As a generally peace-loving man of many friends, I seldom write about politics, but recent elections having polarized people so, I feel it appropriate to say a few words about the president, a man I find to be honorable and inspiring, a true idealist, a man who walks the walk more than any contemporary leader I’ve yet discovered in the almost-always-ironic sphere of “public service.” I especially admire his principled past and life of Robin-Hood adventure, robbing banks to publish the records of their crooked dealings, organizing exploited workers to demand fair conditions, and, a crowning achievement noted in the Guinness Book of World Records, escaping from prison along with over 100 other political prisoners, via tunnel under the wall and adjoining street, into the living room of a family home, then running off into the night.
Oh. You thought I was talking about another president?
Nope. I mean José “Pepe” Mujica, president of Uruguay, former Tupamaro revolutionary, smiling dumpling of a man, mumbling his way through speeches and interviews, never wearing a tie, driving a beat-up VW bug, and petting his three-legged dog in his overgrown yard outside his cinder-block rectangle of a home along a dirt road in the outskirts of Montevideo. I know well enough about his checkered past, his disquieting Che-inspired idealism, and even his current difficulties leading, but as I do not live in Uruguay full time, I find myself free to focus on his many charms, principally his principles. So here I would like to focus on how José Mujica troubles and inspires me with his stark, seemingly absolute rejection of consumerism.
Legitimate journalists from the BBC, New York Times, Public Radio International, Business Week, El Mundo, and the like must have their official methods of gaining access to “the world’s poorest president,” but I’ve never been much interested in legitimacy or officiousness, so I just called around until I finally got to the office of Defense Minister Eleutorio Fernández Huidobro, where I spoke with a friend of a couple of deceased friends, a guy I know only as “Scooby,” so nicknamed because he looks like Shaggy (go figure). He quickly recalled the times I’d spent in his presence when Fernández Huidobro was a senator, when I brought a Reggie-Jackson-signed baseball to Gonzalo Moyano, and I was traipsing about Montevideo with Arturo Dubra in search of the inside story of that 1971 prison escape. From Scooby I got the name and number of Mujica’s press secretary, who told me that the president was done giving interviews for the year, but maybe I could catch him at a Mass for the health of Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, who’d been sick with cancer. Great, I said; I’d be there, a few days hence.
In the meantime, those same legitimate journalists having scooped me about President Mujica’s astonishing net worth (about $1800) and charity (donating 90% of his salary to housing and other relief programs), I figure I now have to come up with a new angle about don Pepe. Here’s what I got:
The general vibe I get from reading the articles and watching the videos and perusing the comments about Mujica’s asceticism is outrage at them, those corrupt world leaders who leech the lifeblood of us, the common people who want nothing more than to earn a decent living, who want our leaders to serve honorably and ably, to foment the conditions that will allow for economic prosperity. The news media seem to understand well their rhetorical aim to win over readers and viewers, make us believe that we’re on the same side against some threatening other. Politicians make easy targets, and Lord knows they could use some advice from President Mujica. Even I can get behind such wishful thinking, hoping against hope for honest leaders who reject the temptation of bribes or glad-handing and backstabbing, but ultimately I think that whole argument is hogwash.
Instead of pointing, when I listen to the president, I turn my thoughts inward, to my own complicity in this ravenous system. I think on my large house and two cars, my gas heating and electric air conditioning, my green lawn and packaged processed foods. I recall that even a decade ago, when Karina and I lived in northern Montevideo in a spartan house without air conditioning or heating, eating local foods almost exclusively, walking nearly everywhere and taking public transportation otherwise, our carbon footprint meant that for everybody to attain our standard of living we’d need two-and-a-half earths. Now, back in the USA, I temper my complacent pride at carpooling to work or rolling to the curb half-filled garbage cans next to my neighbors’ overflowing bins, at paying a utility bill that’s barely half the average among similar homes in my town, according to the town’s published statistics. I resist the temptation to pat myself on the back for conserving while nearby others waste wantonly, because I know that I am still a voracious consumer just by virtue of living when and where and how I do, and I despair of ever seeing widespread equity or harmony with the natural world.
Despite the many fine, upstanding people I know who work tirelessly to serve others and care for the environment, when it comes to questions of humanity en masse, I remain a pessimist. Perhaps I side with the younger José Mujica in believing that the kind of large-scale change that would reverse the machine can come only through revolution, imposition from the outside. But I’m quite different from that idealist in that I don’t want to be here when the change comes, so comfortable am I in my trickled-down prosperity. I can complain with the best of them about teachers’ salaries and corporate greed and political ineptitude and subterfuge and so forth, but the fact remains that I’m paid to read books and talk about writing with bright young people. I like the eddies and banks of this mainstream first-world capitalist river.
Which is why I had to chuckle from my pew when, in the midst of so much finery and in the middle of a muddling sermon on the action of faith in behalf of the sick and the inevitability of suffering and the image of Christ’s face on Veronica’s veil and peace and love and the Virgin of Guadalupe and the coincidence that this was the feast day of Sta. Lucia, who shares a name with the president’s wife… my mind wandered back a few moments to the gospel reading, from Matthew, when Jesus challenges some hangers-on, asking “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken in the wind?” He’s talking about John the Baptist, more than a prophet, who eschews fine raiment, subsists on locusts and honey, has not where to lay his head. There in the front row of the church, his mind also wandering, I presumed, was a modern day voice crying out in the wilderness, renouncing material riches, exampling a life of simplicity, humbly chastising his cohort of world leaders at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development with disquieting questions:
What would happen to this planet if the Indians had the same number of cars per family as the Germans?
Does the world today have the natural resources to permit 7 or 8 billion people the same level of consumption and squandering as the most opulent Western societies?
Are we governing globalization or is globalization governing us? Is it possible to speak of solidarity, of “we’re all in this together,” in an economy based on ruthless competition?
We must realize that… environmental degradation is not the cause. The cause is the model of civilization we have created. And the thing we have to re-examine is our way of life.
My fellow workers fought hard for the 8-hour workday, and now they’re fighting for 6 hours. But the person who works 6 hours gets two jobs, so he works longer than before. And why? Because he needs to pay off the motorcycle, the car, more and more payments, and next thing he knows, he’s an arthritic old man, like me, and his life is gone. And one asks: Is this our destiny?
We do not come to this planet simply to develop indiscriminately. We are born to pursue happiness. Because life is short and it slips away. And no material good is worth as much as life. This is elemental. But if my life is going to slip through my fingers, working and working to consume and consume, and the consumer society is the motor…
The old thinkers—Epicurus, Seneca, and even the Aymara—said that “poor is not he who has little but he who needs infinitely more, whose desires are unbounded.”
That’s what I was thinking, in vague and in general, as the priest rambled and the congregants cycled through automated movements and responses, as we sang rote hymns of praise under the glazed eyes of the saints and angels watching from the alcoves, and it’s what I’m thinking today, even as I write, surrounded by material fruits of my labors, weighed by the unfinished work awaiting me far from my home and family, who’re used to these trappings, who, like me, (sometimes) feel they deserve this luxury and comfort. These are my complicated thoughts. I offer them as what I wonder, not what is to be wondered.
Anyway, that’s how I ended up at Mass sitting behind Pepe Mujica praying for the recovery of Hugo Chavez, a futile petition, as it turned out.