The Style of American Spirit

Posted: Feb 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Like most modern corporations, Buick has a slogan: The Spirit of American Style. Like most corporate slogans, it is nearly vacuous: do Buicks show any more American style than any other American automobile brand? Not really.

But when I think of the modified 1959 Buick that recently departed the shores of Cuba to cut through the waves of the Gulf of Mexico, carrying its eleven passengers towards America, and freedom, "spirit of American style" seems almost right. Unquestionably, the Cubans who sailed the open seas in a Buick demonstrated the Style of the American Spirit.

But did the U.S. government show that same spirit when it sent the Buick down to Davy Jones, or when it shipped eight of the eleven "autonauts" back home to oppression in Cuba?

The answer is a definite no.

Yearning to Breathe Free

Most Americans cheered when they saw pictures of that '59 Buick navigating towards Florida.

Part of that cheering was for the sheer ingenuity of sealing up a Buick and attaching a propeller to its drive shaft.

But most people realized that this was something more significant than a stunt for Ripley's Believe It Or Not. These Cubans really wanted to live in America. We cheered because we agree: better to leave one's own country than to live the life of a slave.

America is where you go to be free. The three families who sailed the Buick certainly know this, perhaps even more than most Americans.

After all, Luis Grass Rodriguez and his friend Marcial Basanta Lopez, the Buick's clever re-engineers, had tried before, last July. They had tricked up and sailed a 1951 Chevy truck, but had been nabbed by the U.S. Coast Guard and then repatriated.

This time they squeezed more people aboard. But they were again stopped by the Coast Guard. And again the Coast Guard scuttled their craft. Unmanned, it posed "a hazard to navigation," you see.

Manned, however, it was no threat at all. After shooting at it and flooding it, it still wouldn't sink. Eventually, the Coast Guard had to ask the Cubans for help. They suggested lighting it on fire. That was one seaworthy Buick!

The Spirit of Collaboration

These Cubans show the American spirit, we like to think; their ingenuity demonstrates a real can-do style.

So why does the U.S. government not share in our celebration of this spirit? Well, the government is not just people. It's a set of customs and treaties and compacts all mashed together. And not all the building blocks of our government are created equal. Not by a long shot.

Americans used to celebrate and welcome (or at least tolerate) immigrants coming to our shores. But that hasn't been the case, really, in scores and scores of years. Fears of "stolen jobs" (mostly groundless) and "welfare chiselers" (not always so groundless) feed the malice directed at newcomers.

Of course, we try to make exceptions for people fleeing truly despotic realms, but...that's easier said than done.

The U.S. usually allows Cubans fleeing their country to stay, for example--but only if they make it to U.S. soil. So the Coast Guard patrols the waters, making sure few reach land.

This collaboration with totalitarian Cuba puzzles most of us. And even the staunchest anti-immigrant Americans were a bit shocked this month at how quickly eight of the autonauts were shipped back to Cuba. No matter how anti-immigrant many Americans may be when talking about jobs or schools or food stamps, sometimes when they see actual immigrants teeming valiantly towards us they show more compassion than their government does.

It's sad: the only reason that Luis Grass and his wife and child were sent to Guantanamo rather than Cuba proper--pending a final determination of their case--was a result of their previous attempt, when Grass started a legal process to gain a legit emigre status.

The American government was not effectively moved by the genius and perseverance of these Cubans. Only paperwork impresses it.

This American style saps our spirit with evasion, fear, and bureaucracy.

What To Do?

There is a great deal of unreasonable fear about foreigners. Yes, in today's foreign policy context we should be cautious with Muslims heading our direction. But we have next to nothing to fear from Cuban refugees who float the 90 miles from their collectivist prison.

America should have been able to welcome all eleven autonauts.

Our biggest obstacle is, actually, the welfare state. A freer market could accommodate all sorts of new entrants. But the welfare state is different, which is something I try to make clear in my Common Sense e-letter. In a market, every benefit is two-sided: both parties to any exchange gain. The benefits a person receives from the state, however, are benefits that have been taken from someone else, with no direct compensation for the loss. It's no wonder that Americans aren't thrilled about being taxed to support strangers from other lands; we're supporting enough native-born strangers, already.

And it's no wonder that America became less and less welcoming of immigrants as the welfare state grew.

So the question becomes, how to attract immigrants who want opportunity more than a free ride?

Not long ago Californians advanced a notion through the citizen initiative process, Prop. 187: prevent illegal immigrants from collecting benefits. It was not that radical of a notion, actually; much of Western Europe has a similar two-tiered approach to the welfare state. But in America this raised a firestorm, especially among people who believe that the only real rights are rights to a handout, not the right to be free. Not surprisingly, the infamous Gray Davis would not defend the voter-enacted measure in court. So the idea fell by the wayside.

But if something like it had become the law of the land--something more radical yet, like preventing (for a time, anyway) all newcomers from treating state-offered handouts as their entitlement--perhaps all eleven freedom-seekers in that green Buick could have landed on our shore. And maybe they would have met a parade instead of men with guns; maybe they could have been greeted in style, not taken back to prison.

The saga of the green Buick and its voyagers should have been a happy one. But now, for those who yearn to once again make the American spirit something about freedom, America's immigration policy can't help but end the tale on a sad note.