Have you heard about the immigrant’s son, the arriviste, and his nouveau riche predilections? Wealthy but wily, he’s adept at making money but cannot be trusted with it. It’s just that he doesn’t share our values, you see; he’s showy and tacky and was blessed with none of our genteel sensibilities. He has a flashy mansion, a fast boat, and no taste.
Such, at least, was the gist of a story published last week in the New York Times. Anyone peeking at it might’ve been excused for thinking they were reading about a modern-day Augustus Melmotte, the nefarious Jewish villain of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and a paradigm of the old stereotype that portrayed Jews as shifty capitalists who generated wealth through usury, speculation, and other disreputable means. But the story’s subject wasn’t Jewish; he was Marco Rubio, the third-born child of Cuban immigrants, an enterprising fellow who worked hard and earned some money and then used some of that money to bite off a morsel of the American Dream and buy himself the 24-foot fishing boat he’d always wanted. To the Times, which presented the piece as an investigation of Rubio’s alleged difficulties managing money, and to many of the pundits who followed in the ensuing feeding frenzy, such splurging suggested that Rubio wasn’t fit for the Oval Office; could you imagine what someone with a taste for mid-market fishing crafts might do to the national deficit?
It’s a strange insinuation, and it grows stranger the closer you look at Rubio’s personal history: Groaning, like most Americans, under the weight of student loans, mortgages, and other assorted debts, Rubio struck it rich in 2012 with a big book advance. He used the cash, $800,000, to pay off what he owed. Since then, and with his dream boat now docked safely in the marina, he’d managed to put aside $150,000, give $60,000 to charity, pay for his kids’ parochial school education, and refinance the mortgage on his primary home so as to lower his monthly payment. He’d made a few unwise moves as well, but, overall, the numbers suggest that Rubio’s is the sort of story that, once upon a time, used to moisten American eyes.
Why, then, the acrimony? To answer that question, it helps to ponder the long and intricate history of Jews and money. Trollope’s novel, while a work of fiction, is a handy primer: On one end of the ledger are Englishmen, good church folk who work assiduously, whether intentionally or not, at ridding themselves of their worldly possessions, their poverty a mark of their Christ-like qualities. On the other is the Jew Melmotte—he is coupled, for good measure, with that other loathsome embodiment of naked greed, an American named Hamilton Fisker—who is wealthy but hugely corrupt. Unlike the gentle followers of the Nazarene, whose piety and propriety are unassailable, Melmotte makes his living speculating, a noxious pursuit that reaps him a fortune but robs him of decency and morality. Devoid of these, he naturally enters Parliament, where he continues to behave badly.
Writing about The Way We Live Now in his autobiography, Trollope thundered about the indignation that drove him to pick up his pen and preach. “A certain class of dishonesty,” he wrote, “dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel.” Henry Ford couldn’t have said it better himself: No matter how successful the Jew, his was always the wrong kind of success, gauche and gaudy and not at all refined.
And Cuban, apparently, is the new Jew. Constituting only 3.6 percent of the American Hispanic population, Cubans are considerably better educated and more affluent. The median annual personal income for Cubans 16 and older was $24,400 in 2010, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available, considerably higher than median earnings among Hispanics overall and nearly as high as the number for the American population at large. They are, in short, an ascendant minority, but one whose values are at often odds with those of the men and women who write and edit newspapers, occupy endowed university chairs, or populate any of the other vanguards protecting cultural and intellectual life in America against the impure.
While it’s true that more Cuban Americans seem to lean Democratic than ever before, a majority still holds an unfavorable view of President Obama and his signature policies, and opinions grow more conservative the closer you get to Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where approximately one-half of Cuban-Americans live, Marco Rubio among them. His parents, refugees who washed up on American shores after fleeing persecution back home, worked in hotels, tending bar and cleaning rooms. Their son began his academic career on a football scholarship to Missouri’s Tarkio College, and his hefty student loans—more than $100,000—meant that he could scarcely afford to take classes dissecting the porous gender identity of Lady Gaga or teaching the fine art of feminist research methodologies. Instead, he studied law and ran for office and won and worked hard and made money and espoused positions that the centurions of culture now find appalling. Hence all the talk of showy boats, and hence that other Times piece of hard-hitting journalism revealing that Rubio and his wife, scoundrels that they are, have amassed 17 traffic citations in as many years.
It’s petty stuff, and it would’ve been laughable if the pattern wasn’t so familiar. The attempts to depict Rubio as greedy or seedy or careless or vulgar or some combination of all of the above are about more than his record or his political platform. They’re about hegemony, if I may borrow a word dear to Rubio’s detractors, the struggle to define society’s proper values and fault lines. Those who’ve long suffered the sting of stereotype should reject the same dynamic when turned against another member of another minority. There are many reasons to admire or dislike Sen. Rubio, but his boat oughtn’t be one of them.
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