Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Hear ye, all women and others of diminished capacity

So I'm reading today's Nation newspaper and I come across an article on the Comment page. It's accompanied by a photo of one of our roundabouts, and called The correct Way to use a multi-lane road. And so I think "Finally. Someone with some authority is going to wake drivers up to some of the mistakes they've been making on our fairly new multi-lane motorways, and perhaps fewer people will die on the streets." And I suppose that's how it was intended, but it took a couple a very, very wrong turns. (See what I did there?)

The article is quite terse, and even sounds a little angry. And honestly, doesn't make much sense. The writer suggests that on a dual roadway, the right lane is always and only for overtaking the traffic on the left, and that once right lane drivers have overtaken, they should exit onto the left lane. Now I understand the concept. It reduces to this: the right lane is a fast lane. (Apparently I'm wrong, as you'll see.) If you intend in the short term to be going faster than the other drivers, the right lane is yours. When/if your pace normalizes or matches that of the average of other drivers, then you should switch to the left. At the end of the article, we're told, again tersely: there is no such thing as a slow lane and fast lane, which, following the earlier explanation, isn't strictly true. By definition, if the right lane is for overtaking, it is a fast lane, or at least a faster lane than the left.

But I suppose the ill-explained point is that you shouldn't take the right lane if you intend to keep pace with the average speed of traffic, or if you simply intend to 'drive fast'. The point is to overtake. Although, if none of the other drivers in the right lane understands this, you pretty much end up trying to overtake but with nowhere to go, because the driver in front of you is probably thinking she can hang out in the right lane since no one's going much faster than anyone else, as is the driver in front of her, and the driver in front of him. (And this will also tend to happen since, in a country the size of Barbados, there are approximately 5 centimeters on the motorway between roundabouts. So somebody who is not overtaking will end up in the right lane. It has to happen.) And so, apparently, the hideous cycle unfolds, with the undesirable effect of blocking the overtaking lane and therefore ending humanity as we know it.

And then we're told:

If you are being overtaken by traffic on the left you are creating an
obstruction...and...encouraging the dangerous practice of overtaking on the
left and zig-zagging through traffic.

So understand this: if you ever find yourself being overtaken by some impatient buffoon who is breaking traffic rules and the speed limit by overtaking on the left, you are to blame. It means that you must be too slow and stupid to know not to block impatient buffoons. And it is always your fault, because no one who finds themselves zig-zagging through traffic is ever wrong.

And then the writer goes on:

If you are in the right lane and the lights of the car behind you are flashing
it means the driver wants to overtake or you are blocking the overtaking lane.

I love how they encourage impatience and general road rage, and place the responsibility for reckless drivers squarely on the shoulders of the rest of us who are simply trying not to die. Here's the thing: maybe if someone is flashing her lights at you, you're a bit slow for the right lane and should try and adjust, either by accelerating or merging to the left if you can (for crap's sake please don't freak out and merge into a Bico truck because that will not end well.) Or maybe the light flasher is just an entitled piece of poop who wants to intimidate every other driver off the road so she can make it to the roundabout in 5 seconds instead of the usual 7. This article, far from keeping people safe, is encouraging the worst, most reckless drivers out there to continue being reckless, and worse, validating their crude, dangerous behaviour.

So I'm thinking surely this cannot have been written by the Police Force or the Ministry of Transport and Works because the tone is so personal and angry, and because there's only a passing reference to one of the real accident causers: improper usage and poor understanding of the newly-signed roundabouts. There's also no mention of other problem-causing novelties like the new give-ways and off-ramp acceleration lanes. And then I look at the bottom and realize that it was written by C.O Williams Construction Ltd. So the whole point of the article isn't as much to save lives as it is to sulk and yell because they built this great toy and we're using it wrong. So at this point I'm starting to expect a lot less of this writer, which is a good thing, considering what comes next:

This notice particularly refers to women, taxi and truck drivers as they are usually the main offenders when it comes to blocking the overtaking lane.

Seriously? Who wrote this thing?

Even if you are of the "damn women drivers" school of disgruntlement, which I'm not going to tackle because I know I'm not going to change your mind or expand your consciousness or any of that good stuff, what is the point of flagging those people you envision as the main offenders at the end of article? It's not as if you begin: "Hey! Women, taxi drivers and truck drivers: listen here!" Clearly, by the time you've already explained all your rules, the only point of pointing out that women are the chief offenders is to say "I know you women are reading this thinking it's not you. But it's you. You are the reason we're writing this thing. So just stop it right now." And to those women out there reading this entry and snickering smugly to yourself thinking "But you know..he's right. Those other women can't drive," don't even bother, because he means you too.

If you're going to write about how to use the roads, just write about how to use the roads. Yes it's insulting to single out women (as opposed to taxi and truck drivers who are a small percentage of male drivers. You're basically saying "women can't drive. Men can drive in general, except for these special categories of male drivers), although given the overall angry, entitled attitude of the piece it makes sense and was probably written by he of the light-flashing and zig-zagging. But more than insulting, it's unprofessional and unnecessary. Does this writer envision that a woman reading this will be persuaded by the "you may think it's not you but it really is. You're a woman, see" argument?

The article is just another light-flashing, left-lane-overtaking attempt at intimidation of certain drivers, namely women. And coming from a private citizen it would be unsurprising, but from a corporate entity, it's disappointing, especially since it's presented with authority.

But you know, take this with a grain of salt because after all, I'm only a woman.

Monday, 14 December 2009

And look how well that worked out for Buju

I've attempted to write this post so many times, and so far have not made it past the first sentence. Finally, last week, I saw an old friend - a Bajan reggae artiste - and although I intended only to do the hugs and catch-up thing, I ended up holding forth on this particular disappointment, while he, ever gracious and probably slightly afraid, nodded and smiled and looked around for an exit. So lest I alarm any more innocent passersby, here I go.

A few days ago, I went with some friends to see one of our local reggae bands perform. Their set was mostly covers of Sanchez covers, Beres Hammond and other usual suspects. Women were screaming in the front (I suppose Sanchez has that effect under the right circumstances and with the proper amount of alcohol), guys were vibing in the back, the place was nice. Then I heard a familiar riff and thought "No. They're not going to sing that. This must be something else." But sure enough, out came the lyrics to the infamous Boom Bye Bye.

Now, even as Buju sits in jail in Miami on cocaine trafficking charges, news coverage of the arrest invariably ends up in a discussion of the various ways in which this song was not the best idea for an artiste who wants to maintain a career outside of Jamaica. Yet, a Barbadian band, which let's face it could very well get by performing for a local audience without inciting hate and murder, opts to cover this song. I've been out before, recently actually, where DJs played songs with homophobic themes, and even while I yelled at my friends "What are you doing?! Don't dance to this!" (I know. I'm lovely), it was a sight easier to ignore than a live band inches away from my nose making gun signs and with a smile, encouraging me to kill gays and lesbians. The song got some forward, as we say: people cheered during the opening bars more, I would desperately like to think, out of nostalgia for younger days than because they endorse its message. But ultimately, it doesn't matter. Given that as responsible citizens we have to interrogate our own prejudices and privilege, it's no longer enough to say "but I just like the beat." And even though there were those who cheered the first few notes, even they quickly realized how uncomfortable it is to actually sing the lyrics of that song out loud, assuming you're not in fact a murderer of gay people. The song is very slow, the hate is unmistakable, and though we sadly know all the words because this is the music with which we grew up, most of the room still found themselves by the first chorus mumbling uncomfortably into their beverages as tourists drifted toward the exits. I'm not sure the band picked up on that, because they sang verse after chorus after verse for what felt like a thousand minutes, until finally the torture was over.

But that wasn't the only part of the performance that soured the night. As they went on, there were increasingly more and cruder references to women's genitalia, and even a charming joke in which one of the lead singers equated beating cancer to "beating nookie", the latter of which he thinks should earn him equal congratulations with someone who has done the former. He reminded me of this charming fellow, and also made it clear that I was not his target demographic. In fact, I, along with several other people there that night, was invisible. Because in all his homophobic ranting and simple-minded drooling about how much nookie he violently assaults, he's assuming a heterosexual, cisgendered male with criminal tendencies as his default listener. And the rest of us simply aren't there or don't matter. Or worse, and since he did acknowledge the women present in the first part of his set by repeating "this one's for the ladies" a bajillion times and then launching into syrupy sweet lover's rock tunes because clearly all women want is to be romanced by tired lyrics, he's expecting us all to be a party to our own invalidation. Yes, you're here, I see you. But you like it when I refer to you as your genitalia, right? No? Welp. Sorry. Them's the rules.

And what bothers me about this band is that clearly they have no philosophy. There's nothing they stand for. The fact that they could never engage in this mess at a national show, and they don't, means they acknowledge that this kind of performance is not for popular consumption. So they're clearly dialling up the stupid for an audience they perceive as base and rabid, which not only insults the people there, but even assuming this was the nature of their audience, also misses an opportunity to help people move beyond. These parts of the show, though highly distasteful, were small. Their set could have worked without them. So this image of the weed-smoking, gay-killing, nookie-plundering, one-love-promoting (ha) Rastaman that they're trying to perpetrate on an audience they assume is aspiring to nothing more is a fraud and is unnecessary.

So here begins my solitary boycott. I shall not return.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Happy *burp* Independence Day (Conversations in holiday eating)

It's Independence Day in Barbados - 43 years since we told England "thanks for the slavery and that but we can take it from here." I hadn't spent an Independence Day in Barbados for some time, before now, but it's one of my favourite weekends of the year, in part because of the conkies, which might possibly be the best food in the Western Hemisphere (next to steamed pudding and sweet bread). This morning, reading the news, I saw that when asked about Kate Moss's statement that "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels", Rihanna responded "I love food because I'm from Barbados." And I thought: what a simple and beautiful truth lies in that statement. The 'because' is the real poetry there. Simple cause and effect: since I am from Barbados, I love food. My love for food is based on my geographical provenance. No need for further examination. It's science.

And it's pretty accurate. Holidays and food go hand in hand in lots of places. But for many of us here, eating is an event. I've been planning activities with friends and colleagues, and after we've planned the menu and assigned responsibility for preparing the various items, the conversation has been known to go like this:

Me: So we have all the food and drinks sorted. What else will we do?
Friend 1: And the cups and ice? And the Banks? (Because apparently Banks beer is crucial enough not to count as a drink, and to merit a separate discussion point.)
Me: And the cups and ice and Banks. What else will we do?
Friend 2: How you mean?
Me: Well we can't eat all day.
Friend 1: *blink*
Friend 2: I don't understand.
Me: Well, we'll get there, we'll spread the blankets, unpack the food, eat it...
Friend 1: People will drink, talk, fall asleep, wake up, eat again, finish the drinks, eat the leftovers on the way to the cars and go home. long have you been away?

And of course it has changed a bit over the years. My generation and subsequent ones are pretty active. We'll set up some stumps for cricket and play paddle ball and volleyball at the beach, but whenever I'm at a daytime holiday event with people of all ages, the food is definitely the star. And it's a challenge if you have certain food preferences.

Say my plate has some rice, a flying fish and fried plantain:

Guy I've seen twice in my entire life: Why aren't you eating?
1st Stranger: You trying to reduce?
2nd stranger, wandering in: She trying to reduce?! Reduce where? Girl you big as a mosquito. (Note, I'm considerably larger than a mosquito.) Eat some food.
Me: I'm not trying to lose weight. This is enough food for me right now.
Twice-seen guy: Oh you sick?
Me: No. This is what I want now. I'll have more later.
Stares from all 3
3rd stranger, wandering over: That is all the food you want?
Twice-seen guy: She trying to reduce.
Pitiful glances from all.

Or, say my plate has a variety of foods but no meat:

Neighbour: Why aren't you eating? (You'll notice there's a very clear definition of eating that is more than just 'ingesting a food item and swallowing')
Me: I have food. All that's left is meat and I don't eat that so...
Neighbour: Oh you don't eat pork! There's lamb and chicken.
Me: No I mean meat. And poultry. And shellfish.
By 'shellfish', I'm mumbling and ashamed.
Neighbour, confused: Oh. There's a lasagna there. That has vegetables.
Me, trying to disappear: Right. That's beef. I'm alright, though. This is enough. Thanks.
Neighbour, calling in reinforcements: She says she doesn't eat meat. No meat in that soup, right?
Stranger: No. Only some pigtail.
Me: Right. That's um...from a pig. But you know, I'm good here. I have plenty.
Both look at my plate disapprovingly.
Stranger, calling in more reinforcements: Straw! What here doesn't have in meat?
Straw, also a stranger, walking over: Ahm. I ain sure. Eat some chicken!
I think he believes that if he says it with enthusiasm, I'll be spontaneously convinced to eat chicken.
Me: No, thanks.
Straw: Eat li'l piece. It can't kill you.
Straw is not even in the vicinity of the point.
Me, backing away lest I be force-fed some lamb stew: I have plenty, though. Seriously. Thanks.
Pitiful glances from all.

Of course, we're a modern society, for what that's worth, and we have our fitness competitions and fashion industry and a desire to be thin that is not pervasive, but exists. (We also, for the record, have a non-negligible vegetarian population, so I never understand why so many people act as if non meat eaters are of some kind of cult.) Fat people are still teased, as are thin people. But in general, the thin ideal is a lot less thin than it is in other places. It's more a kind of medium-sized ideal. Still, this type of food philosophy, though seeming quite food- and body-positive in some ways, is quite intolerant in others. It assumes that it cannot create disordered eating, and so does not really allow for its existence in the way food is discussed and treated among groups of people. That assumption is of course incorrect, and I think we're on our way to realizing that.

But there's a certain level of comfort that we have with food, and a pride in creating it that historically comes from doing interesting, innovative things with very little, laboriously-, locally-grown food. That pride is deliciously experienced around Independence Day, and in honour of this day, I give you the afore-mentioned greatest food of the Western Hemisphere. The Conkie.

2 cups corn flour
1/2 cup flour
3/4 lb finely grated pumpkin
6 oz margarine/shortening melted
1/2 lb sweet potato
3 cups grated coconut
1 tsp salt
4 oz raisins (optional)
3/4 lb brown sugar
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp spice
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp almond essence
Banana, Plantain or Fig leaves (singed over fire)*

*They'll say you can use wax or foil paper if you have no banana leaves, but They lie. No, you can. But you shouldn't. They simply won't taste the same.

Banana leaves are used to wrap the conkie mixture, so you need leaves that aren't shredded. Strip leaves from stalk with a sharp knife. Leaves are very delicate and tear easily. To use them in your recipe, you must make them pliable by briefly singeing them over an open flame. If your leaves start to curl up, that means they've been on the flame too long. If your leaves spontaneously combust, that means you're using old, dried up leaves. So, you know, don't do that. Use green leaves.

Tear singed leaves into individual squares for wrapping your conkies. The standard size square is 8" x 8", but they can be bigger depending on how big you want your conkies to be. Cut the leaves into desired pieces.

• Combine grated coconut, sweet potato & pumpkin.
• Mix in sugar, spices, flour, corn flour, salt and raisins.
• Add milk, margarine and almond essence.
• Mix ingredients well. Mixture should be thick and drop slowly from a spoon.

• Place 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons in the centre of each banana leaf square.
• Fold the banana leaf neatly around the mixture. Be careful not to tear the leaf, or the mixture will leak.

•Steam conkies over rack of boiling water in a large saucepan or steamer until firm to the touch.

And vIola! Here's your unwrapped conkie goodness:

These lovelies freeze very well. My mother once made them on Independence weekend and froze me a batch until I came home in May the following year. I don't think I did any grocery shopping that entire first week I was back.

Happy Independence Day.

Recipe and photos adapted from

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Durned bloggin' 'n' such

I've just returned from a panel discussion on The Role and Responsibility of the Writer in Shaping the Identity of a Developing Society. And it was hilarious for a lot of reasons, not least among which was the refusal of one of the panellists to engage blogging as a legitimate medium of writing. He was outraged - or rather feigning outrage because one senses that he often uses the theatrical to make his point - that here we were meant to be discussing writers, the greats of literature, and we were wasting our time mentioning blogging and other such new-fangled nonsense. He kept saying 'blogging' with much disdain, like one might say 'phlegm', and I started to wonder if he even knew that blogging was actually writing, or if he thought it was some completely unrelated and tiresome young people's pastime - like skateboarding. I began to invent all kinds of things that blogging might actually refer to in his mind. Maybe he thought it was derived from "breadfruit logging"? The wanton cutting down of breadfruit trees? Or "blue fogging": driving around vehicles that send huge puffs of blue smoke into homes and communities, which sounds ridiculous but would surely be at least as effective as regular fogging in killing mosquitoes (i.e., not at all), and would be much prettier and hilariously random.

But assuming he does realize that blogging is writing, then I have to wonder what he's so upset about. Could it be that we're so used to the elitism of traditional literary/news/opinion media that it sticks in our craws that we have no control over who gets a voice these days? That we aren't ready to release the privilege traditionally required to publish and achieve literary greatness (or at least some kind of audience) and its associated power? That we want it to be hard, goddammit, because then anyone would have access and then what would be the point of our privilege and overpriced, overinflated educations and egos? No. That probably wasn't it.

We talked too about the importance of fair, unbiased reporting, which we seemed to be saying was the current standard of print journalism. We neatly separated this accounting of fact from 'creative writing', as if some of the writing we see in our newspapers isn't the most intentionally scandalous, subjective, created (as apart from creative) thing you've ever seen. The entire discourse reminded me of fourth form English class, where we were taught the definitions of fact and opinion, and then took sentences and assessed them for their content of each. It was disingenuous in its kind of Journalism 101 vibe, and when it came time for audience questions, I wanted to take the mic and say "I'm sorry. Are you people at all serious?" Are we really saying that a newspaper that often runs quotes like "A HOMOSEXUAL TRYST that turned into robbery and ended in death went before the No. 2 Supreme Court yesterday", describes the fact that a man didn't kill his cheating wife sooner as "restraint in the face of adversity" and spends entire paragraphs on stories covering wrongful death/police misconduct cases on whether the alleged victim was gay and promiscuous is committed to some apparently invisible ideal of non-sensationalism and impartiality? No, we can't have been saying that.

In the end, I didn't say anything at all. I've not really outed myself as a writer in this community, at least not in that way where people gather around cheap wine and bemoan the fact that we haven't produced another George Lamming. (As if anyone wants another George Lamming in 2009, or ever. Or another Derek Walcott or Austin Clarke. I don't want another of any of those. We already have them.) And I don't know that I will, because all that bellowing messes with my process and keeps me in my own head, which can't be good for writing. But also because writers talking about writing is potentially some of the most tiresome navel-gazing you could imagine. The people behind the event seem to have great intentions, and I'd like to see them keep going, with perhaps a little more focus next time. But I'm not driven to charge to the fore of this particular movement. I'm not sure I get where it's moving.

Monday, 26 October 2009

State-sanctioned abuse is not 'discipline'

Last weekend, when I grabbed the newspaper from the little old man who is so gingerly perched on the island in the middle of traffic that I'm nervous to move too quickly lest everything topple over and throw him to his demise in front of a sugar cane tractor, I was alarmed. Not by the newspaper man - he's safe - but by the enormous front page photo and the story that accompanied it. And so I became caught up in a frenzied clack-clacking on my computer, filled with outrage and wonder, which I then had to suspend because of other work. And alas, the outrage has not returned in sufficient measure to pick up exactly where I left off. But here's the photo in question, with my own description excerpted below, as I began to write it last weekend.

(The front page picture of a senior teacher at a local secondary boys' school who made the decision to wait at the school gates and publicly flog any student who arrived late. Do you need to re-read that? I'll give you a minute. The photographer went one better than that, though. He included in the shot not just the teacher with his cane or stick or whatever it was, but him actually taking hold of a student and beating him. Another minute? Take your time.

The above shot was taken from the online version of the story, and was not the one used on the front page of the paper version. In this one, the child is taller than the teacher, and is glancing disdainfully at the man as if to say "dude, do you know how long it took me to fix my pants like this? You're really harshing my look here." So it's an offensive image, but not as immediately jarring as the front page photo of the smaller child who looks about 11 and taken quite by surprise.)

Since that story was published, the debate has opened up quite a bit about the legitimacy of flogging in schools. And you know what? I don't understand it. I don't understand how we get into heated arguments around whether it is an effective disciplinary measure to engage in the state-sanctioned beating of other human beings when we've already answered that question in the negative. Remember? We used to have this monstrosity called the cat o' nine tails with which we beat convicted criminals? And this and all other forms of judicial corporal punishment were formally declared inhumane and consequently unconstitutional by the Barbados Supreme Court?

Yet, in 2009, pastors and educators and Matthew Farleys abound, writing articles and giving interviews contrasting crime and social statistics and all manner of 'moral indicators' - whatever those are - in countries where flogging is banned with those where it is still practiced, and arguing on this basis that beating the crap out of children represents the yellow brick road to Utopia. And I used to get all caught up in those arguments myself. I used to yell from my side of the aisle about how Caribbean societies seemed so well-behaved because 1) children who are systematically beaten often don't manifest learned, violent behaviours until they are much older, making it harder (also because of high numbers of migration) to draw a straight line from a beaten child to his criminal behaviour; 2) becoming an offender within the judicial system is not the only manifestation of being generally screwed up; and 3) there are plenty other factors at work keeping our 'moral indicators' as the moral majority would like than corporal punishment - just give a glance to the 'crimes' still on the law books, like homosexuality and dressing like a woman, as opposed to those not on the law books, like marital rape. And on I would go blah-blahing within the parameters of reasoned insanity.

I once even got my bristle board and Sharpie out and picketed the headmaster's office at my school, because he was about to flog (behind closed doors and with no one else present) a teenaged girl who had filled condoms with water and distributed them to her friends to have a laugh.


That's what my sign said. I was 15 years old, and traumatized by the notion that a grown man was going to splay a 16-year-old girl across his desk and beat her, and we were saying that was alright because she happened to be on a school compound between the hours of 9 and 3 and he happened to be called Headmaster.

But these days, I hardly get that far into debates about whether flogging works as a disciplinary action, because I find it absurd that it is even an option. Sure it works in the short term to rule and silence a population with fear, violence and intimidation. We have countless examples of that throughout history, and even today; and we condemn them all. What changes when the population in question is below the age of 18? I would think we'd be more indignant and less willing to do harm to those we're meant to protect.

And how can we draw so neat a line between child abuse - with which this region is struggling more and more every year - and flogging in schools? I hear all kinds of silly little differentiators: "Flogging should not be done in anger, and only by principals and senior teachers." Because that's not at all inhumane. Let's pencil the offending student in for a 2:00 p.m. flogging, yet expect her to be academically productive in the meantime, and then march her off to headteachers' chambers at the appointed hour for a detached, methodical beating. Yeah, that's much better. Then there's the old "I was flogged as a child, and it didn't do me any harm. I turned out great!" Yeah, you turned out great alright. You turned out to be an adult who thinks it's ok to hit children. Well done, you.

I was flogged as a child, and it did me harm. It did me harm to realize that the people I trusted not to hurt me could not be trusted after all, and that their kindness and care were conditional upon certain behaviours that I was still learning. That horrified me. It did me harm to watch my neighbour and primary school classmate walking up the street from school, limping, and when we, concerned, pulled back her skirt, to see her fair skin black-and-blue and purple, bruised, swollen and tender from a teacher's bamboo rod. I cried for her that evening, and had trouble sleeping for days after. It did me harm to have to stand up for myself as an 11-yr old, to tell the principal I would not, in fact, allow him to hit me because I had gotten one problem out of 100 wrong (one strike per wrong answer), and then to feel the victory seep away from me after I sat down again and realized that no one was going to defend the students who had gotten 10 wrong, or 20, or 30. It did me harm to watch my sisters awakened in the middle of the night and struck for some newly-discovered transgression, like reading the wrong type of book, or saying hello to the wrong type of neighbour. I love my parents, and had some great teachers, but the fact that I'm not currently incarcerated for murder doesn't mean none of that did me harm.

Human beings have short memories. So sure, we feel fine now. But children's worlds are small, and the adults who occupy them very, very big. It's time for us to stop finding ways to justify organized, state-sanctioned abuse, get off our lazy asses and parent our children.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Nandy is taking off for a few days

I'm travelling to some meetings this week, so posting will be lighter than usual, if you can imagine that. (You'll notice that I'm yet to re-establish my minimum one-post-daily schedule. That should be followed by a 'but' or 'because', I suppose. I don't have any of those. Life is happening and I'm going with it, keeping the old daily schedule as the goal.)

In the meantime, and for no reason at all, here's the opening sequence from one of my favourite childhood shows, Cro, a short-lived TV series whose character narrator, Phil, is a once-frozen woolly mammoth thawed out in the twentieth century by archaeologists. Phil uses current science problems to draw parallels with his old life among the other mammoths and his human friends back in Woollyville.

The story-telling was great, and the encouragement to have fond memories of people or times we've lost was a great message for children. Women on the show were scientists, warriors and caregivers, and there was very little pink, which was a welcomed break. Also, one of my dear friends - back then and to this day - used to call me Nandy, a female character on the show, because he found my arms 'freakishly long'. Little did he know that I was severely flattered, because Nandy was awesome.

Some day, I'll locate all the old episodes of this thing and have a cheesy nostalgia marathon.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Your guffaw of the day

The Guardian reports that the British National Party (BNP) will now deign to let non-White people join its racist hate-fest. Somewhere, Clayton Bigsby is joyfully shaking his stick.

The far-right British National party has agreed to change its constitution to allow non-white people to join, it emerged today.

The BNP confirmed it would consider changes to its rules and membership criteria after the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched county court proceedings against the party's leader, Nick Griffin, and two other party officials: Simon Darby and Tanya Jane Lumby.

So it's not that they actually want to allow non-White people in their party, it's that they'll get in trouble if they don't. So I don't know why the EHRC is releasing bogus statements of approval:

John Wadham, group director legal at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: "We are pleased that the party has conceded this case and agreed to all of the commission's requirements. Political parties, like any other organisation are obliged to respect the law and not discriminate against people."

Not discriminate against people. John, do you even know what the BNP is? Have you read their manifesto? Are we really going to pretend that preventing a racist party from upholding discrimination in its membership is as important or valuable as addressing the discrimination and incitement to racial hatred in its stated policies and ideologies?

Still, as ridiculous as this all seems, and though it is alarmingly insufficient, it had to be done. The BNP does exist, and while they can't be forcibly dissolved, they can and should be pressured in every way possible. And perhaps some good will come from it. I imagine it's a lot more difficult to denounce entire non-White groups of people when handfuls of them are sitting among your membership in the front row. That might be an interesting experiment.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

More homophobic reporting in the Nation

A HOMOSEXUAL TRYST that turned into robbery and ended in death went before the No. 2 Supreme Court yesterday.

This is how the Nation newspaper begins its story on a manslaughter trial currently underway here. Translation: gayness will kill you. And have you noticed how the sentence implies that it's the actual 'homosexual tryst' that's the crime here? If we remove the qualifiers, we get: "a homosexual tryst went before the No. 2 Supreme Court yesterday." And that's precisely how the article is written.

Here's what I think happens on the newsroom floor of the Nation:

Reporter: I'd like to cover the Courts today. There's a manslaughter trial up.
Editor: Oh. Anything interesting there?
Reporter: I think the men involved are gay. In fact, I heard when one of them was killed, they were being all gay together.
Editor: Really! Well...make sure to lead with that. The gayness. Write as much as you can about any gay sex that was involved, and let's close with a restatement about how gay everything was.
Reporter: Anything else? Like about the victim's family or...
Editor: Nope! Just the gayness will do. Everyone knows gayness goes hand in hand with death and destruction, and we have a duty to represent that.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Are we still saying that? Because we should stop

While I was doing my post-grad work in Economics (capitalizing that word feels like such a joke), and even well before then, the academics in the know never tired of mentioning that We, as a collective of thinkers and activists, had ceased to use the expression Third World. Instead, we talked about developing nations, or less/least developed countries, a move to which I wholly subscribed, because although I feel quite alone in this, I detest the phrase Third World.

But all of a sudden, everywhere I look, I see it springing up again. And I'm starting to wonder whether I only dreamt the popular rejection of the term years ago, or whether it's enjoying some kind of rebirth. It certainly hasn't been redefined: it's a handy little moniker that encapsulates any brand of nastiness or degradation you might imagine, and it's quite the punchline. Hate the state in which your office bathrooms are kept? Liken it to a Third World country. Annoyed that your hotel only offers three varieties of cream cheese at breakfast? Call it a Third World diet. It's an exaggeration, see? So it's funny! Lawl and stuff!

Implicit in these comparisons is the realization that the speakers not only have no idea about the reality of life in the so-called Third World, but further, don't give a crap. They're able to so flippantly refer to the poverty and lack of opportunity in some of these nations because they're comfortable - not with the actual state of things, of which they have only a vague knowledge, or none - but with the fabled state of things. Starvation, disease and war existing on such a scale for such a length of time need not be treated with any reverence or respect, one, because it is completely removed from their lives and doesn't affect them, and two, because some of the countries of the global South have, in the estimation of these speakers, become horror stories in themselves, and thus have transitioned into some kind of mythical status. Except, we're not talking about centaurs and unicorns here. We're talking about real, live, accessible people's lives, of which, if someone can hit Enter on a keyboard, they can approach some basic understanding.

Further, the term Third World obscures all parts of a country's culture apart from those which are to be pitied or improved. By no great coincidence, so does the mainstream media. Back in March, I highlighted the efforts of Chioma and Oluchi Ogwuegbu: two Nigerian sisters who had purposed to tell the story of the Africa behind all that media footage of distended bellies and power-hungry rebels. It's not that a discussion of the problems of developing nations is not needed. It is. But when you commit to systematically representing a country solely as victims, you show only one part of who its people are, and not the greatest part. Third World also implies homogeneity across all the countries that are meant to comprise this class, one which simply does not exist economically, socially or politically. It suggests that regardless of level of economic and social development, comparative advantages or system of governance, they are all to be singularly treated always as less than.

And the final issue I have with this term is perhaps the most obvious: it suggests a hierarchy that in people's minds is not neatly restricted to some ranking of progress in development indicators, and certainly not to the historical allegiance of nations during the Cold War, as its origins are claimed to be, but is attached to real people and by association, their ethnicities. It suggests that the US with its White majority is innately better than, say, India, and encourages not an examination of global inequality as a result of historical exploitation, but of the notion that these countries have less because they are objectively worth less. And that was its intent. When Frenchman Alfred Sauvy coined the term half a century ago, he was so inspired to do by the presence of the Third Estate in France, the commoners who, by virtue of their position, Sauvy thought destined to be in an eternal state of revolution against the higher classes of the First and Second Estates. "Like the third estate," he famously wrote, "the Third World has nothing, and wants to be something."

Leaders at the Bandung Conference that followed in 1955 embraced the designation as an indication of a new bloc, but that designation, tenuous even then, means nothing now. And anyone from a developing country who wants to reclaim the expression can, I suppose, go ahead and do so. I choose not to. I, as a Black woman from the Caribbean, am third in no one's pecking order. This is not sensitivity to a useful academic category or definition - although even those types of objections often have merit. This is the thorough rejection of a highly stigmatized, completely arbitrary categorization that serves no purpose other than to equate a certain geographical provenance and ethnic heritage with lack and degradation.

I do not accept it, and I would encourage allies of we who originate, live and work on human rights and development in the global South to also reject it.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

A new look at our Chinese connection

On Thursday, China marked six decades of Communist rule with an enormous, highly-choreographed parade displaying its military might and seeming to celebrate - with its strict formations and careful selection of local spectators - rigid conformity among its people. At least that's how it struck me when I turned my TV on to our one local channel and saw the parade, which was being televised here. In Barbados. On the one local channel.

Granted I was a bit woozy with sleep when I turned on the television. Still languishing in my cable-free existence, I don't watch much TV these days. But every now and then, Channel 8 will broadcast some show offering information that I probably wouldn't otherwise have accessed. A few weeks ago, there was one explaining and seeking solutions for our problems with coastal erosion and the coral reefs that we've managed to destroy, and more recently, a great series of interviews with experts and activists working to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS in Barbados. So I tuned in on Thursday night in the hopes that I might see something illuminating, and I suppose that's what I got, in so far as the broadcast of the celebrations caused me to realize just how much our 'diplomatic involvement' with China seems to be growing, and to simultaneously ponder what in sky-blue tarnation Prime Minister Thompson and his Cabinet are brewing over there in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Now, Barbados has engaged in diplomatic relations with China since the 1970s, and the two countries have a well established history of bilateral economic cooperation as well as cultural exchanges. Chinese economic funding of capital projects here has been accompanied by the country's provision of its own workforce on such projects, and over time, the appearance of Chinese temporary migrant workers has increased. The population of more permanent migrants has also seemed to grow steadily, but still represents a miniscule proportion of our population. In recent months, the Thompson administration has placed huge emphasis on its efforts to increase the proportion of economic assistance that comes from China. In fact, it appears to be government's key economic strategy for containing the deficit while continuing to grow the economy through the funding of capital projects. Less transparent, however, has been the other part of the equation: what are the conditionalities, if any, upon which this economic assistance is contingent? Is this aid tied to any development indicators? To the reciprocity of economic goodwill via, for example, absorption of an increased Chinese labour force? In short, what does China stand to gain from giving us all this money?

We're not sure, but in the meantime, the current administration has embarked upon some kind of "Embrace China" campaign, in which Thursday's parade was prefaced by the exhortations of the PM to watch the proceedings, proceedings which were clearly meant to convince anyone watching of China's greatness as a socialist nation that has avoided the economic ruin plaguing other countries, and also of the fact that they have large guns, and know how to use them. The spectacle was, frankly, disturbing. And as we saw the odd proximity of flag-bearing children to tanks and rocket launchers and the giant portrait of Chairman Mao floating imperiously across Tiananmen Square, one wondered why the Barbados government was so invested in having us observe, invested enough to send us a special message to watch on television, just as China's President Hu Jintao had sent a message to its citizens. Why China would want its own citizens to watch is not difficult to fathom: as China's economic power and prospecting grow abroad, so too does the backlash against its presence and policies, and with it, the relative insecurity of its people living in the countries on whom it has set its mercantilist sights. Over 3000 Chinese tourists were hurriedly evacuated from Thailand during civil unrest in November last year. And from the coast of Somalia to Papua New Guinea and even nearer home in Xinjiang and Tibet, China has been actively engaged in using military force to suppress uprisings in order, ostensibly, to protect its assets and people. So Thursday's parade was meant to convince not so much its Western competitors as its own people both at home abroad of the government's capacity to protect and its general wonderfulness concerning the country's development. I'd imagine that if a government is really successful, it wouldn't take hours of marching and weapons displays for its citizens to be convinced, but we know that China has never been one for the soft touch when it comes to influencing what its people 'believe'.

But I'm still not sure why even they would care about how 270 000 people on a little rock in the Caribbean Sea perceive them. As it stands, the handful of Chinese living here are not under threat from much of anything, except perhaps idiotic calypso songs, (which when you consider how idiotic might actually be something of an incentive to increase cultural awareness). But apart from that, why insist on broadcasting such an intimidating show of Chinese strength in li'l ole Barbados? Especially without any context or introduction? I have to confess that even as a non-alarmist who has some understanding of Chinese economic and foreign policy, even I was starting to get nervous about possible appropriation of our entire country by the Chinese government. I found myself thinking for a brief, silly moment, "Holy crap...David Thompson done gone and sold the whole of Barbados to the Chinese in exchange for a couple schools and some gymnastics lessons." One imagines (and dearly hopes) that nothing quite so sinister is afoot here, and that this broadcast was nothing more than a type of popularity campaign on which the Barbados government has promised to embark in exchange for oodles of Chinese cash. But this doesn't make the whole thing any less irritating. In fact, it probably makes it more so. And here's why:

The following night, as I looked at the little Channel 8 programming list they air before the 7:00 news, I noticed that slotted in at around 8:30 was some show vaguely called "Chinese Culture". So I tuned in to find a programme featuring a very small-voiced, female narrator describing the virtues of Chinese farming practices, healing techniques, gastronomy and who knows what else. It was a naive little crash course in the tourist's China, looked like it was recorded in the 80s, and didn't say much of anything. By the next night, when an identical show appeared in the lineup, I was starting to get simultaneously confused and annoyed. The series struck me as a silly little propaganda campaign (ack! there's that word) meant to convince us that there's nothing wrong with having China foot our capital projects bill (someone doth protest too much) because they're really cool people who know how to shoot guns and do acupuncture. And once I had again convinced myself that the Prime Minister had not in fact sold us off as a new Chinese colony, I began to feel insulted by this ridiculously superficial and misleading 'education campaign'.

First of all: don't try to handle me. (I've always wanted to say that, preferably while sitting across a boardroom table from Bill Gates or Condoleeza Rice, but this will do.) Don't handpick little soundbytes about horticulture and food preparation and sell them to me as a representation of modern-day China. Not only does it obscure far more important aspects of the historical making of the People's Republic of China as a nation and the way its society functions today, but honestly, it's just a weak, lazy attempt at cultural integration. If I were China, I would ask for my money back.

Second, if people truly have concerns about our dependence on development aid from China, they are more likely to do with the country's human rights record: the Chinese government's restrictions on free speech and the media, independent organizing and religious freedom continue apace. Lack of due judicial process operates alongside the torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, and the country's one-child, family planning policy represents more violations of human dignity and reproductive rights than can be discussed here. After Iran and Saudi Arabia, China executes the most people per capita in the word, including for crimes like tax evasion. (Although if you kill your girlfriend, you're straight; especially if you promise to pay for her. You break it, you buy it, dude.)

This is not to say that diplomatic relations have to be severed in order to take an ideological stand against the undesirable parts of a country's system of governance. In fact, it's often more effective to engage than to dissociate. That is, when you're the U.S or UK or any country larger than an area rug. When you're Barbados, you don't roll up into China and say "you know what, we'd love to take your millions but we're concerned about the status of the Uighurs in Tibet, so let's start that dialogue." No. You say "Ooh millions! Thankees!" Because no one cares. You have nothing to offer and no one cares what you have to say. Your two possible courses of action are: take the money/don't take the money. And while there might be room for negotiation on less important points, China is not taking advice from David Thompson on its human rights record.

So the PM takes the money: there are arguments for and against that. This we acknowledge. But don't insult us by launching a media campaign pretending that China is all economic success and beautiful (-ly controlled) weather, and engaging in your own brand of revisionist/selective education. It's maddening. And stupid. Clearly the PM is not going to grab China's money and then run home to engage in long, televised debates about the death penalty or the war in Tibet. But neither should he gloss it all over with mindless little 'culture shows' as if we can't read, or have no international social conscience. It only makes me angry, and want to further question not only the content of any new bilateral agreements with China, but the general foreign policy skill of Barbados's current administration. Which suggests to me that whatever the PM's goal may have been, the whole thing backfired a little.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Can we be clear once and for all on who suffers most and worst from intimate-partner violence? Please?

I wasn't going to write about this, because this type of argument exhausts me, but here it is, stuck in my craw, and it doesn't seem to be moving. So onward.

Any discussion encompassing gender in Barbados seems to be permanently stuck on the old "but it happens to men too!" or "men suffer worse!" refrain. And the media seems quite happy to play that tit-for-tat game: every issue must be highlighted as having equal effects and repercussions for men and women, whether this be the case or not; and - I suppose through some naïve interpretation of equality - both 'perspectives' must be given equal column inches and presented with like gravity. Intimate partner violence has become chief among these.

Last week, the Nation devoted pages of coverage to the silent but apparently common scourge of woman-on-man intimate partner violence. Chairman of the Men's Educational Support Association, Ralph Boyce, who has become the self-appointed spokesperson for men's rights, was quoted heavily in one of several articles on the issue:


That's the conclusion of the chairman of the Men's Education Support Association (MESA) about men who stay in relationships where they are verbally, physically or psychologically abused by their girlfriends or spouses.

First off, I would venture that further denigrating the character of victims of abuse by publicly classifying them as 'weak' is the wrong tack to take in offering them help. But further, if feels to me as if Boyce is conflating his outrage at violence against men with his general indignation that women should dare to speak on behalf of their male partners:

"In MESA, we have some cases, luckily not too many, where men say they can't come to meetings because their wives say they can't come.

"Or, it is a case where I call a man's home to invite him to a meeting and his wife or woman says he can't come and starts giving me reasons," Boyce disclosed, adding:

"We have some surprisingly weak men in Barbados and the women hate them for it. They call them 'twerps' and twits.

Controlling behaviour is often a serious indicator of systemic violence in a relationship, but I would hesitate to categorize the declining of an invitation on a partner's behalf as psychologically abusive. One gets the sense that Boyce is really saying "listen, man up and put your foot down, and no woman will overstep her place long enough to knock you around." This is clearly an oversimplification of the dynamic of intimate partner abuse. While Boyce asserts that the problem of female violence against men has gone unaddressed because "[w]hat prevented victims from coming forward was the perceived ridicule", he ironically spends much of the article ridiculing men who have been abused, while tossing out vague generalizations like "women like men who are strong."

And he also seems to confuse anecdotal evidence with data:

"One of our members who was doing some research into physical violence told me that a man told him his wife slapped him inside the supermarket in front of everybody and the member asked him what he did, and his response was that he went outside the supermarket and cried. This is a real case," he said.

I'm not sure what to do with that. Are we to be awed by the fact that a man might suffer physical abuse at the hands of his wife? Or that he cried? Or that he didn't retaliate with 'strength', however Boyce might define this. Because for all Boyce's purported rejection of "[t]he traditional belief [...] that the man is not supposed to show any kind of emotion", he seems to subscribe to it himself. Or is this merely meant to serve as evidence that such violence exists? In which case, I, for one, don't need much convincing. I saw one such case, in fact. That is, (and since we're basing conclusions on observed evidence) one case in my entire lifetime as against oh, say, a couple hundred involving women as victims. Boyce, though, is not convinced that the problem is so uncommon:

The verbal and physical abuse is very common. A lot of the time, women initiate the violence against men.

I would love to have that 'a lot of the time' qualified (in a lot of the cases involving male victims, or the DV cases in general?), and this is a huge part of my problem with this kind of irresponsible reporting on the part of people who should know better: a respected and recognizable public figure stands up and, speaking with seeming authority and one would assume the benefit of research, claims that "a lot of the time, women initiate the violence against men", and people run off convinced that not only is violence against women not the immense public health problem it actually is, but that women actually initiate this and other types of violence, and conversely, it is violence against men that constitutes the real danger in the Caribbean.

We know that there is likely to be chronic underreporting of all types of domestic violence cases, among both men and women, but this is not a sufficient condition to deduce that men are being abused as much as women, and it's just that they're not telling anyone because people, ironically like the MESA Chairman, will call them weak. And it isn't even necessary to prove that the abuse is as widespread as that against women in order for it to be flagged as a problem: no one should have to endure abuse, and if we can provide unique support for these men that they might not get from a regular victims'/survivors of violent crime support service, then we should (although I would suggest that given his tenuous grasp of the intimate partner abuse dynamic, Mr. Boyce not be the one to offer such support).

But let us not present violence against women, as the Nation has done by first telling the stories of men who have been abused and then in a subsequent issue those of women (the latter notably in fewer pages), as on equal footing with that against men. It simply is not true, and I'm not sure what purpose it is meant to serve. It has been a hard struggle in the Caribbean, this business of eliminating violence against women, and it seems very little headway is being made. For years, activists and Ministers alike have been highlighting the grossly exceeded capacity of shelters for women and children here in Barbados, while in Jamaica, domestic-related murders jumped 20 per cent between 2005 and the end of 2006 and continue to rise, with women and girls constituting (at least) over 70% of the victims in each year of reporting.*

It would be misguided to allocate public resources meant to reduce domestic violence equally (that is, equally; that is not to say no resources should be allocated to DV against men at all) along the violence against women/violence against men divide, and to lump them together both in our discussion and treatment of the issue is also a mistake. They are simply not the same: the persistent dynamic that keeps women in abusive situations both in homes and communities; its coexistence with sexual violence and women's exercise of their sexual decision-making and rights; the higher HIV infection rate of women which operates alongside a higher care-taking burden than that of men; all these things and more separate violence against women from violence against men. I am all for public resources being allocated to the elimination of all forms of violence against our citizens, but let's keep in perspective who the most emergent victims are, and stay focused in our advocacy to save women's lives.

*Jamaica Constabulary Statistics Department Report 2007

Monday, 28 September 2009

Cough, moan, mumble

Well, no sooner had I rounded the corner from a week of birthday celebrations than I was blindsided by some nasty germs - possibly all the germs in the world, from the feel of things. Posting will resume once the flu delirium and general icky-feeling have passed.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The mongoose is your dear old aunt (Happy birthday to me)

I'll always remember your birthday because it's around the same time as something more important than your birthday
First let me apologize. I know I've been missing for a week, and I don't have an outstanding reason, except that my monitor decided to go rogue and become the matrix. It's now covered in flickering lines, spots and other vision-obstructing paraphernalia. The good news is that my life-(and blog-)saving friend brought me a monitor to hook up to my laptop at home. The not-so-good news is that the coming week is filled with birthday celebrations, so I may be missing a little more.

My sister's birthday is Thursday, and my birthday is today. Thweep! (That's my noisemaker.) I love birthdays. I was up at 5:30 a.m, and out on the road by 6:30, two sisters in tow (they're on holiday; I'm just idle), all three of us wearing party hats and accepting kind wishes from strangers. There were a few nasty don't-these-three-idiots-have-anything-better-to-do looks as well. We just blew our noisemakers at those people: Thweep!, beyotch. We're having a party.

So yes, I love birthdays as an occasion to celebrate life, learning and love. My mother started that tradition among her three girls growing up: we treat the birthday person well, acknowledge that on that day it's not so much about us and a bit more about her, and we use it as a time to take stock of life, thank the universe (she would say god, and would grimace long-sufferingly at me for saying 'universe') for what we have, and purpose to be better people in the next year of life.

I'm getting old, y'all. Sometimes I'm in the middle of a story, and I'll hear myself saying something like: "that was ten years ago, in Venezuela, under the old presidente", and I feel like an old seafarer back from a lengthy voyage. It's great. I feel learned - with two syllables, and I also now call teenaged boys 'son', for which my friends laugh and point at me, and deservedly so because really, that's not necessary.

So I'm young and still learning, but old enough to do so with some clarity, so that the lessons stick instead of bouncing off my thick head to be lost forever. Clarity is great. Life is wonderful. Long live (the uncompromisable goal of) absolute world peace.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Serena has a(n expensive) moment

I was just about to post my entry about Melanie Oudin and ask why the small, blonde White tennis player has to be dubbed America's sweetheart when the Williams sisters fit most of the underdog profile ascribed to Oudin, except of course they are decidedly neither small, blonde nor White. So of course they won't be cast as America's anything, not when a non-negligible percentage of America is right now marching in the streets intent on showcasing themselves as the real America - you know, the part that's not brown. I was all set to talk about how the reason it's so easy to paint Oudin as a women's hero and laud her skill as unprecedented is that from the time the Williams sisters began to dominate women's tennis, many commentators didn't even see them as women's tennis heroes, because they hardly saw them as women. They dismissed a major part of their game as the natural result of mass and brawn - that thing Black athletes have naturally, rather than skill, which is what White athletes have. And many even began to tire of their domination on that basis: there go the Williams sisters again, beating all the regular people with their muscles and whatnot. It just isn't right!

(I was also interested in why any woman in sport has to be a sweetheart of any kind, and why we need to minimize women's strength and athleticism in favour of their 'more feminine attributes', as if it's ok that they run around and sweat and get all dirty, because behind it all, they're really little girls, so all is right with the universe.)

And then I saw Serena's outburst in her semi-final match against Kim Clijsters - the one that cost her the match - and I thought "well, this is not great." Because I thought that unfortunately, even though Williams has spent years in the game as an even-tempered sportswoman, gracious in defeat and downright charming in interviews, people are going to say "Well here comes the Compton now. It was only a matter of time." Am I cynical? Definitely. Am I wrong? Probably not. John McEnroe spent most of his career snarling at officials and beating his racquet to dust, and it became something of a joke: "oh that's just John!" But there's much less space for a woman to have an indecorous outburst, and a Black woman? Forget it. As we speak, I'm searching for match footage of spectators diving for cover or calling 911.

All accounts of Serena's conduct - that she threatened "I swear to God I'm [expletive] going to take this ... ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat" - suggest that she was completely out of order. If there were ever a time a player should suffer a point penalty for verbal abuse, I'd say this would be it. She lost her head, she threatened an official, and was rightly punished. It remains to be seen whether further punishment will follow, a possibility which would certainly stimulate argument over whether there's more behind the treatment of this incident than unsportswomanlike conduct, and whether the reaction would be the same if Serena happened to look different and/or didn't enjoy the status she does within the women's game. Serena herself isn't that apologetic, and seems eager to move on. I hope it's that simple, but I won't be surprised if it's not.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

'President' with a lower-cas(t)e 'p'

The now famous Joe Wilson outburst of "You lie!" during President Obama's defense of his health care plan in Congress was not at all shocking to me. The tremendous backlash against Obama by White American conservatives still stunned to have a Black man in the White House - the completely uninformed buffoonery and right-wing panic that has characterized opposition to health care reform, to the economic stimulus package, and to the very existence of President Obama - has led directly to this point. Disrespect for the President during the Bush administration, and even after we uncovered all the lies and pretenses surrounding the war in Iraq, was considered unAmerican. But blatant disrespect for the office of President is perfectly acceptable when the one occupying the role is a lot less White than people would prefer.

Obama has been caricatured as Hitler and the Joker; 'birthers', in an almost textbook manifestation of how Black bodies have historically been and continue to be considered the property of a White public, have demanded evidence of his circumcised genitalia; rabid dissenters are taking guns to health care rallies; people are emailing watermelon-strewn White House lawns all up and through; the Republican death panel hide-your-grannies misinformation campaign is still going strong; and we're only now dropping jaws that a highly-paid Congressman would dare to interrupt the President's address to call him a liar? Did we really think that the racist disrespect we've seen to date was originated with and owned by disgruntled voters? And that the ones who lead them would know better?

When Sen. Saxby Chambliss called for the President to 'show some humility' regarding the health care debate, what he really meant was that the uppity Negro should know his place. When 'concerned parents' started wetting their pantaloons over the President's back-to-school address to their children, trying to drown the nation in panic that Obama would work his African voodoo on young minds and indoctrinate them with his Socialist agenda, what they were really responding to was their natural inclination against letting any Black people near their children. Surely you understand their consternation: they've toiled their entire lives to make sure their children are shielded from the Black bogeymen, and what the H - E double hockey sticks do you know...they done gone and let one walk straight into the White House with a direct line to their precious White angels.

So you'll pardon me if I didn't get all gaspy when Wilson yelled at the President of the United States that he is a liar in an open session of Congress - an utterance that was as disrespectful as it was disingenuous, since we know from the text of the Bill itself that Obama's statement regarding lack of public health care coverage for illegal immigrants was correct. And if he had added a 'boy' at the end of his outburst, I probably would have been only slightly more surprised. Because the ilk of Republicans among which Wilson counts himself does not disagree with Obama's policy, but with his Blackness, and with what they think is worse, his confidence and capability in spite of it.

And not only is Wilson's weak, mumbled 'apology' evidence of his lack of remorse, but even considering the admonition from both sides, the support he has received from like-thinking Americans who think he's just 'representing the people' suggests that there is not nearly enough outrage as we'd like to think there should be. Obama himself seemed thoroughly unfazed in the moment, as many of us who have experienced this type of racism tend to become. And the increase in donations to Wilson's Democratic opponent may be seen as a kind of quiet resistance to Wilson's brand of hate. But even as I consider my own response, as well as the President's, I wonder if 'quiet' and 'unfazed' are exactly the characteristics that feed this new, accepted racism that is being packaged as due democratic process, even while it clearly is not. The advantage of the post-racial myth is that it fools us into thinking Wilson part of an outdated minority, even as it gives birth to a revival in racism at the highest level, which - left ignored - will continue to thrive and grow right under our noses.

Bottle attacks are a real nuisance

When I wrote last week about street harassment, a skeptical male reader conceded that such attention could perhaps be considered 'a nuisance'. I suppose it could be characterized as a nuisance: vile insults, threats of rape, intimidation, being attacked with a bottle. Yeah...that could get annoying:

A WOMAN who was hit in the face because she did not take kindly to Dwayne Omar
Anthony Brathwaite dancing behind her will carry the scars from his bottle
attack, but will also get compensation from him.

A little heads up to the Nation's writer: she wasn't hit in the face because she didn't take kindly to Dwayne Omar Anthony Brathwaite dancing behind her. She was hit in the face because Dwayne Omar Anthony Brathwaite is a criminal who will not tolerate rejection from a woman and who thinks it acceptable to hit her as punishment for having the temerity to refuse him. But it's alright, because even though she's scarred, she gets oodles of money!

The magistrate ordered Brathwaite to pay Douglas $2 000 in compensation and
Forde $1 000 in compensation - by December 11.

Ok...maybe one oodle. Or..half an oodle?

During the trial, Forde told the court she and her friend Debbie were in
the Boatyard nightclub. She was dancing with a male friend in an area near some
steps when she noticed a man was in front of her.

People were also pointing at her friend and she then saw that man was
dancing behind her friend. That man was Brathwaite.

"I was concerned 'cause Debbie appeared not to welcome it and I asked
[my friend] to speak to Brathwaite," she said.

"I heard Debbie ask [Brathwaite] where he came from. [Brathwaite] then
walked away and [her male friend] walked over and spoke with [Brathwaite] and
asked him to leave Debbie alone," the witness added.

Forde further told the court that five minutes later she felt someone
approach her, and, out of the corner of her eye, she saw that person come next
to her.

"I put up my right hand to cover my face and I got hit on my elbow with
a beer bottle. When I looked to my right I saw [Brathwaite] holding a bottle,"
she said.

"[Brathwaite] then hit Debbie with the same bottle he hit me with and
said, 'Don't send nobody to tell me things.'"

Yeah. That's a real nuisance.

And here's another thing I want to know: is the content of victim testimony against violent offenders meant to be a matter of public record? Because it seems to me that this type of reporting is more about providing cheap drama for readers than about the public's right to know.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Researching attitudes about mothering and feminism

Researchers Mindy Erchull and Miriam Liss at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia are engaged in a study examining attitudes about mothering and feminism. They've developed a survey to collect data from women over the age of 18, including "feminists, non-feminists, mothers, and non-mothers", and are asking our help in gathering information.

You can find the survey here:

It takes about 15 minutes, and you can repost the link anywhere you like. Wear it on a t-shirt, leave it in a fogged-up mirror in an airport bathroom, you know, spread the word however you wish. Given the number of surveys I've asked poor, unsuspecting strangers to complete, I always like to help people out. (Who knows - maybe Miriam and Mindy will shed some light on the whole feminist, baby-hating movement that apparently exists.)

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

It's not just about Buju

So we heard this past Sunday that once again, following protests from gay rights advocacy groups, Buju Banton has been banned from performing at scheduled shows, this time in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas, Dallas and Houston. Some bloggers are rolling their eyes that people just can't get over a song from 20 years ago and let the man have a career, and even the Jamaica Gleaner is, through their headline, painting him as some kind of tragic figure dogged by past mistakes and hunted by an unrelenting, international activist machine. It's as if we're meant to believe that this is all about one man and one misguided song, rather than an entire reggae industry made rich by anti-gay sentiment, and supported by a large, homophobic population.

There are other questions that might be examined here: the idea of redemption, who deserves it and when, and who gets to offer it; boycotting as a political action, whom we boycott, who we may find it easier to boycott, and who is ultimately affected by these types of decisions. But one thing is impossible to deny: the homophobia in Jamaican music is definite and destructive, and makes a very difficult subject for any exploration of the privilege of Western activism aimed at the developing world. Still, let us onward, and see what we see.

Back in 2005, the UK-based Stop Murder Music coalition entered into a verbal agreement with major record labels and concert promoters representing eight of reggae music's biggest names, including Buju, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. The agreement saw the suspension of SMM's aggressive campaigns against the artistes and their music - campaigns which had been extremely successful in cancelling tours and TV appearances and withdrawing award nominations from the artistes involved. In return, record companies "pledged not to release or re-release any offensive songs", as well as encourage singers not to perform such songs on stage.

But the artistes themselves were not involved in this decision, and the following year, the truce was abandoned when it was claimed that Buju Banton, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer broke the agreement by repeating homophobic songs and views.

In 2007, Buju Banton, Beenie Man and others attracted considerable praise and media attention when they reportedly signed the Reggae Compassionate Act, renouncing homophobia and condemning violence against lesbians and gay men. But it later emerged that once news of the Act reached their fan base in Jamaica, representatives of the artistes vehemently denied their clients' being signatory to the agreement, and so the cycle continues.

Over the last decade, Buju especially has come to be known more for his uplifting lyrics than for the infamous "Boom Bye Bye" - first recorded in 1988 and re-released in 1992 - that has come to be the exemplar of murder music against which activist groups are fighting. But he performed the song at Memorial Fest in Miami in 2006, a year before signing the Act, but recently enough for those concerned to be skeptical of his professed change of heart. (The last link also contains the song's lyrics, so this is a warning for sexual content, violence and most other forms of general indecency of which you might conceive.)

None of these agreements has ever required an apology for past hateful behaviour, or any kind of public, verbal statements by the artistes reflecting a change of heart, or a commitment to denounce homophobia in their public lives. Sure, they may (or may not, depending on who you talk to) have scrawled a pen across an Act whose clauses were written by a third party, but they are part of a culture and people that considers itself righteous in its homophobia and hate: there is a community that thinks itself the victim of a conspiracy to malign Jamaica and its music, and so they stand proud in a fight to protect their right to be hateful. And much of masculinity in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean is predicated on an emphatic, sometimes violent rejection of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. The same violence applied to the conquest of women that defines manhood is applied to the suppression and oppression of the gay identity.

When the Prime Minister of a country, in an internationally broadcast interview, asserts that there is 'no room for gays' in political life and refuses to establish legislation recognising gay rights, there is very little incentive for musicians to reject homophobia. In fact, this type of stance by the country's leader acts as a disincentive to any Jamaican from interrogating his/her own homophobia and taking a public stand against it, since such action is likely to be met with ridicule. It would be great to have a popular champion of tolerance, but that is not likely to come in the person of a best-selling reggae artist who, like the PM, must stay popular in order to stay wealthy.

There are, of course, parts of the population who do not accept homophobia as a necessary part of their culture, but one finds it difficult to conceive of a Jamaica where the tolerance of the few eventually extends to the many. This is not likely to happen for many generations, not when homophobia is sanctioned by the State. Jamaican opposition to outside activism makes claims of racism, charging that White gay rights groups are unfairly targeting Black, Caribbean musicians, and seeking to keep their communities in poverty. I'd say it's a little difficult to play the victim when you're advocating the eradication of an entire population, but there is something to the notion that we have to be strategic in our political action. I wrote a little about it here, and clearly immune from accusations of vanity, I'm going to quote myself below:
Amid growing calls in the international activist community to boycott tourism and products that would benefit 'homophobic countries' - on the list of which Jamaica features high - Barbados too has been censured in a recent shadow report "for its criminalisation of same-sex sexual activity and the violation of the rights of lesbian[s], gay[s], bisexual[s] and transgender[ed people] (LGBT)." While I think that the types of boycotts mentioned are often ill-conceived and counter-productive (if you want to change public attitudes towards the LGBT community, maintaining the already poor in poverty is not the way to do it), and based on the absurd notion that for example Jamaica is one homogeneous society thinking and acting as one, I do believe that properly-implemented action by the international community is one of the ways to develop political will among these countries' own governments to effect change from within. Tying development aid or representation on certain international bodies to the proven enforcement of human rights conventions is one place to start, and while it is not the place of the US or any other country to wholly dictate cultural values to another country, it is certainly the place of all of us to expose institutionalized bigotry and hate in countries that claim to promote human freedoms for all.
Do I have a point? Yes! And it is this: the LGBT communities all over the world are within their rights and have my support in preventing those who would attack their identities and their bodies from being given a platform on their doorsteps. We would be naïve to think that this is just about Buju's one song years ago. This was the track that launched his career, and he seems hard pressed to abandon his identification with it. Even so, this isn't about one man or one song. To this day, homophobic lyrics are produced in reggae studios and played in clubs. And if Jamaica is a scapegoat and an easy target, it's certainly a justifiable one. (It's also an unfortunate one, since those who absurdly and incorrectly claim that homophobia is a predominantly Black affliction have good old Jamaica to point to.) Anti-homophobia action has to go beyond bans and boycotts, but we can't expect the targets of hate and bigotry, the ones struggling to feel safe, to be the only ones tasked with eliminating it. It's the rest of us who have to do the work.
Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence