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Is T&T a country, or a society masquerading as one?
Posted: Tuesday, August 17, 2010

THE EDITOR: I've lived abroad for several decades; a circumstance arguably both hindrance and help when assessing T&T today. However, I've never lost a sense of interest in, nor of obligation to the place where I was born, educated, and given the drive to succeed wherever I might later live, move, and have my being.

Thus, a teacher now retired and author, I've understood that whatever cosmetic refinements I acquired in my new homeland of Canada, I'd initially received the firm foundation in T&T. Canada, for its own part a country which I also dearly love, is thereby the litmus polity by which I assess T&T.

One question, an impulse for this assessment: Is T&T a country, or a society masquerading as one? Also, do the national cultural sentiments more reflect the declining expectations of burlesque, or the heightening values of an opera? Whether one wishes it so or not, these questions are unavoidably loaded and conclusive.

They come from viewing such T&T productions as the Parliamentary debates and carnival. They also come from statements by politicians, and from what in the media and other public fora, are issues; for example, that of crime and punishments.

It is fair to consider, too, how Canada and Canadians compare.

Canada has changed dramatically from the mid-fifties when with officially racist practices based on "Keep Canada White" Immigration policies, West Indians and African-Canadians led the struggle to change these. To its credit, not only did Canadians–especially the newer ones–embrace these changes, but the country's leadership went further.

They enshrined in the Federal Constitution, equity-enhancing policies which officially allow anyone to remain good Canadians while also embracing whatever former national identities they have. One didn't have to fly explicit flags of patriotism to be implicitly patriotic and fully Canadian.

These multi-cultural policies, however, contained inherent disparities. One is that while the constitution guarantees equal opportunity for all Canadians, equal opportunity is not synonymous with, nor to be confused with equal accessibility.

To wit, Canada has three different levels of government: Federal, Provincial, and Municipal, through which are the benefits of these policies obtained. However, while government is one thing, Communal governance, in particular, is another. Thus, communities better organized, educated, and financed, leverage access to these benefits, concomitant with their financial and social clout on the institutions, politicians, and media.

Do these similarities and disparities obtain in T&T?

Canada has gained much–myself not withstanding–from T&T. Can T&T gain from Canada ? One of the qualities which Canadians highly esteem is that of being civil, especially in public, among public figures, and by those who carry status. In the T&T of my forebears–born in Laventille and raised in Morvant–this was called, having decorum.

Thus, while Canadian politicians can be as raucous as any other, it can make less electable any politician who referred to another–at least in public–as a "sewer rat"; or on some national debate, for example one on Capital Punishment, speak of "popping the necks" of criminals.

I begin with the issue of civility. This is because, this quality occupies one end of the social spectrum on which at the other end, is found caring and compassion. These sentiments are akin to those of discipline, production and tolerance.

Regardless of how such qualities might be viewed given the barbarism of some criminal acts, no society and country is ever diminished or weakened by being more civil, caring, and compassionate. For without these cornerstone sensibilities, laws passed will not be just, reasonable, nor enforceable.

Moreover, for those who decry necessary and effective assistance to disadvantaged children, for example, those who by an accident of childbirth are born in areas considered undesirable, such short-sighted opposition and lack of corrective policies will not create a more wholesome society. Such children, not taken care of today, can possibly return tomorrow to take care of the society, and with a callousness equally matching any initial lack of foresight. The well-being of a society and country is not guaranteed by happenstance, nor prejudice, but by incisive and broadguaged policies implemented.

Another expectation with which I grew as a boy was that of volunteerism. Some modern forms of technology have undermined this practice. Volunteerism is, nonetheless, the highest expression of patriotism possible in any society. For one thing, volunteerism genuflects, not to perks, but to responsibilities. It performs essentials that neither government nor beaurocracy can. It ensures inter-generational regard, the sharing of skills not otherwise available, and the imparting of a mutual sense of self-worth. In addition, a volunteer, diligent wherever she might be, is at least an equally diligent national wherever employed, or called to professional service.

Here, too can the private sector play a more meaningful and effective role than government. Employees can be allowed time and experience to be shared with others, and not necessarily for PR purposes under the rubric of the corporation. Doing good, as my mother would say, is its own blessings multiplied galore.

One of the cultural expressions which give T&T both its national and its international identity are those of calypso and of carnival. These are unmatched in impact elsewhere, and are the standards by which all others judge, or are judged in these cultural enterprises.

However, the local standards, especially of carnival, have diminished. They are no longer expected to be spell-binding creations by artistes, but crass bargains from artisans. Carnival is also infused into the national modus operandi of T&T. For example, viewing the country's Parliamentary debates, one can conclude that Parliament is two mas camps with government and opposition, competing band leaders.

There is also the picong–not to be frowned upon elsewhere given its effectiveness as social safety-valve–the mauvais langue, the soap opera exposes, all trumping decorum, productivity and policy.

Carnival, as aforementioned, has thus become a cultural mirror reflecting how Parliament functions, and why not? It is now a perennial enterprise staged between Ash Wednesdays through Ash Wednesdays. In some other places where it is imitated, as a former art form, carnival's lack of creativity can be benchmarked to the level that it has become a form of public pornography. In a world in which having a sense of shame is now seen as a liability for societal advancement, is T&T vulnerable, in extremis?

Governing thus by melodrama is one thing. In fact, T&T is neither unusual here nor the worst among practitioners. The US has a new drama every Monday morning, to the extent that not only is it become a country deeply divided against itself, but it has also become ungovernable. When not even a country's prisons function, what other institution can?

For T&T, given its grave needs, racial divisions, uncertain future, and the blatantly expected practice of governance by partisan connections, trying thus to run a country does no one any good, neither government, opposition, the society, nor the future.

One area wherein to see the level of expectations a people have of themselves, their country and its laws is their behaviour on their roadways. Traffic laws are the ones most likely to be broken or kept by more of the society, daily than are any other body of laws. Therefore, along with the attitudes either of regard or of disregard to the laws by those responsible for implementing them, a taxi that runs red lights, and with passengers who neither complain nor oppose, says more about the country, its laws, and potential for crime than does any other practice.

A Canadian, by comparison is defined in places like New York, as a pedestrian who, at midnight at an empty intersection will not cross against the red.

Canadians, too, do not lament repeatedly about their country's failings. In T&T one cannot have a conversation with another person without the issue of crime coming up. No criminal in T&T has ever murdered fifty women, and more. A Canadian will more likely speak of the country's rivers, wildlife, weather, etc.

Finally, elected politicians usually reflect the aspirations, attitudes and behaviours of the electorate. However, they must not be among those subsequently contribute to the decline of morality in public affairs, and of disregard for the laws, and constitution. For if one cannot keep faith with one's constitution, and encourage others so to do, with what else can one keep faith? And remain a country!

Lennox V. Farrell,
Ontario Canada

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