Impromptus

One Christmas in Havana, &c.

by Jay Nordlinger

From 2002 to 2005, I wrote quite a bit about James Cason. That’s because I was amazed by him — and by the president then in office, George W. Bush. Cason was the Foreign Service officer heading the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Bush was the president keenly interested in the human rights of Cubans, and everyone else. Cason did all he could to help the people around him and frustrate the dictatorship that oppressed them. He was imaginative and bold. Yes, I wrote about Cason and his activities a lot.

He then served as ambassador to Paraguay. Now he is mayor of Coral Gables, Fla.

Recently, an oral history given by Cason came to my attention — a history of his time in Cuba. You can find that history here. It makes for satisfying, even exciting, reading, I think. And I would like to highlight just one part of it, in these days before Christmas.

“Christmas was not celebrated in Cuba,” says Cason. “It was discouraged.” Cason bought “5,000 meters of rope lights” and turned the U.S. Interests building “into a giant Christmas decoration.” People came from all over to look at this display, “whispering to their kids that this was what it was like before the revolution.”

Cason’s pièce de résistance was a giant number 75, representing the number of dissidents who had been arrested not long before. As Cason says, this “really pissed off the Cuban government.”

Yes. Anyway, I recommend reading the whole thing. In those days, the U.S. government stood for something in the world. I admired James Cason, and the president who held office.

At Thanksgiving, I was talking to some friends from Jacksonville, Fla. They were telling me about their NFL team, the Jaguars. The team was bought two years ago by Shahid Khan (nicknamed “Shad”). Curious about him, I looked him up in Wikipedia. You don’t have to tell me about the reliability of Wikipedia. But I’m going to cite it anyway. I doubt this entry is far from the mark, and it’s probably spot-on.

Khan was born in Lahore, Pakistan, “to a middle-class family who were involved in the construction industry.” He immigrated to the U.S. in 1968 at age 16 to study at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). He spent his first night in a $2 room at the YMCA, “and his first job was washing dishes for $1.20 an hour.” He joined the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and graduated with a degree in industrial engineering. “Khan is a Muslim who acquired US citizenship in 1991.”

Other articles tell us that he always dreamed of owning an NFL team. When I hear a story like Khan’s, I feel a surge of hope. I think there’s life in the old gal yet — the “gal” being the United States.

Would you like to pause for a little language? I feel my world has been turned a bit upside down. All my life, I’ve said “Champaign-Urbana.” I believe I’ve heard that, too, consistently: “Champaign-Urbana.” But the Wikipedia entry for Khan said “Urbana-Champaign.” And that’s what the University of Illinois’s website says too: “Urbana-Champaign.”

I’ll be damned.

Speaking of language: The apostrophe-ess in a phrase such as “Illinois’s website” looks odd to me.

I especially appreciated John Bolton’s op-ed piece on events in Ukraine (here). I would like to spotlight one line, or two: “Republicans also often ignore Obama’s indifference to national security. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with the issues, or perhaps they also see no political upside in focusing on international threats to America and our friends.”

Yes. This can’t be said often enough. Writing off the Democratic party is one thing — the party of FDR, Truman, and JFK (but also of McGovern, Kerry, and Obama). But writing off the Republican party — that’d mean lights out, pretty much.

Charles Moore had a column on President Obama and foreign policy. He lingered over the president’s performance at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Today’s leaders, said Obama, need to be filled with the spirit of Ubuntu. Moore explained that this is “a Nguni Bantu word meaning ‘the oneness of humanity.’” Obama clearly regards himself as an Ubuntu man.

Said Moore, “His performance reminded me slightly of Tom Lehrer’s Folk Song Army: ‘We all hate poverty, war and injustice — unlike the rest of you squares.’”

Ha. I’ll tell you what Moore’s observation reminded me of: Charles Peters on Firing Line. This veteran journalist, a onetime symbol of “neoliberalism,” said (something like), “I couldn’t believe it, but Reagan actually had a tax reform that helped the poor.” Bill Buckley, his interlocutor, replied, “Yes, because, as everyone knows, Reagan hates the poor.”

Oh, he was great (WFB). (Peters is an honorable man too, I feel sure.)

Have a weird one for you: The other day, I addressed a Christmas card to “Frankfurt, Germany.” And, for a split second, it seemed odd. I grew up in an age when there were two Germanies: West and East. I would read about times before the war and see such phrases as “Düsseldorf, Germany.” They seemed strange and antique to me.

How would phrases such as “Gwangju, Korea” and “Nampo, Korea” strike you today?

I realize that the Germanies have been reunited for about 25 years now. The idea of “West Germany” and “East Germany” must seem strange and antique to young people. Still, given the era in which I grew up, to write “Frankfurt, Germany” was just slightly — just slightly — jolting.

Not long ago, I had to call a company in Texas — the Mewbourne Oil Company. I needed the answer to a question. I was hoping I would fight through some telephonic maze to get to the right person eventually. Or any person, any human being. How long would it take? I settled in.

I dialed the number — and a woman answered, “Hello, Mewbourne Oil Company.” I was so startled, I couldn’t respond right away. The voice sounded like it belonged to a real live human being — and it did. She had answered the phone after two or three rings. She then transferred me to the person I needed to speak to. Just one transfer — quick and easy.

It was a little miracle, here in modern America.

Want a little music? A reader writes, “I’d like to hear your take on rap. I can find no redemption there, no musical quality. My children say I’m just biased, maybe even racist. What do you think?”

I think, first, that false accusations of racism, or false assumptions of racism, are a bane of American life. In fact, they may be the worst thing of all about American life.

Second, I would quote Marilyn Horne, the great mezzo-soprano: Rap has rhythm, for sure, and poetry. It is unmistakably an art form. But does it have the elements necessary to make up music, as music should be understood? I don’t think so.

Rap can be delightful, ingenious, and life-affirming. It can also be dreadful, stupid, and soul-destroying — noisy celebrations of lust and hate.

That’s what I think, in a nutshell.

Want a little language — a little more language, I should say, because we had a couple of items earlier? I like what Coach Jim Harbaugh said, after his San Francisco 49ers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He said, “Kaepernick really put on his cape” — meaning, I think, that the 49er quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, performed like a superhero.

(To see a news story, go here.)

Want a little ice cream? A reader mentioned a slogan in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “When your sweet tooth says ice cream, your wisdom tooth says Debra T’s.”

Ah, beautiful. Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and talk to you soon.