A shift into the dark?

I am not American. However, I recognize the United States of America for providing a model for democracy around the world. No, its democracy is not perfect, but it is earnest. In principle, it seeks on numerous levels to work against tyranny, to empower its citizenry. The execution of these has been far from perfect, but the ideals have been sound.

There is a status post on Facebook that individuals are copying and pasting. It essentially outlines every step that the new president of the United States of America has taken since his inauguration. I do not know the sources personally, so I am taking other people’s word that these things actually happened.

The thing that is worrying about the list is that the majority of these cases consist of actions that are fundamentally anti-democratic, that explicitly reduce the ability of Americans to self-expression, that muzzle the right to free speech, that increase the possibility of a tyrant beginning a process of domination in a nation widely regarded as the birthplace of democracy. Further, is it my imagination, or does the turn to violence, or the condoning of state-accepted violence, have a definite fascist cast.

I want my friends and family who support Donald Trump to tell me why this is not the case, please.

The list is as follows: (I’ve changed the stars to numbers so that we can see the length of the list).

  1. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the DOJ’s Violence Against Women programs.
  2. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
  3. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
  4. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  5. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Minority Business Development Agency.
  6. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Economic Development Administration.
  7. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the International Trade Administration.
  8. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
  9. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
  10. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Legal Services Corporation.
  11. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ.
  12. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the DOJ.
  13. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  14. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Office of Electricity Deliverability and Energy Reliability.On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
  15. On January 19th, 2017, DT said that he would cut funding for the Office of Fossil Energy.
  16. On January 20th, 2017, DT ordered all regulatory powers of all federal agencies frozen.
  17. On January 20th, 2017, DT ordered the National Parks Service to stop using social media after RTing factual, side by side photos of the crowds for the 2009 and 2017 inaugurations.
  18. On January 20th, 2017, roughly 230 protestors were arrested in DC and face unprecedented felony riot charges. Among them were legal observers, journalists, and medics.
  19. On January 20th, 2017, a member of the International Workers of the World was shot in the stomach at an anti-fascist protest in Seattle. He remains in critical condition.
  20. On January 21st, 2017, DT brought a group of 40 cheerleaders to a meeting with the CIA to cheer for him during a speech that consisted almost entirely of framing himself as the victim of dishonest press.
  21. On January 21st, 2017, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a press conference largely to attack the press for accurately reporting the size of attendance at the inaugural festivities, saying that the inauguration had the largest audience of any in history, “period.”
  22. On January 22nd, 2017, White House advisor Kellyann Conway defended Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts” on national television news.
  23. On January 22nd, 2017, DT appeared to blow a kiss to director James Comey during a meeting with the FBI, and then opened his arms in a gesture of strange, paternal affection, before hugging him with a pat on the back.
  24. On January 23rd, 2017, DT reinstated the global gag order, which defunds international organizations that even mention abortion as a medical option.
  25. On January 23rd, 2017, Spicer said that the US will not tolerate China’s expansion onto islands in the South China Sea, essentially threatening war with China.
  26. On January 23rd, 2017, DT repeated the lie that 3-5 million people voted “illegally” thus costing him the popular vote.
  27. On January 23rd, 2017, it was announced that the man who shot the anti-fascist protester in Seattle was released without charges, despite turning himself in.
  28. On January 24th, 2017, DT tweeted a picture from his personal Twitter account of a photo he says depicts the crowd at his inauguration and will hang in the White House press room. The photo is of the 2009 inauguration of 44th President Barack Obama, and is curiously dated January 21st, 2017, the day AFTER the inauguration and the day of the Women’s March, the largest inauguration related protest in history.
  29. On January 24th, 2017, the EPA was ordered to stop communicating with the public through social media or the press and to freeze all grants and contracts.
  30. On January 24th, 2017, the USDA was ordered to stop communicating with the public through social media or the press and to stop publishing any papers or research. All communication with the press would also have to be authorized and vetted by the White House.
  31. On January 24th, 2017, HR7, a bill that would prohibit federal funding not only to abortion service providers, but to any insurance coverage, including Medicaid, that provides abortion coverage, went to the floor of the House for a vote.
  32. On January 24th, 2017, DT ordered the resumption of construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, while the North Dakota state congress considers a bill that would legalize hitting and killing protestors with cars if they are on roadways.
  33. On January 24th, 2017, it was discovered that police officers had used confiscated cell phones to search the emails and messages of the 230 demonstrators now facing felony riot charges for protesting on January 20th, including lawyers and journalists whose email accounts contain privileged information of clients and sources.
    From News and Guts
    *credit for compilation: Karen Cornett-Dwyer
  34. On January 24th, 2017 DT threatened martial law by ‘sending in the feds’ to Chicago.

 

A little perspective

Anyone who follows this blog is probably aware that partisan political commentary of the sort we prefer is not one of the things I do. That’s by design. In the first place, too many people in this nation engage in partisan political commentary, so much so that many of us believe that our governmental institutions have been set up for the benefit of political parties, rather than political parties being instruments designed to navigate and manipulate those governmental institutions. In the second place, partisan discussion is awfully predictable and is therefore ultimately circular and boring. And in the third place: Bahamian political parties — why bother? Why waste the time and the pixels? Because what, really, is the difference among them? 

That said, this past week has been fascinating to me, and heartening. Heartening because it marks a change in our democracy, a point at which we are no longer taking the status quo for granted, where we are challenging the expected. Fascinating because of the amount of words and air exercised on condemning the move made by the opposition members in the house of assembly, which has been received in much the same way that heresy was once received by church fathers. How DARE the opposition members in the House of Assembly move a vote of no confidence in the Leader of the Opposition? How DARE they go against the will of the people, who so recently re-ratified Dr. Minnis as the leader of the FNM? How DARE the Governor-General ratify that vote of no confidence and remove Dr. Minnis from his position as Leader of the Opposition? NEVER BEFORE has anything like this happened in the country, the commonwealth, the world &c.,&c.

Um. 

In an ancient episode of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip, Lucy is kneeling on the ground, paying very close attention to something on the pavement. Her commentary reveals that she believes she is looking at a leaf which has fallen from a tree, and she proceeds to wax eloquent about its journey. Linus is standing nearby, suffering from a stomachache. Charlie Brown asks him what the matter is. Linus explains that the “leaf” is in fact a potato chip.  This becomes a theme in the strip, and for the next several episodes Lucy wanders around making ludicrous pronouncements on the world, while Linus and Charlie Brown look on, saying “Ow.” 

Some of the reactions to the vote of no confidence in the House and its aftermath have left me saying “Ow”. They reveal just how ignorant many of us are about Bahamian parliamentary procedure, and Bahamian parliamentary history. This is by no means the first time this kind of step has been taken, but the fact that we do not all know this highlights the gaping holes in our public and self education.

Government vs Political Parties

The first thing that hurts my stomach is all the discussion that assumes that the members of the opposition did something wrong, or undemocratic, or illegal, or unprecedented, in taking a vote of no confidence against the Leader of the Opposition. I take particular exception to the line of argument that claims that their action transgressed the “will of the Bahamian people” or the “democratic process”. I can only surmise that the people who hold fast to this view make no distinction between party and government, and in fact believe (incorrectly) that political parties are the foundation of our democracy rather than one of the ways in which the citizenry may enact that democracy.

To that I have two things to say.

One is that democracy is (or should be) a government BY the people (or their representatives) FOR the people as a whole. Political parties are a strategy to unite various groups of people and thereby channel their power, but democracy can work equally where the members of the house of the assembly represent constituencies rather than parties. In fact, until 1953, that was the only way in which individuals were elected to the House. There were so few viable political parties that those who were able to vote voted for individual men who represented districts in the House. To this day, indeed, MPs are addressed by the names of the constituencies they are supposed to represent, not by their own names or their party affiliation or the posts they hold in cabinet. What is pre-eminent in the House is the representative nature of the people who sit there. It is true that they hold their seats as members of political parties, and that to some extent their loyalty must also accrue to the political party on whose ticket and under whose auspices they got elected. But that is not their primary function or purpose, and that should not be their first loyalty. Their first responsibility is to the ordinary Bahamian citizens of whatever stripe and affiliation who live within the borders of their constituencies. That is what democracy is all about.  

The other is that there is absolutely nothing democratic in the broad sense about any of the political parties that are currently represented in the Bahamian house of assembly. In fact, the legacy parties (as we are apparently now wont to call the FNM and the PLP) are, for the ordinary Bahamian citizen who is not a member of a political party, about as anti-democratic as you can get. Party decisions are made by delegates and council members, and the most powerful of these individuals are hand-picked by the leader of the party. In the third party, the DNA (correct me if I am wrong), I have yet to be exposed to any evidence that there is a democratic decision-making process; indiviuals appear to become members and representatives by proclamation of the leader or his deputy.

The point I’m getting at is this. If a person wants to go into politics to serve the citizens of The Bahamas, we have so arranged our political business that one has to join a political party. Which party one joins is really a matter of connections, personalities, or revenge. That’s it. Ideology is not a prerequisite—can anyone tell me if any Bahamian political party is, or intends to be, liberal, conservative, nationalistic, progressive, socialist, or fascist? Every political party at the table has elements of most of the above, and mixes them in blissful ignorance most of the time, and when convenient the rest of it. And once one joins the political party, one has to pander to the sensibilities of the leadership, otherwise one will get nowhere. Today’s Bahamian political parties have more in common with professional sports teams than with bodies committed to governance, or with implementers of policy. So all this outrage about the opposition members’ action in the house of assembly rings somewhat hollow. The outrage has very little to do with what an opposition’s role in a democracy should be; rather, it has a whole lot to do with personalities, personal alignments, business partnerships, and team affiliations.

Here’s my take on it. Like Ian Strachan, I am inclined to support no political party in the upcoming general election. How I can achieve that is a matter for another time. My personal political ideology has usually aligned most closely with that of the Progressive Liberal Party. I believe in equality for all, a liberal tenet. I believe in “progressive” ideals such as state regulation of the economy, free health care, free education, wealth redistribution through taxation, clean energy, and governmental ownership of public utilities. I privilege the public good above private profit, and do not believe that things that affect a citizen’s basic quality of life (like electricity, water, inter-island transportation, healthcare or education) should be used as profit-generating avenues for any individual or group of individuals. In this I am opposed to decisions made by both the FNM and the PLP, both of whom have swallowed the lie of privatization without examination or question and are now squirming on its hook. I’m also opposed to certain pronouncements by the DNA, such as the idea that a husband is incapable of raping his wife as they are “one flesh”, or the idea that Bahamians should be given the right to carry handguns at the same time as the death penalty should be mandatory for all murder. I believe in development of local talent and businesses; I do not believe in a “free” market, as free markets are usually only free to those who can afford to pay to erect their own corporate barriers, or to those who became wealthy through the use of free or almost free labour.  I believe in controlled foreign investment, in which foreign investment opportunities are designed and regulated so that they give the best outcome for the Bahamian citizenry, rather than offering the fastest, dirtiest way to a quick profit for the investor. I do not believe that foreign investors should be given concessions that no Bahamian will ever get.

When last did any political party outline for the electorate what specifically they believed? When last did any political party take a stand on principle? I’m not talking about cool slogans and bright faces. I’m talking about core beliefs and  corresponding actions. You may tell me that the last constitutional amendment exercise was a matter of principle. To that I would answer that any such exercise that is not part of a wider exercise to reform existing laws that continue to create discriminatory conditions between women and men (an exercise that is the entire purview of the members of parliament, by the way) is not a matter of principle. 

 I do not know what any party’s principles are. How, then, can I make a choice come election time? How can I condemn a move that, if nothing else,  shakes up the status quo in such a way that the discussion around this question changes? No one is beyond replacement. The opposition has done an abysmal job for the past four years, and at least some of that responsibility must rest at the feet of the former leader of the oppoistion in the house. The fact that he was ratified in convention by a small group of people who have no allegiance to, or responsibility for, the ordinary Bahamian citizen is not a reason for his position as Leader of the Opposition not to be challenged. The elected members of the house had no confidence in his ability to lead them, and they replaced him. Mrs. Butler-Turner will now have to secure their confidence; otherwise they may be inclined to replace her as well. That is their right, and, perhaps one could argue, their duty, whenever the opposition (or the government, even) fails to do its job. They are our representatives, which goes beyond doing what we WANT them to do. Sometimes the best representation acts against the popular will for the wider good. If nothing else, this move has sent a message to all leaders: if you do not do what is expected of you we can and will replace you. That is one of the dangers, and opportunities, offered to the citizens of democracies.

A Brief Last Word of Opinion

I have no doubt there will be many people who take offence at this post. That’s their right. But I’d like to end by pointing out that the fact that I don’t have a problem with the vote of no confidence means that I agree with it. They are two separate issues. I think that at this stage it was a wasted move. I believe it was inspired by sour grapes and not by the kind of principle about which I’ve just written. I regard it as a political ploy whose long-term outcome is more likely to bring parliamentary oblivion for those involved than any lasting change. Had the move been taken a year ago, or more, it would have been more effective, but all it reveals at this stage is a sort of selfish desperation on the part of Mrs. Butler-Turner’s “supporters” that is unlikely to result in much of note in the long term. The time to make this stand would have been in October 2015, when Butler-Turner’s currency was high because of the hurricane, and Minnis’ was low. The convention, the challenge for leadership there, all of that, I believe to have been wasted energy. Most of all, Butler-Turner’s withdrawal from that process has made this current exercise hollow; had she gone ahead and taken the licking that was coming at convention, at least those who supported her could have felt pride in the attempt. What has happened now is a personal victory but little more. We will not get to see Butler-Turner’s prowess as a Leader of the Opposition, as most of the important bills have been debated already and what will come before the house in the next four months or so will not provide the opportunity to show her abilities. We will not get to see very much of (why?) Branville McCartney’s ability as leader of the opposition in the senate for the same reason. What we are most likely to see is an unholy alliance of individuals against two primary enemies, and I am not sure that the government will be the major target of most of the coming activity. And in this, once again, the Bahamian people will lose.

#wemarch like flamingoes 

Something has changed in the air. 

Today, I took part in a peaceful march from Arawak Cay to Rawson Square in Nassau. I can’t easily articulate why, though. It was not a protest on my part. It was most certainly not a partisan gesture; I have come to consider Bahamian party politics (the only kind I can honestly talk about) a petty, visionless affair more concerned with personal vendettas than with any exercise of statehood. It was partly curiosity that took me out, partly the desire to see and take part in a Bahamian social movement, partly wanting to be there for myself so that I could make my own memory of the moment and not have others define it for me.

But mostly it was for the expansion of Bahamian democracy. And to take a step in a new direction, to be there on the ground as we Bahamians, for so long dependent on whatever saviour-leader we can identify, begin to pick up the reins of democratic action for ourselves.

For we have not been raised as a protesting nation. We have for a long time been a deeply partisan one, and successive governments run by the two feuding political parties have deepened the divisions in our society. We have for too long treated our democratic duty as little more than the right to take part in popularity contests. We’ve refused to analyze what has ailed our society, but have rather chosen to scapegoat and shift blame around as though we are engaged in a giant game of shuffleboard rather than the business of running a country. We have used our MPs and party affiliations as avenues for favour, and have ignored the incompetence, the visionlessness and the cupidity of those for whom we voted because of the kind of loyalties people attach to sports teams. We have used our party acronyms and colours as reasons to hurl invective at one another and somehow that has made us feel better about ourselves. 

And we have closed our eyes as our nation—which, though little, could be great—grows smaller and smaller and poorer and poorer in every way possible. We’ve been content to let it happen because we have political stability and peaceful elections and leaders we an approach and gladhand and cuss out as the feeling strikes us. 

But none of that has changed anything real at all. 

Now, I’m not saying that #wemarch today can change anything on its own. That was the main reservation I had about it: that it stood for too many things, that the list of grievances was too long, that this was a catch-all demonstration that lacked focus and real propulsion for change. I turned up and walked the route not only to be part of the march and to participate in this democratic moment, but also as an anthropologist, to observe, to analyze the moment. To see whether it was something truly revolutionary or whether it was something else, something as dismissible as some supporters of the current government have suggested.

 I believe that something basic has changed in the way we do politics. I am not saying that it is a deep-seated change or a permanently new way of doing things; only time will tell that. But I believe that today #wemarch inspired  :

  1. A deep sense of patriotism. The march was supposed to be a silent one, and presumably a solemn one. But we are not normally a solemn people. Visitors to our country have always remarked on the warmth of the Bahamin people, something I’ve usually taken with a heap of salt; we are so very often angry and bitter these days. But what stuck out most about the march was just that—warmth. And a deep love for our country. The song we sang as we rounded the corner to Navy Lion Road was “March On Bahamaland”—our national anthem. 
  2. The achievement, through social media, of a bottom-up One Bahamas. For many years leaders of various sorts have tried to impose a sense of unity on Bahamians, but it has been a false unity, one which has been deeply partisan—witness the golden colours that abound on Majority Rule day or the crimson ones that were linked with the One Bahamas celebrations. There was no sense of false unity today. Perhaps it was the sense of awe at the numbers of people who marched, or the even larger numbers wearing black, but there was some measure of solidarity in the marching and the occupation.
  3. A sense of empowerment. I am not saying that it is not a fragile one, but it is critical. One of the things that has been prevalent in Bahamian society for too many years is a deep sense of helplessness, a sense of being out of control, of mistrust of those in power (and this goes for the FNM as well as the PLP), a sense of being out of place, being unwanted in one’s homeland. Not so much today.
  4. A sense of possibility. People were friendly, people were communicating, people were stepping out of their silos and making contact with people from other domains. Active and hopeful politicians were on the march, but they were almost incidental. They were following the people, which is the way it probably should be in a democracy. 

So. It was a start. For those of us talking about the revolution, this was not it: but it was the beginning of a turn in a different direction. There’s a saying, or a rumour, about the flamingo, the Bahamian national bird. It’s said that when one starts marching in a particular direction, the others will follow. This is what happened today. 

This was step one.

Step two: to figure out where we’re going from here. 
**featured photo by Rosemary Clarice Hanna

Ethnography, the view from the ground, The Washington Post, & Trump voters

No, it’s not your typical discussion of numbers, etc. I’m sharing this link (I’ve pored over many!) because it uses the techniques we use as anthropologists to understand the perspectives of people considered to be “other”. It looks at how engagement itself can become a road to empowerment. The end of the article, which quotes part of an interview with Kathy Cramer, a University of Wisconsin researcher, is the best part. It recalls the impact of the Sustainable Exuma research in Exuma, which relied on getting to know the various players as human beings as well.

I’m going to buy her book, The Politics of Resentment

Thank God I was as naive as I was when I started. If I knew then what I know now about the level of resentment people have toward urban, professional elite women, would I walk into a gas station at 5:30 in the morning and say, “Hi! I’m Kathy from the University of Madison”?

I’d be scared to death after this presidential campaign! But thankfully I wasn’t aware of these views. So what happened to me is that, within three minutes, people knew I was a professor at UW-Madison, and they gave me an earful about the many ways in which that riled them up — and then we kept talking.

And then I would go back for a second visit, a third visit, a fourth, fifth and sixth. And we liked each other. Even at the end of my first visit, they would say, “You know, you’re the first professor from Madison I’ve ever met, and you’re actually kind of normal.” And we’d laugh. We got to know each other as human beings.

Source: A new theory for why Trump voters are so angry — that actually makes sense – The Washington Post

President Trump

It’s impossible to let this day pass without writing something about this title. I let Brexit go by because, well, I was stunned; I said my piece on the Bahamian gender referendum because I was disappointed. But not to say something about this election, which was historic, yes, and not the way I had wanted, would be a travesty.

So let me say this: yes, I am disappointed. Profoundly so. But can I in all honesty be anything else? I am not an American. I could not vote. I had to leave it up to the American people to do their democratic duty, and they did it. As with Brexit, as with the Bahamian gender referendum, people participated in the democratic process the one way they were able. They had one vote, and they used it. And into that vote they channelled everything that they felt about themselves, their times, their nation.

I’m entitled to think that, as with us on our referendum, as with the British on Brexit, the American electorate as a collective got it wrong. The world is heading in one direction and the voters in each of these three nations have chosen not to look that way. Rather, they all turned to look behind them at the world we are all leaving behind, while time inexorably moves us somewhere entirely different. The journey forward for all of us will be taken blindly: we’re looking back. We’re passing through twenty-first century reality and its challenges remain unseen.

I don’t think that this is accidental at all. I also don’t think that it could have been avoided. Because what is happening across the world is that people are voting against their status quo. They are entirely aware, on a molecular level, that things have changed, that the ground has shifted beneath their feet, that the world they find themselves in is not the world for which they are prepared. But because their leaders have been unable or unwilling to articulate these changes, or perhaps even to acknowledge them, they are voting for a return to the past, or for a maintenance of an obsolete system. In Britain, the voters sought to withdraw from the collective of Europe in search of lost (possibly imperial?) times; here in The Bahamas, the voters chose to maintain legal inequalities between men and women in an effort to negate or neutralize women’s real power in our nation; and now, in the USA, voters are electing to “make America great again”—this greatness being exemplified in the shaking of a big stick, the glorification of white skins, and the subordination of the female.

But in not one case were the voters given a constructive choice. I’m pretty sure that those people who, like me, wanted different outcomes will rise up indignantly at this idea. What’s not constructive about Hillary Clinton/the European Union/equal rights for women under the Bahamian constitution? But in imagining these things to be positive because we believe they are, considering them unquestionably as being absolute goods, we miss the point. For democracy is not about absolute and opposite goods. It is about dialogue and discussion—about true debate. If democracy is government by the people for the people, then all the people need to be involved in it somehow.

What was critical and revealing about these three contests in 2016 was that there was very little debate involved. There was plenty of talk, and a lot of argument. There was plenty of threat and plenty of ridicule and lots of tearing down but very little building up. Democracy was not at work throughout the process. These elections were crafted the way reality shows are crafted: emphasizing the extreme differences in the matters (many of them, like the bogeyman immigrant and the spectre of gay monogamy, semi-fictional inventions) for the entertainment of the public rather than engaging in the full implications of the choices to be made.  The media in each case focussed more on the sensational surfaces of the contests than on the long-term implications of their outcomes.

In every case, the contest went thus:

  1. an issue—two referenda and one presidential election—was fought on a national scale;
  2. the stakes in each were historically critical;
  3. the issues were presented in a binary fashion as though the contest was a clash between absolute good and absolute evil, without any attempt to find common ground between the two options;
  4. the stakes were not discussed in any historical or global context, and the implications of potential outcomes were not presented in any thoughtful or measured fashion.

Now the critical thing about the democracy we currently inhabit is this. Ultimately, the only power an individual has comes down to his or her ability to cast a vote. We have constructed systems in which the individual voice is reduced to a single moment in time, a moment when a choice is made, and that choice, in every case above, was a choice between two irreconcilable opposites.

Voters vote they only way that they can. They make a choice. But they do not make free choices. They choose the thing that seems most right to them, most right for them, but they have no control over the ultimate outcome.

The collective result, in every case I have mentioned, has been a step away from equality, from kindness, from civility, from generosity. In every case I have mentioned, the result has been a shrinking of self, a turning away from greatness.

It’s been protectionist. It’s been risk-averse. It’s been desperate.

It has not been great.

Let me make my position perfectly clear here. I am not seeking to belittle what has happened. I’m seeking to understand it on my terms, to recognize that in every case that has dismayed me, people have used their democratic right in good faith. And they have had the absolute right to do so. That they chose differently than I would is immaterial. That they chose differently from what will help them survive in the twenty-first century, though, is critical. And it raises the question. Why did so many people make choices that will not help them in the world we are entering? What went wrong?

My conclusion: it’s not their choices that were wrong. It’s the system that made sure these were the only choices that were available. It is a system that divides those who disagree by a chasm that seems only crossable by violence and destruction.  It’s a system that suggests that “democracy” has nothing to do with self-governance for the common good, but rather consists of a battle between two demonized adversaries, in which the winner takes all and the loser is crushed.

So am I happy that Trump won this election? In no way. I have absolutely no confidence that the persona that he performed on the campaign trail has any resemblance to the man he actually is, and I think that we are all, Americans and the world alike, about to be royally screwed, God’s will notwithstanding. But do I think that the “American public” were wrong for voting for him? Not at all. Each individual voted the only way they could: for themselves, for what they believed was the greatest good (for them). The outcome was beyond their control.

Brexit, the Bahamian referendum, the American election: it’s not the voters who are at fault in any of these events. It’s the way we perform “democracy” that is the problem.

Hurricane Matthew: #massivefail (2)

I’m writing this in the cool breeze and dark room of a home in an area which not only has yet to see electricity restored, but even to see any presence of our Power and Light company for blocks around.* Hurricane Matthew blew past us two weeks ago, and we have yet to return to normalcy. I am a citizen, and a patriot, and I am ashamed of the way in which our government has responded to this disaster.

Let me point to the areas of greatest failure.

  1. Bahamas Power and Light

I have already criticized this company roundly on social media. Let me be very clear: my criticism does not stem from my personal situation. After the last major hurricanes to affect electricity services in the capital, we invested in the sort of generator that could withstand this kind of power loss — a workhorse of an engine. Rather, my criticism stems from the fact that the result of BPL’s ineptitude in the wake of this storm has compounded rather than alleviated the suffering and trauma experienced by the residents of the Bahamas’ capital city, and it did not have to be that way.

BPL has worked hard to earn my criticism. I will give props to the company for restoring power to the hospitals, the security agencies, and Paradise Island the day after the hurricane. That part of their strategy made sense, considering that Atlantis was being used by many as a hurricane shelter and a home away from home. But that is where my commendation stops.

Thereafter, BPL’s response to the hurricane was wrong-footed, revealing that the new managers were clearly out of their depth. In the first instance, the company was wrong to reject hurricane protocols established by its parent company, BEC. This decision left residents of Nassau perplexed and rattled, as we did not see the company mobilize and jump into action until after our first weekend in darkness. Rather than beginning as soon as the storm had passed, it seemed, BPL was wasting time “assessing” the extent of the damage. No doubt it was working feverishly to repair its own plants. But this was accomplished in utter silence, in the absence of any real communication to the customers it served and on whose money — from our taxes and from our pockets — it depends for its own survival.

In the second instance, the communications in which it engaged after this sluggish first response were not only inadequate, but downright insulting. The tenor of the communications came off as defensive and self-serving, with frequent references to the “unprecedented” nature of this storm and the lack of adequate resources to address the state of emergency.

This was insulting because while Hurricane Matthew is widely claimed to have been the strongest storm to directly hit Nassau since 1929, the reality is that the situation is more a matter of degree rather than of quality. In my adult memory, I can count eight storms which have affected New Providence substantially, six of them this century. Further, as we should all be well aware, a decade ago two of those storms devastated Grand Bahama and wiped out its power generation ability altogether, requiring the replacement of all the utility poles from Freeport to West End in 2004-5. Our legacy power company, BEC, has extensive experience in dealing with hurricane recovery within and outside of Nassau and has learned how to do it well. BPL’s insistence that the impact of Matthew was somehow extraordinary rang false, and had the effect of discounting everything Bahamians have learned about the restoration of power after major storms.

So while I am perfectly willing to agree that Matthew may have affected our power generation plants more than any other in recent times, and that it may have left a different kind of destruction behind, I cannot accept that BEC lacked the experience or the strategies that would allow the capital to be functional more quickly and in a more reasonable amount of time. The fact that the majority of the island of New Providence remained without light until the Sunday after the storm spoke more to the inexperience and hard-headedness of the new management team than to the magnitude of the storm. After all, Matthew sideswiped New Providence as a Category 3 storm, and the eye passed us by. The continual references to its “unprecedented” nature sounded like excuses for ineptitude.

Let me support this point with some more comprehensive detail. These are the other significant storms we have weathered in New Providence in the past quarter century: Hurricane Andrew (Cat 5) (1992), Hurricane Floyd (Cat 3-4) (1999), Hurricane Michelle (Cat 1) (2001), Hurricanes Frances (Cat 4) and Jeanne (Cat 3) (2004), Hurricane Irene (Cat 3) (2011), and Hurricane Sandy (Cat 1) (2012). For Bahamians, and for Nassauvians, although the eye of a hurricane has not come this close to us for some fifteen years — not since Hurricane Michelle, whose eye stayed over the capital for some hours — the statement that the strike was “unprecedented” has the effect of dismissing our collective experience as irrelevant, unworthy of recognition.

Let me be clear on another point, too.  Lest people misunderstand what I expect from our power company and imagine that I am judging the response of BPL to the storm solely by the restoration of power to the capital, let me assure you that I am not talking about full restoration of services here. Hurricanes bring devastation, and I do not expect miracles. I do, however, expect rationality in the wake of a storm; I expect our power company to understand the way New Providence works, and to make decisions that minimize suffering and confusion rather than ones that exacerbate that suffering.

I am talking about commitment, confidence, and communication. After those other hurricanes that disrupted the capital’s electricity — primarily Andrew, Floyd, Michelle, Frances and Jeanne — residents of New Providence were given comprehensive reports of the damage to the electrical grid, a general understanding of the scope of the repairs to be undertaken, and then regular updates about the progress of those repairs. We have come to expect this kind of respect, and we have missed it sorely this time. It is the kind of communication that allows us to understand that while it might take weeks to restore full electricity to the whole island, two weeks after those storms, the capital will function again. Schools without significant damage will re-open. Businesses will return to some level of normalcy. Traffic will move without snarls at traffic lights and many communities will have their power restored.

Additionally, in those past storms, after two weeks, we all knew our electricity corporation was working for us. Crews had been visible throughout the island from the moment the storm had passed, at times even before the all-clear was given. It was understood that the restoration of electricity to as many people as possible was of the highest priority. We understood that BEC recognized that the swift resumption of power generation was critical to the recovery of the economy and of the island, and public confidence was boosted by the corporation’s clear communication and a sense of commitment to the quickest restoration in the shortest possible time.

I cannot say that I have confidence in any of the above this year. On the contrary: BPL has succeeded in convincing me that its primary interest lies in conserving its bottom line, in protecting whatever revenues it expected to earn from this management contract, rather than in restoring power to the people it serves in the shortest possible time. It may well have worked to restore power in the shortest cost-effective possible time, but that is not the same thing at all, and it inspires little confidence in me that I matter to BPL in any way other than the payment of my electricity bill.

I resent this deeply. Unlike money which was paid to BEC in the past, this insistence on cost-effectiveness is not, and cannot be, merely to ensure efficiency. It must also be to repatriate some of the revenues earned from Bahamian pockets to the USA, where the parent company of the new management resides. Otherwise what would be the point of accepting the management contract?

There may be people who will argue with me, who will take the stand that even in an emergency, money matters more than people. For the sake of neo-liberal argument, I’ll give them that point, although every atom in my body screams that it is wrong. Even so, if cost effectiveness is your primary motivation, I expect a level of fiscal efficiency. If your goal is cost-effectiveness, at least achieve it with the minimal possible disruption to normal life. Even here BPL’s miscalculation has been great. Its slowness and muddled strategy of restoration has resulted in the following impacts on life in the capital:

  • the slow restoration of internet and cable communication, which is dependent in many cases on the restoration of electricity
  • the inability of public schools to reopen as scheduled owing the continued lack of power to their surrounding communities, a direct result of the company’s decision to leave the northeastern and southern segments of New Providence to the last
  • the protracted power outage at the Port of Nassau, the core of New Providence’s economic activity
  • the continued inability of a considerable proportion of the business community to function at full capacity, as much of the economy of New Providence is still centred in and around the city of Nassau in the neglected north-eastern segment of the island, and also as a result of their remaining without cable and internet
  • traffic chaos owing to the scores of traffic lights that remain non-functional in the wake of the hurricane

Even as I write this, these are the traffic lights that impact me personally that remain non-functional, two weeks in: Village and Bay, Village and Shirley, Shirley and Mackey, Mackey and Bay, Mackey and Pyfrom (Bar 20), Mackey and Madeira, Parkgate and Village. The lights at Madeira and Montrose, Madeira and Mount Royal, Madeira (Fifth Terrace) and Collins, Rosetta and Sears, Rosetta and Hawkins, Rosetta (Fourth Terrace) and Collins, Mackey and Wulff, Collins and Wulff, East and Wulff, Market and Wulff, Nassau and Meadow/Boyd, Elizabeth and Shirley, Blue Hill and Cumberland, Blue Hill and Dillet. These are not insignificant junctions. No doubt there are scores of others. These are not rural outposts, and they are not areas that can go without traffic signals for long. But they are testimonies to the way in which BPL’s approach to this storm was woefully and tragically off the mark.

What is more, it appears as though, contrary to a more established practice of  tackling the most difficult jobs first, BPL has left them to the last. This means that the people who were most impacted by the storm itself — who suffered the flooding from the storm surge, who lost cars and roofs to falling trees, who lost their vehicles and their furniture and in some cases the stability of their homes — are also those people who remain the most neglected two weeks after the storm. This has the effect of compounding their trauma and of increasing, rather than alleviating, their suffering. I am not suggesting that the damage to the electrical system that occurred in those areas should, or could, be fixed immediately. But I am saying that there is some comfort to be had simply from knowing that one’s area is a priority for officials, from knowing that you are on someone’s list, that you are not being forgotten. And that is what has sorely been lacking in this post-Matthew time.

In short, BPL’s recovery plan has appeared ad hoc, foreign, and woefully unsuited to the realities of life on New Providence. I can only conclude that what has happened at BPL — as BEC delivered a far better service after hurricanes, even if it did not deliver much in the way of service day-to-day — is that the new managers have come in with their own way of doing things, and disregarded protocols that have been in place for decades. (I am only speculating here, and my speculation is fuelled both by rumour and by a deep bias against the outsourcing of any essential utility to an external company, so take this part of my criticism with the appropriate dose of salt.) I suspect, however, that the new managers discounted the institutional and local knowledge that allowed BEC to function to this point, given the decrepitude of the plant and the chronic misallocation of funds it has suffered for decades. I suspect that the new managers instituted their own post-hurricane protocols instead of considering the value of those that have been tried and true — to their detriment. There were babies in that bathwater, as we have all found out.

There is very little in the way of mitigation that can be had at this stage, but there are some things that can be done.

One of the areas that stands out most glaringly about BPL’s non-handling of this crisis is its persistent refusal, apparently, to offer any rebates to its customers in this difficult time. Not only have the press conferences that I have heard mentioned cost at every turn, BPL — unlike every other public utility company in the nation  — has insisted clearly that they will continue to bill their customers for their services and that they will continue to disconnect those customers for non-payment of their bills.

Come again? Is BPL the only agency in this country to emerge without loss in the wake of this hurricane? Is the right to repatriate profits more important than the ability of Bahamian citizens to recover from the storm? Is BPL oblivious to the ways in which it has compounded the suffering and slowed our recovery? Are we expected to pay for this massive failure?

Words massively fail me here. The only thing I can do is to call upon the bosses of BPL, the politicians we have elected to manage our nation, to demand that some other arrangements be made, to demand that BPL recognize its contribution to our suffering and to at least consider offering reduced bills to those who have been without power for longer than seven days. Something concrete, something tangible, must be exchanged for the frustration, confusion and inefficiency that we have experienced from BPL over the past two weeks.

What I would also like to see now is some humility in the wake of this disaster. At the very least, I would like to see the new managers learn something from this experience.

They should learn something about the Bahamian people — that we expect better than they have given us after this hurricane. They should learn something about the expertise that they met in the corporation that they were contracted to manage — that perhaps local expertise is worth listening to, worth making room for, worth promoting. They should learn something about going into another country armed with the assumption that they way that they do things elsewhere may not be the best way, may not even work if transplanted. And they should learn something about basic communication. The provision of electricity should be divorced from spin. Tell the truth, tell it fairly, and gain the confidence of your consumers. Try to confuse us with numbers and percentages and mumbo-jumbo of the American kind, and worse, charge us for it, can only yuck up our vexation (Eng. translation: raise our ire).

That is all.

——

*Edit: the very night I wrote this post, the trucks came. They appeared in the neighbourhood by threes. One car, three trucks. 14 days after the hurricane. But the restoration of power was not as easy as that. By the time this publishes, it may have been achieved, but for now: we’re still in darkness. [Back]

After Hurricane Matthew

(Sunday) I’m listening to a long and somewhat rambling address to the nation regarding Hurricane Matthew and its impact. Apart from having confirmation that this was the worst hurricane in almost a century to hit New Providence, there is not a whole lot of information that I have not heard before or that I cannot figure out for myself. If I were marking the presentation, I would deduct points for its being long on narrative and description and short on analysis and evaluation. We are being told what we pretty much already know: there was a lot of rain, there was a lot of wind, there was some severe damage, many people were impacted, some are homeless, there are a lot of infrastructural challenges, the governmental agencies are working. What we are not being told (for the most part) is what to expect in the days and weeks to come, or how to pull together to make things better. We are not being inspired; we are being talked at.

(Monday) What I would have preferred: a short, concise address by the Prime Minister (as the leader of the nation), providing some basic statistics about what happened, the extent of the damage, and where we are in addressing the damage, letting us know what the government has done and what it has yet to do, giving concrete suggestions about how to deal with the aftermath, perhaps telling us that NEMA has set up specific centres where people can report to get updates. All the rambling and thanking of God and repetition of what everybody else said  was, ultimately, a waste of my good time and data. And after all that, I don’t remember any phone numbers or email addresses or physical addresses being given so that people can find out specific information about their specific issues.

I do not normally complain about governance. I have been involved in governing and have been in a position to have to make decisions that affect a large number of people and I know very well how difficult it is. That said, I also know that it does not help anyone’s issue to simply ramble on telling people what they can see plainly for themselves. In the aftermath of such situations, citizens want answers. Citizens want reassurance that the people whose job it is to serve them are on the ball. I think that the best parts of last night’s press conference were the presentations by the RBDF, the person responsible for clean-up, and the Minister of Education, who gave a fairly comprehensive report on which schools would be open tomorrow and which would be closed, and what the Ministry’s concerns were. At least I know a little more about what I can or should do tomorrow. Though why the presentation on education (which affects all of us) should follow an update on tourism (we are not tourists in our own land) I cannot comprehend.

Here’s what I would have liked to have seen:

  • BPL telling us how and when to get updates, specifying the problems area by area, and giving estimates about how long each area might anticipate being restored. Also, it seems a little odd to me that areas that are rich in self-generating power (like Charlotteville and other relatively affluent areas) have had their power restored while others who are entirely dependent on the grid for their power are still without it. I would have preferred to see some kind of triage regarding the restoration of power that restores supplies according to need rather than according to wealth. What could be done for those people who are self-generating is the formation of teams of technicians who could supply maintenance and access to fuel for private generators so that the concentration could go on areas of the population who are most in need.
  • BTC telling us the hours of operation of BTC offices around New Providence so that people could charge up their devices. Oh, and, instead of a $5 rebate, an offering of provision of data free or seriously reduced cost for those citizens who remain offline.
  • The Prime Minister and Minister of Finance roundly condemning price gouging practices anywhere and at any time, decreeing that customs duties and VAT will be waived on everything for everyone for a set period of time (say one week or two to start with, and then for a longer period of time according to need), and then the crafting of legislation rather than policy that sets the standard for disaster response going forward.

I could say more, but then I, too, would be guilty of rambling. Let me just end right now by thanking all the staff of every single agency for all their hard work, and thanking God for being God.

On a more personal note: Matthew updates 2 and 3 below.

Facing the eye of the hurricane

Well, Hurricane Matthew’s on his way. I am too tired to type right now so I made a video to let you know what’s going on. This is the last thing I’m going to do in my home office, which is battened down like the house, before the storm hits. Am shutting down the computer, covering it with plastic, taking the hard drives, and going into the house.

What really made me sit up and take notice, though, was this report from Weather Underground. 

screenshot-2016-10-05-15-08-41

Looping round? Oh heeeyyyyaaaalllll no.

See you on the other side of the storm.

Li(v)es that matter

Last week, following the exchanges that were taking place on travel advisories to the USA, I felt I should weigh in. I didn’t. The issues at hand seemed too big, too heavy to lift. And the discussion felt too old, the way in which it was moving too predictable. It’s as though all our arguments have worn two or three deep and well-trodden channels in the landscape of possibility, and whenever we approach an issue, whatever that issue, they fall into those grooves.

But those grooves don’t lead us anywhere new.

Here are some of the things I was thinking I wanted to write last week.

  1.  I admit it: I was proud that our Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a travel advisory for the USA. I do not regard it as frivolous, although I fully recognize that there was in all likelihood a sense of smug comebackery in its origin. It is dead serious, and here’s why: black Bahamian men who rarely if ever get stopped by police here in The Bahamas and who have never been personally menaced by the “criminal” element here at home have been, and are still, routinely stopped in the USA for that violation commonly known as DWB (Driving While Black). For the most part, these men are professional, middle-aged, and “respectable” (whatever that means), and several of them have told me that they do not intend to travel to the USA anytime soon.
  2. I also admit it: I caution my students and young Black Bahamian male friends and acquaintances, who are not professional, middle-aged, or conforming to the “respectable” check box, to exercise caution when:
    1. Going out on the streets of Nassau at whatever time of the day
    2. Driving anywhere there might be police stops or roadblocks, as young black men in Nassau are NOT immune to police brutality
    3. Being in any place where an altercation is likely to break out in Nassau, as the potential for being harmed or even killed as so-called “collateral damage” to the high interpersonal violence that plagues our society.

As Christian Campbell has astutely observed: one does not cancel out the other.  We can chew gum and walk at the same time. Both can be, and are, deadly true. We have a problem here in The Bahamas. But that does not mean that the USA does not have an equal problem. That does not mean that the travel advisory is petty or irrelevant (even though pettiness can certainly be identified in its issue). And that does not mean that living in the Bahamas is at all safe. The issues at hand are different and the same, all at once.

Different, because the places are different.

The same, because the origins are linked.

It is no accident, I believe, that the USA has by far the highest incarceration  rate in the world, or that African Americans constitute the largest percentage of those incarcerated (or that, in terms of overall populations, more African-Americans per capita are incarcerated than any other ethnic group in the USA). Nor is it an accident that the Caribbean the highest murder rates in the world (or that Latin America is not that far behind).

What we who live in this region of the world persistently and critically overlook is the fact that our region was built on the twin evils of genocide and slavery. Forget the fact that it is arguable (though probably not supportable) that the people engaged in those two evils were unaware of the magnitude of the wrong they were doing. Their intentions do not matter. What matters is what they left behind: a system throughout the Americas that was designed to subordinate and dehumanize large numbers of people, while at the same time it protected and enriched other groups.

It is no accident that the American debate on the right to carry firearms is highly charged and usually linked to the question of individual and personal safety—guns are considered instruments of protection for Americans—but protection against what? Against whom? I would argue that the settlers throughout the Americas have always seen themselves as being under siege (and, let’s face it, when you steal people’s land and enslave people’s children, maybe you are indeed under siege). And so they created settlements, towns, cities that were legal fortresses against the dangers they perceived. The second amendment, while originally written to defend the right of the settlers to self-governance, very quickly became the right of the invaders to defend themselves against the displaced, and then the right of the oppressors to defend themselves against the oppressed. When you look closely, the right to bear arms can be decoded as the right of white Americans to bear arms. It’s the settler mentality, and it is part of the legacy of the frontier, the legacy of native “pacification”, of African forced labour.  The very foundations on which the so-called “New” world  rest have already decided which lives matter, how much, and for how long.

Which leads me to this. You cannot build a society on egregious violence and expect to live in peace. You can cocoon yourself. You can, if you are a member of the groups which were traditionally protected by the webs of laws and prisons from the dangers that your founding economic and social systems created, imagine that life is fine and smooth and comfortable. But it is not. Your personal safety, and mine, in fact depends on a social structure that is inherently violent, inherently inhumane, inherently built on the idea that all lives do not matter.

So until we face these facts and recognize that we must systematically dismantle all of the pillars on which our post-genocide, post-slavery American societies were raised, we cannot hope for peace in this world. And as Erin Greene has suggested: one way we can begin that dismantling is by instituting reparations for those wrongs.

But that is another argument for another time.

Featured image on this page Remixed by Chris Ritter using Paper by Fifty-Three.

Love, Hate, Democracy and Christianity

Bahamian pastors, I have a question for you. 

What did you preach about yesterday? It’s the first Sunday since the referendum, so I imagine that many congregations were engaged in praise and thanksgiving for the Bahamas’ rejection of changes to the status quo that might allow for gay marriage. 

But it was also the morning of a massacre. Did you preach about that?

If you did, was Christ your example? Did you, in your rejoicing, spare a thought for the families of the 50+ dead in Orlando? A prayer? Did you lead your congregations in prayers for the wounded in Pulse nightclub, or did you (God forbid) offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the shooter?

These things matter. 

I’m asking because we are responsible for the stands we take. We’re responsible for both the positive outcomes and the negative ones. We can never know how our words will be taken when we utter them, and when they leave us, but that does not make us any less responsible for them. Words are not children; they do not have consciences of their own. But they do have consequences.

A choice was made by a significant proportion of the Bahamian Christian community during the lead-up to the Bahamas referendum. It was a choice I did not understand, and a choice that I would not have made myself. As a result, significant portions of the discussion that surrounded the referendum focussed on a “gay agenda” that had to be defeated at whatever cost—even the cost of not affording equal rights under the constitution to Bahamian women. 

When challenged, many of the people advancing that position insisted that their stand was not against individuals. Christians love homosexuals, they said; it is the homosexual lifestyle they do not love. For the sake of argument, I will accept that position, though I did not see a whole lot of love being shared. I didn’t see too many pastors sitting and engaging with Bahamian gay rights activists, or embracing members of the Bahamian transgender community. I heard a lot of aggression and a lot of judgement, though. Plenty wrath. Not so much gentleness.

Well, on Saturday night, a real blow was struck against the “gay agenda”, and it was struck with bullets and with blood. More than fifty homosexuals were removed from this world by a man who was taking his own personal stand against their “agenda”. Now I am in no way linking that shooting directly to any Bahamian Christian. I am well aware that the shooter was an Afghani-American. But his intent seemed all too familiar here in The Bahamas. And some of the responses appearing in Bahamian social media—which rejoiced in his actions, which threatened the same here—sickened me.

Hence my question. Pastors, what did you preach about yesterday? Did you remind your congregations that, no matter what your stand in principle about same-sex marriage and homosexual lifestyles, the slaughter of actual human beings was wrong? Did you remind them of Jesus’ words about judging others, about turning cheeks, about loving neighbours as yourself? Did you condemn in advance the outpouring of hate that was certainly about to come from people who used your stance against the proposed amendment to justify their personal homophobia? Did you, in short, accept responsibility for your position on the referendum, recognize the links between yesterday morning’s shooting and that position, and work to explain the difference between a principle and an action? That your call to righteousness is not a call to murder? That the freedom of speech, of expression, or of opinion, are not the same as the freedom of action? That the shooting of people in a nightclub catering to LGBTI people is certainly not what God is calling His people to do? 

And beyond that, what have you written about it? Where are the words that you will use to help heal this hate? I am not condemning the position you took on the referendum, though I disagree with it, and was saddened by it. We live in a democratic society, and democracy guarantees you the right to hold and defend your personal convictions. But that right comes with responsibility. You are responsible for the words you used in this fight. I am holding you responsible for the words you will use from now on to spread the love of Christ, as well as judgement. 

You are our pastors. You can lead us astray, or in the paths of righteousness. I’m waiting.

PS: Check this out. 

Nicolette Bethel's Blog