On Being Rich

There was a time, a couple of decades ago, when young Bahamians used to talk about Development and Progress and all kinds of things that were easy to say and hard to lift off the ground if you really thought about them. The world was different then. There were choices you thought you could make – choices such as whether to build a democratic nation that relied on capital and free enterprise to drive its economic engine, or whether to work for the good of the common man and create a communist state. Dictators were all around us. Most of the Latin American continent was ruled by people who had not been elected in any fashion that democratic countries recognized. Cuba of course had Castro; and Haiti was ruled by the Duvalier dynasty.There was a joke that was told at that time. It really wasn’t a very funny joke. It was the kind of joke that had so much truth it made you laugh because if you didn’t you might cry or shoot someone. It went something like this.An aspiring politician sat down with three veteran leaders and asked them for the secrets of their success.The first one said, “Ah, my son. The secret of my success is this. I keep my followers poor and stupid, and then they must rely upon me for their every need. In this way I keep them loyal to me.”The second one said, “Ah, my son. The secret of my success is this. I educate my followers properly, and teach them to understand my way is the only way. Then it doesn’t matter if they are poor. In this way I keep them loyal to me.”The third one said, “Ah, my son. My two colleagues are brilliant men, but they miss the point entirely. Poverty makes human beings dream of better lives, and education teaches people to think. No. Better to make your followers wealthy, and teach them never to think at all. My people are loyal because they don’t know any other way to be.”The joke would always be followed by peals of laughter. It was funny because we recognized the styles of leadership all too well. The first one we associated with countries like Haiti and other dictatorships that relied on fear and oppression to stay alive. The second one we associated with places like Cuba, where ideology met every need and people were taught that sacrifice in the name of revolution was all that mattered. The third one?The third one we associated with home.The joke is no longer current these days. It’s lost most of its meaning – largely because, I think, it’s no longer a joke. Back in the 1970s, being rich was still a dream that many of us could hold onto. We were newly independent, most of us were attending high schools and colleges for the first time in our families, and those of us who chose to return home to Nassau had the pick of the professions – there was no glut of lawyers, no lack of a need for doctors or accountants. And so the people who were coming up at that time forgot the joke and concentrated in taking their positions in society, on building the economy, on earning the salaries that would make us wealthy.But we didn’t invest that wealth back into our country to make the joke remain a joke. And so it’s become reality.We Bahamians have succeeded remarkably in so far as material wealth is concerned. But we really haven’t done so well in the intellectual department. We’ve made money, true, so much of it that our GDP places us proudly in the top three national economies of the western hemisphere. But we haven’t made much impression in the department of deep thought.Now this has nothing to do with our capacity to think deeply as a people. No; drop by the Fish Fry or any bar or dominoes table at any place in the city and listen to the conversation you hear there. Today, as ever, ordinary Bahamians in ordinary places are as philosophical as any professor in any university. The problem is that that philosophy isn’t being propagated in such a way that the whole country can benefit from the discussions, and it hardly ever reaches the level of public discussion.And the public as a whole seems not to miss it. Those people who think deeply and argue logically and discuss big issues with good sense seem to be found in pockets whose discussions don’t reach the wider society, because we haven’t invested in channels to allow for that level of discussion. And the problem isn’t just the fault of the politicians. One of the side effects of achieving the get-rich-quick dream is the belief that money is all we need, that money, and material goods – cars and phones and flatscreen TVs and the latest footwear and Tommy fashions and so on – can replace the ability to think deeply as a nation.The result?Well, the politician in the joke isn’t so far wrong. The best secret to success as a leader – if by “success” you mean being a Man of the People, a Hero for the Masses, the Godfather From Whom All Good Things Come, and all-round demigod – is exactly as he said. The leader who keeps his people wealthy and ignorant has no need of being a dictator, no need for a secret police, no need for anything sinister at all. The population that is wealthy and ignorant is the easiest one to lead; it can buy what it thinks it wants, and it has no concept of what it actually needs.