I have seen Elian so often on television that I think I know how heavy he would feel if I balanced him on my hip, or how fast we might walk if I led him by the hand into school. We are bound together by the artificial intimacy of the media.
Over the months, facts have come to matter less and less in this case. Elian is a celebrity, and that is why we cannot let him go. The lingering rancor against Fidel Castro, the election-year obeisance to the Cuban-exile community -- those are only part of the picture. The smartest and most callous decision that Elian's relatives made was to open up his life so fully to the media, because they knew that once they did, we would be hooked.
In today's America, we create mono-monikered news celebrities, O.J., Monica, Jon Benet, then follow their cases like telenovellas -- those ultra-popular Latin American soap operas -- installment by installment.
Castro's deeply flawed Cuba, which has a literacy rate higher and infant mortality rate lower than the United States, is hardly the child-swallowing sinkhole its detractors make it out to be. Nonetheless, we continue to devour this boy along with his story, while the stories of so many other children around the world who are truly oppressed or endangered remain untold.
I spent this weekend interviewing some of the 6,000 women from around the world gathered for the Feminist Expo in Baltimore. Among them was a teenager in a T-shirt proclaiming "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." Then I strolled over to the booth selling crafts by refugees from Afghanistan, a country where that notion is not only radical but potentially fatal. Women and girls are forbidden to work, learn, gather, earn. One brave girl who dressed as a boy to go to school was written up in The New York Times. But unless she becomes a movie of the week, she will not rival Elian for our attention.
A stone's throw from El Paso, Texas, teenage girls work in the maquiladoras, or border factories, of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. These plants are the children of our free trade policy, places where American corporations such as General Electric can produce their goods cheaply without paying import duties. They dump toxins near the impoverished neighborhoods that they would never -- could never, legally -- put in U.S. back yards. And the barren stretches between work and home have also become killing fields for sexual predators who have raped and killed 200 women and girls as young as 13, girls whose names rarely make headlines in our papers.
Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, 10 million children have been orphaned by AIDS, and millions more will join their ranks this year. One way the United States could ease the suffering is to allow nations to manufacture low-cost AIDS drugs, since per-capita income is a fraction of Western AIDS treatment costs. But our government and corporations are battling all the way, and these children are paying the price. A few of these children are my cousins in AIDS-ravaged Zimbabwe; all of them should be our concern.
And, of course, right here in the United States, there are children jailed for entering the country illegally. Instead of placing them with child welfare services, as other Western countries do, the Immigration and Naturalization Service places 5,000 children each year -- some who have lost parents just like Elian -- in facilities with convicted criminals.
Of course, it is easier to identify with individual faces -- especially cute ones like Elian's -- than try to keep up with international policy. But the minute-by-minute updates on Elian wallpaper over such issues as the upcoming World Bank meeting in Washington, which will help shape the lives of millions of impoverished children for years to come.
The great tragedy of Elian's case is not only his shattered life, but that the media's narrow focus teaches us so little. When Elian goes home -- and he will, six days or weeks or months from now -- will we know more about the tensions between the United States and Cuba? Will we use this chance to understand more about the world's endangered children, or will we click our remote to find the next Elian, a news celebrity with headline potential?
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