Democracy, ritual, responsibility, and ... (yep) spoiling the ballot, giddily

We live in a democracy. It's not perfect, but we adhere to certain fundamental principles. Like this one: individuals are entitled, even encouraged, to hold widely divergent views. The vigourous debate of those views extends and enriches democratic life.Unfortunately, we tend to avoid that kind of debate. Rather than engaging with opposing ideas, fighting our corners and reviewing our positions based on different points of view, many of our discussions about principles and philosophy take on a personal cast. This happens most often when we wish to divert attention from an argument that we find outrageous or unsettling. Instead of engaging with the divergent idea, we prefer very often to cast "shade". Our general response to such an argument is to tear down the arguer, rather than to dive into the discussion at hand.

As someone observed to me recently, "Bahamians love shade".

And so it works.Here's how it works. Instead of thinking further about the issue, our focus slips to the person talking about the issue, and the more we can think of to discredit that person, the more we imagine the argument has been won.There's another name for this method of discussion. Rhetoricians call it the ad hominem fallacy, and it's a way of not arguing at all.Last weekend, Front Porch took me to task for a number of positions I've apparently taken regarding the Bahamian political process. Now I have no problem with being challenged in an intellectual fashion. As anyone who knows me well will tell you that I find good, old-fashioned debate exhilarating. At the same time, though, I find the refusal to debate ideas by choosing to discredit the person putting forward the ideas lazy, disingenuous, and weak.

(Notice what I just did there? I dismissed the ad hominem argument in an ad hominem way. Instead of showing what was wrong with it, I just described it, using a string of adjectives. But I didn't demonstrate why the ad hominem argument is weak or lazy. I just said that it was. At the end of the day, you believed me, or you didn't, but not because of any evidence. You believed me or you didn't probably because you like me, or you don't—or else you just took the adjectives on face value. Which you shouldn't, because adjectives are very slippery, lightweight words which, in an argument, all too often say more about the person using them than about the thing they're used to describe.)

But there's a better way to argue.Let's have a look at what Simon appears to have disliked about my political stances. There were a number of issues that offended. Some of them have some history to them—statements I made before the 2012 election—and some of them have a measure of currency.Specifically, they were:

  • Policy and political rallies;
  • The role of minority governments;
  • The role of representative governments;
  • The spoil the ballot campaign; and
  • The election of Bahamian Senators.

I'm going to deal with the first one, the one which stretches all the way back to 2012, in this post. I'll save the other four for another post. One which won't be quite so giddy. It'll probably be insipid instead.Hyperbolic irresponsibility & woeful uninformationSo. Here's the first dismissal:

Before the last election, Bethel engaged in the sort of hyperbolic irresponsibility that one might expect from someone woefully uninformed. She noted that she heard nothing about policy at political rallies.

She was dead wrong.

Simon, Front Porch, "The Rituals of Democracy", April 13 2017,emphasis added to highlight adjectival phrasesLet's see what I actually did say.

I have heard absolutely nothing from any party about what the future holds. The PLP has crafted some very general principles for the next few years, but these, when decoded, seem to amount to a reinstatement of what was in the works between 2002 and 2007 when they were in power. The FNM has focussed very much on vague generalities like “proven leadership” and “deliverance”, and what has been done, largely in material, infrastructural terms, in the very recent past ... The DNA speaks in broad terms, pushing the buttons that they feel gain them support, but not showing any real coherent ideology about which their philosophy has been crafted.

("Elections—and beyond", April 11, 2012)

According to Simon, both Christie and Ingraham contradicted these statements by offering "policy and programmatic ideas in a variety of areas." Well, OK. I'm going to guess Simon and I have different definitions of policy and programme, and we could agree to disagree—if that was all there was to it.But that's not the issue at hand. Simon went further. Rather than focussing on the idea of political rallies, Simon chose to comment on my professional competence: "It was odd that as an anthropologist she could not, or refused to, understand the brilliance of the political rally as a ritual of democracy."This extends the fallacy beyond the ad hominem attack into the realm of the strawman argument—because, had I been interested in the anthropological function of political rallies, I would have talked about it. For political rallies are, as Simon quite rightly says, an important part of political ritual. But important as rallies are, their function does not make much room for discussions of policy and programme.Here's what Simon doesn't say about the anthropological approach to the ritual function served by the political rally. The ritual of the political rally uses revelry and fun to build bonds among potential supporters. When people allow themselves to be caught up in the euphoria of the moment, they engage in something anthropologists call communitasa kind of group bonding that doesn't come from any objective similarity among the people involved or any objective coherence to what they are being told in the process, but from the collective activity they're participating in. In this situation, the action is what matters about the ritual, not the content. It engages humans at the level of the body, not the mind, and so what is said matters less than how it is said Rhythmic speaking, call and response, catch phrases, bombastic delivery—these are what count.In other words: had I been talking anthropologically, I would have said that the purpose of the political rally is not to offer or discuss policy or programmes. A good rally is like a party or a show; if policy or programmes are mentioned, they have to be offered in such a way that they don't break the mood. So I'll accept that Christie and Ingraham offered policy and programmatic ideas in 2012. I'm not so sure that anyone really heard them. If the rallies were successful (and they were), they were not supposed to.My criticism was not of the lack of policy at political rallies. It related to the lack of vision anywhere in the 2012 campaign. The Plan and the Manifesto and the DNA's contract looked great to be sure, but that's not the kind of vision I was thinking about. Rather, I was looking for an articulation of the kind of Bahamas we would be living in in twenty or thirty years' time, and could not find it anywhere. I wasn't looking for it at the rallies. But I wanted something else—some online address by a party leader to outline and explain that party's vision of the future, some acknowledgement of where we were in 2012 and how we were going to change direction and move in a different one, even some recognition of the fact that we were now in a 21st century, digital world and analogue solutions were just not going to cut it anymore. And there was nothing. Nada. Except, perhaps, shuffles, sidestepping, and holograms.As I'm being castigated not only for hyperbole but also for woeful uninformation, it might be worth looking at what else is contained in that same blog post in April 2012 from the perspective of April 2017 (the emphasis is added). If anyone is still doubtful about why, in this election, I am considering spoiling my ballot, here's what I said five years ago, almost to the day.

I’m preparing for five more years of struggle, no matter who wins or doesn’t win this election; for five more years of escalating violence in our society; for five more years of a contracting economy, traffic problems, and decreasing revenues. I’m preparing for five more years of governmental desperation, of prostitution of the country to the biggest donor (China seems to be the crowd favourite right now), of undereducation and of brain drain, no matter who wins.

("Elections—and beyond", April 11, 2012)emphasis added to highlight the elementsthat maybe weren't quite so woefully uniformedFive years later, those words seem almost prophetic. (They weren't; they were just the logical outcome of the lack of vision/policy/programmes that plagued the 2012 elections). Check back in a couple of days to find out more about my stellar and breathtaking ignorance. But for now, cheers. 

Telling the difference: Junkanoo vs Carnival

One of the most infuriating and insidious ideas that I have heard bandied about in the wake of this weekend's mega-party aka Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival is the idea that carnival is the natural evolution of Junkanoo. It's the kind of statement that leaves me (momentarily) speechless, and leads me to wonder how on earth any red-blooded Bahamian could even form his or her mouth to make it. But it reveals the depth of the ignorance about ourselves that we as a society have cultivated; and the general (could it be stunned?) silence on the part of the Junkanoo community suggests to me that even the junkanoo participants themselves don't know the difference. Gus Cooper is dead, after all, and Vola Francis is complicit in the introduction of Carnival to our shores, so those people who knew and who underlined the difference all my lifetime are silent now. People are happily burbling on about carnival being Junkanoo's next incarnation, about us "all being Africans, right?", about how carnival is the next stage in the development of Bahamian culture.

So gather round, children. I'm going to tell you a story. If you don't want to accept it, that's fine by me; but I assure you that the story I am going to tell is supported by the kinds of facts you can, if you want, check for yourselves. You can check them if you like by visiting the Bahamas Archives and digging through the newspapers on an annual basis around Christmastime (as I have done); you can follow up with visits to the American Library of Congress that documents these things, or by going to the Trinidad National Museum and examining the Carnival display there; or by going to New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro to read what they have to say; or you could do a little digging on the web to find out what Carnival is (but don't trust a thing that the internet has to say about Junkanoo). Just don't take for granted that what someone told you in primary school or on the radio has a modicum of truth. It's probably fiction of the highest order.

First, a little history. We all know the story of Columbus. But we may not all still be so aware of consequences of the engine he set in motion: the expansion of Europe into all of the spaces of the world, the depopulation of the islands of the  Caribbean, the repopulation of them with a motley crew of Europeans in the first instance, Africans in the second, and after the enslavement of those Africans, East Indians and people of Chinese descent. The age of European empires changed the population and the cultures of our region in ways we need to understand if we want to talk about Junkanoo and Carnival in the same breath.

Just about one hundred and fifty years after Columbus came to the Bahamas and introduced slavery and diseases that reduced the population of the Lucayans he met here to a fragment of their original size, the islands were settled by a different set of Europeans. These people called themselves the Eleutheran Adventurers, and unlike Columbus, who represented the Mediterranean, Catholic world, the settlers of The Bahamas were from the very inception Protestant and British. There are few other Caribbean islands which have this distinction. Bermuda is one; Barbados another; but most of the other islands had a Catholic presence in their histories, and many English speaking Caribbean countries (including Trinidad) changed hands from the Catholic French or Spanish to the British. This part of our imperial history is critical to understanding where the differences between Junkanoo and Carnival lie.

Now, a word about empires. We live in a postcolonial world, and so we may no longer be aware of the critical impressions made on our territories by the European powers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries; but those impressions, established over four hundred years, resonate today and cannot be overlooked. There were three major imperial powers that held control over the Caribbean region, and their influence continues even today in the languages we speak, the social structures we inherit, and—importantly—in the cultural practices we celebrate. The major ones were Spain, France, and Great Britain.

Now. Spain and France both held indigenous celebrations that they identified as carnivals. These celebrations had pagan roots, and they were linked with the spring and with Easter or Lent, and they were all practised in a similar way: they celebrated fertility, sexuality and the disruption of the regular social order by dancing in the streets for several days at a time, by putting on masks and costumes, and by turning society upside down. These were European celebrations, and the French, Spanish and Dutch settlers took them with them to their Caribbean colonies.For those who are interested, this is where the Catholic carnivals got their names. Most of these festivals are linked with the weekend directly preceding Lent (the forty days of fasting that leads up to Easter). The Catholic method of preparing for Lent, during which meat was not eaten, sex was shunned, and parties were cancelled in preparation for the death and resurrection of Christ, was to indulge in all of those sins and vices they would not be having for the next six weeks. The word "carnival" comes from the Latin carne (meat) and vale (farewell); and the other name given to this time, Mardi Gras, is the French for "Fat Tuesday", indicating that on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the tradition was to indulge in as many sweet things as one could.

The British, on the other hand, having broken with the Catholic church some time before they began to assemble their empire, had done away with this habit. Perhaps in an effort to set themselves apart from the Europeans and to ensure that they were no longer governed by the Catholic Popes, the British were beginning to focus their attention on Christmas as the main holiday in their Christian calendar. Easter was celebrated, and Lent observed, but the revelry associated with the pre-Lenten season was not part of the British customs by the time they moved into the Caribbean. The settlers' great feast took place at Christmas.

As the European empires grew—as they began to build them, let us be frank, on the backs of the forced labour of millions of kidnapped and enslaved Africans—these differences became entrenched. What was more, they were passed onto the people they enslaved. And here is the critical point. The Africans, too, had festivals and rituals that did similar things with costumes and role reversals that the Europeans did; but because the Africans came from many different places and because they were stripped of their languages and most of their cultural heritage by the systematic cruelties of the new slave societies, it is not as easy for us to identify what those rituals were as it is for us to name the practices of the Europeans. Still; even the enslaved Africans were given one or two days off a year. But with a difference.

In the Catholic empire, the masters celebrated their carnivals as they had done in their homes in Europe. The Africans were given the same holidays as the masters took, and because the carnival traditions, especially those in France and Spain, involved servants playing masters and masters playing servants, those Africans may have even been encouraged to take part in the carnivals. Whatever. Carnival as we know it today grew out of these cross-participations, out of this joining together of the Africans and the Europeans for these few days. Throughout the period of slavery, Carnival was celebrated by both. In the Americas, the carnivals that grew and flourished—those that took place in New Orleans, in Rio de Janeiro, and in Port of Spain, Trinidad—were influenced in music, dance and costuming by the Africans, but were not African in origin. Rather, they became what anthropologists and folklorists refer to as syncretistic celebrations. Syncretism is the word we give to an activity that combines African and European elements in such a way that the African is sometimes hidden, but still influential. The languages we speak in the Caribbean are products of this syncretism; many of the Caribbean religions—shango, santeria, vodoun—are similarly syncretistic with Roman Catholicism; and carnival/carnaval/Mardi Gras are syncretic festivals.

In the British empire, however, things were different. The enslaved people were given three days' holiday at Christmas. Rather than joining the masters in a big fete (the word is French, and it means festival or party), the enslaved celebrated in their own, African-based way. For whatever reason (we do not know the origin of the word, but the myth of the slave who started the festival is almost certainly a fabrication) these celebrations, which appeared across the British Americas, were called jankunuor, to use the British spelling which was used until the end of the twentieth century, John Canoe. They were also called masqueraders and gombeys. They came out at Christmas; they had very particular characters and dances; and they were performed almost exclusively to percussive instruments—drums, bells, and scrapers. Whistles and shells added different levels to the rhythms, but the masquerades are almost always percussive.

The jankunu festivals of the New World, then, are not syncretic festivals, as Carnival. They are African in character; they are linked with Christmas, not with Lent, and they are products of the British presence in the Caribbean. They also tend to be far more serious, even frightening, events than Carnival tends to be. There are definite similarities between the jankunu festivals and the carnivals: the masks, the costumes and the dancing are among them, but there the similarity stops. In almost every case, Carnival took place in conjunction with the European masters, and jankunu took place in isolation from them.

The one exception during slavery was Jamaica, the richest sugar colony, where the Europeans splurged at Christmas and mounted a series of events as part of their jonkonnu festivals that suggested that the Jamaican planters were familiar with the Mardi Gras balls of New Orleans. It is partly because of Jamaica's centrality as a sugar island that jonkonnu was first described there; but the fact that it was first recorded in writing in Jamaica should not be assumed to mean that what we called Junkanoo began there and travelled to the rest of the Caribbean. It makes more sense to see Junkanoo as a simultaneous resurrection of West African kono (harvest) festivals across the Americas, and this would help to explain the occurrence throughout the jankunu new world of figures of animals, cowbells, and the like, while in Carnival many of the carnival characters have connections with European figures.What is also important to recognize is that in almost every territory where jankunu was celebrated—except The Bahamas and Belize—jankunu has all but disappeared. The John Kuners of the Carolinas are gone altogether. The Gombeys of Bermuda are struggling to survive. In Jamaica, the jonkonnu figures appear at Christmas but they do not attract a whole lot of attention. In the southern Caribbean, the Christmas masqueraders appear, but they do not get the same focus or merit the same admiration as the carnivals that take place in those same territories. Only in Belize, where what we call jankunu is practised as a central part of being Garifuna (or Black Carib), is it flourishing. And in The Bahamas, of course—where its evolution into a major street festival that can rival and even defeat Carnival has yet to be wholly explained.

And so: our Junkanoo may not be indigenous, but it is certainly unique. It alone of all the jankunu festivals has not only survived, but grown, and moreover has become a fundamental marker of Bahamian identity. (People from the Turks and Caicos might claim that their Junkanoo has also survived, but I would argue that their Junkanoo and our Junkanoo are part and parcel of the same phenomenon.) For some scholars, like Ken Bilby who gave what we used to call John Canoe the name that I've been using throughout, what we have done to Junkanoo is to move it from its core roots in African spiritual ancestral connections by engaging in a conscious hybridization of our own. But the fact remains that our Junkanoo is the one of all the John Canoes in the Americas to have grown stronger and to flourish.

Until now, perhaps.

So where do we get the idea that there is no difference between Junkanoo and Carnival, that Carnival is an "evolution" of Junkanoo? The late twentieth century, which is the period of independence, has been a time in which Junkanoo artists and practitioners sought eagerly to make connections with others who were doing similar things throughout the Americas. Because of the African contributions to all these festivals, the visual  aspects of Mardi Gras, Trinidad Carnival and Junkanoo have many connections, and during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Junkanoo leaders and participants travelled throughout the Catholic world learning and borrowing and adopting and fuelling innovation in the Junkanoo parade. But until now, we never mixed up the two festivals. Until now we understood that we could borrow aesthetic and structural elements, we could learn from one another, but we did not have to think that one was the junior of the other.

Until now, we have understood what Vola Francis himself has always observed, that Junkanoo is a spirit. There is more truth in that statement than he understood; for the John Canoe festivals, unlike Carnival, are almost certainly derived from the African practices of connecting with the ancestors. This is why our festival is linked with the nighttime, and why severing that link may also be dangerous. Rather than coming from the European habit of saying goodbye to the flesh, there is something transformative and spiritual in the Junkanoo that we practice. (People will argue with me that there is something transformative about Carnival too, and they will be right, but bear with me here.) As Gus Cooper was always fond of saying, there were two fundamental and critical elements that separated Carnival and Junkanoo. The first was that Junkanoo participants make their own costumes. They do not buy them. The process of making them is a critical one, and one that is linked deeply and ancestrally with this invocation of a spirit. It is an African spirit, and it is something that has nourished us from our beginnings. It cannot be replaced by the purchasing of a feathered costume, a commodity. That is play-acting; what Junkanoo does is akin to worship.

And the second one is that Junkanoo performers play their own music, live, on their feet, and dance while they do so. They do not have canned music played for them; they make their own. This custom, that of making one's own costume and playing one's own music, is fundamental to the Junkanoo world; it is part, too, of what links Junkanoo to its African, rather than its European, roots. And Junkanoo music is a serious thing. Traditional Junkanoo instruments (which do NOT include horns, sorry) have always been both musical instruments and weapons of war. Before there was a competition there were physical confrontations on the street. That these confrontations were ritualized, often musicalized, is immaterial. Carnival has always privileged its elements of play. Junkanoo has always privileged the rhetoric of war.

Now we may not like these differences. We may want to ignore them, or to downplay them, or to wish them away. Nevertheless, they are there. Junkanoo and Carnival are not the same thing. One is not an evolution of the other. They come from different roots, although they look similar on the surface, and they convey different meanings. Our society may well have room for both of them. But let us have no more discussions that try to pretend that they are one and the same. They are, most emphatically, not.