Monday, April 12, 2010

Joe Bageant: Moon over Gringo Gulch

In God we can only trust, but in hashish rests assurance....

  Poolside in Ajijic, Mexico. The heavy red faced guy in the khaki Bermudas and powder blue polo shirt is telling the seventyish woman, the one with her breasts hauled up and strapped down into a boob loaf, that he ditched his oxygen tank for this party… which was damned thoughtful of him, since the sight of such things only reminds us geezers and geezerettes what a geriatric camp Ajijic's "Gringo Gulch" really is. (Still, my COPD was killing me and I wished I had not thrown away my own oxy tank in a fit of stubborn refusal.)

  Ajijic is one of those sunny roosting places south of the horse latitudes preferred by aging Americans who've put away a few bucks, and Canadians whose government still stands behind its national retirement plan, for the time being at least. They come here in winter, from Buffalo, Scranton and Calgary, Ontario and Ohio, to roast aching bones, drink among others who can remember Sonny and Cher's first hit record, and, as is the case particularly with the Canadians, to smoke pot. An American never quite gets over the sight of half a dozen retired middle class seventy year olds in puffy white velcro strap tennis shoes, nonchalantly passing a fat bomber.

  Some are snowbirds, but as many more retire here, building homes in that faux hacienda style preferred by North Americans. Those houses with masonry arches, dusty pink stucco walls, and turquoise ceramic tile in the style of the early Spanish haciendado settlers -- if the haciendados had been homosexuals.

  Canuck and gringo alike, they all hate George W. Bush. For the most part, the Americans are staunch Democrats, even the retired cops here (who also smoke pot -- I've yet to meet one who did not). The big guy in the blue polo shirt asks Boob Loaf Woman: "Did you hear the one about the Republican senator who married a crack whore? Inside of six weeks he brought her down to his level."

  Among the Americans here, whose prime years were at least a couple of decades ago, political comprehension seems to have a lag factor. Most still think in terms of pure party loyalty, true believers, yet none of them want to live in the U.S. again. Expressing a sentiment echoed so often you get sick of hearing it, the guy in the blue polo shirt (which is starting to accentuate his increasingly red face quite nicely, whether due to lack of oxygen or booze, toss a coin) says: "It ain't the same country I grew up in." He clings to the notion that if the right Democrat were to be elected "we could bring back the government of FDR."

  "How long have you been down here?" I asked.

  "Sixteen years."

  I wanted to say that I had not seen such ill-informed optimism in at least two decades. But I managed to muster a "Let's hope so."

  Even were it possible, resurrecting the government of FDR would make for a crowded political stage. We already have two independent governments operating separately -- the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Unfortunately they operate in opposition. Separate governance is impossible and they refuse to govern together. Their ensuing combat constitutes the entirety of politics these days. Hopelessly locked in a mutual choke hold called the filibuster threat, their struggle is followed rather emotionally by the public.

  This kind of politics benefits both the politician and the public. The public can avoid thinking about real issues, big picture items they can count on the politicians never to address, but move their lips as if they are: America's descent from empire, global warming and peak everything, not to mention the sixth great planetary species die-off in progress, which almost no American has even heard about yet -- much less that it will take out the human race too. To face such things means asking the big questions, the eternal questions regarding the meaning of existence and the purpose of life, or if either of them exist.

  Of course Americans already know the purpose of life: to worship God and make money, which have been two sides of the same ontological coin since Alexander Hamilton, one of America's first economists -- who also happened to be one of our first lawyers too -- set about forging our system. Hamilton saw economic and political "opportunity in religiosity." And so, “In God We Trust" to provide us with the opportunity to make a buck -- trusting in "his terrible swift sword" to dispatch those who would get in the way of that buck, wherever they might live on this shrinking orb. And should His sword not be swift enough for the exigencies of the moment, we must recall that "God helps those who help themselves." Thus we help ourselves to the planet, then fall asleep watching Stephen Colbert do political shtick on the Larry King Show. In the American theater state, the one Huxley worried would entertain us all into oblivious inertia, politics needs not be functional, just entertaining. Amusement trumps thinking, and the big questions are replaced by the small ones every: "How are we going to make the fastest buck and keep the world's oil sloshing in our direction, as it gets scarcer and scarcer."

  Which brings us back around to that sword again.

  Every American, every man, woman and child lives by the fruit of the empire's sword, fully expecting the lights to come on each evening, fresh coffee to gurgle in the morning and the car to start right up. The internet connection to work and for Australian wine to be on the supermarket shelves. Those who do understand where it all comes from -- which is to say from an unsustainable commodity economy propped up by phony money at gunpoint -- seldom object publicly, if there is the slightest risk. The relative few who grasp the inevitable cruelties of empire, especially of empires in decline, are inwardly resigned to their own insignificance in the larger scheme of things. A slim minority of youth still have the energy and idealistic anger to protest, as in Seattle's WTO fracas a decade ago. But for every one of them there are hundreds of thousands of citizens who say, "Well there's not much I can do about it." Both sides are right of course. But one swamps the other, reducing it to entertainment value on the evening news.

  We find ourselves trapped on a dark and nasty merry-go-round, one that keeps going faster and faster to the point where everyone is too terrified to jump off. So we hang in there… and the state's one voice to the many says, "Don't pay attention to the wreckage on either side of the tracks. Because this train is bound for glory, this train. Ask any televangelist or Pentagon general. Ask any of the economist eunuchs inside the president's high sanctum, engineering "the recovery" in the name of God, cheap oil and the new jobless populist republic. Yessiree, there's light at the end of the tunnel, just around a few more bends. Don't let the fact that the track keeps descending downward bother you. And besides, if there is a buck to be made in Hell, we will triumph. Because after all, we are The Americans.

  But here by the pool, under the splintered pink and gold sunset, I really should not be bitching about Americans. One of them, a middle age fellow drunk on his ass, and insisting that I accept a small edge of hashish because, "I know writersh sneed a little inshpirashion."

  And he's right. I walked home under one of those great big orange prisoner's moons, the kind that makes you ask the big questions. The kind of moon that, having seen such mortal reveries for over a million years, smiles amusedly upon your path home.

  And with ancient cobblestones rippling along beneath your feet in the darkness, and the smell of orange blossoms in the night air, you think to yourself, Fuck a bunch of crumbling empires. Life couldn't be better.

  About the author: Joe Bageant is the author of "Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America's Class War." 

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