I have a mantra for the new millennium that I hope millions will embrace. Its words are deceptively simple:
"I haven't a clue."
I came up with it while half-watching a droning TV, across which flashed a phone number and a question:
"Should Elian Gonzalez be returned to his father in Cuba?"
Elian, of course, is the adorable boy of 6 who was placed with relatives in the United States. after his mother and stepfather drowned when their crowded powerboat sank while approaching Florida.
When his father demanded that the boy be returned to him, Elian became the tiny center of a political tug-of-war between America and Cuba, democracy and dictatorship, anti-Castro Cuban Americans and Havana protesters who include Elian's classmates. An Immigration and Naturalization Service hearing on Dec. 23 will decide where Elian ends up.
Somehow, hearing a local news program elicit public opinion as to the fate of an unknown child hundreds of miles away sparked a realization: For most people, there's one sane answer to the question, "Should Elian stay or go?"
And that is, "I haven't a clue."
Often, it's the only honest response, yet it's the one least likely to be offered to questions ranging from "Who killed JFK?" to "Was O.J. guilty?" I'm often amazed at how little the public and even the media really know about a news event--and yet how comfortable we are offering opinions. Whatever media evidence suggests, knowing the truth, or even the probable truth, requires knowledge of the souls involved, of facts and foibles news reports rarely reveal.
How could anyone ignorant of the details of Elian's life possibly know who would best raise a boy they've never met: relatives in Florida about whom they know nothing, or the Cuban father whose character is a mystery to them?
And yet we opine. Of course life in even a flawed democracy in most ways beats living within the limits of dictatorship--though some happy souls do exist even in oppression, and misery thrives in the fullest freedom.
To answer correctly, we'd have to know more than the surface facts.
What kind of man, what kind of father, is Elian's dad, a hotel doorman who says he had no idea that his small son was being taken to the United States. What kind of guardians would the uncle and cousins with whom he's currently living be, one of whom has been in the United States just four months?
Why do thousands of strangers think they know the answer?
Because in any language, "I don't know" is a hard phrase to muster. It's human nature to pretend to know more than we do about almost any subject, and then to go to the mat in defense of opinions based largely on our own, limited experiences--which may have no relation to the situation being discussed.
We don't like questions we can't easily answer, or at least think we can answer. Perhaps that explains media reaction to a Memphis jury's decision Wednesday that slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was the victim of an assassination conspiracy.
A jury of six white and six black Americans took just three hours to reach that decision in what King family members call "the first and only" trial in their patriarch's murder. The proceeding attracted "surprisingly little national attention," according to a report in this newspaper.
Perhaps the jury's finding of a conspiracy unsettles Americans--or the media which serve them--because it leads to discomfitting questions, particularly, "If James Earl Ray didn't act alone, who killed King?"
Maybe this question is too painful, too potentially divisive, for many of us to enjoy our usual guessing game. But some questions have to be asked, such as, "Why are we more fascinated by news that's horrific than uplifting?"
For more than a month, Travis Butler, 9, of Memphis, attended school, did his homework, bought groceries and otherwise lived responsibly--all while his mother lay dead in their modest apartment. The boy later said he feared being sent to an orphanage if the death of his unemployed mom--who'd been ill for a year--was discovered.
I stumbled upon the story of this amazingly resourceful boy, a good student who now lives with his grandmother, deep inside my morning paper. Police don't suspect foul play. Yet I feel that if Travis had killed his mother rather than somehow survived without her, his story would have gotten better play.
We're more likely to hear about the few children who behave horrendously than the many who survive, or even flourish, in the midst of awfulness.
Is that because we're fascinated by brutality in the way teens are more drawn to roller coasters than merry-go-rounds? Is it because such stories tap into the secret terrors that haunt us even as we, like Travis Butler, carry on as if all were well?
Is it because we believe that the only real news is bad news?
I'd tell you, but I haven't a clue.