Saturday, November 30, 2002

Lloyd Best, writing in today's Express, puts the independent senators' effort at initiating constitution reform in its historical context, & summarises the practical impediments to the process:

"The current initiative of reform ... seeks more than ever before to highlight the conflict between popular participation and central power. This is a very real advance on what we have had in the past. The great danger, however, is that the ways and means being employed might again obscure the strategic requirement to settle certain basic issues, (e.g. effective representation in parliament) in a way that would trigger the rest of the reform as a matter of course.

"As it stands, what is certain is that each citizen or each group of citizens will concentrate on some particular set of favoured demands. This is equally true of the senators who’ve been leading the discussion and even of parliamentarians permitted to vote according to their conscience.

"The missing ingredient is politics of the kind that Williams and the PNM possessed in the 1950s but which was conspicuously absent in 1971 given the fragmentation of those days.... The effect of such politics is to bring together the great number of contending interests so that they can be sifted and sorted and ranked according to priority. To generate such politics is clearly one of the benefits of a Constituent Assembly likely to help participants find parties to which they can belong."

He points out that, without the support of one of the two major political parties, the reform process will come to nothing; since "nobody can reasonably expect any proposals seriously to limit executive domination to originate with the PNM at this stage", it will be for the UNC to take the bold necessary steps. But, embroiled in a leadership crisis which is fundamentally an identity crisis, does the UNC even realise that its way forward as a political entity is to embrace constitution reform wholeheartedly, with all the internal party restructuring this will require?

Meanwhile, the Constitution Reform Forum is meeting in St. Augustine today to discuss the PNM's proposal to get rid of the Police Service Commission. Discussion is how the whole reform process must start, obviously, & the stating & exchanging of positions is the first step in the development of real politics, but discussion without a meaningful plan for practical action will leave us right where we are (in the best Tapia tradition!).

Yet it seems to me a reasonable mechanism for jump-starting real reform is staring the CRF in the face. The most widely agreed-on reform proposal is for a reconstitution of the upper house of the T&T parliament so as to to reflect not the whims of the leaders of the two main parties (as the senate currently does) but the genuine interests of the citizenry: the "big maco senate", as Lloyd Best calls it, or the "civic society senate", as Dennis Pantin prefers. But the unfamiliarity of the concept is an obstacle to such a development — it has no precedent in our constitutional history.

The CRF, whose main members are respected public figures, is well-positioned to organise a prototype "senate of the people". A practical plan of action could be drafted in mere hours: set a date & secure a location large enough to accommodate several hundred people, &, as inclusively as possible, invite the nation's significant interest groups to send one representative each to assemble & debate the questions of the day.

These groups would include the trade unions, the chambers of commerce, the Manufacturers Association, the Downtown Merchants Association, the Bankers Association, the Media Association, Pan Trinbago, TUCO, religious bodies, the UWI Students Guild, local government bodies; NGOs ranging from SERVOL to the Adult Literacy Tutors Association, from Fishermen & Friends of the Sea to Citizens for Conservation; professional associations representing everyone from geologists to lawyers to architects to actors; etc. etc. etc. It would be very important to invite the constituency groups of all active political parties to send delegates, chosen not by the national councils but by the constituencies themselves.

A "people's senate" composed along these lines would be a working model of meaningful representation in action. Its function would be more than merely symbolic: operating under parliamentary rules, it would act as an alternative debating chamber for any bills or motions introduced into the house of representatives or the "official" senate. The "people's senate" would obviously have no legal authority, but if it were organised with real consideration for civic representation & public perception, it could achieve a moral legitimacy, & thence a political legitimacy, powerful enough to influence national governance. It would also demonstrate the feasibility — or infeasibility — of a legislative body of this nature, prove for all to see whether the idea is unworkable fantasy or practical expedient. And it would be ideally positioned to act as a constituent assembly when the time comes to give our constitution the deep structural renovation it badly needs.

It would not be unthinkably difficult to get the thing going — it needs merely for a few people with public standing & public respect to announce the plan, issue invitations to delegates, & arrange the minimal infrastructure necessary for the "people's senate" to assemble. It would take some time, some energy, & a huge deal of optimism (the proposal is based on the hopeful belief that the people of T&T want to be properly represented & would be eager to participate via existing groups & organisations) — & the CRF has already demonstrated its willingness to expend time, energy & optimism in the national interest. What it needs, what we all need, is a definite mechanism to harness these resources into meaningful service.

So are we serious about changing for the better the way this country works? What are we waiting for?
From our reading:

"In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other — a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause — which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain. Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poems by Mallarmé or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour. Foreigners, to whom the tongue is strange, have us at a disadvantage. The Chinese must know the sound of Antony and Cleopatra better than we do."

— Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill, pp. 21–22 in the new Paris Press edition.
Have you even wondered, in a moment of sublime idleness, what you'd look like as a Lego character? I can safely say I never had, until I stumbled upon (via Vlado Kekoc) the Mini-Mizer, devised by Christopher Doyle. (In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!)

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Google knows what the world is thinking:

"The logs team came to work one morning to find that 'carol brady maiden name' had surged to the top of the charts.

"Curious, they mapped the searches by time of day and found that they were neatly grouped in five spikes: biggest, small, small, big and finally, after a long wait, another small blip. Each spike started at 48 minutes after the hour.

"As the logs were passed through the office, employees were perplexed. Why would there be a surge in interest in a character from the 1970's sitcom The Brady Bunch? But the data could only reflect patterns, not explain them.

"That is a paradox of a Google log: it does not capture social phenomena per se, but merely the shadows they cast across the Internet.

"'The most interesting part is why,' said Amit Patel, who has been a member of the logs team. 'You can't interpret it unless you know what else is going on in the world.'

"So what had gone on on April 22, 2001?

"That night the million-dollar question on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire had been, 'What was Carol Brady's maiden name?' Seconds after the show's host, Regis Philbin, posed the question, thousands flocked to Google to search for the answer (Tyler), producing four spikes as the show was broadcast successively in each time zone.

"And that last little blip?

"'Hawaii,' Mr. Patel said."

(This anecdote is so aesthetically perfect, it sent shivers down my spine.)
Caribbean Justice has written to Jamaica's prime minister, attorney general, foreign minister & ambassador to Washington, asking whether the Jamaican government has ensured that John Lee Malvo knows of his rights to consular assistance, as a foreign citizen charged with a capital offence in the US:

"You will be aware that in the past the United States has not always complied with its Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR) obligations concerning the treatment of foreign nationals. In June 2001, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) upheld a complaint lodged by the Federal Republic of Germany that the United States had failed to notify 'without delay' two German nationals charged with capital offences of their right to consular assistance. The ICJ also upheld a complaint that the United States had failed to notify the German consul of their detention. The German nationals were consequently deprived of the assistance to which they were entitled, and were later executed."
In his column in today's Express Kevin Baldeosingh takes on the notorious T&T "carnival mentality":

"Carnival mentality ... is a social concept, not an individual one. Basically, it implies a dominant ethos which embodies a lack of seriousness: about work, about important personal relationships, and about social and intellectual issues.

"In respect to the first, the country’s GNP, while certainly not where it should be, does not bear out the argument of a society of lazy people. As regards the second, again while family life leaves much to be desired, the marriage and divorce statistics do not suggest frivolity. Only in our social and intellectual discourse are we obviously lacking, but even here the avid interest in constitutional reform during the 18-18 impasse suggests that a sea change is happening.

"My own conclusion, therefore, is that by and large Trinis do not have a Carnival mentality, except during Carnival."

Baldeosingh's evidence for a "dominant ethos" of seriousness — high GNP, stable marriage & divorce rates, public interest in constitutional reform — to my ears gives not the resounding ring of truth but a hollow plunk. Are these the most compelling facts he can muster? T&T's GNP, for instance, is as high as it is chiefly because of our natural energy resources. Even if we were a nation of lazy gits, there'd be no end of foreigners willing to come in, suck the oil & gas out of the earth, & pay us handsomely for the privilege; so a link between our high GNP & "seriousness" is unconvincing.

But my main quibble is with his definition of the "carnival mentality" concept — "lack of seriousness" is an inadequate summary. In the first place let's remember that "carnival" as a social & moral phenomenon is not restricted to the Caribbean & in fact has a millennia-old pedigree. And for present purposes it's useful to consider the ideas of the Russian thinker M.M. Bakhtin, who, in a 1963 book called Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics wrote the following about the survival of ancient pagan modes in the strictly hierarchical society of medieval Europe (& I'm sure some scholar of "carnival arts" must have pointed out this connection long ago):

"It could be said (with certain reservations, of course) that a person of the Middle Ages lived, as it were, two lives: one that was the official life, monolithically serious and gloomy, subjugated to a strict hierarchical order, full of terror, dogmatism, reverence and piety; the other was the life of the carnival square, free and unrestricted, full of ambivalent laughter, blasphemy, the profanation of everything sacred, full of debasing and obscenities, familiar contact with everyone and everything. Both these lives were legitimate, but separated by strict temporal boundaries."

(See this entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy for more.)

In other words, Bakhtin proposes the "carnival mentality" as a means of liberation & subversion of oppressive norms (so let's bring some carnival mentality into the constitutional reform process!). And of course it's a commonplace among commentators & scholars & even people on the street here in the Caribbean that carnival is a highly creative process, manifesting itself in a complex of folk arts tending occasionally even to high art.

What I'm suggesting is that, while the term "carnival mentality" is almost invariably used for derogatory purposes, a more thoughtful definition would encompass the positive as well as the negative qualities of the carnival phenomenon, perhaps something like the following. "Carnival mentality": an ethos of pleasurable freedom (& freedom of pleasure) with a subversive tendency to mingle the serious with the frivolous, the sacred with the profane, characterised by an extraordinarily creative degree of playfulness, mockery, fantasy, irony, paradox & absurdity.

So how fitly can we ascribe such an ethos to T&T society? The answer is necessarily subjective; it seems to me that as a people we're remarkable for a playful impulsiveness ("catch a vaps"); a fundamental easygoingness disguised by aggressive talk & attitude; a casual acceptance of role-playing, even in the mundane form of stereotypes; an admiration for the absurd ("jokiness" & "picong"); a definite but limited tolerance for transgression ("bacchanal" & "commess"); a conviction that we're free to do as we please ("the road was made to walk on carnival day").

Put these all together & one is tempted to conclude, "lack of seriousness". Yet it's undeniable that, in the process of doing & believing all the above, we take ourselves very seriously — when Basdeo Panday, for instance, gets up on a podium & plays badjohn, don't for a moment think he's fooling around. But his audience at the same time recognises that he's "playing himself" — & the injunction to "play yourself" is truly defining of our mode of being.

What's crucial is the fact that, ultimately, we recognise the limits to these roles we play; note our unwillingness to endanger the dynamic balance achieved by these mechanisms. Last couple of general elections, everyone went around muttering about what would happen if one party won or lost, about riots, violence, the losing side "mashing up the place". An outsider might have sworn civil war was about to break out. But not a damned thing happened. Look at Jamaica's election about a week later. Dozens killed. A real country, with real problems, Wayne Brown called his new home.

At the same time, Baldeosingh is correct to point out that if the "carnival mentality", even as I've tried to redefine it, were the country's dominant ethos, we'd pretty much never get anything done — which isn't (always) the case. Note that for Bakhtin "carnival" was the flip side of another, more constraining mode. Borrow his formulation from its specifically medieval context & note how well it describes another aspect of contemporary T&T: our hierarchical order these days is basically economic; our "dogmatism, reverence and piety" reveals itself in widespread conventional morality, religiosity, superstition, & the fanatical devotion of many to the two main political parties. This also is clearly part of the equation.

Our definition as a people floats somewhere between those poles, "carnival" T&T & "pious" T&T. During that fantastic season ("fantastic" in the literal sense) between Christmas & Ash Wednesday the "carnival mentality" prevails, but it does not slumber the rest of the year, as Baldeosingh suggests. It's an undeniable part of who we are, a major component of our cultural DNA. But the "carnival mentality" does not totally encompass us or limit us, it does not disqualify us from constructive responsibility — & it is not necessarily a bad thing.
Robert Clarke reports in the T'dad Guardian today (no link, because the Guardian still has no online archive) that senior managers at bpTT — the local branch of BP Global, & the largest energy corporation operating in T&T — have hinted at disapproval of Talisman's attempts to get permission for seismic exploration in the Nariva Swamp:

"BpTT’s Environmental Systems Manager Tyrone Kalpee yesterday sideswiped Talisman Petroleum (Trinidad) Ltd saying one thing his company does not want is to create an issue like the one surrounding the embattled Canadian oil company.

"Talisman has received an environmental spanking for attempting to conduct 3D seismic surveys in the Nariva Swamp."
Lisa Guernsey writes in the NY Times today about the gender line in the blogosphere:

"People who track blogs hate to make generalizations, but many acknowledged that female bloggers often have more of an inward focus, keeping personal diaries about their daily lives.

"If that is the case, the Venus-Mars divide has made its way into Blogville. Women want to talk about their personal lives. Men want to talk about anything but. So far the people who have received the most publicity (often courtesy of male journalists) appear to be the latter."

The hyperactive Glenn Reynolds responds:

"...the reporter could have gone down my blogroll and found a lot of women warbloggers who blog more-or-less daily. Talking to them might have shed some light on the story. My guess is that women who do warblogs are interested in different things than women who don't.

"The interesting thing to me isn't that there are fewer women warbloggers than men. It's that there are so many more women warbloggers than there would have been ten years ago. The Times missed the bellicose-women trend entirely in this story."

I suggest a reading in Virgina Woolf for all concerned: A Room of One's Own & Three Guineas.

These days I spend much of my online time in the blogosphere, & the blogs I visit are mostly of the "public affairs" variety, & mostly written by men. (Also, contrary to the general trend, I seem drawn to bloggers whose opinions I largely disagree with.) But there's a little spark of voyeurism somewhere in my head. I've always been fascinated by other people's intimate accounts of their lives, by the restless, wriggling humanness revealed by honest & sensitive introspection. That's why, for instance, I've read so many writers' published diaries & letters — Virginia's foremost. (I can't help feeling on first-name terms with her — I've felt for so long a sense that I know her so well.) I don't expect I'll ever come across an online diary of comparable depth, vigour, incandescence. But there's a handful of blogosphere diarists, stumbled upon by varying degrees of randomness, whose personal streams of consciousness I find intensely interesting. I return to them almost obsessively, eager for new details, new emotions, from lives intersecting with mine only in the mysterious ether, only by the merest chance. (No, I'm not going to link — as absurd as it sounds, I feel that to reveal them is somehow to reveal more of myself than I'm prepared to.) I read the pundits & the warbloggers, sometimes till I'm sick of them, to follow the great necessary debate about the state of the world & our parts in it. But I read the diarists to learn more about the impossible human heart. And those lessons are the ones that sometimes change the way I think of myself.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Salman Rushdie, in an op-ed piece in today's NY Times, criticises "the fair-minded, tolerant Muslim majority" for not speaking out loudly enough against Islamist violence & extremism in Nigeria, Egypt, Iran, the Netherlands:

"A couple of months ago I said that I detested the sloganization of my name by Islamists around the world. I'm beginning to rethink that position. Maybe it's not so bad to be a Rushdie among other 'Rushdies.' For the most part I'm comfortable with, and often even proud of, the company I'm in.

"Where, after all, is the Muslim outrage at these events? As their ancient, deeply civilized culture of love, art and philosophical reflection is hijacked by paranoiacs, racists, liars, male supremacists, tyrants, fanatics and violence junkies, why are they not screaming?...

"Muslims in the West ... seem unnaturally silent on these topics. If you're yelling, we can't hear you."

Well, Aziz Poonawalla, for one, is arguing at the top of his lungs. Read his falsafat series, parts one & two.
Yesterday, just as Julian Kenny was criticising them on this subject, T&T's independent senators at last introduced the matter of constitution reform to debate in the Upper House, reports the Express:

"Under the existing Constitution the Prime Minister has too much power. That was the main point emerging from the contribution of Independent Senator Professor Ken Ramchand as he introduced his private motion on constitutional reform in the Senate yesterday.

"Ramchand claimed that the Cabinet had repeatedly violated the Constitution and that the system of government practised in this country 'ought to be described as Prime Ministerial rule'."

The UNC claims they're all in favour; Robin Montano even says the opposition will withdraw the whip & allow its senators to speak & vote freely (will they even know how to?). But, Parliament being what it is in T&T — a prime ministerial rubber stamp — much depends on whether the Manning government decides to get involved — &, with a reasonably safe majority for the next five years, & oil & gas money gushing in, why would Manning want to rock this boat?

Meanwhile, the irascible Denis Solomon says none of this will go anywhere if citizens don't get into the habit of critically examining political & civic questions at an early age:

"The Constitution should certainly be the subject of study in schools. Not in the hand-on-the-heart, salute-the-flag, pledge-of-allegiance style of patriotic brainwashing, but as part of a well-taught and properly graduated civics curriculum, designed to stimulate critical faculties.

"If these faculties are not awakened at an early stage in the child’s development, he turns into the kind of zombified Gospel-spouting adult for whom politics is encapsulated in phrases like 'Eric Williams was the second greatest man in the world'."

But if there's one change that would be more difficult to effect than constitution reform, it's meaningful education reform. I suspect we have about as much chance of the one as of the other. I wish those fellas down in the Red House would prove me wrong.
The BBC's in trouble in Jamaica, reports the Gleaner:

"The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been ordered by Jamaica's Broadcasting Commission to apologise to its Jamaican audience, within a fortnight, for transmitting obscene material on its World Service radio broadcast, or face further disciplinary action, which includes losing its special licence.

"The BBC contravened Regulation 30 (d) and (l), when it included in a documentary clips of a song by local artiste Buju Banton, 'Boom Bye Bye', containing indecent colloquialisms used to describe homosexual men and lyrics that explicitly supported violence against this group," the Commission stated yesterday....

"The BBC contacted the Commission to explain that the song was being used as part of a documentary depicting the prejudices and violence faced by homosexual men in Jamaica, specifically featuring the experiences of a gay Jamaican who had been recently granted asylum in the United Kingdom....

"The BBC was granted a special licence earlier this year to relay its World Service Caribbean programming in Jamaica, and officially launched the local FM service in October."

On the one hand, it's encouraging to hear the Broadcasting Commission condemn Banton's nasty song, since Jamaican society is probably the most homophobic in the Caribbean. On the other hand, it's deeply dismaying that this condemnation takes the form of so blatant a censorship policy, especially considering the context in this case: punish the BBC for saying homosexuals have it hard in Jamaica, on the grounds that this will make things hard for homosexuals in Jamaica? I can't quite get this straight inside my head.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Trinidad-born Neil Bissoondath has won this year's Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction from the Quebec Writers' Federation, for his novel Doing the Heart Good. (Last year's winner was Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which of course just won the Man Booker Prize, & which I've just finished reading.)
"As a free citizen I want to be able to read and evaluate as wide as possible a range of opinions on any given subject so that I have the greatest amount of information possible on which to make up my own mind. Since I cannot read what no one has written, then my freedom of access depends on others having the freedom to write what they think. And since access on the Internet is based on linking (that is, after all, why it became known as 'the web', because everything is directly or indirectly hooked together) then when people begin to actively attack the process of linking on ideological grounds the whole thing could fall apart, and the greatest weapon ever forged for spreading liberal democracy to the world could self-destruct through internecine warfare."

Steven Den Beste, in an extended post on the role of permalinks in guarding freedom of expression on the Web.

Monday, November 25, 2002

Ahem. The notorious Canadian activist group Adbusters has named this Friday, 29 November, the 11th annual Buy Nothing Day. They're asking us to protest needless consumption by "stepping out of the consumer stream" — refusing to buy anything, anywhere — for 24 hours. Why this Friday? It's the day after Thanksgiving in the U.S., & hence the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season.

You don't have to share Adbusters' radical views to be disturbed by the bacchanalia of excessive spending that's come to be the true meaning of the holiday season. (I suspect Damien will pounce on me for this one.) But imagine if instead of paying inflated prices for useless junk — as so many of us are going to do over the next month, in order to satisfy social convention — we donated a fraction of that money to deserving charities, such as the Cyril Ross Home for children with AIDS, here in T&T. Of course I'm not against gift-giving — I probably like getting presents more than the average person — & of course I know the year-end spending surge gives the economy a salutary boost. But if it comes down to buying yet another shiny trinket for someone who already has everything he or she needs to be happy, or putting that trinket-money to genuinely good use, buying medical supplies for a sick child — doesn't the latter go inarguably further towards increasing the sum of happiness in the world?

Very interested in hearing what my half-dozen readers think of this....

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Any cricket fans among my half-dozen readers? Take a look at the West Indies Cricket Blog, run by Ryan Naraine (Guyanese, based in New York).
Is the UNC falling apart? Kirk Meighoo, writing in the Sunday Express, suggests that the party, caught up in its current leadership crisis, has forgotten its rhetorical ideal of "national unity", & moreover has forgotten how to be an effective opposition:

"Today the UNC leadership debate is overly concerned with its core supporters, rather than with national issues, such as, say, the problem of violence in schools. The matter of succession seems not about ability, skill, or vision, but about loyalty and betrayal. How can the party solve national problems when they seem in such a mess themselves?

"The danger facing the UNC is that in times of trouble, it looks inward. Such a retreat could prove fatal."

The only issue Basdeo Panday seems capable of getting excited about these days is the fate of Caroni Ltd — playing openly on the emotions of the UNC's old ethnic core. Meanwhile, former stalwarts like Fuad Khan & Mervyn Assam are fidgeting & whispering in the ranks; & Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, whose Team Unity seemed crushed in last month's general elections, appears to be poising himself once again for a coup within his former party.

On the night of 7 October last, the UNC's election defeat looked like an opportunity to remake the party with fresh faces & fresh ideas to suit the changing politics of T&T. A month & a half later, the party leadership — which is to say, Basdeo Panday — is deliberately & petulantly ignoring this opportunity. If the UNC's MPs had any real political or moral authority they would demand the change they must know their party needs; but to eliminate MPs with any such authority has long been a chief political strategy of both the UNC & its predecessors & the PNM.
No doubt intending to reassure the Jamaican populace, assistant commissioner of police Osbourn Dyer & psychologist Leachim Semaj, interviewed in the Gleaner today, say "Jamaicans need not be overly worried by the current spate of brutal murders taking place in the capital city as the murders are not random."

"Figures last week from the Constabulary Communication Network (CCN) also showed that of the 937 murders [for 2002 thus far], domestic murders accounted for 252 while gang-related murders stood at 145.

"Murders with robbery as their motive were 116, while the motive of some 60 murders are undetermined so far. Political killings accounted for 12, with another 10 being as a result of mob killings.

"Two of the murders were due to the confrontation with the police while six victims were raped then killed this year....

"Psychologist Dr. Leachim Semaj feels that 'the media is playing on people's weakness.

"'Over the past five years, 35 per cent of the murders are domestic, 35 per cent are retaliatory and 15 per cent drug-related. Ordinary citizens are not affected.

"'The killings are not random. They occur in communities that exist outside the law. In these communities, people are preying on their own. They protect the known criminals, they know who the wrongdoers are and out of fear they do not pass on information to the state,' Dr. Semaj said."

What's more shocking here: the magnitude of the figures under discussion; or the callousness of Dyer & Semaj's de facto admission that Jamaica's urban underclass are beyond the pale of civil society & the concern of "ordinary citizens"; or their deliberate avoidance of the truth that none of this can change as long as Jamaica's politicians continue to depend on the direct & indirect support of the criminal warlords?

So I have moved you,
So has my heart spoken,
Unseen the falling dew,
Unfound the road open.
And I have travelled far
Into vague distance,
The polished glass and the stain,
And the mind's acceptance
Of all loss and all pain,
And the moving forward.
Who is it held a star
And found the light broken?
Untouched the light in the star,
Unknown the waves shoreward.

— George Campbell, 1916–2002

Wayne Brown writes in the Jamaica Observer today about the death of George Campbell, "the father of Jamaican poetry", who died last week in Brooklyn:

"George Campbell had neither education nor wit; neither urbanity nor the liberating power of Imagination. His only asset as a poet was his soul. And as it turned out, it was not inexhaustible."

Saturday, November 23, 2002

Anand Ramlogan, writing in the Trinidad Guardian today (no link, because the Guardian still has no online archive), argues that the problem of representation in T&T politics would be solved by amending the constitution to include a "right of recall":

"What remedy does our system give [voters] if they’re dissatisfied with the performance of their elected representatives?...

"If the losing candidate knows that he has the opportunity to remove or unseat his successful opponent via a petition signed by,a stipulated percentage (50 or 60 per cent?) of the registered voters who voted in the last election, he will have an incentive to monitor the performance of the representative.

"The right of recall is, in my view, essential to a functioning democracy. It will restore power to the people by giving them the right to withdraw their vote for elected representatives who do not perform. It is the natural form of democratic pressure that will compel representatives to perform....

"Constitutional reform must involve giving the electorate a right of recall. Once six months have elapsed, any elected MP or councillor must be subject to a power of recall vested in the people who elected them to serve.

"A petition signed by a stipulated majority percentage (say 51 or 60 per cent) of the voters that elected that official can be presented to the President via the EBC or the Speaker in Parliament and a by-election must be called within three months.

"To prevent recall by voter padding, only people who were registered to vote when the official was elected should have the right to recall."

I suspect this "right" would have a meaningful effect only in marginal constituencies, & it would almost certainly work to promote political patronage, as the government of the day would sensibly pour money via all sorts of special works projects into any constituency that seemed likely to try the recall process.

Also, the mechanism as Ramlogan outlines it has an interesting feature the consequences of which he may not have realised: it would permit persons who were registered voters at the time of the last election but who chose to stay away from the polls to participate in the recall & perhaps determine its outcome. This would be a roundabout way of putting some meaningful political power in the hands of citizens who (like me) decide to abstain on election day in order to protest the choice of candidates for their constituency & the ideological bankruptcy of the existing parties. Six months later they could continue their protest by initiating recall as a matter of principle.

Of course, we could get more directly to the point by putting a "none of the above" box on the ballot, & stipulating that if a majority of voters in a particular constituency thus indicate a lack of confidence in all available candidates a by-election must be held, under the same rules.
"In Among the Believers, V.S. Naipaul's book about his travels in the Muslim world, a young man who has been driving the author around Pakistan admits that he doesn't have a passport and, keen to go abroad and see the world, expresses a yearning for one. Naipaul reflects, more than a little caustically, that it's a shame that the only freedom in which this young fellow appears to be interested is the freedom to leave the country.

"When I first read this passage, years ago, I had a strong urge to defend that young man against the celebrated writer's contempt. In the first place, the desire to get out of Pakistan, even temporarily, is one with which many people will sympathise. In the second and more important place, the thing that the young man wants — freedom of movement across frontiers — is, after all, a thing that Naipaul himself takes for granted, the very thing, in fact, that enables him to write the book in which the criticism is made."

— Salman Rushdie, in an essay in today's UK Guardian called "Divided Selves", a discussion of "the crossing of borders, of language, geography and culture".

Rushdie sidesteps Naipaul's point here, which, of course, is that if more people in Pakistan took a greater interest in other freedoms — freedoms of thought, of speech, of conscience, of the press etc. etc. etc. — that desire to get out of the country might be a little less urgent.

At the same time, it's a desire Naipaul ought to understand. How many times has he written & spoken about his need, as a young man, to get out of Trinidad?
"God these were days, pick up the phone and order a book. Now if I am not traveling I have to be satisfied with second hand books or photocopies. I am not getting into a discussion about copyrights, it is either this or I can afford nothing to read, I can't even get these photocopies easily since they don't have the approval seal of the ministry of information. Six months ago the ministry of information issued a ruling that states anyone selling books or photocopies of books without having the ministry's approval will be imprisoned and fined a truck load of money, I go almost every Friday but there is nothing new. I am still hoping to find that translated copy of Salman Rushdie's Shame I saw ages ago."

— Salam Pax, writing from Baghdad a couple days ago about the difficulty of finding reading matter in Iraq these days.

A very nifty discovery, via Samizdata: a guide to weblogs based in London, using a tube map interface. (Damien, you should go in & add indiawest.)
A few days ago Damien linked approvingly to an article in the National Review called Taking Environmentalists Seriously. He summarises the authors' argument as follows:

"Part of the reason why people are inconsistent in their positions is that they use different heuristics when faced with different problems, even if they are of a similar nature or the stakes are comparable. This is especially true when it comes to policy, when people are perfectly willing to tolerate some risks (say, a 1-in-1 million chance of dying in a terrorist attack) and not others (a 1-in-1 million chance of getting cancer from a pesticide-sprayed apple, say.) The outcomes are comparable (death in both cases) but one is treated as being worse, or more serious, than the other. Policymaking would be a lot sounder if more realistic attitudes towards costs, benefits and risks were taken into account."

This post, I suspect, is obliquely aimed at me, in light of the little tussle I've had with Damien recently over the Nariva exploration issue.

His point is a solid one: it's merely common sense to consider the costs as well as the benefits of any potential policy or action. But I must (humbly) note that there's a flaw in the reasoning behind the example Damien uses (death due to terrorist attack vs. death due to pesticide-induced cancer). If these hypothetical risks are of the same degree, Damien says, we should treat them as equally serious. But he does not notice their crucial difference in kind. In the case of pesticide-induced cancer, policymakers could act to directly eliminate the cause of the risk: the production & use of the toxic substance in question could be banned, making the risk of death due to that substance effectively zero. The same is not true of death due to terrorist attack, which, as just about every US government official has warned over the last year, is a risk that by its nature cannot be eliminated, though it could potentially be reduced.

Possibility vs. impossibility: a categorical difference. This too must be taken into account.

Friday, November 22, 2002

What triggered off the big bang?

"The more scientists testily insisted that the big bang was unfathomable, the more they sounded like medieval priests saying, 'Don't ask me what made God.' Researchers, prominently Alan Guth of MIT, began to assert that the big bang could be believed only if its mechanics could be explained. Indeed, Guth went on to propose such an explanation. Suffice it to say that, while Guth asserts science will eventually figure out the cause, he still invokes unknown physical laws in the prior condition. And no matter how you slice it, calling on unknown physical laws sounds awfully like appealing to the supernatural."

Gregg Easterbrook writes about "the new convergence" of theoretical physics & theology in the December Wired. He makes the interesting point that physicists seem far more receptive to the cosmological opinions of churchmen than do biologists, perhaps because theoretical physics, depending as it does on mathematical models of nearly inconceivable phenomena (dark matter, multiple universes), is itself almost a kind of faith.

Either God exists, & created the universe, or the universe created itself; the two possibilities are equally beyond comprehension.
"Repeatedly we have had to pay attention to the texture of social relations in this country and to acknowledge our consistent refusal of violent confrontation despite blatant provocation."

— Lloyd Best, in his column in today's Express, arguing that for 40 years T&T has been in a prolonged succession crisis.
Jamaica's Christmas pantomime, a cultural institution since 1941, has fled its traditional home at the Ward Theatre in downtown Kingston for the safer uptown precincts of the Little Theatre:

"Barbara Gloudon, a stalwart of the pantomime movement and writer of this year's show, Miss Annie, told Splash that the decision to move to the Little Theatre was taken earlier this week by the Ward's committee, following last Saturday's shooting incident downtown, reportedly between feuding gangs, that resulted in five persons being killed and 17 others injured."

And in her column in today's Observer Gloudon acknowledges what most Jamaicans know only too well: downtown Kingston is now almost alien territory, beyond the control of the civil authorities — a war zone battled over by the dons & their murderous gunmen:

"Downtown is divided up between major warlords who control the protection racket. According to reports, one group invaded the turf of another. Lessons had to be taught so the guns blazed to show who a rule.... Perhaps for the first time we can begin to understand what is behind the long-running serial of removal/re-location of the vendors on the sidewalks downtown. Clearly, neither the police, nor the KSAC, nor the Chamber of Commerce, nor the politicians, can do anything unless the downtown warlords are ready to have it done."

"A real country, with real problems"?

Thursday, November 21, 2002

A thousand Jamaican schoolchildren demonstrated against violent crime yesterday, the Observer reports. That country's murder toll for 2002 has hit 939; more than 70 of the victims have been children. The Observer, in its editorial today, pleads with the Patterson government to act decisively before Jamaica collapses entirely into anarchy:

"Mr Patterson must be aware of the grave danger, if the current circumstances continue, of his leaving Jamaica a failed state — a country of enclaves controlled by warlords. The prime minister should not think this notion far-fetched. His own security minister has conceded that there are areas of the country where the state has no effective security control, where justice and law enforcement are essentially the preserve of the "dons" and community leaders, so-called."

Meanwhile, Michael Burke, again in the Observer, suggests that a revival of the old colonial system of transportation (i.e. getting rid of criminals by shipping them off to an obscure corner of the world) could be the solution to Jamaica's crisis of violence:

" a short-term measure, we should be transporting prisoners to a South American country that our government has worked out a deal with. For example, Guyana or Belize.

"Some point out that such a thing is against an internationally agreed convention. But I am sure that we could get around that. Couldn't we give the prisoners a choice? Either they go to some agreed place voluntarily or they serve a tough prison sentence here for their crimes? In that way it would not be forced, would it?"

No, this isn't a Swiftian modest proposal; Burke appears to be quite serious. But he can't have thought this through very carefully — does he really believe that Kingston's brutal gunmen, set loose in the jungles of Guyana, would spontaneously form a little model society to the benefit of their host country? An idea this absurd reveals astonishing despair. How widespread is that despair in Jamaica right now?
A "secret" poem written by Philip Larkin for his lover Betty Mackereth 26 years ago was finally published today in the latest issue of the Larkin Society newsletter, reports the UK Guardian:

"Larkin, who died in 1984, sent Ms Mackereth the poem during their affair in the mid-1970s. In her first public gesture since then, she says in a note in the newsletter, 'the poem accompanied a letter from Philip sent when spending a week at All Souls [College], Oxford, in February 1976'.

"She has apparently broken her silence to set the record straight after a Guardian report last month implied the first verse of the poem was doggerel and unlikely to be by Larkin. The verse was quoted when it was claimed to have been found in a notebook which vanished from the poet's former home in Hull, where he was university librarian."

Read the untitled poem on the Guardian website.
A brief housekeeping note: since I started this blog in mid-October I'd been using blogger's bSTATS to monitor traffic, but about a week ago it seems the software stopped recording visitors, leading me to believe, for a few days at least, that no one was actually dropping in. As of this morning I've installed a Nedstat counter (look for the icon at the very bottom of this page), which I hope will prove more reliable. (It also makes my visitor statistics accessible to the world — now all half dozen of you can see just how unpopular this blog really is!)
Kevin Baldeosingh suggests in his Express column today that the abortion debate could play a decisive role in T&T's next general election:

"Legalising abortion, if done now, would also strengthen the PNM’s grip on its grassroots supporters come the next election, since such a measure benefits poor women and by 2007 the Government would have the figures to prove it. Whether the party needs its grip strengthened is a moot question, but our electoral situation is now one where every little bit counts. Perhaps more importantly, though, the party would also win liberals’ approval: and, by and large, the liberal vote is also the swing vote."

The great assumption here is that a serious social issue could actually influence how a significant part of the T&T electorate decides to vote; will we grow up that much by 2007? And I'm very curious to know how Baldeosingh arrived at the idea that "the liberal vote is also the swing vote". One could make a case, as Raymond Ramcharitar has (here, here, & here), that October's election proved the opposite. I personally suspect that much of the "liberal vote", such as it is, stayed home, voting with its silence.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Matt Prescott, zoologist at Oxford University, has started an environmental affairs blog, Earth-Info.Net (recommended by Josh Chafetz of OxBlog). Many, many useful links. I wonder if Damien will check it out?
Robert Clarke reports in the Trinidad Guardian today that Talisman's lawyers, at yesterday's hearing before the Environmental Commission, argued that Nariva is not legally protected against seismic exploration (no direct link because the Guardian has no online archive — but see note below):

"Attorney Mark Morgan yesterday argued that the Nariva swamp is not legally protected from explosive geological surveys.

"Speaking on the first day of the Environmental Commission’s maiden appeal, Morgan said the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the Forest Act, the Conservation of Wildlife Act and the Environmentally Sensitive Area Rules all fail to provide 'absolute prohibition' against performing a 3-D seismic survey.

"He said the Ramsar Convention is not enforceable because it has not been backed by local legislation.

"Morgan said the three other pieces of legislation provide no specific protection against a survey.

"'There is no policy that prevents them (the EMA) from considering the application (to conduct a 3-D seismic survey),' he said."

The EMA's attorney will respond today.

(Note: After an email to the Guardian's webmaster went unanswered, I wrote to the paper's Internet editor about the highly inconvenient lack of an online archive, & got a prompt response. They're working hard on setting up an archive, she said, & maybe it'll be up by the end of November....)

Monday, November 18, 2002

Damien responds, this time in his blog, to my argument that seismic exploration in the Nariva Swamp will in fact do considerable ecological damage.

"Let me say that the evidence Nick provides at best weakly supports his case against seismic surveying. Firstly, he talks about the effect of seismic testing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This testing took place in 1984–85, with the 'heavy, monster trucks' that he writes about. What he fails to realise is that companies, even oil companies, do not operate in a vacuum. Does he not think that the technology to test would have improved in the past 17 years, not least due to pressue from environmentalists?"

What Damien fails to realise is that one of those technological developments he's referring to is the emergence of 3-D as opposed to 2-D seismic surveying; 2-D is what was carried out in the ANWR 15 years ago; 3-D, the method currently being used here in T&T & elsewhere, is even more invasive (as the diagram at the top of the Fish & Wildlife Service webpage clearly indicates), since it requires a much tighter "grid", i.e. those big trucks (& they'll have to be big to navigate the marshy landscape of Nariva) will be churning up even more surface area than they would using the older technology. But don't take my word for it, listen to the US Bureau of Land Management:

"A 1998 Environmental Impact Statement from the Bureau of Land Management states: 'because 3-D seismic involves more tight turns by heavy equipment than does 2-D, the potential for vegetation damage is greater.'"

Yes, as Damien points out, the Alberta Centre for Boreal Studies does suggest a number of "best practices" to reduce the environmental impact of seismic exploration, but none of these are standard in the industry, all involve higher cost, & frankly I don't believe (& I'm sure Damien doesn't either) that Talisman will go to any great lengths to minimise damage to Nariva, once granted permission to proceed. The corporation that took advantage of bleeding, starving, war-torn Sudan is not going to worry very much about some mangroves or some manatees.

The odd thing is, Damien's picking away at my argument, yet he admits he agrees with me:

"I am not saying that the swamp should be exploited — personally, I would rather it not be.... [Nicholas's] position, though, sounds like exploitation should not even be contenanced — that the idea of doing so should not be entertained. This sounds less than reasoned argument than the faith of anti-development — certain areas are no-go, and that any proposal to do so is either too ludicrous or too blasphemous to be considered."

Well, that last bit there is rubbish, frankly! Pure speculative invention on Damien's part. Here's the point he's missing: the "development" of the Nariva Swamp has already been "countenanced", & the decision the T&T government made was that the swamp should be protected as far as possible in its natural state. For the very good reasons which I've outlined in previous posts, it was decided that of all the uses Nariva could be put to, a wildlife reserve was the best one — a reasoned decision, as opposed to what Damien calls "the faith of anti-development".

It's rather a stretch to take what I've written on this subject the last couple of days as evidence of such a "faith". If I were opposed to the exploitation & development of T&T's natural resources I'd be picketing bpTT headquarters round the Savannah or something like that. Instead I'm reasonably arguing that a sensitive natural area of the country, generally agreed to be worth protecting, should not be exposed to the depradations of a greedy, ruthless foreign corporation. In the give-&-take of economic development we've sensibly decided to trade large areas of our natural landscape in south Trinidad for the oil & gas beneath the surface, & the benefits of exploiting these; it's precisely because of this that it's worth declaring some of our most ecologically valuable territory off-limits: to remind us of the true terms of the exchange.
My friend Damien responds via email to yesterday's post on Talisman Energy & the possibility of seismic exploration in the Nariva Swamp:

"A seismic study does not involve 'blowing up chunks' of an area. It's entirely sub-surface, and its surface impact is very limited. Should oil be found, it need not entail actual drilling in the area — for years oil companies have had the technology to drill sideways, and platforms could be set up offshore to do this."

All right, "blowing up chunks" may be slightly too colourful a phrase — & I did note in my previous post that the explosives are detonated below the surface — but it's not true that "surface impact is very limited". The seismic data produced by the sub-surface detonations is actually collected by equipment transported over the surveyed area by heavy vehicles — big monster trucks, pretty much, sometimes preceeded by bulldozers — moving in a tight grid pattern. These vehicles plough through vegetation & leave ruts up to 15 inches deep in the soil — perhaps even deeper on moist, marshy ground such as is characteristic of Nariva. Apart from gouging lines across the landscape, these vehicles seriously disturb wildlife, cause damage to waterways & natural drainage patterns, & trigger soil erosion.

This is apart from the fact that the sub-surface explosions can be detrimental to some fauna, which may be accustomed to the occasional naturally occurring earthquake, but not to a pattern of regular tremors over an extended period. Aquatic animals — like Nariva's manatees — are particularly sensitive to this kind of sonic disturbance.

These effects are well-documented elsewhere in the world; see for instance this report by the US Fish & Wildlife Service on the effect of seismic exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or this fact sheet compiled by the Alberta Centre for Boreal Studies:

* Because regeneration is inadequate, seismic activities result in a progressive loss of mature forest and alteration of forest structure.... the cumulative loss of habitat is substantial.
* Direct losses are magnified by the avoidance of habitat in the vicinity of seismic lines by some species....
* Habitat effectiveness is further reduced by the extensive fragmentation of forest stands that results from seismic activity.
* Seismic lines provide access routes into the forest for all-terrain vehicles.... This leads to increased hunting and poaching and can have significant adverse effects on soil and vegetation.
* Damage to aquatic systems. Deleterious impacts include increased stream sedimentation, bank erosion, barriers to fish passage, destruction of aquatic habitats, and alteration of drainage patterns.
* Alteration in predator-prey interactions....
* Damage to soil (e.g., compaction and erosion).
* Disturbance of wildlife from dynamite blasting and machinery noise.
* Introduction of aggressive weed species into the forest.

Nariva is a legally protected wetland area whose ecological significance is internationally recognised. Several endangered species make their homes there. The swamp is an important centre in Trinidad for the development of responsible eco-tourism. Does it make any sense to allow such a place to be torn up speculatively by a ruthless corporation already notorious for unscrupulous dealings in Sudan? I don't think so, the EMA doesn't think so, & I assume the Environmental Commission won't think so either.

(BTW, I do know a bit about horizontal drilling — I know, for instance, that bpTT's Amherstia 7 well in the Immortelle field recently set a record for T&T by achieving a 2.5-mile horizontal step.)

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Wayne Brown's column in today's Jamaica Observer describes a visit last year to Finca Vigia, Hemingway's hilltop estate outside Havana.

I cringe whenever I hear someone describe Hemingway's prose as "the finest ... of the 20th century". Brown goes even further, calling Papa "the composer of perhaps half-a-million sentences that shine today every bit as wonderfully as they shone 50 and 75 years ago" — I wonder what statistical mechanism produced this approximate figure?
The Express today runs a report by Mark Meredith on Talisman Energy, the Canadian oil & gas company seeking permission to conduct seismic studies in the Nariva Swamp. After the EMA turned down the request, Talisman filed an appeal with the new Environmental Commission, which will hear the petition tomorrow.

Just to get this clear: the Nariva Swamp is a protected reserve on Trinidad's east coast, listed under the Ramsar Convention as a "wetland of international importance", home to highly-endangered West Indian Manatees, & the focus of efforts to return Blue & Yellow Macaws to the wild. Seismic investigation is widely used by petrochemical companies to determine whether the geology of a particular area suggests significant oil or gas deposits. It involves drilling holes down into the bedrock, planting explosives, detonating these, & collecting & interpreting the resulting seismic data.

This can't have been a difficult decision for the EMA to make, & I assume the Environmental Commission will agree that blowing up chunks of one of Trinidad's most ecologically sensitive natural areas is a bad idea; still, I'm taken aback by Talisman's sheer bloody-minded nerve in making this request, & curious to know how the Manning government feels about the issue.

But sheer bloody-minded nerve is something Talisman seems to have no shortage of. Meredith's report centres on the company's recent operations in Sudan — for four years Talisman owned a 25% stake in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Comapny, accused by many international human rights & religious groups of funding the Sudanese government's catastrophic civil war (involving child soldiers, enslavement, famine, the bombing of hospitals etc.). Talisman sold this stake in late October, after widespread protests, at least one lawsuit, threatened sanctions — but also, probably most importantly, because a small but noisy group of its own shareholders were getting increasingly restless about what they thought was the company's complicity in a huge ongoing crime against the people of Sudan, putting pressure on Talisman's share price.

(See these December 1999 & March 2002 stories in Canadian Business Magazine for more background details.)
Derek Walcott admirers, take note: our fortunate traveller will be reading in Santa Fe this coming Wednesday night, with a live webcast made available by the Lannan Foundation. Tune in at 9.00 p.m. EST (10.00 p.m. in the eastern Caribbean) & make sure you have QuickTime Player installed.
Nicholas Laughlin's blog banned by the Chinese government? So it seems, according to a real-time testing system devised by Jonathan Zittrain & Benjamin Edelman of the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. The system was set up as part of a project studying Internet filtering in China; it's been made accessible to the public as an experiment in what the authors call "open research". When you test a URL you help broaden Zittrain & Edelman's research base. (I discovered all this via OxBlog.)

Of course it's highly improbable that I've been singled out for censorship — as OxBlog's Josh Chafetz points out, a blanket filter's probably been set up for everything & everyone on the blogspot server. And it's hard to tell how reliable Zittrain & Edelman's system actually is — their explanation of how it works is pretty vague. (For what it's worth, the Trinidad Express & the Trinidad Guardian are both reported as blocked also!)

Saturday, November 16, 2002

The golden arches no longer gleam against the Trinidad sky, as yesterday's Express reports:

"McDonald’s customers bought their last Big Macs yesterday when the American fast food giant abruptly shut down operations at its chain of four restaurants in Trinidad and Tobago.

"The closure took effect at exactly 5 p.m.

"None of McDonald’s franchisees would comment on the abrupt departure of the fast food giant which has been posting some losses and is in cost-cutting mode.... Statements from McDonald’s Trinidad operations and its advertising agency attributed the closure to poor financial performance of the restaurants."

(Good riddance to plastic food, I say.) But has the invisible hand really achieved in T&T what Jose Bove & the anti-globalists are still trying to do up there in Europe?

This morning, as I do every day on my way to work, I drove past what used to be the Westmoorings McDonald's. All the signage had disappeared overnight, & it seemed to me the Colonel, barely twenty feet away, was smiling rather more broadly than usual.

Friday, November 15, 2002

The New Yorker is my favourite magazine, but I don't read it online; I've been a subscriber for years & by far prefer the aesthetic experience of real paper & ink. Usually by the time each issue makes its way to me it's a week or two out of date; a recent pile-up somewhere in the delivery system meant that I got the 14 & 21 October issue only today, & have only just read Hendrik Hertzberg's "Manifesto", a comment piece on the foreign policy doctrine informing the Bush administration's position on Iraq.

Hertzberg's piece is the clearest analysis I've yet come across of the most worrying aspect of this war with Iraq we're hurtling inexorably towards: this is the first instance of Bush's clearly stated doctrine of pre-emptive action against any nation his administration believes to be a threat to US interests. This doctrine assumes a moral authority — in fact, a moral exceptionalism — that is alarming in its implications.

"The vision laid out in the Bush document is a vision of what used to be called, when we believed it to be the Soviet ambition, world domination. It's a vision of a world in which it is American policy to prevent the emergence of any rival power, whatever it stands for — a world policed and controlled by American military might. This goes much further than the notion of America as the policeman of the world. It's the notion of America as both the policeman and the legislator of the world, and it's where the Bush vision goes seriously, even chillingly, wrong. A police force had better be embedded in and guided by a structure of law and consent. There's a name for the kind of regime in which the cops rule, answering only to themselves. It's called a police state."

The crucial issue is not Saddam Hussein's evil (beyond argument), not the question of whether Iraq & the world would be better off without him (yes, clearly), not oil (there are easier ways to get it, if that were all Bush wanted). The crucial issue is the fact that this war will start us all down the slippery slope towards the state of affairs ultimately envisioned by Bush's "National Security Strategy": in Hertzberg's words, "a kind of global American military dictatorship."

"I know the war is inevitable ... and I know saddam is a nutcase with a finger on the trigger. But this is my country and I love its people, there is no way you can convince me that a war is OK. I worry about what will happen during the attacks and I worry more about what will happen afterwards. I take walks in parts of the old city and can't stop thinking will this be still there this time next year.... on an emotional level I can not and will not accept a war on Iraq."

— Salam Pax, writing today from Baghdad.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

"I wanted to be able to do for Barbados what Chamoiseau did for Martinique and, one could say, what James Joyce did for Ireland. But it is interesting that I would go back to Barbados. When you're not born in the country in which you are living, when you think about it seriously, there are lots of very small things you never know and learn which, when you multiply them, really is the crystallization of the fact that you are a foreigner."

— Austin Clarke, talking about his new novel The Polished Hoe in an interview in January Magazine. He reveals, among other things, that he can't remember how many novels he's written, that he doesn't at all like Naipaul, & that he accidentally deleted the electronic text of this latest book twice while he was writing it.
A few weeks ago, when I started this blog, the debate over the hypocritical World Conference of Africans and African Descendents Against Racism was still topical, at least in Barbados. I meant to post on this issue & never got around to it. Instead of commenting so long after the fact, I'm going to quote instead from an essay called "My Race", written in 1893 by José Martí (I've been reading the new Penguin Classics Selected Writings recently):

"'Racist' is becoming a confusing word, and it must be clarified. No man has any special rights because he belongs to one race or another: say 'man' and all rights have been stated. The black man, as a black man, is not inferior or superior to any other man; the white man who says 'my race' is being redundant, and the black man who says 'my race' is also redundant.... what right does the white racist, who believes his race has superior rights, have to complain of the black racist, who also believes that his race has special rights? What right does the black racist who sees a special character in his race have to complain of the white racist?"
Tim Hector, Antiguan writer, political activist, former senator & editor of Outlet, died on Tuesday morning after a long struggle with heart disease, barely two weeks short of his sixtieth birthday. The Antigua Sun obituary quotes Rickey Singh, among many others:

"His most strident detractors will have to pay homage to a man who had devoted his adult life to promote a West Indian consciousness from which a young generation of West Indians continue to benefit.

"He has paid the price for it through name calling, vilification, banning from one territory to another.... Hector was and has always been a dedicated West Indian patriot committed to economic and political union, a position from which he never deviated. His voice will be missed whether it is in cricket, culture or politics."

The Jamaica Observer also runs a short obituary.

I knew Hector only through his "Fan the Flames" column, occasionally carried by the T&T Review, but lately had been meaning to track down his email address & write him a short note. A few months ago he reprinted one of my book reviews in a column on C.L.R. James, with some gentle commentary. I wanted in the first place to thank him, but also to find out more about his relationship with James. I regret I missed my chance to get to know, however slightly & briefly, this vital, controversial man.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

"I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life."

— a line from Frank O'Hara's poem "Meditations in an Emergency", which I've just come across in an essay on James Schuyler in the Autumn 2002 Poetry Review.

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

"As much as I find the resolution unfair, provocative, unrealistic in it's demands and timeline, vague enough to allow for all sorts of traps I hope saddam does accept the resolution. Only to buy us time. It is a lose-lose situation for the Iraqi people no matter how you look at it. The USA is still talking of regime change, I think Iraq will not go past the first 30 days before the USA shouts 'foul'. And in a case of war I do believe that if saddam has any biological or chemical weapons he is very likely to use them on his own people to give the CNN and Jazeera the bloody images everyone doesn't want to see."

— Salam Pax, writing from Baghdad today.
The T'dad Guardian reports today that BWIA & its ad agency, CMB, are fussing about an ad for Virgin Atlantic which has been appearing in the local press (no link because the Guardian has no permanent online archive [sigh]):

"As it seeks to attract additional passengers to London with a reduced fare, BWIA is facing stiff competition from Virgin Atlantic airlines, accusing it of spoofing the BWIA name in its press ads.

"BWIA has officially written to the Advertising Standards Authority about Virgin’s most recent ad in the local press in which it is advertising its own London fares....

"In the Virgin ad, which appeared in the Guardian and another daily newspaper, the 'W' in the acronym BWIA was changed to a 'V' and a slogan below read 'Better Virgin. It’s Available.'

"'I can assure you that falls outside of the standards set by the (T&T) advertising association,' said BWIA corporate communications officer Clint Williams....

"'That’s not the rules that we play by here in Trinidad,' said Williams.
Some advertising officials interviewed yesterday agreed."

Grow up! Virgin is running a clever ad playing on customers' perceptions of BWIA's service. The appropriate response is not to run off whining complaints to some big daddy standards authority. Why can't CMB come up with an even more clever ad, making fun of Virgin if necessary, run that in the press, let the audience make up its mind — in other words, play the game! Or are BWIA's admen stumped for ideas? Do we have a real ad industry here in T&T or not? Sandy Morrison, show us what you've really got.

Monday, November 11, 2002

The Antigua Sun reports today that Antiguan commissioner of police Trueheart Smith is investigating whether police officers may have helped DC sniper John Allen Muhammed escape from a St. John's police station last year:

"Muhammad was detained by the police on 13 March, 2001 for attempting to check in someone under the name of Dwight Russell at the V.C. Bird International Airport, but later walked out of the Newgate Street police station.... the sergeant in charge took ill and went off duty at 11:39 a.m., and a minute later at 11:40 a.m. Muhammad walked out the station."
The Trinidad Guardian, whose broadsheet format used to be its distinguishing physical characteristic, published its first "G-Size" edition today, just slightly larger than its tabloid rival, the Trinidad Express.

"After much research and consumer feedback, we have decided to adapt the size and format of the paper to a more convenient one."

Maybe most Guardian readers do prefer a more "convenient" size, but I doubt the change will produce any great increase in readership; & abandoning the broadsheet format is surely an aesthetic mistake. There's something about a big, slightly unwieldy sheet that says, "newspaper". You settle back, prop up your elbows, open the paper with a satisfying snap — this is serious business, this is taking on one's responsibility to be an informed citizen, this is caring about the state of the world. The "G-Size" Guardian looks like a lightweight — I picked up today's edition & couldn't quite believe I was supposed to get solid reliable information from the thing. It's all in my head, I know — I don't have the same qualms about the Express — but I'm fairly sure all over T&T today Guardian readers were picking up their newspapers with steupses and mutterings. "They making joke or what?"
A few questions I ask myself almost every day:

"What does a gifted, ambitious person from a place like Trinidad do with his life? What are the options, and how ethical, satisfactory, lasting, and culturally valuable are they? Is such a person fated to end his life in exile, a lonely émigré?"

— From "Civilisation and V.S. Naipaul", an essay by Bruce Bawer in the Autumn 2002 Hudson Review. Bawer writes a decent summary, with no particularly original insights, of Naipaul's work & themes, declaring him "someone whose entire body of work might justifiably be described as a defense of civilisation".

Sunday, November 10, 2002

We're all Afro-Saxons, says Lloyd Best in today's Express:

"The term is merely an apt description of all West Indians — without exception.... The term is all-embracing and, as we’re perhaps only now beginning to realise, the entire society is imprisoned by it....

"It is hard not to regard Afro-Saxon culture as the solvent which makes a unity of the 'repeating island' while also making of the region one integrated whole.... The distinguishing feature of this culture is that any sense of a past is almost wholly missing."

But is Best simply using "Afro-Saxon" as a synonym for "Creole"? He doesn't define his terms closely enough; I admit I'm puzzled. Perhaps all will be explained in a future column.

Meanwhile, I'm still waiting, impatiently, for Raymond Ramcharitar's response to Maxie Cuffie....
The Antigua Sun & the Jamaica Observer report that the task force investigating DC sniper John Allen Muhammed's activities in Antigua is looking for three Jamaican citizens, including a mystery accomplice involved in Muhammed's abandoned plan to kidnap prime minister Lester Bird & bomb a bank in St. John's. This unidentified accomplice was issued with an Antiguan passport in August 2000 under the name "John Edwards" & is believed to have applied for a US passport under the name "Frederick Jones."

Meanwhile, the NY Times reports that US investigators believe Lee Malvo was the actual gunman in most of the sniper shootings. The authorities have already decided to try Muhammed & Malvo first in the state of Virginia, which permits the execution of 17-year-olds (Malvo is not yet an adult), in hopes of getting capital sentences for both snipers. After the daily horrors of last month's sniping spree it's not surprising that lots of people want the worst possible punishment for the culprits (& I've come across some gruesome suggestions posted in the blogosphere), but at least a few voices have been raised to insist that that fact of those horrors should not cancel out certain standards of justice & decency (from the Times):

"Advocates for juveniles today sharply criticized a decision by the police to question Mr. Malvo without a lawyer or a guardian present. Todd G. Petit, Mr. Malvo's court-appointed guardian, has said the police barred him from contacting Mr. Malvo or accompanying him during questioning. On Friday, Mr. Malvo's court-appointed lawyer, Michael S. Arif, said he would ask a judge to bar prosecutors from using statements his client made in the session.

"Diane Fenner, a Virginia lawyer and expert in juvenile justice, said there could be grounds for throwing any statements out, but that such a move could be difficult. 'In Virginia, the rights of juveniles have been left undefined and it's almost an oxymoron to say "rights of a juvenile,"' she said. 'That's obviously why they want to try him in Virginia, and that's why the situation is so bleak for him.'"

I find the death penalty unconditionally abhorrent, but you needn't agree with this opinion to find it deeply disturbing that law officials in Washington are so gung-ho to have Malvo executed. I fear when the time comes very few people will make any protest. At least Amnesty International's Caribbean representatives say they will.

Saturday, November 09, 2002

"I’m not surprised that this is the moment when Raymond Ramcharitar and Maxie Cuffie have elected to cross swords in the full glare of media publicity....

"What these two sherpas have in common is that neither came close to discerning the issue ... the central point. Which is this: how can a culture ever escape from itself?...

"The precise duty of a responsible population and its responsible elites, in charge of their place, and willing to refuse protest, complaint and excuse, is to plumb their problem to its depths and to explore ultimate causes, elusive as these might be. Only the innocent student or observer of the Caribbean scene over the course of the last 50 years of self-government and independence can fail to see: we have a system problem that extends to all the local jurisdictions and transports us beyond individuals, governments, parties, leaders and ruling elites. It is in this sense that both Ramcharitar and Cuffie are pitching at a palpable level of innocence."

Lloyd Best weighs in on Ramcharitar v. Cuffie in today's Express. What I'm really looking forward to is Raymond's response to Cuffie & the others. I disagree with a healthy portion of what he writes, but I enjoy his columns & reviews more than almost anything else in T&T's daily press. I admire his forthrightness & respect his anger. He's trying harder than most of us to figure this thing out. We need people to get up & say the things he says, if only to give us something truly worthy of the effort of disagreement.
Metropolis magazine in its November issue has brought together six furniture designers to talk about the future of office design. Browsing through their discussion I found this statement by design consultant Niels Diffrient:

"Sitting is a bad deal from the start. I do have a fantasy work space. My ideal office wouldn't have a chair. You would do two things there: stand up or lie down. These are probably the most natural positions the human body can take. Winston Churchill stayed in bed until late morning working. He did all his dictation from bed. All the writing he did for his immense volumes, he did standing up at a podium against the wall of his room. I did a project back in the eighties called the Jefferson chair, which was a reclining workstation. It reclined as far as possible without lying down and had accessories that brought work into position for you. The prototype still sits in my office, and I use it every day."

People never take me seriously when I tell them I do my best work in bed — it's the ideal work space for me, & I just wish I had some of those "accessories that bring work into position" to help me out.

"Novels teach us how to be alone by absorbing us in alternate selves, by momentarily satisfying our craving to understand, as if by osmosis, what it is to be an individual."

— from A.O. Scott's review, in tomorrow's NY Times Book Review, of Jonathan Franzen's new book of essays, How to Be Alone (which I've just ordered from Amazon). The title of the new book hints intriguingly at the great paradox of the state of reading: we need solitude to enter this state most fully, to slip from the physical world into the other place of the narrative, yet one of the chief purposes of reading is to discover other consciousnesses, to realise we are not alone.

Look out also in the NYTBR for John Leonard's review of the new Dave Eggers novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity.
"Some of us are old enough to be nostalgic for the days when smart writers solved their self-consciousness problems before sending a book to the printer; what the reader got was seductive art."

I've had this book on my bedside table for nearly a month now. I've picked it up a few times but each time am put off just slightly, just enough, by the opening sentence (which appears on the front cover — &, as if it has no time to waste, the story continues down the front board & across the end-paper before making it to the book's first actual page). Like just about everybody else, I was pretty well staggered by Eggers's first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a memoir of (exasperating) extremes which seemed to require either an obsessive, prolonged, almost scholarly ganglion-by-ganglion dissection, or else a four-word blurb: please read this book. Nothing less extreme could quite match its heady incautious vigour. AHWOSG lit up my imagination from the time I read a short excerpt in the New Yorker a few months before publication; I couldn't wait to get the book in my hands — literally felt having to wait was unbearable & unreasonable, physically intolerable, like an itch. (The only other book I've felt that way about was Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, just about due for a re-read, now that I think of it.) I read an excerpt from You Shall Know Our Velocity also, in an airplane somewhere over the Great Plains in August, & felt a little abdominal tingle of disappointment. I still bought the book, & it's wrong of me to judge it by its cover & by a five-page excerpt. Perhaps this one will stagger me too — but I have to get past that opening sentence first.
I've been reading a lot of blogs lately — the big ones, like Andrew Sullivan's & Glenn Reynolds's, & many of the host of smaller ones strung along the chain of the blogosphere — & have been struck & dismayed by the degree to which insult-slinging & point-scoring replace reasonable argument & investigation. I notice this phenomenon particularly among the right-leaning warbloggers, but hasten to add that I seem to read right-leaning warblogs more than any others (some kind of fascination I haven't figured out yet). The warbloggers descibe themselves as "anti-idiotarian", so by extension anyone with an opposing view is an idiot.

Every time I bring up the subject, my friend Damien tells me no one has a right not to be insulted. Well that's obvious, that's what free speech means, & that's not my point. My concern is that, in the blogosphere, the razor of intelligent argument, sharpened by fact & wit, is being shattered by the blunt club of cheap name-calling. Instead of cutting delicately closer to the truth of things, readers & bloggers are driven further out to the extreme edges, where in order to make themselves heard they must raise their cries to a even shriller pitch.


A couple weeks ago Christopher Hitchens, self-proclaimed contrarian, published an op-ed piece an the Washington Post explaining his decision to stop writing his column for the Nation, after 20 years at that left-wing journal (on the Iraq question Hitchens is pro-war, the Nation is anti-war). Nation columnist Katha Pollitt responds in a piece posted on Thursday. She temperately, sensibly, reasonably dismantles some of Hitchens's recent rhetoric, performing something like the ideological opposite of a fisking, using reasonable argument, good sense & common civility to make her point — qualities which many rabid warbloggers & their ilk have abandoned in their zeal to score points. Pollitt ends with an expression of regret:

"I'm sorry you're not here to discuss all this further — although your current style of debate relies perhaps too heavily on words like 'idiot' and 'moron' to shed much light."

This isn't a cheap blow, it's a telling criticism of the fiskers & the ranters who've substituted insult for argument & online self-aggrandizement for genuine comprehension.

I've been playing deadline catch-up for the last fortnight or so, & last weekend was given over to the CAPNET BookFest, held in Port of Spain this year. So I never properly thrashed out the Caroni restructuring issue, which my friend Damien & I had started arguing about via email & IM; & I never got around to posting on the bracing three-part column Raymond Ramcharitar wrote for the Express weekend before last, dealing with the PNM's election victory a month ago (1, 2, 3), or Maxie Cuffie's blistering two-part response (1, 2; ignore the fact that the second instalment erroneously appears under Reginald Dumas's byline), or the several members of the public who've weighed in via the Express letters page.

The real question is how to interpret the results of these last general elections. In practical terms, the PNM won by a few thousand votes in the three marginal constituencies of San Fernando West, Tunapuna and Mayaro. But a broader view reveals that, nationwide, the PNM got 50,000 more votes than they did last year; the UNC increased their total by just 5,000. Kirk Meighoo, analysing these figures in the November Trinidad & Tobago Review (sorry, not online), estimates that of the PNM's 50,000 new voters as many as 17,000 voted for the UNC last time around. This indicates the emergence of a swing vote in T&T, which Lloyd Best, in several columns, has called an exciting development; it "might well be the most subversive development of our times", he writes in today's Express; "a small but vital section of the electorate has refused mere tribal alignment and is exercising real discrimination and choice".

Ramcharitar doesn't agree; it's "a snapping back to old patterns", in his view, & Kevin Baldeosingh feels the same way: "the 70 per cent turnout may actually reflect a growing tribalism on the part of the two ethnic groups." But neither Ramcharitar nor Baldeosingh were writing with the benefit of Meighoo's statistical analysis; barring a mathematical error I can't discern, as many as 17,000 voters did in fact switch from the UNC to the PNM between 2001 & 2002.

What we must wait to see is whether this "swing" was a one-time response to the ubiquitous allegations of UNC corruption, to be abandoned next elections for familiar tribal habits, or whether some kind of political development is actually taking place. Lloyd Best is taking the optimistic view — he says he's never been so excited as he is now! — but personally, pessimistically, I need more evidence to be convinced.


What Ramcharitar has been accused of, by Cuffie & by some of the letter-writers, is a strong (& strongly-worded) prejudice against the black urban population who form the core of the PNM vote. Passages like this are troubling:

"This, then, is a tentative profile of the young person who voted for the PNM: poorly educated, intensely racialised, xenophobic, unaware of the past and the present outside their orbits (i.e. the outside world), moral in a very narrow way without being ethical, and indifferent to the future.

"Some supplementary qualities are unambitiousness, a mistrust of healthy skepticism or curiosity, belief in the inevitability of petty authority, and a certainty that Carnival is a desirable substitute for literature, theatre, and art."

This is troubling because it exaggerates, oversimplifies, overgeneralises; but also, let's admit, because it contains enough truth to require serious consideration. And let's waste no time in acknowledging that these qualities are in some degree characteristic not just of black Trinidadians but of Trinidadians of every ethnic or tribal group. Ramcharitar isn't racist — I can say so because I know him personally, but apart from that much of his previous writing establishes this fact — but he runs the risk of appearing so in this column, by not subjecting UNC voters to the same harsh scrutiny as PNM voters.

"This is not a pro-UNC column, it’s an anti-PNM one," he writes, "because any sane person who cares for the welfare of the nation, and the weaker members of the society, has a responsibility to be anti-PNM". But by ignoring the failings of the UNC & its supporters he unbalances his argument. We all need to face up to this: our two main parties as they have been constituted for the 40 years of our nationhood are blocks to our political development. We need to get rid of Manning & Panday. We need new movements & new leaders (to echo Lloyd Best's mantra), & not Maharaj nor Mottley nor Alvarez will do. We need to be anti-UNC as well as anti-PNM.