Miami: The City of the Future, by T.D. Allman; Miami, by Joan Didion; Going to Miami, by David Rieff
Mooning Over Miami
Miami: The City of the Future.
by T.D. Allman.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 394 pp. $22.50.
by Joan Didion.
Simon & Schuster. 238 pp. $17.95.
Going to Miami: Exiles, Tourists, and Refugees in the New America.
by David Rieff.
Little, Brown. 230 pp. $16.95.
Miami is the Hong Kong of the Americas, a dazzling, cash-rich entrepôt alongside an alien and profitable presence, the baffling diversity that we prefer to know, simply, as Latin America and the Caribbean. Like Hong Kong, Miami shows all the characteristics of a spectacularly fortuitous entrepreneurial accident: dizzying development, rampant speculation, immense conspicuous wealth and corruption—violence. Beneath it all are the tectonic plates of difference—language, comportment, custom, systems of production—that call forth exchange. Even in the matter of drugs there is a similarity between the two sites: cocaine and marijuana, opium. The major distinction is that while Hong Kong was an exchange kiosk so very remote from Britain, Miami is one of the main doorways to the U.S. And, of course, there is the fact that in Miami, the drugs flow the other way than they did 130 years ago in Asia.
The geographical singularity of Miami is the distinction that really matters, especially in the 80’s. Miami, thriving international hub, Cuban immigrant bastion, drug capital, is both the end and the beginning of the line where the U.S. is concerned, a problematical place in a sprawling republic of immigrants, in which the body politic and the territory have both grown most rapidly through physical incorporation. On the other side of Miami is the so-far unincorporable, and thus, among other things, the point at which U.S. foreign policy ceases to be an abstraction.
Most of U.S. foreign policy in the Western hemisphere is economics, and in Miami, that is no abstraction, either. Miami is rich, a condition often, and erroneously, attributed to drug money. To be sure, drug money plays a substantial role in that palmy, pastel-hued opulence, but other factors are considerably more important. (There are plenty of drugs in Marseilles, but most of the money goes elsewhere.) Miami’s modern glamorized existence owes an enormous amount to OPEC, the rise of international oil prices, and the traditional recycling of Latin American loans and investment known as flight capital. Drug money that flows back into Miami is in itself a form of flight capital, moving through the incredibly intricate system of offshore financing—greatly ramified by OPEC and Latin debt—that Latin Americans have used for a long, long time to express lack of confidence in their domestic fiscal and social arrangements. There are other such havens in the hemisphere: Uruguay (the “Switzerland of the Americas”), Panama (in a little trouble at the moment), and perhaps every second Caribbean islet. Miami is the big one, and again, because of geography. It is here.
With money has come another in Miami’s cyclical rounds of exuberance going back to the 20’s and also, lately, an eponymous crime show on national television. All is closely linked: just as $20 per-barrel petroleum gave birth to Dallas, so the blossoming of flight capital helped to engender Miami Vice. Once again, Miami has proved to be a good location. TV has bestowed on Miami a sense of style, mood, and raffishness that formerly was bestowed on great American cities by writers like Damon Runyon, Ben Hecht, or Raymond Chandler. Well, TV has almost done that.
It becomes necessary to mention so trivial a thing as a cops-‘n-robbers show in relation to Miami because without that series it would be be well-nigh impossible to unravel some of the reasons behind the sudden rivulet of books that have now spurted forth, with the intention of examining the city and its signifying relationship to the U.S. Each one makes at least one prolonged obeisance in the direction of Messrs. Crockett and Tubbs, the two detectives on Miami Vice. It almost seems as if the city has suddenly attracted a swarm of pop-cultural iconographers, each one of whom, in the French fashion, is seeking a subtext to the electronic images. They are intent on showing what Miami means.
Along the way, each author, in some fashion or other, also ponders the importance of the Latin threat. More specifically, the Cuban threat. A theme wending through all the books is a concern about Cuban-American economic assertiveness, growing political clout, and fervid anti-Communism. And behind that can be detected the more muted anxiety of one group contemplating another in the American crucible: are we about to be displaced? Are our values about to be outflanked? How do we assess the ultimate impact—on us—of these people?
In the small-d democratic folklore of America, those kinds of questions come from the mouths of Wasps pondering the arrival of sturdy pleb hordes on U.S. shores. And there has been plenty of that kind of uneasy bigotry in American history. But this time, many of the expressions of concern stem from a different group, the pop intelligentsia. There is much about Miami and its rising Cuban elite that gives this group pause. The city and its immigrant citizens are seen as both socially and politically conservative; they harbor a minority of right-wing political extremists; victims of Communism, they are strong supporters of other victims of Marxism-Leninism, like the Nicaraguan contras; they vote Republican. By these and other stripes, they seem to stand outside the traditional “assimilationist” immigrant constituencies whose mythology forms so much of the country’s liberal-mainstream integument.
Perhaps one of the clearest expositions of the process comes from the mouth of actor Edward James Olmos, one of the stars of, yes, Miami Vice. As Olmos puts it:
It doesn’t matter whether you’re Anglo or Jewish or Polish or Cuban, every group thinks once they’ve got it made, the curtain will come down on the drama of America and they can settle down to the happy ending. Then, suddenly, new people start moving in. An America where the plot once seemed simple and safe now seems complex and dangerous because, just when you think you’ve got America mastered, it always starts renewing itself.
Olmos’s down-to-earth view is perhaps the most cogent statement made in T.D. Allman’s garrulous and often incoherent book, Miami: The City of the Future. Allman is a native Floridian laundered by Harvard and Oxford; his previous work, Unmanifest Destiny, was an extended diatribe against the racist, genocidal, imperialist policy of the United States toward Central America and the Caribbean since the beginning of time. Alongside his credentials as a marxisante intellectual, Allman reveals himself in his latest work to be a determinist of an even older school, intent on exposing what he calls “one of the oldest truths of America: the original sins of our national genesis pursue us wherever we go.”
Allman holds to this view with great tenacity. It considerably clutters his other enterprise, which is to produce an epiphany about Miami as the embodiment of everything, good and bad, past, present, and above all future about America. “Miami is America,” he writes. It is both the macrocosm and the microcosm. “Miami’s not just its own invention. It’s its own point of reference,” he adds, a trifle confusingly. “Strange new shapes emerge under that sky as you get closer, beckoning like promises in a foreign language you’d like to learn.”
As a journalist on the Miami scene, Allman tries to guide his readers to all the expected low spots: to a cocaine party at a wealthy local lawyer’s house; to a club where Colombian gunmen take their girlfriends; to the city’s 1980 Overtown racial explosion. His depiction of those scenes is uniformly maudlin. This, for example, from the 1980 riot: “But now there was no escape. . . . Even when you pressed the accelerator to the floor, the smoke, the rage, the terror pursued you. It was as though the darkest fantasies of the American soul had come true.”
Heavy stuff. Was Allman there? It is occasionally a bit hard to tell. When leaving his cocaine bash, Allman says that his clothes were so heavily powdered with the stuff that it came away in clouds as he walked down the street. This seems a bit operatic; one wonders if cocaine also induces poetic license.
But the touring is merely by way of introduction to one of Allman’s main points: that Miami is an assimilationist success story. Despite horror tales about criminal Cuban marielitos and Haitians washing ashore on local beaches, the true drama of Miami is that the Americanization of the city’s Latins “is now in full flood.” Latin immigration is no threat, “the integration forces have never been stronger.” It is still, in Allman’s view, the principal font of American virtue, the ability of the country to reinvent itself continually. As he puts it at one point: “The whole city is One vast, wonderful tribute to the fact that, in this part of the world, fantasy has the force of history.”
Then the subtext emerges. Being an immigrant is not the problem; being an American is the problem. Gradually, Allman says, “I came to the conclusion that Miami also holds up a mirror to that strange American emptiness that always seems to pursue us no matter how many swamps we turn into cities of tomorrow.” What is truly representative about Miami, he finally seems to say, is that here, as everywhere else in the country, one has an obligation to feel guilt: “the dark stratum of historical injustice that underlies the gleaming new Florida of today, to say nothing of the gleaming illusion of virtue triumphant that underlies so much of what we Americans do, build, and are.”
Having opened up this notion, Allman concludes on a note of more or less complete incoherence. “Everywhere the world is growing more like Miami,” he asserts, and within a few sentences is asking, “Does our capacity to create Fontainebleaus and TV series and cities bespeak a touch of the divine in human nature? Or are we more like marine insects?” Finally launching into a disquisition on quantum mechanics, Allman arrives at the 60’s revelation that everything is interconnected. To the reader, at least, it has become clear that whatever other impact Miami has on America, it possesses a dangerous ability to disorganize certain minds.
For T.D. Allman, when he is not locked in a death struggle with ontology, Miami is America writ small. For Joan Didion, it is “a settlement of considerable interest, not exactly an American city as American cities have until recently been understood but a tropical capital: long on rumor, short on memory, overbuilt on the chimera of runaway money.” As is her wont, Miss Didion finds much on the Miami scene to be unsettled about. The place is, above all, alien, and smoldering with social resentment. “The entire tone of the city, the way people looked and talked and met one another, was Cuban. The very image the city had begun presenting of itself . . . was that of prerevolutionary Havana, as perceived by Americans.”
Joan Didion sees an apocalypse coming in Miami, and seems to relish the prospect. The heart of Miami’s darkness is the right-wing Cuban, nurtured by Washington’s equally dark geopolitical designs since 1960, and still a serpent alive in the community. Unlike Allman, she argues that Cubans, as opposed to other immigrant groups, live in el exilio, a revanchist and willfully foreign space outside America. Those who try to leave el exilio—by which she largely means arguing for an accommodation with the Castroite regime in Havana—run the risk of being killed by their peers. There is no doubt, in fact, that such killings have occurred, although one that Miss Didion dwells on occurred, if recollection serves, more than a decade ago.
Miss Didion has an equally dogmatic conception of Miami’s Anglo community, which she finds laughably ignorant of the Cuban reality in its midst. There is considerable schoolgirl condescension in her tone as she announces portentously that “Cuban food was widely seen not as a minute variation on that eaten throughout both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean but as ‘exotic’ and full of garlic.”
Behind that condescension, Miss Didion brandishes a sense of cultural relativism that is almost breathtaking:
Americans, it is often said in Miami, will act always in their own interest, an indictment. Miami Cubans, by implicit contrast, take their stand on a higher ground, la lucha as a sacred abstraction, and any talk about “interests” or for that matter “agreements,” remains alien to the local temperament, which is absolutist, and sacrificial, on the Spanish model.
Which is to say, on the Cuban model.
What Miss Didion seems most interested in doing, screenwriter-fashion, is confecting a portrait ethnic menace. Miami is of less concern to her than her own mood, in which the ordinary becomes sinister, in which the hand of a nefarious right-wing conspiracy is subtly evident. Sometimes, her at-attempts to conjure a sinister relationship into existence topple over into outright ludicrousness. Thus, at one point, Miss Didion quotes Orlando Bosch, leader of the Miami-based Omega 77 anti-Castro terrorist group, as saying, “You have to fight violence with violence.” Immediately after, she notes: “The same year, 1978, Richard Helms [who years previously had been the CIA director of operations when Bosch was given paramilitary training by the agency] said: ‘When one government is trying to upset another government and the operation is successful, people get killed.’” Well, as they say, if that doesn’t prove something, nothing will.
A word that recurs frequently in Miss Didion’s accounts is “tropical.” It is her euphemism for foreign, un-American. Describing the garb of upper-middle-class Cuban women in Miami, she observes, “there seemed to be a preference for strictest gray or black, but the effect remained perfectly lush, tropical, like a room full of perfectly groomed mangoes.” These people, or so this feline and perfectly inept characterization seems to imply, do not belong here.
It is difficult to know if David Rieff would agree. His book looks at Miami from a different angle, that of the worldly New York litterateur. As such, it is more an attempt to strike an attitude than a serious bid to examine Miami, a point that Rieff concedes, sort of, in his introduction, when he labels his work a “book of impressions, not a work of investigative journalism.”
Even before he reaches Miami, according to his diary-like account, Rieff is deeply involved with the question of how long people he meets have been in the country. On a dozen or so trips to New York area airports, he reports, “I encountered only three cabdrivers who were native-born Americans.” This appears to have weighed on him. In Miami itself, there are additional ethnic realities: “As I walked aimlessly about, the predominant language seemed to be Spanish. Over the public-address system, flight announcements were given bilingually more as is done in San Juan, Puerto Rico, than in even so international a city as New York or so Hispanic a place as Los Angeles.”
There is a great deal of this kind of wide-eyed silliness, enough to make one wonder whether Rieff had ever previously left his Manhattan apartment. “America may all look the same on television,” he observes, “but it doesn’t feel the same when one actually travels around; it only feels the same from the hotel room.” But what is even more striking in this account is a sense of superiority which, if applied to any other ethnic group, might well draw a stern response from the Blank-American Defense Committee. Contemplating an editorial supplement in which Cuban businessmen and other luminaries (including Ronald Reagan) hail their community’s achievements, Rieff notes:
Amongst the older, better established ethnic groups, this desire [for self-promotion] is largely entertained by individuals. But for as cohesive a group as Cuban-Americans, the idea of some kind of collective celebrity—rather like a rock star with a million glitter-flecked heads—was not only natural, it was bound to be irresistible.
Further on he adds, “Given their phenomenal gift for legitimate busness, it is fairly safe to assume that Cuban-Americans will eventually largely eschew crime just as Jewish-Americans did.”
What, if anything, is Rieff’s point? In part, it seems to be that Miami is not Miami Vice. Beyond that, he largely seems concerned to have it on the record that what exists in Miami has now been seen and judged by its betters.
Beyond Miami, beyond Cuba, beyond the latest bubbling of the American melting pot, there is an issue that all of these books raise. It is the questionable quality of some strands of American cultural observation.