.
Not the least of the changes have been the demographic ones, as caused by immigration, itself often, but not always, a function of American overseas intervention. The principal fact is that there is now a precarious balance in American society between the so-called melting-pot, with all its ideological, economic and social appurtenances, and the disruptive flooding into the pot of new arrivals from abroad whose purpose, it seems, is to find prosperity and to form a functioning national and economic unit within America. In New York City, for example, most of the fruit and vegetable shops are Korean, the news-stands Indian or Pakistani, hot-dog carts and small luncheonettes Greek, street pedlars Senegalese; a large population of Dominicans, Haitians, Ecuadorans and Jamaicans have made inroads into proletarian domains once populated by Blacks and Puerto Ricans, just as Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese children play the role once reserved for bright, upwardly-mobile and professionally-inclined Eastern European Jews.
Nowhere is the same pattern more dramatic than in Miami, a great resort and retirement capital for the Northeast, now – as David Rieff puts it in Going to Miami – a mirror city to Havana. There have been no less than five recent books on Miami, of which those by Rieff and Joan Didion,[*] quite different in tone and treatment, are the most prominent. Miami has also become crucial to the whole Central American drama, whether because it is where the Contras are headquartered, or because the drug and intelligence traffic has found it a convenient on-shore location. In any case, Miami is hardly an American city any more, so dominant are the Cuban exiles, so loosely attached is South Florida to the mainland.
Rieff’s is the gentler, the more forgiving, of the two books. Miami for him is a genuinely interesting place in which illusions and media images (those from the television series Miami Vice, for example) have gradually taken over the city, along with the Cuban and other Latin American exiles. Since there is no real literature about Miami, Rieff relies for background on his impressions and on the city’s easily perceived history of hucksterism, violence, and massive architectural schemes, for his evocation of a place still in the process of being made and re-made. But this, he says, is an American phenomenon. ‘All of America seems more and more theatrical: everyone is posing as someone, and, with the Walkman, providing their own soundtrack. The fantasy counts for more and more.’
Although Rieff is taken by Miami, and describes its people and sights with affection – something Didion doesn’t even try to do – he is always really talking about bigger subjects, more challenging ideas, most of which seem to defy ordinary conceptions of what a nation is or what time and space are. Miami turns out often to be what he calls an ‘anthology’ – a word suggesting co-existence but not unity, or a city made up of various warring but aesthetically inevitable parts. There is a Cuban Miami, there is Anglo Miami, a considerably less interesting place, and there is finally the volcano that is Black Miami, in a constant rumble as it seethes with unsettled social and economic problems. But the most interesting sections of Rieff’s journal are his ruminations on the new facts of late 20th-century exile, a profoundly important experience which he discusses, I think, with rare intelligence.
Rieff portrays himself as a man without real attachments to family life or to place – he is a New Yorker, after all – and thus he tries to develop familial attachments to the lush Southern metropolis. But he cannot really be at home there since the new form of 20th-century exile excludes all but the ethnic members of the main exile group. Cubans in Florida remain Cubans, interested in Cuban affairs, setting up their own Havanas in Miami. Miami is not only now a few quick miles from Jamaica and Haiti: it is also just a short flight away from South America. Much the same can be said of immigrants and exiles in New York. Having come to the New World in an age of rapid travel and communication no longer means that you have to give up the old country, since it turns out you can bring it with you. A century ago, the implacable realities ‘of geography meant that, over time (though, of course, a longer time than most people like to recall), most immigrants began to forget the old country in much the way that even the most bereaved of lovers eventually ceases to be able accurately to picture a loved one’s face. Now the simple accessibility of the entire world via air travel makes such a forgetfulness all but unattainable. Paradoxically, it seems the fact that one can arrive anywhere from anywhere else in a matter of a few hours means that no one in fact lives anywhere.’
So Rieff, too, is an itinerant, a man for whom airports and terminals have perhaps greater significance than do homes and the stabilities of settled nationality. Yet what particularly distinguishes his writing is the acute recognition it affords that, in bringing their old lives with them, the new instant exiles also dislocate the previous inhabitants of places like Miami. Thus the more Miami houses Cubans, the more, metaphorically, the process dislodges and makes uncomfortable the Anglo and Black populations. At times the reader might feel that Rieff’s presence among the Cubans and the one or two Anglos he encounters is an even newer form of exile: not that of the wandering journalist, but that of the literate citizen in Reagan’s and – William Casey’s – America, a sensibility discovering the range and scope of numerous private entrepreneurial groups as they make America over into a private corporation conducting its activities as so many aggressive sales campaigns. No less than Miami, the country has become ‘the sum of its special interests’, with the difference that in Miami ‘the hemisphere seems to be coming ashore’ in order to plot counter-revolutions, to assassinate or otherwise eliminate enemies, to buy and sell cars, houses, people and, naturally, drugs.
To read Rieff on Miami is to recall with nostalgia John Berger’s The Seventh Man, with its haunting photographs by Jean Mohr of migrant Turkish or Italian workers in Switzerland, and its affecting notions about home and wandering. Rieff deals, not with a potentially Left force, but with violently right-wing exiles, not poor and victimised, but middle and upperclass for the most part, and manipulated by, as well as manipulating, their American hosts. It would be difficult to say that Rieff, any more than Didion, who actually seems to dislike the Cuban-Americans, was deeply involved with Miami and its causes. There is curiosity, some sympathy, a string of entertaining aperçus, and excellent writing, but there isn’t the advocacy we associate either with Berger or with The Road to Wigan Pier – books by outsiders whose political affiliations bring them to the material. Despite his obvious regard for the city, Rieff has definitively had his experience of Miami: ‘nothing I saw through the window of the cab seemed to signify very much more than any other short ride through a midsized American city,’ he writes as he leaves for the last time, with little more than mild wonderment remaining of the enthusiasm he had felt at the start.
This rather odd ending is more understandable when juxtaposed with Didion’s book. Like Rieff, she is drawn to the place as the symbol of a change in the country that won’t be ignored (she opens Chapter Eight by ironically quoting Allen Dulles’s post-Bay of Pigs remark, ‘don’t forget that we have a disposal problem’). For, once having opened Miami and American politics to the intra-Cuban dispute, Yankee rulers are no longer in a position to dispose of the hangers-on. Although she doesn’t say it, Didion draws a portrait of Miami as a place – unlike Vietnam, Lebanon, Iran or Nicaragua – from which the US cannot withdraw. And she is angry. Yet neither Rieff nor she knows what to do with their analyses: he leaves the place, while she gets angrier and angrier, precisely because neither has a commitment to some ongoing politics or to a unified and stable America.
Didion is greatly exercised by the Cuban exiles in Miami: as a result, her book is much more journalistic, current, scandalised than Rieff’s. Curiously, however, it’s been described by theNew York Times as ‘compassionate’ and perceptive. Didion’s Miami seems to me to alienate one, and to communicate a relentless, pitiless indignation and scorn. Her theory is that the Cubans are the heirs ‘to the Spanish Inquisition’ and that ‘the matrix’ of people like José Marti ‘was essentially autocratic’. North Americans, on the other hand, are ‘the heirs to a tradition in which undue effort had been spent defining the rights and responsibilities of “good citizens” ’. The result is an unhealthy mix: Cubans believe in la lucha, la causa as real things, and they do so with a singleminded and intolerant intensity in an American city ruled by a government for whom Latin American policy is only an abstraction.
The chronicle that ensues is powerful stuff, an appalling tale of secret organisations, paranoid sentiments, profit and violence in a declining and indecent new America. Didion’sMiami is also, and much more ominously, the story of how America’s clients manage to elicit from various government agencies – and from the crazy right-wing enthusiasts whose wealth has made a foreign policy of its own during the Reagan era – an alliance. Didion suggests that the likes of it have not been seen before. She is devastating in her analysis of the prose and ideology of something called the Santa Fe document, a blueprint for frankly imperialist policies in Latin American countries. Sample: ‘Human rights which is a culturally and politically relative concept ... must be abandoned and replaced by a non-interventionist [sic] policy of political and ethical realism.’ Such accents build to a statement concerning the ‘metaphysical’ crisis, the war for the minds of Latin Americans, which these unrestrained ideologues in Santa Fe and Washington are determined to win. From their various ‘outreach’ programmes came the private Contra-funding, the secret arms deals, the drug-smuggling operations, and the still unconfirmed CIA activities described by Robert Woodward in Veil.
While fully agreeing with many of her views, I think Didion is slightly naive, as if the Cuban exiles of Miami were the only such group with émigré interests at work in the US Government and its entrepreneurial adjuncts. Think of the Israeli lobby and the massive organisational and quasi-governmental power it has, and the Cubans will appear less formidable. As for marketing and packaging, the activities of the China lobby, the oil and tobacco industries, the Teamsters – all these have been around for a while and could have provided her with useful indications of the extent to which public policy was already a combination of private interests and illusion well before the Cubans staggered ashore.
Thus even though Miami is a political book, it somehow falls short of politics. Didion is a writer, not a journalist, and despite her skilful use of out-of-the-way sources, she is not fully an alternative or oppositional figure, not a C. Wright Mills, nor a Chomsky, nor an Alexander Cockburn. It is not only that she doesn’t articulate the full setting of the problems that anger her: she seems unaware of the US policy of acquiring and then disposing of right-wing clients, almost everywhere in the world. True, her Miami is the new America – that is, a place in the US now made over by belated immigrants – but its novelty would have been sharpened for us had she realised that, given its sordid earlier phases, the American century would have had to end this way: the country abandoned to the private sector, racked with fear and vindictiveness, split into regional fiefdoms, manipulated by white-collar gangsters and other mutants created by the managerial revolution.
I had thought that her style was the cause of these striking failures in grasp and vision. I now think her style is a symptom. Consider the following:
The coup which the United States would never allow to take place had in fact by the 1980s largely supplanted, as an exile plot point, the invasion which the United States had never allowed to take place, and was for the time being, until something more concrete came along (the narrative bones for this something, the projected abandonment of the Nicaraguan contras, were of course already in place), the main story line for what el exilio continued to see as its betrayal, its utilisation, its manipulation, by the government of the United States.
This is mannered and highly self-conscious prose, ungainly and even downright ugly. Does it clarify an idea or a principle or a fact? It certainly requires some effort to disentangle, and it certainly mirrors the stalemate between Cubans and Americans. But after reading it one is only able to sense a generalised impropriety, an unfocused and finally cynical plague-on-both disapproval.
Or there is this bravura series of sentences, where Didion animadverts on how ‘policy’ is communicated by the Reagan White House:
It was taken for granted that the key to understanding the policy could be found in the shifts of position and ambition among the President’s men. It was taken for granted that the President himself was, if not exactly absent when Larry Speakes ordered lights out, something less than entirely present, the condition expressed even then by the code word ‘incurious’. It was taken for granted, above all, that the reporters and camera operators and still photographers and sound technicians and lighting technicians and producers and electricians and on-camera correspondents showed up at the White House because the President did, and it was also taken for granted, the more innovative construction, that the President showed up at the White House because the reporters and camera operators and still photographers and sound technicians and lighting technicians and producers and electricians and on-camera correspondents did.
This passage successfully conveys the spurious and mechanical reality of the Reagan White House. The scene also realises one of Rieff’s points, the pressure of media hype on creating ‘news’. Rieff, however, says so explicitly, while Didion prefers to play with it, so that by the end you are as fed up as she is. And impressed with her skill.
Finally, there is this indictment of Reagan and his team:
Other things were less clear than they might have been. One thing that was less clear, in those high years of the Reagan administration when we had not yet begun to see just how the markers were being moved, was how many questions there might later be about what had been the ends and what the means, what the problem and what the solution; about what, among people who measured the consequences of what they said and did exclusively in terms of approval ratings affected and network news calibrated and pieces of legislation passed or not passed, had come first, the war for the minds of mankind or the private funding network or the need to make a move for those troops on the far frontiers. What was also less clear then, particularly in Washington, most abstract of cities, entirely absorbed by the messages it was sending itself, narcotised by its own action, rapt in the contemplation of its own markers and its own moves, was just how much residue was already on the board.
‘Less clear’ to whom? The phrase has a minatory quality to it: it scolds and harasses both the reader and of course the sleazy bureaucrats, but there is no suggestion here as to what it would be like to be clear, or what should have been done. Clarity here is just a word it might be nice to pronounce.
And that is the problem with Didion’s work. It offers no politics beyond its sometimes admirably crafted turns of phrase, its arch conceits, its carefully designed but limited effects. We are never told what US relations with Cuba or Nicaragua should be, beyond being made to realise that they shouldn’t be like this. Now anger and outrage are, at the outset, healthy: so far as the Cuban killer squads like Omega 7 are concerned, anger is an appropriate emotion, particularly as such organisations represent a mind-set as low and reactionary as almost to defy comprehension. Didion and Rieff both speak of one Bernardo Benes, whose irredeemable sin, in the eyes of his émigré compatriots in Miami, was that he was forimproving relations between Castro and the United States: Benes has been ostracised, threatened, blackmailed and otherwise harassed, just because he broke ranks with the Miami orthodoxy. Even so dubious a figure as Mario Vargas Llosa is regarded by the Cuban groups as a Communist. Didion’s way with all this, plus the numerous scams and hits run by the Cuban gangs, is to expose them mercilessly, to get her readers angry. But she goes no further.
Putting her seal of disapproval on Miami is therefore Didion’s task. Because both she and Rieff are so restricted to aspects of their subjects, he to his impressions, she to her scandalised sensibility, the shared result is a non-political politics. And while one is prepared to accept Rieff’s diary for what it is, a diary, Didion’s book – with its often clumsy prose, its affectations of superiority, its knowing scowls and easy scorn – offends and provokes by making the case, not for ending imperialism, but for producing a better, more respectable kind. No thugs, no hitmen, no smarmy bureaucrats. Just no-nonsense pragmatists, hard-bitten factual reporters, unsentimental intellectuals with nary a theory or a historical sense to guide them, just their carefully researched enterprise put at the service of the same imperial lurches that gave us Theodore Roosevelt and, yes, Ronald Reagan.
[*] Joan Didion’s Miami will be published here by Weidenfeld 18 February.