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From the looks of things, this is going to be a tough millennium for the American empire. Let’s face it, things didn’t start off that well and they’ve only gotten worse. Remember the “Millennium scare” when everyone thought the world was going to short circuit because computers weren’t going to be able to cope with the change from the 1900s to the 2000s? I don’t mean to embarrass my dear sister and her husband, but they stored food big time in preparation for the end of the world. While civilization fell and burned, my sister reasoned (and she being a fabulous cook) and her family would be eating pounds on pounds of dried chili, dried stews and other survival food.
Things went off without a hitch with the end of the millennium, as it turned out, and my sister has undoubtedly ingeniously figured numerous ways to use the survival rations in delicious dishes. Nevertheless, the neurotic, phobic anxiety around the turning of the millennium signaled some profound dis-ease in the previously world-renowned optimistic U.S. psyche. What has followed from that millennial shift has been a rapid decline, straight down hill, summed up in that bumper sticker I often saw as I bicycled around Berkeley in the past few years: “Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?” It’s hard to imagine a bumper sticker on anyone’s car in Reagan’s, or Clinton’s U.S. with that pessimistic a message.
Things went bad fast. First there was the dot.com implosion and North Americans watched their life savings turn into monopoly money in a matter of months. No one quite got what was happening to the economy before their attention was distracted by the election, the stolen election in Florida that occurred with the same seeming inevitability as the declining stock market, while the nation looked on helplessly. Recall that Jesse Jackson was preparing to summon the troops to the scene, grassroots activists from across the country, to prevent the fraud but Al Gore stopped him cold. Instead, Bush’s Republican operatives arrived to massively prevent a recount by surrounding the offices where the recount was taking place, pounding on windows and intimidating the workers. In the end it was the Supreme Court who chose the new misleader, George W. Bush.
2001 was definitely a space odyssey. For the first time in U.S. history there was a satire show on an incoming president before he had a chance to make an impression. The new “President” was largely defined by the clueless character in “That’s my Bush” which promised to be taken more seriously and more popular than the new man in the real White House. Until September 11.
The sense of helplessness, shock and anxiety turned the U.S. neurosis into a nearly psychotic condition. Suddenly there was no more ridicule of the ridiculous: George W. was taken seriously. It was as if he planned it that way. The unanswered questions around the Twin Towers would remain a repressed mystery through the 911 Commission (all hand-picked by Bush) and its inquiry as the U.S. lunged into war, first against Afghanistan’s Taliban (who made the mistake of asking for proof against Osama Bin Laden before handing him over to Bush) then against Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 911 attacks.
For the past several years North Americans, always a gullible, trusting people, have listened to their president and his cabinet lie to them and they have rewarded him with reelection, once again, though, a closely contested election where fraud was perpetrated, this time in Ohio in 2004, and the Democratic challenger, once again, bowed out of the race and handed the presidency to Bush without a whimper of protest.
Now we are in 2006, a little over half way through the first decade of the millennium and there is a heavy, dark spirit hovering over our nation. The lies that the administration used to get us into the war (initially, as usual, overwhelmingly popular) now seem (if we’re honest, just as ridiculous they did when first offered) utterly imbecilic. There were no weapons of mass destruction, Iraq is far worse off than it was before the “liberation”; U.S. forces have killed far more people, and allowed far more people to be killed under their watch, than Saddam Hussein killed in his decades-long rule; infrastructure, destroyed by decade-long sanctions, the U.S. bombing and invasion, has never been rebuilt and looks like it may never be repaired; absolutely nothing is better under U.S. occupation than it was under the ruthless dictator we supported, and supplied for many years and then finally removed. Even gas in this nation with 24% of the world’s oil, isn’t available.
At home poverty is increasing, the jobs lost in the first years of the Bush administration in well-paid high tech areas, have been replaced, if at all, with much lower paying jobs in the service industries; wages continue to remain stagnant or drop while prices continue to climb; our heartland is a maze of chain stores and closed local businesses; our civil rights are under constant attack and the thin veneer of a benevolent government has peeled away to reveal the truly horrifying monster many of us long believed it was. In short, Bush has the love and respect of less than one third of the U.S. public, and it’s anyone’s guess how deep that love and respect goes even among that one third. That is perhaps the good news. People, at last, can see through the lies and manipulation and seem pretty upset by it, especially since the number one reason for the 70% disapproval is for his handling of Iraq. The bad news is that there seems to be no light at the end of our current tunnel. We seem to be in Ernesto Sabato’s story, flying ever downwards on a train to hell or trapped in the lower rung of Sartre’s existential nightmare.
The North American continent seems to be in utter darkness except for the faint glow of lights so far south they’re almost no longer on the Northern continent. Those of us so desperate for hope we’re willing to risk our livelihoods, even our lives, in search for it, can report that there is something bright and hopeful astir on the continent but, in order to hear it, you may have to learn Spanish.
The recent inspiring demonstrations of immigrants in the U.S. that brought back to the historical memory the hallowed first of May as a day for celebration are the manifestation of this new human project in our midst. While many from diverse cultures and nations participated, the vanguard was Latin American, specifically Mexican. It’s no surprise that the Mexicans would be the spark in the dead wood of Anglo America given the one bright ray of hope that shone forth in the early nineties from the most backward, impoverished region of the one Latin American country on the mainland of the North American continent. I’m speaking, of course, of the Zapatista uprising which shook Mexico and precipitated the collapse of the seventy year dictatorship of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), this at a time when guerrilla movements, socialist organizations, anti-capitalist resistance seemed as much a part of a mythic human past as knights in armor, princesses in castles and dragon slayers in valiant struggle.
A little further South one encounters a continent alive with, and engaged fully in, the project of hope. Ironically, it is in what are called the “favelas” or “ranchos” or “barrios populares,” that is, the slums or ghettos of the great cities where the construction of this project is most notable. This is not so strange as one might think since hope seems to be the experience, primarily, essentially, and, almost exclusively, of the desperate, that is, those without hope, just as utopia is the habitual dream of those without a place in this world. If one had a place in this world, why would one put one’s faith in the “no place” (u-topia)? If one possessed all one’s dreams, for what would one need, or exercise, hope? In Chavez’s Bolivarian Venezuela, those dreaming utopia and living in hope are the desperately poor of yesteryear, or yesterday or even of today. Those “piqueteros” who have thrown their lives into full time struggle for a new Argentina live in the utopia that moves mysteriously from highway to road to city street. All over the continent the movements are calling forth moderate progressives into presidential terms only to turn around immediately to challenge them to begin the work of the creation of utopia, built by the will of the hopeless with the magic hands of hope.
This is not to “romanticize poverty” as we, who recognize, acknowledge and admire the humanity of the poor are inevitably accused of doing. It is a way privilege has of discrediting us, those who are poor, have been poor, know the poor, that is, those of us who have and who value, our relations with the poor and, most significantly, respect them. Charles Peguy said that there is only one unforgiveable sin, and that is to be poor. This is no less true on an international level. The Bolivians, the Peruvians, the Colombians, the Central Americans, the Mexicans are despised in Anglo America primarily not because of their “mestizaje” and their dark skins but because they are poor. We don’t give them a second glance for the same reason we refuse to “see” the homeless on our streets and for the same reason: poverty is the greatest sin and, therefore, the greatest shame. And when those of us who identify with them speak of their sole, invisible possession, utopia, or their single outstanding virtue, hope, we are told we “romanticize” their plight. It is as if we were “romanticizing” the bourgeoisie when we speak of their houses in the suburbs and their fat bank accounts.
I have been living with the “poor” of Venezuela for a year now and have come to experience, first hand, the tortured, perverse logic and have been victimized by the provincial and hypocritical morality of those I would describe as “identified by definition.” By that I mean that those of means, the non-poor, have the capacity to buy their identity. They purchase their titles at the best universities, distinguish themselves through their unique dress (they can afford, after all, clothes that aren’t mass-produced), drive the rare vehicles (the SUVs), live in exclusive neighborhoods and choose their professions based on which will grant them more status. The poor have no access to these forms of identification. They resign themselves to no titles, little education, mass-produced clothing, mass transit and housing in “projects” or large, anonymous buildings. They are defined by their absence of resources for self-definition. Nevertheless, it is precisely in this absence that they find their resourcefulness, their ability to dream, their citizenship in utopia.
I recall watching kids on the beach in Santa Catalina, the poor neighborhood miles outside of Montevideo. For the hour I sat in the café looking out the window, the children played with a single hoop, making of it a multi-purpose toy with their ingenuity. They exemplified for me that sunny afternoon, the meaning of the saying, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Until we need, we will not invent or, to put it another way, as long as we have, we will not hope.
Could it be that this is why we in the “developed” U.S. live in a state of desperate hopelessness? Might it be that the project of utopia built with the sweat, blood and tears of hope, will require that we first lose everything, beginning with our false optimism? Is it true that “whoever seeks to save his life will lose it”? Must we give up everything in order to find happiness and join the desperate in the project of building a humane world founded on peace, justice and love, values in which we, as a people, have ceased long ago to believe? For such a world some of us think everything we have would be a small price to pay.
CLIFTON ROSS has written or translated and published half a dozen books. Last year he was one of two U.S. poets to participate in the Second World Poetry Festival of Venezuela. He has been reporting from Venezuela for the past year for americanencounters.org .