Today, the Miami Marlins suspended Ozzie Guillen five games (via ESPN) for telling Time magazine that he felt love for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and admired him for remaining in power for so long. In a subsequent press conference, a teary-eyed Guillen apologized, saying he was “very embarrassed, very sad” that “he had hurt a lot of people” with “the biggest mistake so far of my life.”
As per the Marlins Twitter account:
"I dont want to make excuses,but I meant I was surprised he has stayed in power so long.That's what was missing in the translation."
Since Guillen’s comments became public, there have been calls for everything from an extended suspension to firing. That there is disappointment in and disapproval of Guillen’s comments, particularly in Miami, is unsurprising.
Castro is a dictator, and like all dictators, the way he has remained in power since 1959 is by violently suppressing opposition. That’s a polite, euphemistic way of suggesting that he has arbitrarily tortured, imprisoned and executed his citizens. Miami has a large population of Cuban Americans who personally fled Castro’s oppression or are direct descendants of those who did. They are understandably wounded by Guillen’s stated affection for someone whose tyrannical, criminal government has directly impacted them or their loved ones.
Disapproval of Guillen’s comments should not be limited to that group, of course. They were, quite flatly, stupid—Castro is not an admirable figure no matter what your heritage or where you live. If that simple assertion doesn’t cause you to feel empathy, imagine if Guillen had praised Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein or whichever bad man whose actions cast shadows over your own family history.
Things become clearer when they’re personal.
Put in that context, it’s hard to imagine that Guillen, an intelligent baseball man, said anything quite this ignorant. The manager came to the United States over 30 years ago and became a citizen in 2006, but he was born in Venezuela and, according to his official Marlins biography, “has become an entertainment, sports and philanthropic icon in his native Venezuela since winning AL Rookie of the Year in 1985.”
You would think that he would have some sense of what Castro’s reign has meant to Cuba. “Insensitive” doesn’t quite do justice to the quality of those remarks.
Yet, those who are standing on the sidelines sniping and calling for suspensions and termination need to consider their own motives. Moral outrage is cheap when the target has been so spectacularly, in Guillen’s words, “dumb.” This is shooting Marlins in a barrel. It’s much harder to stake a stand on an issue that is in the grey zone, when others might snipe back at you.
Let us be clear: There is a difference between suggesting the Marlins needed to suspend Guillen to appease the Cuban-American community and another to argue that the quality of his remarks themselves deserved suspension. The former is what political bloggers call “concern trolling,” posing as a helpful pal of some third party that really doesn’t need your advice, thanks. The latter is, first, un-American, not in terms of the Bill of Rights—this is not a First Amendment matter given that your employer can censor you in the workplace all they want—but that any call that encourages punishment for speaking one’s mind, no matter how offensive, should be antithetical to our very being.
As Voltaire is supposed to have said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Or as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes definitely did say, the Constitution protects, “not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
Guillen may be an idiot, but to invoke Green Day, he’s an American idiot, our idiot and we have more than 225 years of taking such types to our bosom and even voting for them—again and again—in political elections.
This last part—“political elections"—is the real point. This is an election year in the United States, and daily we are knee-deep in divisive, inaccurate and even hateful speech. Again, we cherish the rights that allow even our leaders and wannabe leaders to say whatever is on their minds without recourse to facts, but all of us, as Americans on either side of the political divide, have a same responsibility to call them on it. Getting at the truth is not just a matter of informed choice but of survival.
I’m not suggesting that those of us in the sports writing arena should devote our soapboxes to politics, but that only he who has not let a sour “fact” go unchallenged in this silly campaign season throw the first stone at Ozzie Guillen.
But calling out a pol is dangerous, whether you do it in the context of sports writing or in your spare time. It exposes you to those on the other side. Fidel Castro has few defenders in this country, if any, so it’s safe to stand up and fire away at Guillen for his ignorance and to demand punishment.
Do the same the next time some party hack claims that his plan is really going to fix the economy, get us all back to work, and put a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot—you might get your head taken off for being partisan.
The reaction to Ozzie Guillen’s 223rd career error is an example of what passes for Edward R. Murrow-style journalistic courage in 21st century America: We would quietly endure a new McCarthyism, but we will gladly pull on our boots, form a circle and kick the hell out of anyone who says something laughable about an aging, bearded tyrant.
And make no mistake, those remarks were laughable, even if misinterpreted—Castro’s ability to survive assassination attempts—including the possibly mythical CIA exploding cigar, like Wile E. Coyote in khakis—is more an opportunity for regret than admiration.
Who cares what Ozzie Guillen thinks of anything that happens outside of the ballpark? Guillen has played, coached or managed in about 4,200 professional baseball games. That is his education and area of expertise. Otherwise, he’s a guy who is known for speaking without thinking, tweeting without thinking and, if you gave him a set of semaphore flags, would probably flap without thinking.
He’s clearly an intelligent man in his own arena, but his views on politics and political figures should have about as much currency and impact as his views on the proper treatment of liver disease.
When someone insults us and picks on a sensitive spot without having the standing to do so, we are told to ignore him; he’s just a jerk—he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s easier said than done; you can say “sticks and stones may break my bones” all you want, but those names hurt. When someone expresses admiration for your enemy, it hurts even more.
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, though, to be better than that—to rise above, to call a thing what it is. In this case, it’s hurtful but harmless hot air.
At least Guillen had the courage to speak his mind and also to apologize for it once he realized he had made a mistake. Those who want to see him punished for his inept statements are bandwagoners, lacking the same bravery.
Hey, lynching party, let’s see you shout someone down when it’s unpopular to do so. Then maybe you’ll have the standing to criticize Ozzie.