Saturday, October 26, 2002

The Jamaica Observer & the Gleaner have further reports today on the two DC snipers' Caribbean connections, including John Allen Muhammed's possible use of stolen documents to obtain an Antiguan passport.

Friday, October 25, 2002

Paul Wellstone, US senator from Minnesota, was killed in a plane crash today, along with his wife & daughter & several members of his staff. He was a man I greatly admired, & I had been following his re-election campaign this year with much interest & concern. Minnesota is far removed from Trinidad, but I have good friends there & I have fond memories of the weeks I've spent in Minneapolis. This evening I feel quietly, personally bereaved.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has published this tribute to Sen. Wellstone; here is the New York Times obituary.
The Jamaica Observer has dug up a mass of information on John Lee Malvo, who was born in Jamaica & apparently lived there till he was thirteen. The story also quotes sources suggesting that John Allen Muhammed lived in Antigua for some time & may even have Antiguan ancestry.

The Gleaner has a comment from Malvo's brother.
A retrospective of the obscure nineteenth-century French artist Théodore Chassériau has just opened at the Met. The Caribbean connection: Chassériau was born in 1819 in the town of Samaná, in what is today the Dominican Republic, of a French father & a French Creole mother. His portraits are his best work: look closely at The Reverend Father Dominique Lacordaire.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

A letter writer in today's Stabroek News (no direct link because the SN has no online archive) reflects on T&T's recent general elections:

" There is no doubt that there has been a new Manning in the making especially since the collapse of the UNC and the triumph of the PNM last December.

"Manning is leading a resurging PNM that is also undergoing rapid change and that is making a commitment to a new and more democratic political culture....

"Political parties generally tend to reform themselves after defeat. Manning led the reform in Trinidad after defeats in 1986 and 1995....

"If Manning continues in his current mold to accept constructive criticisms and take appropriate measures to redress mistakes, he will remain P.M for a long time to come."

Is that how it looks from 200 miles away? The PNM is decidedly not "undergoing rapid change" (though Fitzgerald Hinds & Eudine Job-Davis could start something if they were brave enough) & Patrick Manning has nothing new to show for himself. The best you can say for him as a political option is that this time around he was the least of the available evils, & I'm not all that inclined to say the best.
Mark Wignall, in his column in today's Jamaica Observer, argues that these latest elections suggest tribal politics there is on the wane:

"One of the highpoints of the campaign leading up to the October 16 general elections was the many moments when green shirt labourites and orange-clad PNP supporters were seen hugging and partying with each other....

"The violence taking place now in the Mountain View area and on the long-troubled, dangerous Rema/Denham Town border is to me less an indication that more of the tribal politics is with us and more a signal that we are going to experience pain when 'dutty politics' is in its death throes."

He thinks, & I agree, that the greatest obstacle to ending Jamaica's "dutty politics" is Edward Seaga, who like most Caribbean politicians simply does not know when his time is up. Who are the JLP's independent thinkers? Are they brave enough to tackle the true challenge of their party's next five years in opposition — leadership change?

Not the JLP parliamentary group.
The Seattle Times is reporting that John Lee Malvo, one of the two men arrested last night in connection with the "DC sniper" case, is a Jamaican citizen.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

The Jamaica Observer reports something the big US newspapers haven't — the latest suspected victim of the "DC sniper" was Jamaican-born.

The sugar workers union doesn't like Patrick Manning's plans for Caroni Ltd, vaguely presented in the 2003 budget. It sounds like he wants to take the first tentative steps towards changing Caroni's core business from the highly inefficient production of sugar to more viable activities. Winston Dookeran has been advocating this for years; now that he's back in the House I'm looking forward to hearing his response to this area of the budget.

I myself know next to nothing about agricultural economics, but I think I have a fair amount of common sense & a level head (which, by Manning's definition, qualifies me for a Cabinet post). It seems to me fairly absurd that at this stage in our history so much of T&T's agricultural land is still given over to the production of sugar — sold at a loss on the world market, of limited nutritional value — while we continue to import most of our staple food. The sugar industry is a historical leftover. It's time to turn most of Caroni's land over to rice, soybeans & root vegetables for domestic consumption & specialty tropical produce for export to North America. Let's grow just enough sugar for our own use, on land owned by small private farmers.

"Rudranath Indarsingh, the union’s president general, described the budget as having a political agenda and not the interest of Caroni workers or cane farmers at heart....

"On the matter of Caroni workers being re-absorbed, Indarsingh asked: 'How retrainable is a sugar worker? I keep hearing we need to retrain, but what can Caroni workers be retrained to do?'"

I simply refuse to believe that sugar workers are incapable of being retrained to work in other areas of agriculture or food processing. Rudy Indarsingh is insulting the men & women he represents by implying otherwise.

"The White House is mounting an all-out push over the final two weeks of the midterm elections, dispatching President Bush to campaign almost nonstop between now and Election Day, as officials seek to turn Mr. Bush's popularity into Republican victories this fall."

If George W. Bush is spending so much of his time out drumming up votes, who's running the United States?

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

The Express runs a story today on the airport commission of enquiry under the headline, "Humphrey, Jearlean accused of meddling". I have no comment to make about the story itself, but look at that headline. The Express style rules clearly state, in bold type, that "Women are to be referred to by their last names" (p. 28). Why does John Humphrey get the dignity of a surname when Jearlean John doesn't?
The Stabroek News runs a gloomy editorial today. (No direct link because the SN has no online archive.)

"Few who have had to endure the ordeal of daily life in Demerara over the past eight months would deny that the country is in a state of crisis more dangerous than at any other time since Independence....

"In this grim scenario, the announcement by the Cabinet Secretary that the proclamation of a state of emergency would not enhance the work of the Police and Defence Forces seemed quite startling. 'You would not believe that a miracle would occur because a state of emergency had been declared. A state of emergency, at the bottom line, calls for enforcement,' Dr Luncheon is reported to have said.

"Getting deeper into the subject, the Cabinet Secretary went on to suggest that, at a time like this when laws against larceny, murder, shooting and killing could be disobeyed with impunity, 'no one should believe that a state of emergency would be obeyed'....

"The Constitution provides for a state of emergency to be proclaimed under certain conditions, such as when Guyana is at war or when democratic institutions are threatened by subversion. At such times, extraordinary powers are needed, for limited periods, to deal with any situation which threatens the security of the State.

"The powers most likely to be strenghtened by emergency regulations are the arrest and detection of suspects; censorship and control of the media; control of harbours, ports, transportation and trade; authorising searches of persons and premises; and the appropriation or taking control of property.

"These are extreme examples of actions which the State may need to take to restore a condition of normalcy in a part or the whole of the country. The advantage of these special regulations is that they strengthen the hands of soldiers and policemen and weaken the normal safeguards of suspects, shady characters and criminals, thereby making it easier to detect, and more difficult to commit, crimes.

"Clearly, the current crisis warrants some sort of extraordinary action by the State to curtail the criminal mayhem. The normal operations of the police and defence forces have not been able to guarantee the safety of its citizens and the security of the country.

"If a state of emergency is not the answer to the question of internal security, what is?...

"The Cabinet's decision not to move forward to declare a state of emergency seems to be an admission that the criminals hold the upper hand and that the security forces cannot bring the situation under control."

The scenario is truly grim when a nation's free press is forced to call for government action towards, among other things, "censorship and control of the media"; perhaps more grim when a government is forced to admit that even restrictions on basic liberties will do nothing to control the current state of anarchy. Is the rest of the Caribbean paying any attention?

The Jamaica Observer expresses hope, in its editorial today, that "a more evenly balanced Parliament" (i.e. one with only a small government majority) will act less as a rubber stamp for the PNP Cabinet & more as a genuinely independent legislative body:

"... large government majorities brought with it a ruling party dominance of debates, a certitude about the passing of Bills and a legislative arrogance on the part of the administration. The executive knew that there was a surfeit of members on their side to carry their motions. In this scenario, the Whip's job was easy."

Slight chance, I'd say, if Jamaica's party politics is anything like T&T's. But let's keep our eyes peeled.
So last week's accidental announcement was true: Yann Martel's Life of Pi has won this year's Booker Prize. (No, I haven't read it yet. Yes, when I do I'll tell you what I think.) Meanwhile, one of this year's judges explains what's been going through his mind in today's UK Guardian.
Jeffrey Rosen analyses the copyright extension case currently before the US Supreme Court. In 1998 Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), extending copyright terms on original works (books, films, music, photos...) by 20 years, from the author's lifespan plus 50 years to author's life + 70. (This brings the US in line with EU copyright terms, set at author's life + 70 by EU Council Directive 93/98 in 1993.) Why? The Walt Disney Company and other large corporations holding valuable copyrights lobbied heavily to protect their financial interests — i.e. they didn't want Mickey Mouse to pass into the public domain. Rosen lays out the constitutional grounds on which the Court might strike down the CTEA:

"... the Court has before it a law that is constitutionally offensive on every level: It clashes with the explicit limits on Congress's power set out in the text and original understanding of the copyright clause, it represents a naked transfer of wealth to a handful of greedy heirs of pop-culture icons from the '20s, and it threatens to constrict public domain on the Internet for generations to come."

The case should be of crucial interest to bloggers and other web publishers — it sets limits on what we can freely post online, limits beyond reasonable bounds. Author's life + 50 is more than adequate. Will naked greed triumph over the public interest? Set Mickey & Donald & Yeats & Joyce & Virginia Woolf free!

Monday, October 21, 2002

Damien Smith takes on Patrick Manning's 2003 budget from 4,000 miles away.

"The real problem with what Manning's announced is that he sounds as if he really expects his measures to amount to something.... There is no major reorganisation, no terminating of programmes, no holding people to account. There is mainly the announcement of spending plans—so many, it turns out, that the failure of a few would not be seen to detract from the whole programme. This is not leadership, it's appeasement—a desire not to rock the boat too much. Many institutions require root-and-branch reform (the health and education sectors); others need to to stopped and restarted from scratch (the police) and still others are merely hopeless, and need to be put to sleep (the Unemployment Relief Programme and PTSC). There is no sign of any of this in this policy-statement-disguised-as-budget. The same people remain in place, carrying out a never-ending series of incremental measures and reforms. Trinidad and Tobago goes on, continuing on the same course, the autopilot firmly switched on.
Zadie Smith's White Teeth & Charlotte Williams's Sugar and Slate have both been shortlisted in the British "state of the nation" books poll.

"These were among titles earmarked by a panel of librarians and booksellers for a poll to find 'books which say the most about contemporary England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland'. Thousands of customers in high street bookstores are expected to vote. The verdict will be announced on World Book Day next March, when every pupil in Britain will be given a £1 book token."

Anything to help sales.

From the SHAKSPER discussion list this morning:

I went to see a Hamlet production in Prague, in the Czech Republic, while on a holiday there, and it was only after I settled into my seat that I saw the words Hamlet daz muzikal (or something similar — I don't speak Czech) on the tickets. To my great amusement Hamlet! The Musical! was exactly what it was, and a very long running success there apparently — it has been running at the Divadlo Kalich for well over a year. I enjoyed the show so much that I went to see it a second time and happily purchased the CD afterwards. Not to all tastes, I'm sure — especially since the Czech equivalent of "To be or not to be" was saved as the great finale, sung while Hamlet was dying and presumably didn't have a great deal of choice. On both nights the audience applause was so heavily milked that our arms ached, as the actors went through a huge routine of bowing over and over again. Nevertheless I would recommend it to people who enjoy odd adaptations of Shakespeare, and like to see something a little bit fresh. More conservative Shakespeareans, however, should definitely stay away.

Thomas Larque

How do we convince Baz Luhrman to do the movie version?
The New Yorker, my favourite magazine, has announced that fiction editor Bill Buford will step down in order to devote more time to writing. He'll be replaced by Deborah Treisman, his former deputy. Treisman, it's reported, is particularly fond of Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau (who she's translated in the past).

Sunday, October 20, 2002

The New York Times reports that Iceland has been permitted to rejoin the International Whaling Commission, slightly shifting the balance of power in that body in favour of the pro-whaling nations wishing to end the current moratorium on whale-hunting. (The moratorium is not in immediate danger—a three-fourths majority is required to rescind it.) Here's the thing: the vote to readmit Iceland (who walked out of the IWC ten years ago but has made several efforts to rejoin) was 19-18, & the deciding factor was a last-minute procedural matter raised by Antigua & Barbuda which confused Sweden enough for its delegate to vote "yes" for Iceland accidentally.

Apart from Antigua, five other Caribbean nations are members of the IWC: Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, & St. Vincent & the Grenadines. All are supporters of the pro-whaling faction, led by Japan & Norway. Why? Most of them have no real interest in whaling (St. Vincent is the exception, allowed to kill four humpback whales per year as a form of "aboriginal subsistence". Why not try to attract whale-watching tourists instead?). Essentially these six Caribbean nations are bribed by Japan (via various forms of financial aid) to vote with the pro-whaling bloc. How many more poor Third World nations will the Japanese buy off to get their three-fourths majority? Shouldn't Caribbean citizens find this more than a little distasteful?
If we're really lucky, over the next few days my friend Damien Smith, currently in London, will give us his perspective on tomorrow's budget presentation. (Let's hope this post will spur him on!)
Today's editorial in the Stabroek News tackles the problem of Guyana's education crisis, fuelled by a shortage of excellent teachers. (No link to the actual webpage, because the Stabroek News has no permanent online archive.) This is a problem shared by T&T &, I suspect, by most other Caricom countries. The editorial offers two obvious & emminently sensible suggestions, both of which I've privately argued for in the past:

"... the Government has to exert itself to think of far more radical temporary solutions to the teacher problem. If it is not prepared to do what Lee Kwan Yew did, and pour resources into education, including substantially increasing salaries with a view to attracting back Guyanese teachers in the Caribbean, then it has to explore other possibilities. One of those possibilities is recruiting very large numbers of young graduates primarily from the Guyanese and Caribbean diaspora in North America and Britain, who would be prepared to come and teach in the region from where their parents originated for modest remuneration as a kind of service."

Certainly here in T&T, where we're told petrochemicals revenues are about to go through the roof (the pundits say the 2003 budget, to be laid in Parliament tomorrow, will be the biggest since the days of the original oil boom), we can afford to radically increase teachers' salaries. Education is fundamentally important to our national future; why aren't we paying teachers the way we pay bankers, IT professionals, marketing consultants, engineers? Naturally this salary raise must be accompanied by a major raise in professional standards—the system should be more selective but also much more rewarding. Make education a more attractive occupation & more of our best & brightest will enter the teaching service.

And, yes, why not a voluntary service programme that would put energetic, qualified young university graduates to teach in our schools for one- or two-year terms? (An organisation called Teach for America does exactly that in the US, attracting 8,000 volunteers over the last twelve years.) At worst, this would supply a regular corps of unjaded temporary teachers; at best, it might convince some volunteers to become career teaching professionals. Make the programme Caribbean-wide, run through the three campuses of the University of the West Indies & the University of Guyana; then it would have the added benefit of giving recent graduates a chance to work in another Caribbean territory & serve the elusive end of regional integration.

How about it, Mrs. Manning?
The BBC is reporting that Saddam Hussein has announced a general amnesty for all political prisoners held in Iraqi prisons.

"A nationally televised statement from the Revolution Command Council, read by Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, said the 'full and complete and final amnesty' applied to 'any Iraqi imprisoned or arrested for political or any other reason'.

"The amnesty was intended to thank the Iraqi people for their 'unanimity' in last week's presidential referendum, the statement said."

The real reason, of course, is that Saddam is increasingly afraid the US & the UK will follow through on their threats to invade his country, & is trying to drum up international support. Could this be the first step to actually meeting the requirements of existing UN resolutions on Iraqi weapons control? How much more frightened can Saddam get? Is this a sign of hope for the deterrence option?
Selwyn Ryan is just back from observing the elections in Jamaica; his Express column today is a useful précis of the political situation there, & of the nature of "garrison politics":

"The violence which exists between residents of rival communities is however not mindless. It is driven by the instinct of economic survival. When one's tribe is in power, one 'eats'. When one's tribe is out of power, one 'starves'."

The "garrisons" were the creation of Jamaica's politicians, of both parties, & still serve the politician's interests (though the violence they breed has long passed out of the politicians' control). Bringing an end to this system of national self-destruction is in the politicians' hands. An obvious but apparently revolutionary step: let P.J. Patterson's PNP government pay the same attention to the JLP "garrisons" as to its own. Make up for whatever neglect they've felt over the last three consecutive PNP terms of office. Take the Jamaica Observer's advice & lavish government attention on Edward Seaga's constituency to start with. Save Jamaica.
Clevon Raphael interviews Fitzgerald Hinds in today's Express. (For those readers now tuning in, Hinds's & Eudine Job-Davis's decision to refuse non-Cabinet junior ministerial posts in the new PNM gov't has raised the crucial issue of representation. A fact that many political observers have long recognised has finally been blown wide open: T&T's House of Representatives actually represents almost no one & has no real influence over government's actions. The House is a rubber stamp for Cabinet, & Cabinet is a rubber stamp for the prime minister.)

Here's Hinds replying to one of Raphael's questions:

"Do you intend to rock the boat as the administration goes along?

"No, sir. No, sir. I will never rock this great PNM boat at all. I would just do all in my power to ensure the PNM gets stronger and better, and what I want to say is this—when you bring young people into an organisation, including the PNM, you cannot expect old ideas, you have to expect brand new, young, fresh ideas."

Mr. Hinds, here's a brand new, young, fresh idea for you: rock the boat. You don't have to cross the floor or try to bring down the government. Just speak your mind & vote your conscience & truly advocate the interests of your constituents, even if it means disagreeing with your prime minister from time to time. As a backbencher you aren't bound by the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility (which in T&T just means "follow the leader, leader, leader"). Mr. Manning won't like it & he'll turn the Whip on you, but never mind that. Loyalty to your party & your government doesn't have to mean blind loyalty. Go brave. Start a revolution. Martin Daly has the same advice:

"Free of the encumbrance of political debt, he will certainly be unfettered in commenting constructively on legislation, provided the Chair does not succumb to instructions not to recognise him. He could well be a genuine legislator entering that branch of Government which is sparsely populated because most legislators are constrained by the gift of their Ministries and the accompanying perks not enjoyed by ordinary legislators."

Prove that you're truly a man of the people, Mr. Hinds, & help our country grow up. And persuade Ms. Job-Davis to do the same.
Did I get a uniquely wonky copy of the Sunday Guardian today, or did the entire print run have yesterday's page 3 where today's should have been? Who blinked down in the press room on St. Vincent Street?

Saturday, October 19, 2002

Another contribution to the religion-&-society thread that seems to be emerging here: Jared Diamond's review of Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society in the New York Review of Books. "Religion" is tricky to define; Diamond suggests we break it down into four processes:

"...what we think of as 'religion' encompasses four different, originally unrelated, elements: explanation, standardized organization, moral rules of good behavior toward in-groups, and (all too often) rules of bad behavior toward out-groups. Those elements served different functions; they appeared or began to disappear at different times in human history; and they came together only within the last eight thousand years."

His argument is that religion has been a necessary tool for the development of certain stages of civilisation. The intriguing question this raises, of course, is of the future of religion: have we outgrown it? (Clearly not, on the obvious empirical evidence.) It does seem, though, that civilisation (or "Western" civilisation, at least) has come up with reasonable substitutes for Diamond's four defining processes, via the growth of science, credibly explaining many of the phenomena previously ascribed to supernatural agency; the development of political institutions not requiring divine sanction of their validity (i.e. we've dispensed with the idea of the divine rights of kings); and the evolution of moral philosophy, suggesting motives for right action based on the individual conscience rather than fear of divine punishment, & which do not require the dangerous them-&-us divide. But, again, at the beginning & at the end of the matter is the one enormous question science has not managed to answer:

"From my freshman year at Harvard in 1955, I recall the great theologian Paul Tillich defying his class of hyper-rational undergraduates to come up with a scientific answer to his simple question: 'Why is there something, when there could have been nothing?' ... Religion will thrive as long as there are human beings alive to reflect on the mystery of the First Cause."

(As Taner Edis also admits.)

We're not ready to take up the responsibilities demanded by a godless universe.
The New York Times reports today on the crisis facing the Caribbean tourism industry.
Some Jamaicans have objected to Jimmy Carter's condemnation of that country's "garrison politics" in the wake of their elections last week. (Carter, freshly flushed with Nobel success, led a team of international observers.) How then do you explain what happened yesterday?

"A pregnant teenager and her two infant siblings were shot dead early yesterday in the community of Rema as post-election violence escalated in Kingston's volatile western belt.

"Two other persons were injured in the attack by gunmen, who residents claim came from nearby Tivoli Gardens. They also fire-bombed three homes.
Undertakers remove the body of one of the three people slain in Rema yesterday.

"Speculation was rife yesterday that the attacks on the Rema residents, which is in the South St Andrew constituency of ruling People's National Party (PNP) finance minister Omar Davies, was in retaliation for the fire-bombing of three homes and the murder of one man in adjacent Denham Town, Wednesday night.

"'Because of the attack on Race Course Land and Elgin Street on Thursday where three homes were destroyed by fire allegedly set by men from Rema, we believe the attack this morning is a reprisal by men from Denham Town,' said Superintendent Talbert White of the Denham Town police.

"Such retaliation was 'almost a reflex action' in these communities, White said."

What I find it hard to wrap my outsider's head around is the fact that this murderous political rivalry is blatantly artificial—there's no ethnic or economic or class basis for this hatred between Kingston's PNP & JLP garrisons. Jamaica thinks of itself as the most civilised of the English Caribbean nations (Bajans disagree)—it boasts a thriving artistic & intellectual community with cultural institutions the rest of us can only envy—but how deep does that civilisation go? How does it—how can they—reconcile with the barbaric violence of the desperate masses roiling in Kingston's slums? A real country, with real problems? (Apologies to my Jamaican friends for speaking so bluntly.)
Anand Ramlogan, in his column in today's Guardian, tackles the same issue of representation, but with less clarity of vision than Lloyd Best.

"One of the flaws in our parliamentary democracy is that there is no system to audit the performance or non-performance of elected officials. Ours is a one-day democracy, where people happily place their “X” once every five years (or three years in the case of local government elections) and then disconnect from the political process of democracy.

"It is as if their democratic right and responsibility are encapsulated in this one day of voting and it comes to an unceremonious end at 6 pm.

"This lackadaisical political culture breeds irresponsibility and neglect. It explains why, quite recently, one MP was able to hold onto his seat in Parliament for five years even though he was working in Africa full-time."

The simple fact is that T&T is a "parliamentary democracy" in name only. Our legislature is literally a parliament, a talk-shop, & one with a particularly low level of conversation. A "system to audit the performance or non-performance of elected officials" would be built in to the legislature itself if only it were a truly representative & truly powerful institution, capable of saying No to the government & hence requiring the emergence of true politics (another thing we all say we need)—negotiation & compromise in the interest of as many citizens as possible.

20-16 is not a solution, it's a delusion. We're in a Manning dictatorship for the next five years or so (unless a couple of truly responsible, intelligent MPs decide to behave like real MPs, i.e. locate & exercise their consciences from time to time). Maybe if we stop calling T&T a "parliamentary democracy" & start saying "elected dictatorship" the truth will gradually sink into our brains & we'll be ready next time around to act like free & free-thinking men & women.
As always, Lloyd Best's column in today's Express, analysing the results of the general elections, is required reading. Best hails, for the first time, the emergence of what may be a politically significant group of swing voters among the electorate, willing to cast their ballots independent of traditional tribal considerations:

"The truly subversive implication here is two-fold, both instances involving a speeding up of the national process of learning and self-awareness.

"First, more and more, our electorate is enhancing its capacity to discriminate, to elect and to decide. People have begun to ask themselves what option they will exercise rather than hold slavishly to the same old choice. Secondly, those paying close attention to government and politics are also improving the framework as well as the tools of interpretation. It is to these two related fields of self-education that T&T owes the upheaval which has been ongoing—exceptionally without violence—since the second half of 1999."

He also incisively explains what was truly at stake in Fitzgerald Hinds's refusal to accept anything but a senior Cabinet post in the new PNM government:

"The latest example is our failure to grasp the significance of the current demand by almost every MP for elevation to the highest possible Cabinet rank. At issue is not simply personal ambition or individual cussedness but the universal recognition that merely being in the Legislature confers no status and amounts at best to a controlled participation and to no representation at all."

This is the fundamental problem that needs to be addressed by the constitutional reform we're all talking about these days: the T&T Parliament as constituted at present is a powerless & fearful body by which no one feels represented & which offers no meaningful check on the actions of the government. This arrangement is deeply mistrustful of the citizenry it ostensibly serves—&, frankly, over forty years of independence the citizenry has not done much to earn that crucial trust. True democracy is something we have to prove ourselves deserving of—it droppeth not from heaven. It is a responsibility we must demand, within & without our current political parties & in the wider nation. Best seems optimistic that this latest election demonstrates we're finally facing up to that responsibility. I wish I were so hopeful. I fear we're still a very long way off.

Friday, October 18, 2002

Here's a painfully pragmatic anti-war-with-Iraq opinion by blogger Jim Henley. (Thanks to my friend Damien Smith in London for pointing it out. I wish Damien would get his indiawest blog going again.) Henley believes that a war against the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (the major ostensible Bush-Blair objective) is doomed to fail. His essentially libertarian argument is that the US should let other sovereign nations build or aquire whatever weapons they like, with the understanding that if any attempt were ever made to actually use those weapons against the US or its interests the response would be immediate, massive & final. He's describing a world far more dangerous than we've ever known, but how, truly, can we avoid this coming to pass?
Take a look at this short essay, B.C., in which physicist Taner Edis argues that the human brain is hardwired to look for patterns & causes in the random events of existence. Confronted by a universe which science tells us happened by accident, in which chaos reigns at the elementary level, our minds grasp for a cause inapprehensible to physics: God.

But surely this is also where art begins, with the attempt to arrange the meaningless particles of the world into meaningful patterns, to create something comprehensible, something sensible, from the incomprehensible, insensible facts of the universe. Surely Shelley meant something like this when he called poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world, & certainly it's what Klee meant when he said the purpose of art is not to render the visible but to render visible.
Ruth Franklin, in a fierce review of The Autograph Man in the New Republic, makes an interesting point about Zadie Smith's use of the tetragrammaton, the four-letter symbol (YHWH), in Jewish tradition, of the unpronounceable name of God (she uses them as section breaks in the book's prologue):

"There is something discomfiting about Smith's incorporation of the Hebrew tetragrammaton into her impudent imaginative universe. Part of this is simple superstition: even secular Jews have a hard time letting go of the gravity that surrounds these letters. (Tradition dictates that the paper on which the word is written must be buried.) If Smith is toying with it for shock value, she has certainly hit her mark. But despite her comedic tendencies, Smith is too deeply serious a writer to rely purely on the need to offend. Like her riffs on the halachah of pot-smoking, her visual punning on the supposedly unsayable name of God—each invocation resides within a little cartoon bubble, as if it were being spoken—has something in common with Rushdie's irreverent game with religion in The Satanic Verses. But while Rushdie clearly had a philosophical point to make, Smith's end does not justify the means. I do not mean to accuse Smith of blasphemy, because non-believers cannot blaspheme. I mean only to say that Smith's purposes in this novel are too small to justify such profaneness."

(Oddly enough, what this recalls to me is an anecdote from one of Salman Rushdie's essays, I can't remember which, about being made, as a child, to kiss any book he happened to drop accidentally to the floor, as a sign of apology & respect to the written text.)

But could Smith's repetition of the sacred letters, symbolising the attempt to capture the uncapturable nature of God, not be intended to point to the moral void of the idea (in a book whose main plotline, after all, is the search for an elusive autograph) that a person's worth to the world can be reduced to his or her name written on a scrap of paper?
"Alex took an ice cube from a glass full of them and gripped it in his hand, an old sobering trick."

—from The Autograph Man, p. 249. Has any of you heard or tried this one before?
It seems everyone's thinking thoughts of the divine today. Anantanand Rambachan, writing in the Trinidad Express, argues that we should leave God out of politics (I often wonder whether the pious politicians & their lackeys, asking God to come to the aid of their party, don't feel a certain frisson of blasphemy—"O heavenly father, grant that my greed triumph over the greed of my opponent"). Meanwhile, Kevin Baldeosingh, assigned to cover the opening of Parliament yesterday, assiduously notes which holy book each MP decided to swear on. Up next: who is God's candidate for president?
"If God created us, She would have done a better job. At the very least, God would have given us eternal life, instead of the three score and ten most of us get.

"The Disney Corporation has swung a longer life for Mickey Mouse through the extension of copyright periods than God has supposedly given us.

"It’s a harsh but accurate reflection of our reality that Mickey Mouse looks to be more likely to gain everlasting life than the Pope."

—B.C. Pires, in his column in today's Trinidad Guardian, writing about man's great existential fear (not just death, but what death implies: our insignificance to the universe); about the existence of God (what Frederick Copleston called the fundamental metaphysical question); & the path to the possible divine offered by music (in this case, specifically, the music of jointpop).

(I've had to remove the link to the actual webpage, because the Guardian has no permanent online archive.)

(B.C., if God doesn't exist, then who're you thanking for Friday?)

Thursday, October 17, 2002

A few years back, around the time when Wayne Brown made his apparently permanent shift from T'dad to Jamaica, he wrote (in one of his last columns to be published in the T&T press) about how relieved he was to be moving to a real country with real problems. (I think that's verbatim but have no way to confirm my memory, so I leave out the quotation marks.) I often recall his words, & did again recently as I read reports on the campaign violence leading up to Jamaica's elections last Wednesday. Only a few dozen people were killed this year—remember, the record for a single Jamaican election campaign is more than 800. Meanwhile, in T&T, where the ethnic situation & the political situation & all the talk about the Jamaat etc. might have led an observer to think the country about to go up in flames a few weeks ago, the sum total of the violence experienced by anyone was that overexuberant scuffle between Orlando Nagessar & Eddie Hart in Tunapuna (& of course the violent damage to Carlos John's pride).

From time to time, like everyone else, I find myself thinking, in a stew of frustration, "This country not serious, yes!" But I'd take T&T's sheer jokiness, however frequently infuriating, over Jamaica's "real" problems any day.
On a more pleasant note, this afternoon I came across the New Republic review of Anthony Lane's new book, Nobody's Perfect, which I was reading recently; this inspires me to make a whole-hearted recommendation. Lane, of course, is chief movie critic at the New Yorker, & the book is a collection of the reviews & other pieces he's written for the magazine over the last nine years. It reaffirms my faith in the civilising values of intelligence, wit & curiosity.

Lane is one of my very favourite writers. When each new issue of the NY arrives in the post the first thing I do is check whether he has anything in it; if he does, it must be read at once. But, coming across him only every other week or so these last nine or ten years, I didn't realise till I got Nobody's Perfect how deeply he'd insinuated himself into my reading mind. I rediscovered pieces that I could have read once or at most twice, five or six years ago, but which were shockingly familiar, so fresh & perfect were their phrasing or their wicked line of argument. (I also had not realised just how much his review of Before Sunrise—again, I must have read it once, years ago—has influenced the way I experience & think about the world.) Actually, Anthony Lane is too good to be frittering himself away on the kind of movies we get these days—his book reviews & profiles, also collected here, prove that. I'd rather read one of his sentences than a sentence by anyone else alive. He's simply more fun than anyone else—that's why he consistently leaves me gasping for laughter-starved breath—but his humane brilliance (humaneness & brilliance are not so often conjoined), the spectacle of a brain showing what brains are really capable of, is what sometimes leaves me—dare I admit it?—misty-eyed.

A friend in London has drawn my attention via email to Attillah Springer's weekly column in the online Trinidad Guardian. (I've had to remove the link to the actual webpage, because the Guardian has no permanent online archive.) I hope she meant this rant as some sort of joke; then it would be no more than supremely tasteless, but I fear this is a display of utterly sincere idiocy. She's writing about the possibility of war with Iraq. This is a seriously troubling issue. Many of us, including myself, have not made up our minds; the pro-war aggression of the White House & its allies is deeply worrying, but not more so than the genuine dangers of Saddam Hussein or the genuine horrors he is wreaking upon the people of his country. We urgently need more intelligent, informed debate. Whether there's a war or not isn't up to most of us, but we'd better figure out where we stand. What we don't need is this kind of nonsense:

"I still think Dubya is too stupid to be the anti-Christ, but he’s trying so hard at it, I guess I could give him credit for his attempts at being one of the most evilous souls to grace this here planet Earth."

(Just for comparison, the worst Springer can say about Saddam is that he is "by no means a saint". For the record, he has slaughtered his own citizens, brutally repressed minority ethnic groups, expelled Iraq's intellectuals & artists, tortured & killed political dissidents, & generally presided over the delapidation of what was once the centre of culture & civilisation in the Middle East.)

I'm not a Bush Jr. fan, & I wish some other, broader mind were at the head of the US government these days, but Springer's characterisation of the president ticks me off. It is so foolish, so gratuitously unhelpful, as to betray a complete failure to understand any of the political or ethical issues at stake. This kind of wilful ignorance is deplorable. I've been increasingly dismayed over the last few weeks by the opinions of the formidable global cadre of conservative bloggers & columnists, but nothing I've read so far has got my blood pressure this high up.
In his column in today's Trinidad Express, Kevin Baldeosingh deplores the hold that superstitious beliefs & practices have on the T&T population (using recent press reports on "psychics" and "miracles" as examples). "I expect the average person to be taken in by such nonsense," he says. Our politicians & their ad agencies clearly agree. One of the UNC's full-page newspaper ads from this last election campaign consisted of a photograph of a balisier cluster with a snake coiled around it; the accompanying text asserted the photo was undoctored. This apparently was meant to convince us that a vote for the PNM was a vote for the forces of evil. When last did a political party in this country so blatantly insult the electorate?

Actually, this last UNC ad campaign set quite a few worst-ever records. (Who do we thank, Valdez & Torry or Ross Advertising?) The full-page ad with the 100-point headline screaming "PLEASE DON'T LEAVE" was to my mind a low point in our history: a major political party begging citizens not to flee the country in terror. But most disgusting of all was the ad showing a photograph of one of the WTC towers in flames, with the message that the PNM was in cahoots with terrorists, i.e. the Jamaat. I can't believe a decent person would use the memory of that horrific event in NY last year for such a petty political purpose—but we all know decency isn't often found in the ranks of the politicians, &, having spent three years in the business, I can tell you the same is true of advertising.

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

After a few hours of intense self-education I've figured out how to build & post non-blog pages—so now this site includes a bit of info about me & some book reviews. More to come ... & I've started to round up material for Antilles—look out for actual postings by this weekend!

Exhausted. Off to bed.
My friend Lisa Allen-Agostini, a journalist at the Trinidad Guardian, has won the best feature story award at the 2002 PAHO/WHO national media awards for health journalism, for a story about the mother of an autistic child. (No link, because the Guardian, for reasons known only to its IT staff, has no WWW archive.) Congratulations, Lisa, & good luck in the regional competition!
Today's editorial in the Trinidad Express is a surprisingly congratulatory look at Patrick Manning's political career. The PNM's success in last week's elections, the Express argues, should be seen as a personal triumph for Manning, suggesting he deserves more political credit than anyone's given him so far.

Someone down at Express House must have been in a particularly generous, misty-moisty mood yesterday. The results of these latest elections have almost nothing to do with Manning himself. The PNM could have chosen any one of its members at random to stand as political leader & still have won. (In some safe PNM constituencies a stray pothound could win a seat, if there were a balisier tied round its neck.) In the context of T&T's recent electoral history, 20-16 for the PNM looks like a landslide, but the elections were decided by a mere 1,200 votes in three marginal constituencies, as the statisticians have not tired of reminding us. True, the PNM won 25,000 more votes this time than in last year's elections, but this does not translate to any significant dent in the UNC's loyal voter base. Manning's anti-UNC-corruption campaign may have influenced a few thousand people to vote this year instead of staying home like last year, but at the end of the day, as Lloyd Best keeps saying, PNM supporters (& UNC supporters) vote for their party simply because they have no credible alternative.

Manning remains a spectacularly inept politician — look at the mess he's made of appointing a new Cabinet — with an absurdly inflated sense of self-importance. I won't even rehearse the various well-known bunglings of his first term in office a decade ago. But just think back over the last year of his "selected" government — his blatantly nepotistic Cabinet, his two abortive attempts to summon Parliament, his hugely misjudged cosying up to Abu Bakr on the eve of the elections. Does this look like a man who knows what he's doing? Manning, as the Express points out, became political leader of the PNM after the 1986 elections simply because he was the only conceivable option of the three PNM MPs who survived the NAR avalanche. He's held on to his leadership only because in T&T our political parties have no tradition of ridding themselves of useless leaders. Manning's got the maximum leadership for life. And it has nothing to do with political skill. Last week's elections were not a meaningful triumph for Manning, or for the PNM; they were a triumph for T&T's absurd, deluded but apparently still flourishing political system.
Am reading Zadie Smith's new book, The Autograph Man. The reviews I've read have been lukewarm, some even tending to the chilly (ouch, Michiko Kakutani), but it's a fun read so far—not as dizzyingly brilliant as White Teeth, but more purposeful, more thoughtful, & displaying that unmistakeable Smithian verve. Halfway through, I feel I have something personally at stake in the spiritual quest of the lead, Alex-Li Tandem (an autograph collector, a man whose identity is defined by other people's names on little bits of paper). He thinks he's in search of an obscure, elderly Hollywood actress he's idolised since boyhood; I'm hoping & suspecting he'll find something rather greater in the end. Threads of meaning from Jewish Kabbalah are woven through Alex-Li's story; I'm intrigued by the pattern that seems to be emerging.
Once I manage to wrap my head around some of the basics of HTML I'll start posting fairly regularly—or try to—& if I'm really slick I'll also put up some of the book reviews I've been writing over the last year or so.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Dear reader,

I'm just getting started here. Nothing much to see for the time being.