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COMEDY, DEMOCRACY AND FACEBOOK CORBEAUS
I’ve been looking with some interest at two political dramas unfolding over the last months. The first, of course, is the Strangelovean insanity that is the Trump presidency. The second is local, and has played out over the last few weeks with the JLSC’s Marat-Sade circus, which has been transformed, as everything here seems to be, into a political/racial cuss-out. This illustrated by Prof Hollis Liverpool’s op-ed published in the Guardian last week. But we’ll get to that.
First, Trump has something for us: He was legitimately installed and his actions—from the Muslim travel ban, to the withdrawal from the Paris climate accords—have wrought havoc globally. But the institutional response has been swift and impressive: US courts struck down both travel bans; US states and cities are moving around the Presidential withdrawal to honour climate-change protocols.
But this is now. A group of savants saw this coming years ago. The preemptive response to Trump came from comedians: Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin, and even top drawer actors like Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro, while journalists and academics were in disbelief. Their response has been smart, funny, and more effective than any other. But it’s also been bruising, hateful, and fractious. And Trump’s support remains solid.
The point is the US, as imperfect as it is, recognized and responded to a pathogen in its system with great success. Many Americans have striven to show compassion to Muslims and immigrants, resisting the official position. Of course, many Americans scream “build the wall”. But sentience, with some compassion thrown in, seems to be winning.
Now back to our own body politic. Different versions of the same pathogenic drama are playing out simultaneously in different theatres. On the micro level, the tragic photo published in the Guardian last week, of the man dying on the lawn of the Port of Spain General Hospital, told an individual story which is a metaphor for the whole.
A larger but equally macabre metaphor is in the Tobago scenario. The island is being slowly strangled—empty food shelves, failing businesses, a general collapse as the THA and Parliament seem paralysed. While the Tobago-born Prime Minister sits in Trinidad, pelting platitudes about his high personal standards.
But most revealing has been the pathogenic scenario playing out in the judiciary. No need for metaphoric interpretation here. The inner workings and institutional reasoning of an arm of government are explicit. The Law Association voted no confidence in the Chief Justice. This, with calling for the JLSC’s resignation, has been advocated by a number of senior counsels.
The legislative/executive, the Prime Minister, says he believes in the separation of powers, and will not intervene. But this didn’t stop the Prime Minister complaining the Opposition was trying to make the country “ungovernable” via its legal challenges to the property tax and JLSC. (Or defending the previous PNM Prime Minister, who tried to remove a sitting chief justice and was slapped silly for it. Read paragraphs 90-100 of the Mustill Report. The word “conspirators” was used, and not in reference to the then chief justice.)
But if not from the Prime Minister, a revealing defense of the present Chief Justice and JLSC was entered by Prof Liverpool. It was a masterpiece of speciousness on which I only spare a paragraph: first, he tried to create institutional equivalency between calypso and the judiciary; second, the lawyers named as advocating his resignation (apart from Martin Daly) had “Indian names” and were members of the Opposition; and third, the solution he offers is a trite, meaningless recourse to “the people”.
On the same day it published Prof Liverpool’s op-ed, this newspaper also published a story about concerns raised by “members of the legal fraternity” about an Appeal Court judge’s judgments against the state. This judge also had an Indian name. I saw a Facebook video making this case from a PNM group.
So, miraculously, the problem isn’t the PNM’s monstrous incompetence and judicial enormity. The issues are now the Indo Opposition’s using the courts to destabilise the country; the racially motivated law association’s no-confidence in the Chief Justice; a judge with an Indian name’s political bias in ruling against the government. The facts say otherwise, but facts don’t matter on Facebook, or real life, it seems.
This perfectly illustrates the general local response to institutional crises: diverting attention from the problem by throwing out a pornographic, racialised narrative. Thus the question—why is the country powerless before such malignant, unrepentant incompetence?—is answered. By being reassured the problem is racial, the personalities which make up institutions are enabled to be indifferent to the consequences of their actions.
What about responses other than the nakedly political, (à la Colbert, Trevor Noah et al)? Alas, we have none. We have clowns (calypso and Facebook trolls), but not comedians, and it’s not the same thing. The result? Issues of importance quickly degenerate into mud.
Since Prof Liverpool addressed the opening of the Law Term, his article’s attempt to make calypso pari passu, if not contiguous with, the national institution of the judiciary, is not non sequitur. His op ed also reminds me of what’s been going on here for the last 55 years. Progress has been stymied by a toxic blend of hair-trigger ethnic infantilism and speciousness passing as smarts, which has spread like a rash thanks to Facebook. So while the US has a monster problem, its smart people are fighting back and winning. Here there are are no smart people, and the monsters win every time.
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