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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Looking at the country via the news these last few weeks, I’ve gotten the distinct impression of a preternatural repetitiveness. There were announcements that public servants couldn’t get pay-slips because there was no paper to print them, no money to buy toilet paper, no medicines in hospitals. These aren’t isolated instances—hospitals, roads, and schools are in similar states.

It’s like a multiple institutional organ failure–with a few new and macabre spasms as the body politic seizes up. Politically, the nature of the legislative/executive is revealed by Primus Inter Pares leaving the golf course to make statements contradicting his own ministers’ about the TSTT/Massy transaction. The other part of the legislative (the Opposition) is, meanwhile, telling people to disobey the government by not filling out property tax forms. The story of the judiciary was told on the front pages of all newspapers last week.

The specificity of the repetition is remarkable if you look at 1983 when we were in a similar position. The Guardian’s front page on January 8, was headlined: “Thieves robbing corpses, hospitals also losing drugs, toilet paper.” As the year went on, other headlines from this newspaper included: “Threat to Judiciary” (June 5); “Sex and the Lawyers” (October 7). The “threat” was government interference in judicial functions, the other is self-explanatory–lawyers were ripping off clients, and some were reportedly extorting sex.

The economy was beginning a tailspin: the currency was devalued (from $2.40 to $3.60 $US1) to service a growing budget deficit. On the social front, then Minister of Education, Muriel Greene, was reported as saying (June 26): “There are reports of students’ lack of interest in schools; their indiscipline and vandalism…students who manifest hostility and aggression to teachers and other authority figures, and students who are obsessed with sex and experiment with drugs.”

The similarity is in your face. But that’s not all. Similar, too, was how the society was responding. Prof Ramesh Deosaran, writing in these pages on July 13, observed: “Given the sociology and size of the country, gossip and rumours have taken quite a prominent place. There are people who see a little…and stretch it into a mile. And by the end of the day, the tiny shred of information, false from the start, turns into a mighty ‘truth’.” Facebook behaviour before Facebook. And I think you get the picture: déjà vu, all over again.

Apart from the curiosity of the repetition, the point the thinking punter would arrive at is, If certain behaviours repeat time and again, the problem is not singular to the moment. Lloyd Best was around in those days, and provided (January 12) an incisive prognosis. “Everybody cannot be incompetent. If the telephones are not working, electricity is not working, the hospitals are not working and the transport is not working, the answer cannot be incompetence… The problem lies in the paradigm, the framework in which all these activities are taking place, therefore we do have to attack the underpinnings of civil life.”

There’s an incredible amount of wisdom in those words. The problem is: can anyone recognise it, far less put it to use? Unlikely, but looking back 34 years, a few things seem to hold some hope. Yes, the same cycle of ignorance, incompetence and implosion is repeating, the same institutions are buckling, and the same citizenry is running their mouths on FB and creating socially toxic environments. But there are subtle differences. I’d say the society is better off now than it was then.

In 1983, the country was a one-party state. Now it’s a two-party state. The public is much more aware of, and impatient with, the incompetence and shortcomings of politicians. The issue with the JLSC is being responded to with alacrity by the law association and senior practitioners. The hospitals, while they’re in disarray, are much more accountable and functional. (The school situation, however, seems intractable.)

The actual results of the scrutiny and activism might be little, but they’re happening. They weren’t three decades ago. Hopefully they’ll grow. The tantalising question remains, though: what is the systemic, or underlying cause? Everyone can’t be deliberately incompetent to the point of cutting their own throats, as Best said.

My guess is that what ails us is what ails the metropolitan countries. Looking at the US, incomprehensible governmental action is taking away health care away from millions, rolling back environmental protection, and defunding social-programmes like homework help and Sesame Street. The intelligentsia and journalists are in accord: the needs and desires of a small group of extremely powerful people (who embody the ideals of predator-capitalism) are being served. Unemployment, crime and social decay are by-products.

So it is, I believe, in Trinidad and Tobago now. The incompetence, back-pedaling, and illogic which governs the management of the country are merely the by-products of larger, hidden political engines, which operate for the benefit of a very few. This isn’t just about money or rich people. It’s about the desires and the small group of minds which are invisibly shaping the environment in which we live.

I have no idea who they are and won’t speculate but they’re the ones who make things happen. So what next? It’s tempting to resort to teleology (the belief that we’re slowly evolving into better versions of ourselves). Put more simply, in the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, the protagonist was forced to relive a single day until he got it right and transformed his life. It’s a seductive myth. But more appropriate here and now would be the myth of Sisyphus. He rolled the stone up the hill, it rolled back down. And he rolled it up the hill again. Forever. Trini reality might be somewhere in between Sisyphus and Bill Murray. Time will tell.


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