The article describes some of the writer's experiences of Cuba, including his stay at the Hotel Lincoln and his conversations with the maid there.
Here's an excerpt from the piece, called The American Condition:
She may have been there to clean, but there was no difference in our value as human beings. The usual heaviness and stress were absent from the dynamics between us so that we were able to be with each other as we were, honest and human in our flaws and potential. We were both part of the same blazing revolution of existence, the raging fire of a world moving toward enlightenment and democracy. I felt whole, relaxed, yet engaged, a living breathing part of a revolutionary idea.The American Condition
You can spend your life on the front lines only to return to an empty table, in an empty apartment, to an empty life. There is no momentum. Efforts are fractured. People are disconnected. It takes everything you have to stop from being sucked into the consumer vacuum of identity. We live in a world in which there is a penalty for trying to be moral. The reward for courage is watching your dreams die. The corruption runs so deep that to stand up for others only results in pain. There is no one who can withstand the tide. To be a defender of the Great Spirit in this time of inequity, greed and exploitation, is to be used up, hollow-eyed, sitting alone on the back of the bus on the one way to one more morning’s execution. The act of having spirit in this time is to be dispirited.
From their insulated positions, the elites wage economic violence on billions around the world and call it free market capitalism. But when we finally say that we’ve had enough, they call us criminals and thugs. We are “disturbing the peace.” We are disturbing their peace, their order, their feeling of security. They grant us small victories from time to time to maintain authority, but nothing that reaches into the broken darkness of the economic system. An “uprising” would mean the light of dignity for a majority on this planet, but the value of the market grossly eclipses human value so that billions in this world exist in shadow. As we will explore later, governments serve as little more than guardians of dynastic wealth and their corporations.
We all want to live in “peace.” No one wants unrest, but to believe that this simply going to take care of itself is insanity. There is rapidly advancing global warming. The seas are becoming more acidic. Socioeconomic inequality is growing at an exponential rate. Half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population, the wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion, which is 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population, the bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world, seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years, the richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012, and the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
We like to tell ourselves that the truth is being hidden from us, but they stick it in our faces with impunity. (The above stats were taken from Forbes magazine.) We have become so resigned to our fate, so programmed to accept what is being done to us, that we have actually agreed to be annihilated. We have accepted the annihilation of others and are complicit in the annihilation of ourselves. We scramble to make sense of our lives, but only find ourselves going deeper in the hole. The human instinct to find meaning in poverty, struggle, or really anything for that matter is mere vanity. Tragedy, pain and suffering are simply tragedy, pain and suffering until we accept this as it is we are going to move forward. Whether you believe in god or not, you must acknowledge that there are horrific places where no god exists and that the only thing that will make the situation better is dissolution of the current order.
Admittedly, the drive to become a lawyer was motivated by its own want for social status and respect. I didn’t have the strength for a life without pre-approved middle class success and recognition. Yet, there was another motivation, perhaps deeper than wanting to have a ratified place in society. No one wants to hear it, but the idea that we are going to be able to reclaim the oceans, reverse global warming, limit CO2 emissions, protect critical habitats from development and exploitation, stop overconsumption and overpopulation, find ways to conserve and purify our water, educate our way out of terrorism, secure nuclear weapons, break free from the control of corporate mass media and engage in democracy toward greater equality and freedom for all is borderline absurd. The system is too strong. We are not an independent and thoughtful species. We are a violent and selfish species that will almost always flow down to the lowest common denominator of fear, insecurity and self-interest. We are not particularly brave and we cannot keep referring to the works of a few anomalies—Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—as evidence that we are going to get it all together. People are great, in their way, but they are easily manipulated primates with psychological complexes. Sometimes these psychological complexes make for great art, but mostly they serve as push-button points to keep us hamstrung and under control. Therefore, to be completely honest to the point of losing all credibility, part of my drive to become a lawyer was to experience some degree of success and utilization in my short and meaningless life. This will sound terrible, but almost as easily as I am writing this right now, I could be writing an essay called Flush It Down saying that the writing is on the wall, it’s over, we’re all going down, so might as well find a comfortable perch with a plasma screen TV to enjoy the view. (I’m supposed to end this paragraph on a Hollywood note of hope. i.e. but despite it all I have immense faith in our ability to blah blah blah, but let me ask you, if you were in Vegas and had to bet all $14.25 of your life savings on whether humanity is going to be here and in good shape a thousand years, which way would you go?)
My first job out of law school was in Post-Katrina New Orleans doing death penalty work at Angola. I would say that I am strongly against the death penalty, which is why I went down there, but that would be minimizing the complexity of human motivation. I could also assert that I went to Post-Katrina New Orleans to help the community, which would be somewhat true, but again would be taking the truth and plugging it into a prefab spot on the socially progressive bookshelf. I am done thinking anyone else’s thoughts or being anyone else’s idea of what I am.
The first thing I remember is seeing these cool Battle of New Orleans t-shirts with an AK 47 emblazoned on them. I bought one and still have it. As I hold now in all its faded glory, I wonder what it really meant…there was no battle for New Orleans. There was no uprising. There was a hurricane, flooding, death, the usual murder and abuses by the police state, and then a lot of people holed up and waiting for assistance from the federal government. Outside of smoking weed in public, which is nothing new for New Orleans, there was mostly a lot of compliance and filling out of applications.
The Battle of New Orleans t-shirt expressed the hope that out of the ashes something new could arise, that the idiocy of consumerism would not calcify around us like geologic rock. We live with this prayer, the supplication for the soul to be reborn, for the cage of identity to malfunction and for a parade of freedom to break out from the march of lockstep control. Out of all forms of tragedy comes this fractured hope for democracy, an emergence of fluidity that would die and rise again in the cleansing waters of the flood.
One of my first cases was a guy who had raped and killed a four year old. This makes you hate him until you find out that he had been chained in the backyard of a trailer park and fed dog food while being sexually abused and that his sister died the day he killed the four year old. His sister was the only person that had ever been kind to him. This is the incarceration that makes us all prisoners, the systemic misdirection of morality. We don’t care about people until we are ready to invest millions into killing them. Entire generations neglected until the moment we are ready to hit the switch. Those on death role were dehumanized individuals who had been sentenced to death by society from the moment they were born. It is the structure in which we live that gives rise to the machinery of death.
We had a black kid in his twenties who had been sentenced to death for murder. We found evidence that exonerated him: evidence that categorically showed that he was not guilty. We contacted the district attorney and asked if they would look at the new evidence in the hopes that they would see that there was a massive injustice here and work to fix it. But they refused to look at the evidence. They flatly ignored us, so we filed a motion with the court asking them to review this new evidence. At that point, the district attorney could have let things play out, but instead filed a motion in opposition to our motion stating that since that there was no objection during trial, so the issue could no longer be appealed. We file a motion, they file a motion, it’s the way the game works. But as I stared at their motion through my insomnia, gun shots echoing in the New Orleans night, it occurred to me that if they won, then an innocent man would be executed. They were using a procedural rule to murder an innocent person. Educated people who had gone to law school, probably come from solid if not privileged backgrounds, just following orders, going to bed at night believing that they were doing their job while a man rotted on death row. The system is made possible by middle class educated people hiding behind the walls of their tiny little cubes. Errand boys, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.
After New Orleans, I made my way by bus to Chiapas where they treated me like Yankee imperialist scum. This is a lesson that not to be forgotten any time soon. I can sit here and write all day about the elites and oligarchy, but we cannot hold people responsible for the greater workings of the class from which they come. We are all flawed. There is no one free of the human stain. We all have the right to start again. For every Native American tribe or indigenous group, there is some other group that can point the finger and say your people hurt my people. Today, we view the Mayans as indigenous innocents, but they were not indigenous innocents during the time in which they ran a violent bloody empire in Central America. Same goes for African-Americans and the tribal wars they fought in Africa. Same even goes for the most romanticized of all groups, Native Americans.
One of my first cases after I returned to from Chiapas to New Mexico was representing a maid who had been raped by her foreman at a Native American-owned casino. She was cleaning a room, he came in, threw here on the bed and assaulted her. This man had a history of assaults and been treating the women on staff like they were his sexual property. He was getting away with abuses and exploitation that would have resulted in multi-million dollars law suits in corporate America. There would have been an inquisition, massive settlements and endless publicity. But here the Native Americans did absolutely nothing and got away with it all. They hired a white law firm in Albuquerque, invoked their sovereign immunity and had the case dismissed. They didn’t even fire him.
It’s been the same story since day one: power and money. It doesn’t matter who or what it is, power and money give rise to relationships that makes the rulers into mindless animals and, what’s worse, the people into innocent prey. There is something basic—greed, fear—in the human psyche that vibes on status and authority. The brain goes haywire, does whatever it needs to do to justify position and control. We are told that this good for everyone. We are told that the world, especially poor people, benefit from the strategic largesse of the one percent; even though socioeconomic inequality, the root cause of all injustice, is plunging us into new levels of hell. As the final injury to our intelligence, we are told that these twisted dynamics are the only way to uplift the masses when recent economic studies have evidenced that the First World has used this sick arrangement for centuries to exploit the resources of the already disenfranchised and dispossessed. For economic authority, I defer to the work of Thomas Piketty in Capital In The Twenty-First Century. Anecdotally, my own recent experiences as a federal civil rights attorney may serve useful as well.
I represent Charlie Hill, former member of the Republic of New Afrika accused of killing a police officer and hijacking a plane to Cuba in 1971. Not trusting the National Security Agency to respect attorney-client privilege, I traveled to Cuba in Spring 2015 so that we could meet in person to discuss his matter. There were no direct flights at the time, so had to fly first to Cayman before traveling on to Havana.
Cayman is a fascinating little spot of earth. As of 2013, the world elites hide more than $30 trillion in offshore bank accounts, which to give some perspective, is something like the gross domestic products of the United States and Japan combined. (It’s impossible to really be accurate here as dynastic wealth is fluid, flowing from investment to investment in a constant shell game to avoid taxation and increase holdings.) Somewhere around 60,000 people live in the Cayman Islands. As of 2012, there was more than 1.2 trillion being held in Cayman Island offshore bank accounts, which means that every Caymanian, including the busboys, is worth $20 million dollars.
This is obviously a joke. Cayman is one of the chief offshore banking centers for plutocracy, a nicely organized place as one would expect, kind of a Zurich feel, which is of course appropriate. There is an area called Seven Mile Beach where a very small group of white people are serviced by an army of invisible black people in what looks like a socioeconomic diorama of the planet. In a scene right out of 19th Century colonialism, the whites enjoy the beach, eat good food, laugh, get shitfaced on lavish cocktails while blacks quietly stand behind them waiting on their every move. I walked along this little stretch of island as though the human condition had been laid out before me, challenging me to either join with the whites in drunken happiness or lower my head in a shame. As I walked away from the beach with the sun setting behind me over the Caribbean, a conversion took place, a crossing over from which I won’t return. In every one of us, no matter who we are, there come these moments when we find out what side we’re on. I went alone back to my hotel and prepared for the flight the next morning.
Cuba has been the arch-enemy of the United States for more than half a century: the satanic socialist island less than 90 miles from our border over which we nearly descended into thermo-nuclear war. We’ve tried to overthrow them, invade them, starve them into submission. Any time during the last 50-years the U.S Government could have obliterated Cuba with very little resistance from the American people. (See the Spanish American War, which stands as a paradigm for American capitalist aggression in conjunction with corporate media control of public opinion.) Cuba has been one of our great enemies conveniently justifying all sorts of terrible and oppressive behavior that we the people have been willing to accept. From Cuba to Guatemala to El Salvador to Chile, our history in Latin America is right up there with the most despotic and totalitarian regimes.
I got to Havana and the first thing I saw, in contrast to Cayman, was that there were no invisible people. There were no blacks waiting on whites. There was no elite. There was no permanent underclass. There was indeed poverty. There was a lack of goods. But the society had adapted by learning to recycle and reuse products in brilliantly inventive ways that made me feel guilty for all the things we continuously waste and throw out in America. People were working, living, struggling to survive, but you could feel—like a lack of pollution—the absence of capitalism in the air.
I know that the concept of no invisible people may not ring immediately clear, so best example is the hotel. I stayed at the Hotel Lincoln in Centro Havana. The place was falling down, yet was still clean. The maid would come into my room every day and have a conversation with me. She would organize the books that I was collecting about the Cuban Revolution. Comment on them. Have a real discussion with me about them. I asked her about what Che Guevara meant to the Cuban people and her answer was that he showed the people that the objective conditions for revolution do not have to exist before the people can undertake to overthrow the ruling class. She felt like Che rejected Marx here in that Marx only thought revolution could take place in perfect situations. I asked her if she thought revolution could take place in America and she said that as long as the U.S Constitution had legitimacy amongst the people, then it would always be difficult. She then asked me if it did have that legitimacy and I said that it was on the bubble. We would continue this way, as equals, every day for 45 minutes. She may have been there to clean, but there was no difference in our value as human beings. The usual heaviness and stress were absent from the dynamics between us so that we were able to be with each other as we were, honest and human in our flaws and potential. We were both part of the same blazing revolution of existence, the raging fire of a world moving toward enlightenment and democracy. I felt whole, relaxed, yet engaged, a living breathing part of a revolutionary idea.
Every day I’d hang with the people in the hotel, then go wandering the bookstores of Havana, discovering the works of Jose Marti, lawyer-poet-revolutionary-hero. Here in America you can only ever be one thing. If you’re a journalist, then you can’t be an activist. If you’re a lawyer, then you can’t be a poet. If you’re a doctor, then you can’t be a revolutionary and if you’re a revolutionary then you can’t be a doctor. It all goes toward the overall limitation and disengagement. In Cuba, the writers may not be good fighters and the fighter not good writers, but at least the writers try and fight and the fighters try and write.
I read Castro’s History Will Absolve Me. In the cafes of Havana, asking the workers what they thought about Fidel. In contrast to what American propaganda has informed us about free speech in Cuba, the conversations were wide-ranging, open, and the critiques were always complex. Usually along the lines of him being a dreamer, but also a visionary and sometimes a hypocrite. Along the lines that power corrupts people, but that he has held a line against the great behemoth to the North for longer than anyone could have envisioned.
Castro was a lawyer. In his closing argument/speech in History Will Absolve Me, he cites to us, our revolution, our constitution, as an example for what freedom and democracy could be. How did we go from a guy citing to us in a speech as an example to turning him into an antichrist that most Americans would equate to Saddam Hussein? It’s these attitudes that prove there is a system of propaganda that are all about the United States maintaining control of markets and countries. We have demonized and made enemies out of people and nations who dreamed of social equality.
America is threatened by real democracy. We have rarely supported it. From the Middle East to Mexico, our track record has been to establish order for markets for the oligarchy to exploit. We don’t actually care about how a country treats its people as long as we can drain it of its resources and render its people invisible. Frequently, our modus operandi has been to generate false wars in countries in order to pave the way for corporations. Authoritarianism with a puppet leader always seems to work best for us. We are a little better than China because of the Bill of Rights and the lawyers and activists who have refused to back down from defending it, but not by much. Moreover, in contrast to China, we have already had the late model capitalist insight that it’s much more effective to coopt ideas, words, and images rather than try and suppress them.
The Cuban people may have been poor, but had possessed a dignity that you don’t see lower classes in America. Returning to the example of the maid, if I were staying in a hotel here in Phoenix, Chicago or NYC, the maid would scurry away me at the first potential interaction with close to no humanity between us at all. Maybe eye contact for a moment with a fabricated hello, how are you, sir that they had been trained to say by some idiot sales coach from corporate brought in to maximize profits based on psychological models he read about in the self-help business section of the airport bookstore. As in so many interactions in America, there would nothing between us. Lately, in life, I have become a little bit of an “activist of social interaction.” I try to talk to people. I attempt to get beyond the small talk into heavier issues that are affecting us all. And for this I am uniformly disliked. A few days ago I was a t a café eating a scone, but had to go to court and couldn’t finish it. I leaned over to the young, hip-looking couple at the table next and asked them if they wanted it. They were abhorred. Maybe it’s because I live in a small town and there’s a vibrant world of radical bohemianism going on there, but I have stopped going out because I simply have nothing in common with anyone anymore. The moment I start talking about social revolution, global annihilation—cheery subjects like that—people angrily look at me like I am completely inappropriate, as though they are thinking about this sort of thing all the time and I have wrongly and offensively injected it into their one moment of relaxation. In Cuba, I realized that it wasn’t me. It’s this country and the (lack of) culture. There are places where people think about their lives.
At the end of the day, I would go back to my hotel with some Bucanero beer and read my books on the roof of the Hotel Lincoln. These were all serious Marxist revolutionary works. Bakunin. Che. Goldman. The janitor up there would always come over and start talking with me about property redistribution, inheritance issues, ownership issues, the workers not being alienated from who they are. Could you imagine a janitor in a United States hotel coming up to me to discuss Marx? No matter how you feel about Marx, he is an essential thinker for the lower working classes. In an enlightened and rational world, every worker should have a basic understanding of Marx. Returning back to the free flow of ideas: In which country are there really limits on information? In which country is real repression going on?
There are Cuban-Americans, I am sure, who would violently disagree with my thoughts, calling me a hoodwinked Yankee. I don’t claim to be anything other than a tourist. There are documented human rights violations in Cuba that I will never embrace or try to explain away. The abuse of power is always disgusting and Fidel Castro has engaged in the abuse of power. Any violation of the sacred rights of individuals, especially for thinking, thought and expression, are always to be fought against and never to be allowed under the theory that some people must be controlled or suppressed for the greater good. This is a justification of tyrants, oligarchs and the bankrupt spirts willing to trade money for dignity, death for life and, as the Floyd song goes, your heroes for ghosts…
But the situation does give rise to illuminating contrasts. Many of the people who left Cuba in the post-revolutionary initial wave were the ones who owned the large tracts of property aka the latifundias. They kept the workers in a state of peonage. It was as de facto slavery. The country, like much of Latin America, was held captive by it. Moreover, this was a system overtly supported by the United States. As long as it works for profits, then we’re good with it regardless of whether it is leaving masses of people in feudalistic bondage. In fact, there are real arguments that our economic policies around the world have brought us into an age akin to neo-feudalism. We have returned, perhaps, to a time of Lords who own everything and workers struggle for subsistence survival, a time when property ownership confers rights and privileges denied to those 60 to 100 million landless refugees.
One of the tenets of the revolution was redistribution. There cannot be a fair and just economic system in place when less than one percent of the country owns all the property and everyone else is reduced to a state of near servitude. I’m sure that there are some rich people out there who will say that this is the way society should work as it’s good for the poor, but let us be skeptical of any plutocratic claim asserting that what they do is a form of noblesse oblige. Legend is that Fidel went to his own mother’s home to redistribute the family land and she met him at the door with a shotgun. I don’t know how much of this is true, but the point is that if you are one of the rich people whose land is redistributed to the poor, then you are going to hate the people and the forces that have done this to you. There you were in the catbird seat, controlling hundreds if not thousands of lives, benefitting from all forms of exploitation, enjoying life at the top of the food chain and next thing you know here comes Che Guevara saying that your land is no longer your land but now belongs to all those servants that your family has been ordering around for the last 150 years. Many of these landholders and upper class were the first to flee Cuba, so makes sense that they would despise everything about the revolution. As a general mater, the oligarchy like keeping what it has.
The other point is a little trickier, but even at the risk of being labeled an apologist for the abrogation of rights is worth illuminating. Here, in America, we have what we call First Amendment and constitutional rights. Within very strict parameters, as long as I stay off private property, I can hold up a sign that says the president sucks. From what I understand, this could not be done in Cuba. If I went to one of the main plazas and held up a sign that says Castro Sucks, then I would be escorted off the streets and probably detained for 24 hours. This is clearly not good, but here is where it gets more complicated.
We in America are afflicted by the privatization of public space. There has been a massive reduction in common areas and an exponential increase in corporate-owned, privatized land. There is no guaranteed First Amendment right on private property. The Constitution ends where private property begins. We have the alleged “right” to protest, but only if allow ourselves to be herded like cattle into “free speech zones” that are so removed from the sphere of public discourse as to be rendered meaningless. Relevant, focused protest amounts to the deprivation of liberty. If 50 people went onto the corporate headquarters of Monsanto, AIG, Chevron, Bank of America, or Bechtel to express their concerns, they would all be arrested and charged with federal and state crimes so that their lives would be ruined. What is the difference between that and suppression of dissent? As a civil rights attorney, I have seen the overkill, oppressive charges that people get when they try to assert their rights. Obstruction of government. Conspiracy. Terrorism. Americans love to talk about how free they are—land of the free, home of the brave—but the daily activities of most Americans would be acceptable in Russia and even China. Go to work, watch TV, listen to silly pop music, eat, sleep, repeat. Where is this not allowed? In what country would the everyday, average American’s expression of their so-called liberty constitute a threat? North Korea? Is that where we are, the old, Hey, at least we’re not North Korea thing? What does freedom in America actually mean?
It means, in short, the freedom to consume without concern. It means the freedom to buy as much ridiculously unnecessary, planet-destroying shit as we want. Most Americans are not out on the streets redressing their grievances fighting for democracy, but spending their lives at the Dollar Store, WalMart, and the mall. Freedom in this country means being able to buy $200 sneakers that were stitched together by workers in some desperate country held in the bondage of cheap labor and exploitation. Freedom in this country means being as selfish as we want to be without anyone telling us, or reminding us, that we are hurting the world. (And those who try and hold up a mirror to our complicity are written off as angry radicals who don’t cognize the complexities of the system. It’s easy to demonize backwards ass hicks on their way to an all-u-can eat in the suburbs of St. Louis, but let us not neglect those who engage in intellectual paralysis, ever suspicious of words that actually attach to meaning, so that whether intentionally or by omission, culture becomes nothing but one more item, in one more row, in the glorious box store of consumer capitalism.)
There is something in the human constitution that cannot control its junky-like want for consumerism. It’s probably biological, but certainly exacerbated by the forces of mass media. It’s like heroin, if you inject the fancy two hundred dollar sneakers into a society, then that society will orient itself toward those sneakers. But in light of the fact that much of the world is starving, those sneakers are unnecessary and come at a cost to the environment, other people and society itself. Worth gets tied up into those sneakers. Inequities are highlighted by those sneakers. The external and internal costs that go into production and sale of those sneakers are taken from other places in society. We ultimate get to a place where people are so warped, so twisted up in materialism, that they actually kill each for those sneakers, literally and figuratively.
To the American mind, it would be the most egregious, fascistic evisceration of human dignity in all of history to deny people the “right” to buy $200 sneakers, but in a world where there is such suffering, dislocation and exploitation, it isn’t clear that the purchase of $200 sneakers should rise to the level of the inalienable. All things considered, the expenditure does, at the very least, merit question. Issue of external costs aside, one wonders what the presence of luxury goods does to the consciousness where most people are struggling to put food on the table. The argument in socialism is that allowing $200 sneakers to infect society is as damaging as allowing oxy or meth. The mind reaches out to fill the void that is created by what it’s told it needs to be happy. Consumer capitalism and mass media excel at creating false demand. Ideally, people could have all the good and options laid out in front of them and choose wisely, but we are an easily manipulated and very often weak species. For years I have told myself that it would be much better if I never drank. I would give up a little bit of crazy fun to increase the overall quality and purpose of my life, but about once a month, if not once every two weeks—alright, maybe once a week—I find myself out at the bar, having one too many, invariably regretting it the next day. I do not believe in prohibition. I do not believe that you can legislate morality, but can certainly understand why unnecessary products could be banned for the overall good.
The next case I took was against Bank of America. I had moved back to Santa Fe to try and practice indigeneity, investing in the place that I was from. They were filing foreclosures against people’s homes. The client was a single mom with two kids. I took her case for free. She had paid her mortgage, but kept getting notices from the BofA lawyers stating that they were going to foreclose. This was happening all over the country. The Bank of America lawyer’s had filed some kind of pleading in court, she didn’t know that she had to respond and couldn’t afford a lawyer, so they successfully proceeded to go after her for a default judgment, nailing her for everything from attorney’s fees to garnishment of her future wages.
I thought that I could call up the Bank of America lawyers and try to be a human being. You know, Hey this woman has two kids, she’s doing her best to keep up, let’s take the pressure off and give her a chance to keep her home because then Bank of America gets paid and the property values don’t go down. Let’ solve the problem, do what’s right, this is supposed to be America, after all, blah, blah, blah. They didn’t even return my phone calls.
I had gone up against the state machinery of death in NOLA, but had not yet directly gone up against the banality of evil that is the large corporation in America. When you are going up against the government, they have to at least acknowledge constitutional rights. When you’re going up against a corporation, however, they acknowledge nothing other than their ability to crush people with their resources. This is something that you have to be an attorney to understand: they own the playbook. There is something called the Rules of Civil Procedure. Ostensibly, these rules are there to make things fair for all parties. The Rules of Civil Procedure are allegedly born of the United States Constitution. So, let’s say for example that BofA has to give someone notice if they want to take them to court for a judgment against their property. Okay. The BofA lawyers send notice along with a complaint and several attached motions. The person receiving these pleadings is in obviously financial straits because they probably signed a reverse mortgage or some other crack-like financial instrument—crafted by corporate attorneys—that upon signing guarantees that at some point they will default. Accordingly, these people are in no position to retain a law firm to answer Bank of America. They are usually uneducated. They are under stress. As an attorney who has reviewed thousands of these documents, I can tell you that half the time I don’t even know what they’re saying. They are corporate legalese mumbo jumbo. Intentionally obfuscated crap meant to prevent regular people from availing themselves of their rights.
Nonetheless, let’s say single mom tries her best to answer the complaint and the motions. There she is at the kitchen table up all night after working two jobs day. It’s already 3 am and she has to have her kids up for school in three hours. She does her best to file her response to the court. The BofA attorneys get ahold of it and tear it pieces. All that needs to be wrong is one line and they proceed to get another judgment against her along with even more attorney’s fees. Now every day she is getting pounded by eviction notices. The walls are closing in on her. She’s losing sleep, life spinning out of control, no one to help, doesn’t know what to do and every time she looks at her kids all she can think is that they are going to end up homeless on the streets.
It’s not that I have seen this once or twice, but that this is reality for millions in America. If you know anything about this country, then you know that fear is the way most people live. It’s not they are one paycheck away from disaster, but their lives are in a perpetual state of disaster. No low-income person in America escapes this vice. Once low-income people are targeted by corporations and their attorneys their lives are reduced into a kind of stress-ridden indentured servitude from which they rarely escape. There are numerous kinds of dispossession via the US justice system. The first is on the criminal side of the docket. Once you get a felony, then you are never getting out of that system. The equivalent to the felony on the civil side is the default judgment.
It struck me as odd that these lawyers would put so much energy into taking a down a single mom and her kids, but then quickly found out that every time these corporate lawyers pick up a file, they charge between $350 and $600 an hour. The way it works is very simple. Bank of America is a huge national corporation that hires lawyers in every major town. Take Albuquerque for example, BofA probably has two or three law firms that handle its work. In Phoenix, probably eight or nine with one firm farming out work to the smaller firms. These firms scramble to get work from BofA because it means consistent billing. All of these big law firms that people generally think of as being distinguished are all corporate whores. Furthermore, they are completely mediocre. We naturally assume that these fancy corporate lawyers in suits must smart because they always seem to win, but the briefs and motions that they file are actually some of the stupidest cut-and-paste legal pleadings you will ever read. All they do is print these motions from the law firm’s computer bank, pretending like they are writing them themselves so they can charge whatever the corporation is paying them for their hours. They are so disconnected, that they don’t even know that they are ruining millions of people’s lives. Half the time, they don’t even know what motions they are filing. It’s the same mechanism and mentality throughout history: disconnected, well-adjusted people in offices pushing buttons that result in suffering and pain. Some fairly decent poet might have said it something like the executioner’s face is always well hidden. Whether a hard rain is gonna fall, is another matter entirely.
As an attorney trying to fight against the corporate tide, if you try to defend the single mom like she deserves to be defended, then you will most likely lose your practice with all the time that you spend answering their motions. This is by design: everything is stacked against you. Resources, money, energy: it is a sleepless, stress-addled nightmare. If somehow you do manage to survive the onslaught of paperwork and actually get to the court, which on a few occasions I have been able to do, then it’s straight up case of the emperor has no clothes. You will nine times out of ten find yourself standing next to a bozo robot who couldn’t make an argument if they’re life depended on it. Not to say that getting to court equals victory, because nine times out of ten the judge worked for a corporate law firm who bankrolled their campaign. That’s the other fun part about our institutions. From government to the judiciary, the corporations own the revolving door. Rules, procedures and bureaucracies allow for the gatekeepers and decision makers to say that they would like to do otherwise, but that their hands are tied. This is the definition of a system: when people know something is wrong, but have no choice but to go along with it anyway.
The following piece is from the time when I was defending people against foreclosures. I stayed up all night writing it. It was published in various newspapers:
Every morning since I’ve set up my little law practice here in Santa Fe, I’ve gotten absolutely terrified phone calls from Northern New Mexicans about to lose their homes to foreclosure.
They tell me that they’ve spent hours, days, months on the phone with Bank of America, pleading their case, faxing and/or mailing bank statements, W-2s, proofs of title, mortgage, insurance, and notarized affidavits concerning deferred income retirement that had to be mailed and/or faxed again, and then again, and then three more times, because they couldn’t get the same “customer service” agent on the phone and thus had to explain their story for the hundredth time in order to get their loan modification approved and be reinstated, which they actually somehow did, heroically, but only after borrowing money from family to pay thousands of dollars in banking penalties, collection penalties, and most all, attorney’s fees, that they shouldn’t have had to pay to begin with because they only missed one installment three years ago after they got sick and have since made every single mortgage payment on time.
Yet, despite doing everything right, there she’d be on the phone with me at 7:45 a.m.: single mom with a baby in one arm, daughter crying in the background, asking me why she’s gotten a letter from some law office in Albuquerque saying that they’re going to throw her out in 30 days. And what I found time after time, foreclosure after foreclosure, was that it wasn’t just some law office in Albuquerque, but one or two particular law offices that were handling Bank of America foreclosures in Northern New Mexico.
So, I called them. I wrote them emails. I wrote them letters. I even offered to drive down and buy them lunch. I figured that they didn’t want to see innocent New Mexico families lose their homes. After all, they were just people like me who happened to go to law school. If they knew about the kind of damage that they were doing, then they would stop the machine. But I never once heard back from them. I couldn’t even make it past their personal secretaries. Here were children about to be thrown out onto the streets and I couldn’t even get a two-minute conversation with one of my esteemed colleagues. They couldn’t be bothered. They didn’t seem to care. With every foreclosure complaint that they filed, with every piece of paper that they sent out, with every document that they allegedly reviewed, they were getting rich. They were making big-time Bank of America money. Hundreds of dollars per hour off the suffering of others, getting wealthy by destroying lives.
Accordingly, now that Bank of America has openly admitted to making mistakes and frozen foreclosures in 23 states, I would like to know something: should the Albuquerque law offices that handled all those foreclosures give the money that they made back to the people whose lives they ruined? Should they be forced to give that Bank of America cash back to the people whose lives they turned into a living hell? And not just the Albuquerque law offices, but all the law offices across the country that worked for Bank of America during this foreclosure crisis?
They can plead ignorance, but corporate lawyers specialize in paper trails. They knew what was going on. They can say that they were just following orders, just doing their jobs—a hall of fame justification if there ever was one—but lawyers are people who make ethical choices just like you and me. In fact, we’re held to a higher standard. At the first sign of trouble, they should have gone back to Bank of America, said there was a problem, and fought for fairness, justice, due process, and the people and families of New Mexico. But they did nothing other than keep raking in that cash. Up until the day Bank of America stopped foreclosures, they were sending out civil action notices and trying to take people’s homes. What does that say about you, if at the end of the day, we can say that Bank of America is more ethical than you are?
Lawyers aren’t supposed to criticize each other within the profession. But from the Patriot Act to the Foreclosure Crisis, there has been an immoral silence within the bar. As long as we’re making money, then everything is okay. Well, some of us don’t believe that lawyers should allow themselves to be complicit in the destruction of the American dream. None of us are perfect—far from it—but we should stand for something more. So, for whatever it’s worth: To all the families who have suffered at the hands of Bank of America and its herd of lawyers, please accept this letter as an apology on behalf of those of us who would never have done this to you.
This is not a country of men, but of greedy, selfish little boys. All human beings are flawed. Human frailty is the story of us all. We will all let each other down at one time. But we get back up, wiser, stronger, ready to fight for justice and the battles ahead. As we go through this process of life, if we have any soul at all, we realize that are fates are all connected, and that we raise ourselves up by helping others. We try and tell the truth. We think about the consequences of our actions. We don’t screw people over simply because we can. Good people do not use a corrupt system as justification for their behavior, but live by their own high standards. And we don’t leave billions in poverty because we want to by $200 sneakers, or a bigger house, or three cars. In each of us lives a selfish lazy animal given toward fraud, lies, cheating, but then there is also a spirit that must be grown through work and effort, a spirit that gives rise to the breath of new ideas and the life of meaning. The smooth road laid out for us by consumer capitalism is easy, but the rough road of liberty is hard. There are rocks, trees, sometimes the road cannot even be seen, but it remains beneath our feet, revealing itself, grounding us more and more through every act performed from a place of courage and caring for this planet and our fellow beings. Our actions create the road we walk.
My most recent case was an amazing woman who was sexually assaulted in the military, then kicked out for being a lesbian, fell into a deep depression with PTSD, climbed her way out of that hole with the help of marijuana, earned her physician’s assistant’s license, was awarded a job at the largest hospital in the state, and then was fired for testing positive. As per above, the hospital hired a large corporate law firm to try and take us out. After they deposed her for 12 hours, they filed a 128-page motion to dismiss making her look like a drug addicted freak. Typical. This was the opening of response to the corporate lawyers and the big hospital, written in a café in Cuba while I was there meeting with Charlie Hill.
Law strives to be moral, but does not always meet its goal. At one time, to argue the law meant to argue that a black and white couple should never be married, that segregation was necessary, or that a person should be incarcerated for taking control of their own conscience. We have come to accept a war on our own people that has ripped apart the lives and careers of millions of our citizens, torn apart families, left children broken and impoverished. When we look upon this dark chapter in our history and ask how we let it happen, we will see the explanation written in 128-page Motions For Summary Judgment. Rationality and constitutional rights are not killed by authoritarian clampdowns in our society, but by the filing of papers by lawyers that slowly choke the life out of our law and democracy. As judges and attorneys, we go from doing the work of enlightened professionals to merely being paper pushers, complicit clerks involved in little more than a mindless bureaucracy. We get lost in a maze of justification, then wonder how it was that we spent our lives on the wrong side of history…
History is not going to absolve us, because we are running out of time. The environmental and resources issues are pressing down on us with increasing weight. Oligarchy, hierarchy and socioeconomic power dynamics have always been with us. They have assumed different forms and become more fluid out of necessity, but with the imminent disintegration of the planet we will very likely see a return to the most primitive of oligarchic tactics. We see it starting already out here where we have all gotten used to the smell of burnt western sky. The elites are finding ways to circumvent drought by beefing up the security to their gated communities while going through legal and political backchannels to obtain water for their lawns. We don’t have to wait for the time when the poor struggle in the dirt and filth while the rich have waterfall pool parties in gorgeous backyards. It’s here.
The longer we wait, the worse it’s going to be. The oligarchy excels at asset protection. They have an army of lawyers sitting around night and day thinking about how they are going to protect plutocratic assets in 15, 20, and 50 and 100 years. This is isn’t simply banking and tax avoidance, but about where the rich should live, how they should protect their dynastic wealth and ensure market stability and control so that they can continue to horde profits while the rest of the world burns. As the last polar bear floats by the last refugee camp, we will be hearing about free markets, opportunity and the American dream. We can ask ourselves why even the elites wouldn’t be interested in preserving the beauty and integrity of the planet in which they live. The truth is that they will further insulate their enclaves from the masses of human suffering for a long time into the future. It’s what they have been doing already and will continue to do with greater intensity until they are not even be reachable. It is an historically-recognized dangerous situation that results in the downfall of societies: when the elites with the decision-making power are completely disconnected from the suffering of the people, according to guys like Jared Diamond, societies fail. Not that I’m staying up at night worrying about Russian oligarchs, Wall Street financial barons and Chevron Board Members, but gross socioeconomic differentials are damaging to everyone because they make for ridiculous solutions to serious problems, if there is even an attempt to find any solutions at all.
There is a legal philosopher named John Rawls, less sexy than Foucault or Nietzsche, who came up with one of the most devastating intellectual machines ever to be applied to human civilization: the veil of ignorance. It’s a useful way to see how people would act if there was no disconnect or insulation and all were exposed to the injustice of socioeconomic reality. Here’s how it works: we are each up in the sky looking down on earth. We see doctors, janitors, computer programmers, firemen, lawyers, farmers, electricians, nurses, homeless, fast food workers, mechanics, senators, everything job and role. We are peering down at society as it is today. Now, we are each going to enter some body down there on planet earth, but we don’t know who it is we’re going to be. This is the ignorance in the veil of ignorance. Along the lines of realistic statistical probability, we could be a garbage picker in Manila, a woman in a brothel, probably not a surgeon in London, definitely not a famous movie star, maybe a nurse’s aide in Albuquerque. Before we get sent down, we are all going to meet in a kind of metaphysical Agora to organize the system.
We can generally agree that maybe a surgeon should make a little more than a nurse’s aide because of all the training and responsibility required, but being that we don’t know if we’re going to be a surgeon or a nurse’s aide, then we want to make sure that the nurse’s aide isn’t completely screwed with a horrible life. We can generally agree that maybe the CEO of the corporation can make more than the mail room guy because the CEO never gets to leave the job and is basically consumed by the role while when mail guys leaves at five, but being that we don’t know whether we’re going to be the CEO or mailman, we can agree that the CEO should not live in a gated community with the best access to the best of everything while the mail room guy is commuting an hour and a half to work every day so that he lives in a constant state of exhaustion and is so broke that he has to choose between going hungry, paying the electric bill or having an operation to relive the chronic pain in his side. If you don’t know who you’re going to be, which of course we don’t, really, then you’ll want to eliminate the institutional forces, roles and positions that are parasitic and damaging to the overall good: war profiteers, TV commentators, corporate lobbyists, televangelists, the list deleterious assholes goes on and on. Statistically, you’re not going to be in the .0001 percent that influences policy and engages in global decision-making, so you’ll want to ensure that the political environment is free of corruption and that regular people have a voice in their own lives. (I always get a kick outta thinking about the Rawlsian gambler who strolls into Vegas and says let it ride. I’m gonna be big!)
The veil of ignorance helps elucidate the mother of all capitalist illusions: we all are just a few moves away from rising up into the one percent at any time. This illusion is so elemental that I don’t know whether to call it brainwashing, propaganda, social control, but it is the juice that the consumer capitalist system runs on. We must absolutely believe that we can become a member of the one percent, because if we were to see the reality of our situation and that there really is no chance of rising up from the middle and lower classes into the elite—and especially not from poverty into the elite—then we would have a very hard time swallowing what we are currently forced to endure People will always surprise you with their fondness for getting fucked, but they may not be willing to give up their lives to the grind of work and television if they knew that they knew that it was going up to little more than relative deprivation and frustration.
This capitalist illusion is similar to the illusion of the afterlife. If at any time we stopped believing that there was a god and that we will be rewarded for all our troubles in the next life, then our approach to this life would probably be more engaged. We would look for justice here instead of there. Existentially, if we knew that every day was the last and that every moment was to never be repeated, then we might not be willing to give up so much of our precious time. As human beings, we live with this almost psychotic disregard for the sacredness of every moment, believing somehow that we’ll get to do it all again and that when we do, we’ll really enjoy it, do it so much better the next time. From our morality to the environment, we have a hard time understanding that things are finite. Admittedly, when you’re getting screwed over, it’s hard to sit there and say that I am getting screwed over, and screwed over, and no after life is going to make it right. We go back to this wrong-minded instinct to imbue everything with a deeper meaning that simply doesn’t exist. This is it. The universe, as mycology has informed me, is indifferent to our fate. The only thing that’s going to make it better is human effort resulting in the dissolution of the current order. We need to look hard at abolishing inheritance as a means to end dynastic wealth. We need to look hard at the construct of property as the foundation of a legal system that maintains socioeconomic disparity. We need to look hard at irrelevant culture that facilitates institutional power and consumer identity. If radical steps must be taken, then radical steps must be taken. This is the way it always is: the radicals of one generation are the heroes and visionaries of the next.
In the beginning, we talked about invisible people: the blacks in Cayman, the poor in America, the disenfranchised and dispossessed. But in truth, we are the portraits of the hollowed out. We are the ones in desperate search of meaning, traveling the world, looking for authentic experience, praying for the fractured relief of tragedy that will allow us to be ourselves. America has become the negative space around the subject and the subject is injustice. We frame it, hold it in place and in our delusional aesthetics believe that we bring balance. We tell ourselves that is full, when in reality it is empty, a kind of fraud. There is nothing inside of it other than our own complicity and denial. We can covering it up, twisting it, trying to find solace the new new new, but the only real answer is to tear it down, start from scratch and fill the void. It is only from the ashes that we can give birth to a masterpiece.