The continuing debate over the faux pas by Sir Roy Trotman, like the general narrative about politics and change in Barbados, has concentrated on what Sir Roy said and did not say, what he meant or did not mean, and the social damage of it all. Typically missing was the substantive point, a case of not being able to tell the wood from the trees.
This is not a national intellectual oversight, but one that goes right to the heart of a cultural tradition of learning by rote, reading and remembering, while missing the fundamental point of critical understanding and analysis.
As the late Czech philosopher/activist Vaclav Havel once said: “The deeper the experience of an absence of meaning – in other words, of absurdity – the more energetically meaning is sought.” In most societies searching for a deeper understanding of their place in history, the statement by Sir Roy, real or imagined, would have been the stepping off point for a serious discussion about the medium and long-term future of the nation. Instead, what we have seen is a concentration on the actuality and its elementary interpretation, rather than the substance – is our society changing and, if so, is it for the better?
I always find the best way of communicating these points is by giving an example: whatever the self-serving background noise, Barbados is in serious economic trouble. Households are finding it hard paying the bills, even for the few with mortgages, keeping a home over their heads is tougher now than it was three or four years ago. And the elites who should be leading the national debate, giving a lead to policymakers and re-assuring the nation, are silent, so there is no intellectual leadership. Where is the quality discussion in the media? Where are the academics clambering to breakout of the restrictions of Cave Hill to share their undoubted knowledge with the public? Where are the politicians giving a lead?
My argument is that a poor society does not have to lose its civic soul; nor, indeed, does a rich society necessarily have a soul. In short, the quality of a society is not money, nor big houses or four-by-four cars, but the nature of its people, how they relate to each other. Take the evidence: gated communities, constant vacuous threats about drug-dealing and the boys on the block, high unemployment, the atomising of social space – the list is endless – all pointing to a society in which citizens do not trust each other, permanently suspicious of strangers, doubtful of people’s intentions. Just look at the family rows, the theft of inherited property, unscrupulous overcharging, aggression and violence, the routine abuse of office, from getting jobs for friends and relatives to sacking people without any justification. All these and more are symptoms of a society in meltdown, a society so deep in self-denial that it replaces the horrors of its own implosion with an artificial nationalism.
One of the great failings is that of politicians and their failure to communicate with the voting public. Because of the amateurish system – one of the foundations of our democracy – they often lack the intellectual energy, fail to explain policy, cannot differentiate between reassuring the public and crusading in a vulgar party political way. It begs the question: is parliament a reflection of society, a talent pool, or the best available potential leaders our society can produce?
In the meantime, we have a society caught up in the most volatile financial and banking crisis since the dawn of capitalism, clearly the policymakers and politicians have no idea of what to do about it, yet they have a false bravado, pushing out their chests and spouting off with the most economically illiterate nonsense this side of the Himalayas. Normally, it is the kind of mess that traditionally most of us would laugh at over a drink, only in this case people are suffering.
In the meantime, stubbornness and arrogance is preventing them from seeking help. Their conceit and pride tells them that if they cannot find answers then, by definition, no other Barbadian can.
One of the most powerful institutions in our society is the church, yet in all its denominations, it has remained deafeningly silent as the society around it melts down. It is content to abandon its social gospel, preferring to take an interest only in the Sunday collection. In fact, some of the wealthiest people in the society are church leaders, which is why there is a need for tighter regulatory controls of all religious bodies and charities. They should be compelled to bank all their income, invest in approved ethical and socially responsible vehicles and pay national insurance for all their employees.
In short, there must be a clear financial audit trail for all religious and charitable income, not matter the size of the religious body or its denomination or sect.
There are other gaps in our democratic structure. Where is our consumer champion? Our patients’ advocacy group? Who provides free legal advice for the marginalised and abject poor?
I have long called for a skills exchange in which people who are skills-rich, but cash-poor can barter: I will give you three hours of carpentry a week in exchange for three hours teaching my little girl/boy; I will service your car once a year if you can give me financial advice/planning once a year – the opportunities are there, it is just the willingness to share our expertise and knowledge.
In the meantime, while this absence of civic cooperation goes missing with the ‘natives’, the New Arrivants are establishing themselves.
We have one religious and ethnic minority which involves itself with the wider community only on its terms – selling cheap clothing and other household goods, yet it does not interact not even with the banking and financial systems. This to my mind is a case for intense intelligence gathering, rather than the genuflection we get from our officials.
We have another ethnic community which has colonised a large part of the most desired and expensive land in our country, yet we know very little about them, apart from what they want us to know. Who are they? Where did they get their money from? What do they import and export from their luxury, seaside homes and businesses? In truth, we do not know and, apparently, do not care.
The we have the Indo-Guyanese settlement, joined at the hip, with their ethnic brethren in demanding that Barbados, a secularised Christian society, should now treat Diwali as part of our national religious celebrations. Next time it will be Id, then Heavens knows.
Analysis and Conclusion:
The greatest challenge facing us as a people is in deciding what kind of society we aspire to and what steps we have to take to make that dream a reality. It is a debate, more a collective discussion, we should have had in the lead up to constitutional independence and, certainly, in the early years after. We did not.
Instead of formulating progressive policies to lift Barbados out of its present social mess, we have focused on a crude form of crony capitalism, with all hands in the barrel scratching for what they can grab. Flirting with Estonians, smiling at the Chinese, kowtowing to the Americans and Canadians, yessing the British, in short, prostituting ourselves for the next cheque.
We have developed a post-independence culture of genuflection, of babbling while pretending any collective noise passes for orderly and civilised public debate when in reality it is repetitive and boring, lacking in focus or any educative value. This must be put down to the educational system.
One of our worst failings as a young nation is that of policymaking and the realisation that policy comes from ideas, not from fear. Yet, despite the claims of following a Westminster/Whitehall policymaking and administrative model, the reality could not be further from the truth. It is this self-deception that has obstructed the formation of a post-independence development paradigm: quality of life over growth, budget discipline over imprudence, the development of human capital over credentialism, a progressive civic society over selfishness and greed.
Our public intellectual climate is stultifying, conservative, a convergence of intellectual dinosaurs and outdated views, and, most of all, totally irrelevant to the social, political and economic dynamism that is shaping the early 21st century.
There are two important global developments that we have failed to realise in Barbados. First, knowledge has shifted from academic institutions to think-tanks and quality publications (print and online), a fact that most people in positions of influence seem to miss. (In the mid-1980s we had eight newspapers – the Advocate, Evening Advocate, Recorder, Observer, Beacon, Truth, Bajan, and the Barbados Commercial Journal – now we two prints and one digital, of varying quality). This, along with the failure to develop a body of social historical analysis has led to the normalisation of some ideas which totally misinterpret social evidence to suit party alliance.
A good example is the recent attempt to re-write modern Barbadian social history with a revisionist version which claims to relegate Grantley Adams to a backwater, and project Errol Barrow as the father of independence. Yet, in light of this, our great historians and BLP ideas people have remained shamelessly silent while this character assassination takes place. We as a nation become the weaker for it.
Let us take a simple development, such as the post-independence increase in the number of Pakistanis in the island. Do we know which part of Pakistan they are from? Which sect of Islam they belong to? Which ones of their traditional cultural and religious practices and beliefs they adhere to? For example, are they mainly Sunnis or Shias, and what does this mean for potential conflict? Do they have marriage customs which in Barbadian law may be considered incestuous, therefore illegal? Do they have a parallel legal system which sits in judgment over community members? Do they carry out so-called honour killings on defiant daughters?
These are just some of the questions we ought to know as a society – certainly the authorities – if we are going to prevent social conflict in five, ten, fifteen or twenty-five years’ time. We just cannot sit back and pretend that our Pakistani Muslims are better than those in Trinidad or Guyana or Britain or Canada.
The same applies to the growing Syrian/Lebanese community. What do we know about them? With civil war in Syria, do they send money to support factions, or do members volunteer to fight? So they support Hamas or Hizbollah? If so, are they part of the Diaspora that funnels millions of dollars through various underground banking systems to these organisations? At the very least we must know about those who live among us (see: The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and the International Drug Traffic, by Jonathan V. Marshall, Stanford University Press)
This is not a theoretical issue. For the 2007 Cricket World Cup the Chinese built a new ground for the Grenadians. One condition, I am reliably told by a senior Grenadian civil servants, was that the 250 builders would have to stay on in Grenada. However, what the Chinese did not tell the Grenadian government was that the 250 workers were allegedly all ex-convicts. We have had a similar contingent of Chinese in Barbados. Do we know anything about their backgrounds?
As the Ancient Greeks told us: Know thy self.