As 2013 comes to a close the national focus shifts as expected to a review of the past 12 months and the significant events that captured public attention. It has been a year that saw four elections in relatively quick succession, an unprecedented occurrence in local history. It was also a year in which once again, trivia and shallowness reigned supreme and the society reaffirmed its pre-occupation with gimmickry and quick-fixes.
Despite a record-breaking budget, the nation enters 2014 beset by the same problems that plagued it in 2013 and for many years before that. It is a reflection of the state of the nation that, at the end of the year, a burning issue is the prison system, a problem that has already been addressed by about ten different committees over the past 50 years. So what do we do? Form another committee to look into the matter again. Hopefully something tangible will result this time around.
And a few weeks before the “shock’’ of prison conditions emerged, the country entertained yet another visit from yet another foreign crime-fighter. One of the main suggestions from US expert Bill Bratton was that police officers should be paid more in order to reduce corruption within the service. Certainly the police deserve more but one wonders what Mr Bratton would recommend if salaries are increased and the corruption continues.
By the way, what has happened to the report compiled by Prof Selwyn Ryan et al entitled “No time to quit: Engaging youth at risk”? I hope that its recommendations are being implemented because there was a recent conference that identified some of the same challenges confronting young Afro-Trinidad males. This is yet another topic that has been studied and analysed ad nauseum yet the problems persist.
And yet again the society is confronted by the horrific and brutal murders of innocent children. It would be interesting to see what concrete, long-term measures will be put in place after the tears have dried and the outrage has dissipated. It was about 15 years ago that we expressed similar horror at the death of Akiel Chambers and what has happened since then? Since Sean Luke? Nothing meaningful can be achieved if the emphasis is always on PR mileage and not on comprehensive, long-term solutions. Cynics may insist that the hype is deliberately orchestrated to distract attention from more serious issues.
But nothing characterised the year more vividly than the elections themselves. For sheer inanity 2013 stood out above all previous years in terms of the empty rhetoric flowing from the platforms. Admittedly not everyone indulged in the silliness but those who did, did so with a vengeance. And while the dominant theme was about who is the bigger ‘t’ief’, issues such as campaign financing, public procurement, Constitution reform, money laundering and the local links to the international drug trade were studiously avoided.
Instead we were served a diet of “box-drain’’ politics wrapped in gossip, “mauvais langue’’ and buffoonery. Representation was seen as mere patronage and it is the same philosophy that surfaced in the case of notorious Jamaican drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke. In an article on June 8, 2012, the New York Post provided excerpts of his trial and reported that “Coke sought to convince US District Judge Robert B. Patterson that he deserved a break because of his charity work in the Jamaican slum of Tivoli Gardens. In a letter to the judge, he took credit for throwing parties for seniors, passing out school supplies and Christmas gifts to children, and starting a school to teach computer skills to the disadvantaged”. Notwithstanding his “representation’’, Coke was found guilty of racketeering and drug trafficking and sentenced to 23 years in prison. His final comment was “I’m a good person. I’ve done a lot of good things to help people in my community”.
Other issues exemplified the superficial, shortcut mentality that besieged T&T in 2013. Some also carried the stain of corruption and this would include revelations about persons who had tendered forged certificates and fake degrees to secure various high profile jobs. I am sure this is not an entirely new phenomenon but the “boldface’’ attitude of those involved is surprising. Even more astonishing was the response from a senior official who openly stated that there was no need for any police investigation since the “public embarrassment’’ was enough punishment. I am sure that many persons who have been awaiting trial for years at the Remand Yard would jump at this option thereby solving the overcrowding problem.
The sad part is that Trinidad and Tobago is not without the creativity and the brainpower to do much better, but too often the nation elevates the trite and the mediocre, giving, as George Orwell put it, “the appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
The late Lloyd Best often quoted the phrase “la trahison de clercs’’ to describe the dilemma. Roughly translated it means the betrayal of the elites and it comes from the title of a book by 19th century French philosopher Julian Benda who lamented that the intellectuals at the time had abdicated their responsibility and had become “apologists for crass nationalism, warmongering and racism”. He argued that they had turned their backs on intellectual honesty and “scholarly ideals’’ choosing instead, as Trinis might say, “to eat ah food”.
The Christmas season is upon us and many are expecting presents from friends and family. The younger ones will be looking forward to the latest xbox or iphone while the older heads may be hoping for one of the more traditional board-games like Scrabble or Monopoly. Given the political trends in 2013, I would not be surprised if a popular item this year is Trivial Pursuit.
• Richard Braithwaite is a