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Joe Bageant | October 10, 2007 | Category: Essays

To the Princes of Gringolia

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

(Editor's note: A version of this essay was posted here last August. This
longer and more polished version was published last week on AlterNet.)

By Joe Bageant


Right now I am doing something only someone as [#%!] 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."

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

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: "[#%!] 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

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 [#%!] 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 [#%!], 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.

Helen and Bob and the suicidal Hindu

The Great and Glorious World Money Machine! The Enlightenment's gilded
engine of commerce, sprung gloriously and fully formed from the womb of
ration! It may have delighted the hell out of Alexander Hamilton and Adam
Smith but has created a thousand hells for non-European peoples and still
creates new ones daily. Even when the system functions peacefully, assuming
it ever has, and to our maximum prosperity, the gauge of which now seems to
be obesity (someday there will be a Sumo-style weigh-in to qualify for U.S.
citizenship) we are made willing fools, not to mention unconscious
instruments of orchestrated global cruelty. One small example: We find
ourselves turned into walking signage for the system itself, wearing Nike
or Old Navy or Izod shirts made from Indian cotton produced by small
farmers forced to use expensive Monsanto pesticides and seed bought on
credit (many of whom committed suicide when this mounting debt cost them
their traditional family plots of land. If you missed that on CNN, it's
because it was never there and never will be). We do not know those
Indians' names or the faces of their children. Then again, they do not know
ours, which matters not to us because there are umpteen millions of the
wretched [#%!] over there where life is cheap. We, on the other hand live
in the land of the rich and the free, and we've got the Indian cotton
T-shirt to prove it. Pass the Doritos. And when the T-shirt is tossed a
couple months later, it ends up in one of those rag bales shipped to the
Third World. Thus the world traveler is treated to the bizarre sight of a
malnourished fellow human lying on the sidewalk in Mexico City's Zocalo --
most likely an Indian or mestizo -- wearing a "What Happens in Vegas
Remains in Vegas" T-shirt. The small grimy hand lifts in supplication for a
few pesos. Helen and Bob, vacationing on their credit cards, look away,
partly because we've been taught not to stare at the poor (conveniently not
noticing inequity) and partly because Americans are at least still capable
of inner embarrassment at the inequity they are conditioned to avoid. In
the end, though, both the beholder and the beheld have been standardized
and depersonalized by the division of labor and mass scale inherent in
America's free market capitalism, which Chomsky says, "... historically,
we've never honestly practiced even once."

He mi iduhei!

Meanwhile, there's that approaching hurricane. Among the Rubios staying
with us until Dean passes is their 12-year-old adopted child, Julian.
Through my high kitchen window I can see him joyfully helping his mom
remove billowing bedsheets from the clothes line. And when he is not doing
that, he is running to help his dad with every task. His adoptive father,
Labon, is a stern one, hard as nails by American standards, quick to
laugher and affection with his family. But what drives Julian's eager
cooperation is his deep admiration for his adopted father, as his model for
a strong manhood. Boys think about becoming men here, the same as
everywhere else, I suppose, but much more so. I've spent time with the
Rubios on a solitary atoll out in the reefs and watching the interplay of
Julian and his adopted parents. Normal as it is to them, it remains one of
the most beautiful human family experiences I've ever witnessed.

Nor is it particularly unique. His cousin in our household, Kirky, does the
same. To Kirky, his smiling, hard-laboring father, Luke, who admonishes me
for buying the kids such things as soccer balls, "Spoil the pickney, spoil
de man" (pickney is not a derogatory term here among the Garifuna, who were
never enslaved), represents for Luke, as Labon does for Julian, all the
dignity any man can ever hope to possess. Being allowed to sit among his
father and other grown men late into the evenings is an achievement, proof
of one more small step toward manhood. During the day when Kirky is not
riding herd on the toddlers for his mom, Marzlyn, he voluntarily rakes the
sandy yard clean, flat and white because it needs to be done every day, and
because it will save his dad an hour of doing the same when he returns home
from his job at the resort. And because it is what a grown man does --
works, serves and honors family blood. Blood is thick here. When Julian
showed up with his family to wait out Hurricane Dean, both boys were
movingly overjoyed to see each other because, "He mi iduhei!" (cousin). And
from what I can hear through the floorboards of my cabana as they linger in
the shade below, they share the secrets of young boy's souls. Then go
running off to shoot marbles in the wet hot sand. Neither has ever played
an electronic game or has any notion of what a gameboy or an Xbox might be
(though I'm sure there must be a few here among those villagers who've
returned from working in the States).

Tradition, community and clan, though rapidly declining, is the animating
force of what's left of the old Garifuna culture that still exist along
this coast, mostly in the villages. It's stubborn stuff. Right now I can
hear the drumming of a Dugu (the traditional ancestor-based African
religion of the Garifuna) coming from the long grass temple on the beach,
not because there is a 'cane approaching, but despite that, there is one
coming. Luke says they already had a ceremony planned and a little thing
like a hurricane threat would never stop them. "The old ones, dey are
stubborn!" he laughs. Stubborn or not, all of us feel how the drumming
animates this night with the traditional Garifuna spirit. Cultural and
spiritual cohesion is a bit easier for the Belizean Garifuna, given there
are only a few thousand of them strung along the coastline. Since most
families here never get split up or scattered, their human energies remain
collective (if for no other reason than sheer necessity) in a manner
utterly impossible amid the astounding diversity of the American people.
Our only tangible national commonality, regardless of bullshit and
rhetoric, is basically the currency and its transaction and accumulation.
Consequently, American culture's animating force has always been the
financial transaction.

Even Tocqueville noted that Americans seemed driven to buy and sell
everything they touched, apparently for the sheer hell of it. Two centuries
later we find all collective human energies being directed toward
purchasing and working to purchase cell phones, beanie weenies, spec
houses, Dale Earnhardt crock pots and Korean-made electric ass scratchers,
plus storage lockers to cram all this needless stuff into. Even
Christianity gets into the act with hundreds of "Christian mortgage
companies" and, honest to god, a "faith-based quick lube" auto service in
my hometown of Winchester, Va., which doubters may Google in the Winchester
Star newspaper. All of which is not exactly a recipe for producing a nation
of high-minded intellectuals and altruists. What it has produced is this: 3
billion pounds of money-blinded human meat -- 400 million pounds of which
is lard -- straining under the common corpo-military-financial yoke in
order to pay for and consume 30 times what it takes to meet its basic
needs. We've so far exceeded basic need that obese 18-year-old kids are
dying of heart attacks. And all this at ever-escalating high cost too. Even
leisure, relaxing and doing nothing, is among the most expensive damned
things in the country. When it comes to leisure, our benevolent system
provides two whole weeks a year (count 'em, folks!) but only to those with
job security and the "discretionary income," left on the plastic to cough
up for synthetic experiences (hallucinations, really) at "leisure
destinations," such as the expensive gringo resort just outside this
village. Last night an old expat owner of a modest beachside inn here told
me of a tourist guest who had changed clothes in the car on the way down,
then stepped out of it in a leopard bikini, spike heels and dark glasses.
It's no mystery why she equated rustic little Hopkins Village with Cannes.
In the travel industry's hallucination generating department, anyplace with
sand and sun is Cannes, or at least Maui.

If we only had a brain

With the thoughts you'd be thinkin'
You could be another Lincoln
If you only had a brain!

--Dorothy, Wizard of Oz

The truth, however, is that, regardless of income, most Americans work too
much and have too little time to experience true leisure, let alone time to
develop a genuine intellectual and inner life. And that is the underlying
horror of the consumer state and the source of that haunting sense of
meaningless amid all the white noise and bright lights and toys. No
functional sustaining interior life. No private mind-soul garden to
cultivate, no psychospiritual inner home. No stable center of being. That
sounds arrogant as hell, but I'm saying it anyway. If we had such a thing
as a cohesive national moral and intellectual life, we surely wouldn't be
the society of engorgement, not to mention the international thugs that we
now are. Or at least not as much so.

But very few Americans, not even university professors, book editors,
authors, theologians, all sorts of people one would expect to have a
thriving intellectual life, have one. Zilch. Sure, some study rigorously,
and possibly as many as a quarter of Americans buy, read and discuss
"important books" and go see "important movies," (which I don't believe
exist, but that's another matter). However buying and reading the best
books does not necessarily, or even usually, have much to do with an
interior intellectual life, the real kind that comes from spending
countless unencumbered hours alone thinking about the world in our own
internal and completely personal language, contemplating what we and our
fellow man experience, thus bringing forth the unique elements of
individual human comprehension and discovery. There is a word for the
ongoing interplay and cultivation of these things, the cultivation of this
mind-soul garden -- spiritual.

Predictably enough, the cartel that provides for every human need from
Cheetos to iPods and self-help videos, is willing to sell us an
intellectual and spiritual life, too. So we buy and read those
"substantive" books, most often written by people working too hard at
writing substantive books to experience much of the world's substance.
Buying and reading books, which damned few Americans do anyway, is the mark
of the "thinking classes." And a degree certifying they've read the
state-sanctioned cannon for their narrow slot in the economic machinery
certifies them as intellectuals. No room exists in the machinery for an
Eric Hoffer, Thoreau or even an Aristotle, none of whom could get published
today. Sorry Ari, no profitable demographic segment. Gandhi, however, might
find a niche with the New Age crowd, providing he threw in a bar of
Ayurvedic soap with each book sold.

Needless to say, good books are delightful and profound departure points to
new avenues for an enlightened mind. It would be hard for a Western person
to imagine an intellectual life without them. But they are certainly not
the cause of one. Of the three living persons I admire most for their deep,
graceful intellectual life and insight, two are famous, well-paid and
surely among the most well-read people anywhere. But the third is an
all-but-illiterate old Garifuna fisherman. Our practical relationship is
based mostly on my sharing a few groceries and beers during the off tourist
season when he cannot work as a fishing guide. As a younger man, he saw
death and storms at sea, suffered daily abuse and insult under the British
colonials who once ran this country and even today spends half of each year
wondering where his next meal is coming from. Yet he manages to retain
piercing intellect and insight (often beyond words), and though he is
visited like the rest of us by the soul's miseries, he lets joy blow
through his inner self as casually as the Caribbean breeze in which he's
lived his entire life. There is much to be learned from the poor, so much
in fact that we should be their students, not they ours. I've been told
that Einstein once said that intelligence equals the ability to find
happiness. Some Einstein scholar will surely write me that Al said no such
thing. If not, then he should have. If happiness and moral rightness were
to be found within the self, then as the most self-centered people on
earth, we would be the happiest and most enlightened. And if "American
style individualism" were the hallmark of freedom, there would be no
Department of Homeland Security, no government satellites scanning every
single email we send and we would be free to visit Cuba.

Another round of elections are coming up both here in Belize and in
America, and the serious political junkies at both ends of the Caribbean
(in other words, the suckers who believe "change can be effected within the
system) are all worked up into slobbering fits. Belizeans of late have
gotten slightly more from the system, a modest social security program,
and, at long last, free school books for the nation's kids, written by the
same incompetents who made fortunes on royalties from the old ones in a
political fixed textbook publishing racket, similar to our own corporate
one in the U.S. But despite having a far freer and more varied press than
the U.S. (in a rather strange twist, lack of libel laws actually works for
the people's interests most of the time) Belizean national elections are
the same as those in the U.S. This is to say an elite game of political
musical chairs, except that the stakes are astronomically higher for the
princes of Gringolia. The upper-level candidates in both countries are
wealthy and visible elites at the service of invisible ones who prefer to
remain that way, thank you. The top dogs have pictures of themselves with
prime ministers and presidents on their walls. As a veteran Washington
reporter once told me, "If you are the kind of politico who likes pictures
on the office wall of yourself with shaking hands with presidents, you
ain't a player, you're just a useful pawn to a bigger pawn." It doesn't
take much to be useful and get one of those photos. I have a framed photo
of myself with Bill Clinton -- yes, I was suckered into the Clinton
personality cult -- and all I did was deliver a couple of fake "foster
children" to a campaign appearance so he could mug with them for the press.
I long ago took the photo off my wall and buried it in the back of my
files. But I'm probably going to hell for it, anyway.

In the end, no political personality cult or party, no "economic system,"
no ism, Marxism, capitalism nor even the most compassionate socialism is
going to satisfy that inner void, that vacuum that is the source of the
phenomenal greed that enslaves Americans. The void we keep stuffing with
noise and spectacle and the gulag-made goods that produce so much of the
world's misery because we are told to do so 24 hours a day. Believe it or
not, as I write this and watch footage, Hurricane Dean's barreling our way,
and frightened villagers trundle bed clothing and food toward more affluent
neighbors with concrete houses or wait for the last bus to hurricane-proof
Belmopan. George Foreman flickers on the screen trying to sell me a
smokeless electric grill, followed by a gringo-targeted Nationwide ad for
increased home insurance. There is no geographical escape from America. But
there is a spiritual one, sometimes born of intellect, but always nourished
by compassion, which in truth does not seek to escape the world, or to own
the world, but to embrace it for what it can teach us in the brief span we
are granted that opportunity. When it comes to filling our disastrous
national void, not to mention saving our own asses from ecological and
economic disaster, we can learn more from the world's poor than they can
ever learn from the "American experience," or gain from the "American
lifestyle" or national ethos of greed.

Dog fights, scorpions and paradise

This little village in this little country is not paradise, not even close.
This is the land of the agonizing sand flea, the scorpion and the swarming
sting rays of the night tides. It is a place where no wallet can be opened
in a store without a dozen covetous eyes locking onto its contents and
where dogs fight brutally in the yards. Last month our dog Hero killed a
neighbor's dog in front of the whole family. And amid the screaming and
crying, not even the powerful-bodied Luke could break Hero's death grip on
the intruding dog's throat, brutally demonstrating the truth of planetary
flesh from Palestine, to the Sudan, and even in America for the several
millions in the unseen ghettoes of the national machinery. This is also a
place where, sooner or later, with no small help from global warming, the
village's tiny houses will be blown off their stilts and tumble into a
hurricane's deep "surge waters," rolling over once, maybe twice, before
becoming a pile of splintered boards, while the palm frond houses of the
poorer families are atomized into grassy shreds amid the airborne cooking
pots, baby clothing and cheap Taiwanese boom boxes. It also is where
hypodermic needles turn up on the beach (hopefully illegally dumped medical
waste drifted down from Mexico), where cocaine is dirt cheap for the
minority who use it and where at least a couple of crackheads dwell and
several more drift back and forth between here and Dangriga, 35 miles up
the only paved road on this side of the country.

Yet the village is still a place where matrons bake coconut birthday cakes,
kids shoot hoops by the sparse streetlight and adolescent couples walk
bashfully holding hands under swaying palms and a silver pie pan moon.
Since I started this, Dean has become a cat five 'cane. So the whole family
has packed for that mountain-bound bus that won't be here because it is
stuck in the already traffic-hammed road to hurricane-proof Belmopan.
Generously, the brawny resort guard, who lives in a concrete house next
door, has taken our family in for the night. Like I said, it ain't
paradise. Just a spot on the planet where a man has time think and peck at
a keyboard and pour bedtime orange juice for sleepy, well-scrubbed kids
just before the moon comes up. Dean will come and go. But some things are

Note: Hurricane Dean spared the village of Hopkins entirely, and miracle of
miracles, even the power and water were back on by noon next day. It may be
simply my writer's imagination, but I could swear there was a knowing
twinkle in the eye of the old Dugu drummer down at the vegetable stand this

Joined: May 2000
Posts: 3,281
Great article. Reality check

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