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What Was So Wrong With What Ozzie Guillen Said?

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Or, to put the question differently: In the United States of America, do we enjoy the right to free speech?

You could certainly argue that Guillen should have known better than to say anything at all, on that particular subject -- Fidel Castro and Cuba -- in that particular city -- Miami. On the other hand, you could say that the rebranded Miami Marlins should have understood what kind of man they were hiring, i.e. not a company man or a yes man, when they hired Guillen to be their celebrity manager for the inaugural season in their expensive new stadium. Guillen has a well-earned reputation as the Billy Martin of our time. Did the Marlins really expect him to refrain from expressing his opinions?

And so what if he did, anyway? What he said was that he respects Castro for staying alive and in power for so long. Apparently that's beyond the pale, at least in Florida.

The problem for the rest of the country is that Florida is not separate from the other forty-nine states, at least not fully and not yet. The array of wacky and horrific things that happen in Florida, from Elian Gonzalez to Quran-burning pastor Terry Jones to Trayvon Martin, affects the rest of us all too much. Like many people, I prefer to keep my politics and my baseball in separate pigeonholes, but there are times when that's not feasible or allowable. That was the point of my recent article "Why Fenway Park's 100th Birthday Leaves Me Cold," in which I pointed out that we should also be celebrating Tiger Stadium's hundredth birthday, and that it's not okay that we're not.

So, notwithstanding whether Ozzie Guillen was unwise or tactless to open his trap in the first place (he was both), the fact that the Cuban-American community of South Florida has successfully bullied him into apologizing and the Marlins into suspending him for five games matters, reaches well beyond both the state line and the foul lines. Indeed it matters as far from Miami as Seattle, where I live and where I write this.

I'm setting myself up for grief by drawing the following analogy, but it's too obvious to ignore: the way the Florida Cubans bully the rest of us into either silence or acquiescence with their blanket demonization of Castro is a lot like the way the pro-Israel lobby aggressively stifles any and every attempt at honest discussion of Israel. In both cases we have communities that are among the more affluent and influential sectors of American society having it both ways: at once exercising quite frankly the power that they know darn well they possess, and playing the ultimate American trump card: claimed victim status.

So you could choose to read this article as a companion or sequel to a piece I wrote in June 2010 titled "Israel and the Distortion of American Politics." Despite being none of the above -- neither a Jew nor an Arab nor a Muslim nor a Cuban, nor even a Floridian -- I absolutely do claim a stake, as an American, in debates over both Israel and Cuba, exactly because the American lobbies that consider those two countries so damn important are perpetually shoving them in my face. And, like the Republicans, both lobbies have a penchant for politics as a winner-take-all form of societal warfare, as when the Cuban-American Bar Association announced on Wednesday that, despite Guillen's apology and the team's at least equally craven decision to suspend him, they are taking their ball and going home rather than take part in the Marlins' otherwise innocuous Lawyer Appreciation Night.

And don't get me started, as a friend of Haiti and Haitians, on how and why Cubans are at the top of the South Florida totem pole and Haitians are at the bottom, or for that matter on the 2000 presidential election. I love Miami, and I have relatives there who are part Cuban, but whenever I'm there I have to grit my teeth and bite my tongue. So, it seems, does Ozzie Guillen. And, unfortunately, that's not a local or parochial matter, or only -- or even really at all -- about baseball.

I wish that my fellow Americans of all shapes and sizes, colors, ethnicity, whatever, could realize that we're all in this together and start pulling in the same direction to make this society better for all of us, before it's too late. As long as some consider it instead to be a battle, though, I'm prepared to fight (politically and nonviolently) for the America that I want to live in. If that puts me on the opposing team against all the Cubans in Florida, so be it.

ETHAN CASEY's next book, to be published in 2013, is "Home Free: An American Road Trip". He is the author of "Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time" (2004), "Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip" (2010), and "Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti" (2012). He is also co-author, with Michael Betzold, of "Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story" (1992). Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans