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by William H. Benson

April 13, 2000

     Last week the two major news items continued to puzzle.  Elian Gonzalez’s father arrived on Thursday in Miami demanding his son’s return to Cuba with him.  And then, the Confederate flag is still popping in the wind high atop South Carolina’s capitol dome.  Neither issue comes with a ready-made answer.

     The battle over Elian underscores the forty years of hostility between Castro’s Cuba and the United States.  Elian’s Cuban relatives who live in Little Havana in Miami want him to stay with them and enjoy America’s opportunities, for they have nothing but scorn for Castro’s poverty-stricken experiment with socialism in Cuba.  The father simply wants his son, and Janet Reno agrees that they should be together.  The hostility simmers for a season and then boils.

     In mid-April of 1961 the Cuban anti-Castro forces in the U.S. were so unhappy with the situation in Cuba that they landed on Cuban soil at the Bay of Pigs with the naive intention of overthrowing Castro, all done with the Kennedy Administration’s backing.  The forces shouted, “We must conquer or we shall die choked by slavery.”  Castro easily routed the invading forces; hence the phrase–the Bay of Pigs Fiasco.  Castro vowed defiance.  “The organizers of the aggression against Cuba are encroaching on the inalienable right of the Cuban people to live free and independently.”  The resulting suspicion and rancor between the two governments has marred their diplomatic relationship ever since.

     As for the other news item, the NAACP wants the Confederate flag removed, and to force the issue, the organization sanctioned a boycott against South Carolina until the flag comes down.  The Confederate flag represents a government, defeated and destroyed 135 years ago, that supported the enslavement of entire families–men, women, and children, from birth until death.

     This boycott underscores the hostility between the North and the South.  On April 12, 1861 the Confederate forces fired upon the U.S. garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Civil War began.  Four years later on April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre, and the next day he died.  Those four years sapped the nation’s resources, turned villages into blood baths, and scarred innumerable families.  Thousands of children lost their dads.

     April 13, 1743 was Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.  Last Saturday a thirteen-member panel at the University of Richmond agreed that results from a DNA test link the Jefferson family to Sally Hemings’s youngest son, Eston, verifying the claim that Sally was indeed Jefferson’s mistress.  One person in the audience argued against the conclusion:  “This is not the truth.  This is a man’s reputation.  If (Jefferson) said there was no relationship, there was no relationship.”

     It is difficult to get into another person’s head and understand his or her thought processes, especially a Southern plantation owner in the the latter half of the the eighteenth century.  What Jefferson read, said, and wrote was one thing, for he set forth “inalienable rights” and included “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” among them.  But what he did was quite another thing.  He bought slaves to work his fields, even expanded his farming enterprise to include more slaves, and probably took for himself Sally Hemings.

     Flags represent an allegiance to a government that is attached at a point in time to a geographical region.  We say the words, “We pledge allegiance to the flag . . . ”  Apparantly, Elian Gonzalez’s father pledges his allegiance to Castro’s flag, a socialistic government.  Then, that Confederate flag atop South Carolina’s capitol dome represents a diminishing of Thomas Jefferson’s principles for the children of future generations.

     In these two issues we have seen battle lines drawn, people taking positions, and each side is convinced that they are on the right side, and that the opposing side is wrong.  And the issue is really about what to do with the children.  When we finally come around to face the issues of family (children) and of country (flags), we find that they can be inextricably woven together, joined at the elbow, and to pull on one pulls at the other.  What is best for Elian?  What is best for the children of South Carolina?  Rhetorical questions such as those do not yield simple answers, but I return again and again to Jefferson’s words: “. . .  that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  We cannot go too far wrong if we stick with those inalienable rights.