Miami, Miami!

Miami … what a place! And the people that live here … they are so affluent. This is the impression I get as I sit in a cafe on the opulent Ocean Drive sipping on a pina colada no less, and watching an impeccably dressed middle-aged man stroll towards me, the picture of material success in his Armani suit and Prada loafers, a big cigar hanging from his mouth that you can bet is not Cuban!  He carries a big smile across his face, the consummate look of self-satisfaction and personal success. And let us not forget the sassy lady on his arm, who, in spite of her relative youth, has still deemed it necessary to cosmetically and surgically enhance herself with peroxide hair, fake tan, silicone tits, liposucked arse, collagen lips – all those uniquely American characteristics of bought beauty. She looks at her man adoringly, as they stop beside me to admire the clothes hanging in the neighbouring shop window.

This man has made it in the land of the free. Through his acquisition of wealth and beauty – albeit artificial beauty – he has achieved status and respect in his country. Chasing the dollar remains, it seems, the most important human endeavour in America, more important than attaining knowledge or helping others. Obama’s socialism – this is how the Republicans perceive his social conscience – has had little impact, both on America’s love affair with money, and her conviction that the dollar, above all else, will bring ultimate happiness.

I look away from the man now, over towards another middle-aged man, this one rather different. He wears ripped blue jeans and a grubby T-shirt, and on his feet an old pair of sneakers, one of the soles hanging loose. It’s true that we tend to look down at people’s feet when trying to make an assessment of them and their life circumstances. It’s a rather crude and imperfect means of judgment, but one that I nevertheless make recourse to. He’s likely homeless, I conclude, and at this moment he paces manically across the street, heading straight for me. He looks at me wild-eyed, his intense demeanour heightened by his hair that stands on end like Einstein’s and his goatee that is coiffed into a Daliesque knife-edge of facial hair, albeit far more imperfectly than Salvador’s. In fact, this part of his appearance is the only bit of him that seems to possess any semblance of order, the rest utterly chaotic. “Hey, lemme show you something,” he demands, these words flying out of his mouth, fast end edgy.

He pulls a deck of cards from his back pocket. “Think of a card, remember it,” he goes on, as he begins to shuffle through the pack.

The Queen of Aces comes to me. This will be my card, I decide.

“You know, if there’s one card I like in this deck, it’s this one,” he says, stopping at a particular card, removing it from the pack and flicking it onto the street. It lands face down. “So tell me, which card d’you choose?” he asks.

He reveals the deck to me, thumbing through different cards. “No, I don’t think it’s that one. Nope, not that one either. You look like an Ace kind of guy,” he continues, clearly realising that flattery will get him everywhere. “You’d normally go for Jack, but this time, you’ve gone Queen. You must be in touch with your feminine side today,” he quips.

“And what’s really strange,” he goes on, “is that the card you’ve picked, the one in your head … well, it ain’t in the deck. It’s the one I got rid of at the start, the one that’s lying there in the middle of the street.”

He points to the stray card, then bounds over and picks it up. “Look, isn’t that the strangest thing?’” he announces, holding the card aloft, and there in his hand I see my card, the Queen of Aces.

I hand him a couple of dollars. “You’re a gentleman, a true gentleman. The last guy I had called me a fuckin’ bum and told me to leave him alone. How else am I gonna be able to maintain my luxurious wardrobe?” he gestures down his body with a wry, sarcastic smile.

As he makes to leave, he bumps into the other middle-aged man – let us call him ‘the cigar millionaire’ – and his big-bosomed companion. They continue to window shop.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re fucking going?” he barks at the homeless magician, raising his fat cigar in the air as if it were some kind of lethal weapon.

“You again…” the homeless magician stutters, it immediately clear that this is ‘the last guy’ he just referred to, the one who called him ‘a fuckin’ bum.’ “Look, it was an accident. I’m sorry, okay,” and he scurries nervously away, off down the sidewalk.

The cigar millionaire turns to me and says, “He been bugging you as well? Damn welfare case. All he should do is stop drinking, lazy bastard.”

I don’t bother to suggest that it’s care, rather than judgment, that he most needs.

The cigar millionaire swaggers off, his blonde in tow.

The disparity between rich and poor in America remains shocking, even under Obama’s watch. His health care reforms were seen by many as one step too far, a clear attempt to redistribute wealth. The poor are seen by the wealthy as the tough medicine that goes with democracy and individualism. For are there not always going to be some people who fail to meet the mark, who aren’t tough enough to meet the rigours of a capitalist system? We cannot help everyone, the Republicans maintain. There have to be some losers. And so there are two distinct groups: those who have made it – fulfilled the American dream of self-promotion and personal success, that is – and those who have not. The latter continue to wander the streets aimlessly, like lost souls. They are not in pursuit of the dollar but rather seem to be searching for something that their country does not offer them. Perhaps this something is another way of life? America might be the land of the free according to the ruling class and those that have made it, but it is a prison to others, and this reality must be acknowledged rather than glossed over with euphemism and rhetoric.

It is one of the great ironies that a country founded on immigrants, a melting pot – to use Walt Whitman’s famous analogy – of different peoples, creeds and cultures can at one and the same time be so insular, simplistic and conformist in its thinking. The Oath of Allegiance demands absolute loyalty and devotion to the American way. Every citizen is encouraged to strive for the fulfilment of the American dream. However, success is limited to a few in the American capitalist system. Many must be exploited so just a few can prosper. The innumerable valets in Miami are testament to this fact.

Here in Miami, I’m not far from Castro’s Cuba (it remains his, just about), which in ideological and theoretical terms at least is the antithesis of the American way. There, everyone is supposed to be equal. No one is greedy, proud and self-important like the cigar millionaire I just encountered. No one is weak, belittled and helpless like the homeless magician.  The state is there to serve the nation, to look after the welfare of its citizens. And all its inhabitants are meant to happily work for one another, for the sake of the common good, the socialist goal.

And yet it is not like this in reality. Like people in the rest of the world, Cubans have different ideas, wishes, beliefs and personalities. They do not all share the same ones. Many of them disagree with one another, and object to the state telling them what they should want and expect from life. It is indeed very difficult to impose a new value system on a certain person, group, country or race that already has its own set of beliefs. Castro and Bin Laden would find the cigar millionaire’s opulence, materialism and greed unacceptable, and would seek to change him, by force if necessary. Though I also found the cigar millionaire to be rather smug, unpleasant and ostentatious, my opinion of him was a product of my own subjective value system. Ultimately, I had no right to tell him how objectionable I found him, and no right to force him to relinquish his current lifestyle, adopt my beliefs and immediately commence living like me.

America, on the other hand, no longer even attempts to provide for the welfare of all its citizens. The state’s public services do make some provision, but it is desperately lacking. America remains driven by market forces, this its government’s guiding principle. The power of the state is used to secure “the scope for as many individuals as possible (though inevitably not all) to make use of the opportunities the market has to offer.”[1] This policy is unwilling to accommodate human frailty and weakness. It leaves little room for doubt and indecision. If you don’t possess the skills to use the opportunities available, then you become one of the have-nots. And this rather ruthless governing system is all-too-ready to dismiss any kind of criticism levelled at it as socialist froth or poor man’s envy. The poor man might believe in a different way of life, money might not be as important to him and he might want to promote a viable alternative, but he’ll be written off as a dissenter and a failure. If a particular citizen cannot maximise the opportunities given to him by the state, well… then fuck him.

The cigar millionaire has been strong, effective and decisive, hence has been rewarded. The homeless magician, it would seem, has been weak and indecisive, so has been punished. Perhaps he had his own ideas about life and these were not compatible with the state’s. It is possible – though unlikely – that the homeless magician has consciously chosen to live his life on the fringes of society. Maybe he refuses to buy into a society in which “self-interest [is] hailed as the highest value, reinforced by vast industries that are devoted to implanting and reinforcing [this ethos].”[2] I can only speculate. The only thing that is clear is that one man has significantly more wealth and happiness than the other.

To those people in power and those who are prosperous, the suggestion of a different economic system, an alternative form of government or another cultural value system is considered preposterous, even dangerous. God forbid they lose some of their power and some of that enormous fortune they’ve amassed. And so the system as it is must be maintained at all costs. Change is bad. New ideas are dangerous. In America, there are huge systems of private power – the big multinational companies – and they remain unaccountable. For them, “Capital has priority – people are incidental.”[3] Sadly, they only become partly accountable when they collapse, as some did a few years ago. And so the democratic motto goes, ‘Let the people speak feely, but if they don’t agree with you, then don’t give any consideration to what they are saying.’

As I continue to sit in Miami’s South Beach, my pina colada finished now, I can understand why much of the world remains angry with America, why some people find it hard to accept her way of life, why some even wish her harm. And these people are not solely confined to Islamic fundamentalist groups. They can also be found among liberal-minded European politicians in Brussels, student bodies in China, women’s groups in Pakistan, the American intellectual elite, the poor sections of American society and anti-globalisation protesters not only in the poor southern hemisphere but also in the major sectors of rich industrial countries in the north.

Just as the separation between rich and poor increases in America, so it does in the rest of the world as well. The poor and desperate now fight to get into the rich enclaves of North America and Western Europe, who respond by fortifying their barriers and toughening their laws to keep them out. An elite group of less than one billion, 15% of the world’s population, currently takes more than 80% of the world’s wealth. When will we accept that western capitalism – the free market and free trade – does have negative consequences. It is an aggressive economic system. Its practitioners must compete against one another for dominance. They push to acquire more capital by any means necessary and use it for more production, which in turn produces more capital. America has been extraordinarily effective in her practice of it. She has exploited resources, created markets, increased production and gained capital all over the world. But she has done so at the expense of other peoples and nations, at the expense of the poor.

And so it is now that under Obama growing sections of American society are starting to wake up, to confront this truth. These people are starting to look deep into their own hearts, and the heart of their nation, in an attempt to understand why such violence was committed against them ten years ago. These people are starting to feel guilty for all the wealth their country has, and have begun to wonder whether there could be a viable alternative to the American way, which still only serves the interests of a powerful minority. They are in search of a new system of sustainable development that cares for the welfare not only of poor Americans, but poor people throughout the world.

[1] Runciman, David. The Garden, the Park and the Meadow, in London Review of Books, vol. 24, no.11, (2002), p.7.

[2] Chomsky, Noam. September 11th and Its Aftermath: Where is the World Heading?”, an excerpt from a public lecture he gave in Chennai, India on 10 November 2001, presented by Frontline magazine and the Media Development Foundation.

[3] Moore, Michael. White Frights (ed. Extracts from Stupid White Men) in The Guardian Weekend on 30 March 2002, p.22

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