Before the Campus Burned

The notion of casual rioting is difficult to get your head around. Yet the young lifestyle guerrillas who ran amok on the University of Minnesota campus following the Gopher men's hockey team's national title win were indisputably possessed of something more like leisure fervor than the good, old-fashioned revolutionary zeal that once upon a time drove the local student-body politic to such fits of bottle-tossing, cop-baiting rage. Leisure fervor, by the way, is apparently what happens when the under-stimulated prefrontal cortex of the brain is ambushed by anything even resembling genuine emotion, causing super-charged pockets of deeply entrenched ennui to suddenly and instantly combust.

From the outside looking in, you couldn't help thinking: So this is what it's come to. The celebration of a hockey championship incites a thousand college students to riot in the streets, while the usual stuff of righteous and storied campus indignation (the sort of things that drive people into the streets in countries all over the world--political oppression, foreign-policy aggression, injustice, erosion of civil rights, financial scandals that ruin people's lives) inspires little more than scattered pockets of mostly polite and fragmented dissension in today's university communities.

You might think that, and you might be more than a little bit right. But you should also know that on a recent Friday night--the night before the historic riots in Dinkytown--more than 100 people crowded into a basement room in the University's Blegen Hall to hear Cuban diplomat Fernando Garcia Bielsa, who works out of an office in Washington, D.C. (where there is no "official" Cuban embassy).

Garcia Bielsa, it seems, has been out on a mini-educational tour, and on this particular night he was speaking on the subject of "What Cuba Stands For"; which was (no great surprise) more or less what Cuba has stood for since the 1959 revolution that installed Fidel Castro, the most resilient and enduring of America's Cold War enemies, as the leader of the country. Most of the people present seemed entirely pleased with this news.

Castro's revolution has resulted in a 40-year U.S. economic embargo and suspended diplomatic relations; the fall of the Soviet Union has hurt the Cuban economy to the tune of billions of dollars a year; and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act has imposed further economic and political hardship on the Caribbean island nation. Despite all of this, and despite the fact that much of this information doesn't make much practical sense to anyone, Garcia Bielsa, a natty and amiable character who was dressed as if he'd been raiding Rudy Boschwitz's wardrobe, remained a convincing--and convincingly proud--proponent of what he called the "living revolution" and all it has accomplished.

It's hard to know anymore whom or what to believe; one of the chief and confounding virtues of America is that everybody and anybody has a clear shot at you with their ideas, opinions, and versions of history and current events. It's generally not that difficult to sort things out if you have the time and inclination, however. And, as is generally true of most political arguments in today's world, there's some small comfort in the fact that now more than ever it's possible to be half wrong and still be largely on the side of the angels.

Still, everybody has an agenda; Garcia Bielsa is no different. There were handouts touting Cuba's educational system, literacy, and infant mortality rates (lower than the United States', according to Garcia Bielsa's data), and superior universal health care. I have no reason to doubt any of this information, but it would have been more credible, certainly, if it had been accompanied by reports from Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch on current human-rights conditions in Cuba. Before Garcia Bielsa's presentation--which was sponsored by the Minnesota Cuba Committee, Students for Cuba, and the MacArthur Interdisciplinary Program of the U of M--there was a short video travelogue of a group of University of Charleston students' visit to Cuba. The video was an earnest, Up With People sort of production, but like Garcia Bielsa himself it somehow managed to be convincing, or at the very least thoroughly charming in its calculation. There was also a thumbnail history of the revolution, and a running list of grievances, many of them (rightly) laid on the U.S.'s doorstep. The original purpose of the United States' isolationist policies regarding Cuba, Garcia Bielsa said, was to oust Castro, initially through assassination or a U.S.-supported overthrow, and to force the country to renounce socialism. Now, that having failed, the U.S. is waiting for Castro to die, and is preparing a post-Castro policy of exploitation.

It's certainly hard to argue with any of that, even if Garcia Bielsa's audience had been in a mood to argue with much of anything the diplomat had to say. There were no signs of anti-Castro sentiment or lingering patriotic resentment over the Elián Gonzalez affair (Midwest patriots are currently spending their discretionary zeal on Operation Enduring Freedom), and for the most part Garcia Bielsa got a free pass on questions regarding Cuba's sketchy human-rights record. The whole affair had the feel-good vibe (complete with testimonials from audience members) of a lefty old-home night and a coming-out party for some college students well on their way to becoming true believers. There were also quite a few kids taking notes, so there may have been some academic compulsion that spiked the attendance figures a bit.

No matter what your politics, it's hard to find fault with such an event, just so long as you can manage to wiggle your way free of the lingering atmosphere of smug hopelessness that so often permeates such affairs. It's an us-vs.-them world, and they (and us)--both sides, all sides--wouldn't have it any other way. Why not revel in the sure knowledge that you're a part of a small (and dwindling) tribe of the truly righteous, and that you're surrounded? Who can argue that what these people (or those people) want is for the world to be a better place? All right, yes, better for them and for people like them, and who believe as they believe. But that's something, isn't it? After all, what did you do with your Friday night, the night before Dinkytown burned?

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