Poor political salesmen? Give me a break.

In the Tribune today, Adrian Gibson comments on the Elizabeth by-election:

With no easily certifiable winner and throngs of voters who shunned the polls, the Elizabeth by-election has revealed voter discontent and, at this juncture, shown-up both the FNM and the PLP as poor political salesmen.The Elizabeth by-election, featuring a virtual tie, ensuing recounts, hordes of lawyers and the possibility of an election court challenge, appears to have been the most contentious by-election campaign in recent history and has caused a political circus in that constituency.The by-election was a nail-biter, initially yielding a razor-thin margin of victory for the FNM's candidate and a thoroughly inconclusive outcome.via The Tribune.

No offense, Adrian, but "poor political salesmen"? I don't think so.  More like irrelevant, condescending, cowardly, and out of touch. How can you sell the vision you don't have? How can you represent a people you don't respect? How can you expect greatness out of a people when your supporters behave like hooligans and you are too afraid to correct them?Neither major party has outlined any clear position on governance and their concepts of the Bahamian future are mired firmly in the past. Neither major party seems to think enough of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and its citizenry to demand standards of behaviour that showcase the parties and the nation at their best, preferring apparently to reinforce and reward our worst. Neither major party has shown the courage it needs to correct the clear failures inherent in our system (like our outdated, bloated, inefficient and misnamed "civil service", our overreliance on tourism and foreign investment at the expense of real investment in the Bahamian citizenry, or our crucial need to address and rethink the question of (im)migration in The Bahamas, or the  overpopulation and underrepresentation of our capital city at the expense of the entire country). Both seem to believe that ad hominem attacks on their rivals, bombast and one-upmanship will satisfy the people they are sworn to serve. Neither seems to have cottoned on to the fact that Bahamian people want, and expect, far more.The BDM has gained some loyalty but is not much better when it comes to vision. Rodney Moncur for the Workers Party is as he always was: radical, irreverent, interesting, but ultimately divisive. The NDP may prove to be an exciting new force, especially with its bid for more direct democracy with regard to parliamentary representation, but cautious (or jaded) voters will demand more before they throw their full support behind them.What the by-election suggests to me is that the time is ripe for people of conscience and conviction to take a chance and stand up as true representatives of the Bahamian people -- that committed independents and new parties may well be a force to reckon with in the coming General Election, that anything is possible in this post-Obama world, that yes, we can reaches beyond the US borders.

Obama, Elections, History

I'm in New York City this week. I'm in New York today. It's part of a regular pilgrimage we make to the city every year if we can make it; above all, my husband's a theatre director, and this is part of his investment in his career, this is part of his own research. Since we've been married it's been part of mine, which has been good for the playwriting side of me.But being in the US on election day, especially this election day, is historic.This election is historic. It's already been so -- the fact that two major contenders for president were visible minorities, albeit in the same party. Whoever wins will make history -- the first black president, the first female vice-president, the oldest president. But history has already been made.What's historic for me in my adult life is the participation of the American people in the vote. Since Reagan, which was the last time that I remember an election generating as much discussion as this one, there's been a distancing between the average citizen on the streets from their leadership. Perhaps it was the result of the contempt shown for good sense by the nomination of a B movie actor as Republican Presidential candidate back in 1980, I don't know; it certainly seemed like that to me. So it's true I was seventeen at the time, and frightened for the world. So it's true that it was a terrifying time for those of us who didn't have any say, for those of us who weren't moved by the smooth delivery of the man who would be president (and why wouldn't he have a smooth delivery? He was an actor, after all, not that there's anything wrong with that, but he made his living all his life by being able to deliver lines.) But the election of Reagan marked, it seemed to me, watching from the outside, an abdication on the part of the majority of the American people of their right to participate in the democratic process.As Gil Scott-Heron observed in his commentary on that election:

Well, the first thing I want to say is:Mandate my ass! Because it seems as though we've been convinced that 26% of the registered voters, not even 26% of the American people, but 26% of the registered voters form a mandate or a landslide. 21% voted for Skippy and 3, 4% voted for somebody else who might have been running. 


Being on the outside in American elections, watching a fraction of the American people go to the polls and elect leaders whose impact resonated far beyond the borders of the USA, and suffering the consequences of those choices, has not been easy. As a result I've distanced myself from all of the elections. Why work myself up about something I can do nothing about? Why worry about how "they" stole the election in Florida (twice) when I could have never made a difference anyway? And more recently, why get worked up about this presidential race when I could never do anything to affect its outcome?

I know the answer to the last question. It's been answered again and again around the world, and yes, I voted in the if-the-world-could-vote poll, and yes, I voted for Obama. But I'm above all a Bahamian, and Bahamians above all are pragmatic people, and fundamentally what matters is what have we learned from this process? What have we learned from the involvement of ordinary Bahamians in the Obama campaign? What have we learned from the real chance of real change, and how will that affect us at home?

Because our last election was a joke. I've said what I can say about it; we voted based on hype, rather like we go to see movies at Galleria, more than on anything of substance. We never questioned our candidates about anything likely to affect us and our nation in the long run. We never demanded from them what we have seen from the American candidates. We never dissected the spin, if spin it was; we never educated ourselves in any general sense on issues, on anything that might actually matter. No. We preferred to go along with what the newspapers said, with what the talk shows said, voting from emotion rather than reason, allowing both parties to get away with sheer idiocy that has very little to do with the world in which we find ourselves. 

And how much do we really, even now, understand about the world in which we find ourselves? In our Bahama-for-Obama frenzy (which, understand me, I share), how much do we understand what that means for us? How much do we really appreciate about the implications of a victory for Barack, which is (at the risk of jinxing a sure thing) the likely outcome of this vote today? It goes beyond the glib Democrats-are-bad-for-our-economy platitudes (which are pretty shallowly-based it seems to me, and have not really considered the idea from the point of view of history; was Truman bad for our economy? Kennedy? Was Roosevelt throughout his career, or was it only at the beginning when he repealed the idiotic Volstead Act?) 

Here's the thing. How can we, after this election, which has already been historic no matter what the outcome, in that it's likely to be one of the few American election in half a century or so where far more than 26% of the registered voters turned out, go back to thinking of ourselves in the same way? How can we maintain the sense of victimhood that allows us to get away with the systemic mediocrity, institutional cowardice and bullying that have marked our preferred way of doing things for well over twenty years? How can we continue to allow ourselves to doubt ourselves after this?

You tell me.

On Justice

I'm a big fan of Law and Order -- the television show's that's been running for almost twenty years.  I watch it religiously.  It never gets old.Recently I had the opportunity to watch a rerun I've seen dozens of times.  The thing is, I couldn't remember what happened in it -- I know what the opening was all about, I knew where the case was going to lead, but the core principles I couldn't recall.  So I watched it again to find out what they were.I was glad I did.  The main theme of the show was justice vs. politics.  In a nutshell, it's the show where a man who organizes tours, in a moment of weakness, shoots at his travel agent to stop her from depositing a cheque.  The idea is just to wound her, to give him time to put the money in his bank account.  The plan works, all too well.  The travel agent deposits the cheque late and the cheque doesn't bounce -- but two other people are killed as a result of the shooting, and the man is caught and charged.So that's the small story  The big story is this  While Jack McCoy and Jamie Ross are proposing to charge the man with first degree murder, District Attorney Adam Schiff orders them to indict the man on second degree murder. His argument?  The perpetrator was criminally negligent, but it was not his intention to kill. In the DA's judgment, the man deserves to go to jail for life, but his crime doesn't meet the standards required for the death penalty.  The Governor of New York disagrees, and orders Schiff to charge the man with first degree murder -- he's just reinstated the death penalty, and is looking for reasons to use it.  Schiff refuses, the Governor removes him from the prosecution, and Schiff takes the Governor to court.Now.  Let's not get caught up in the outcome of that episode.  It's not really relevant, anyway.  What struck me as I watched the episode was the way in which democracy works in the United States of America.  The courts are independent of the politicians; justice holds a higher standard than political expediency.  The Governor's action was political in nature and in intent; the DA's response was in the interests of justice.What struck me even further is how rarely we see that kind of dialogue taking place here in The Bahamas.  Oh, it has happened, all right, most recently when Justice Lyons challenged the actions of the former Attorney-General.  But Justice Lyons is not a Bahamian, and he has no stakes in the outcome, really.  Where, I wonder, are our national crusaders for justice?Most of the time, apparently, they're absent.  Too often it seems that the only values that we truly hold in this nation, the only values in which we're willing to invest, are values that have selfish returns.  A visitor to The Bahamas who takes time to follow our news will realize that there are really only one main topic of conversation: variations on the theme "we're better than them".  We discuss it when we're talking about party politics, about immigration, about homosexuals, about Junkanoo groups.  Bigger issues, like the question of (say) justice for all, rarely surfaces.The situation becomes most acute when the question of justice is at odds with our main topic of conversation.  If we're trying to score points -- whether they are PLP points or Saxon points or straight-people points or Christian points or Bahamian points -- the idea of justice rarely crosses our lips.Recently, though, I had the pleasure of reading an article that addressed just that -- the question of justice, rather than the question of expediency or political preference or moral superiority.  The topic was the question of a settlement for the Sea Hauler victims, and what the government's obligation was to them.  The current response of the government is interesting me deeply, as the Sea Hauler was one of the side issues that was raised during last year's election campaign.  What's been fascinating me is that though the party in power has changed, the government's response to the issue has remained essentially the same.  The problem is a private one; the owners of the two boats are liable; the victims need to collect their compensation from them.Now I must admit I have tended to hold that view.  Working in the civil service has exposed me to the over-reliance that many of us have on "government", and the expectations -- most of them unreasonable -- that ordinary citizens have of public servants and politicians.  Government is regarded as the solver of every problem, the mender of every broken thing, the financier of every project of which its citizens dream.  The Government was not at fault in the Sea Hauler tragedy, I reasoned.  Make the private companies accountable.  Let them pay.But -- as Leandra Esfakis, the lawyer who is changing my mind about Bahamians and justice, argues -- that is not all there is to it.  After all, it is the government is not entirely blameless.   It is the government who licenses the private companies, and who is responsible for overseeing the safety of the services they provide.And so, in the interests of justice, the government should pay compensation, she argues.   Not because it is the government's responsibility to do so, but because the government is far better placed to collect what is owed from those who are at fault than the victims of the tragedy themselves.   Her suggestion is as follows:   the government should compensate the people concerned, and then the government should make the owners pay.   In that way, justice will be best served.  Those who are most affected will be able to have their needs addressed, and those who are responsible will pay.It's an interesting proposal, and one I admire.  It's also heartening.  For the ultimate focus in this discussion is not blame, or political expediency, or even Pilate-like washing of hands, but justice.About time, too.

On Personality Cults

There has been much talk over the past three months in the media and over the airwaves about the differences between two men, men who, at their best are two parts of a whole. Much of the bottom line of the 2007 election rhetoric was fastened on to one thing and one thing only: who would voters like to have running the country -- a man who acts quickly and decisively and makes massive errors, or a man who contemplates all sides of an issue and hardly acts at all?Let me say this. Contrary to what we believe, twenty-first century leaders don't run countries. People do. For the first time ever, it is possible for democracy to function as it should. Thanks to fundamental changes in the transmission of information, every member of a democracy has the opportunity to make his or her voice heard -- over the airwaves, through the medium of the radio talk show, or, more revolutionary yet, over the internet, through blogs and podcasts.I'm not saying that leaders don't shape governments, or that they don't give direction, or point nations towards specific goals. I'm not even saying that they aren't convenient scapegoats when things go wrong. They do, and they are. What I am saying, though, is that simply being a leader is no longer enough. Thanks to the internet and the broadcast media, leaders are more vulnerable to the changing whims of public opinion than ever before.And, thanks to the internet and the broadcast media, those whims can change more quickly than wannabe leaders can imagine.It's for this reason that I turned away, consciously, from the 2007 election campaign, which had more in common with a protracted marital squabble than anything else. The targets were the two leaders from which the voters had to choose. The Free National Movement launched an all-out attack not on the policies or the successes of the Progressive Liberal Party government, but on weakness and corruption, singling out individuals -- the leader and various members. The Progressive Liberal Party responded predictably, resorting to cries of bullying, big money, and racism. The main venues for the campaign were the political rallies, which called upon emotions and gut reactions, and offered very little in the way of discussion or debate of ideas or visions. Rather than providing the Bahamian public with a means of finding out what the philosophies of these two parties were -- through debates, through long-range plans issued in good time, through a lining up of the pros and cons of the things that matter to the average person -- who, after all, ever gets to deal directly with a Prime Minister anyway? -- the primary focus of the campaign was a question of personality. Snap decisions or endless consultations? Indecisive waffling, or dictatorial stubbornness? A black-and-white worldview, or one filled with grey?The tactics were not new. Students of Bahamian political history will find almost exactly the same rhetoric -- employed, indeed, by some of the same men -- in the past, particularly during the1982 and 1987 elections, when the Free National Movement was being run by the "nice man" -- the late Kendal G. L. Isaacs -- and the Progressive Liberal Party was being led by the "tough leader", Lynden Oscar Pindling. Back then, corruption and racism were the core elements of the two campaigns, together with cries of propaganda and media bias.The difference, perhaps, is that in 1982 and in 1987 who led the party, and who led the country, mattered far more to the average person than it does today. During the 1970s and 1980s dissent was not merely difficult, it was virtually impossible; political bias and victimization were hard realities, not rhetorical bugaboos. The Government of The Bahamas controlled the airwaves, and diligently monitored what was aired on the single local television station and the two AM radio stations. Talk shows were interview shows, largely pre-taped, with very limited opportunity for calling in, and the average Bahamian toed the party line, or kept his mouth shut. The only real avenues for debate were the newspapers, the streets, the big trees, and the College of The Bahamas.In that crucible, the cult of leadership worked. Today, though, the landscape is fundamentally different. Having escaped from Egypt, we Bahamians appear to have come in sight of the Promised Land, if a sound financial policy and a growing economy may be considered that. In this election, Joshua and Caleb squared off against each other, and their supporters, rather than asking them to map for us what to do with the prosperity our nation is currently experiencing, took sides.In a world where leadership is in fact less and less important, both political parties ignored the real questions -- what do we do when there are few material or economic frontiers to conquer? How do we develop our human capital? -- and reverted to the politics of the previous generation. I expect the personal attack and the smears -- on both sides -- will continue for a while. But there is one fundamental difference.This country is run by the people now, not by the leaders. Leadership styles are exactly that -- style, not substance. The substance has not changed; we need only to study the parties' booklets, published in both cases less than one week before the election, to see that. Although we have changed our leaders (and by extension those individuals who are in positions of influence as well), we have not changed the direction of the country. Our civil service remains the same: antiquated, colonial, and opposed to change. Our commitment to development by foreigners remains the same as well; only now, perhaps, different developers will get deals. The people who will benefit from contracts will continue to be political cronies; only this time the faces will vary. There is one major difference, however. By 2012, both leaders are likely to be too old to put the same kind of dent in a political race. Our challenge, should we choose to accept it, is to move at last away from the cult of personality and build the kinds of governments for the future that we all would like to have.

On Victory

Let me start by congratulating the Bahamian electorate on its victory at the polls.Before the election took place, I had written a very different article. The bones of it are posted elsewhere; I was thoroughly disappointed in the campaign, and I thought this was going to be an awful election. An interesting election, but an awful one as well.Interesting, because (as an old friend of mine very wisely observed, a couple of weeks before the election) it is the last one to be fought in the shadow of Sir Lynden Pindling, with his two bright-eyed boys nearing the ends of their careers. (I'm talking about the Rt. Hons. Hubert Ingraham and Perry Christie, for those of you who don't know, each of whom received their seventh consecutive election to the House of Assembly, each of whom was a favoured Cabinet Minister in the Pindling PLP administration, each of whom was expelled from the PLP in 1984; and, moreover, and each of whom contested the 1987 general elections as Independent candidates and defeated their PLP opponents - quite a feat in those days.)And awful, because this was the first election campaign in my memory that was fought almost exclusively on insult. Both sides focused on the respective weaknesses of the other leader, on the various scandals afflicting prominent members of each party, and on the general baseness of their opponents and their supporters.And still the Bahamian people showed their representatives how to behave, and elected the most balanced parliament in forty years.This, I believe, even more than the changes of government over the past fifteen years, is a measure of the electorate's maturity - if maturity is the right way to put it. I suspect that it's even more a measure of the distance between the average Bahamian voter and the average politician. Politicians, ironically, especially seasoned ones, tend to live in a circumscribed and narrow world, one defined for them by their hangers-on, most of whom are either blindly loyal party members or else favour-currying sycophants, while the Bahamian voters live in a world that is largely defined by global (read American) politics, complete with sophisticated and critical political discussions.For a long time, Bahamian politicians have underestimated the Bahamian people. Many of them -- especially those schooled in the shadow of the early FNM and PLP -- continue to regard us as being semi-educated, superficial individuals who respond best to emotional appeals and simplistic discussions of complex issues. And so what has invariably brought governments down is often their very success. In 1992, the PLP was defeated by the growth of the same well-educated and prosperous middle class that government created. In 2002, the freedom of the airwaves ushered in by the FNM ultimately provided the avenue for that government's downfall. This time? I'm going to argue that this not-our-father's PLP was brought down by the very values they claimed when they aligned themselves with Bahamians of all races and creeds to tackle vexing issues such as land and constitutional reform, environmental awareness, national sovereignty, and the economic challenges posed by globalization - and by their addiction to consultation. The higher a bar is set, the further one has to fall.That's why I want to congratulate my countrymen for this new government we have elected. It's not just the change that impresses me; it's what I suspect lies behind the change, the message it sends, and the implications for the way ahead.You see, this time the government we elected is not one that can govern by a wide margin. It wasn't won by a landslide. The popular vote was one of the closest ever. As I write, estimates are floating that that vote was 50%-50%, or 49%-51% in favour of the FNM; by the time this goes to press the figures may be established. What is even more remarkable is that the margin in the House of Assembly is so close - and that the opposition consists, as one talk show host observed, of seasoned politicians. A majority of five seats means that issues must be discussed with care, legislation must be carefully drafted, and committees must complete their work. It also means that the government is vulnerable not only to the opposition, but to its own members; the balance of power is a mere three seats.In other words, our representatives are going to have to govern rather than campaign. They are going to have to negotiate instead of impose, to persuade rather than bully, to fashion arguments in the place of polemics if anything is to be done. The margin is small enough for anything to happen over the course of five years - and yet it's large enough to ensure that business will take place.So perhaps now, at last, we have elected a government that will get on with the business of governing us, not one that is half focussed on appeasing or rewarding its supporters and half focussed on getting things done for the rest of us.And so now, perhaps, we can deal with issues that affect the future of the nation -- like our identity as a people, our sovereignty, our economic survival in the global economy. Like race, and how we deal with it, whether we are white, black, Haitian, Greek, Chinese, or all (or none) of the above. Like immigration. Like the environment, and how we can make our development sustainable. Like reform of the public service, reform of our constitution, and the fundamental education of our people.It is a great new day indeed. The Bahamian people have won a great victory. Congratulations and condolences to all who deserve them. This was a wonderful outcome of the 2007 general election, and one I've been waiting for all my life.

On Inertia

I’m in my third year of employment as a civil servant.  I started out in this profession, twenty-odd years ago.  I worked as a civil servant for three years, and left to enter the teaching profession.  Some people thought I was crazy; I was taking a pay cut, I was moving to apparently sub-standard working conditions (no air conditioning in the classroom, no secretaries to do work for me, no downtime — I was working in a small church school, where free periods were few and far between), I was leaving a job with Connections to go to one with None.I was as happy as a clam.Poor, yes, but happy.  The reason?  At the end of a day as a teacher, I had the sense that I’d got something done.  At the end of a week, that sense of accomplishment was palpable; at the end of a year, when students had shown what they had (or hadn’t) learned, it could be rewarding. And the pride I have in knowing that I shared in some small way in the achievements of a new generation of Bahamians is priceless.Twenty years later, I’m back in the public service.  My job is rewarding in a different way.  I’m never bored.  No two days are alike.  We’re living in an exciting time, a time of radical change.  There are tides sweeping through nations, especially little ones, and we have to be ready to ride them or drown.  It’s a good time to be a civil servant.The trouble is that the civil service isn’t ready to experience the good time.  The profession is governed by inertia.Now for those of you who don’t know what it means, here’s what Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has to say: INERTIA : indisposition to motion, exertion, or action : resistance to change.  These big dictionaries give you phrases to help you make sense of the words they define, and here’s what Webster’s gave: “social inertia, the tendency of animals to continue repeating the same action in the same place”.I couldn’t have said it better myself.The biggest problem with the civil service in The Bahamas is that it’s indisposed to action, resistant to change.  This is not unique to The Bahamas, by the way.  It is a fundamental tenet of bureaucracy.  It took me some time, for example, to get over my surprise that the Canadian bureaucracy is just as bad and the British bureaucracy is worse (whereas here, a who-ya-know or a well-targeted dollar can speed the process around here, there’s no way around those public servants).  But the problem is very real.The problem is simple.  Government is designed to protect the status quo.  (It is very often nothing to do with the party in power.)  Conservatism is hammered into the system from the ground up.  The System itself is god; there is no power higher than it.  Change itself goes in as change, and never comes out at all.Inertia.Now lest you think that I am advocating a complete doing-away with the structures that slow down movement, that absorb light and break it into a million tiny pieces, each darker than the first, that break up good ideas to make them “workable”, let me assure you that I’m not.  Governments are designed to manage the assets of nations.  They are set in place to curb the excesses of politicians, who are naturally enthusiastic and energetic people who want things to be done in a rush (because short periods of time in which to prove themselves).  In the Westminster system, the two tiers of governance are designed to complement one another and to ensure that countries survive from administration to administration.  Civil servants are permanent employees, people who are put in place to maintain stability.  They are supposed to guard the assets of the country, to take the long view, to think about what happens twenty years form now, while elected officials scramble to keep old promises or make new ones.  It’s not a bad system, on paper.The problem is that the world is moving too fast for it.  Paper is a wonderful medium, but it’s now obsolete.  In a world where — as someone involved in the mass media put it very recently — today’s technology can become obsolete next week, a system in which a single idea can take eight months to be decided upon is inadequate to meet the needs of our nation.  And a profession in which individuals still expect to remain employed for life, no matter how they perform or how much they actually achieve, is a dinosaur in a world where change is so rapid that universities have now taken on the challenge of preparing graduates to be able to switch careers twice or three times in a lifetime.The civil service as designed is crippling the development of The Bahamas. I’ve argued before that the version that we have in place was never intended to govern a free nation; what we have has grown out of an institution set up to manage the assets of an empire.  The system is too open to abuse by the malicious and too inflexible to accommodate creativity.  Good ideas are easy to kill; they can be buried in paper, or strangled by budget constraints.  Because inertia rules, change has to struggle to survive.The time has come to rethink our civil service — not to do away with it, because it is a necessary balance to the imperatives of the elected — but to dissect it, evaluate it, and rebuild it from the ground up.  It’s time for the civil service to be designed to achieve things — and not to maintain things as they have always been, world without end, amen.

On Woodwork and Worms

To every thing, says the writer of Ecclesiastes, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. He goes on to talk about being born and dying, planting and plucking up, killing and healing, breaking down and building up. What he doesn't talk about, presumably because the writer of Ecclesiastes is generally assumed to have been King Solomon, who got his position from God and didn't have to worry about such things, is that there is a time to hold elections, and, alas, a time to campaign.And we have just about reached that time. We're on the brink of that period when, to quote the inimitable Patrick Rahming,They comin' out the woodwork just like worm,Everybody catching politics like germ,Chasing after sweetness just like fly;Everybody know another five years done gone by.Come convention time, we Bahamians will enter that phase in our national life during which good sense flies out of the window. It's a time when favours so transparent that they could light fires are dispensed like Halloween candy. It's a time when when turkeys and pigs tremble in their barnyards, when appliance retailers at home and abroad find their inventories moving far more quickly than normal. It's a time when the lightbulbs that were for three years absent from streetlights appear, when new tar blackens city streets that had gone grey from the weather. It's a time when prospective voters can travel in comfort and safety to rallies. It's a time when there's more gunpowder in the country than Guy Fawkes stockpiled at Westminster, when t-shirts and campaign flags are interchangeably fresh and new.It will be a time to campaign. It will be a time to party.Already we're beginning to hear the rhetoric that's assumed to have won elections in the past--comments about the participation of white Bahamians in the Independence celebrations, removals of members of the long-dead UBP from Central Bank bills, news coverage whose main actors are either people who drive cars with blue licence plates or people whose situations and statuses make good political talking points. For points, after all, are what it's all about. We've started down that road where party chairmen rack up points like judges in televised competitions. Sitting Members of Parliament and the challengers for their positions are beginning to book slots on radio talk shows, and names of new hopefuls are thickening the air.It's enough to make one give up on democracy altogether.Democracy, you see, quite properly means the participation of the people in the governing process. As it was originally designed (by the ancient Greeks in the city-state of Athens), several restrictions applied that we might find curiously undemocratic: only men who owned property and had achieved a certain level of education were eligible to vote. According to some statistics, suffrage was available to only 16% of the Athenian population; women, slaves and foreigners were excluded. On the other hand, though, that 16% of the population made all decisions directly; they did not elect representatives to do it for them. All things considered, that 16% of the population is higher than the number we currently have, when forty people decide the fate of 400,000.And the Greeks didn't have to hold elections every five years. And they didn't have to spend forty percent of their lives suffering from the shock of the political campaign.Now I wouldn't be so disturbed by the campaign period if we used it as a time to discuss the issues that threaten the nation as a whole, rather than highlighting (or creating) elements, real or imagined, to divide us. We are at a point in our development where the big issues are very very real. We've lived with them long enough for them to enter our vocabulary--issues like globalization and the Bahamas' place in the world economy, whether it be the dormant FTAA, the postponed CSME or the insidious WTO; issues like human rights and the fact that The Bahamas is consistently on the watch list of Amnesty International; issues like long-term development and its potential impact on our environment; issues like our culture, which is weak and wavering in the face of a global culture that is far better developed, packaged and marketed just right; and issues like how our society is going to handle the question of illegal immigration.But Bahamian culture is such that political campaigns are rarely fought on issues. In truth, political affiliation is at best a personal preference, at worst a bottomless pit of greed. The political machinery invokes quick-and-dirty knee-jerk subjects, like white oppression or gay cruises or the personal habits of individual politicians, using misdirection, frivolity and divisiveness to attract the kind of attention that can be translated into votes. And the Bahamian public sits back and waits to see who can put on the best show.The worst of it is, however, is that this kind of approach to electoral politics denigrates the process of democracy in such a way that it ultimately destroys the fabric of the national character. The way in which political campaigns are generally conducted in our nation fundamentally underestimates the intelligence of the Bahamian population. The assumption seems to be that the average Bahamian's vote can be obtained by purchase or confidence games, and that issues really don't matter. And by assuming this, political campaigns help create a citizenry for whom a vote is just a commodity that can be traded for a hand-out or two.So it's woodwork and worm time again, and I'm bracing myself for two years of utter nonsense. And I'm steeling myself to face the ultimate devaluation of the Bahamian soul that may be its result.

On Parties

Well, it's that season again -- the season of parties. Summer brings with it regattas, festivals, homecomings, and the biggest party of all -- the Independence celebrations.And it's got me feeling, well, a little uncomfortable.Don't get me wrong. I like a good party as much as the next person. But note here: I said a good party. All too often the success of parties are left up to the people who attend them, and the amount of food and drink that they provide for those people. And the food tends to be the same and the drink tends to be the same, and for people who don't eat or drink all that much the atmosphere tends to become oppressive, rather than happy. The result: a celebration without a really good idea of what or why we're celebrating.I grew up with an aunt who was a party queen. Her favourite thing in the world was to throw a good party. When I explain what she did, maybe you'll get an idea of what I mean when I say a "good" party; I learned it from her. Her idea of a good party was achieving a nice mix of people, a nice range of foods, a nice range of drinks, and ensuring that a great time was had by all. She planned her parties for weeks, cooking and freezing well in advance (or having people, among them her nieces and nephews, cook and freeze for her), playing around with the guest list, choosing the theme, the music, the occasion, the place, the décor, and sparing no expense. When she was finished her parties were works of art. She never had the same people (even her own family members) in the same order twice in a row; she never served the same food at two parties back to back; she never had the same music. Sometimes she had live music, sometimes she played LPs (she's been dead a little while). But the main thing about her parties was her concern that everyone enjoyed himself or herself, that there was something for everybody at her parties.Now that's not the case, it seems, with many of the public parties that we've been having, almost obsessively, over the past few years. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that we've been partying ever since the last election campaigns back in 2001). It may have been the case, once, back in the day, maybe when the first election campaigns began with their live music and their fireworks; but now we've fallen into a pattern that seems to have taken on a life -- and a reproductive cycle -- of its own. To hold a party, all you need are concession stands selling lots of food, lots of liquor (or, if you're a born-again teetotaller, lots of upbeat gospel music, which achieves much the same effect), live entertainment, junkanoo groups, or a DJ playing reggae -- lots of abandon, some knives and guns, a wide open space somewhere, and, often, a deeply subliminal death wish.It's a formula, and it's a formula that works most of the time. But it's a formula that really doesn't do very much for any of us in the long run. Because all the parties end up looking very much the same: the same people, the same music, the same oblivion in the end.Now. I had the pleasure of attending the Cat Island Rake-n-Scrape Festival over the weekend. Believe me, it was a pleasure. It was a party, but more than a party; there was something for everyone, and it didn't simply consist of a bunch of people being squeezed into a single place at a single time. The Rake-n-Scrape Festival was a wonderful celebration of local culture. The main focus of the festival was the rake-n-scrape, which featured a Battle of the Bands on both main nights of the Festival. It was a battle in which Cat Island featured very well -- four of the six bands that competed had Cat Island roots -- but in which Cat Island didn't ultimately win. But what amazed me was that the announcement of the winners -- a band from Long Island -- was not accompanied by the now-familiar charge of robbery that the Junkanoo competition has planted in our psyches. What amazed me was that the men on stage, their concertinas and saws and drums in their hands or beside their feet, turned to one another, shook hands, and clapped each other on the back. And this was no fake tennis-pro handshaking either; it was a recognition of genuine respect for good music and good musicians. And in the end, all the winning bands came together and played good solid rake-n-scrape music in the Seventh Annual Rake-n-Scrape Festival Orchestra.Now that was a party. It was a party because it was a celebration of something other than individual stomachs and other nether regions. There was food, yes, and drink, yes, and music, and everything else that makes parties parties. But all these things were secondary. The primary focus of the Festival was what it said it was: rake-n-scrape. Our culture. Our collective, social selves.I say all of that to say this. Independence is coming, and we are, once again, planning our parties. What concerns me about this Independence season, though, is that, as usual, we are planning parties without encouraging the nation to think about what it is that we are partying about. In large part, of course, this is because we always start our planning too late; eight weeks, or four, or two, are not long enough to develop a full appreciation of the meaning of Independence among our young people. But perhaps it is also because we are collectively losing our sense of nationhood. After all, we leave our flags hanging in sun and in rain, throughout the night and during hurricanes, and in so doing, we grossly disrespect our premier national symbol. We prefer to get people to sing our national anthem to us rather than sing it ourselves; as a result, there's a growing generation of people who don't know what the true words -- or the actual tune -- of our anthem are. And unless we are teachers and say the Pledge regularly in assembly, chances are we have no idea that we have a Pledge, let alone what its words are.Partying alone is not going to do it. And partying without a purpose, partying simply to laugh or dance or fill our stomachs, is definitely not going to do it. Now that the Independence season is upon us, we need to be thinking beyond tattoos and fireworks and sweeting-up on the Fort. We've started, you know. Proposals have been made to ask Family Islands to forego parties in favour of laying the foundation for Heroes' parks over this Independence season. These may not be sexy, they may not be fun, but it's a foundation that's being laid for our futures. And those futures depend on foundations, not on parties alone.

On Government

Let me ask you a question. When you hear the words Civil Service, what comes to mind?You don't need to answer that. I'm not going to, beyond suggesting that what comes to my mind is something similar to the old American joke about Army Intelligence. What I want to talk about today is the function and purpose of our civil service.Because it doesn't work all that well.Oh, it moves along. It floats, as does a log on the ocean; we've set it up so it can't sink easily, rather like a flat-bottomed boat. But it doesn't move with any kind of efficiency or speed, and it doesn't really get anywhere much.

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On Democracy

There are days when I believe that there's such a thing as too much democracy.Let me give you just one example. When I was sixteen I attended a school that was founded on basic democratic beliefs. It outlawed hierarchy. Our teachers were there to guide us, to give us the benefit of their experience, but they were not to be our superiors; to underscore this fundamental belief that everyone was equal, everyone, from the Director of the college to the gardeners and the cleaning ladies, was called by his or her first name.But it was not governed democratically. In fact, when we first arrived, the Director sat down with us and explained to us that although the college was based on democratic principles, there was such a thing as getting a job done, and there was such a thing as division of labour. Our job was to get the best education -- not just academic -- that we could, and to do so not for our own selfish edification, but to make the world a better place. His job was to govern. If that made him a dictator, he said, then so be it. He would be a benevolent dictator.And by and large, he was. Benevolent, that is, and a dictator. And things got done.

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On Patronage

In the opening of the film The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone is visited by Johnny Fantone, a young singer who is trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood. Don Corleone has already helped Johnny to get where he is in Las Vegas, having made his band leader the offer he couldn't refuse. Now Don Corleone agrees to help him break into movies. Everyone who has seen that film knows what happens next: the blood in the bed, the terror in the night. Don Corleone has ways of getting what he wants.Now The Godfather is a movie, and what's in it may not be the exact truth. But what interests me today is not so much the glamour or the horror of specific incidents, or even the tragedy inherent in those who (like Michael Corleone) are destined to be Dons, but the circumstances in which mafia-like organizations arise.

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On the Fourth Estate

Last week, I happened to watch a documentary on the Watergate scandal of thirty years ago. Now I remember Watergate. I wasn't very old, but I was old enough to realize something big was happening; what I wasn't, was old enough to understand why it was happening.It was happening because two reporters, who were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, had noticed something unusual and had followed it up. To be specific: Bob Woodward was covering a routine court case for the Washington Post when he heard one of the defendants tell the judge, sotto voce, that he worked for the CIA. Nothing more, nothing less. He followed that up, with the help of Carl Bernstein, and together they began digging. They took nothing at face value, and ultimately they revealed a cover-up that brought down the President of the USA.Sixty years ago, in July 1943, Etienne Dupuch, the longtime editor of the Tribune, did something similar in the Bahamas. The philanthropic millionaire Harry Oakes was discovered murdered in his bed, in circumstances that remain confusing to this day. The Duke of Windsor, then the governor of the Bahamas, had begun a mystifying cover-up, which included contacting the Miami branch of the FBI, attempting to conceal certain facts of the case, and, apparently, framing Oakes' scandal-mongering son-in-law. Dupuch found out about the murder and dispatched reports about it to the international press, thus thwarting, at least for a while, the royal conspiracy.

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