Of all the responses to the Voter’s Manifesto I received, it was the one that challenged it that I appreciated the most. Not that I didn’t welcome the people who commented and wrote in support of the Manifesto, or that I am not happy to know that the original seemed to have struck a chord with several other voters; but at the heart of democracy is, and must be, the ability to disagree. A space for dissent, for disagreement, for debate, must be built into any democratic system; democracy cannot hope to be achieved when no debate takes place.
And it’s not enough for room to be left for debate; that’s only the first step in the democratic process. Unless debate happens—and debate that is rational, not polemic, slander or other forms of empty political rhetoric—unless, in other words, the group of people for whom democracy was provided do not exercise their freedom to speak, the process cannot survive. Silence paves the way for tyranny, and so also do name-calling and mud-slinging. There is very little that’s democratic about a host of people, all clad in rainbow-coloured clothing, gathering insults into a pile to throw at one another. In that scenario, Ian Strachan’s comment that no matter who wins the general election, the losers will be the Bahamian people is spot-on. What’s missing from our political discussion is any reference to real, debatable issues, and any honest debate about them; and if we hope to maintain our hold on democracy, already tenuous in several respects, blind agreement can be as unproductive as senseless personal attack.
So to the critique of the Manifesto, which was described by its critic as “ill-conceived, emotive, and racist”. The main area of contention was the “I do not believe” section, which rejected the ideas
In response, the critic observed that
and concluded that these statements “seemed designed to elicit anti-foreigner responses”. The response challenged me “to defend your words and demonstrate the error of my interpretation”.
Here is my defence. To the first, the claim that the electoral process in The Bahamas is “fully democratic”. This I challenge on many levels while at the same acknowledging the core of truth in the statement. On the one hand, we have a right to be proud of our electoral record. Great changes have taken place in The Bahamas via the ballot box, without bloodshed, and with a relatively low incidence of coercion, fraud, or corruption, the common understanding of all of the above notwithstanding. One could of course argue that there is a long-standing practice of wooing voters with cash incentives or of rewarding them for their support with gifts of food, or, apocryphally, large appliances; I could counter that with the challenge that the twenty-first century has seen an overall reduction in the value of these incentives, given the fact that neither of the two latest elections resulted in any major hiring of supporters to work in the absolute security of the Government Job. But I digress. We have a strong democratic tradition when it comes to voting for people to sit in Parliament. But we have a very poor democratic tradition when it comes to raising, debating or considering issues that have relevance for our nation; what passes for “political” discussion in our country is really personal attack and gossip dressed up in cotton tees.
There are several areas in which we fail miserably in the development of the democratic tradition. The first is in the fact that, unlike other democracies, Bahamians have only one tier of representation. In our elections, two-thirds of the population may vote only for the national government. The city of Nassau has no local government, and there is no talk of any serious nature of creating one any time soon. Although we talk about urban renewal and the regeneration of downtown Nassau, the agency that we imagine will be given the responsibility for this is a corporate entity appointed by the government and accountable to no ordinary citizen. Family island communities have a measure of local governance, but urban Bahamians are governed by corporations—the Port Authority in Freeport, and whatever the title of the proposed agency will be for Nassau.
The second is in the method by which our representatives are chosen. It’s not good enough to invoke the Westminster model of parliamentary governance here; I am arguing that no matter where it came from, it does not meet our needs. In Nassau (where, I repeat, our Members of Parliament are the only voices we have at the governmental level), our much-touted ability to vote is seriously compromised by the fact that voters have the very last say in choosing the candidates. There are no primaries, no public weeding out of candidates, no debates, no means by which the average person can vet the candidates before they are presented to us. The selection is in the hands of the political parties alone. This dilutes the democratic process. I’m going to quote Pat Rahming here, because his poem “Power”, now four decades old, continues to resonate:
cuz vot’n ain’ much power
if somebody else guh choose
The third is that the representatives are not answerable to the people from the time they are elected to the time they begin to campaign for votes three, four or five years later. Voters, having gone to the polls, made the best choice they could from among a group of (generally) unsuitables, are obliged to sit back and live with what they have done for five years. We cannot recall our representatives. Our representatives have no obligation to report to us what they have done with our trust. All we can do is watch them make fools of themselves and a mockery of our state on the Parliamentary Channel, and at best talk behind their backs—or on the air, sometimes—while smiling and kowtowing to their faces. Our so-called full democratic process has succeeded in making passive hypocrites of too many of us.
The fourth is that in order to create democracy, more than a vote is needed. A voice is also not enough. We got our vote in the 1960s when women were allowed to cast ballots, and we got our voice in two parts: in the 1960s when we elected the first majority government of The Bahamas, so that the faces that ruled us looked like ours, and in the 1990s second when the Free National Movement made it possible for different perspectives to be heard on the airwaves by breaking the broadcasting monopoly that had hitherto been held, by law, by the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas. Neither fact seems to have prevented us from enacting the same dumbshow of electing and revering individuals who by their greed, lack of exposure, lack of knowledge, lack of morals, or lack of sense of self have proceeded to disenfranchise the average citizen even more. We need more than a voice; we need to be given the kind of education that breeds a sense of pride, a sense of honour and a sense of integrity so that we, the citizens, can exercise that voice in such a way that democracy is strengthened. That is clearly lacking. The very real oppression of the 1970s and 1980s—by which dissent by ordinary people was silenced in numerous ways, not least among them the very real activity of victimization, when opponents could be, and were, stripped of their livelihoods, their positions, and their reputations—has given way to an oppression of the mind. We have the channels and the means to speak, but what we have to say is ignorant of Bahamian history, lacking in substance, and small-minded.
And so. We live in a nation that is nominally very democratic, but that is actually little better than any tyranny—and perhaps worse, because we are comfortable with our situations and so prefer not to rock any boats. We live and die by our passivity, and when things don’t go well for us, we complain, we moan, or we lash out with knives and guns. Our democracy is a veneer, and a thin one at that.
End of this part of my response; more to come