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CubaloguesBeat Writers in Revolutionary Havana$

Todd F. Tietchen

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780813035208

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813035208.001.0001

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A New Imaginary…?

(p.150) Coda

Todd F. Tietchen

University Press of Florida

While being interviewed by Marc Schleifer for the October 15, 1958, edition of the Village Voice, Allen Ginsberg responded to Norman Podhoretz’s infamous characterization of the Beats as “anti-intellectual” by asserting that both he and Jack Kerouac had “had the same education” as Podhoretz at Columbia University.1 Ginsberg’s brief retort reveals the extent to which differing responses to the Cuban Revolution—along with the eventual emergence of New Left intellectualism and social movements over the decade to come—might in part be traced to intellectual infighting in 1950s New York. Moreover, this infighting cast a long shadow over Podhoretz’s career, explaining his decision to title one of his memoirs Ex-Friends (2000), a neoconservative bildungsroman documenting his contentious relationships (and eventual intellectual break-ups) with Hannah Arendt, Norman Mailer, and an extended cast of significant others. Indeed, Podhoretz’s initial chapter, titled “At War with Allen Ginsberg,” rehashes forty years of contentious exchanges between the former Columbia classmates over the moral and political soul of U.S. society. Ginsberg and Podhoretz had first met at Columbia in 1946, when Ginsberg published one of Podhoretz’s poems in The Columbia Review, the undergraduate literary journal of which Ginsberg was then the editor.2 Soon after becoming friends, Podhoretz found himself increasingly repelled by what he viewed as Ginsberg’s “perversity” and his vision of an “antinomian America,” and this divide, which delineated the separation between “squares” and “hipsters” in Podhoretz’s conception of the 1950s, (p.151) only widened in the following decades of social and political upheaval. Curiously enough, Ginsberg still held Podhoretz in high enough esteem to have sent him an advance copy of Howl and Other Poems in 1956, along with a request that Podhoretz compose a review. While that review never transpired, the episode served as the catalyst for Podhoretz’s “Know-Nothing Bohemians” article in the Partisan Review, his scathing dismissal of the Beat ethos as a degenerate and lurid “assault on America,” glorifying drug use and “sexual perversity” while defying the precincts of normality, discriminate taste, and sound knowledge of social and political realities.3

According to Podhoretz’s version of events, the moral and political degeneracy espoused by the Beats fueled the emergence of what we now call the New Left, or more accurately the New Lefts. Identifying Ginsberg as “one of the leading spirits” of the “new radical movement of the 1960s”—whose rationales had been presaged in Ginsberg’s poetry since “Howl”—Podhoretz admits being openly perplexed by the fact that Fidel Castro would have expelled his “de facto ally” from Cuba in 1965.4 Podhoretz defines the “new radicalism” he so despised as a wide-ranging and diverse counterculture unified chiefly by a “fierce hatred of America,” and advocating radical social upheaval over piecemeal “reform within the going political system.”5 In this way, the nascent Left of the 1960s, Podhoretz argues quite adroitly, was oftentimes more invested in denouncing the outlooks and methods of “the liberal establishment” than it was in denouncing the political right, a historical fact undoubtedly supported by the collective indictment of Cold War liberalism coursing through the Cubalogues. Despite the liberal anti-Communist zeal driving his early career as a public intellectual, Podhoretz’s politics drifted ever rightward after being named editor of Commentary in 1960. By the end of the 1960s, his evolution into a staunch neoconservative was complete, catalyzed as it was by his open disdain for the new radicalism in its myriad manifestations. It was during this same general period that Podhoretz began to use Commentary to denounce “busing to achieve integration, affirmative action, homosexual rights” and any number of liberal or leftist causes.6 He also heaped an inordinate amount of scorn on homosexual writers such as Ginsberg, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal for weakening the American character, and forever damaging the nation’s “military spirit.”7

Marshall Berman has written that while Ginsberg and his intellectual circle were highly adept at criticizing the militaristic excesses and social shortsightedness of Cold War America, they were nevertheless unable to articulate a convincing set of social and political alternatives during the hawkish maindrift of the late 1950s. In Berman’s estimation, works such as Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems revealed the “spiritual poverty” of New Frontierism, expansive networks (p.152) of bureaucracy, unapologetic military posturing, and the homogenizing “expressway world” of the new and vast suburbanism, without, however, offering an “affirmative vision of alternate modern lives.”8 As is usually the case with Berman, his observations regarding the Beat circle are both astute and nuanced, but we might make the further assertion that the Cuban encounter marked the place from where Ginsberg and others began to more fully articulate their alternative visions for social and cultural life; divergent as those visions might have been from each other at times, they nevertheless anticipated the political and social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s (as Podhoretz, despite his disdain, so aptly diagnosed). The Cubalogues, that is to say, forecast the cultural sea change rising to the surface of American political and social life, the forceful emergence of vast waves of liberation movements whose cresting momentum had been intuited from the beachheads by Ginsberg’s “Howlers” and Baraka’s “Screamers.”

The flourishing of New Left liberation movements over the course of the 1960s presented Cold War liberalism and the hawkish consensus with its most vociferous and politically innovative set of opponents. Those movements, as Michael Denning has so persuasively argued in Culture in the Age of Three Worlds, were animated by a polyvalent desire for liberation: liberation from sexism, racism, heteronormativity, and the horrors of imperial/neocolonial war (eventually put on brutal display in Vietnam).9 Collectively, these movements confronted the nation-state as their antithesis, arguing for reproduction and divorce rights, for an end to nuclear proliferation and violent colonial war, for expanded civil rights regimes, for an end to patriarchy in its multiple manifestations, and for more inclusive access to the arenas of public discourse and culture.10 According to Van Gosse, what made this New Left strikingly “new” was its “pluralist character” and its grounding “in a deep if inchoate sympathy with the resistance of long-exploited peoples…who were themselves part of the New Left.”11 What Podhoretz views as “America hating,” Gosse identifies as a moment in which the concerns of U.S. progressivism became complexly constellated among a vast number of activists and intellectuals working both within and beyond the U.S. political scene—or that it represented the historical emergence of which we might identify as a “stranger” Left. Furthermore, as Denning so deftly demonstrates, this “stranger” Left proved highly adept at linking its analyses of social and political marginalization to processes of massification, which Stuart Hall explored through his concept of the “national-popular,” taking “up the question of how people are produced” via mass media and the cultural apparatus.12 Cultural analysis, that is to say, came to drive the canon of New Left theory, as the work of figures such as Mills, Hall, Raymond Williams, Louis Althusser, Frantz Fanon, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Gayatri (p.153) Spivak, Étienne Balibar and a host of others analyzed the “tropes and allegories of social discourse” that had allowed the modern nation-state to coalesce (and continually reproduce itself) as an exclusionary formation hostile to sexual, racial, colonial, and ideological otherness, thereby establishing poststructural, postcolonial, feminist, and critical race theory as the dominant analyses of social and political power for decades to come.13 The Cubalogues, as I hope should be clear from the preceding chapters, anticipated many of the political and cultural concerns of these new liberation movements, and thus represent a valuable indicator of the polyvalent New Left’s emergence while participating in a similar set of critiques regarding the national-popular and its enabling tropes of political and social discourse.

Despite the political and theoretical upheavals forwarded by the New Lefts, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, we are still living with the legacies of the Cold War era—especially in relation to Cuba. The truth of the matter is that Cuba itself has existed as a figment of the U.S. imagination for quite some time, as countless historical actors have attempted to circumscribe what the island might be or become, from the outside, according to one or another political or cultural outlook. In his recent Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos (2008), Louis A. Pérez, Jr. convincingly explores this notion of an imaginary Cuba in relation to U.S. foreign policy, spelling out the myriad ways in which the island has served as the laboratory for U.S. world-ordering ambition across a fairly sustained historical arc. Pérez asserts that starting in the nineteenth century—when American politicians, journalists, and capitalists began publicly lamenting the close proximity of a Spanish colonial possession to the mainland United States—Cuba has served as a fabrication of the U.S. political imagination, which has helped anchor U.S. national identity and multiple historical narratives concerning the U.S. role in/relationship to the world at large, especially since the Spanish-American War.14 Oft-repeated metaphors, Pérez argues, have constituted the most prominent features of official/ mainstream accounts of the island from the nineteenth century to the present, securing the U.S. political imagination within a dissimulating “vernacular of empire” that justifies various appeals to paternalistic intervention.15 As figures of thought, metaphors provide shape to our comprehension of the world, but as Pérez suggests throughout, figurative language often conceals as much as it reveals. In the words of Pérez himself: “Metaphorical representations are instrumental in shaping the cognitive context in which people apprehend the world about them, the way they arrive at an understanding of their time and place, often the very reason they choose one course of action among others.”16 But these metaphoric representations—which U.S. politicians and journalists have consistently employed as a “cognitive context” through which the U.S. citizenry (p.154) could understand not only Cuba but the overall global imperatives of U.S. political life—work to “narrow the choice of perception to the one desired. Point of view [becomes] inscribed within the metaphor.”17

Pérez goes on to reveal the three most dominant metaphors structuring the United States’ tempestuous relationship to Cuba as such: 1. Cuba as brothel. 2. Cuba as disease and malignancy. 3. Cuba as child, or as a nation of politically rash and dangerously irresponsible children. These metaphoric figures of thought have in turn anchored appeals to altruism and U.S. national virtue—or to demands that the United States intercede in the island’s affairs in order to liberate the helpless, underdeveloped, and persecuted Cuban people—thus overshadowing the true tactical and commercial desires of the U.S. political and interest structure, which has viewed the lack of sustained U.S. administration over Cuban affairs as a threat to national security and an embarrassing failure of economic/market expansion within the American hemisphere. In terms of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pérez explores the extent to which the metaphoric rendering of Cuba as a rash child became projected specifically onto Castro himself, as New York Times columnists (so mistrusted by Ferlinghetti and Baraka) tended to describe the young leader as “an over-grown boy” and “an immature boy,” thereby invalidating his revolution as impossibly whimsical, overly idealistic, and irrational in its political demands and expectations.18 Castro was dismissed, in other words, in quite the same way in which the Beats were dismissed as childish, immature, and naive during the same general era by Cold War liberals such as Podhoretz, Daniel Bell, Mary McCarthy, and Diana Trilling.

This dual dismissal undoubtedly explains some of the initial appeal of Castro for the Beats and their fellow travelers, as Castro was in a sense cast within the Cold War political drama as a young, bearded, and politically rash Cuban beatnik. Moreover, Pérez’s insightful unpacking of U.S. imperial metaphors echoes the insights of many of those who traveled to Cuba during the initial revolutionary period, especially Mills, Baraka, and Schleifer, whose Cuba writings respectively explored “Cold War analogy,” the historical rootedness of the “cold light of reason,” and the tropes of Kennedy-era New Frontierism as cognitive blocks within the U.S. imperial imagination. These writers also attempted to expose the ways in which figurative language and thought might occlude other viewpoints on the revolution, thereby authorizing particular courses of action in U.S. relations with Cuba; virtually all of the figures treated in this book were concerned with the extent to which mass cultural projections of Cuba came to circumscribe the meanings of Castro’s revolution within a false or limited terrain of cognitive engagement passing as received wisdom or political common sense underwritten by the Cold War consensus. Collectively, they critically (p.155) analyzed the “vernacular of empire” at the very moment it was being applied to Castro’s young revolutionary government, suggesting that not only had Cold War anti-Communist rhetoric been wrongly superimposed over an anticolonial movement, but that such superimpositions had failed to completely displace alternative renderings of what was taking (and might take) place in the island’s cultural and political life. The Cubalogues, that is to say, represent acts of counterimagination aimed at superseding long entrenched imperial tropes and the bifurcating rhetoric of Cold War politics that gave such tropes new life and relevance. Ultimately the Cubalogues configured Cuba as a transnational and collaborative laboratory—a site for experimenting with new and stranger notions of inter-American politics. Undoubtedly they were idealistic and utopian—and as is usually the case with idealism and utopianism, reality eventually refused to play along for a whole host of reasons—but the documents themselves nevertheless forwarded a vision of intellectual and cultural collaboration that refused to participate in the official discourses of neocolonialism and conquest, while suggesting that the budding revolution might have some wisdom to offer the U.S. political class and its overly obedient Cold War pundits.

Moreover, many of the issues raised by the Cubalogues (and Pérez) remain relevant today. Even in the wake of Fidel Castro’s rule—which many who danced through the streets of Miami upon hearing the news believed would mark the end of Cuban Communism—Cuba remains a focal point of U.S. foreign policy and discursive maneuvering within the public sphere, a fact brought home ever so clearly during the latest U.S. presidential election. Not only would Castro, the recent retiree, not be vacationing in Miami at any time soon, but the legacy of his relationship with U.S. authorities came very much to the fore as the election season reached its head. In October of 2008, for instance, George W. Bush visited Miami in order to raise money for Republican electoral candidates, couching his plea for contributions within the region’s still-pronounced anti-Castro animus. Despite Barack Obama’s request that the Bush administration “at least temporarily lift the Cuba travel and remittances ban in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike,” Bush maintained a hard line on the island, exclaiming that the travel ban and embargo shall stay in place until Cuba embraces democracy.19 Republican presidential candidate John McCain took Obama even more directly to task over the course of the election season, repeatedly claiming that the Illinois senator was “too willing to talk to America’s enemies,” evinced by his professed readiness to lift the Cuban embargo and to engage in diplomatic relations with Raúl Castro.20

Adding fuel to the heated fires of disputation, Obama openly refused to refute McCain’s charges, exclaiming that upon being elected he would meet with the younger Castro “at a time and place of my choosing,” and that the time had (p.156) come to “pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.”21 The time had come, according to the senator, to reassess the grounding assumptions of U.S. diplomacy, starting in places such as Cuba—or we might say that the time had come to finally leave the Cold War imaginary decisively behind, as figures such as Mills and Ferlinghetti hoped to do decades earlier. But McCain was interested in doing just the opposite. Addressing a crowd in Harrisburg, Virginia, in October 2008, McCain waxed nostalgic about the Cuban Missile Crisis, exclaiming that “I sat in the cockpit on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise off of Cuba. I had a target…. My friends, you know how close we came to a nuclear war. America will not have a president who needs to be tested. I’ve been tested, my friends.”22 In this particular instance, McCain’s reminiscence sutured Obama’s “soft attitudes” on Cuba directly to the War on Terror, implying that Obama will eventually have to deal with a similar nuclear crisis generated in terroristic Middle Eastern states. Growing desperate as the race reached into the final stretch, the McCain campaign participated in some rather blunt fear-mongering in relation to U.S. national security, openly conflating the political panic of the U.S.’s current Terror War with the specters of Cold War Cuba and the political upheavals of the 1960s. At roughly the same time that the Arizona senator was reminiscing on the Cuban Missile Crisis and continually accusing Obama of “being soft” on the Castro government, his campaign unleashed a strategy that ultimately tested its credibility, as running mate Sarah Palin consistently excoriated Obama for “palling around with terrorists” as a result of having attended some fund-raising functions with former Weather Underground member William Ayers. Palin’s accusations not only linked Obama simultaneously to New Left excesses and contemporary anxieties regarding terrorism, but went so far as to suggest that the Illinois senator “is not like us” and that “we see America as a force of good in this world,” statements rife with racial connotations and xenophobia further extended by McCain’s questions regarding Obama’s longtime friendship with Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar and professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University. Mired in election season despair, the McCain-Palin campaign began race-baiting, New Left–baiting, red-baiting, and terrorist-baiting all at once, a fact that was not lost on the New York Times’s Frank Rich, who not only understood the racial connotations of Palin’s accompanying appeals to the “real America” but failed to comprehend why McCain and Palin would feign confusion when gatherers at their rallies subsequently began calling Obama a “terrorist” and shouting “off with his head!,” while engaging in the “uninhibited slinging of racial epithets.”23

This explicit linking of the politics of the Cold War era to the War on Terror perhaps finds its most significant and pressing embodiment not in the campaign rhetoric of the McCain camp—which unjustly projected its hyperbole (p.157) onto Obama as some sort of radical or terrorist sleeper agent—but in the Guantanamo Bay detention center. In our supposedly “globalized” present, the existence of the detention center has attested to the fact that certain cultural and political borders remain sacrosanct within the militarized logics of U.S. world-ordering ambition, whose reach into the Caribbean, and propensity for imagining it as an offshore holding pen rather than as a space of liberation, continues to allow for the outright denial of those forms of democratic practice that the nation claims to uphold—an especially ironic turn of events for those “suspicious” U.S. citizens held indefinitely by the military (without being charged of actual crimes) on an island that their own nation has continually accused of tyranny. While under U.S. jurisdiction, Guantanamo has remained suspended in a state of murky legality, a third space for anti-democracy justified by shadowy rationales unavailable to debate and redress.24 The detention center represents, in other words, the very antithesis of what the Cubalogue writers initially hoped would unfold in Cuba, while speaking to the ongoing U.S. willingness to flex its military muscle in the Caribbean whenever it so chooses. To return to the assertions of Pérez, the detention center not only helps facilitate Cuba’s standing as home to political pathology and inexplicable rashness that must be contained at the very cost of national security, but helps buttress the rhetorical conflation of Communism and terrorism literally embodied in figures such as Raúl Castro and the suspected enemies of the United States incarcerated in the detention center.

The ideological concerns of the Cold War yet endure, imbricated within the public rationales of the War on Terror through rhetorical cross-pollination and the quite tangible existence of Guantanamo as a holding pen. The discursive rationalities of the Cold War era yet endure, even after the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s when liberation movements (in which the Cubalogue writers played identifiable roles) presented U.S. world-ordering ambition and hawkish liberals with their most significant public challenge to date. Across the Cold War historical divide, appeals to national security through fear-mongering, along with exceptionalist platitudes regarding the unconditional superiority of U.S. political, economic, and cultural institutions (embodied most clearly in Palin’s rhetoric), still tenaciously persist within the nation’s public political speech. Ultimately, U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the Cold War era—spurred on in its earliest moments by George H. W. Bush’s call for a “new world order” during Operation Desert Storm—has fully revealed the core of world-ordering ambition which remained somewhat cloaked within Cold War claims of Communist containment. While Obama’s election signals a possible détente in U.S.-Cuban relations and an end to the pronounced unilateralism of the Bush years, we remain in momentous need of an engaged and significant public discussion on how our (p.158) nation might abandon its long-standing inclinations toward presumptuousness (and even downright insolence) in the international arena and in turn learn to collaborate more fully with other nations on securing a more just and peaceful future for the inhabitants of the planet—a conversation that does not feel imperiled by discourses of freedom and democracy issuing forth from places other than the official hallways of the Washington power elite, the commercial imperatives of the corporate interest structure, or policy think tanks such as the RAND Corporation. In a sense, this was the collective dream of the Cubalogue writers, who were not nearly as successful at writing their concerns into Cuba’s revolutionary history as they were at transforming those concerns into compelling forms of cultural and political activism that challenged the rationales of U.S. world-ordering ambition and what they saw as the nation’s partially achieved democratic legacy.

The questions they posed, however, remain very much on the table, not only in terms of Guantanamo and the War on Terror, but in efforts to effectively deal with U.S. legacies of heteronormativity and white supremacy. In terms of the first category, social activists (of especially the past ten years) have been confronting sexualized limits on citizenship by arguing for the true integration of the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” military and the expansion of marriage rights to same-sex couples. Moreover, these very issues came to the fore in the days after Obama’s election as the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) community, sent momentarily spinning in disbelief from the passage of the same-sex marriage ban in California, took to the streets in cities such as New York, Albuquerque, Minneapolis, Raleigh, and Obama’s hometown of Chicago; these coordinated protests highlighted the continued status of heteronormativity as an orienting condition of democratic life in the United States, even as the nation was congratulating itself, and rightly so, for the historic election of its first black president. Obama, it appears, only deepened this chasm when he invited evangelical minister Rick Warren to take part in the invocation at his inauguration, as Warren had vociferously campaigned in favor of California’s same-sex marriage ban from the pulpit of his Saddleback Church in southern California. Furthermore, as many commentators gushed over Obama’s nomination and election as ushering in a post-racial United States and equally gushed over his adept use of the new electronic commons (or the digital public sphere) to mobilize the constituencies that got him elected, the legacies of racism still mark the very real landscapes of American life in the persistence of racialized poverty and healthcare gaps, substandard urban education, and the grim realities of police profiling and inordinate rates of incarceration among people of color (even as a racially diverse cast of media stars proliferates throughout globalized U.S. mediascapes as the Walter Whites and Edith Sampsons of their day). (p.159) In the aftermath of an historic presidential election rich in expectations—and in the subsequent wake of Obama’s executive orders calling for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and for the curbing of the Cuban travel ban—the need persists for “stranger” and more expansive notions of democratic belonging.


(1.) Schleifer, “Here to Save Us,” 5.

(2.) Podhoretz, Ex-Friends, 23.

(3.) Ibid., 27–35.

(4.) Ibid., 46–47.

(5.) Ibid., 47.

(6.) Wald, New York Intellectuals, 353.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Berman, All That Is Solid Melts, 311.

(9.) Denning, Age of Three Worlds, 225–29.

(10.) Ibid., 43.

(11.) Gosse, Where the Boys Are, 257; 255.

(12.) Denning, Age of Three Worlds, 89.

(13.) Ibid., 81–90.

(14.) Pérez, Jr., American Imagination, 1–2.

(15.) Ibid, 2–3.

(16.) Ibid., 14.

(17.) Ibid., 15.

(18.) Ibid., 241.

(19.) Mazzei, “Bush Firm on Cuba during Miami Visit,” Miami Herald, October 10, 2008, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/americas/cuba/v-print/story/721709.html.

(20.) Michael Luo, “Cuba Is Topic as McCain Continues Attack on Obama,” New York Times, May 21, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/21/us/politics/21mccain.html.

(21.) Jeff Zeleny, “Obama, in Miami, Calls for Engaging with Cuba,” New York Times, May 24, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/24/us/politics/24campaign.html.

(22.) William Douglas, “McCain Recalls {ap}62 Missile Crisis,” Miami Herald, October 21, 2008, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/front-page/story/735904.html.

(23.) Frank Rich, “The Terrorist Barack Hussein Obama,” New York Times, October 12, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/opinion/12rich.html.

(24.) In Black Empire, Stephens engages in a similar set of arguments concerning the legacy of Guantanamo, though she is primarily interested in exploring its anomalous (though representative) standing as a site that restricts the movements of global people of color within a supposedly deterritorialized age. See especially 270, 279.