On Moral Illiteracy

for Jackson

Recently I listened to German author Bernhard Schlink on the BBC's World Book Club discussing his novel The Reader. It's a book about the Holocaust, told, as he says, from the perspective of the second generation of Germans who have lived with that atrocity in their cultural and historical reality, and it explores their share of the guilt. For him, that guilt is shared by anyone who loves or respects someone who was active in the Holocaust (I'm simplifying horribly) unless you are also able to call them to account for their share in the war.He writes from the perspective of one who knows. In his life, growing up in Germany after the war but before the complicity of most Germans in the Nazi atrocities was publicly acknowledged, he knew, admired and loved many individuals who had been personally responsible for, or who had at least taken part in, the wartime genocides. At some point in his life he was forced to make a moral choice. Should his love and admiration for these people obscure the atrocities in which they were complicit, or was it his responsibility to call them to account for their actions?The Reader puts this question on the table. On one level, it's a book about literacy and illiteracy; one of the main characters cannot read or write. Schlink was asked whether he'd intended that to be symbolic or metaphorical, whether he'd intended that trope to represent the blindness of the German people as they ignored the genocides being carried out by the Nazi government. His reply had two sides to it. On the one hand, he said, he was not writing a book from a symbolic point of view. The illiteracy in the book was simply illiteracy--an inability to read. But on the other hand, he added, it was possible for a nation, a group, a people, to breed a sort of moral illiteracy--the inability to behave in ways that were morally acceptable. He used that to account for the parsons and priests and doctors who supported the Nazi regime, who were complicit in the torture and murder of millions, who participated in, encouraged, taught, and celebrated the actions of Hitler and his government. Education and profession were no barriers to atrocity, he argued. What was lacking was not knowledge; it was morality.So here is what I believe about my country. I believe that we suffer from a profound moral illiteracy, and that this pervades our society from top to bottom. Our approach to life is simple and simplistic at the same time; all that matters is what is good for me right now. We feel no collective sense of outrage at anything that is palpably wrong; we do not even discuss the inherent rightness and wrongness of any issue, but choose to implement what is most convenient. We mouth Christian principles, and are happy to use them to justify oppression and cruelty; we press carefully selected Bible verses into service to justify why, for instance, it should remain legal for a man to rape his wife, but do not examine the same scriptures for the concurrent instructions about men's responsibilities to love and honour their wives, or spouses' responsibilities to one another. We turn blind eyes on other instances to ministers of the cabinet and of the gospel and all others who abuse the weak socially, sexually, morally, and physically. We celebrate and glorify hard men of every kind, but despise kindness and compassion. And when it comes time to make hard choices--do we do what is right or what is popular? Do we honour bullies who destroy or value people who seek to build up the common life? Do we work to achieve what is hard but best, or do we settle for what is easily within our (very short) reach?--we make the easy ones every time.In this we are not all that different from many of our Caribbean neighbours, or even from the USA, for which money and finance have more value than human life. It is not fashionable to hold principles. It is not good business to put people first. It is not profitable to seek to be our brothers' keepers, and poverty is in terribly bad taste. The moral illiteracy that I think we share does not end at our borders. It is a North American malaise too, but we in the Caribbean have developed too few traditions that can help combat it, and almost no institutions that provide support for moral stands. For, as Schlink observes, to make the hardest moral choices, "You need an institution to support you. If you are on your own it becomes very difficult."The problem, I believe, is rooted in the fact that our societies in the Caribbean were never designed to be societies at all. Our region is unique in the modern world in being the one place whose sole purpose was to provide cheap goods, generate capital, and extract raw materials to fuel the prosperity of metropolitan centres. This was not always our function; but over the course of five centuries our indigenous populations, societies and structures were first eradicated, and then explicitly re-created to achieve those goals. And we live in the world that remained.Academics write often about "the plantation", but their discussions are remote and not yet as resonant as the legacy of that "plantation", among whose ruins we still live. The concept of the total institution that was slavery in the Caribbean has not entered the popular discourse on any meaningful level. We have been taught, and still imagine, that we have some kind of autonomy about the societies we build in its wake. We do not. Until we do what Schlink and his modern Germany have done—confront the horrors in our history, and call the perpetrators to account—we cannot hope to build anything new. The foundations on which we build are the bones of our ancestors, and they are too uneasy to allow anything to remain.As it exists today, the plantation discussion does little more than provide radicals with the language of critique, and conservatives with a philosophy against which to fight. In our world, we appear not to recognize complexity. We believe that victims are justified by their victimhood, and that they cannot ever become oppressors themselves; we believe that responsibility is one-way, and that skin colour is a badge of power, or of oppression. We do not hold the discussion that recognizes the shared responsibility of us all—that remembers that even of us who consider ourselves "victims", we share in the blood of our oppressors, that we are literally their descendants, or that for many of us who consider ourselves free of the plantation, to share in wealth is to continue to benefit from the forced labour on which this "New World" was constructed. We do not talk about the Africans who sold other Africans to Europeans for guns and ammunition to expand their empires at home, nor do we do not talk about our ancestors who, as the offspring of planters and their slaves, became owners of slaves themselves. We do not recognize the echoes of slavery that  resound everywhere in the global media, local government policies, and the things on which we spend our revenues, both public and private. And we most certainly do not recognize its echoes as we act again and again out of the moral hollowness that is perhaps slavery's greatest consequence.It seems inconceivable to me that we do not recognize the echoes of that evil institution in the way in which we think about development, about nationalism, or about democratic principles, in the way that we talk about and to one another, and in the way that we still—still, after two hundred and seven years after the first slave independence—put almost anything  above human beings. But we do not. We can perhaps take some bitter comfort in the fact that we are only following the lead of the world in this; after all, while the Holocaust has been recognized as a crime against humanity for the entire lifetime of the United Nations Organization, and inspired the 1948 Convention against Genocide, it took that same august body until 2001 to declare the institution of slavery an equal crime. But this is no real excuse.This is the moral illiteracy that plagues the New World in the lengthening shadow of the plantation. Human beings continue to come second to other, "greater" projects. It is to this view that every government in the Caribbean region appears to subscribe, perhaps unwittingly, but subscribe nevertheless, if our collective investment in our human capital is to be any guide. I believe that it is time we, the people of this region, call them out on it. It's time for us to learn, and teach, the moral alphabet to those we elect to represent and lead us, to our children, and most of all ourselves. 

ASA 10: The Interview

All right, I know that many of you have no idea what the title means. And it doesn't matter terribly. I'll decode: ASA stands for Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth. I'm currently attending a conference in Belfast and am struck by the centrality of one recurrent theme: the theme of peace, of terror, of reconciliation.

Of course it's no accident that these themes recur in Northern Ireland, where the peace settlement is gaining history of its own. What is striking me, though, is that Europeans (and others) are deeply engaged in the process of peace and reconciliation, so much so that they have provided fertile ground for study at the anthropological level. Again, I realize that that doesn't mean a whole lot for many of us, but I'll do my best to explain.

Maybe, first, I'll try and explain why this concerns me. part of it is the sense -- which I'm finding remarkable -- that groups of people who perpetrate mass injustices, violence, terror, oppression on other groups of people are now for some reason taking responsibility for those actions, are now working out a course of reconciliation, attempting healing so that their states, their societies, can move on. For example: the Australian government officially apologized to the Aboriginal people for their oppression during the early colonial period; the South African government carried out Truth and Reconciliation Tribunals in the post-apartheid period; the British government recently apologized to Africa and the Caribbean for their involvement in the transAtlantic slave trade.

What was very interesting for me, though, was a paper on the effects of injustice and abuse of power given by Vincent Crapanzano on the plight of the Harkis of Algeria in the post-independence era. What interested me was that his study actually uncovered the process of hurt as well as the potentiality for healing, and in this way it helped to illuminate concretely for me what is questioned by so many on this side of the world -- why, since slavery was abolished so long ago, and since colonialism has been eradicated, we still talk about the legacy of both. Answers to that question were provided in these papers, which showed fairly coherently what happens to a group of people in the aftermath of brutality and oppression, and how healing does not occur as soon as the offense has come to an end. It showed how healing must be a conscious, engaged, moral and difficult endeavour. And it showed it in anthropological terms -- that is, by pondering the possibility of cultural universals, untying the question from the too-easy myth of "race", and talking about human processes.

And this is important to our part of the world exactly why? Well, while I'd hope that it was pretty obvious to people reading, I'll spell it out. Two reasons.

First: as a people, as a "nation", we have not dealt with our own hurt and victimhood, our own history of brutality and oppression. We have not talked about what it meant to be enslaved or marginalized in our own country, about what it meant to be separated into "natives" and "residents" and although the generation of people who were faced with the concrete reality that their skin colour or cultural heritage limited what they could achieve, what they could do, is aging, the psychological residue of that lingers on in every doubt that we raise, collectively or as individuals, about what Bahamians deserve, or can do.

And second, as a people, as a "nation", we are actively engaged in oppressing another group of people, in some ways as radically and as blatantly as we ourselves were oppressed in the past. And ignoring that fact will not make it go away. We must learn that oppression is not only a product of "race"; being here in Northern Ireland, I recognize forcefully that whiteness is not a barrier to oppression, and I am reminded -- as though I'd ever forgotten -- that denying that people of the same race can oppress one another (black Bahamians vs black Haitians for instance) does not mean that oppression does not occur. What it means is that we lie about it, that's all. And if we are not careful, if we do not learn from others, we are running the risk of perpetrating, over time, the kind of victimhood that divides nations.

I will write more about this, but first I want to get hold of the papers that were presented at this conference and read them to internalize their observations. I just know this. We need to gain a sense of consciousness as a nation about oppression and victimhood. We need it to walk into the future with clear eyes.

On Holding One Other in Contempt

There's an affliction that strikes countries whose histories come out of colonialism. It's one of the legacies that dangles on, like a dying but not-quite-dead jellyfish, wrapping its tentacles over whatever it can reach, spreading its venom to newer and newer generations. It's the sense that what happens in your space of the world, what takes place in your territory, is not quite real. It isn't really happening to proper people. What is real, or important, or of anything significance at all, happens Over There -- in the Real World, where Real People Live. Where we inhabit are the realms of the shadow people.This post was prompted by, but is only partly about the closure of Starbucks COB. It's also about bigger issues: about the way in which we treat ourselves, about our expectations that we citizens have of our country and our development, and the way in which those expectations are exploited by those people who enter the political arena. It's tangentially about the way in which we behaved like adults when following the US presidential elections one year ago, but how we revert to childishness when we follow our own (although the idiocies presented us by our own politicians are no different from the mass of idiocy force-fed to American citizens, and, in many cases, are less egregious (can anyone say Rod Blagojevich?)). But it's fundamentally about what lies at the core of this tendency, and it's this: somehow we think we are only good enough for second-class everything. Somehow, we believe that the good stuff should be saved for our visitors, put on display for the real world. Somehow, we don't actually think we're real.Let me put it another way. We don't think we deserve stuff that other people consider ordinary. Now this doesn't simply affect us here in The Bahamas. It occurs throughout the Caribbean and Africa, with notable exceptions. In this, we mirror our colonial pasts, when the good stuff was saved for sending to the motherland (or serving to her representatives) and the dregs were good enough for us.We see evidence of this situation in many of the homes in which we grew up, where we had one room in which we put all our goodies -- the best furniture, the best decor, the good china, the pretty drapes -- and which we used only when visitors came by -- and only very special visitors at that. Some of us kept the dining table set with our china and silverware, making that space a kind of museum for our good stuff. Many of us kept the plastic on the furniture. In some cases, in houses that were built in the second half of the twentieth century particularly, we even had a separate entrance for different sorts of people: friends and relatives and family would enter through one door (usually the kitchen or side door) and only visitors would walk through the front.Now as far as that goes, it's an interesting cultural adaptation to a history of violence and subordination. By itself, it isn't remarkable. It's even got many good qualities about it -- there's always a space in one's home that is ready to entertain visitors, there's room for hospitality, there's order, there's good sense.But where it becomes dangerous is when we take that practice outside our homes and apply it to the society at large -- to our core institutions, to our city, to our nation as a whole, as we do -- reserving the new and the shiny for the special visitors (or the people at the top), like having a special conference room for the Minister in many agencies, and another "conference room" for ordinary mortals; or reserving the use of a newly renovated building for special occasions and special people; or deciding, implicitly, that a certain level of comfort or service, a certain quality of experience, is "good enough" for ordinary Bahamians, and that the kindness and warmth and smiles are only turned on for foreign visitors.(more to come)

On Censorship

A couple of months ago, the entire Bahamian community was convulsed by the banning of the movie Brokeback Mountain. All sorts of people weighed in on the issue, but the argument never really got off the ground. The reason for that was that there were really two arguments going on. One was the question of homosexuality. This argument suggested that the Bahamas (government, Christian community or censorship board) was duty-bound to protect the public morality against the evils of same-sex love. The other was the view that adult citizens of a democratic nation should be given the opportunity to choose whether to expose themselves to those evils or not.Now there should be no doubt in my readers’ minds where I stand. I believe that the pulling of the movie was arbitrary, hypocritical and absurd. In all likelihood, it was a knee-jerk reaction on the part of a handful of influential people who assumed that the Bahamian public would not object. But I don’t want to talk about that. Not yet.Quite simply, the existence of the Bahamas Plays and Films Control Board is an anachronism. As many have pointed out before me, it is an organization whose banning of anything is absurd in a society where radio stations play uncensored lyrics on an almost daily basis, where Bahamians are featured – and feature themselves – in homegrown pornography on the World Wide Web, and where any “immorality” can be purchased in the privacy of one’s home by those people willing to pay the price.Now I am not saying this to call for the expansion of the scope of the Board, or of the Act which establishes it. No. What I am saying is that the time has come for Bahamians to recognize the incompatability of such a body with the age in which we live. Information of every kind is all around us, available to anyone with access to a radio, a television, a satellite or a computer. Banning the showing of a movie in this context is ludicrous.But it is more than that. The real problem with the banning of Brokeback Mountain is that it demonstrates that this same handful of anonymous, appointed and unaccountable Bahamians have the ability under the law to control and stifle Bahamian creativity. It’s one thing to talk about a movie set in the American mid-west, made by a Chinese director, featuring a love story that many Bahamians clearly find repugnant. But what happens when a Bahamian wishes to address a topic the Board finds distasteful? Should the law have the right to tell him that he cannot? The banning of a movie may be absurd. But the banning of a play is quite a different matter.It is not inconceivable, especially given the precedent set by the banning of Brokeback Mountain, that such a banning might take place. Indeed, there have been instances in the past where plays produced by Bahamians have been forced to change their presentations or face closure. The fact that, under the terms of the Act that establishes it, the Board has the obligation to vet any production, rate it, recommend changes or close it down has serious implications for the foundations of our democracy.That the Board and the supporters of the Brokeback banning are hypocritical is evident in the fact that The Da Vinci Code, a movie based on the heresy that Christ did not die on the cross, but married Mary Magdalene and sired a line of descendents who exist to this day – is currently showing in the self-same theatres from which Brokeback was pulled. But to focus on this hypocrisy misses the real point. As long as legislation remains on the books that permits an anonymous body to control what Bahamians watch, and worse, what Bahamians write and perform, our culture, and our democracy, are challenged.One final point. The discussion that was generated by the Brokeback affair raised the question of the very constitutionality of the Board. Now our Constitution protects the freedom of expression of the Bahamian citizen (Article 23). But it’s not an absolute protection. There are some limitations designed to protect defence, public safety, public order, public morality and public health, and it is permissible under the Constitution to regulate communications, public exhibitions and public entertainment.On the surface, then, the curtailing of absolute freedom of expression is permissible under the Bahamian constitution. Except here’s where it gets iffy. There’s a caveat to all of this protection of the public, and it’s this: one can regulate things in the interest of public morality, etc, “except so far as … the thing done … is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.”It’s iffy because what’s reasonably justifiable in a democratic society changes with time. The goalposts move. This idea makes reference to a global consensus on what is “democratic”, and that changes. Forty years ago it was not undemocratic for the state to put its citizens to death for certain offences; today, however, most democracies consider it undemocratic, even barbaric, to impose the death penalty indiscriminately. Twenty years ago it might have been fine to challenge artwork that was considered indecent, homosexual, or otherwise offensive to public morality; but today in democratic societies that is no longer the case. We are living in a world whose boundaries are not fixed, and we have to be prepared for them to move.I believe that the time has come to admit that the kind of legislation that permits a body of non-elected, faceless individuals to decide what the Bahamian citizen should be able to see is fundamentally obsolete.I believe that the time has come to recognize that the recent actions of the Bahamas Plays and Films Control Board are not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.I believe that the time has come to revisit the Theatres and Films Act, to consider its place in this era of information, and, ultimately, to amend it to fit the age in which we live.

On Instant Information

In November of last year, my husband was offered a short-term job in Michigan as a guest director at a small liberal arts university. He went, of course. I stayed behind; I have my own job. But while he was gone, we were in communication on a daily basis – and we didn’t break the bank. The internet has made instant communication over huge distances possible, affordable – and commonplace.We live in the Information Age. The ability to communicate instantly and cheaply over huge distances has revolutionized the way in which human beings relate to one another, and has revolutionized the way in which societies interact. These days, it is possible to link to other human beings anywhere in the world by using satellites, cell phones, and the internet. The world has changed, and – without realizing – we have changed with it.But it appears we haven’t noticed this change. That this applies to us here in The Bahamas is not something that we talk much about. We conduct our business as though radio is the most efficient method of getting the word out, and appear completely to ignore the revolution going on around us.But the in-your-face power of the airwaves pales in comparison to the internet, which is the most radical form of communication there is. It’s radical because nobody owns it. Yes, people (mostly Americans) own the access to it; in order to get online, you have to open the portal provided by the computer, your Internet Service Provider (a.k.a. ISP), and do a bunch of things that some people find intimidating. But once you have done these things, you will find yourself in the biggest democracy on earth.It’s a democracy without borders. It’s a place where people who think alike can meet and discuss ideas without worrying about the kinds of things that people normally worry about – like where you’re from, which party you support, what skin colour you happen to wear – and for that reason it’s a place where it’s possible for petty barriers to melt away and for minds to meet.And for that reason it’s a place where revolutions take place, quietly.Let me illustrate, just briefly. In the 2004 Presidential Elections in the USA, a new power base made itself known: the world of blogs and blogging. Simply put for those people who have no idea what I’m talking about, a web log is a place on the internet where an individual can make his or her opinions known in an instant. It’s like a journal or a diary, but with one big difference: journals and diaries are traditionally private, and blogs are public. They attract readers and they start conversations.And the blog is only one place in which people make their opinions known. There are also chat rooms and internet forums and countless cyber-places where people can go and hang out, anonymously if they choose, and say what they think. The very facelessness of the internet makes it possible for individuals to say what they think without fear of reprisal. And there’s something else, too. The newness of the technology involved means that young Bahamians – those people who will be ruling this country when those of us currently in power are hoping to retire in comfort and to age in peace – are more familiar with cyberspace communication than they are with almost any other kind. They’re certainly more familiar with it than we are.So let me share a few truths about the Bahamian internet interface that might surprise those of us who were born before 1980.Bahamians are talking in cyberspace. They’re talking about politics, about culture, about race, about development, about all kinds of issues that we have developed the (erroneous) habit of imagining that Bahamians aren’t interested in. And the opinions expressed are varied, thoughtful, and sometimes revolutionary. An afternoon spent on a forum like (say) Bahamians Online will reveal more about current Bahamian thinking than any radio talk show. There are no borders to our thinking, no limits on what we discuss.But our institutions have not changed to reflect this fact.The recent furore over the banning of the movie Brokeback Mountain is a good example of that fact. That a handful of individuals can imagine that it is even possible in this twenty-first century to prohibit the showing of a film in the public interest demonstrates how out-of-date our governing philosophies are. The advent of cable television, which is not governed by the Theatres and Cinemas Act, made that action obsolete; the fact that over half of our population has direct access to the internet through their homes, and that those who can’t get online in their homes can do so in any number of cybercafes (and yes, I do know that they were established for another purpose) renders the banning ridiculous. Theatre and film are the mass communication forms of yesteryear. If we imagine that censorship is the way to protect the morals of the general public, we are losing the battle before we begin.The time has come, I believe, to face the fact that mass communication is no longer controllable, if it ever was. If we are to affect the way in which our children think, we have to engage our rusty reasoning skills and teach them, and ourselves, how to engage critically with information. It is no longer possible to imagine that public morality can be upheld through its control. No. The unbridled democracy of the World Wide Web means that our future relies – shock! surprise! – on our mastering the lost art of thought.

On Fact and Fiction

My recent article on generation property raised at least one very interesting response. The facts were thin on the ground, we were told. Much of what the article covered was fiction. For example, there is no such thing as generation property. The law does not recognize it as fact. Whatever takes place outside the law is illegal. End of story.Know this: Facts are made by people in power.Facts, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, are bits of knowledge or information based on real occurrences, or things that are determined by evidence. But how do we distinguish what is real? How do we decide what constitutes evidence? Do we go by what people say? Or do we wait for someone to write something down, and then rely on that?The common answer to these questions is to assume that it's easy to tell fact from fiction; one is true, and the other is false. We know that one is true because, well, the evidence proves it. Fiction, on the other hand, is a product of the imagination.There's a problem with this assumption. It's this: the very process of writing anything down, whether it be a story that comes from out of your own head or what a witness told you five minutes ago, is fiction.

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