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 the Neighbourhood

In Winston Saunders' quartet of plays, The Nehemiah Chronicles, the main character, an old man who has remained in his neighbourhood throughout a number of decades, talks to an invisible reporter about the rise in crime around him and how he feels unsafe in the home where he once was secure. In the past he's always known his neighbours. He disciplined their children, and helped to raise a society of youngsters who respected authority and one another, and who made sensible contributions to their country and countrymen.He blames the current state of the nation on the growth of the sudivision, where fences and walls and back gardens have replaced front porches and shared yards, where the entire population leaves their houses standing empty during the day, and where at night no one knows the people who live next door.In the suburbs, he says, crime flourishes because nobody knows or cares enough about one another to prevent or stop it. People can be burgled or attacked or murdered in the home next door or across the street without the knowledge of those nearby. In the inner city -- in the ghetto, Over the Hill, or in what was once the neighbourhood, people can be burgled or attacked or murdered in the home next door without the interference of those nearby, because all the connections that once existed have been broken.And he has a point.The neighbourhood -- that locale which is a citizen's larger home, where you can go next door or across the street to borrow a cup of rice or sugar, where you can share child care and walk to the shop and remind yourself of the humanity of strangers -- is dying in Nassau. It is not coincidental, I believe, that violence against other people is prevalent. We don't know one another, and our upbringing in subdivisions behind walls and windows, has taught us to suspect other people, not respect them. We no longer know how to talk to strangers, much less how to behave.There are lots of thoughts about why this is. But I'm going to suggest that one of the root issues is a question of town planning. We appear to believe that urban development must follow a certain path, that when a neighbourhood ages and people begin to die off, what must follow is the conversion of that space into commercial properties.Our town planning appears to follow this model, and implements without question the idea of commercial rezoning in older urban neighbourhoods. All too often the wishes of the residents of those areas are overlooked or ignored; perhaps the assumption is that in the long run it is good for them, as they can sell their properties at commercial prices and everyone ultimately benefits.There's something to be said for this approach. It has its short-term advantages. Most of these accrue to individual businessmen and real estate agencies, many of whom come from outside the area. As properties change hands, speculators and businessmen snap them up at residential prices, and resell them or develop them as commercial properties, sometimes exploiting the changing nature of the neighbourhood to get the most value from their dollar -- using residential offsets for commercial properties, for instance. The profits they make are enviable.But they are individual profits, and the long-term result is not so glorious. Those of us who live in changing neighbourhoods all too often find the safety and integrity and character of our areas being threatened by impersonal businesses, whose entire existence is to maximize the profits of their owners, and not to contribute to the life of the community. As this commercial development spreads, residents who have been able to live good lives at reasonable prices are forced to move out.This again is good for developers, who can create more and more subdivisions further and further away from our business centres where prices are high, facades are sophisticated, behind walls and fences and, nowadays, gates, where buyers pay a high price for privacy. It's not so good for those us who have become the victims of commerce. And in the long run, it's not so good for the economy of us all.Because we haven't considered the downsides. In the first place, many of the newer subdivisions are bereft of commercial activity, which means that for even the simplest need one must get into one's car and drive to the nearest shop or series of shops. This costs money and creates traffic and makes the entire population unhealthier, more stressed-out, more car-bound. In the second, the privacy for which we have paid so much is often overwhelming, and provides very little real security at all. In the neighbourhood we have neighbours to watch out for us and our property; in the subdivisions we must rely on burglar bars and alarm systems and our faith in God, and in the gated communities we pay money to a private security company to do what our neighbours did for free.In the USA and Canada, where this trend happened forty years ago, they have learned the lesson we are about to ignore right now. The "redevelopment" of neighbourhoods into commercial "centres" doesn't work. By moving the residents out of the neighbourhood, the cost of living goes up for everyone concerned -- the businesses included. Residents are also customers, and they will gravitate to those businesses that are the closest to their homes. Business follows people, not the other way round; and so the cost of doing business is similarly affected. Security, transportation, advertising -- all these costs escalate, the result of moving people away from neighbourhoods when zoning is exclusive.In North America, the new trend is towards mixed zoning. In short, they're recreating neighbourhoods. In The Bahamas, where we have the opportunity to rescue the ones that still exist, residents must be given equal footing with developers. Town Planning must make it a policy to consider the needs and wishes of the neighbourhood before approving any new development that will affect the character and the quality of life in the area. We should get to choose which businesses we want to allow next door. That way, we will strengthen the sustainability of business, increase our quality of life, and help control the cost of basic living.

Some useful links:New Urbanism (WikiPedia article)Defining Elements of New UrbanismNew Urbanism webpageThe cost of urban sprawl

On Hate

A band of youths barricade the small house in which a Haitian man lives, and set fire to it so that he burns to death inside. Two young men grab a third from a bar, take him out to the country, beat him with a pistol because he is a homosexual, and tie him to a fence post to die. A gang of Hutu citizens drag their Tutsi neighbours out of their houses, carry them to a nearby field, and chop them to death with machetes. A group of Arabs hijack planes and fly them into a pair of tall buildings full of Westerners just arriving for work.These are all examples of the destructive nature of hate. I could go on, but I won’t, at least not for now. Instead, I want to talk about hate itself. I want to talk about it because in all our conversations — on the radio, in the newspapers, in the street, and, apparently, in the church — that is one thing that we don’t seem to talk about much. We say many things are taboo — homosexuality, godlessness, sin, and too much mixing with foreign elements for starters. The one thing we don’t seem to think is taboo is hate.Before I go much further, let me say that the hate I am talking about is the kind of hate that has no real reason for its existence. It’s the kind of hate that visits evil on other human beings not because of what they have done, but because of who they are or what they stand for. Where love wishes the best for another human being, and does all it can to build that person up, hate works in the opposite direction, doing what is both easier and more common — actively tearing down. And for all the talk of the Bahamas' being a Christian nation, there seems a whole lot of this kind of hate going around.Could the reason for this be that the word “hate” doesn’t come up all that frequently in the Bible? No; a quick look through my own concordance reveals many entries for the word and its derivatives. Among them are some strong directives in Leviticus 19 — "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him", and Matthew 5 — "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Perhaps the word “hate” isn’t as prominent in Scripture as other words, words like “homosexuality” or “foreigners"? No; I turned to my concordance and counted. The New International Version offers one entry for “homosexual” or “homosexuality” (the King James Version has none). The same goes for “foreigners” — four entries for them in the King James, eight in the New International Version. “Hate” and its variants took up a column or two.So why is hatred becoming a Bahamian habit?I ask because in almost every instance of hate-mongering that I come across, there is also the refrain "The Bahamas is a Christian nation". Now I find this most puzzling. I was taught that we would know our fellow Christians by their fruits (Matthew 7), and I read in Galatians that the fruits of the spirit are love, joyfulness (joy), peace, patience (long-suffering), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness (meekness), and self-control (temperance). Not hate.Hatred manifests itself in a variety of ways. It takes shape in the very small and mundane — in the way we treat children, for instance, ours and other people's. I'm not talking about legitimate discipline here, corporal or otherwise. I'm talking about the active tearing down of our children's psyches by words or actions or worse. One student at the College of the Bahamas wrote about how her mother constantly belittled her, so much so that she became an underachiever, a person who was unable to trust that anything she did had any value at all; her sister, tired of being told that she could never be anything but a slut, ended by striking her own mother. It is not our actions, very often, but the attitudes that we hold that do the most damage; the abuse that many parents heap upon their children may or may not physical, but it is far too often psychic, and it lasts far longer than the sting of the switch.We have become experts at condemning the homosexuals among us, for instance, or at shunning people we learn are living with AIDS, and we appear to be safe in our open hatred of these people. No matter how much we proclaim that we are "loving the sinner but hating the sin", our behaviour, from the calling down of judgement from heaven upon them to our refusal to handle objects that they have touched, edifies nothing, but rather works to destroy individuals' selves. There is no love in that.Often we behave in ways we ought to be able to recognize from our own history as slaves and servants. When we ascribe certain characteristics to whole nations of people — when we suggest that Haitians are inherently dirty, too unclean to use our cups and plates if we deign to serve them food, or when we imply that the tragedies of Pigeon Pea and The Mud were the result of the inhabitants' own nastiness — we are replaying the hatred generated by our own slave past. The way in which we choose to treat criminals has a similar genesis. Many of us seem to think that the housing of captured lawbreakers in a prison that has been listed internationally as inhumane is insufficient punishment, and that we ought to add regular beatings or hangings to the mix. This is not discipline. It is hatred, and we learned it from our ancestors or our masters.I believe our propensity towards hatred in the Bahamas stems from the fact that we have not yet learned to love ourselves, black and white alike. If we are black, we grapple with what we consider to be the shame of being descended from slaves; if we are white, we must live with the reality that our forefathers participated in a dehumanizing and evil institution. (Some of us who are black should learn to accept that reality as well; a fair number Free Black and Coloured Bahamians were slaveowners themselves.) Black and white, we still bear the scars of our slave past. According to Frantz Fanon, a psychologist from Martinique who studied the personality of the colonized individual, there are two major side effects of oppression. One is the tendency of the oppressed to want to ape the habits and mannerisms of the oppressor, finding in them both superiority and power. The other is a turning of the frustration born of that oppression against oneself. In the expressions of hatred that I hear so often on the radio and read far too regularly in the press I hear both. Our history has perpetuated hatred. Racism has made us racists against Haitians and other immigrants; the brutality of slavery lives on in our prisons and even in our homes. Perhaps we so loudly proclaim ourselves "Christian" in a desperate attempt to find something to love in ourselves.But in this, I believe, we miss the point. The Christ I serve did not come to earth in order to legitimize the hatred we humans have visited one upon the other since the dawn of time. His gospel is a message of love. This is why, until I see acts of love, not hate, proceeding from the faithful among us, or hear words that build up rather than tear down, I will not be buying the oh-so-Bahamian lie that our nation is a Christian nation.

On Merit

Connections, they say, are everything in The Bahamas. They tell you who you are, where you stand in society, what you can do, how high you can climb. The person with connections is rich indeed. The person without --Well, let's say they better have a Green Card.There are many people who believe that a society built on connections is a corrupt society, one in which social ties lead to success. When who you know is more important to your positioning than what you know and how well you know it, a society cannot grow, cannot change. It's a sad truth, these people claim, but it's a truth anyway. The society built on connections is one that's bound to fail.Well, I wouldn't go quite that far. I'm an anthropologist after all, and we never begin by assuming that some human activity is unique to any one group of people until we've looked at the facts. And when we look, we realize that connections are equally important elsewhere in the world. In the US, using connections, pulling strings, is known as "networking", and it's well-recognized as being necessary to success. In more traditional societies, such as the African ones which bequeathed to us many of our habits, everyone is related or connected in some way; using one's connections wisely and well is a marker of one's social savvy. In neither place, can pulling strings be considered corrupt; it's the way things are done.There's after all the concept of six degrees of separation, which suggests that everyone in the world is connected within six other people to everyone else in the world. There's even a game that you can play, called "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon", in which players are challenged to find the connection between the actor Kevin Bacon and any other actor people name. The easiest way to do it is by matching movies and their casts. (You can play this game with anybody -- and I'll bet if you do it in The Bahamas in the wake of After the Sunset and Into the Blue you'll find many ordinary Bahamians who are connected to Kevin Bacon in six degrees or less.) Connections are the natural way of life in a society as small and interconnected as ours is, and one is almost stupidly idealistic if one doesn't use the connections one has.But here's the thing.A society isn't built on connections alone. It isn't enough to make contact with our mummy-sister-husband-co'n-boss, who is looking for someone to fill the very vacant post we were looking to fill; once we get there, those connections should melt into the background. Mummy-sister-husband-co'n-boss can't to the job for us; we have to deliver.And that's why it's important for us to talk about merit. It's true we live in a society of connections, and it's true that connections are very important in getting one places in this nation. What's also true, though, is that very often connections are simply barter exchanges. The politician seeking votes doles out favours like candy, and the pastor in search of a greater congregation does the same. What falls by the wayside is the fundamental question of whether the party being served can actually deliver.All too often, you see, the exchange is something that rests on the surface of reality. Men of influence pull strings to get choice positions for their friends and supporters simply because they are friends or supporters or affiliates, acquaintances, constituents, or the children of constituents. Once the string has been pulled the transaction is over. Whether the recipient of the favour can perform in the position is irrelevant; what matters is that the favour has been granted.But societies don’t grow like that.Societies that make no room for merit, that run on connections alone, without any alternative or backup, are indeed liable to fail.You see, men (and women) of influence have one major hurdle to climb, and it's this. Influential people tend to be surrounded by people who are extremely good at using connections, so much so that they have not developed those gifts at the expense of all others. After all, they don't need any other abilities; they have their connections. Thus the people who meet influential men and women on a daily basis are all too often the most destitute, the least innovative, the most dependent, or (perhaps) the most loyal people in the country.They are rarely the best.The best, you must understand are too busy working to make themselves better to need the influence of the great.The sum total of this state of affairs is that if you are capable and hardworking and innovative and creative, you're hardly likely to be considered for the jobs and the projects that people of influence have the ability to offer. If you're good at everything you do but bad at blowing your own horn and worse at allowing other people to blow it for you, you are very likely to slide through the choppy waters of Bahamian society without people noticing you until you're gone. You may never get to speak with a person of influence, because you don't need them. And, sadly enough, they may not learn until too late just how much they need you.And so. Connections are all very well. They're natural, and they're cultural, and they are not limited to The Bahamas. But connections without merit are not enough, especially in a growing society. If the only way a person of ability can get ahead in The Bahamas is by pulling a string or touching their forelock to a VIP, then we are bound to lose many of our best people, who will emigrate, seeking a chance to prove themselves, an objective recognition of their ability, and -- yes -- in all probability, a Green Card.

On the Stopping of Bucks

It wasn't me.It's not my fault.Whatever it is, I didn't do it.We live in a country, or in an era, or in a culture, or in something, where personal responsibility is hard to come by. Very few of us have ever done anything wrong. No. We make mistakes; none of us is perfect. When we transgress, it's always because of some external force. The road was slippery. The tree stepped out in front of us. Our finger slipped on the trigger and we miss and shoot the man. Or, we grow up poor. We didn't have the advantages you have. We don't know no better. The neighbour made us do it. The devil made us do it. God made us do it.We live in a society in which bucks are passed around and around, where if we watch them we are liable to grow dizzy with the movement. If we listen to ourselves, we are all leaves floating in the wind, corks a-bobbing on the sea. We have no volition of our own; we are at the mercy of circumstance.It is a rare, rare thing to find someone who will say, as American President Harry Truman once became famous for saying: the buck stops here.No. Around here, bucks don't often stop. Nothing is ever anyone's fault. We play the politics of blame so well we have almost forgotten how to engage with issues. The result: we become so busy pointing our fingers at one another when we notice problems that we never get around to fixing any of them.Let me begin with the freshest controversy: Junkanoo. It's January, after all. Now I shall say first off that this year has been one of the better ones with regard to blame and finger-pointing — at least so far — because to some degree there are fewer scapegoats around. This year the Junkanoos, particularly the competitors, held a lot of the responsibility for the parades. The Junkanoo Corporation of The Bahamas was given the authority to deal with the training of the judges and the tallying and the administration of the parades, and for the most part things went very well. Except. On Boxing Day, someone overlooked the biggest competitive category at all.Now we must admire the way in which that mistake was handled. The Chairman of the Parades Management Board took full responsibility for it. It may not have been directly his fault, in that he didn't overlook the Overall Group Costume category personally, but he took responsibility for it because it was his job to be responsible for it. Applause, Ken — well done. What he didn't say, but could have, was that the overlooking was a collective thing: that it wasn't something that one person or one group messed up on, but that it was something that happened in an open room in full view of the group observers who had come in to monitor the judging and the tallying of the parade. The Chairman wasn't the only person who had the responsibility of ensuring that the right things were provided to the judges; every group who sent an observer shared in that responsibility. And it would seem to me that because not one of them noticed the error, the responsibility must be shared.That's a concrete example, and a recent one, of how bucks get passed — and how they get stopped. We’re about to enter a two-year period of buck-passing now, and we can prepare ourselves for some spectacular examples. The general elections may not be around the corner, but they're down the road, and already bucks have begun flying around. It's always easy when one is in opposition to point at the weaknesses in the government's actions — and for the government to throw the weaknesses back at the opposition. No problem ever has an origin (beyond the actions of The Other Party) — and no problem has a real solution (beyond the deliverance of The Only Party). Buck-passing at its best.The thing is that reality works against us all. While we're so busy passing the buck — from NJC to Ministry to JCB, or from FNM to PLP to UBP, or from little man to big man to the Devil/God — problems are multiplying. When no one is responsible, everything crumbles.There is a branch of mathematics and physics that argues that no action that is independent, that even the smallest activity has repercussions elsewhere in the world. It's called chaos theory, and it demonstrates that the flap of a butterfly's wing in the Amazon can create tornadoes in the mid-western USA. According to this theory, the most careless, harmless action can have massive results far away. Of course, (and as usual), the scientists are arriving late at a point that theologians have known forever — since Cain, if we go in for the Old Testament. We are our brothers' keepers; we are all responsible for what happens around us. To pass the buck is not to duck responsibility at all; it's to ensure that nothing ever changes, nothing ever improves.Of course, it's not our fault — is it? We exist on the borders of the United States of America, after all. And they had this culture long before us.We can't help it, right?Wrong. As soon as we shoulder the responsibility we all bear for the society in which we live, as soon as we accept the buck, we can help it — and we will.

On Selfishness

Just lately, I've noticed a tendency for us to become selfish, or, at kindest, self-absorbed. You'd think that material prosperity would make a people more generous, not less; surely the more one has, the more one would want to share. But it doesn't appear to work that way. The more we accumulate materially, the more we seem to demand.Here's why I say this. During the passage of the hurricane, which, when it hit the Bahamas, was a strong Category Four, I listened with some disbelief to the people who phoned into radio stations to complain that they had no water or no electricity or (I laughed out loud at this one) no cable service.What struck me was the fundamental selfishness of such observations. The people who called in to complain seemed to have no concept that Bahamians other than themselves have to put their own lives at risk in order to provide such services. And what struck me even more was that the response to these complaints was not the outrage I expected, but an encouragement of them, a discussion of the inability of our utilities to provide Bahamians with the kind of service that Bahamians had come to expect.It was a hurricane, for heaven's sake, a time when safety comes before comfort. Electricity is shut down to keep people from being unnecessarily electrocuted; water is turned off to avoid contamination. In the middle of an act of God, it would seem that prayer is a more appropriate response than gluing oneself to a television screen.I was reminded of the Americans who asked me, when I was a front desk cashier in a local hotel, whether I thought the travel agent would refund them their money because it had rained for the whole time they were in the Bahamas. Only I tend to forgive tourists more, because, well, they're tourists. And at the time I thought how I never thought I'd hear a Bahamian make such a complaint, because, well, Bahamians know better than to expect the weather to accommodate their whims and desires. But this last storm has proven me wrong.Then there were the people who took advantage of the heavy weather and the desertion of the streets to go and rob businesses, or the men who dressed up as policemen and used the storm to gain entrance to the homes of unsuspecting citizens whom they robbed.It takes a special society, to breed people who prey on others in the midst of misfortune. The nation that produces citizens who find nothing wrong with complaining that they are uncomfortable when others are losing their homes, or with pretending to offer help when all they are intending is harm is a nation in which selfishness rules, in which neighbours mean nothing.Contrast these attitudes to the defiance and the pride demonstrated by the man who must be the greatest leader this region has ever known, no matter whether one agrees with his politics or not — the man who brought first world health and educational standards to a country not 100 years out of slavery — Fidel Castro. In preparing his people for Ivan's onslaught, he declared that he would not accept aid from any country currently levying economic sanctions on Cuba. By being willing to suffer material deprivation for the sake of a principle, he demonstrated to his people that there are things more important than comfort in this world. It's a lesson we Bahamians would do well to learn.You see, self-sufficiency and independence are hard things to come by these days. It's far easier to be materially comfortable and financially dependent on someone else. But there's something to be said for the kind of independence that Castro preaches; for it's one thing to declare oneself politically independent, to have a flag and an anthem and a head of state. But it's quite another to demonstrate oneself willing and able to survive a storm and to look after oneself.We’re very good at waving our flags and donning our colours. But if we can't survive for long without electricity and running water, there's not much to be said about the ability of our nation to survive over time.And survival is the thing at which we Bahamians were once very good. Until only sixty years ago, we were one of the poorest countries in the region. Ours was not a colony that produced profits for Mother England; even white Bahamians were poor. Whatever "superiority" they asserted resided in the colour of their skin, not in the girth of their purses. Despite our poverty, however, we were rich: in selflessness, in community, in our abilitiy to survive. It's a part of our culture that's rapidly disappearing; but it's a part that we would do very well to preserve.You see, it's all very well and good to ask Caricom for help with the rebuilding of Grand Bahama and Abaco in the wake of Frances. But even our northern devastation pales in the face of the decimation of Grenada; and we must remember that Bahamians, by and large, are people with means, and Nassau escaped the worst of the damage. I believe that before we beg others for help, we must offer some ourselves.The good Lord said that it was is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. I begin to understand what exactly He meant. Now I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a Grenadian at this moment, with 90% of the capital damaged, including the hospital, the disaster management headquarters, the parliament buildings, the prison, and the Prime Minister's home. The magnitude of the rebuilding effort boggles my mind. I believe that even though we have suffered our own damages, as the richest nation in Caricom, we must have some obligation, to contribute at least something to the rebuilding of the capital there. I would be a far prouder Bahamian if, while we talked about helping Grand Bahama and Abaco, we spared a thought for and sent a coffer to Grenada and our other neighbours.

On Tiefing

There's an old Bahamian proverb that goes something like this: "Tief tief from tief make God smile."Well, when He looks down upon The Commonwealth of The Bahamas some days, the good Lord must be grinning from ear to ear.I'm not just talking about your typical kind of tiefing here. We all know that certain material possessions are part of the public domain. From flowers on gravesides to toilet paper in offices to new-brand garden furniture, the owners are roving, ready to collect.No.I'm talking about intellectual property here. I'm talking about the tiefing of ideas.This is a concept with which I dealt often when I was a COB lecturer. As a teacher of English, one of my jobs was to assign research essays to students. The process worked like this: students had to go and uncover information about topics that interested them and then write an essay about it. But in so doing they had to be mindful of three things:1. Where they got their information;2. The author of that information;3. Showing where the information stopped and their own ideas began.This proved to be extremely difficult for many. For them, "research" consisted of going to a library or the Archives or the internet and copying verbatim what they found there. Or, better, it meant calling a Bahamian expert on the telephone and asking them everything they knew about a topic, and then writing that down.Sometimes they might be inventive, rearranging the ideas a little bit, quoting one or two passages and incorporating the rest into the body of the paper. Sometimes they would not be inventive at all, but would simply download the information wholesale and submit it as their own work.They'd be hurt and confused when I'd give them a zero for these essays and threaten to report them to the Academic Board.You see, there's such a thing as intellectual property. These days, it's the most lucrative kind of property there is. We live in the information age. Wealth no longer rests in the hands of the persons who own the factories, who move cotton or coal or steel. The Jet Age is long gone; the Concord has been grounded. No longer is it important how fast a person can get from point to point, whether a plane is capable of breaking the sound barrier or not. Even the ability to launch men and women into space is no longer a crucial skill. Whether or not we can travel light years or move at warp speed is immaterial; we can send data at the blink of an eye.Knowledge is most certainly power; and the person who "owns" information is in a powerful position indeed.This is why the stealing of intellectual property is punishable. In college, it's called plagiarism and can get a student expelled from an institution and blackballed by any other. In the real world, it can get a person stripped of his or her degree and fired from his or her job.It can get a person prosecuted for fraud. It can get a person sued, successfully, for breach of copyright, and ordered to pay the owner of the idea whatever a court decides is the appropriate payment.Ideas — and particularly ideas in written form — are in fact commodities that impart power to the owners. In the university, they are the way by which academics make their reputations, and shape their careers; in the marketplace, they provide artists with a way to earn their living. In today's world, those ideas themselves, not to mention the words in which they're expressed, belong to the people who dreamed them up and wrote them down.They are not public. They do not lie there simply for other people who haven't done much thinking about the topic to come along and pick up and present as their own.In the world of the information age, ideas are perhaps the most valuable property anyone can own. This is why stealing someone else's words, or their song, or their tune, or their design, or their movie script, or their dance steps, is so very serious.Here's what really interests me. When we take others' intellectual property and passing them off as our own, we are in fact saying that our ideas aren't worth very much at all. They can't be; otherwise why would we have to tief someone else's? What's more, when we steal others' ideas we seem to suppose that (a) what we're doing is not tiefing, (b) no one will notice that we've copied/downloaded/lifted the idea anyway, and (c) if someone should notice, nobody will care. This supposes that no one's ideas are worth all that much.In a small country like The Bahamas, this is a dangerous state of affairs. The more we go around stealing others' ideas, from their styles of music to their stories to their songs and their words and their designs, the more we are leaving our own ideas open to be stolen. And in this world of globalization, we become more and more vulnerable to that kind of robbery. What we have is valuable because it's unique. And the more time we focus on tiefing from others, the less time we spend guarding our own.After all. You know what they say. Tief tief from tief make God smile.

On Self-Reliance

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege and pleasure of travelling to Cherokee Sound, Abaco, for the rededication of the old schoolhouse there. For those of you who don't know the story, it's an inspiring one. Cherokee Sound is a small settlement, isolated from the rest of Abaco by the fact that until the 1990s the most efficient way to get to it was by boat. Only recently has the settlement been connected to the rest of Abaco by a road, and that, together with the changing economic fortunes of the entire Bahamas, has made it a very prosperous settlement.In the middle of the settlement is an old building -- the Old Schoolhouse, built of limestone with walls easily two feet thick, with buttresses on the side like any good church, and shutters and a roof made of wood. It was built, as near as anyone can tell, during the late 1800s, making it well over a century old. Ten years ago it was decrepit, in much the same shape as too many buildings of that age; the roof was falling in, the doors falling off, and the walls had settled so much that cracks were appearing and some of the buttresses were crumbling. The Ministry of Works marked it down for demolition.But there was something about this schoolhouse that the Ministry of Works -- that indeed most Bahamians -- didn't know. For all the isolation of its community and the insignificance of the settlement, this schoolhouse -- under the leadership of its mid-century schoolmaster, Mr. W. W. Sands -- had turned out some of the best minds in the country, among them Mr. Patrick Bethel, educator extraordinaire.

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On Self-Esteem

There is much talk these days about productivity and quality. In the House of Assembly, parliamentarians are debating a Bill to govern standards in the marketplace. Pundits who are following the state of Bahamian education worry themselves about the performance of our students in our schools. Our Prime Minister expresses much concern on a regular basis about the quality of the work and the training of Bahamian workmen, and so on.The general consensus appears to be that we Bahamians are not productive enough, that we don't perform to the best of our abilities in the workplace, that our standards are lax, that what we produce is not of the highest quality.The concern is not misplaced. It's a global economy in which we exist, and we Bahamians have got to learn to be competitive to survive. But the concern is misdirected.

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On Christian Values

There's a parable that Jesus tells, about the Pharisee and the tax collector who go to the temple. The tax collector, overwhelmed with the knowledge of his sin, bows his head in the presence of God and prays bent over, humbled by his own weakness, asking for mercy. The Pharisee stands nearby, looking at the sinner in scorn. His prayer is different. It's a prayer of praise: Thank You, Lord, that I am not like other men.I've been thinking a lot about that story lately. Everywhere I turn, I hear talk that the Bahamas is a nation "founded on Christian values". A year or so ago, before the Constitutional Commission began holding its public meetings, many discussions took place that invoked the inaccurate concept that the Bahamas is a Christian nation; being "founded on Christian values" is not exactly the same thing.I for one am glad for the distinction.

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On Marriage and Family

You learn something new every day.I would never have guessed how sacred a tradition marriage was to the Bahamian psyche until this past week or so, when the institution discovered more apologists than it can truly handle. I wouldn't talk about the family. All of a sudden we Bahamians are champions of marriage and aficionadi of the nuclear family.Well, child. You coulda fool me.

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On Discipline

Almost a month ago, a group of Chinese acrobats came to Nassau and performed for Bahamian audiences. There were sixteen of them. Their average age was twelve; and they held their Bahamian audiences spellbound with their feats.One night -- the last night of the run, as is typical of performances in Nassau -- the side of the Kendal G. L. Isaacs Gym towards which the acrobats were performing was filled to capacity; there was standing room only, unless we wanted to open up the performance and turn the stage around, and seat people on the opposite side of the gymnasium. The acrobats performed, earning their "oohs" and "aahs". They were not alone; two Bahamian martial arts schools performed as well. In each case the performers demonstrated a level of discipline that was both remarkable and admirable.But the Bahamian audience did not.

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On Mediocrity

When I was a high school teacher, the thing that shocked me more than anything wasn't the rudeness of the students, the wildness of their lifestyles, or the paycheck, or anything that people suggested would shock me. What really shocked me was the fact that I taught students -- bright, articulate students -- whose aim in school was to pass. All they wanted was a 50% for their work, nothing more. They seemed to be quite satisfied with that.In fact, the most frustrating question I've heard as an educator is: "Why you give me this D?" -- as though grades were things I picked out of the sky. My answer -- the answer of most lecturers who "give" Ds -- was always: "I didn't give it; you earned it all by yourself." My question is: if students don't want Ds, why do so many of them work so hard to attain them?

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On Service

I've got a question. Why is it that in this country, service is a dirty word?I'm not talking about the kind of service that we charge money for, the kind of service that makes us a "service" economy -- though I could be. I'm talking about the kind of service that regards it as an inherent part of any blessing to give a bit of it away -- not to the pastor who hooked us up to the Good-Things Pipeline, but to people who have given us nothing, because they have less than we have.I'm talking about loving our neighbours as ourselves.

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On Honour

I've got a colleague at COB who gives his students questions like the following at the beginning of every semester and asks the class to discuss the answers together:1. You find a wallet on the ground. In it are a BEC bill for $80 and four twenty dollar bills. What do you do?2. You just came home from a long day at work and you are starving. Nothing is open, and you are far too tired to cook. You find that your brother has cooked dinner, and you ask him to give you some. He agrees, but says that he wants you to give him your share of your inheritance in return. What do you do?3. You are a bright young person from a poor Family Island home. You want to go to university but you can't afford it. One day you meet a man who invites you to make delivery of a consignment of drugs, and promises you enough money to put you through the first two years of college. What do you do?4. You have been accused of a crime you have not committed, and for which you will be put to death. So far, you have protested your innocence, but no one will believe you. Finally you are told that if you confess your life will be spared, and, even better, if you name your accomplices, you could be set free. You have no accomplices. What do you do?At first glance, it would seem as though these questions are tests of people's honesty. They are, but they also reveal something even more fundamental: the idea of honour, of what an individual stands for. This is an idea that appears to be hopelessly out of date, but it crops up again and again, especially among people who work with the delinquent, the battered, the troubled, the addicted. These professionals call it self-esteem, and suggest it's as rare a commodity as pink pearls in conch shells.

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On Quality

Last Monday the National Art Gallery opened at Villa Doyle. For those of you who don't know, Villa Doyle is the big yellow house at the junction of West Street and West Hill Street, in town, opposite the St Francis' Catholic Cathedral and just up the hill from Educulture.It is the best thing the Bahamian government has given the Bahamian people in a long, long time.Now let me be clear. I'm not talking about the fact that we have an art gallery, that the Bahamian government has established a place where Bahamian artists can showcase their art, although that is fundamental and important. I'm not talking about the institution.I'm talking about its execution.

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On Consideration

When I was sixteen, I had the opportunity to spend two years at the Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific. These were revolutionary years for me. The college was founded on principles of internationalism, something about which we learn very little in this country as a rule, and it had lofty ideals: its ultimate goal, as part of the United World College Movement, was to promote world peace. It did this by offering scholarships to students from all over the world, seeking especially to include young people from countries who were enemies, and making them live together for eighteen months of their lives. The idea, put very simply, was that if you live with someone long enough, and get to understand them, their situation, their lives, you will be less likely to want to blow them off the face of the earth.Now I must confess. I was impressed by all the lofty idealism, and the experience of sharing my life with people from every continent of the globe was unique. But it was not this that changed me so fundamentally.You see, when I was sixteen I was sent to a school that had no rules.

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