Defense Against The Dark Arts

Light in the dark

I remember watching Disney movies with my two kid brothers, back when I was just a little boy. I loved those films, and think about them fondly to this day. The thing that I remember most about them, though, was that my favorite part of each was not the soundtrack, or the humor, or  even a specific cast of characters (though I loved these aspects, too). My favorite part was that the good guys always won.

Theirs weren’t just trivial victories, either; in fact, as anyone who’s studied the psychology of Disney films will know, many of the plot points in these tales closely track our deepest understandings of right vs. wrong – good vs. evil. Who ultimately won the day in those films mattered to us precisely because the characters involved occupyed different places on the moral spectrum. For the nihilistic evildoers to come out on top would just feel… wrong to us.

As a child, I took the good guy’s victories for granted. Even outside of children’s books and movies, my world confirmed these Disney story arcs. For instance, I could vaguely grasp the concept that the world had been at war before my birth, and that America – the good guys – had won that fight for good. Just like in the movies, the moral universe to me was black and white, with black eternally doomed to crushing losses.

I wish I could recall what event first made me see that there can be alternative endings to these stories – that a different story arc really exists. But what it was specifically makes no difference to me now – the point is that the bad guys win sometimes, and that I can appreciate that fact. It is a fact that all Americans would do well to appreciate right now. If you’ve read my earlier posts, then you know what keeps me up at night by now. If you haven’t yet, then each blue word contains a clue.

Of course, the moral universe isn’t simply black and white – there are shades of grey, as we all know. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t such a thing as good and evil. There absolutely is, and insisting that this is the case is crucial, which brings me to the purpose of this post: Lessons on defense against the dark arts.

The following is a list of lessons and conclusions I have arrived at in thinking of how best to counteract authoritarianism, and that I believe to be important tips, givens our country’s current political climate.

Lesson 1: Hold the center 

When a demagogue takes power, one thing you may notice is that the lines of division in your society become more clear. In America’s case, these societal fissures separate immigrants from citizens, Democrats from Republicans, coastal folks from heartland dwellers, and Christians/Catholics from just about everybody else. We are told by the division-peddlers that the American dream is a zero-sum game, and that the time has come to circle the wagons around our own kind, because the people in the next camp can’t be trusted.

Do not take their advice. Resist the urge to categorize and label other people, and go out of your way to become more cosmopolitan. If you’re an atheist (like me), pay a visit to your local Presbyterian church, or maybe a mosque. If you’re a coastal dwelling city slicker, trade that European vacay you’ve been planning for a trip to a flyover state. If you’re a citizen, donate to an immigration advocacy group. If you’re a member of a political party, rather than insulting the other side on Facebook, invite that one politically backwards co-worker to join your bowling team. In short, do not simply refuse to be divided, but behave in a manner that discredits the notion that the demagogues’ preferred dividing lines even exist.

Lesson 2: Stay close to the light

In troubling times, it can be easy to get swallowed up by hopelessness and doubt. Of course, it’s important to pay attention to the news, and to be mindful of the dangers that we face. But it is perhaps equally important that we devote some time to our private lives, and tend to our own wellbeing and health. Here are some things I do to keep my own mind close to the light: Go to the gym; read good books; cook dinner with my girlfriend; call my parents; email my grandmother; have drinks with friends; do at least one nice thing per day.

Additionally, I’ve found that following a couple of podcasts and public intellectuals has been beneficial to shoring up my mental health. I would recommend listening to Pod Save America, The Waking Up Podcast, Jacko Willink, and Jordan Peterson. They each have a light of their own kind to offer, and the more you can surround yourself with lights like theirs, the better. Don’t let the darkness of the world inside your head, because the truth is, you can keep it out. Go find how best to do so for yourself.

Lesson 3:  Know that truth exists, and do your best to speak it

One of the most insidious things about our country’s would-be authoritarians has been the smear campaign they’ve launched against the notion of an objective, provable truth. Take your pick of examples: from the concept of “alternative facts”, to the flippant dismissal of legitimate reporting as “fake news”, to the enthusiastic peddling of conspiracies build on laundry lists of baseless allegations, the takeaway is clear – some people care about the truth, and others don’t. Unfortunately, it’s the second group which holds the bigger megaphone right now, and that’s why it is incredibly important that the first group speaks the truth in the months to come.

This is not as easy as it sounds, which is why most folks don’t do it. So you should probably start off small, with a promise that you won’t tell lies, even for just one day. Once you’re capable of going a week without telling a significant fib, you’ll be better off than 90% of people.

Perhaps the most important reason to refuse to lie, and to speak the truth as best you can is that it forces you to live in accordance with your principles. If you behave in ways that you wouldn’t be ashamed of others knowing about, what is there to lie about, exactly? For a book that delves more deeply into the principles behind this lesson, click here.

Lesson 4: Be the change you wish to see

Finally, we all have the power to affect our little corners of the globe. If there’s a homeless person problem where you live, walk on into city hall and ask them if they’re planning to address it. If they claim that they can’t fix it, write a letter to your Congressman, and donate to a food drive in the mean time.

If a friend or loved one is experiencing hard times – be it an addiction, marriage problems, illness, or financial worries – don’t abandon them, even when everyone else in their world decides to (especially then).

When you get into an argument with your father over politics, or your girlfriend over things in your relationships, don’t let your temper or your pride direct your words. In an age of self-promotion, reputation management, and an endless supply of transactional relationships to exploit, putting aside your ego and conversing in good faith is a genuinely radical act.

Have patience when dealing with young children, and never take a bad mood out on those you love. And when you fail at these (we all do sometimes), be sure to make things right. There’s nothing worse than letting the guilt fester in your head while your mean words fester in theirs, so learn how to apologize for real.

All in all, we mostly know the ways that we can each be better people. Thinking about the places where you’ve come up short before is a decent start, and correcting them is even better still. At a time when dishonestly, indecency, and outright nihilism is pouring from our nation’s power halls, the spirit of the resistance will flow from our embodying the opposite of these three things.

Is America Immune To Dictatorship?

Lady Liberty

Fundamentally, the most significant difference between Democracies and Dictatorships is the concept of the separation of powers, as defined by a nation’s system of political “checks and balances” on executive authority. In observing the process of democratic breakdown within once-democratic nations throughout history, it is clear that the ability of each nation to curtail the power of would-be authoritarians is founded in the strength of these balancing systems.

Conventional wisdom with regards to America’s political system has long held that the very nature of its Constitution protects against authoritarian rule, by dividing its political power into three separate, equal parts, those being the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches.

While it is certainly true that the American Constitution does more to inoculate it against authoritarian rule than perhaps any other democracy on earth, it is still worth examining the ways in which the American system differs from those of democracies that have given way to dictatorial regimes.

For this, I’d like to turn to a paragraph in Steve Levitsky and David Ziblatt’s 2018 book, How Democracies Die, which offers us a play-by-play of the recent democratic erosion in Turkey. Excerpts in bold will be discussed later in terms of their likelihood of being carried out successfully in the United States. Below:

“Most recently, the Erdogan government in Turkey used security crisis to justify his tightening grip on power. After the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in June 2015, a series of ISIS terrorist attacks enabled Erdogan to use the rally-’round-the-flag effect to call snap elections and regain control of parliament just five months later. Even more consequential was the July 2016 coup attempt, which provided justification for a wide-ranging crackdown. Erdogan responded to the coup by declaring a state of emergency and launching a massive wave of repression that included a purge of some 100,000 public officials, the closure of several newspapers, and more than 50,000 arrests – including hundreds of judges and prosecutors, 144 journalists, and even two members of the Constitutional Court. Erdogan also used the coup attempt as a window of opportunity to make the case for new executive powers. The power grab culminated in the April 2017 passage [by way of a national referendum] of a constitutional amendment that demolished checks on presidential authority.” (Levitsky & Ziblatt, pp. 96).

Unfortunately for Turkey, which had for years been seen as a relatively stable democratic state, it’s pillars of democracy were flawed enough to provide an opening for authoritarian rule. Let’s go down the list of the determining factors, and compare them to the system employed by the United States:

1. The ability of the executive to call for snap elections

This ostensibly democratic executive tool is, in my opinion, one of the major weaknesses of parliamentary systems  that is not shared by America’s presidential system. It allows the executive to exploit domestic crisis to an outrageous extent, and also grants them power to take their opposition parties by surprised. What’s to stop the executive from calling snap elections in the midst of an opposition scandal, or from taking advantage of some temporary boost to their approval? Because the American political system doesn’t extend such power to the executive branch, the problems related to snap elections are of no concern to us.

2. The ability of the executive to “purge” other government officials

The most extreme examples of executives asserting this power include the dissolving of their National Assemblies (i.e. Congress), arresting opposition leaders, and degrading or even abolishing their national judiciaries. Obviously, the American President does not have the power to dissolve Congress, arbitrarily arrest political rivals, or shut down the courts and the justice system. That being said, there are many stops between complete tolerance of opposition bureaucrats and the aforementioned examples, and it is unquestionably true that the President has extensive powers over the staffing of executive branch departments. To some extent, there is a “purging” of one’s predecessor’s officials after every American election, but this is usually confined to the traditional replacement of Cabinet Secretaries and high-ranking government officials.

President Donald Trump has broken with this tradition by replacing an usually high number of the previous administration’s officials, and this is definitely cause for concern. One example from The New Republic: 

“Late on Friday afternoon… the Department of Justice ordered 46 U.S. state attorneys, including anti-corruption crusader Preet Bharara of New York, to resign.

…as with many things in the Trump administration, this deviates from precedent in key ways. It’s traditional for new administrations to ask for resignations at the start of the term—today was Trump’s 50th day in office. And the affected attorneys appear to have been given very little warning.'”

 

I am quite sure that there are many other examples of this type of behavior coming from the Trump administration (recent calls from Republicans for a “purge” of the FBI come to mind), and taken together, they surely constitute a red-flag for democracy’s defenders.

3. Ability of the executive to degrade the freedom/independence of the press

While the current President’s musings about the importance of an independent press expose a deeply dictatorial streak, the reality is that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution will continue to stand between his tantrums and the freedom of America’s fourth estate. Unlike many younger, weaker democracies, freedom of speech and association in the United States has been and will continue to be, both legally and culturally, its most unassailable civil liberty. The dangers posed by an individual like Donald Trump stem more from his willingness to 1) use the bully pulpit to attack and attempt to delegitimize unfriendly media organizations, and 2) use the power of his office to reward friendly media, by gifting them with primetime interviews, corporate mergers, or White House press credentials. Though he has threatened to “crack down” on libel laws, that is almost certainly a bluff, as despite his accusations of fraudulent reporting on the part of the media, he is almost certainly aware of the fact that libel suits are virtually impossible to win in the United States.

4. Ability of the ruling party to initiate national referendums

As Levitsky and Ziblatt explain, it was the 2017 national referendum that delivered the coup de grace to democracy in Turkey. Among other things, the majority vote in favor of the referendum significantly consolidated executive authority and marginalized the Parliament, effectively enshrining Erdogan’s status as a dictator. Therein lies the fundamental (and highly paradoxical) danger of the national referendum: that authoritarian ends can be achieved via democratic means. The purpose of a nation’s constitution is to establish the rules of the game, so to speak. The problem with allowing referendums to alter the foundational rules of the game is threefold: 1) referendums are decided by average citizens, rather than elected representatives with a better understanding of the referendum’s implications, 2) laws created through referendums can circumvent judicial review, and 3) similar to snap elections, the ruling party can exploit crisis and employ government resources to tilt the playing field to their advantage.

Thankfully, the U.S. President does not have the power to call referendums, and cannot unilaterally make changes to the U.S. Constitution. The process of making such changes is actually fairly arduous in the United States, as detailed by Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution.

In short, the American political system is significantly better equip than other types of democratic systems in dealing with potential authoritarians, particularly systems which rely too much on “direct democracy”, i.e. referendums, as well as those with young, relatively weak institutions. That being said, the case of Turkey is but one of many examples of how democratic breakdown can occur.

If the question is, as posed in the title of this post, “Is America Immune To Dictatorship?”, I would say that my conclusion is threefold: The first conclusion is “no, it isn’t immune”; the second is “but its more immune than other systems”, and the third is that “no system can ever be completely immune, but it is clear that certain versions of democracy mitigate the risk of democratic erosion more effectively than others.”

One thing I am certain of, however, is that American democracy has never seen a threat like the one being posed by the current executive’s administration.

 

 

Mitt Romney Should Primary Trump In 2020

Trump Romney

Partially in service of maintaining my own reputation, and partially because it’s the truth, I’ve gotten into the habit of characterizing my family as “Mitt Romney Republicans” when describing their political beliefs to other people. They — like many other lifelong Republicans, I assume — have arrived at the woeful realization that the political tent they once called home has been uprooted and steadily marched towards damn near the edge of the right-wing cliff, in recent months. What are these political orphans to do about this? What’s Mitt Romney to do? Shooting pool with Jeff Flake and reminiscing about the good-old-day only takes up so many hours in the day.

Hence, my proposal: Mitt Romney, who in 2020 will likely be a senator, should offer himself to Republicans as an alternative to the chaos sowed by Trump. While there’s been speculation as to whether certain other Senators could pose a threat to Trump in the primary (people like Ben Sasse, for example), none of them have the stature nor the name recognition to effectively challenge the President. In addition to this, with the exception of Jeff Flake, virtually none of the Republican Senators have made any real effort to differentiate themselves from the Orange One. Romney, on the other hand, has and continues to offer a vision of Republicanism that breaks from that of the current regime. He will also have minimal baggage in terms of his voting record when 2020 rolls around, and in the mean time he can use his position as a Senator to make his differences with the President more clear.

Most importantly, Mitt Romney is a household name in America, for obvious reasons (and just as a side note, “Ben Sasse” is not). The Republican party nominated him for President once already — has their voting base really changed that much since 2012? It may sound a lot like pie-in-the-sky, but if enough Republicans eventually tire of the chaos and aimlessness of the current White House, they may feel that their nominating Romney would constitute a return to some semblance of normalcy. There is little doubt in my mind that the business wing of the Republican coalition would support a Romney bid against the President, should Romney choose to seek it. And if four solid years of investigations, scandals, and overall incompetence can manage to depress the turnout of the “Lock Her Up” contingent, Romney could perhaps have a serious shot at dethroning the Mad King.

Finally, depending on the severity of the upcoming bloodmath a la the ‘18 midterms, Romney could potentially make the case that Trump is serving to energize the opposition, and has thus become a liability; both to the party’s congressional majorities, and to their continued holding of the Executive branch. In short, there’s a lot that can happen between now and 2020, and depending on how the cards fall over the next 3 years, I genuinely believe it may be plausible for Mitt to launch a legitimate bid for the Grand Old Party’s nomination.

In summary, then: Help us, Romney-Wan Kenobi… you might be our only hope.

Slate Takes the Bait

Hannity chick

Sigh, okay. Here goes —  I am about to attempt something genuinely radical, folks. It’s going to require some “nuance”, yes, and some critical thinking – on both my part and yours. Because, dear reader, I am about to assume the heretical role of defending an accused sexual assaulter, on the heels of an article I wrote just yesterday, wherein I ripped a man accused of the very same thing.

Except for the fact that this isn’t the same thing, and that’s the point. But you wouldn’t know that if you happened to peruse the headlines of Slate.com this morning, the largest of which proclaimed “Al Franken Should Resign Immediately”. The grounds for this, according to Mr. Mark Joseph Stern, are based upon the recent allegations that Mr. Franken groped and harassed a former playboy-model-turned-Fox-News-guest-turned-morning-news-show-host. And after skimming the original piece myself, my initial impulse was certainly not to doubt the victim’s statements. But try as I might, some irrevocably broken and cynical corner of my psyche forced an eyebrow-cock at the sight of the following words:

“Fox News”.

“Okay, okay, anothergodlessliberal, we all know Fox News is a propoganda outfit working in service of the Republican Party. But come on – there’s photographic evidence of the crimes that she’s alleged!” Indeed. One photograph of Mr. Franken pretending to honk her breasts through a bulletproof army jacket, at the end of their mutual comedy tour. Now look, I don’t know about you, but it just seems like it’s playing pretty fast and loose with the English language to refer to this behavior as “groping”. What’s more, if the gonzo-reporting of a number of twitter eggs is to be believed (which is certainly not a given), the photographer himself has apparently claimed that Ms. Tweeden was only pretending to be asleep for the photo opp, and was part of the gag herself — which, if true, would completely undermine this allegation.

The second allegation is more serious, and it relates to the invasion of the victim’s mouth by the Funny Man Senator’s tongue. I won’t recount the entire incident here, but there were two main takeaways from the victim’s description of this encounter. The first is that Franken acted pretty gross and creepy, and that he came on way too strong. The second is that she verbally agreed to accept the kiss. Of course, she clearly felt at least somewhat compelled to agree, and was acting under duress – but she did, in fact, agree to kiss the man. Also, for what it’s worth, Franken immediately disputed her rendition of the story.

Friends, I am not typically one to engage in whataboutism. But before we go calling on a Democratic Senator to resign on the basis of scant evidence of creepy-but-not-criminal conduct, perhaps we would be wise to remember that the President of the United States has been accused of far worse, and last I checked, there aren’t any Republicans calling for the Boy King’s resignation.

I am also not typically one to employ ad hominem attacks. But this woman has repeatedly appeared on panels with the likes of Greg Guttfeld and Sean Hannity, no doubt nodding right along with every regurgitated talking point they barfed out into the airwaves.

Finally, I would point out that the timing could truly not be better for the Republicans to dredge up some right-wing playboy bunny with a Democratic Senator-shaped chip on her shoulder. If Democrats and mainstream news outlets don’t think that these kinds of tactics will be employed by the Republicans in 2020, then I’m afraid they’re giving them far too much credit.

So, Mark Stern, while I understand the impulse to boost one’s article stats, my suggestion would be to wait until the actual facts come in before demanding that we cannibalize our own. And here’s the thing – if and when it becomes clear that Mr. Franken has behaved this way towards other victims, I will be the first one to the feast. But for God’s sake, let’s at least wait until there’s evidence he’s cooked before putting a fork in his career.

Thou Shalt Not Lie

Ten CommandmentsIt’s not as if I actually needed more evidence that the bible-thumping, God-fearing, fire-and-brimstone slinging ideologues of the American Right have never had a moral leg to stand on. But the allegations surrounding Senate-hopeful/Creepy Uncle Roy Moore – and worse, the evangelical response to these allegations –  rid my mind of all remaining doubt.

We’re all familiar with political scandals. Those of us who pay attention to these things have seen our share of indecencies – things like financial fraud, briberies, affairs; even the occasional abortion by some pro-lifer’s mistress. And for the most part, we all keep calm and carry on. But this scandal is different. This scandal sends a fucking chill down my spine.

Just to recap, here’s what’s actually happened: Roy Moore has been called out for the litany of sexually predatory and pedophilic relationships that he, as a politically prominent man in his middle-30s, arranged with a number of high school girls. The alleged number of such relationships currently stands at 5, but as these things tend to go, it is probably safe to assume that that number will rise. In one instance, Moore offered to babysit a 14 year old girl, and – after winning the trust of her mother – brought her to his cabin in the woods, whereupon he broke out the booze and proceeded to get handsy with the minor.

Unsurprisingly, the alternative universe of right-wing media has chosen to circle the wagons around this freak. Sean Hannity, the same guy who devoted months of airtime to virtue-signaling and feigning moral outrage over the dick-pics of Anthony Weiner, came immediately to Moore’s defense: “Every single person in this country deserves the presumption of innocence”, he opined. Sure, Sean, sure. Just so long as they’ve got an (R) instead of a (D) next to their name, that is – am I getting it now?

Steve Bannon, for his part, framed the allegations as a political hit-job by the fake-news liberal media. That’s pretty much par for the course from that lunatic. And Donald Trump’s silence on the matter has of course been deafening, given that Moore built his  whole campaign in the Orange One’s very image. But perhaps the most egregious explanation came right from the horse’s mouth: “I don’t remember dating any girl without the permission of her mother.”

Awh, shucks. He even asked their mamas for permission! Granted, he did ask to be their babysitter, not their boyfriend, but let’s not get caught up in semantics, here.

Fucking. Gross.

And of course, this was only one of many mutually exclusive defenses barfed up by the Moore campaign and it’s sympathizers. Others include (in so many words):  “I’ve never even met that chick”, “The choking story was consensual, too”, and my personal favorite, “Mary was pretty fresh when Joseph knocked her up with baby Jesus”. Also –  wasn’t that supposedly a virgin birth? Fuck, even I know that one.

In other words, it’s been an avalanche of stone-faced lies from all of the usual suspects. Lies from the same cynical people who spent the better part of the last decade attacking Hillary Clinton on the basis that she was a lair. Nothing but lies, obfuscation and denialism from the “Values Voters” crowd. Lies, indeed, from the very man who defied a fucking federal court to keep a concrete statute of the Ten Commandments in his Alabama courthouse.

Perhaps it would be worth it to revisit those commandments now, Republicans, and to think about the way you measure up – to the Ninth one, in particular.

-B

 

Paradise Island

The CayeThis is a piece I wrote back in March while vacationing on the Ambergris Caye, a small island off the coast of the Central American nation of Belize. I think that it probably belongs here, if it belongs anywhere at all.

Arrival: 10:15 A.M. 27 March ‘17

It hadn’t been ten seconds since my feet hit the beach that I felt a light tug at my shirt. I spun around to find a tan little thing – no more than six – her neck burdened with enough shell jewelry for two times the crew of our boat.

“Hi, hello! Would you like one?” she stammered, eager but clearly nervous as she offered up a small shell necklace. “My sisters and me, we make ‘em!”

Now, typically I’m no sucker for a sales pitch of this kind, so it must’ve been her lisp that did me in. Or maybe it was the kind of raw sincerity with which she’d asked, the kind only a child can convincingly produce. Whatever the case, I couldn’t bring myself turn down what was quite clearly, in her eyes, the best necklace ever made.

“Sure, sweetie. How much? Or, uhm… Qué precio?”

Her face lit up with a giggle at the sound of my clumsy Spanish.

“Dos cincuenta!” rang the victorious reply. At least I knew I wasn’t being hustled. I forked over the petty cash and she beamed, traded me the necklace, and promptly scampered away. It’d be by far my favorite purchase of the week.

Having pleased the tiny salesman, I looked around. I was having a hard time putting my finger on Belize so far. The heat was remorseless – that much was clear – and the all-consuming sunlight kept other adjectives at bay, despite my efforts. “Muggy”? That’s as good a word as any. “Chaotic”… that might work, too. One thing I can report with confidence, though, is that the word “Paradise” – despite being plastered on hotels, restaurants, and kiosk merchandise alike – appeared to be more of a slogan than a guarantor of life around here.

I managed to wave down a cab, and made for the Paradise Village resort, a gated community for part time residents and tourists like myself. My cabby was Jamaican by blood, but he’d lived in Belize for 12 years now, and called it home. “Things move slow in Belize,” he quipped, belying the scene outside. The streets of San Pedro were in fact alive with traffic in every imaginable form: golf carts, dirt bikes, cars and even plain old bicycles flew by with what could only be described as a kind of learned indifference for pedestrian life and limb. Horns blared, dirt and sand mixed and spat from the narrow roads, all while children and animals darted along unmarked sidewalks unattended. Chaos indeed.

“The people here – we’re a little lazy, but we own it, you know?” he chuckled. Fair enough. I thanked the man as we pulled up to the place, and asked him what I owed.

“Forty, sir”

Forty fucking dollars? For a 10-minute cab? Christ, I thought, but wasn’t about to ruffle feathers this early on. The look on his face as I passed him two 20’s should’ve indicated my mistake, but it was only as I watched him speed away that I recalled the US dollar is worth double in Belize. Twenty, he’d meant. I‘d owed him twenty. “Fuck me”, I muttered, remembering my granddad’s old vacation idiom:

“The tourist and his money are soon parted.” Duly noted. I struck off to locate my room.

I have to admit, it was a stunning place, this Paradise Village. Each and every condo had a balcony overlooking the pool, which was located in the middle of the plaza, and which also looked like a rather inviting refuge from the merciless heat. Palm trees lined the snow-white sandy walks between the condos and an outdoor bar & grill, the very existence of which was a pleasant surprise to me (I’d hardly skimmed the brochure). The day took an additional uphill turn upon my discovery of the fully-stocked liquor cabinet in my room, and with that, all remaining pretense that this would be a productive weekend dissolved. I was in my element, now – pure vida.

And hell, I wasn’t here for work, anyway. Initially I’d offered to write up a travel piece for my hometown rag, the SLO Tribune, but their offer had been so meager that even I wasn’t sure I could bare the indignation. More specifically, they’d asked me to do it for free. No matter – this was now officially a vacation. And I clearly wouldn’t be the only one drinking the day away, as just outside my window danced a group of 50-somethings so drunk they could barely manage the Macarena. “What’s one drink?” I thought, selecting some Caribbean rum from the shelf.

As one drink turned to four, then five, and day turned into evening, I watched from my porch as the Paradise Village staff worked busily on behalf of their all-American patrons. The Belizeans didn’t seem to resent the dynamic, but slowly, I began to. Look at all these fat, drunk Americans, spilling booze and crushing margaritas while the natives cleaned their mess. The whole scene was just a little too… familiar. I mean, I knew Hispanics often filled these roles in my country, but here? Isn’t this their home?

As it turned out, the big picture was decidedly bleaker than even the microcosm before me could suggest. A quick flip through the only book provided by my coffee table – a book simply titled “Belize” – revealed two dreadful stats: First, that one in every three Belizeans worked in the tourism business, and second, that the industry accounted for around $400 billion of the tiny nation’s GDP. Instantly, the truth became clear: it didn’t matter what the natives thought of their servile roles. They needed them to live.

While this realization acquainted itself with my conscience like a wrecking-ball might, I noticed a young maid deliver some towels to my door, and flash a nervous look in my direction. I swear, ever since that New York nightmare Donald Trump invaded the Oval Office, the way Hispanics looked at me had changed. The same faces that once cast neighborly smiles now donned looks of hesitance and suspicion… as if they were expecting me to spit on them. I drained my glass, and watched silently as the young woman laid the towels at my feet, met my gaze, and slipped away to tend to the next house down.

Maybe paradise really does exist on the island. But there clearly ain’t enough to go around.

Margarita Dreams: Midnight-Thirty. 28 March ‘17

“It’s the políticos, man. They don’t give a rat’s ass about the people. We vote ‘em in, we tell ‘em how to do it right, how the people are hungry. But the only thing they listen to is the sound of, uh… shit, how do you Americans call them?” he said, pointing to the register up front of the bar.

“Cash register”, I replied.

“Yeah! Yeah man, the sound of a cash register. Ca-Ching!”

“Well, there’s something we have in common”, I quipped. “My country’s President is a corrupted loud-mouth freak. Fuck politicians.”

The young Hispanic roared with laugher at my unintended joke, and demanded another round of margaritas.

My second day on the island had been mostly uneventful, and I enjoyed shooting the shit with the local stranger. He’d approached me in the bathroom earlier in the evening, requesting that I join him as he snorted cocaine – an offer I’d respectfully declined, until it became clear that “no” was not an answer he’d accept. Something about a man with tattoos on his face shouting foreign orders in a dive-bar bathroom stall has a way of opening up the mind to new experiences. And besides, it wasn’t the first time I’d indulged the drug, though I didn’t often. But even for a rare user like myself, it was obvious that what he had was good blow. I wasn’t surprised – this was Central America, after all. And anyone who knows a damn thing about drugs knows that Central America is ground zero for the American drug trade – especially coke.

Ubiquitous drug use was a reality of life in Belize, according to the young Hispanic (“Dion” was his name, if memory serves). All throughout his childhood he’d seen ‘em, used ‘em, been around ‘em, and had finally started dealing them by the time he turned 14. Their constant presence hadn’t phased him, even from a young age. And in a way, I thought, that fact made his situation tragic all the more.

By his own admission, though, the drug trade was the bane of Central America. Despite being caught up in the United States’ so-called “War on Drugs”, the market in Belize was as alive as ever before, and active enough to earn the small nation a place on a U.S. blacklist for drug trafficking hotspots in South and Central America. Dion claimed he only dealt to supplement his income as a carpenter, and I took him at his word. What else was he supposed to do? Shine the shoes of some obese White American? Dion was a nationalist and his friend’s were, too.

“Prefiero morir de hambre que servir a esos jodidos Americanos todo el dia.” (I’d rather starve than serve those fucking Americans all day long) one man remarked, when I asked about the Paradise Village. I didn’t take offense. It seemed obvious that they wouldn’t like Americans. I tried to picture a bunch of retired foreigners plopping down in California and watching as my family mopped up their shit – day in and day out – just hoping to make ends meet. I’d probably hate those people too, regardless of their race or their creed.

It’s something about the young men of a nation. It’s that ancient tribal code, the territorial instinct. It’s the thing that screams “Get out!” – out loud, if the guns are on it’s side. And if they’re not, the eyes will speak for it instead. “Get out, get out”, that silent scream …It’s the reason they hate us. Same reason why we’re doomed in the Middle East.

But I digress – too drunk to write. Goodnight.

Daybreak through the end of stay: Sunrise. 29 March ‘17

Mongo’s diner as the sun comes up. Mexican rice, baked beans on a corn tortilla. Black coffee, two clove cigarettes. And this A.M., bleak news on the side, intruding on my morning routine in a cacophony of jumbled chatter. There’d been a killing last night – and not the “good kind”, as my waiter remarked, in reference to the last night’s business haul. Not the good kind, no – a murder. Gang related was the word on the lips of just about everyone, though despite this, no one seemed particularly troubled. In fact, the locals I spoke to over breakfast seemed entirely unfazed, emotionally. Rather, they spoke of the incident with a kind of giddy fixation on the dirty details, as if they were discussing the latest Kardashian drama. This is a strange town.

I wiped the sweat from my brow. 7 A.M. and the heat was rising fast. A kind of moist, heavy heat – the kind that consumes you. I’d spent the whole damn weekend sweating my body weight in that intolerable pea soup, and was feeling positively ill (though considerably lighter). It was time to go, and I was ready. I had a boat to catch in 30 minutes, so I ordered one last lime margarita to kill time and my rising fever, and watched the sun come up.

I suppose I never did find that paradise. Though frankly, that may just be due to my own neurotic freakery – I never can tell. But whatever the case may be, I’d like to think that if it does exist somewhere, it’s a place where kids aren’t raised on drugs and crime, where tourism doesn’t remind you of apartheid, and where there’s maybe just a little more equality for all.

And perhaps a few less gunshot deaths, to boot.

[end.]

What Makes a Voice

what makes a voice (pic)

One will find, in reading the scribbled thoughts of most people, that while the thoughts themselves will vary, the voice behind them rings the same. Different people, with different personalities, from different backgrounds, sharing different thoughts entirely and yet somehow, each scribbling could easily be another’s. In other words, they are unremarkable – not for a lack of meaningful content, generally, but rather because they are being expressed with the charisma of an automated messaging machine.

“Hi, my name is ______. Here are some facts, ____, ____, ____. Here are my thoughts                on these facts, and the evidence to support my thoughts that I have on these facts: _______.”

What’s the problem with the above method? To the educated person, the answer is probably “nothing at all”. It seems clean-cut, doesn’t it? Hell, it probably looks like the format you used to give that presentation last week. An adult template, to be sure!

You poor, lost lamb. It’s not your fault; in fact, your confusion is completely understandable. After all, this is the method we’re taught to employ when expressing ourselves – the method we’ve always been taught. Cut out the chaff, stick to the basics and avoid “fluff” words; that’s how you write! Follow the structure, make an outline; bullet points, people, bullet points! This is the 21st century, for God’s sake – you think we have time to care about how you feel? Intro, body, conclusion. God help you if you entertain a tangent or traffic in the controversial.

And we wonder why people can’t write.

Well, allow me to clue you in on a little secret, dear reader: you’ve been had. Hoodwinked. Bamboozled! How? Well, I’ll tell you how – because there are no such “rules” when it comes to the written word.

That’s right, my former weary English student, I regret to say that you’ve been lied to – by your parents, your society, and by each and every philistinic busybody in the academy – throughout your fledgling years. My best guess is that you, along with your doe-eyed grade school colleagues, were hounded, corrected, graded and scolded to the point of abject terror and nihilism, and that your writing style is merely a reflection of this trauma. And good lord, does it reflect it.

Believe me, I’ve proofed enough of your kind’s papers to know just how and where – and maybe even why – they put the person reading it to sleep. And whenever I do, I can almost hear the gears that were grinding in your head as you vainfully attempted to contort your thoughts to the essay structure. “Is that a complete sentence? Does it relate to the paragraph’s point and to the main essay? Am I saying too much? Too little? How close am I to 800 words?”

If you find it excruciating to write pieces like this, try reading them. Because somehow, not even the harried voice of your own anxiety is manifested by this kind of writing. What seems to happen, instead, is that you over-correct, and do your best to emulate the tone of someone who’s giving a lecture on patent law… on Ambien.

In other words, you revert to what you know, what you’ve been taught since the first time your pen met paper: that less is more. That structure is everything. That things like “style” and “flare” are useless concepts, the romantic undertakings of screenwriters and C students, and should be left to them. “Finding your voice” doesn’t get you a passing grade in freshman English, kid. Get back to your book report on Ethan Frome.

Well, take it from a former C student when I say that you don’t need to listen to those bores. Next time you write, I dare you to put down whatever thoughts pop into your head, in the very same form that they arrive. Don’t worry about the structure, or your grammar, or about going on tangents at first. Put the thesaurus away and try writing what’s in your head. In your heart. Because I promise you, those two have more to say than you’ve been led to believe. And keep in mind, we can’t all be Shakespeare – you may not be profound, or even very good. But at least you’ll be fucking original. For once.

And just do that for awhile. Think about the way you think vs. the way you speak vs. the way you write. You want to know when you’ve found your voice? When you can make those three sound the same. When other people can feel your presence on the pages you write, across different pages, different pieces altogether – well, there you are. That’s you. That’s your voice. If I were you, I would pick up a pen, throw back a drink, and do my best to find it.