Sunday, November 30, 2008

A modest proposal

Heartiest congratulations to national security minister Martin Joseph on achieving this historic milestone: 500 murders in Trinidad and Tobago this year, as of yesterday. Wow. That's well over a hundred more than we managed in 2007. But wait--there's still a whole month to go before the end of 2008, and the police always like to tell you December is a high homicide month. With a little bit of extra effort, if we all chip in, maybe we can make it to--dare I say it--600!

To really grasp the magnitude of the achievement, you have to look at the murder statistics for the past few years. In 2000 we only managed 120. Less than one per day. We did better in 2001: 151. At the end of that year, the PNM won the general election--er, actually, they didn't, they tied with the UNC, but that's a minor detail. The important thing is that they moved into government. In 2002, the first full year under this PNM administration, we saw just a small increase in murders, to 172. We also had another election, the PNM was voted in with an actual majority, and the result: 269 murders in 2003!

The prime minister thought we could do better. He decided it was a matter of giving the national security job to the right man. So in November 2003 he appointed Minister Joseph to the post. He got off to a slow start--261 murders in 2004. Why, that was even less than the year before. But he was new to the job, let's give him that--after all, in 2005 he got the rate all the way up to 386, a new record--more than one per day! 2006 was another rocky year--the rate fell again, to just 368 murders. Senator Joseph must have vowed to never again be so embarrassed. He worked extra hard in 2007--and set a new record, 391 murders. In just one year!

The country entered 2008 with high expectations--which have been far exceeded already, beyond our wildest dreams. 500! In just eleven months! And that was yesterday! By now, as I type this, we've probably reached 501 or 502. I feel--and I'm sure all decent citizens will agree with me--that the country ought to do something special to congratulate Minister Joseph, give him some special kind of gift. And we mustn't forget he didn't achieve this all by himself. It takes special skill to oversee such a thrilling rise in a country's murder rate in such a short time, and also a lot of luck--but it surely also required the advice and support and cooperation of the prime minister and the rest of Cabinet, of the Opposition, of the police and the judiciary and the business sector--of all of us, really, especially the loyal citizens who had the foresight to vote the PNM back into government a year ago. We should all be patting ourselves on the back.

But I still think we should do something special for Minister Joseph. Organise some kind of event to show our appreciation. Maybe a huge parade? Shut down the country so everyone can participate, then descend, all of us grateful and loyal citizens, tens of thousands of us, on the next Cabinet meeting--wearing red, screaming bloody murder, and waving our flaming torches and our pitchforks.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Three years later

october 2005 1

More than three years have passed already since the Saturday morning in October 2005 when thousands of Trinidadians marched through the streets of Port of Spain to protest the Manning government's failure to deal with spiralling murder and kidnapping rates, widespread public anxiety, and the profound social inequalities behind these.

I was there. I walked from Independence Square up Henry Street, across Duke Street, down Frederick Street to Woodford Square. Outside the Red House three hundred volunteers dressed in white lay down on a long sheet of red cloth, representing that year's tally of murder victims to date. I talked to dozens of people, asked them why there were there, what they were feeling. They were angry. We were angry. It seemed the whole country was finally angry enough to trigger a political revolution of some kind--not a revolution of guns and bombs, but one of responsibility and accountability and democracy.

Less than a month later, on 16 November, the Trinidad and Tobago football team qualified for the World Cup. It was a wonderful thing to experience the explosion of sheer joy that rocked the country that afternoon. Again, I was there. I walked down Ariapita Avenue and Western Main Road through deliriously celebrating throngs. We were happy. We forgot how angry we had been just a few days before. For a few blissful hours, it was wonderful to forget.

We forgot too well.

It is time to get angry again.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"If that person's person outweighs his babble...."

You may well want to ask--Is not every person a valid person? And I say: Yes. I say yes only if that person's person outweighs his babble in the war against the reduction of himself, because every word or deed a person utters or commits which fails to recognise or increase the value of another ends up by effecting a reduction of the provenance of the intention.

-- Martin Carter, address at the University of Guyana's eighth Convocation Ceremony, 1974

(This person's person feels slightly more valid this evening after reading some Carter, listening to some Bach, and sipping some Campari on the rocks.)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Bang on the gates and demand to be heard"

Andre Bagoo, writing in today's Newsday:

“If ever I am aggrieved by anything the media does in the future, I am going to the courts,” Manning said. But why didn’t he go to the courts in the first place? That was and is his right as a citizen of this country and he has exercised that right in the past. Why did the Prime Minister ignore the rule of law by his actions? Instead of driving for miles into Port-of-Spain, why did he not just pick up a phone and make a call to complain? Or write a letter? Or complain to the Media Complaints Council? Or call for the implementation of the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT)’s draft broadcast code. TATT, which is established by an act of Parliament, has included a clear and concise complaints provision in the draft. The Prime Minister is aware of all of these options.

You see, if you have a grievance, there is a procedure. That procedure ensures law and order. For this reason, no citizen of this country, no matter how aggrieved by anything the Prime Minister does, can drive up to La Fantasie, bang on the gates and demand to be heard.

(Maybe we should?)

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Invalid persons

So on 25 October, just four days after Reporters Without Borders released its 2008 Press Freedom Index--in which Trinidad and Tobago slipped eight places down from our 2007 ranking--Mr. Manning took such visceral offence to the on-air comments of a couple of radio journalists that he swooped down upon the 94.1 FM office, with all the security detail commesse that prime ministerial dignity apparently requires, to make a personal complaint to the station management. The two journalists were swiftly suspended.

What were the vicious and scandalous comments that so roused Mr. Manning's righteous ire? Today's Express helpfully publishes a transcript. They had the nerve to--drumroll--criticise the government's gasoline pricing policy, and mock Mr. Manning's suggestion that cars be converted to run on CNG.

Prime ministerial dignity, it seems, is a delicate and fragile thing. Mr. Manning was "aggrieved", he said. His rights as a citizen were trampled on. Worse, this kind of criticism by the media, Mr. Manning said at a press conference two days ago, could even bring the country to its knees:

... too many of the commentators either in the newspapers, or in the media or on the radio, do not respect our institutions. It is a question of being disrespectful to institutions and authority, and pursuing a course of action that could cause the image of these institutions and individuals to be tarnished in the minds of those in whose interest they are set up to serve, and therefore they could become completely non-effective. That is the risk that we run.

Never mind that many citizens would say the institutions and individuals of the Manning government are already "completely non-effective" at solving the real and urgent problems facing the country. Forget the murder rate, the babies dying in hospitals, the near-permanent gridlock of the country's transport infrastructure, the power outages and water lock-offs, the widespread belief in massive corruption and fraud at high levels of government, the secret new constitution now being drafted that will consolidate executive power, etc etc etc etc. What we really need to worry about, Mr. Manning seems to believe--and he even seems hurt that we don't agree--is a free press.

The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago and the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association have rightly--and forcefully--objected. Today's Guardian and Newsday run strongly worded editorials criticising Mr. Manning's stance. Georgia Popplewell at Caribbean Free Radio has weighed in. Taran Rampersad at KnowProSE lists his concerns in an open letter to the prime minister.

But the real question here is even more fundamental than freedom of the press and all citizens' freedom of expression. In a letter printed in today's Express, C. Peters says: "It may do Mr. Manning well to remember that prime ministership is leadership and not ownership." In her column in today's Guardian, Attillah Springer makes a similar point:

We can't imagine ourselves ever as anything else but good slaves, doing massa's bidding. We can't bear the threat of the threat of massa's whip coming down on our backs.... We can't be anything that is not expected of us. Loyal servants, with ready smiles and words of praise.

Mr. Manning's radio station raid is yet one more reminder--as if, Lord, we needed another--that in Trinidad and Tobago democracy is not a practice but a concept, and a concept that we still, forty-six years after independence, do not really understand, much less believe in. In a representative democracy--the form of government we claim--the people's representatives, our members of Parliament, and the prime minister chosen from among them, have the duty of acting in the people's interest. Instead--with the help of a constitution which already concentrates too much power in the executive's hands, a system of tribal politics that is destructive of clear thought, and a succession of politicians enamoured of the trappings of power--we are lorded over by an administration which seems to believe it is the people's duty to act in the government's interest.

Mr. Manning has demonstrated over and again his disdain for criticism--however useful, however well meant--whether it comes from the media, the public at large, or even from within his own party. The 94.1 incident is perhaps not even the most serious example we've witnessed of late. I have no doubt that the Trinidad and Tobago media, backed up by their regional colleagues, will face down Mr. Manning's threats of personal and legal action against journalists by whom he feels "aggrieved". But who among us is facing up to the bigger and deeper crisis, the bankruptcy of "democracy" as a meaningful idea and principle and practice in twenty-first-century Trinidad and Tobago?

Because we are all responsible.

More than three decades ago, Martin Carter summed up his social and political ideal for the Caribbean as "a free community of valid persons."

I have never in my life felt so pessimistic about us merely understanding this ideal, much less achieving it.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Change Is Gonna Come

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I've been running ever since

It's been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die

'Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky

It's been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go downtown

Somebody keep telling me don't hang around

It's been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother

And I say brother help me please

But he winds up knocking me

Back down on my knees

There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long

But now I think I'm able to carry on

It's been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Sunday, November 02, 2008