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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Here is an excerpt from a story on Stuart Hall:

“Look, Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, believed in pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit. You must look at what’s happening now. If it’s unpropitious, say it’s unpropitious. Don’t fool yourself. Analyse the conjuncture that you’re in. Then you can be an optimist of the will, and say I believe that things can be different. But don’t go to optimism of the will first. Because that’s just utopianism.”

Whole story here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2012/feb/11/saturday-interview-stuart-hall?INTCMP=SRCH

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Today starts the annual 16 days of activism focussing on actions that contribute to ending violence against women. Day 16 is 10 December which is human rights day.

In 1991, I attended  something loftily and over-the-toply named the Women’s Global Leadership Institute at Rutgers University. Then I was working at CAFRA, amidst women of passion for the Caribbean, for feminism and for social justice. And although on the eve of departure, I had broken an innocuous and tiny bone in my foot whch caused me to be in a hugely disproportionately-sized cast from knee to toe, I  felt I could not, just not go. Peggy had recommended me, Rawwida encouraged me.. and what to do.

So with baby Safiya at home only 6 months and Aschille barely 2, I set off leaving Douglas behind with the lovelies. At Rutgers I met the most amazing group of women from all over the world and I shared a room with Siriporn from Thailand. She did and still does great work with a women’s shelter.

By the end of the institute, these women came up with this idea of focussing the world’s attention annually on ending violence against women for 16 days. It was at this institute that the slogan “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” was coined and the 16 days ends on human rights day.

See where and how the initiative has grown!!! All over the world actions and events are being held by women’s organisations, by parliaments, by human rights organisations.

The power of thought and solidarity.

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Yesterday Barbados said its farewell to the late Prime Minister David Thompson at a most moving state funeral. Ten days of mourning allowed time aplenty for people from all spaces of Barbadian life to reflect on David both in his personal life as well as on his political influence.

A  consistent picture emerged from the recollections and from Brian Clarke’s poignant and affecting eulogy- someone who from an early age had a sense of himself as a leader, had a wide range of interests, was deeply engaged with people, with a facility for easy and honest connection, a dry wit and a modern and pragmatic approach to governing. He shared that deeply rooted Barbadian aspiration for social equality and believed in the state’s role for creating the conditions for mobility.

The pictures showed someone devoted to his family, loving and respecting his life partner, nurturing children who seem so natural and at ease with the public.

And I am left wondering how come it is that many of us knew so little about these things that should matter at least as much as socio-economic ideology or leadership style; about his relationships with family, friends and community.  These give insight into character. And character, after all, may be the most of what counts when faced with decisions that affect the multitudes.

You may have noticed that I do not comment on current, small ‘p’ politics. It is a daily exercise in self-restraint and discipline, especially since I have a Double PHD in psychology with post-doctoral specialization in political psychology. Yes, I was home schooled.  And you can keep your snobbish thoughts about unrecognized tertiary institutions.  By the way, Douglas also has similar certification in meteorology, more precisely in early forecasting of storms. Praises.

Anyways, about politics, I think I will say, like Bill Maher: New Rule! We ought to demand from our political actors a base of decent family relationships, in whatever diverse ways that family is defined and lived. If they are in unions, we expect that they love their partners well or otherwise (and people do fall out of love) that partners are honoured with honesty and respect. Politicians must be in their children’s lives in meaningful and visible ways.

The personal is political. Surely we will be better served by political actors for whom respectful and equal partnerships matter and who care about family. It is a good starting point.

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Rallying for Social Change

Last evening, the usual band of activists held a rally for peace in Jubilee Gardens to honour the six young women who died in the CampusTrendz fire. It was intended to mobilise outrage and concern into social solidarity.

Advertised all week long on radio, the rally started at 3 on Saturday. Yet, it was at 6 in the evening, I remembered. In the drizzle, I half expected (hoped, let me be honest) that the event was curtailed for rain. But no, getting parking space right next to Jubilee Gardens, the policeman confirmed that the rally was going on.

David Commissiong, Nalita, Aja,  the organisers, were there and then maybe 150 other persons. Mia gave a thoughtful, paper-free speech, David C., one which was poetic. Yes. And Richard Stoute, deep into his sixties, sang with the same voice and styling as ever “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand”. 

He grew up in the New Orleans, a working class and now depressed Bridgetown community, where I believe the young men who are accused of the Campus Trendz crimes were arrested. Stoute recalled that in his childhood, people in the Orleans shared food over the paling, felt themselves a community, looked out for each other, implying that there are other influences at work, besides material poverty, that lead to and better explain alienation and criminality.

This should have been a better attended event. Maybe, like me, people forgot. Maybe they had other commitments. Those would be easy explanations. But the truth is, social activism of this sort has never attracted too many. The first march/rally I attended, under household duress was African Liberation Day 1973(?). We had lots of fun, felt the headiness of making revolution. Forever since then, I cannot see a march without wanting to join in, even if a Salvation Army Marching Band. But the numbers were small and only dwindled after that.

Organising rallies is hard work. It is emotionally hard work. People who feel causes deeply, want, need to know that they are not alone. That change is possible because many others feel the same way and will commit to doing things together.

I wonder for the Usual Band whether they are enervated by the small response. I doubt though. They seem both realistic and optimistic. Believing, in the words of Margaret Mead, that “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”. Activists would be thrilled for throngs, but they are not discouraged into inaction by small numbers. Rather, they are moved by an internal metronome whose rhythm is social engagement. They organize because that is their nature.

In the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame, argues that social networking (Facebook, Twitter) cannot offer the possibility of making social change. Notwithstanding the masses of people who ‘like’ and ‘friend’ causes.  

“Social networks are effective at increasing participation – by lessening the motivation that participation requires. In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

He suggests that ideological fervor is not enough; it must be accompanied by a degree of personal connection to a movement.

Clicking on causes makes people feel good. But is it not a self-satisfying expression of ego? “This is the kind of person that I am. Just look on me.” In most cases, I reckon, there is no action that follows. We love the environment, yet use plastic bags, throw away plastic bottles etc. The mouse action IS the social action.

For sure, attending rallies does not make change either, at least not without more. Yet people can energize each other, motivate and, the point of this rally, agree to DO something together.  We need the Usual Band doing this work, mobilising our social conscience, reminding us that individual actions make a difference, especially when there is a critical mass.  

But even if rallies and such like are only reminders, calls for an ethical universe of social justice, it is enough.

So to the usual band of committed activists, thank you.

A Luta Continua.

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 The UK Labour Party is about to vote for its next leader. The front-runners are the Miliband brothers,  sons of Ralph Miliband, a political scientist, now deceased. Those of us who did social sciences in the 70s and 80s would be familiar with the name. Sitting through the teaching of bizarre Marxism-Leninism (justification for demagogic centralisation of power such as practiced by the self-immolating PRG in Grenada), Miliband’s political thought was encouraging and stimulating.

He was independent-minded and unabashedly believed in the practicality of socialism.  In his last book,  he wrote “In all countries, there are people, in numbers large or small, who are moved by the vision of a new social order in which democracy, egalitarianism and cooperation – the essential values of socialism – would be the prevailing principles of social organisation. It is in the growth of their numbers and in the success of their struggles that lies the best hope for humankind.”

And so now his sons, reportedly emotionally close, (at least before) are competing for the Labour Party leadership.

The debates about and by the candidates revolve around the interlocking roles of the state and citizen. The commentators speak to “mutual responsibility, commitment to place and neighbours and the centrality of relationships to a meaningful life”. These are issues very much current for us in the Caribbean. How do we inculcate and strengthen governance ethics  embedded in ideas of reciprocity,  justice and efficiency?

Hear younger brother Ed: “We need a different approach. Britain’s big question of the next decade is whether we head towards an increasingly US-style capitalism – more unequal, more brutish, more unjust – or can we build a different model?” The policy recommendations of both are also expectedly  firmly on the side of the redistributive role of the state. For example, Ed M. is advocating  pay equity: the most highly paid person should not earn a certain percentage more than low-paid workers and David speaks to a Mansions Tax on properties worth more than £2m to raise funds for housing benefits for the least well off.

What’s a mother to do? Apparently the Miliband mother is voting for neither, but rather for Diane Abbott, the first woman to compete for labour leadership and of Jamaican heritage.

 

 

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Emancipation applied

There are at least three generations of CXCed people in this region and five generations of post-independence populations. We have agreed in that time that understanding and remembering Caribbean experiences of extreme exploitation is important for building a civilization of the opposite values-  one of social justice. And so we refresh our memory and keep focus on the collective aspiration through teaching West Indian history from primary to secondary school. We commemorate Emancipation Day and in Trinidad Indian Arrival Day. Our children are fed a steady diet of Caribbean history and yes, literature in which the central theme is slavery and indentured labour. We learn and celebrate the struggle of our ancestors for freedom and development.

We all know some facts of indigenous communities, Euro-dominated West Indian life and the sociology of post-slave and post-colonialism societies. And these issues of race inequality, race entitlement and marginalisation remain emotive and difficult.

But I am wondering whether we have mined our past for all that it can teach us about inequality, bigotry and intolerance. Has this awareness of race discrimination prepared us to reject other hatreds, irrational, oppressive dreads and prejudicial practices.

Surely a well appreciated history ought to contribute towards a culture intolerant of identity-based ignorance, would make us cringe and resist  expressions of bigotry. And yet, it does not seem to have had that kind of comprehensive and civilising effect.

Homophobia is rife; misogyny is a constraining fact of women’s lives, and in particular young women; we are xenophobic without apology, proud of our supercilious generalizations about other Caribbean people- Bajans who so…well everything not good, Jamaicans so aggressive, Guyanese people, a burden, even when they are working the hardest for the least, and so on. Though it does seem that  Trinidadians are exempt from this negativity, getting only the region’s bemused head-shaking at  things trini.

Last week I had the detestable  experience of a man on a BWEE plane spit out “I do not eat p—y” in response to a seating snafu. It was not only what was said, though I was beyond offended (one never gets accustomed to the routine woman-hating), I was astounded and aggrieved that he was not pelted off the plane pronto. Rather, he was placated by the purser focused on doing his part in getting the plane off the ground in good time. A teachable moment for the man and the plane load of us gone wasted.

And everywhere in the Caribbean we feel that it is our duty to make people in same sex relationships live the tension-filled continuum of wariness to fearfulness every single day of their lives. I say duty because of the sanctimonious tones in which homophobic bile are voiced.

Should not emancipation have the largest possible meaning? Emancipation from race-based oppression ought to be a trigger for the rejection of all forms of intolerance that lead to the trampling on the rights and sensibilities of others. What’s going on? Funny, the way we can see so clearly our own victimhood and yet how our victimisation of some others can feel so natural, even ordained.

 

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I had an unsettled feeling as I purchased The Help by Kathryn Stockett in the airport bookshop. Unsettled because I understood that this was a book about African-American women who did maid work in the 1960s. I found myself curious, really curious to know the race of the author. Did this curiosity indicate close-mindedness?

The week before I watched the TED talk of Turkish author Elif Shafak speak of the dangers of identity-based writing, making the case for fiction, arguing for the imagined story, arguing for authorial freedom from ethnic representation. I understand her point. Yet I doubted the ability of a Euro author to capture the authentic voice and sensibility of African-American women of that era and for sure I did not want with my purchasing power to be complicit (however indirectly and downstream) in the misrepresentation or caricaturing African-Americans. And it did not help that the book contains an afterword about the author’s own relationship with the wise, warm Demetrie, a woman who provided nanny and housekeeping services to the author’s family.

The book, I have to say on completion, is both a page turner and a page groaner. Briefly, narrated by three women, 2 middle-aged black women (Minny and Abilene) and one young white woman (Skeeter), the story is of the writing of a book of first person accounts by Afro-American women of their jobs as maids, their relationship with white families and the treatment by mostly white women who supervise their work. Expectedly, these relationships in 1962 are exploitation-extreme. The Afro-American women are portrayed as long suffering, sassy, full of wisdom, mother- to-the-world characters and the Euro women and men around them, mostly as dumb-ass,  bigoted, ignorant, avid supporters and reinforcers of Jim Crow segregation laws. 

Yet, mammy syndrome is in full bloom, the Afro women can recognise and be grateful for the random acts of charitable kindness from that rarely kind white soul; they can still love, love, love the children who they raise, even as they have to send their own away for care. 

The African-American women talk in down-southese and say strange stuff like “the cockroach was so black, even blacker than me’. I really do not know what to make of this. 

And yes, they do get to deliver some comeuppance as the book is published though anonymously to the humiliation of their white employers. But that victory designed by the author seems contrived, irrelevant and disconnected from the hard fought struggles for freedom. 

What really works is the author’s backdropping of  the ever-present peril of that time. The murder of Medgar Evers is referenced as are the lynchings of young men who use the whites-only facilities. Abilene’s son is crushed to death by a tractor driven by white farmers who  toss his body out of a car outside a blacks-only hospital. Reading this book is a reminder of the specifically violent nature of American racism. 

And in the middle of reading this book, the story of Shirley Sherrod erupts. Taking that story at its simplest -she said exactly and no more than what the ginned up video suggested, that she was ambivalent about making full-hearted efforts to help a white farmer 24 years ago- would she not be allowed those emotions? Would that not be a response which most people would have to struggle with? After all, she grew up in the South, in the same Mississippi where The Help is set, where her father was murdered by a white man (allegedly connected the Klu Klux Klan) who never experienced the long arm of the law. 

The one African-American woman who is unable to look away from the power relations between the main characters in the book is made to seem like Reverend Wright and like the fictional Shirley Sherrod- bitter and irrational, someone for whom the others (like NAACP) must apologise.  

This book is immensely popular (but with whom?) and is being made into a movie. It dispenses white guilt liberally, small doses of redemption and finally what seems most required now, the comforting notion that black people do not harbour deep feelings of resentment, long memories of injustice; that they can and should quickly move towards reconciliation and forgiveness. Even though all around, racism still defines their life experience. 

The book has so many cringe-inducing problems like the black Reverend sending a message of gratitude to the author “You tell her we love her, like she’s our own family”even as the middle-aged women refer to her as Miss Skeeter right to the end, a person of authority in their lives because of race. 

At no point do we ever get any sense of outrage of the white young protagonist about racism. Sure it makes her uncomfortable and embarrassed, but she is no revolutionary, change the world with a big denouementic speech. And maybe that is the essential truth about the book. People live and experience the privileges of inequalities (all sorts, not just race), yet beyond trying to have more equal personal relationships, most of us are not doing too much to end it, though we analyse and lament. (See Colleen’s reflection on the Help in the Caribbean context.)

And so now I wonder, thinking of Shirley Sherrod and of the book’s characters, whether this aggressive expectation of moving on and forgetting is the new face of racism.

 

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