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Thoughts on litmus tests for new acquaintances?

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I generally don't want or care to know if someone is an Objectivist or an Ayn Rand admirer when I first meet them. I have, throughout my life, had certain litmus test questions on certain issues that give me a shortcut to someone's true personality, without letting them know that the issue is of all importance as to whether I will continue dealing with them. It is usually a topic so specific that they would have no clue to its utter importance, and therefore, they wouldn't see any reason to be dishonest about their answer to it.

For the last 5 years, the question hasn't changed. I always find some way to bring up the Elian Gonzalez incident. This question, better than any other I have used, cuts to the root of someone's personality and soul. Once I know where they stood on that issue, I know whether I want to deal with them. This issue is so important to me, there are many cousins and acquintances that I no longer even say anything more than a simple "hello" to. It literally makes me sick to even consider befriending someone who comes down on the wrong side of this issue.

I would like to know if anyone else here has this type of system. And what issue is it that you would use? (Aside from asking someone' "Do you like Ayn Rand?) I think that is is much better to save Ayn Rand and Objectivism for a later point in relationships or friendships.

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One of the validations of the Objectivist ethics for me, has been to see how differences in the ideas of various friends and acquaintances ultimately shape their personal success and social relationships. I find that even the most abstract ideas about philosophy, religion, or even politics reflect the premises that ultimately determine the shape of their personal lives – and my value of associating with them.

I’ve found no “litmus test” for an individual’s basic philosophy however, because it’s so common to superficially accept one philosophy – like Objectivism, Christianity, or hedonism while living by another. The only sure way of finding out what philosophy someone lives by is to observe him practicing it.

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I’ve found no “litmus test” for an individual’s basic philosophy however, because it’s so common to superficially accept one philosophy – like Objectivism, Christianity, or hedonism while living by another.  The only sure way of finding out what philosophy someone lives by is to observe him practicing it.

Ultimately, I agree. But I think there are pointed questions one can ask to extract essential information, which can help. The big caution is that any single, concrete issue (like Elian) can be misunderstood. There can be very different reasons for holding the same stance on an issue. And even if they have the right reasons, it may be compartmentalized.

More broadly, I don't approach people and engage in a detective hunt as to their character. If I meet someone in a business context, I treat them with professional courtesy at first. As I get to know them, I gradually adjust my behavior accordingly. If I have some reason to concern myself with them personally, then I would start to deal with them on a more personal level. By that time, I'm no longer dealing with them in a vacuum, and I have a context within which to draw a composite sketch.

Some examples of pointed questions that can illuminate:

Do they have deep personal values? (within some concrete area, like movies) Are they in a clear hierarchy? Do they absolutely love some things and hate others -- or are they more apathetic?

If office gossip circulates about an ethical issue, how do they respond? If the boss is sleeping with the new employee who suddenly gets a promotion -- is there jealousy, or indignation that such people make it harder for women to be taken seriously at work?

When you discuss some specific issue related to work, is the person's train of thought clear and focused, or easily derailed? Do they bring new and interesting information to the discussion, or steer the conversation off topic?

Notice that a lot of these are questions that you can ask yourself about what you observe. Usually questions like these are in the background of normal life for me. As I interact with people, I have a habit of noting particularly good or bad signs. Sometimes I note it and move on, other times I ask a question or two.

Bottom line: an accurate, detailed profile of the people you meet takes time and observation. A few probing questions at the right time can dig up essential information. I've found I don't have a need to get too detailed in profiling most people I meet, as I don't have a need or interest in such detail.

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I agree that there can different reasons for being right on the Elian case. But if a person is wrong about it, what could be more telling than that about their character (in a quick-snapshot sense)?

I've found that if someone is wrong about that issue, their whole psychology and philosophy is also evil. That's why it's such a good litmus test. I haven't found abetter issue when it comes from separating the wheat from the chaff.

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One of the validations of the Objectivist ethics for me, has been to see how differences in the ideas of various friends and acquaintances ultimately shape their personal success and social relationships.  I find that even the most abstract ideas about philosophy, religion, or even politics reflect the premises that ultimately determine the shape of their personal lives – and my value of associating with them.

What you say here is true -- profoundly true. I would go further, however, and say that a person's psycho-epistemology, how he uses his mind in relation to those abstract ideas, shapes his soul and ultimately determines the value he presents to you.

I’ve found no “litmus test” for an individual’s basic philosophy however, because it’s so common to superficially accept one philosophy – like Objectivism, Christianity, or hedonism while living by another.  The only sure way of finding out what philosophy someone lives by is to observe him practicing it.

Again, profoundly true. The closest thing to a "litmus test" I have ever found in revealing a person's nature, is whether or not he is a valuer. A valuer is one who cares, passionately, for ideas as well as concretes, a person who has a favorite everything. I find I have more in common personally with someone who lives his life as a valuer, without explictly grasping or accepting Objectivism, than those who accept Objectivism intellectually, but live their lives in more conflicted manner.

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I agree that there can different reasons for being right on the Elian case.  But if a person is wrong about it, what could be more telling than that about their character (in a quick-snapshot sense)?

What does a stance on a political issue tell you about how he lives his life? I agree it may indicate something substantial -- to the degree he is consistent. What if he isn't? What if he says one thing and does another? What if he holds conflicting political ideas?

As far as single data points go, I think this is a good one. The instantaneous, sense-of-life response it indicates gives you some insight into a fellow's character. But it is only one data point.

People are free to change. They may recongize a contradiction in their ideas, resolve it, and change their opinions, and that's especially true about concretes. So, for instance, someone may say, "Well, Cuba's not so bad, and he should be with his Dad." Later he realizes how much freedom matters, and that Cuba has none, so Elian should remain in the US. In which case, the underlying rationality of the person would not be revealed by this test.

And, back to the point that interests me, I don't think another single concrete question can work as a means of instantly determining someone's essential character. So substituting another for this wouldn't help.

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I have a very limited-use litmus test. Because I am in college and meeting people is a generally large part of the experience, one rule that I have found is that I really only get along with those who have a job. That doesn't mean that I get along with everyone who has a job (I have a roommate who works with Americorps, and we've already had a fight about me paying indirectly for her rent). The ones who do have a job may have some contradictory ideas, but generally don't try to deny Reason, etc. Usually, they at least have their heads on straight.

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You've chosen a very complex issue which is easy to argue a number of different approaches, but the strongest argument is: the personal values of the major players in that situation are all that count. We don't have a right to decide for others what their values are. Elian's father and family could face horrific consequences in Cuba had the US not complied with his request to send Elian back. I wanted to see the U.S. send him back - but this is my humble opinion and I can't say 'right' or 'wrong' because it is mostly an issue of the choices that the family wanted to make, not us on the outside. However, I'd rather see them both wanting freedom in America. Their choice, not mine. They'll live with the consequences as they so choose.

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I wanted to see the U.S. send him back - but this is my humble opinion and I can't say 'right' or 'wrong' because it is mostly an issue of the choices that the family wanted to make, not us on the outside.

I see. So if the "family" decides they would rather have a child grow up in a totalitarian state, rather than in freedom, there is no right or wrong to such an issue as far as you are concerned? How about if the "family" decides to cut off Elian's right arm. Are you also neutral on that? How about an arm and a leg? What if they want to cut off Elian's head? Out of curiosity, are there any actions of the "family" towards Elian that you might consider to be right or wrong?

Incidentally, speaking of the "family," how do you just ignore the fact that Elian's mother died attempting to bring Elian and herself to freedom? Do you think that her actions count for anything?

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You've chosen a very complex issue which is easy to argue a number of different approaches, but the strongest argument is:  the personal values of the major players in that situation are all that count.  We don't have a right to decide for others what their values are. Elian's father and family could face horrific consequences in Cuba had the US not complied with his request to send Elian back.  I wanted to see the U.S. send him back - but this is my humble opinion and I can't say 'right' or 'wrong' because it is mostly an issue of the choices that the family wanted to make, not us on the outside.  However, I'd rather see them both wanting freedom in America.  Their choice, not mine.  They'll live with the consequences as they so choose.

If Hitler strongly values seeing Jews cooked in an oven, then, as a "major player" in Nazi Germany, he had a right to see that they got cooked. I see. These issues are "complex."

I think that either Peikoff or Binswanger has a great piece about "complexity worship."

Or they criticized those who would use the term "oversimplify." They were right.

This issue is so simple - and that is why I use it as a litmus test question - because no person of morality or at least semi-clear thinking skills could possibly be wrong on it.

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I always thought we should send him back on the grounds that he was an illegal immigrant

And I always thought that people who thought that should be sent back on the grounds of illegal immigration to what ever planet they must have come from. Surely someone who will not embrace a person fleeing for freedom from a slave state, cannot really be of this Earth.

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And I always thought that people who thought that should be sent back on the grounds of illegal immigration to what ever planet they must have come from. Surely someone who will not embrace a person fleeing for freedom from a slave state, cannot really be of this Earth.

Stephen, do you see how good the Elian topic works? On an Objectivist message board - that's two people already. In "real life" - since I get to see the person in many other contexts, I get to "test" the validity of using the Elian topic. No exaggeration, it always works. I don't ever recall a single instance where someone came down on the wrong side of this issue - and also didn't have other serious character flaws.

Simple errors in knowledge CANNOT get one off the hook for wanting to send an innocent child, whose mother died getting him here, who also had loving family in florida to care for him and he would not become a recipient in the welfare state (the family was middle class), back to a prison-state (my name for countries who execute people who try to leave). There is no innocent excuse for that type of thinking.

Just to show that I apply it consistently, I have an uncle and a couple of cousins that I no longer deal with because of this issue. It is practically the same as if they came out in favor of Hitler.

Watchling Reno's kidnapping of Elian was one of the most embarrasing days in this country's history.

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We have many aliens living in florida who were accepted according to the law as they made it to shore. I feel that Elian could have stayed as "he made it to shore."

The way Reno had him "captured" was as awful as what she pulled in Waco Texas. It was an embarrassment to America for sure!

I have a great ice breaker that I wear in public everyday. It is a gold dollar sign that was given to me 40 years ago when my husgand and I discovered Ayn Rand's books and essays. We drove to the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and became instant followers of this woman's philosophy.

Earlier in the year I attended the Arizona State LP conference and this vcery attractive man walked up to me and whispered in my ear "I'm a follower of Rand too," he said and was staring at my gold charm. It was Michael Badnarik and it was not the first time this symbol of Capitalism was picked up by a total stranger.

Sadly back in the 60s many of us wore the symbol but today it is rare to see it other than on LP forums or letterheads. I think a lot of the problem is that the Objectivist group has split up into two divisions instead of sticking it out as one group.

I transfered my allegiance from Rand to Dr. Leonard Piekoff who seems to have taken the lead in keeping Rand's name out there for new people to learn to appreciate. His program on CSPAN was fabulous and I ordered the video tape to keep in my collection.

I remember one very strong statement from Rand when she was still alive and that was to "define one's terms before starting a debate!" Well, it seems that the Objectivists have taken the last 20 years doing just that with little progress being made to expand the movement.

I must be simple minded but Rand's message to me was clean and clear and it was called "Objectivism" and I have managed to live within this philosophy for 41 years.

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I agree that Elian should have been kept in the US.

However, for illustration, if we were to modify some facts of the Elain case, it would be a good case-study to examine parental rights.

I estimate that Elian's father would rather have let Elian be in the US (and would have loved to join him). I estimate that he said he wanted Elian back in Cuba

because he feared his government.

What if the father genuinely wanted his son back in Cuba? Would that change things? Would one it still be right to keep him in the US because that was obviously his mother's wish?

What if Elian was clearly a minor (not a borderline case) and both his parents were alive and wanted him back in Cuba, but he had been brought here by a rational aunt? Would it still be right to keep him in the US because parental wishes is not the issue here, individual rights is the issue.

Does keeping a child in Cuba amount a grevious harm of the type that negates rights that the parent may ordinarily have? In other words, would it be right for

anyone willing to support a Cuban child to abduct that child and bring them to the US?

I am hesitant to force others to accept my ideas of right and wrong, for themselves

or for their children, except in the most serious of cases. Yes, it would be right to abduct a child if their parents were about to cut their arm off! I am uncertain if living in Cuba would rise to the same standard.

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The way Reno had him "captured" was as awful as what she pulled in Waco Texas.  It was an embarrassment to America for sure! 

Although I don't consider it a "litmus test" issue, I feel that the Waco situation was almost completely the fault of Koresh and his followers. I don't think Reno handled it intelligently, but I don't consider it an embarrasment to America. There is a lot of misinformation out there about the way things happened. I believe that the government had a compelling reason to act in that situation.

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Stephen, do you see how good the Elian topic works?

Well, clearly, based on the passion I have for the issue, a part of me agrees with you. There is no doubt that the Elian issue polarizes people. My only concern is that I am also well-aware of the degree to which people can compartmentalize their mind, so I am not convinced that someone's position regarding Elian will of necessity reveal their overall worth. Though, in all honesty I must admit, I cannot recall knowing anyone who was on the wrong side of the issue and still was of any value to me.

As an almost aside, as an indication of the passions aroused by the Elian incident, let me tell you about an experience we had. We live in a very civilized and extremely rights-respecting town, always first or second on the FBI list of least crime in a city with over 100,000 residents. Betsy and I were very impassioned about Elian, and I had a huge banner made to hang in the front of our house, for all to see. You can see a picture of it here. I had a number of people stop by to show their support and to tell how proud they felt about the banner. One morning I woke up to find the banner gone. Here is our town of so little actual crime, and some neighbor on the other side of the issue was so impassioned as to steal our banner and remove it from view! Amazing.

Needless to say I had another banner made, and I also put up a sign on my front lawn telling the guilty party exactly what I thought of them. All this in a town where even advertising banners for stores are kept as a minimum! So there is little doubt in my mind that Elian was, and, apparently, still is, a polarizing issue.

Watchling Reno's kidnapping of Elian was one of the most embarrasing days in this country's history.

I agree. That picture with the agent in full gear, pointing a rifle towards Elian and Donato cowering in the closet -- the look on their faces! -- was almost too much to bear. Unbelievably disgraceful.

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What if the father genuinely wanted his son back in Cuba? Would that change things? Would one it still be right to keep him in the US because that was obviously his mother's wish?

The issue is not "his mother's wish" -- though, clearly, her wish and her actions are to be respected and greated admired -- but rather that no one can claim the right to enslave another. It matters not what the parents think; if a child can be saved from a slave state then it is right for us to make it so.

I am hesitant to force others to accept my ideas of right and wrong, for themselves

or for their children, except in the most serious of cases. Yes, it would be right to abduct a child if their parents were about to cut their arm off! I am uncertain if living in Cuba would rise to the same standard.

Cutting out a person's soul is a lot more grievous than cutting off an arm. You should not be uncertain about the difference between being sentenced to live in a slave state, as opposed to freedom.

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Needless to say I had another banner made, and I also put up a sign on my front lawn telling the guilty party exactly what I thought of them. All this in a town where even advertising banners for stores are kept as a minimum! So there is little doubt in my mind that Elian was, and, apparently, still is, a polarizing issue.

I agree. That picture with the agent in full gear, pointing a rifle towards Elian and Donato cowering in the closet -- the look on their faces! -- was almost too much to bear. Unbelievably disgraceful.

Its good to hear that you supported him like that. If anyone ever deserved a taste of Cuba, or even Siberia, it was the weasel who stole your banner.

For me, it was the most embarrasing event in my lifetime by far. You can look at ANYTHING that happened under the Clinton Administration, and NOTHING even comes close to this event in importance. A part of the soul of America died that day.

When I look at other polarizing events, here's what I see.

Vietnam - while polarizing, there were enough decent arguments on each side of the issue. Our involvment was a mistake, and yet we were guilty of nothing in fighting communists.

Watergate - bugging conversations, party politics - not that big a deal in my eyes. No

profound issue was at stake.

Iran-Contra - While the whole process was dishonest and raising money in that way was unconstitutional, there were decent arguments for support for the contras.

Rodney King - looked like excessive force, but I am not a cop handling one of the most dangerous parts of the country. The riots after the trial proved that. (incidentally, I was attending Cal. State Northride at the time and was in the National Guard, and got activated to patrol Inglewood and enforce the curfew.)

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For me, it was the most embarrasing event in my lifetime by far.  You can look at ANYTHING that happened under the Clinton Administration, and NOTHING even comes close to this event in importance.  A part of the soul of America died that day.

I suppose that you, and certainly most others here, are too young to remember first hand the disgrace our country endured over the seaman Simas Kudirka almost thirty-five years ago. Here is a post I made to HBL right after the end of the Elian situation, trying to lend some perspective on the issue.

===================================

As revolted as we all feel about the treatment of Elian and his Miami family, my search for a proper perspective has lead me to recall a situation which Ayn Rand wrote about some twenty-nine years ago.

In the January, 1971 issue of _The Objectivist_, Miss Rand began her "Brief Comments" with the following.

"'National disgace' is a term that must not be used lightly. But the act of the United States in refusing asylum to a Lithuanian seaman and returning him to the Soviet killers is a national disgrace -- so profound a disgrace that there is no way to conceive of what would erase it from our record."

And yet, I wonder how many recall this event, or if you were too young or not yet born, how many are aware of its history? I suspect the answer to be: not many, just a few.

On November 23, 1970, according to the New York Times, "a Lithuanian seaman made a dramatic leap for political asylum...[He] hurled himself across a 10-foot gap from the Soviet vessel, the Sovetskaya Litva, and onto the deck of the cutter Vigilant."

Miss Rand writes:

"After _ten hours_ of radio consultations between the _Vigilant_ and its higher authorities, its commander permitted Soviet crewmen to board the American vessel and to drag the Lithuanian seaman by force back to the Soviet ship.

"The details are a nightmare. According to an eyewitness, the Lithuanian pleaded with Americans to let him stay. 'He was crying for "help," and was on his knees praying and begging them to save his life. But the captain said he was just following orders.' (Does anyone remeber the excuse given by the defendants at the Nuremberg trials?)"

Miss Rand goes on to analyze the situation in her usual brilliant fashion, isolating the issue and relating it to broader principles. You can read the article for the details, but I just want to point out one suggestion which she made. Miss Rand urged her readers to write their Congressman and demand:

"An explicit formulation of the basic principles of our foreign policy -- so that actions taken in the name of this country are not left to the discretion of helpless, confused and, in this case, craven underlings."

One year later, under President Nixon, new regulations were instigated, but they and subsequent changes were never clear nor fundamental enough. Had Ayn Rand's suggestion taken effect -- a formulation of basic principles --, Elian would now be free. That this did not occur, I submit as evidence that the inability to properly apply principles is the cause of both of these events, events separated by some twenty-nine years.

I also submit this Lithuanian seaman event as evidence that not all that much has changed in twenty-nine years, at least in the context of what makes such injustice to asylum possible. In 1970 there was much greater unanimity of shocked response, and President Nixon expressed outrage. The fact remains that no action was taken in defense of the seaman. I do not mean -- not in any way imaginable -- to diminish the significance of what is happening with Elian. However, I do submit this piece of history in an attempt to keep these events in perspective.

p.s. The Lithuanian seaman's name was Simas Kudirka. He was imprisioned for ten years on a charge of treason. Kudirka was eventually released when it was discovered that his mother had been born in the United States, making him qualified for American citizenship. In 1975, Simas Kudirka said: "America is an unbelieveably marvelous country, but unfortunately many Americans do not realize this." That was true then, and it is true now.

=======================================

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I generally don't want or care to know if someone is an Objectivist or an Ayn Rand admirer when I first meet them. I have, throughout my life, had certain litmus test questions on certain issues that give me a shortcut to someone's true personality, without letting them know that the issue is of all importance as to whether I will continue dealing with them. It is usually a topic so specific that they would have no clue to its utter importance, and therefore, they wouldn't see any reason to be dishonest about their answer to it.

When I begin to associate with a person, for whatever reason, I first attempt to determine if they are honest with me. If they are honest, do not try to deceive me in any manner, I find that I can interact with them by trading value for value.

As the relationship becomes more involved, I determine whether their morality is altruistic or egoistic. This can be done by posing a number of social or economic questions in normal conversation. Usually, it is easy to spot the altruists because they will be predatory and test me first. For example, they will assume I am a faithist, or a socialist, early in the relationship and it will be upon me to deny this. If they obviously are egoistic, I then continue to interact with them until I determine whether or not we share the same interests and make my final decision based on that.

Oftimes, people have elements of both altruism and egoism in their personalities. That is, they have conflicting sets of values linked to certain topics in their minds and they have not fully integrated these into a single value system. When I encounter this, I attempt to determine by differentiation during further conversation, which set of values they hold as the most fundamental. If it turns out that their most fundamental (ie. abstract) value system is egoistic, I put them on my "possible friends" list. I then continue to interact with them until I determine whether or not they integrate their values in an egoistic and objective manner. If this happens, I then continue to interact with them until I determine whether or not we share the same interests and make my final decision based on that.

On the other hand, if the person turns out to have a fundamentally altruistic morality, I reject them immediately as a friend but continue to respect them as a human being. I make a mental note of their morality and keep this in mind if I interact with them again. If they share my interests, astrophysics for example, I may continue to interact with them topically and, over the course of time, attempt to persuade them to my morality.

Then there are those who are so out of focus on an abstract level that they are incapable of integrating their conflicting value systems. People who exist on this level of mental mush usually are not capable of understanding my interests, such as atrophyics, anyway; much less be interested in them.These I leave by the wayside.

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===================================

In the January, 1971 issue of _The Objectivist_, Miss Rand began her "Brief Comments" with the following.

"'National disgace' is a term that must not be used lightly. But the act of the United States in refusing asylum to a Lithuanian seaman and returning him to the Soviet killers is a national disgrace -- so profound a disgrace that there is no way to conceive of what would erase it from our record."

And yet, I wonder how many recall this event, or if you were too young or not yet born, how many are aware of its history? I suspect the answer to be: not many, just a few.

==

I was born in 1968, but I read the article. As I remember, I think Miss Rand wrote that there should have been a court martial for those who watched a defector beaten up on an American ship, which is the same as American soil, no matter where it is. What came of it? I remember thinking at the time I read it, that it would make a good film adaptation( I was at Cal. State Northridge in '92 taking some screenwriting courses). My professor said that Alan Alda was in a TV movie about it, but I've never seen it. Also, do you know what has become of Simas?

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I agree. The libertarians, who almost to a man think otherwise, show their true colors and their distance from Objectivism regarding this issue.

What about TOC?? Do you know where any of its proponents stand on Waco?? It's bad enough that they are tolerance-mongers, but if any of them come out for Koresh, it's even more evidence of lack of proper foundations.

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I see. So if the "family" decides they would rather have a child grow up in a totalitarian state, rather than in freedom, there is no right or wrong to such an issue as far as you are concerned?  How about if the "family" decides to cut off Elian's right arm. Are you also neutral on that? How about an arm and a leg? What if they want to cut off Elian's head? Out of curiosity, are there any actions of the "family" towards Elian that you might consider to be right or wrong?

Incidentally, speaking of the "family," how do you just ignore the fact that Elian's mother died attempting to bring Elian and herself to freedom? Do you think that her actions count for anything?

What if you had a son under the age of 18, who escaped with your wife to a communist country (hypothetically), the wife died in the process (as Elian's mother did), and the communist country thus refused to send him back on the grounds that he'd be better off in their communist state rather than in the capitalist state? When you want him back you'll come to realize that no personal family values have any significance in this? What is the point in having custody over your child, then?

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