Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Responding to my recent posts on the issue of crime in T&T, Damien suggests that "the authorities in Jamaica, Guyana and now Trinidad and Tobago are failing" to "directly affect the costs of crimes, either by adjusting punishments [or] increasing the probability of capture and conviction".

"Police in the West Indies are overly reactive; they respond to crime and deal with its aftermath, as opposed to preventing it and changing the cost-benefit calculation of potential criminals....

"Incentives are the reason why the Prime Minister's meeting with the gang leaders is a fundamental mistake — by sending the signal that he will reason with gang leaders, Manning is also showing that the cost of crime to criminals is going down, not up."

He agrees that education is a crucial long-term strategy, quoting economist Gary Becker's argument that "being low-educated and having fewer alternatives, you will be more likely to commit crime."

It's important to stress, though, that the value of education as a long-term crime-fighting technique is not merely in increasing earning opportunities for poorer citizens. The character-building aspect of education (an old-fashioned idea, maybe) should not be slighted. Open-mindedness, justice, civic responsibility, a real appreciation of the rights of others & of the principles of liberal democracy, are qualities too uncommon in contemporary T&T. I persist in believing that stringently screened, highly trained, highly motivated (which means highly paid) teachers — with a grasp not merely of the imperatives of the curriculum but of social & individual psychology, & of the values I suggest above — can have a decisive positive effect on the students under their instruction & hence on the wider community. In childhood & adolescence I was lucky enough to have a few teachers like this (except they weren't highly paid), & I can discern the benefit to my younger self.

As my friend Anu Lakhan of the Cropper Foundation writes:

"...if, say, while you were learning the fundamentals of language and numeracy, when you were just starting to identify things and their relationships with other things, in short, when your learning-wiring is still new and responsive, if you learned then how to take care of the world — your world — then you'd be hard pressed to think any other way. School was supposed to equip you with some basic survival tools: be able to read these signs so you don't get crushed by heavy machinery on a construction site; add things up the right way so unscrupulous parlour-people won't swindle you. As the world hurls greater threats at us, surely school is the obvious place to learn the counter-curses."
In 1932 C.L.R. James left his home in Trinidad for the first time and sailed to the United Kingdom to fulfil his literary ambitions. He was 31 years old. During his first weeks in London he wrote a series of vigorously opinionated essays for the Port of Spain Gazette, giving his impressions of the great city and its inhabitants, and describing his progress through the Bohemian circles of Bloomsbury.

Letters from London collects these essays for the first time in seventy years. It is an essential record of a crucial period in James’s life. His London is an intellectual ferment of politics and poetry and all-night conversations in boarding-house rooms, peopled by radical young Englishmen and liberated young Englishwomen, and students from every reach of the British Empire.

As the education and manners of his colonial upbringing are tested in this heady atmosphere, we sense the emergence of the revolutionary C.L.R. James who was to become a major intellectual figure not just of the West Indies but of the world.

— from the Letters from London book-jacket blurb.

The Express & the Guardian have finally run reviews (by Raymond Ramcharitar & Kim Johnson, respectively) of Letters from London, the small book of essays by C.L.R. James that I recently edited, scheduled for international publication in early 2003 but pre-released here in T&T (to catch hoped-for Christmas sales). I'd like to link to these, but the Express never bothers to put book reviews on its website, & the Guardian, of course, still has no online archive; so I'll content myself with a few choice snippets.

From Ramcharitar's review, in yesterday's Express:

"It is evident that the pieces were written with images fresh in the mind, and without much reflection — they were, after all, for a provincial newspaper. But it is this cinematic rather than literary narrative drive that gives the seven essays in this volume appeal and charm....

"What is espacially appealing ... is our privileged knowledge that James did not have: that the young man, at once awed and at home in the centre, amidst the art, the monuments, the bastions of power, would become one of the greatest of us. This adds to the pleasure of James's accounts of staying up and talking all night with the people he met in Bloomsbury, of the pleasure he got from getting the papers off the press and spending his Sunday mornings reading them in bed, and reading Pirandello's Six Characters with friends....

"If nothing else, they show that beneath the skin we all dream much the same dreams, and are frustrated by much the same things."

From Johnson's review, in today's Guardian:

"Letters from London has little for those who read James to be edified. But the James who is read for its own pleasure is there.

"There’s the James voice, now coming into its own. You can hear it: unselfconscious, confident, honest, playful. It is the conversation of a teacher, not in a classroom, but amongst his friends.

"The voice blends personal anecdote, opinion, observation and logic with an ease and frankness. It reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s more than anyone else. You feel that all of this man’s opinions are completely integrated with his morals, his experience and his vast knowledge."

Monday, December 30, 2002

The Express editorial today rightly berates Patrick Manning for his semi-secret meeting with Laventille gangsters:

"No one can fault the Prime Minister for agreeing to meet with any member of the public, as he does weekly at his party’s Balisier House headquarters or his San Fernando West constituency office....

"But Mr Manning has done much more than that. While insisting that his first Balisier House meeting with Jamaat-al-Muslimeen leader Imam Yasin Abu Bakr was in keeping with his 'open door' policy, Mr Manning complicated matters by endorsing a purported truce engineered by the Muslimeen leader and warring Laventille gangs in the run-up to the last general election.... Having convincingly won the last general election despite a public outcry over his seeming alliance with Mr Bakr, Mr Manning has now gone further by holding a meeting with a bunch of cut-throats at the Ambassador Hotel.

"The Prime Minister, of course, would reject this description, insisting as he does that his secret meeting was held with community leaders. And this is the first problem with Mr Manning’s Ambassador Hotel rendezvous. By agreeing to meet these people, he has added credibility to their delusions and consolidated their alleged leadership status won, usually at the point of a gun, and maintained by extortion of the poor who dominate their areas.

"The Prime Minister has also compromised the ability of the police, who no doubt would recognise these people for what they are, by giving respectability to a bunch of people who are nothing but common criminals.

"The failure of the alleged truce engineered by Mr Bakr should have been enough to warn Mr Manning of the futility of any such agreement. In any case, it is a quite foolhardy approach to solving the crime problem. Are we to next expect meetings at the Hilton with the leaders of the kidnapping rings to ascertain their suggestions for wealth redistribution?"

Meanwhile, Laventille East MP Fitzgerald Hinds has spoken out on the crime issue — to say the police "may not be exerting best efforts in the space they occupy", & that "the solution to our problem will have to do with the concept of love and business of prayer."

Well, if Manning persists in making deals with gang lords, & Howard Chin Lee persists in his general cluelessness, & MPs like Hinds persist in parroting platitudes instead of coming up with some real ideas to solve our social problems, divine intercession may be T&T's best hope. Happy new year.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

In the midst of all this clueless hand-wringing over T&T's accelerating crime rate, Peter Popplewell (with whom I used to work at Lonsdale Saatchi & Saatchi), in a letter to the editor of the Sunday Express today, makes the crucial point that harsher law enforcement can only be a short-term measure; the greater task is to find a realistic long-term solution to the social conditions which encourage in too many of our citizens a callous disregard for the lives, safety & property of others. As I've argued before, our best hope seems to be a massive social intervention via the education system, requiring financial investment on a scale currently unthinkable but ultimately necessary.

As Peter puts it,

"What we need to do NOW is to shift the focus on to the primary education stage, placing all of our attention and the resources of the country into building minds and attitudes in the three-to-eleven age group. When we mess up in the first six years of a child's life, we mess up for good. There is no way to turn that around, regardless of the amount of money and pretty 'ole talk' we pour into 'education'.

"I am talking about a full paradigm shift. We need some of our best educators and planners to come together and map a plan to meet the goal of what an eleven year old in Trinidad and Tobago needs to be capable of — the required levels of literacy and numeracy; knowledge of our country, the region and the world; the use of today’s technology (not limited to the Gameboy); a knowledge of and appreciation for our religions and cultures; a respect for our institutions; a sense of law and order, including respect for persons’ right to their property and the use of the road (remember the Highway Code?); a knowledge of basic health issues, hygiene and the responsible use of the environment; a knowledge of (not necessarily prowess at) sport, music and art. This is not new. Many of us actually did that."

But most of all, we need to ensure that the teachers in our schools are absolutely, without reservation, the best possible people. There are many fine women & men in our teaching service at present — & I'm grateful that I personally had the benefit of some of them — but we must face up to the fact that most of our schools now are not staffed with teachers of the necessary calibre. The only way to change this is to make teaching one of the most highly prized professions in T&T, & so attract the bright, ambitious young talent our schools so badly need; & the only way to to do that is (simple economics) to make teaching a very highly paid profession, on par with, say, the energy industry or banking or public relations. Anyone who says we can't afford this is either lying (we have & will have more money flowing through this country than we know what to do with) or else simply does not understand how vital our children's eduction is to our future as a civil society.
Both Kirk Meighoo in today's Express & Dana Seetahal in the Guardian (this link is good only until next Sunday, because the Guardian still has no permanent online archive) consider the possible consequences of Patrick Manning's recent meeting with Laventille-Morvant criminal gang leaders (a.k.a. "community leaders"), as part of his (terminally deluded) anti-crime strategy. This kind of semi-secret dealing, Seetahal argues, gives the gangsters a dangerous political legitimacy. PNM & UNC governments in the past have made this same mistake with the Jamaat al-Muslimeen, to the point where Abu Bakr apparently sees himself as some kind of kingmaker, threatening the populace in an attempt to sway voters during T&T's last general election campaign.

More alarmingly, Meighoo suggests that such tacit alliances with gang leaders are the first steps on what he calls "the road to Jamaica":

"We are witnessing an embryonic development of Jamaican-style politics, in which 'dons', drug lords, and other criminals are essential parts of the state and political party system....

"However, though it is commonly acknowledged that the major political parties and MPs are allied with these 'dons' and 'top-rankings', it is not usually said in that way. These elements are referred to as 'community leaders' or 'political activists'....

"In our politics, thuggery has not become politicised as in Guyana, Jamaica, Haiti, or Grenada in the 1970s.

"The forging of a relationship between our Prime Minister and certain dons — regardless of the intent — seems to further open the possibility."

Meanwhile, Manning is yet to explain the nature of his meeting with these "community leaders", & Laventille MPs Fitzgerald Hinds & Eulalie James — who one would expect to have strong opinions on the matter — remain silent.

Saturday, December 28, 2002

Is it "Internet" or "internet"? Does the capitalisation matter? Joseph Turow thinks so.

I prefer "Internet" myself. Turow argues that "dropping the big I would sent a deeper message to the world: The revolution is over, and the Net won. It's part of everyone's life, and as common as air and water". But air & water are substances, belonging to a category of words not usually capitalised; while the Internet, though properly an abstraction, is metaphorically thought of as a place, & traditionally place names are granted a distinguishing initial capital. I suspect the cap-I will stick unless we significantly change this mental image.
"Sometimes I think that the discourse of blogs doesn’t really reach that high. It’s more like show-and-tell — like kindergarten. See the nice link I found? Admit it, show and tell is fun and most outgoing adults still enjoy it. Some blogs stake out that territory and stay there — it’s comfortable and non-threatening. To an extent, it’s academic too. Say hello to the class and show them something so they will like you. Link-heavy blogs create persona through a process of selection, of valuation."

Jeff Ward at Visible Darkness.

"... clearly we read webpages in a different way than we read books... clearly? According to who? To me? You? Who's to say that our general attention span in reading hasn't shifted in toto? Who's to say that I don't pick up a book expecting it to read like a webpage, the way I expect a film to jump and jerk like a three-minute video? Or not?"

Steve Himmer at OnePotMeal.

"... weblogging is writing the world's greatest novel with 10,000 of your best friends. Hell on royalities."

Shelley Powers at Burningbird.

This morning I stumbled upon a sort of informal symposium on the nature of blog-writing (via Jeanne d'Arc at Body and Soul). The fundamental question for me is whether blogging is a genuinely new form of writing or not. The answer, of course, will depend on what we citizens of the blogosphere — bloggers & readers — make of the possibilities offered by this new technology. It's fascinating & exciting to observe the phenomenon evolving in what still feels like its early stages. For this reason, if for no other, I'm glad to be here, doing this, at this particular moment — making my own exceedingly modest contribution to the evolutionary process.

Thursday, December 26, 2002

Kevin Baldeosingh has been thinking about the state of race relations in T&T, & in his Express column today he comes to the sensible (& almost inevitable) conclusion that hybridisation — by whatever name — is our best hope.
Salman Rushdie has been to the movies, & he suggests in the Washington Post that there's an important lesson to be learned by observing the moral differences between The Two Towers & Gangs of New York (via OxBlog).

"The films have opened at a time when all of us are trying to come to grips with the fact of an impending, controversial war, and many people, on both sides of the argument, are taking the absolutist line.... Oddly, opponents of the proposed American attack on Iraq often look like mirror-images of what they hate. According to these opponents, Western as well as Islamic, the United States is the tyrant, the Dark Lord, and all its purposes are vile.

"The truth looks more confused, more amorally Scorsesean. Saddam Hussein is a murderous despot, but the present U.S. administration's assaults on fundamental freedoms call into question its right to be called freedom lovers. The overthrow of the present Iraqi leadership may be desirable, but many of the scenarios for the aftermath of that overthrow are undesirable, to say the least. America may be in less danger from Iraq than its leaders claim, and the war on Hussein may have more to do with breaking U.S. dependence on Saudi oil than anyone cares to discuss. Yet it is possible that this flawed war may end up creating a better Iraq for most Iraqis than could be achieved by any other means."

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
----Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
--------With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
----------------------------Praise him.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins, from "Pied Beauty", p. 69 in the 4th edition of the Poems, ed. Gardner & MacKenzie.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Leon Wieseltier writes a blistering response to the Tom Paulin-Harvard-invitation-disinvitation issue in the New Republic. Worth reading, even by those uninterested in the particulars of the case, for the sake of this concise statement of what true freedom of speech must mean:

"If hate speech should not be restricted, then it should not be restricted even when it is me that it hates. The American way must be to take offense so as to give offense, to suck it up and then go after the substance of it, so that none of the mistake and the insult is left morally or intellectually standing."

And not just the American way; this must be the modus operandi of every liberal democracy worth the name.
The Observer runs an AP story today in which one of the prosecutors on the DC sniper case denies that Lee Boyd Malvo is considered the actual triggerman in all the shootings.

"An article in Sunday's New York Times cited an anonymous source who said that little if any evidence pointed to fellow suspect John Allen Muhammad, 41, as the triggerman in any of the sniper shootings. The article said that could make it difficult to obtain the death penalty against Muhammad.

"'I don't think that anybody in the investigation is responsible for the leak, because so much of it was dead wrong,' said Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Horan Jr, who is overseeing the case against Malvo."

The Times itself runs a version of this story today, with this note:

"A spokesman for the Times, Toby Usnik, said Mr. Horan did not respond to several calls from the newspaper seeking comment.

"'If the prosecutor would like to disclose what information he believes is inaccurate, we will respond accordingly,' Mr. Usnik said."
Today the Chronicle publishes an obituary of Desmond Hoyte by Moses Nagamootoo, former PPP minister; the Stabroek News carries messages of condolence from various political & civic groups, including the Guyana Human Rights Association, the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce, the African Cultural & Development Association & the Muslim Youth League (no links, because Stabroek has no online archive).

Outside Guyana, the Observer's editorial today offers a carefully balanced assessment of Hoyte's political legacy, & suggests that "While we mourn Mr. Hoyte, and hold his memory in absolute respect, we believe that his passing, as difficult as it will be for many, opens a window of opportunity for Guyana." The Guardian reminds us that, though Hoyte bravely cleared the way for the first fair elections in Guyana in 30 years, as opposition leader his unwillingness to accept defeat was a major factor in his country's troubles over the last decade (no link, because the Guardian has no online archive):

"His deep dislike for Janet Jagan, who was made President on the death of Cheddi Jagan, fuelled Mr. Hoyte’s obstructionism. He launched a vicious campaign after losing the 1997 election, and promised to make Guyana ungovernable.

"Even after Mrs. Jagan’s resignation, Mr. Hoyte remained ready to condone political rioting and violence, and he kept the PNC out of Parliament.

"The overall result of Mr. Hoyte’s political policies, which remained to the end subject to his explosive temper, contributed significantly to keeping the society ethnically polarised.

"Unable to sail with the winds of change, he tried to hold them back. It was a mistake for which Guyana continues to pay dearly."

The UK Guardian also runs an obituary today.

Monday, December 23, 2002

How to be a philosopher, in twelve not-so-easy steps.... (via Matthew Yglesias, via Dan Sanderson, via Rebecca Blood (who remarks, "Change just a few particulars and you could easily re-title this 'How to be a Blogger'"), via Garret P. Vreeland).
But the big news out of Guyana today is that Desmond Hoyte, former president & leader of the PNC since 1985, died yesterday of a heart attack.

Read the Chronicle's coverage here; the Express runs a report by Rickey Singh. Most Caribbean newspapers outside Guyana base their reports on the wire stories. Here is an excerpt from today's editorial in the Stabroek News:

"The death of Hugh Desmond Hoyte yesterday at the age of seventy-three shocked the nation. The passing of time will enable a fuller evaluation of his legacy and the important role he has played in the modern history of Guyana but few will disagree that the high point of his career was his period as president from 1985 to 1992. Inheriting a bankrupt economy and a society in which there had been no free and fair elections for some time, which had led to some degree of repression, he had the fortitude, despite internal opposition in his own party, to introduce a period of glasnost and perestroika where there was a reversal of the failed policy of state capitalism and the introduction of a programme of privatisation and the encouragement of new investment.... There was a rebirth of press freedom and the introduction of electoral reforms which led to free and fair elections in 1992. It is no exaggeration to say that under his stewardship substantial progress was achieved in many areas.

"The loss of power in 1992 may, paradoxically, have been among his finest moments. Announcing on the night of October 7th that his party 'in keeping with the requirements of democracy ... will accept the results of the poll', he stated: 'I expect all citizens to accept these political developments, maintain a peaceful and harmonious climate in society and keep the welfare and good name of Guyana foremost in their minds.' At a time when the situation was still unsettled as a result of polling day violence it was an act of statesmanship that restored some level of normality. However, the immense disappointment he suffered as a result of the loss of the opportunity to continue with the economic recovery he had started led to a bitterness that was evident in his subsequent career as leader of the opposition."

(It was Hoyte who gave permission for the founding of the independent Stabroek News in 1986, ending decades of media repression in Guyana.)

And, with the 2002 shortlist just released, the Chronicle's editorial reminds us that it was Hoyte who established the Guyana Prize for Literature in 1987 (no link, because the Chronicle's editorials are not permanently archived online):

"Mr. Hoyte’s Presidency can be credited with several other positive developments. They include ... the establishment of the Guyana Prize for Literature with prizes of US$5,000 every two years.

"When asked by a member of the Committee for the Guyana Prize why Guyana with massive economic problems was in 1987 offering such generous sums for successful writers, Mr. Hoyte, with characteristic aplomb, quoted an obscure 13th century poet, who once wrote in so many words: 'If you have two pennies, use one to buy yourself bread and the other to buy some flowers to bless your eyes!'"
The 2002 Guyana Prize for Literature shortlist has been announced; interesting to note that the judges have decided no entries in the Fiction & Drama categories were strong enough to make the final cut. Here's the list with notes as published in yesterday's Stabroek News (no link because Stabroek has no permanent online archive):

For Best Book of Poetry
Fred D'Aguiar: Bloodlines (Chatto and Windus)
Michael Gilkes: Joanstown (Peepal Tree)
Sasenarine Persaud: The Hungry Sailor (Tsar)

For Best First Book of Poetry
Stanley Greaves: Horizons (Peepal Tree)
Ruel Johnson: "The Enormous Night"

Best Book of Fiction
These entries in particular, stood out in this category: Arnold Itwaru's Home and Back, Churaumani Bissundyal's The Game of Kassaku, and Cyril Dabydeen's My Brahmin Days. However, in light of the very high standards associated with the Guyana Prize, the judges felt that no entry stood out with sufficient distinction for a prize to be awarded. It was felt that the best among these had significant flaws despite their powerful evocation of the writers' concerns and their sometimes detailed and moving descriptions.

For Best First Fiction
Deryck Bernard: Going Home & Other Tales (Macmillan)
Ruel Johnson: "Ariadne and Other Stories"
Andrew Jefferson-Miles: The Timeherian (Peepal Tree)

While two of the entries for drama contained many elements of merit, the judges did not feel that they were of such a standard to warrant a prize.

The Books
Bloodlines (London: Chatto and Windus, 2000)
Fred D'Aguiar was the winner of the first Guyana Prize for Poetry in 1987. Since then he has won twice in the prose category, with the Best First Book in 1994 and the Best Book in 1996. Bloodlines is a "verse novel" set in slavery in the American South, a subject D'Aguiar has been researching and on which he has already written two prose novels. It is a long poem, ambitious in its portrayal of the brutality of slave society, and poignant in its commitment to retrieving humane values. The author is an accomplished craftsman and a rewarding poet who attempts elaborate styles, not all of which quite work.

Joanstown (UK: Peepal Tree, 2002)
Michael Gilkes, who returned to live in Guyana a year ago, won the Guyana Prize for Drama in 1992. He is known for his extensive work in the theatre and in film and as a leading authority on Wilson Harris. When one gets past the Walcott influence in Gilkes' work, Joanstown is a most accomplished collection; a lyric sensibility of a logical order. It powerfully conveys a sense of place in its detailed portrayal of Georgetown, and is a compelling evocation of a life-long love of the city and of Joan Gilkes. He plays on her name as he does with the notion of "Georgetown" and the infamous "Jonestown" for which Guyana has come to be known.

The Hungry Sailor (Toronto: Tsar, 2000)
Sasenarine Persaud has on a number of occasions been shortlisted for the Guyana Prize in both poetry and fiction. He is more acclaimed for his poetry, which has definitely matured, particularly in his two most recent collections, The Wintering and Kundalini, and in The Hungry Sailor. The latter has an admirable variety of subject matter and interesting poetic treatment of diasporic experience. He weaves between various locations such as his native Guyana, his adopted homes Toronto and Florida, as well as his spiritual compass, the Hindu Heartland of India, which exude his own sense of place and placelessness.

Horizons (UK: Peepal Tree, 2002)
Stanley Greaves is best known as one of Guyana's most accomplished artists, who lives in Barbados. A painter, sculptor and musician, he describes himself as "a maker of things," and these things now include his first full collection of verse, Horizons. But he has been making poems throughout his career. This well-ordered book contains a powerfully metaphoric poetry deeply rooted in a painterly imagination. It is a considerable achievement.

"The Enormous Night" (unpub MS)
Ruel Johnson is now experiencing a rising career as a writer of prose and poetry. He was the leader of the Janus Young Writers Guild and edited the Chronicle Christmas Annual 2001. "The Enormous Night" is a collection that shows great promise and real engagement with the craft of poetry. There is a strong Walcott influence and a general literariness which rather calls attention to itself, but he is very talented and manages to venture courageously into formal explorations.

Going Home and Other Tales (London: Macmillan, 2001)
Deryck Bernard has already established himself in many fields. He is an accomplished musician and singer, has served the nation as a Minister of Government and is now a Member of Parliament. He is an academic, a geographer and a University Dean. His strong artistic orientation has inevitably led him into fiction and Going Home and Other Tales is very much autobiographical. It is a well-constructed collection which deals engagingly with childhood in colonial Guyana. His prose is very "clean," un-showy and assured, although his tales often lack a satisfying ending.

"Ariadne and Other Stories" (unpub MS)
Johnson's "Ariadne and Other Stories" is, perhaps, more obviously driven by autobiography, but exhibits undeniable talent. Although the range of his subject matter is rather limited, this is an impressive first collection in which the author is seriously engaged in exploring the potential of the short story.

The Timehrian (UK: Peepal Tree, 2002)
Andrew Jefferson-Miles, Guyanese by birth, is also a poet and a visual artist who is currently a researcher at the University of North London, UK. The Timeherian is an ambitious and challengingly experimental novel. There is an unmistakable Harris influence in this book, but it is compellingly thought-provoking.

Of primary interest is the 2002 Jury's announcement that no prize will be awarded in two of the five categories, viz Fiction and Drama. This will be the first time in the history of the Prize that this has happened in Fiction, which, for most of the years, emerged the strongest category. In 2000 only one of the plays entered in the Drama category was selected for the shortlist, and that was the winner, Paloma Mohamed's Father of the Man, while there was a similar occurrence in Poetry on one occasion. In 1996 the Best Book of Poetry, Grace Nichols' Sunrise, was the only one shortlisted. Poetry, which has always had the largest number of entries, seems to have had no such difficulty this year.

The second significant observation returns us to the issue of an imbalance between the local and foreign-based writers each time shortlists and winners have been announced. This has led to much controversy. In this context, it is significant that of the eight shortlisted entries, four are by local writers this year. Of note also in this context is that a local writer, Ruel Johnson, appears on both the Poetry and Prose shortlists with unpublished first collections. This is a first for any local writer and the first occasion on which any of them has had two unpublished manuscripts nominated. Rooplall Monar came close in 1987 with his fiction, Backdam People, on the shortlist and his poetry, Koker, highly commended. Overseas-based writers, David Dabydeen and Fred D'Aguiar, have, in the past, appeared on both poetry and prose final lists.

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Salam Pax is back, unharmed, though he says he's in a cultural mess.
Jonathan writes this morning about the Common Piping-Guan (Aburria pipile, also known as the Pawi) a rare forest bird once reasonably common in Trinidad's mountains & hills, now reduced to "70–200" individuals, according to an estimate he's just stumbled upon. The Pawi was long considered Trinidad's only endemic bird species, & Jonathan sadly notes that when those last flocks have been shot & devoured, this rara avis will have disappeared from the face of the earth. It probably won't bring him much consolation to know that, according to Richard ffrench (author of the definitive Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago), recent authorities have decided the Trinidad Piping-Guan is the same species as the Blue-throated Piping-Guan of Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia & Paraguay; only "the nominate race is endemic to Trinidad, being glossed purple rather than green, and with largely black crown feathers edged with white."

I'll also quote ffrench's note at the end of his species entry, in which he reveals an unusual tone of exasperation:

"Still hunted, despite official protection. People in the remote districts neither obey nor are forced to obey the game laws. Knowing a flock of 12 guans, they will claim that the species is 'quite common' in that area. Unless a sizeable portion of remote forest is set aside as a reserve, and suitable enforcement of the law provided, this species will become extirpated long before education will affect the attitude of those who hunt it."

What chance does the poor Piping-Guan have, I wonder, when unscrupulous carnivores can dine even on the flesh of the Scarlet Ibis, the national bird, if they know which restaurant to enquire at, & can flash a suitably massive wad of banknotes?
Teasing away at "the meaning of Christmas", Wayne Brown writes about his favourite Christmas carols in his column in today's Observer. Not "Adeste Fidelis" — "much too far removed from its original emotions" — or "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" — "a beer hall rugby song".

"But think instead of the perfect stillness of that lovely lyric, 'Silent Night', of its moonlit serenity, its motionless gleam!... And then think, for contrast, of the Wagnerian turbulence of 'O Holy Night', how it begins in solemnity and awe, and then moves, through the transition of thrilling expectation — 'For yonder breaks a new and glorious dawn' — to the paradoxical triumph of adoration — 'Fall on your knees! O hear the angels' voices!' (and what a thunder of jubilation in that 'Fall'!), and then to the imperious affirmation, 'O night divine!' with its sobbing withdrawal — 'O night when Christ was born!' — and the wave-surge coming again: 'O night! Divine!'

"I don't know when that carol was composed; but I can feel behind it a whole civilisation in its prime, Christian Europe in its prime: supremely confident in its beliefs, without the least flicker of agnosticism, and thus free, as few thinking Christians today are free, to surrender itself to joy and thunder its praise at the God-secreting heavens, as a free man laughs out of a surfeit of life or bulls bellow away their excess in June."

(Nice little Basil Bunting reference in that last line there.)

Brown doesn't know when "O Holy Night" was composed, but Google has a fair idea — 1847, music by the French composer Adolphe Charles Adam (better known for his ballet Giselle), original lyrics by Placide Cappeau ("a wine merchant and mayor of Roquemaure" who "wrote poems for his own enjoyment"), later translated into English by the American clergyman John S. Dwight.

The story of "O Holy Night" — or "Minuit, Chrétiens", the original French title — is unexpectedly fascinating, especially in light of Brown's interpretation ("I can feel behind it a whole civilisation in its prime" etc.). The Hymns and Carols of Christmas website gives a detailed account:

"Cappeau became friends with a Parisian couple named Laurey. The Laureys had temporarily relocated to southern France so that Monsieur Laurey could follow his civil engineering career by building a bridge across the Rhône River near Roquemaure. Just before Cappeau left for Paris on a business trip, the parish priest asked the part-time poet to write a Christmas poem and to take it to the famous Parisian composer Adolphe Adam (1803–1856) for a musical setting. Adam was an acquaintance of Madame Laurey, who was a singer. Reportedly, on December 3, 1847, about halfway on the long coach ride to Paris, Cappeau received the inspiration for the poem, 'Minuit, Chrétiens'.

"Cappeau was a total obscurity when he contacted Adam in Paris. The composer, in contrast, was at the peak of his fame at that time.... After Cappeau brought his lines to Adam, the facile musician took only a few days to complete the carol The premiere performance of the song was, as intended, at the midnight mass in the church of Roquemaure on Christmas 1847. It is quite conceivable that the unsuspecting audience was delightfully stunned by the soulful beauty of the partially homegrown song. Despite this remote and unheralded beginning, the song, within a generation or so, became one of the classics of the Christmas season."

But the song did not meet with universal approbation. To Brown's ears, it sounds "supremely confident in its beliefs, without the least flicker of agnosticism", but the French ecclesiastical authorities were not convinced; it turns out that

"Adam was from a non-Christian background.... Even worse, Cappeau has been described as a social radical, a freethinker, a socialist, and a non-Christian.... These attitudes were clearly indicated in an 1876 poem, 'Le Château de Roquemaure', a 4,000-line philosophical poetical flop in which Cappeau repudiated his 1847 lyrics and drastically revised their content and outlook. The controversial views, though, were confined only to his last years, which were marked by obvious eccentricity."

(Again, thanks to Hymns and Carols of Christmas.)

Which of course doesn't mean that "O Holy Night" can't "thunder its praise at the God-secreting heavens" if its listeners & its singers so desire; the point of this little story is perhaps to remind us that works of art, however minor, have an unfathomable ability to transcend the mere human circumstances of their creation, belonging to none of us & thus to all of us, whatever our histories or our beliefs.

(Or perhaps this just proves the omniscience of Google & the prudence of fact-checking!)

Saturday, December 21, 2002

From our reading:

"To the office, where Sir W. Batten, Collonell Slingsby, and I sat a while; and Sir R. Ford coming to us about some business, we talked together of the interest of this kingdom to have a peace with Spain and a war with France and Holland — where Sir R. Ford talked like a man of great reason and experience. And afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before) and went away."

— Samuel Pepys, the Diary, 25 September, 1660, pp. 253 in the Latham-Matthews edition. The note to the second sentence reads as follows: "It was imported via Holland from c. 1658, but cost c. £2 per lb. The brackets are Pepys's own."
A High Court judge in Guyana has ordered the temporary reversal of the broadcast suspension of the NBTV & CNS TV stations. Prime minister Samuel Hinds & the Advisory Committee on Broadcasting must now show cause for the suspension, & the two stations are back on the air. (Read the Chronicle report here; the Stabroek News gives a fuller account, but has no online archive.) In response, Hinds has issued a statement promising vigourous pusuit of the case, "since he is convinced that the curtailment and abolition of racism and incitement to crime, public disorder and violence would be served by greater responsibility shown by television stations."

He neglected to add that democracy in Guyana is served by a free press.

Apparently by coincidence, Chandra Sharma, owner of CNS, was injured yesterday when he was hit by a car outside his station.

I still can't dig up any information on what exactly the two stations broadcast that could be considered "incitement to public disorder".
"This religion, with its own set of highly ignorant, Taliban-type fanatics, is a threat to organised societies around the world. In our time, it has become a great obstacle to the advancement of logical and critical thinking, especially among the black man."

Michael Dingwall is a brave fella to argue in today's Observer that Rastafarianism is "obsolete".

And by coincidence just yesterday I was reading a detailed essay on "The Fiya Burn Controversy" by Gregory Stephens in the online magazine Jahworks. Stephens examines the evolution of the concept of "fire" in Jamaican reggae & dancehall music from a metaphor for spiritual purification to an imperative to destroy anything by which the performers & their mass audience feel threatened — homosexuals, Christianity, Western civilisation, & other manifestations of "Babylon".

If this sounds alarmist, just remember the attack on the Catholic cathedral in Castries on 2 January, 2001, in which two Rastas set fire to several worshippers & to the priest celebrating Mass, & clubbed an elderly Irish nun to death — prompted, apparently, by a vision of Haile Selassie. "Fiya Bun fi real now," says Stephens.

"This is a problem not confined to the dancehall, but is part of a much broader tendency.... Trying to destroy those we disagree with, or those who are merely different, has become a way of life."

Stephens thinks the time has come for "the fair-skinned people" — fans outside Jamaica, who put the most royalty money in the pockets of dancehall performers — to "claim a place in the culture":

"...I’ve made this argument on historical grounds, including the evolution of Rasta as a part of a history of international and multi-racial freedom movements in which the notions of 'Black liberation' and 'multi-racial redemption' ('One Love') co-exist. For Europeans to go on acting like outsiders to the culture (or accepting that definition), merely praising 'the black man’s culture,' seems to be yet another form of mental slavery. When we develop enough wisdom to claim this as our culture too, this brings a new set of responsibilities. Which means, in my view, that if we are going to be part of Sizzla’s fan base, then we need to find ways to engage Sizzla in dialogue about his attitudes.... Sizzla’s predominantly European audience truly doesn’t need to be afraid of the fire, because if they check the roots of the historical struggle for equal rights and justice, they will find it has always been a multi-ethnic, international movement. So wouldn’t it be just if we began to expect artists like Sizzla to begin acknowledging our presence in his artistic vision?"

I'm afraid this sounds almost quixotically deluded to me. The enmity that roils in the dancehall lyrics Stephens quotes is the product of social forces deeply entrenched in some Caribbean societies; "dialogue" between dancehall performers & their well-meaning liberal fans can have no real effect on the horrible facts of life in places like the garrisons of Kingston. Stephens is right to point to the bright sparks of tolerance & love within the Rastafarian movement, but also right to acknowledge the great threat of corrupting hatred.

"Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds." The truth is that most who self-righteously quote these famous Marley lyrics haven't even begun to understand what the words really mean.
The NY Times reports today that investigators working on the DC sniper case now think Jamaican teengager Lee Boyd Malvo was the gunman in all the attacks — there's little evidence that John Allen Muhammed himself actually pulled the trigger.

"Some officials who have reviewed the evidence at the sniper task force's new headquarters here in suburban Virginia say that the lack of evidence against Mr. Muhammad will complicate prosecutors' efforts to get a death sentence for him in the shooting of Dean Harold Meyers, who was killed at a gas station in Manassas on Oct. 9."

This opens the possibility that Malvo, though a minor, could be sentenced to death for the murder spree, while Muhammed, his mentor, gets a prison sentence.

Incidentally, the Washington Post reported a couple days ago that Malvo's been complaining about the food he's being served in jail:

"Teenage sniper suspect John Lee Malvo says the vegetarian 'loaf' he is being fed in jail has made him sick, the latest in a series of complaints he has lodged about his treatment at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.

"Malvo's court-appointed guardian, Todd G. Petit, requested last month that Malvo be fed the loaf after a judge denied a request that Malvo be provided with vegetarian meals.... This week, Petit told jail officials that the loaf hasn't agreed with Malvo, and he renewed a request for some other type of meatless menu.

"Jail officials have denied the request and said Malvo would have the same food choices as other inmates."

The judge's decision apparently hinged on the question of whether Malvo's vegetarianism is a "religious belief" or a "preference".

Understandably, sympathy for Malvo in the US (& elsewhere) is non-existent; it's for precisely that reason that in cases like this legal principles (like the presumption of innocence until otherwise proven) ought to be zealously upheld. An adequate diet is one of Malvo's basic rights as a prisoner, whether he's a mass murderer or not. Vegetarian myself (& not for reasons of "religious belief", but certainly for reasons more compelling than "preference"), I think the authorities' refusal of his dietary request amounts to cruel & unusual punishment.

The Post does not say whether the Jamaican consulate has seen fit to get involved in the matter.
In today's Express Lloyd Best, continuing his analysis of the T&T constitution reform issue, comes at last to the great practical question: how to make it actually happen — or, as he puts it, "what could conceivably be the political ways and means of translating a largely instinctive but very real hankering for a new regime into an effective vector of renewal?"

"It is hard to see how any initiative, on the part of the Independent Senators, however spirited, can expect more than a nominal hearing. Without any clear political agenda, the Constitution Reform Forum would be hard put to evolve — though it still has great potential as a popular information centre. (To which end, it would have to make much greater effort at foraging and disseminating far and wide.)

"The two established election parties claim to be interested but they could hardly have been more luke-cold than they are now. It is easy to guess why."

Best's solution now, as it was 30 years ago (the last time constitution reform was an issue of relatively wide public concern here in T&T), is a constituent assembly, a gathering together of interest groups & interested individuals, for the purpose of "cross-talk, feedback and exchange.... making sense of individual events and of fitting perceptions and partial proposals into [a] comprehensive and cogent construction."

A great question still hangs, though (which Best promises to address in a future column): who will call this constituent assembly into existence, & on what terms? My half-dozen or so regular readers may remember that some weeks ago I made my own suggestion for one means of jumpstarting the process. As Best remarks, it's foolish to expect any meaningful initiative from either government or opposition, & for that reason the independent senators' efforts in Parliament will likely be smothered under the PNM's & the UNC's polite disregard. I still believe the best hope at present is for the Constitution Reform Forum to take the bold step I've previously argued for, & dare the people of T&T to prove their seriousness about our politics, our governance & our democracy.

Friday, December 20, 2002

A full month late, the Gleaner publishes an obituary of Jamaican poet George Campbell.
Guyanese prime minister Samuel Hinds, acting on the advice of Guyana's Advisory Committee on Broadcasting, has ordered two TV stations, CNS Channel 6 & NBTV Channel 9, to suspend broadcasting for 48 hours, reports the Chronicle. The ACB says both stations violated "condition (a) of Appendix A" of their licences, which prohibits broadcasts "likely to incite to crime and to lead to public disorder".

The Stabroek News report is rather more informative (no link, because Stabroek has no online archive); it notes an angry response from the Guyana Press Association, which has issued a statement condemning the suspension as "unprecedented in the world and in the history of broadcasting when no national emergency exists". I can't find any details of the actual programmes that provoked the ACB's response.

(AP has also picked up the story.)
B.C. Pires also gets into the constitution reform debate, in his column in today's Guardian (the link is good only until next Friday, because the Guardian still has no permanent online archive). Parliament's refusal to debate the disastrous recent flooding in central Trinidad, he muses, proves yet again that our "representatives" are nothing of the sort:

"The only thing more depressing than us all knowing, before it was even raised in Parliament, that the PNM would refuse to debate the flooding, was the UNC fully expected them to refuse and were just going through the motions.

"Parliament is such a pappyshow that not even its principal actors will recognise drama when it kicks them in the teeth. In Parliament, they kicksin' and is only farce they want.

"Whole communities were cut off. TV news showed people rowing down the main roads in boats; but our parliamentarians, every man jack in his jacket-and-tie, could not see past the Standing Orders. Freemen parade their freedom; slaves parody it. You want to know the only hope the people hit by the floods had? Dry season.

"It makes no difference what the Executive did; what matters is what Parliament failed to do. In a real country, the only thing a people’s assembly would talk about in an emergency was the emergency. In Trinidad, the essential is the one thing we can be sure will never be confronted.

"Which leads to the inescapable conclusion: we do not have a people’s assembly at all, just a club for a few people who win a few more votes than one or two others to sit down and gallery in once a week.

"Which leads to the point Lloyd Best has been distilling for two generations now, and its purity is undeniable: the critical issue is representation. Important work will have to be done, but the first task is Adam’s: to name the thing."
All other qualities aside, Lloyd Best's patience is a marvel. His ideas for constitution reform in T&T have become topical once again, but he's been propounding some of these since before I was even born; yet he still explicates & argues with the vigour of fresh enthusiasm. In today's Express he once again restates the primacy of the issue of representation, suggesting pragmatically that this must be addressed first at the national, central level, not through the local government mechanisms which citizens perceive as basically useless:

"The re-constitution of the communities is ... long overdue. It is the most important single pre-condition to collective decision we must make, at that municipal level in this city-state, about environmental conditions, infrastructure requirements, public utilities, social services etc. Clearly this is the real task of nation-building.

"The attendant need for municipal and local government reconstruction obviously implies a patient phasing in. Utopians may, quite rightly, argue that we would learn to govern ourselves effectively only to the extent that we were afforded opportunity. If we were starting the world anew, there would scarcely be a problem in devolving responsibility willy-nilly to all those psychological communities where individuals, families and groups have little trouble inserting and locating themselves. However, to attempt that in our context would be sheer folly, as we can guess from the operations of our present system of health administration. There can be no identification with authority, no popular prompting of decision and no accountability where the great majority of our people belong to something called a region only to the extent that they might be sleeping there — not working, not playing, not worshipping and, above all, not even going to school. If we simply transferred serious financial and executive responsibilities to local authorities, we’d merely be exposing ourselves to the kind of charlatanry and crookedness we’ve already let loose.

"The prior and first requirement is, therefore, at the central level. The virtue of addressing this matter of representation at the centre is that it involves a restricted and well-defined intervention, much more limited in scope than would be any attempt to re-configure community and municipal life."

Thursday, December 19, 2002

From our reading:

"History writes its tenses on the leaf
Lovingly swells its stems and in a trice
Fall ashes from forgotten walls in Crete.

But the grass grows, the everlasting leaf
Glints in the sun, and lovers walk again
Along another bank."

— A.J. Seymour, from "Variations on a Theme", p. 135 in the Collected Poems.
Mac users join forces to fight evil! A heartwarming story in today's NY Times about complete strangers, connected only by their love of Macs, forming a "smart mob" to foil a Chicago fraud ring.
Jamaican attorney general A.J. Nicholson says Jamaican consular officials in Washington are providing alleged DC sniper Lee Boyd Malvo with "'all possible assistance' that is consistent with 'established international norms'", reports today's Observer. Under Virginia law, remember, Malvo faces a possible capital sentence, even though he is still a minor.

"'Notwithstanding some reservations on our side regarding process, we also have to be sensitive to the laws and legal processes of sovereign countries, in this case, the United States of America,' Nicholson wrote."

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

"People find long-lost relatives, recall old song lyrics and locate parts for old MGs. College instructors sniffing for plagiarism type in suspiciously accomplished phrases from the papers of otherwise inarticulate students. Computer programmers type in error-code numbers to find out which Windows function crashed their program. Google can even save your life. When Terry Chilton, of Plattsburgh, N.Y., felt a pressure in his chest one morning, he Googled heart attacks, and quickly was directed to a detailed list of symptoms on the American Heart Association site. 'I better get my butt to the hospital,' he told himself, and within hours he was in life-saving surgery."

Another article about the power of Google, by Steven Levy in the December 16 Newsweek (via Nick Denton, who admits he's already altering his behaviour to suit the way the all-powerful search engine works).

Also check out Google's 2002 Year-End Zeitgeist, if you're interested in finding out the top search terms for the year thus far i.e. what the world has had on its mind lately. (For the record, I myself haven't searched for any of the Top 20 Gaining Entries. I haven't even heard of half of them.)
A few weeks ago I linked to a story in the Jamaica Gleaner in which a senior policeman & a well-known psychologist claimed that Jamaica's mounting murder rate should not alarm law-abiding citizens, since most of the killings were either gang- or drug-related, or else domestic; "ordinary citizens are not affected."

In today's Express, Keith Smith passionately takes on a similar claim apparently made by Patrick Manning for T&T:

"It seems that Mr Manning, no doubt seeking to limit the political fall-out, suggested that the average citizen did not have all that much to fear because the circle of murder mostly surrounded gang members and drug dealers.

"He is probably right about this but he was wrong to take that particular public stance, I find, for the simple reason that isolated though the recent spate of killings may be, the fact of that isolation is not of much comfort to anybody, certainly not to all those law-abiding citizens living within ear-shot of the gun-shots in the night.

"The thing is killing is killing and murder is murder and while it is true that there are those, even among those living in the killing fields, who hold that “the best thing is for all of them to kill out each other with dey damn stupid self”, the reality is that it is young black men killing young black men and I don’t see how any leader, and a PNM leader for that matter, could hold such a narrow perspective on this matter."
Riffing on a Tom Friedman column (titled "Blair for President") in today's NY Times, Matthew Yglesias proposes that Tony Blair "would make an excellent founding Prime Minister of an exciting US/UK/Canada/Australia combo nation" — a "United States of English-Speakingness". Maybe if we asked nicely T&T would be allowed to join, & we could stop worrying about this messy, tiresome constitution reform business. (And there must be, what, half a million Trinis living in the US/UK/Canada/Australia already.)
Denis Solomon, in his column in today's Express, picks at some of the loose ends in the ongoing constitution reform debate. A combination of proportional representation & state funding of political parties, which it seems someone must have proposed recently, would lead to parliamentary chaos, he says; & Solomon believes the T&T constitution was devised from the first to deny meaningful representation to the people, a more shocking allegation than I think he realises.

"...the framers of the Constitution knew that Parliament would not be independent, and didn’t care. The idea that Parliament is simply a device for enabling governments to operate is present by default in the thinking of the gurus, and overt in the statements and behaviour of practising politicians."

I'm trying to figure out exactly who his "thick-headed" gurus are.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Good news, then: the story a few months ago, when The Autograph Man was just out, was that Zadie Smith had decided to give up fiction altogether for teaching. An interview published in today's NY Times sounds much more promising:

"She is in no hurry to produce her next novel, she said, although she has not abandoned fiction. But she seems remarkably unconcerned about the demands of the literary marketplace and will not admit to working on anything new.

"'I find it very odd that if I was sitting around toying with four paragraphs, I could say, "Yes, I've started some new fiction,"' she said. 'It would become an economic entity and a real thing in the world, whereas before it would have just been, "Zadie's just scored a few paragraphs." I find it all very unnerving.'"

(Note the extremely fetching photograph — she's wearing a sort of pink turban.)

Monday, December 16, 2002

Matt Prescott of Earth-Info.Net has drawn my attention to the international Publish What You Pay campaign:

"International oil, gas, and mining companies pay billions of dollars a year to the governments of many less developed countries that are rich in natural resources, such as Angola and Nigeria.

"Few of these countries' citizens benefit from this financial windfall, however, because of government corruption + mismanagement.

"The 'Publish What You Pay' campaign aims to help citizens hold their governments accountable for how these resource-related funds are managed and distributed.

"George Soros and a coalition of more than 40 NGOs (including the Open Society Institute and the campaign's co-sponsor, Global Witness) place the onus on wealthy countries' governments to require transnational extraction companies to publish net taxes, fees, royalties, and other payments made so civil society can more accurately assess the amount of money misappropriated and lobby for full transparency in local government spending."

The campaign website includes the text of an op-ed piece written by George Soros for the Financial Times last June:

"I recognize that oil and mining companies do not control how their payments are spent, or misspent. But if they are to be good corporate citizens in this age of globalization, they do have a responsibility to disclose these payments so the people of the countries concerned can hold their governments to account.

"No individual company wants to start disclosing data before its competitors do. That is why voluntary disclosure will not work. But all companies would benefit from a level playing field if disclosure were required. They would not be violating the terms of their agreements if the requirement to 'Publish What You Pay' were imposed on them."

T&T is not one of the countries singled out by the campaign for not fully disclosing its energy revenues to its citizens (though Venezuela is). But I think we should be eager nonetheless to see how the multinational corporations currently exploiting our own energy resources respond to this challenge. "Sustainable development" is everyone's talk these days, but talk is proverbially cheap; our oil & natural gas are not.
"There are a few questions, which someone in my situation will not even ask. Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, devoted an entire little book to the question: For whom do we write? It is an interesting question, but it can also be dangerous, and I thank my lucky stars that I never had to deal with it. Let us see what the danger consists of. If a writer were to pick a social class or group that he would like, not only to delight but also influence, he would first have to examine his style to see whether it is a suitable means by which to exert influence. He will soon be assailed by doubts, and spend his time watching himself. How can he know for sure what his readers want, what they really like? He cannot very well ask each and every one. And even if he did, it wouldn't do any good. He would have to rely on his image of his would-be readers, the expectations he ascribed to them, and imagine what would have the effect on him that he would like to achieve. For whom does a writer write, then? The answer is obvious: he writes for himself."

— Imre Kertész, "Heureka!", the 2002 Nobel Lecture, now available online at the Nobel Foundation website.

My half-dozen readers may have picked up, from the odd hint or turn of phrase, that lately I've been wondering what exactly I'm blogging for. I started this weblog as a sort of experiment, but without any clear objective; I suppose I must have assumed that at some point I'd have an audience of at least a few dozen, that I'd manage to make some tentative but useful contributions to various debates of public interest, that I'd help establish a Caribbean presence in the blogosphere. Well, a quick visit to my page counter (scroll to the very bottom) suggests that this blog's impact on the world has thus far been negligible (Glenn Reynolds gets about 50,000 hits per day; my record thus far is 15.)

Now, my posting is nothing like the kind of writing Kertész discusses, but over the last couple of weeks I've come to the same conclusion: I'm writing this blog for myself, for the strange satisfaction of knowing my (incoherent, inconsequential, insufficiently thought out) ramblings are floating out on the ether, atoms in the great theoretical infinity of this invented universe (which some call the Internet). I'm not leading up to any conclusion here — merely acknowledging the awesome & selfish thrill of contributing a strand or two of myself to this impossible entity.

(Wryly noted: Glenn Reynolds admits that fast typing is the secret of his success....)
Let the games begin: Jonathan complains this morning that he's unable to italicise text when blogging from the office, since he's forced to use a Mac, "and the Mac browser does not support that capability". He's blaming the wrong party: it's not Apple's fault that Blogger hasn't fixed their software so that Mac users enjoy the same conveniences as Windows users; also not Apple's fault that Jonathan hasn't figured out the simple HTML code for italics....

"Can someone please explain to me again why the Macintosh exists?", he asks. Ah, just the opportunity I've been waiting for to link to a fascinating five-part series by Leander Kahney on Mac loyalty, published on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Most of my half-dozen readers already know I'm blogging on an iBook, & have been firmly on the side of Apple since the first time I sat down in front of a little Mac Plus, roughly 12 years ago, & felt an instinctive affinity: here was a computer that seemed to think the way I did, that I could use intuitively, without frequently, frustratedly resorting to a manual or an "expert", a computer that seemed to exist to make the world a little easier for me. I've been a confirmed Mac user ever since (even though from time to time I've been forced to grapple with Windows, & even now there's a Dell sitting on a desk at home, gathering dust). There are lots of reasons: the elegance of the interface, the stability of the platform, the fact that I feel I can tinker around inside the OS without doing catastrophic damage, & that I pretty much don't have to worry about viruses — but above all else my Mac just feels right to me; it feels like an extension of my working mind, not a tiresome protuberance that I'm forced to tolerate.

Maybe I just think different.

Or you could look at it this way:

"Umberto Eco, the Italian semiologist, once famously compared Macs and PCs to the two main branches of the Christian faith: Catholics and Protestants.

"The Mac is Catholic, he wrote in his back-page column of the Italian news weekly, Espresso, in September 1994. It is 'cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the Kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed.'

"The Windows PC, on the other hand, is Protestant. It demands 'difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: A long way from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment."

Sunday, December 15, 2002

In today's Express, both Kirk Meighoo & Selwyn Ryan take on the issue of party politics in T&T (on the Express website Ryan's column mistakenly appears with Martin Daly's byline). Meighoo revives Allan Harris's idea of a "one-&-a-half party system"; Ryan examines the UNC's current succession crisis. Both end with the same diagnosis: political underdevelopment. In Ryan's words:

"One of the better known definitions of political party was scripted by the British political thinker and activist Edmund Burke. For Burke, 'a party is a body of men united for promoting, by their joint endeavour, the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed'. If we use that classic definition, few of the organisations which make claims to being a party [in T&T] will qualify.

"Parties are now little more than electoral outfits created by political picaroons, conmen, and entrepreneurs who regard parties as a business, and politics as an investment opportunity which is no different in principle from any other investment, except perhaps that the returns in the high risk 'winner take all system' are substantial for those who win, and close to zero for those who lose."

Meighoo hints at the necessary solution: a constitutional structure in which the people are genuinely represented, which will eventually force the parties to enact internal reforms in order to achieve & maintain power. It's a chicken-&-egg case, if you will: a meaningfully democratic legislature must come first. Meaningfully democratic parties, & meaningful politics, will follow.
The press in the rest of the Caribbean doesn't seem to have picked up on this yet, but the speaker of St. Lucia's House of Representatives, Matthew Roberts, has been at the centre of an unfolding controversy for nearly three months now. This weekend's edition of the Star gives a detailed summary. Roberts has been accused of rape by the "flamboyant" (i.e. openly homosexual) Paris-based St. Lucian model Vincent McDoom; the alleged attack took place twenty years ago, when McDoom was a minor. Roberts has refused to respond to the allegations, & prime minister Kenny Anthony has also remained silent. Former prime minister Vaughan Lewis, writing in last weekend's Star, called for Roberts to speak up, but the government seems to think the scandal will simply go away if they ignore it steadfastly enough.
Peter Berkowitz, in today's Washington Post Book World, reviews two new books examining the nature of good & evil: Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought & Bernard Williams's Truth and Truthfulness. Berkowitz starts by pointing out the continued relevance of this old problem to a world agitated by ethico-political debate over Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, terrorism & the appropriate response to its horrors. Neiman & Williams, of course, like all good philosophers, are more interested in questions than in answers, but the conclusion they separately come to — "anticlimactic and abstract", says Berkowitz — is that our best defence against the possibility of evil is human reason, our ongoing & highly imperfect attempt to understand ourselves & the world we make around us, & to use this knowledge to prevent suffering as far as we are able.

My own fragmentary idea, picked up not from metaphysicians but from novelists, is that evil is the failure of the moral imagination, our failure to try to step outside ourselves & understand the world as it occurs to other people, to imaginatively grapple with their happiness & their suffering, to grasp their humanness. Perhaps I'm labouring under a hopeless naïvety, but I don't see how a person could deliberately inflict harm, inflict suffering, inflict evil, upon another person, unless he failed to grasp the essential fact that this other was as capable of suffering as he. Hence the pernicious strategy of dehumanising rivals & enemies through labels, stereotypes, lies. It's not that hard, it seems, to blow people up or hack them to bits if you manage to think of them not as human beings but as Jews or Arabs or infidel or sinners or terrorists.

The great sin, I think, is exceptionalism: believing oneself of more value — more human — than others. Yet our evolutionary history as an animal species, struggling for survival, has created us with this very instinct. Hence the revolutionary significance of Christ's dictum, "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them"; & of Kant's categorical imperative, "act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law". They ask us to be something more than the animals of our physical nature. They ask us to do something extraordinary, something which almost no other animal species seems capable of doing: imagine what the world feels like to someone else.
Slowly we populate the blogosphere: another Trinidadian, Jonathan Ali, has staked his virtual claim, & he even credits my influence! I hope we'll soon be engaged in some satisfying debate; meanwhile, my half-dozen readers may be interested in hearing what Jonathan thinks about Kurt Cobain's journals or Arundhati Roy's new book of essays. (Now how do we get Damien to start blogging again?)

Saturday, December 14, 2002

As part of my ongoing effort to be useful to the world, over the last few weeks I've been tracking down online reviews of Caribbean books, & have now assembled these into an index. Most of them date from the last five years, but a few older reviews come from the online archives of the NY Times & the Caribbean Writer. So far I've got about 100 reviews listed here, of books by authors ranging alphabetically from Robert Antoni to Derek Walcott. I intend to update the index every few weeks to include new reviews as well as older ones I manage to unearth. I hope someone finds all this helpful.
A mysterious entity called has nominated what it refers to as the "Top 5 Trinidadian Homepages" (discovered via Vlado Kekoc). Kittyblogs, most of them look like to me.
Reading Naipaul's essays on India in The Writer and the World makes Soumya Bhattacharya wonder (in yesterday's Hindustan Times) whether anything's changed in Calcutta — er, Kolkata — in the last forty years.
A.S. Byatt, in an essay in today's UK Guardian, recalls the delight & fascination with which she read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a child. My own clearest memory of reading Alice at an early age is of the slight terror induced by Tenniel's masterful illustrations. I shiver a little even now, when I remember his vision of Alice with her neck extended to serpentine proportions, after a taste of the caterpillar's mushroom....
In case you hadn't noticed, the Times reports that Roger Toussaint, the president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, & hence the leading figure in the possible NYC transit strike, is a Trini. (And a St. Mary's old boy too, according to this profile by Angela Pidduck.)
Lloyd Best goes at the constitution reform issue from another angle in yesterday's Express, describing the failure of the Caribbean's educated elite "to describe its own reality by using concepts and designations that spring out of its own experience" (as opposed to borrowing ideas of varying degrees of relevance & irrelevance from elsewhere).

"Should we not turn instead to the hard and very possibly 'unrewarding' work of plumbing the origins of the present Caribbean mess?"

This fundamental requirement to understand the Caribbean as a unique social, historical & cultural phenomenon, in its own terms, has been the basis of Best's work for forty years, & now of his radical proposals for reconstituting the colonial state, as he aptly puts it.

A week ago Best gave a detailed rationale for the "House of Parliament" with which he'd replace the T&T senate; today he does the same for his "House of Government", "the agency within which the country would be able to judge, on a continuing basis from discussion and debate, the comparative merits of all the leaders of parties vying for the right to become the Executive":

"What we now routinely mistake for a House of Representatives is nothing of the kind.

"Any child arriving from Mars would see that it is the place where the Chief Executive and his one or two rivals for the prime ministership each assembles her/his aides. While it was substantially so all along, it was not wholly so, not until the Republican Constitution of 1976. The then PM vested himself with the right to handpick up to 16 executive aides from the Senate.

"The diabolical effect of this, though unappreciated at the time, was to make members of the first or lower house essentially expendable and therefore susceptible equally of being handpicked. This is the real meaning of would be representatives and legislators ritually regarded as crapauds and millstones. To the extent that the party politics favours such a dispensation — which it does; and to the extent that the culture of the incumbent is reproduced on the Opposition side, what we have ended up with is not necessarily a bad thing. It is simply a House of Government unvarnished. It offers to the electorate no semblance of representation."

(Compare Best's ideas with, for instance, John Spence's rather timid suggestions in last Thursday's Express, & you realise how far most of us still are from recognising the necessity of an entire structural reconception of our constitutional arrangements. Superficial, piecemeal patching up — Spence would have MPs' salaries raised, the number of cabinet ministers fixed etc. — would only distract us from our real task, & postpone what I believe is an inevitable revolutionary change in the way we govern ourselves. (Flying my optimist's colours this morning!)

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Glenn Reynolds approvingly quotes Armed Liberal on the subject of liberal snobbery:

"I’m a liberal because I respect pretty much everyone.... it comes from a feeling that the least of us are as human and worthy of dignity as the best.

"But somehow, we have managed to raise an intellectual class who believe in liberalism in no small part because it allows them to feel superior to others."

"Yep," says the Instapundit, but the observation is true not because of any inherent flaw in liberalism itself but because of a basic human fondness for feeling oneself superior to others. As Virginia Woolf put it,

"Life ... is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority — it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney — for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination — over other people."

And it seems to me that one such "pathetic device" of recent invention is the casual deployment of terms such as "idiotarian" in order to affirm one's superiority over ideological opponents; name-calling which effectively dismisses intellectual subtleties or valid moral qualms for the sake of scoring easy points.

Waving about one's ideology in an attempt to feel superior to others is behaviour not restricted to liberals.
From our reading:

"Tras el cristal ya gris la noche cesa
Y del alto de libros que una trunca
Sombra dilata por la vaga mesa,
Alguno habrá que no leeremos nunca."

("Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.")

— Jorge Luis Borges, "Limites" ("Limits"), trans. Alastair Reid

"...I began to make unhelpful calculations, multiplying the number of books I'd read in the previous year by the number of years I might reasonable be expected to live, and perceiving in the three-digit product not so much an intimation of mortality (though the news on that front wasn't cheering) as a measure of the incompatibility of the slow work of reading and the hyperkinesis of modern life."

— Jonathan Franzen, "Why Bother?" (a.k.a. "the Harper's essay"), in How to Be Alone, p. 63 in the US edition.

" everyone in their middle years, I can do the calculations, and they don't augur well for my lifetime bibliography. Say I have 25 years left, at 10 books a year. That's barely a bookshelf. If I were to read all of Dickens — and somewhere, packed away so I don't have to see it, is a complete leather-bound edition — that would be a year gone. Plato, the same (times 20 if we insist, as we should, on the original Greek). Shakespeare, more like two (because you really can't read Shakespeare properly without a detailed commentary). Already it seems daunting, and where do you fit in the latest Jonathan Franzen?"

— John Allemang, "The Secret Life of Non-readers", in the Globe and Mail, 7 December, 2002 (no link because the Globe and Mail has no permanent online archive).

This awful idea (awful in the literal sense) eventually occurs to every individual who privately defines himself or herself as a reader: there won't be enough time to read everything. My first real confrontation with the fact of my own mortality happened one day as I browsed along one of my bookcases, started to pull a volume from the shelf, changed my mind & pushed it back, & suddenly realised I would never actually read that particular now-forgotten title.

Re-reading the Franzen essay recently, I was prompted to make my own "unhelpful" calculation. I don't know how many books I've read this last year — I certainly don't read as much or as quickly as I did in my youth — but an average of thirty per annum seems reasonable & conservative. Multiplied by sixty (longevity runs in my family, both sides), that gives 1,800. I must have nearly half that many unread books lying on my shelves already, but at least I'm doing better than Franzen & Allemang.

Why bring this up now? I've barely posted to my blog this week. One reason is that I've been dismayed of late by the amount of time I seem to spend online. True, much of this time is spent reading — but in stops & starts, skipping, skimming, never quite finishing anything, shifting back & forth between webpages — an altogether unsatisfying mode of being. So the last few days, instead of posting, I've been reading Pepys. I acquired the 11-volume Latham & Matthews edition of the Diary last February, & for nearly ten months it sat piled up on a small chair in my study. Now I'm halfway through vol. 1.

Monday, December 09, 2002

What's happened to Salam Pax? Diane at Letter from Gotham explains that he thought it prudent to take down his blog after it was mentioned in a Reuters report, potentially bringing him to the attention of Saddam Hussein's murderous operatives.

I'm very disheartened & shaken by this. If anything were to happen to Salam now, would we even know about it?

His parting word is "sorry".

I'm sorry — & worried & sad.

Sunday, December 08, 2002

Today's Guardian also runs an excerpt (not online) from the speech with which Ken Ramchand introduced his constitution reform motion in the T&T senate. The most interesting part comes right at the end:

"... emancipation gave to the majority of the population neither vote, nor land nor money in compensation.... It was left to the masses to express themselves and show forth their possibilities and display their threat and revolutionary power in cultural performance, in festivals, in Carnival canboulay and Hosay riot, as dragon, diable diable, moko jumbie and pierrot, in tambour bambour, stickfight, and in the freedom of the jamette underworld, where female liberation was a socially liberating everyday fact. The establishment felt the political threat of these displays and understood them to be the most eloquent and comprehensive calls, the most human arguments, for constitution reform. They raved about them in the newspapers. They banned them. They turned on them the police....

"We have a right to make a constitution after our own fashion to suit the facts of our history and our own projections about our future, and when we do so I propose certain provisions in the new constitution should relate to the work of the artists and the craftsmen and the cultural practitioners in our country who often represent us at our best and propose the most fearless courses for our emergence."

This reading of the expression of political will through popular culture in late 19th-century & early 20th-century Trinidad is fascinating, but what really interests me is Ramchand's vague suggestion that "certain provisions in the new constitution should relate to the work of the artists and the craftsmen and the cultural practitioners". I can't think what he means — a constitutionally protected right to artistic expression? A legislative body made up of artists & performers? Don't our poets & our calypsonians & our painters & our mas men best exercise their power as unacknowledged legislators, in Shelley's phrase? But I'm eager to hear Ramchand unfold his concept.
In discussing constitution reform in T&T over the last few weeks, I've repeatedly invoked the ideas of Lloyd Best; it must be clear to my half-dozen readers that I wholeheartedly agree with his argument that the fundamental issue is representation; & the version of a "people's senate" which I proposed recently is based on his thinking as well.

In yesterday's Express Best detailed his own practical prescription for reform of T&T's legislative machinery (as he has in the past). Unfortunately, some sort of bug in the Express website has made all of yesterday's op-ed pieces inaccessible. I reported this problem to the webmaster, hoping it would soon be fixed so I could actually link to Best's column. But as of this morning nothing's been done; so I'm reluctantly posting linklessly, & quoting more extensively than I otherwise would [UPDATE: the site's been fixed; read Best's column here]:

"Since self-government was first mooted, more than 50 years of our energies have been almost systematically misdirected. The signature demand of a free people is effective representation. However, it has almost certainly been obscured by the ineluctable necessity to resort to an ethnic mobilisation, mainly and increasingly, but not only, on the basis of race....

"It has taken the futility of a country hung on this basis and therefore of a parliament repeatedly stymied or nearly so, to bring us to our senses. We are still only groping for the new dispensation — without as yet being in a position to convert it into machinery and operations....

"... the banner demand can only be for effective representation at the level of central government. We can begin only where experience has left us and start with the agencies to which the attention of the public is turned. Given present imperfections in parliament and government, two agencies seem to be called for. Instead of a lower (first) and an upper (second) chamber, operating in the shape of a House of Representatives and a Senate, what we need are one single House of Government and another House of Parliament.

"Our problem has always been, precisely, that our institutional arrangements have amounted to one House (of Government) that invariably converts the other house into a pathological surrogate. This implies, as we are now painfully aware, that the House of Government we are in search of already exists, even if it needs to be adapted to the new requirements of reform. What we cannot simply carve out of existing institutions, and must create or invent anew, is a House of Parliament, even if there are some elements and some relevant experience on which we are able to count.

"In most ways the character of the House of Parliament is easy to outline. For one thing, it must offer the widest possible representation to popular interests. This entails two conditions. First, this house must be of ample size so as to guarantee a catchment of the largest dimensions.... Second, this house cannot be a nominated chamber. It can only be one that is elected, even if such election, in part, might come down to a selection of representatives by each of the great diversity of national interests....

"The intention of these provisions is to ensure that, as far as possible in the initial stages, the members of the House of Parliament, as well as the chamber as a collective, would be wholly autonomous. They must in no way be dependent on or beholden to the members of the Executive or House of Government....

"For a second thing, this House of Parliament must be endowed with the full powers of a legislature to inform, instruct and discipline the Executive, located in the other House (of Government). This function it would carry out by debating and voting on all legislation, whether initiated by itself or by the Executive....

When we turn to the other house, the House of Government, we are immediately transported into the realm of the Executive. We have always operated this house under the rubric of the Legislative Council and thereafter the House of Representatives, egregiously a misnomer.

"The long-standing provision that the Executive be a committee of the Legislature has in effect been the permissive condition for the latter to be subordinate to the former....

"We shall come to see that our proposal for two separate houses, including a House of Government, would seek to distribute responsibilities in such a way as to achieve not so much Montesquieu's imprecise and elusive 'separation of powers' but more an independence of agencies, appropriate to WI requirements."

I'm yet to hear a proposal as compelling as Best's; it's clear from his analysis that no one has thought about these issues as deeply or as rigorously as he has. But this great question remains: how to make such revolutionary reform actually happen? My belief has been that a credible alliance of concerned citizens — like the Constitution Reform Forum — will have to act boldly & set up a new mechanism outside the official structure in order to demonstrate the viability & legitimacy of major reform. Damien has argued via email that there's no general public interest in constitution reform & hence all this high-minded debate is doomed to failure. He also wonders, as a few other commentators have, whether T&T's ruling elite would really countenance any change that could give meaningful political power to the masses.

The only immediate solution, it seems to me, is to keep arguing these questions as loudly & as publicly as possible.

Meanwhile, B.C. Pires interviews Best in today's Guardian (not online). I'll quote only his response to the final question:

Pires: How do you feel about being dismissed as "too high" or irrelevant to the ordinary man?

Best: My ideas are everywhere. If you take a newspaper, it's hard to find a morning in which someone is not referring to something I said, and not only in Trinidad. People who don't like me try to deal with me by saying that.