At Home 3/11/14

Having been home for about a year, here are some thoughts.  Why do I love traveling to Central America?  I feel more alive there, as though life and death are more immediate than they are here in the U. S., more accessible. The United States is a land that combines sensory overload with sensory impoverishment.  Here in the U. S. we not only tolerate the infernal racket of leaf blowers, we require them in order to have a garden groomed to acceptable perfection, while banning roosters because of their crowing. We require computerized timers on our thermostats so that we won’t have to go to the effort even of turning a dial in order to set the temperature to a perfectly anesthetizing level in order to avoid any connection with the actual environment.  Our malls and supermarkets cover up all signs of actual infrastructure with cheerful facades and are designed to lull us into a zombie state so that we can shop without feeling or thinking about anything, much less mortality, and even those are becoming obsolete as the internet gives us the ability to shop without having to deal with any contact with a human being.

I know that I would not want to have been born in Central America.  I can enjoy being there because I can leave.  When I’m there, I have the status of a prince. I am rich, everything is cheap to me, and people treat me like an honored guest because maybe some of my money will come their way.  I’ve always been aware of this and felt uncomfortable with it.  

How can you not start seeing the people who are serving you as your rightful servants?  When I’m there, I sometimes haggle with tradespeople for tiny amounts of money and feel they are trying to take advantage of me.  Once in Managua, a taxi driver changed the price on me after I had gotten into the taxi. I had to open the door of the already moving taxi and put my foot on the ground before he would stop the car and re-negotiate the price, and even then we agreed on a higher price than he’d originally stated.  But that’s an extreme example.  A more typical example is that I will regularly pay an indigenous woman a pittance to do my laundry.  So I find it difficult to say, “I love Central America because the people are so friendly and the living is so easy.”

This has been a paradox to me, this sense that if I want to be in a place where people are poor, then I am one of the elite and therefore corrupted by it.  Central Americans are friendly because the culture there is generally hospitable and friendly, and they apparently appreciate that I try to act with some humility, and try to treat people with respect, and try to observe and appreciate their culture, but there’s no getting around that I am the elite.  Is it hypocritical of me to go where people are poor, and to play at belonging there for a little while? Does it corrupt me just to be there?

I recently had a perspective that makes the paradox less paradoxical.  I am the elite not because I choose to travel to certain places, but because I live in an elite country, which is corrupt to start with.  If I choose to go where that’s more visible, then that is not necessarily hypocritical.  I go there because it is more visible.

Is America corrupt?  In some countries, the political leaders are robbing the people, bureaucrats require bribes to get anything done, cops require bribes to stay out of jail, businessmen become obscenely rich and avoid regulation by bribing the political leaders (who in many cases are their own family), and so on.  In Mexico, in particular, the drug lords can buy the police and the army.  All that is petty, minor-league corruption.  America is corrupt on a global scale.  When national leaders of other countries attempt to gain economic independence and autonomy, for example by nationalizing petroleum or instituting land reform, our government has those leaders overthrown.  Actually our corporations, and particularly our financial industry, have the leaders overthrown, using our government as their instrument. That is major league corruption.

When the president of Iran tried to nationalize petroleum, we had him overthrown.  When the president of Guatemala wanted to redistribute land so the campesinos would own the little piece of land on which they were already subsisting, we had him overthrown.  In some cases, such as Mexico in the 1980s, where overthrowing the president would look bad, our private financial sector was able to bring down the Mexican economy and throw the Mexican people into poverty for decades to come, and it was called a “peso crisis.”  Fidel Castro understood well that peaceful political reform in Cuba was not possible because their neighbor to the north would not allow it.

In this country we do not own slaves and most of us do not have domestic servants.  We have corporations to take care of all that for us.  Our sweatshop laborers are conveniently out of sight in far-away countries, as are the natural resources we exploit.

By the way, this is not because America is inherently evil.  If China or Russia or any other country had the power, they would be worse.  Power corrupts, as they say.

The fundamental source of America’s financial power is that petroleum is tied to the dollar. The U. S. abandoned the gold standard in the late 1960s, and a few years later, the dollar began to collapse.  In 1973 the U. S., in cooperation with big banks, oil companies, and OPEC, switched from a gold standard to a petroleum standard.  From then to the present time, the OPEC countries have required payment for petroleum in dollars. Everyone needs oil, so everyone needs dollars. Saudi Arabia has to do something with all those dollars, so they recycle it back into Wall St.  Thus the poor countries get poorer and the rich countries get richer. The military might of the U. S., which enforces this arrangement, is an instrument of the banks and oil companies.

The practice of colonizing territories of land has been obsolete for a long time.  Today, we colonize not territories of land, but sources of energy and other resources.  In the past, for example, Africa was carved up among the powers of Europe.  Today, certain oil fields are associated with Exxonmobil or BP, as are the channels of transportation, refinement, marketing, and sale for oil.

So if I travel to Guatemala, where people are poor and my dollar is valuable, being there is not the thing that corrupts me.  Being there makes it inescapably visible that I live in a corrupt country.  Does that make me corrupt as an individual?  Well, this country has lavished generous benefits on me which I have not turned down, outrageous benefits really, which allow me to not work and travel the world at an age when I am still vigorous. I have not done much in the way of activism to change things.  I’ve made a few feeble attempts, but the fact is that being around activists drives me crazy.