Monday, July 16, 2007

"Outta the Gilded Gulag"

Before I talk about more about Joe Bageant, the "Sartre of Appalachia," let me say that my eyes were downright popping out of their sockets when I read this comment by William Kristol, one of the original neocon Iraq war-supporters, in a one-page essay he published in the July 16th issue of Time:

"It may well be that no other country has ever been stronger than the U.S. today--[surely he has to be kidding about that?] and it may be that no other people in human history have had it quite so good."

What handwriting on the wall, what kind of tea leaves, is Kristol reading anyway? We may all be on this earth, but surely we are inhabiting vastly different planets. That said, don't say I didn't tell you already that the universe is self-organizing. You only have to let it do it's magic. No sooner had I published my last post on Jane in Nepal, when lo! a new email informed me [via my Bageant blog-watcher, Bob Walker] that Joe Bageant [see my previous post of July 5th on "The Sartre of Appalachia"] has flown the coop! I mean, he's opted out of Western civ for good. Bageant wouldn't agree with Kristol that "no other people in human history have had it quite so good"--to the point where he's even willing accept shortfalls on toilet paper and cold showers, just so he can live far away from the "consumer zombie parade." Listen to this latest gorgeous rant:

"It is near midnight and the dogs sleeping in the sand under my cabana, Rex and Pluto, emit happy, gurgling growls, as if chasing imaginary rabbits in their dreams. I lie in bed just breathing in and breathing out and feeling so free that I've laughed out loud a couple of times tonight, something I have never done in my life. At least not while simply looking at the ceiling. Tomorrow I will not worry about losing my ass in the declining real estate market. I will not commute three nerve grinding hours a day, or nervously engorge myself in front of my laptop for hours on end. Nor will I or wake up with the crimes of the empire running like adding machine tape in my head, annotated with all the ways I contributed to those crimes by participating in the American lifestyle. After more than two years of effort, I'm outta the gilded gulag, by damned, and tell myself that I have at last quit being part of the problem -- or at least as much as much as anyone can without living stark naked in a Himalayan cave and toasting insects over a dung fire.

When I arrived in Belize a few weeks ago I vowed never to write about this country, mainly because the Americans I write to are more interested in American politics, religion, class issues and the Iraq war. How the hell could anybody with more than an inch of forehead not be anxious over those things? But the contrast here is so stark it seems unavoidable to write about the view of America from Belize and Hopkins Village this one time. I must say that from down here the Empire does not look much different. No worse, no better. But the stress and stench of the empire is less in this Caribbean breeze and the mark of the beast is sharper from a distance.

The effect of moving was immediate. As one expat told me years ago what would happen, whole days go by when I do not think of America at all, much less rage against it, something I would previously considered impossible. But when you do, you do so more calmly and lose no sleep over the criminals presently running the enterprise up there. Occasionally the thought occurs that a peaceful mind could kill my pitiful little career as a pissed off lefty writer. Then I look around Hopkins Village at these eminently sane, if poor, Garibano (or Garifuna, a mixture of Carib Indian and African) people and think, "So what? Everything is a goddamned identity in America, writing included." Identity is a racket in a nation of media controlled clones. And besides, who wants to be a one trick pony in the consumer zombie parade? In the end though, leaving was absolutely a matter of saving my sanity. It came down to either becoming one of those bugfuck crazies ranting on the faaaaar left end of the Internet, or busting out of America to find something resembling balance near the end of a life marked by anxious imbalance and contradiction. The personal freedom to do that clearly lay elsewhere, and after some scouting, I decided on Hopkins Village, Belize. It simply felt more free. More real.

A Libertarian Wet Dream with Beach

In places like Hopkins Village you can still send your kid to the store to bring back cigarettes. Now the politically correct set up there in the States may be blowing soy milk out their noses at the thought, but it represents a degree of freedom from government control. And besides, it is not American's business how the black Garinago people of Belize run their lives. In Belize it is not against the law to drink and drive and there are no speed limits. Here in Hopkins you can build your house without a permit or inspections, sell real estate without a license, drink liquor openly while you happily burn trash in your front yard. You can peddle homemade darasa -- grated spiced banana wrapped and cooked in banana leaf wrappers -- or barbeque pork to the neighbors from your front porch with no interference from health inspectors.

Most of this non-interference is simply because it is not in the national character. And part of this non-interference is due to a lack of expensive regulatory infrastructure. Faced with choosing between running schools for children down in the wilds of the Toledo district, or busting Aunt Lula for peddling pig's tails stewed in red beans on the street corner, the government gives Aunt Lula a pass. It's a loose place, a Libertarian's wet dream.

In a hardscrabble, make-do country where everything is scarce, especially motor vehicles, looseness is a good thing. Hitchhiking ("riding thumb") is considered a respectable way to get around the country, and most folks will stop for you. Most people do not own cars, but there are taxis in the larger communities and busses to and from about anywhere. Otherwise, it's you and your trusty bicycle. If you've never brought home a load of eight-by-four foot sheet metal roofing in a taxi, or a ten-foot two-by-four on a bicycle, you haven't lived. In our village of 1,300 there are only about ten motor vehicles. There are days when I wish we had a tad more transportation infrastructure around here.

Yet, thanks to the dearth of material infrastructure, I fulfilled some ecological goals almost by accident. I use only three or four gallons of water per day, plus another five gallons on washday for a total of about 26 to 30 gallons a week. The average American household must use hundreds of gallons per person, when you figure in laundry, lawns, car washes, etc. But this is possible for me because sanitary maintenance of daily life is so much simpler. Two sets of shorts, one pair of khakis and a white shirt -- which passes for dressed up around here -- four tee shirts and my old fishing vest do not require much wash water. The cold water showers here (bear in mind that the water temperature is in the mid seventies most of the year, in the mid nineties if you have a water tank standing in the sun) run very lightly and use only a gallon or two on those occasions when we do not bathe in the sea after sunset. When it comes to petroleum, I'd guess that my transportation needs, a thirty-seven mile bus ride to Dangriga every week or so, do not even add up to a gallon, judging from the US$2.50 bus fare in a country where petrol runs over six US dollars a gallon. Of course, no one would advocate that Americans adopt third world methods, but there is such a thing as too much transportation infrastructure -- especially if it is unsustainable, high maintenance and mainly dedicated to buying fried chicken and bad tacos."

And before you leave virgilspeaks for today, you might just want to check out this site of a Seattle artist: for an amazing bird's eye view of the "consumer zombie parade." It is art that definitely packs a punch, and shows "conditions on the ground" here in the old U.S. of A.

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