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‘Bat bite we’: A poetic refrain lives on

By Lennox Grant

 Frustrations, failures and assorted foul-ups that describe public life in Trinidad and Tobago are so taken for granted as to be little remarked as an affectionately home-grown phenomenon, and even less interrogated. 

“Bat bite we/Bat bite this country/In 1973”. The lyric by Eric Roach, the late poet and columnist, characterised what was then crowding in, like the visitation of a plague.

The Black Stalin, later pandering to anti-NAR sentiment, claimed in song, “Our nation is facing its darkest hour.” The resort to superlatives such as “first”, “worst” and “darkest” measures the under-reliance on historical reference to clarify what is seen as the present.

Eric Roach was moved by afflictions that included black-outs, water and food shortages, telephone outages, and “natural” traffic jams. A government, supported by just 27 per cent of the electorate, had deployed an official Flying Squad to combat an actual guerrilla force. (Later rehearsing a familiar catalogue, Sparrow lampooned, “We like it so.”)

Were those times the “worst”? Were the “darkest” hours those of the “days of siege” of the 1990 attempted coup?

Norman Girvan once decried young people’s “absence of knowledge” about the events and the personages of the 1960s-1970s. “Bliss” is today the brand name of a Carnival band, but it used to be a reference to disabling ignorance. The late Prof Girvan wrote: “We cannot see further than those who came before, unless we stand upon their shoulders.”

Unable, then, to elevate vision by mounting the “shoulders” of forebears, we see in today’s conditions only freshly born alarms and wonders. Prof Girvan and others typically invoke a mythical “we”, as if in optimistic hope that a viable collective can be addressed and rallied for the purposes of making change.

 I am doubtful about the prospects of any supra-partisan “we”, that could indefinitely be united in any cause for T&T. People so loosely citing the first person plural should feel obliged to say exactly whom they mean by “we”. But they don’t.

 In their current multiples, the failures and foul-ups appear capable as always of endlessly repeating themselves. Sensitive reports are leaked; toilets, staircases, and security fences in schools stay unrepaired. The demonstration effect of a woman flogging her daughter occasions revelation of deeply divided attitudes toward “licks”.

 La Brea area residents, and/or their MP at least, clamour for relocation. Fisherfolk are daily paid not to fish, while oil spill clean-up effects are studied.  Meanwhile, something non-chemical may be killing some species of fish. Information remains at so high a premium as to be unaffordable. Media consumers learn to live without a reliable supply.

Vexation takes the form of demands that people deemed responsible “must go”. Confidence remains unshaken that a fresh and improved start can always be made with someone new in charge, even without assurance that such a someone exists.

While the world had watched in incredulity, as the vaunted “Obamacare” health programme launch proved an epic fiasco. Until this month, opposition demands for the resignation of Kathleen Sibelius, the Obamacare woman-in-charge, were resisted. Immediately she resigned, however, a successor was announced.

It’s how it happens in at least some places other than T&T.  Here, however, people are evidently not available to fill key slots that fall open.  

Yet demands are routinely heard for people at the level of Police Complaints Authority director Gillian Lucky and Integrity Commission chairman Ken Gordon, to resign. In a typically tart response last week, Reg Potter, former energy executive, scolded: “Let’s stop this perpetual screaming for resignations.”

Mr Potter’s admonitions are unlikely to be heeded, or even heard. Not in this T&T where, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, belief fancifully prevails in the sufficiency of people qualified and willing to fill high-level vacancies.

After serial episodes of violent behaviour in schools, one solution keeps being advocated: the hiring of more social workers —as if they were out there, just awaiting the call. A related recommendation calls for every school to be provided with a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Well, that and God’s face! As old-school people might say.

Meanwhile, openings remain unfilled for critical positions, including, as noted last week, in the office of the President. The system requires determination of job terms and conditions by the Personnel Department, “CPO” for short. But the CPO’s office has itself been short of staff, with predictable effects for the rest of the public sector.

Dimly remembered today is the Patrick Manning administration’s policy inclination to end the service commissions model, starting with the police. A defanged  “management” board was to suffice. 

About this, and much else, the Keith Rowley PNM has hardly tipped its hand. But bespoke Opposition policy wonk Colm Imbert had once wistfully cited the contrast with New York City. There, the mayor hires and fires the police commissioner, whereas the T&T Prime Minister wields no such clout.  

It’s hardly surprising, given the paucity of choice before President Carmona, that Ramesh Deosaran, with little achievement marking his first, has been called to a second term as Police Service Commission chairman.

 It’s happening, by way of a minor but vivid dramatisation, in this T&T, of how much change can realistically be expected.

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