Is American Economic Culture Cruel?

To the Princes of Gringolia
By Joe Bageant

Wanting everything is not the problem. Always getting what we want is.

HOPKINS VILLAGE, BELIZE

Right now I am doing something only someone as fucked up as an American-style lefty could possibly do: waiting for Hurricane Dean to strike my rickety shack and masturbating an indignant essay about “the global class struggle.”

Fatty It seems we Americans as a people are much given to personal indignation, if not national action, excepting perhaps aerial bombing and mass surveillance. But the poor of these Caribbean villages struggling for merest daily sustenance — the money for which is so often doled out by a well-scrubbed white hand much like my own — cannot afford open indignation much less “class struggle.”

Meanwhile, two gecko lizards are staring at one another on the wall above my laptop, as the small TV in my cabana blares an update on approaching Hurricane Dean. But the rain hammers the tin roof so loudly it’s impossible to hear what is being said, even with the sound turned all the way up. So I watch the hot blonde, the satellite pics and blurry shots of storm tortured palms and hope for the best.

Thanks to Hurricane Dean, for the next few days this Garifuna household of six, the Castillos, is sleeping several to a bed with the Rubio family, including this old gringo, who is most grateful to have drawn an older boy, not a little one still pissing on the sheets. The Rubios are a fishing family, evacuees are from the black “bakkatown” (back of town) shacks out on the reefs, which usually get smashed in such storms, even when not struck by the ‘cane itself.

Every plastic jug, pot and pan is filled with fresh water, and we cook the hell out of tortillas, beans, rice and everything else in an already near barren cupboard, stretching food between us and waiting for the power to go out — which also shuts down our meager trickle of a water system — a certainty given that it happens a couple times a week anyway without the help of a storm. So far, there is not a trace of panic. Between the hammering squalls, the sun cracks open brightly, the guy across the road goes back to work on his roof, and the lady of our house, Marzlyn, stands under the mango tree mashing plantains with a 4-foot wooden mortar and pestle. And Hurricane Dean just blew through Jamaica and past the Cayman Islands at 150 miles per hour. Look out, Cancun.

By the second day it’s beginning to look like we’re far enough south to miss the eye of Dean, if not some torrential rains and high winds. With luck we will not get enough rain to blow out the four-mile dirt road to the main highway (3-foot deep stretches forty feet across are not uncommon this time of year), and high winds will not strip our mango, lime, plantain, soursop and breadfruit trees — important staples — of their not yet ripe fruits.

At the same time we may get nothing more than a severe rain storm, severe here being in a whole other league than in the United States. Picture 8 inches in an hour. Such is middle-class life in the hundreds of Caribbean villages you never see on American TV, even when they are wiped off the map by hurricanes, places with names like Seine Bight and Monkey River Town. Places that provide the groundskeepers and table wipers for the destination resorts such as Caye Chapel island golf course ($200 and up to tee off) where the likes of Bill Gates fly in to enjoy ’round the clock concierge, what has got to be the most challenging windage factor in all of golfdom, and disciplined black or Hispanic attendants to their every whim, in a country where the minimum wage is USD $1.50 for those lucky enough to find employment that actually pays it. All this happens without so much as a whisper of the subject of class on anyone’s part, black or white.

The poor cannot afford open indignation, much less class justice. Granted, I tend to see class issues behind every curtain because of the powerless redneck class that shaped me from birth. Anyway, the leopard does not change its spots, so I still smoke, cuss, put too much salt on everything and have enough class anger to burn down every gated community and refurbished Manhattan brownstone and university in the country (sparing maybe Evergreen up there in the Northwest).

But that is because I can afford financially to be angry. Even though I voluntarily live on $4,000 a year, an economic penitent if you will, I am nevertheless among the 6 percent world’s rich and white human beings called Americans. Last week my neighbor, a middle aged barrel-chested man working as a resort security guard, sat on my porch and told of his dream of a national union for resort workers. We both looked down from the porch at his wife and daughter and his yet unpaid for house.

Nobody had to say aloud that the risk was just too great, or that the resort owners, U.S. speculators and the foreign shadow governments such as the U.S., (and increasingly, the Taiwanese buying up Belizean property and investing toward a soft landing when they are finally booted from their island stronghold) will never let that happen. Class struggle does not happen in Belize for the same reasons it does not happen in the U.S.: Fear. The global issue of class is however starting to be dealt with, and not-so-small fires of liberation are breaking out all over in Venezuela, Bolivia, Oaxaca, the Philippines, Indonesia … and other “terrorist states unimpressed by Kevlar-clad GI Joes or the latest or the antics of Paris Hilton. Class will one day be dealt with in America too.

In fact, it’s starting to be discussed by people other than internet socialists and old greybeard Jewish lefties in musty apartments in Paterson, New Jersey. Even the GOP is scouring the bushes for someone among them who can make populist noises into a microphone. And at this point, for reasons too numerous to go into here, they have a better chance of coming up with such a person than the Democrats. Populism is the newest term being used by both parties and the media to avoid the nasty C word, another brilliant cooption of liberal language for conservative purposes. It’s hard to argue with the fact that we are all people (except for Muslim Americans, of course).

The term carries echoes “of the people, for the people and by the people.” You don’t revolt against the ghost of Abe Lincoln. Yet, were there to be a class revolution in the U.S. next week, and the old folks looted the drug stores (I’d be right there with ’em, though probably not for the same drugs) and even if that pack of Gucci whores at the Fed said: “Fuck it, let’s spread all the geet we’ve looted equally among every American,” we still will not have begun to touch the core of our national disease, our uniquely American supersized version of a universal one — individual greed. The national mindset of “I want all I can grab for myself and I want it now, even if it has to be on credit,” constitutes a much bigger crisis than class in and of itself, and is the driver of our unfolding national catastrophe.

Garden variety personal greed may be a human constant in history — and we certainly have our share of it here in Hopkins — but it has been dangerous only on the part of the rich and powerful. After all, when was the last time selling someone a lame camel, a rotten mango or a quarter ounce of ditch weed oppressed millions? But few civilizations have ever upheld greed as the highest common virtue and civic responsibility as the American culture has. We do this under such false labels as self-advancement, opportunity, success, national economic good, or entitlement, but mostly because “I fucking want one of those!” The wanting is not the problem. The problem is that we get what we want. Or more correctly, we get what we are told to want, and are told to want more of everything from Louis Vuitton purses to Gameboys, depending upon our class, while the families such as the two piled into this household tonight are told to expect nothing.

Is American economic culture inherently cruel and oblivious? Well, yes. Are Americans themselves moreover cruel or oblivious? This time last year I would have said that, granting the obvious exceptions to any generalization, yes. I have come to understand that, although we may well be conditioned to obliviousness by our market culture (our culture IS the market), and more recently, kept in a state of fear by a corporately backed criminal leadership, we are by no means especially cruel. In our socially alienated market society, in which we don’t need each other so much as we need money to insulate ourselves from each other (what the fuck, poverty and bad taste might be contagious!), we are simply denied any real opportunity for face-to-face, on-the-ground compassion and service to our fellow man. Instead, our altruism is channeled through BIG BROTHER CHARITY INC, the United Way, the Red Cross, the Sierra Club, or any of the American Christian Syndicate’s save the children rackets. What changed my mind? Living (as much as possible at least) in Hopkins. But before I again inadvertently unleash a flood of email enquiries regarding the Belizean coast as an expat paradise, let me say this: As I write this, I am watching the influx of fairly rich American assholes escaping the coming economic disaster up there in Gringolia. They are building their sterile fortified communities on either end of the village, stealing and bulldozing many Garifuna-owned acres, including the village’s heritage-laden graveyard (illegal as hell, outright brazen theft, but as Old Charlie the Garifuna fisherman told me last night over a beer, “The man has not yet been born in this village who can lead us against this thing that is happening.” We’ve got the same problem, Charlie.

But for every U.S. bloodsucker I’ve encountered here, I have also met an American, usually a young backpacker — but sometimes a retired couple having what they know will be their last ruggedly romantic adventure together — give their last damned dollar to a villager in need. Sometimes they keep back only enough for bus fair for the 35-mile ride into Dangriga to punch the ATM for cash on their Visa cards, knowing it is going to hurt like hell when they get home to pay the tab on a fixed income. They are never the rich, who don’t come into the village, anyway, except to hire a house slave or two.

In my experience the generous and compassionate older Americans are nearly always working class or old hippies. The last American I saw do it was a retired machinist. And sometime in the next few months a Nashville librarian and her husband are coming down to explore the possibility of building a children’s library with their own meager savings. When I meet such Americans, I get choked up inside and am released from some part of my cynicism about my country. Little do they know that when they give to others, including jaded old American writers who, as inveterate observers of life, are too often lost in the horrors they have witnessed — even helped create — and have been too unaware of the compassion that often flowers before them.

Read the rest here.

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