Fidel forever!

fidelmanley
Fidel Castro with Jamaica’s Michael Manley in the 1970s

fidelreading

A mountain has died and words are inadequate to describe the loss, the Fidel-shaped hole in the universe we must live with now, but Jamaican songwriter and singer Tanya Stephens has written the most thoughtful, eloquent, hard-hitting tribute you can imagine and it deserves to be read far and wide–

castro
Contributed In this September 6, 2005 photograph, Cuban President Fidel Castro (right) makes a comment to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left), much to the amusement of Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson. The state heads, two now retired and one deceased, were enjoying a moment in between sessions while at the Second PetroCaribe Summit at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

I still remember the almighty roar that went up from the crowd outside the Holy Trinity Cathedral on North Street in Kingston when Fidel Castro alighted from his car and made his way into the Cathedral where the funeral service for Michael Manley was being held. It was 1997. I was in the street outside with the hoi polloi but i heard that even inside the Cathedral, full of VIPs, diplomats and other elites the entire congregation arose applauding when he walked in. Fidel was an inspiration as Tanya explains so eloquently…

Tanya Stephens

November 26, 2016

 He was good or bad depending on who you speak to. I fell in love with the romantic portrayal of the Cuban revolution in high school History class. I couldn’t express that at home. I later took more details into consideration and lost some of my love for the man while exercising empathy for the many refugees who fled the country to seek more favorable socioeconomic conditions elsewhere. Then I went to Cuba and my love was renewed. There’s no human on this planet who gets a perfect score from every other human. What I saw was an education system which works. Healthcare which works. National security which works. We stayed in a rooming house in a ‘ghetto’ in Havana although we could have easily afforded a room in the best hotel, but we wanted to be among the people. I went walking in this ‘ghetto’ after midnight, and the only interactions from locals we attracted were offers to (literally) break bread with us and invitations to come into homes and hang out with them. I dream of a Jamaica close to this.

I could also see that it was a synthetic kind of safety born of fear, but I would pick someone being afraid of the repercussions from committing a crime over everyone being afraid of criminals ANY day.

To all the people whose lives he touched negatively, I hope they and their descendants can somehow find the peace he is now incapable of giving them.

To all the people from all over the world who have benefited from the world leading education and health care industries he sculpted, I hope their gratitude will never wane and it will influence somehow their decisions when electing their own officials.

To all the other Caribbean Government heads, please take a page from his book. One of the good pages. Craft our education and health systems like you ACTUALLY have our interest somewhere in your corrupt hearts.

To those in the Jamaica tourist industry, Cuba has comparable and even better beaches, more points of interest, a more romantic tourism product. Get off your butt and start rebuilding your sector. The sky is not falling but your appeal and worth is!

To my 5th form history teacher Miss Blisseth (hope I spelled correctly) I thank you with all my heart for introducing me to the ONLY living Caribbean legend of my childhood. Shaping young minds is a tough job. We didn’t agree on everything, sometimes we even disagreed aggressively, but I’m grateful for every illusion you shattered and every new thought you introduced.

To Fidel, hope you finally find real peace!

Hard Woman fe Dead

portia


Prince Buster died on September 8 this year, roughly two weeks ago. I remember feeling a deep  sense of loss all day long into the next few days that was exacerbated by the scant attention local media was giving the news. On the day of the latter-day superstar’s death radio and TV newscasts in Jamaica carried it way down in their line-up. None of them even had the sad news as a top three item as far as I recall.

I didn’t know Prince Buster personally. I know that he was a crucial pioneer of the success story that is Jamaican music and I love his music and his swaggering history. When @DahliaHarris said “The way international media is paying tribute to Prince Buster is amazing. We need to teach our youth about our Jamaican legends” I completely agreed. The news of Prince Buster’s death should have led newscasts in Jamaica on that sad day for this was the passing of a legend.

Think about it. Had a paltry politician from the top two rungs of Parliament died it would have led the news here but someone who helped to put Jamaica on the map through its music, someone who inspired so many people worldwide that when you google his death you get a list of tributes published in all the top global media—the New York Times, BBC, The Economist, The UK Guardian, Rolling Stone—no of course not…that’s secondary news in the country of his birth.

The Economist’s tribute described Prince Buster’s life as “a chronicle of the tropical tempest that is modern Jamaica” and ended by invoking his blockbuster Hard Man fe Dead:

“In his 1966 record “Hard Man Fe Dead”, Prince Buster sings the tale of a corpse who steadfastly refuses to die.  It’s an ode to the indomitable spirit of his countrymen—and a fitting tribute to his own legacy:

“Now the procession leads to the cemetery,
The man holler out—don’t you bury me!
You pick him up, you lick him down,
Him bounce right back, what a hard man fe dead.”

It’s at moments like this that you realise there is something seriously askew with the way Jamaican society operates. This lopsidedness also manifests itself in the inability of the country’s bourgeoisie to understand who Portia Simpson Miller is and what she represents to many people in this country. “I’m a hard woman fe dead,” she said when she emerged triumphant from the internal elections of the People’s National Party last weekend, having won 2,471 of 2,669 votes cast by delegates.

This after a mounting campaign in the media to discredit her in the weeks preceding the election, on the grounds that it was time for her to go, particularly as her health seems increasingly to be an issue. The negative campaign only seems to have spurred on the support this grassroots leader enjoys. In 2006 when Portia won the PNP’s leadership election for the first time, with the vast majority of PNP delegates voting for her, it was against the wishes of the majority of the party leadership at Cabinet level, and in Parliament.

Unfortunately for the top leadership they soon realised that none of them could muster similar support from the delegates and thus began a decade of an uneasy coalition between middle class and elite PNP leaders and Portia. Although some of them were involved in the campaign to hasten her departure they have now been told in no uncertain terms by the delegates that she will go, when she, and they, are ready. Without Portia the PNP may never win another election and that is the simple truth of it.

As a wit once observed in response to snarky sniping about Portia Simpson Miller’s lack of higher academic degrees, “Who say Portia don’t have PhD? Portia Have Delegates. seet deh? PhD.” An upper St Andrew friend was bitter about Portia’s re-election as party leader, grumbling that she needs to go as she couldn’t represent the country. Why not, I prodded. “No man, she can’t speak for me,” came back the answer, and implicit in that statement was all the prejudice and disregard too many of us feel towards the grassroots of this country.

The sober truth though, is that neither can Upper St Andrew (and its counterparts) speak for the grassroots any longer. That is why Portia still reigns…and why the passing of Prince Buster should have been front and centre of the news on September 8, 2016. No two ways about that.

(The above is my Gleaner column from September 21, 2016)

Much Law, No Order

We slavishly practice the letter of the law and studiously ignore its spirit, especially if financial blandishments are on offer. As a friend observed on Facebook recently, “I love how TVJ follows an ad for Black Stallion “Bedroom Tonic” with a public service announcement about how the program is rated PG. At 8:50 on a Sunday morning #dobetter”.

At Daggers Drawn: The Broadcasting Commission and Jamaican Popular Culture (updated)

Below is the unedited version of my Gleaner column of Aug. 10, 2016. It seems ever more relevant today now that news has broken that five senior members in Jamaica’s Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) have been fingered in a campaign funds misappropriation scandal. At the same time the police are belatedly continuing an  investigation into the alleged involvement of a senior Jamaican politician from the ruling party in a murder plot years after evidence was provided of wrongdoing.  Meanwhile the Police continues to harrass and arrest citizens for using profane language. The concept of obscenity takes on new meanings in such a context. See my column below:

It’s high time the law against using ‘indecent language’ in public is taken off the books. In a society which acknowledges widespread abuse of power by the Police, the state must remove any unnecessary pretext  lawmen might have for arresting citizens, especially when the so-called crime is absolutely no threat to public order. People should have the right to curse when they are upset, and if Police are breaking the law by cursing at them for no rhyme or reason, yes, citizens should have the right to curse back without being manhandled on the pretext of being arrested.

Had this inane law not been on the books Kay-Ann Lamont and her child would be alive today, the latter all of 4 years old. Her two older children would not have to be passed around from relative to relative like hot potatoes as was reported in the news a few days ago. According to a  newspaper account:

“The summer holiday is a bittersweet period for sisters Gillian Senior, 13, and nine year-old Sabreka Salmon, daughters of Kay-Ann Lamont…For the first time since last Christmas, the sisters played together two Thursdays ago, having become accustomed to a choppy routine after being separated to live with relatives following their mother’s death.”

Lamont’s crime? A policeman overheard her using an expletive after her wallet was stolen on Orange Street where she was shopping for back to school items for her children. In the tussle that followed his decision to arrest her he ended up shooting the 8-months pregnant woman in her head, killing both mother and child instantly. If that isn’t obscene, i’d like to know what is.

Meanwhile criminal charges have been pressed against the Gordon Town woman who greeted profanity from a policeman with profanity but “NO CHARGE FI DI POLICE WHEY DID A BATTA UP DI WOMAN FI NOTHING”. This despite the fact that the policeman involved was caught on video dragging the woman by her hair and generally manhandling her with the kind of gusto and  abandon one has become used to seeing from American police, prompting a #Blacklivesmatter movement in that country.

As an online commenter once said “the culture we have developed seems to be one where there is much law yet no order”. Yet we refuse to reconfigure the legal system inherited from our colonizers, keeping alive archaic laws that have long been consigned to oblivion in the countries where they were first devised. We slavishly practice the letter of the law and studiously ignore its spirit, especially if financial blandishments are on offer. As a friend observed on Facebook recently, “I love how TVJ follows an ad for Black Stallion “Bedroom Tonic” with a public service announcement about how the program is rated PG. At 8:50 on a Sunday morning  #dobetter”.

This is the same spirit in which the government pays lip service to the Paris Agreement it signed some years ago to stick to a Nationally Determined Contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. According to Wikipedia, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) is a term used under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that all countries that signed the UNFCCC were asked to publish in the lead up to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris, France in December 2015. Jamaica did so in November 2015.

Along comes an investor with deep pockets, promising thousands of jobs, and the government is willing to abandon the Paris Agreement and sign on to a 1000MW coal-fired plant to be built by a Chinese company, Jiuquan Iron and Steel (JISCO). As Diana McCaulay, head of Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), often a lone voice in the wilderness, points out:

“A modern coal-fired plant emits 762 kilograms of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated, if there is no CO2 capture. This plant alone would emit roughly 6.7 million tons of CO2 per year, just over half of our 2025 target. Meeting our Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement would become highly unlikely.”

A multitude of sins creep in under cover of blandishments of ‘development’ and ‘progress’. For the government ‘job creation’ translates to votes which must constantly be mustered no matter the cost. What could be more indecent than that? In an eloquent article published by Commonwealth Writers called ‘Giving up on the earth’ McCaulay details the price we are paying globally for reckless abuse of the environment in the name of progress:

“As I write, the world faces 14 straight months of global record breaking warm temperatures, described on many websites in the dispassionate language of science. Disease vectors like mosquitoes are spreading outside their previous latitudes and so are the diseases they carry. Wildfires rage earlier and longer. Land cracks in droughts and is washed away in floods. The largest living structure in the world, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia had its most serious bleaching event ever – roughly 22% of this wonder of the world is dead. All over the world, the people most vulnerable to extreme climate events are displaced, impoverished and die. You think there is a refugee crisis now? Wait until large areas of the globe are uninhabitable. And yet real reductions in greenhouse gases have not been achieved, despite decades of international meetings, agreements and stated good intentions.”

Its high time we paid attention to the spirit of the law and agreements we sign on to, instead of obeying them in letter only. And take that #$%^@ law against indecent language off the books! There is much to curse about.

 

Every Now Has its Before

In Jamaica it should be #Poorlivesmatter not #blacklivesmatter coz some black lives do matter here and the police doing the killing and maiming are just as black as their victims…

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The column below from a couple of weeks ago about the need for a #poorlivesmatter campaign in Jamaica has been getting some attention. #Blacklivesmatter as a rallying call has little traction in Jamaica where if you’re black but middle class or upper class you’re–for all intents and purposes–an honorary white. Social blackness is reserved for those who are black and poor, not just those who may be dark-skinned, regardless of class.

I thought as much when I saw Fabian Thomas’s ‘Black Bodies’ almost a year ago–a play that aimed to “tell the stories and honour the memories of four Jamaicans (Vanessa Kirkland, Jhaneel Goulbourne, Michael Gayle, and Mario Deane) killed by the police or while in police custody” while attempting to draw a somewhat facile connection with the US’s #blacklivesmatter campaign which was then just beginning to gain momentum.

And in a move to rival the truth in strangeness, a very bougie, uptown Kingston nightclub named Fiction invited patrons to come and show their support for #Blacklivesmatter by partying the night away. Fittingly they aroused the wrath of social media with tweeters like Matthew McNaughton @mamcnaughton saying “Never been more disgusted with Jamaica UPT Culture than when I saw this @FictionJamaica flier.” The flier is at the top of this post, my column is below:

Gleaner, July 13, 2016

The #BlackLivesMatter campaign has rightfully been hogging media attention worldwide with American Police being shown up as less respectful of human rights than you would expect from a nation that regularly monitors and penalizes other countries for their alleged violations of these universally agreed on rights. Superficially there appears to be a resemblance to the way Jamaican police behave except for a crucial difference.

Here it’s the intersection of class with race that arouses the savagery of the Police and seemingly gives them the right to detain, imprison and on far too many occasions murder a ‘suspect’ whereas in the US the detention and deaths in question seem to be largely racially focused. In 2009 for instance the very distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was detained and imprisoned by police after forcing open the stuck door to his own house. A neighbour, misconstruing the scene, reported a robbery in progress, the police arrived, and despite the erudite Professor’s explanations he was carted off to jail.

This would never happen In Jamaica. Here you might be black and suspect until you display your rightful ownership of certain markers of privilege—and therefore legitimacy–of which the ability to speak English fluently is one. This is another stark example of how Patwa-speakers are discriminated against in their own country. Many parents tell their sons that when stopped by police they are to speak perfect English, and mention that they ‘come from somewhere’—that is, an uptown community rather than a downtown or inner city one. Almost instantaneously this frees them from suspicion.

There is no direct way to relate the #BlackLivesMatter campaign to police abuse in Jamaica without acknowledging or starting a local “#PoorLivesMatter campaign. Less than two weeks ago policemen shot a schoolgirl in the head when they wantonly fired bullets at a taxi downtown. Do you think this would have happened in Liguanea or Manor Park? And then to add insult to injury the initial response of the Police was that they had no evidence to suggest that the shooters in question were police officers. What could be more alarming than a possible scenario involving five men disguised as policemen firing their weapons at taxis? Well, actually, duh, a scenario involving five POLICEMEN firing at a taxi which is what in the end it turned out to be.

These are the same police the Attorney-General, in the wake of Lotto-scam generated crime ramping up in Montego Bay, wishes to endow with more leeway to abuse citizens by  insisting that “To successfully tackle the murder problem, some of the fundamental rights and freedoms which we have guaranteed to people may have to be abrogated, abridged or infringed.” In fact she forgot to mention that this has been the state of affairs for so-called downtown people forever; the outcry now is because the warning is addressed to English-speaking, uptown-dwelling, middle-class bodies.

I adapted the title of this column from Kei Miller’s novel The Last Warner Woman. “Every now have its before”, she warns, although few heed her. Police Commissioner Williams has rightly said that the problems in Montego Bay are not something harsher policing measures or a state of emergency can solve. They are systemic and need social intervention, for what gone bad a-morning, can’t come good a-evening. Imagine the scene in the United States if President Obama used the current crisis to give American police even more draconian powers than they already enjoy. Wrong move. Racism in the USA has a long and troubled history just as the virulent classism in Jamaica does. There’s no moving forward without addressing either.

We would do well to heed the words of social commentator Nadeen Althia Spence, who invoking the late great Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff, said:

If I could write this with fire I would set ablaze some ideas on this page. I would talk about the black boys in Montego Bay who no longer know the value of life. They don’t know because their black always needed to be qualified for it to become fully ‘smadditized’. It needed land, and money or an accent. When you grow up in communities that are built on captured land, what does it mean for the girls and boys who develop their personhood in a place where land and property and money helps to define your person.

Capture is a legitimate philosophy, because dem nuh own nutten. When Daddy Sharpe led his rebellion, when he set Kensington ablaze the white people in Montego Bay were angry, they punished, maimed and killed, and Daddy Sharpe gave his life in the middle of Sam Sharpe Square Downtown Montego Bay, right across from the Kerr Jarrett’s Town House.

How has Montego Bay changed? Who plans for the children of Sam Sharpe and his soldiers, the Christmas martyrs. Dem used to state of emergency, di blinking city was born in a state of emergency. What they are not used to is justice and equality and rights and development. Give them that Minister, give them justice and mek it stretch back to 1831 and remember Sam Sharpe. Start with the land…mek dem stop capture…because all lotto scam is another capture philosophy…

Rebooting the Past: The Flying Preacherman’s Story

Augustown

“Augustown’s elevation from village to inner-city community had to do with urban sprawl. As Jamaica settled itself into the 20th century, Kingston began to spread out from its harbour, rippling out into the dormitory parish of St. Andrew that surrounded it. The ebbless wave of the city frothed its way up towards Half Way Tree, then further up Hope Road towards Liguanea, Mona, Papine and inevitably, Augustown. To its own surprise, the village found that it was no longer five miles away from the city, but on its edge and then comfortably inside it. Kingston flooded in. Houses were connected to the water main of the NWC and to the electric grid of JPS. The residents of Augustown, new urbanites as they were, no longer tolerated the countrified designation of ‘village’. Instead they spoke of themselves as living in a Kingston community. But no sooner had the village graduated itself to ‘community’ than its middle-class neighbours made sure to distinguish themselves with the prefix ‘suburban’ and Augustown with the prefix, ‘inner-city’. Like dark magic, that phrase seemed to draw into Augustown a heaviness and a heat and a rot. Rusting zinc fences now line the streets, and ratchet knives and machine guns have appeared in the hands of young men. A scar is now on the face of the overlooking hillside.”

On the eve of the launch of Kei Miller’s new novel Augustown in the UK where it’s being published it seems appropriate to pause and consider his huge achievement. The sale of the American rights to Augustown in the USA shortly after Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize last year set off a bidding war that earned him a six-figure advance. In the wake of James’s phenomenally successful A Brief History of Seven Killings Jamaican authors are hot properties and Miller was the first beneficiary.

As you can tell from the passage quoted at the top, Miller’s prose is commandingly deft and lyrical, capable of capturing the massive shifts in Kingston’s social and physical topography in a few fluidly rendered sentences. The Augustown he describes is a fictional valley in Jamaica bearing a marked resemblance to August Town, situated just below the University of the West Indies, Mona.

In this novel, that revolves around the figure of Alexander Bedward—the flying Preacherman—Miller performs a gallant act of literary reclamation. Most of us know of Bedward as a figure of ridicule, a ‘lunatic’ who claimed he could fly. When he failed to do so he was carted off to an asylum, discrediting his Church and breaking the hearts of his followers. So we’ve been told and with our pragmatic, rational, utilitarian worldviews we shake our heads and move on.

But as historians such as Kamau Brathwaite, Veront Satchell and others have told us, there is far more to the story of Bedward. In fact his ministry was so successful, his charisma so compelling, that the Jamaica Native Free Baptist Church he founded became a mass movement, a subaltern anti-colonial awakening that demanded the immediate overthrow of the white overlords and the barriers of race, class and religion experienced under colonial rule. So alarmed were colonial governors by the Preacher’s popularity that they embarked on an active campaign to discredit him, one which has proven remarkably successful, judging by the decimation of the Bedwardite movement, Church and all, and the fact that today this extraordinary preacher is viewed as a faintly comic figure.

As anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse has tried to do with Haiti (Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle), Miller has done with August Town and Bedward, retrieving their story from the dustbin of history and providing them with a new narrative. And the story he has supplied is one that is ingenious, intricately wrought, powerful and moving enough to recuperate Bedward from his ill-deserved ignominy once and for all. In doing so he also illuminates the power of belief, its sanctity, and the ‘autoclaps’ that is bound to follow when you violate and belittle a people’s belief.

With Augustown Miller breaches the gap he himself notes at one point in the novel between “the stories that were written and stories that were spoken—stories that smelt of snow and faraway places, and stories that had the smell of their own breaths.” In his book Silencing the Past acclaimed Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses in detail how history is produced by the powerful, how certain historical facts are privileged while others are pushed into the shadows.

With this novel Miller has ruptured the silence shrouding a very important history, dragging out of the shadows the refusal of a people to submit quietly to persistent inequality and injustice, people who tried to use their faith and their belief to rise above the abjectness of their lives and fly away home to Zion.

Published in the Gleaner 6/7/17

Jamaica’s ‘Strange Love’ for Indian Drama

This was my latest column in the Jamaica Gleaner. Since a lot of people are complaining they cannot access it easily, i’m reposting it here.

I don’t know when I first started noticing it. Perhaps it was the time I went to clear some goods I’d shipped from India a couple of years ago at one of Kingston’s ports. After navigating the much improved process of recovering your possessions from the wharf you finally end up in a large waiting room with about fifty chairs and a TV mounted on the wall in its own personal grill.

It was lunchtime by then. Sitting in front of me occupying the front rows were 15 or so large, tough-looking men, the kind of individuals who lift up crates and literally manhandle them, along with a few wimpier looking folks there to claim their goods. All were glued to the TV screen on which a brilliantly coloured Indian soap-opera was playing. The men were watching the melodrama with the helpless concentration of snakes following a mongoose’s wily darts to and fro.

Some weeks later the Smith sisters came to visit me. When I mentioned serving some Indian sweets up jumped Sister No. 1 accompanying me to the kitchen saying she wanted to see if they were the kind of sweets Khushi makes. Khushi? A who dat I asked upon which Sister Smith informed me that Khushi was the star of Strange Love, one of two Indian soap operas CVM TV had started showing in their lunchtime slot, Monday to Friday from 1 to 1:30 and 1:30 to 2:00.

“Whenever Khushi’s upset she retreats to the kitchen and starts making sweets,” declared Sister Smith as if she was talking about a bosom buddy.

Really? Indian soaps are melodramas of the sickly sweet variety, how on earth had they taken Jamaica by storm I wondered. Sister Smith assured me that they were such fun that not only she but her parents—the goodly Reverend Smith and her Mom—as well as her brother, a financial analyst in New Kingston, were all hooked to Strange Love. In fact at her brother’s workplace, office workers threw ‘Khushi parties’ after work and spent Saturdays binge-watching the serial while at home the goodly Reverend could be seen shouting at the Indian couple to just DO IT. Just kiss the girl no man, her father would yell in exasperation as Khushi’s admirer spent days and weeks gazing into her eyes, while the background music intensified in volume and sentimentality.

Strange Love or Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon as it’s called in Hindi, premiered in India in 2011. Comprising 398 half hour episodes the drama is the love story of an arrogant business tycoon,  Arnav Singh Raizada and his middle-class secretary Khushi Kumari Gupta. Played by actors Barun Sobti and Sanaya Irani the series has propelled both to fame and stardom not only in India but around the world where the show is dubbed into the native language of the region it is shown in. After a few years when Barun left to pursue a career in Bollywood, the show’s fans went berserk demanding his return.

Ok fine. But what is the attraction such shows hold for Jamaicans? I mean a recording artiste named Tiana has even come out with a single named ‘Khushi’ that has reportedly been blowing up local radio.

“What fascinates us is the slowness of the story, the way the lovers look at each other.  The music that comes up when they think of each other. Strange Love focuses on…feelings, how people view each other, how they love each other from their hearts, not their gonads,” vouchsafed a blogger named Lady Fingers.

Meanwhile according to Jodian Downs “These dramas are different, as the characters still maintain their pure innocence and for the viewers, this is extremely addicting. Imagine yourself watching the full 20 episodes of one show just to see the main characters at least get a small peck on the cheek from their love interest.”

Also, continues Downs “the level of loyalty portrayed by each female actress for their male superior is rather humorous and astonishing for the modern female.” Aha! perhaps this explains why Jamaican men are so fascinated by Strange Love. The docile Indian female is no doubt irresistibly attractive to them considering the independence of most Jamaican women?

Interestingly unlike Jamaica where Indian soap operas are appreciated as a step back to a time when love was innocent, in places like Afghanistan where they are also popular they are considered too liberal and therefore threatening to Afghan culture. According to a recent article “Afghan video editors must blur all objectionable content in the scenes, such as too much bare skin, Hindu ways of worship, alcohol and anything that could offend religious sentiments.”

In Jamaica on the other hand Indian dramas have generated much goodwill and love of Indian culture. Long may it last!

A Culture of Anti-intellectualism?

Well, it would appear that I’ve abandoned blogging and wandered back into the arms of traditional media. At least for the time being. It’s a month now since i started writing a weekly column at the Daily Gleaner, Jamaica’s premier newspaper, and in consequence Active Voice has become inactive. It’s an interesting zig-zag, from column writing to blogging to column writing once again. In a blog you address the big wide world, in a column you tend to address local issues for a local audience.

The movement is not unlike a lens zooming in or zooming out, manually of course, there is no autofocus available, only telephoto or wide angle and all the calibrations in between. As you zoom in small things get larger and more legible; as you zoom out the enlarged shrinks, allowing you to see the big picture and where you fit into it. Occasionally the view becomes panoramic, collapsing horizons and walls, a grand sweep from left to right.

cnn-missionaries-dead

In my second column I took on a group of what I termed ‘cultural nationalists’ who seemed more interested in protecting Jamaica’s image than in changing the dangerously lopsided society we live in, one designed for the middle class and the wealthy, to the detriment of those who have not/naught. A CNN anchor had described Jamaica as a ‘remarkably violent place’ after two North American missionaries were murdered here. Up rose the cultural nationalists claiming that the anchor was  exaggerating wildly and there are only ‘pockets’ of violence here.

This seemed rather disingenuous to me when murder and violent acts dominate the news headlines here daily so that the nation seems equipped with an abnormally large number of violent ‘pockets’, if one must use such imagery. Yes, areas where uptown people live don’t suffer the same intensity of violence as poorer neighbourhoods, but surely to deny that the country has become remarkably violent is like thumbing your nose at those for whom this is a daily reality. Are they likely to disagree with the American anchor’s description of Jamaica?

These are people  who live, as UWI scholar Norval Edwards pointed out in the 90s, in a permanent state of emergency. The rest of us tolerate this, some even demanding this routine abrogation of citizens’ rights. Not surprisingly when the violence then spills across the boundaries and news of it escapes into the international news circuits some of us start squealing about bias and exaggeration when actually what is being reported is the truth.

But of course the truth is dispensable. We prefer to think of ourselves as highly cultured, civilized, law-abiding, English-speaking citizens who do not curse or act violent. This is the image we want to project, let no foreign anchor tell you otherwise. The level of denial and self-delusion is all-pervasive. I spoke to a couple of individuals who don’t live in middle class enclaves and they too insisted that Jamaica could not be called a violent society. A banal nationalism trumps all.

What seems curious to me is that at the same time the cultural nationalists are busy pushing back at portrayals of Jamaica as a violent country by outsiders they have no problem with internal declarations that there is a ‘culture of violence’ here, sometimes even uncritically reproducing this canard themselves. In doing this they seem unaware of the ethnic profiling they are participating in, one that is made amply clear by the following tweet:

Stereo Williams @stereowilliams
Black guys fire shots at rap shows and u hear “culture of violence.” White guys fire shots at theaters/schools/offices and it’s “isolated.

In my third column I tried to elaborate on this weird incongruity between local commentators’ denial of the existence of violence on the one hand and their comfort level in  denouncing the ‘culture of violence’ that allegedly exists here. Not all are guilty of this but far too many are and it makes you wonder what’s going on. The following is taken from my column The ‘Culture of Violence’ Thesis:

The ‘Culture of Violence’ Fallacy was the title of a book review by David Scott in 1997 in the second issue of the journal Small Axe. He was reviewing Lauri Gunst’s Born fi Dead and Geoff Small’s Ruthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies. Praising the books’ authors for being ‘thoughtful, perceptive and readerly’ while attempting to arrive at “theoretically informed understandings of the problem of organized violence in Jamaican society” Scott rued the reliance on ‘pop’ cultural psychology in their analysis. The books’ main weakness he said lay in their “unproblematic reproduction” of the view that there is in Jamaica something called a ‘culture of violence’.

Scott noted that while this view was a widely held one, much retailed by the press and others, he doubted its usefulness as a conceptual framework, fearing that it obscured problems rather than illuminating them. What Scott was objecting to–rightly in my opinion–was the proposition that Jamaicans have an inclination towards violence or a ‘constitutional aggressivity’ and that there is social acceptance towards violence in Jamaica. He also questioned the idea that violence was endemic to Jamaican culture or that the frequent episodes of violence here are due to ‘historically constituted behavioural patterns’.

In contrast to the way violence in Jamaica is portrayed countries like Sri Lanka, victim to decades of the most violent conflict and prolonged warfare, are rarely described as having a ‘culture of violence’, said Scott. He went on to clarify that his objection was not to culture being used as a conceptual tool in analysing violence but to the particularly narrow and limited concept of culture employed by analysts.

In her 2011 book Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica anthropologist Deborah Thomas highlights the same problem pointing out that the notion of Jamaica having a ‘culture of violence’ is so widespread that commentators within the country freely use it without questioning its validity. She cited a National Security Strategy green paper of 2005 that used the phrase unproblematically claiming, “It is now conceded that Jamaica has spawned a culture of violence in its most negative form which is abhorrent to its values and stands in the way of every kind of social progress.”

The problem with viewing violence as a cultural trait is that it presents the issue as one of an innate brutality and savagery, whose roots are in Jamaican culture rather than generated by the system itself. Thus it distracts attention from the socio-economic inequality and the lack of opportunities for decent work and living conditions in the country, the everlasting structural adjustment that has marooned the impoverished out on a rickety limb; the systemic problems that contribute to violent solutions to social problems and need urgent attention. For the violence that envelops Jamaica is not a symptom of its culture but the fallout of the ‘Babylon’ system the country’s numerous singers and DJs have raised their voices against.

Though there were many who appreciated my use of cutting edge scholarship to make my argument on the subject of violence, there was a surprising pushback from the Gleaner. I was told that this particular column was considered “Too philosophical and not digestible by regular folk”.

A lot is claimed on behalf of ‘regular folk’ and it made me wonder whether the reason most public discussion here remains simplistic and one-dimensional is this insistence on dumbing down debate for the much maligned regular folk. I’m sure some folk object to exercising their minds even occasionally but there are many others who don’t. Which constituency is a columnist at the premier newspaper in the country to cater to? What is the role of an opinion columnist? To provide pap for the masses or to give them the benefit of some of the finest thinking on a subject of relevance to them?

Are we not guilty of fostering a culture of anti-intellectualism when we insist on insulating the public from complex ideas and arguments? Don’t Jamaicans deserve better? I don’t like running fast myself nor could  I if I tried, and I’m sure there are many more like me, but I’m so glad that Usain Bolt, Shelly Ann, Asafa and the others weren’t told they had to slow down and keep pace with us so as not to hurt our feelings.