Monday, November 10, 2008

State of Fear

"When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing."- Enrique Jardiel Poncela

Michael Crichton died last week after a very private battle with cancer. Crichton was many things; a writer, a producer, a novelist and a critic. He was one of the first authors I was ever dedicated to reading and my introduction to his work at an early age helped to form a basis of interest in many spheres, from science, to medicine, to engineering to history and the arts. If Crichton was anything, it was that he was a jack of all trades when writing. His work was easy to read, which is a testament to his greatness as a writer. His legacy will undoubtedly live on. May he rest in peace.

Another's whose legacy is sure to live on, should the status quo be maintained, is Patrick Manning's. Though not for the glowing reasons attributed to Crichton earlier. Manning's latest flexion of his ever increasing intoxication with power came when he recently 'visited' a radio station to complain about the 'disrespect' shown to him and his government by two broadcasters during a newscast. Ignoring the obvious undertones of a Prime Minister personally visiting a media house, no doubt in an effort to intimidate, it is even more disturbing that the CEO of 94.1FM, 'O Brien Haynes, would immediately suspend the individuals in question without at least a hearing for their side of the story.

Whether Haynes acted out of support for the Prime Minister or fear of him is unknown, but highly inconsequential at this point. If anything, he should have been at pains NOT to have taken any action at all, until formal procedures were set in motion. This isn't an issue of a crime, a murder, a rape. It is an issue of two of the most basic rights enshrined in the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago, namely, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Media. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is frightening that the Prime Minister of a country can casually walk into a media house and saliently have individuals fired, regardless of the spin that Manning and his equally disappointing Minister of Information, Neil Parsanlal, a man who emerged from the bowels of the media, want to put on the incident.

But it speaks to a greater dimension that has now pervaded our society. It is as a result of the windfall revenues that the government has experienced over the last four years of hyper-inflated hydrocarbon prices. Intentionally or inadvertently, the government has succeeded in instilling a state of fear in the vast majority of citizens. And it has come about in subtle ways and in the name of progress, social justice and handouts.

While the obvious fear of being a victim of crime has exponentially increased in every sector of society, regardless of race and class, a more silent, insidious fear is being inculcated in specific sectors of the population. Sectors that any truly developed society require in order to function democratically and efficiently.

In the first instance, there is a fear amongst the unskilled or semi-skilled sector, highly involved in the CEPEP and URP projects, that protest or a show of disapproval against the government would be met with their termination and therefore, loss of income. So they stay quiet and accept the pittances. Their children are brought up to believe that this is their only means to survival and a dependency syndrome develops that keeps these workers enslaved and loyal to the state.

In another instance, contractors and business people who depend on government investment in their companies are fearful of losing lucrative opportunities should they be perceived to be acting or vocalising dissatisfaction with the current administration. Therefore, they don't say anything when corruption is blatantly practised under their purview. It is in their interest not to whistle-blow, and so the country loses.

Yet another, more relevant example is seen with the very media. The government provides many media houses with the revenue they require in order to keep functioning. It is by no fluke that 7 television stations, over 20 radio stations and almost 10 newspapers manage to stay afloat in a country with a market of just over 1 million people. This supersaturation of media has not made government more transparent or accountable, as is clearly evidenced by the comedy, nay, tragedy, that is a post cabinet news conference. Instead, many of those in the media would rather keep a fairly neutral line in terms of its editorials lest it be the focus of the withdrawal of government sponsorship and ultimately, bankruptcy. It is this fear that prevents the emergence of an activist media, intent on finding the truth, rather than simply reporting the spin fed to it by the Parsanlal types.

In the final, saddest anecdote, the government has successfully managed to silence the voice of the young intellectual class. Tertiary students, usually the most liberal, activist individuals in any society have been muted. They are fearful to speak out against the administration that pays their fees in full. A noble effort by the government to increase the number of university graduates has had the effect of enrolling many who see a degree as nothing more than a means to an end, with no sense of social activism. So when the media is attacked, the Guild of Students is strangely quiet. There are no longer any protests on campus because students no longer worry about their fees being raised. They are, what I like to call, the fearful complacents.

Ultimately, a government that rules from a throne of fear has more to fear for its own survival when things go south. They cannot continue to spend their way into garnering support and silence. One can hope that democracy prevails. But hope is not a strategy. Slowly but surely, people must be willing to rise from fear and challenge the government on their policies. The media must not be afraid to ask the hard hitting questions and demand transparency and accountability on behalf of its subscribers. The businessmen should not be fearful of losing a contract because they stood for integrity. Students should put aside their fear of victimisation in the name of standing up and demanding that our leaders lead by example and with responsibiliy.

For all our riches and aspirations, our pride and successes, Trinidad and Tobago has, now, more than ever, become a State of fear. And nothing but slivers of courage will be able to rescue us from our deepening abyss.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dreams from his Father

Tomorrow is historic, regardless of the result of the election. America will either have its first non-white president or non-male vice-president. It will be the first time in more than a generation that a senator will be elected President and it will be almost 100 years since the last time neither a sitting president or vice-president will have their names on the ballot. It will be the first time in almost 200 years that the winner will assume office on the heels of consecutive two-term presidencies. And more, even almost mischievously, it will be the first time that the US will have a president who was not born in the land mass traditionally recognised as the United States of America.

Hardly surprising, I'm going all-in for Barack Obama. Not that I live under any misconceptions that an Obama presidency will cause the Bush turds to suddenly smell like roses. But that I believe that if anyone gets it, it's Obama. He's educated, a child on the tapering edge of the baby boom and the tonic that America needs if it hopes to regain respect and standing among other nations in the world.

He's also liberal and progressive. Words that the right have demonised, but which have been embraced by Western European societies to advance their civilizations by leaps and bounds, while leaving the New World behind. He supports the rights of minorities, the rights of women, is a supporter of stem cell research and doesn't believe that global warming at the hands of humans is a myth. He supports a tax code that will bring relief to the middle class. And importantly, he will be able to appoint judges that can balance a conservative leaning Supreme Court. But you know all this. So why reiterate it?

Well, for one, there's never much harm in overstating positives. But the real reason I restated it is because they're the reasons I'd like to see Obama become president. Not because he's half-black, or his campaign is historic or he's the less worse alternative to a potential Palin presidency (knocks on wood, revives my dying 4 leaf clover and does a rain dance). Because he IS already all of these things. It's because I support his stands and his policies.

And that brings me to hypocritical Trinis. It brings me to the ones who, a year to the DATE of this US election, had the opportunity to vote for change. To hope and believe that things could be better. To (use a quote sent recently from a good friend) see things for what they COULD be and not as they are. Because it's these same people who now parade around beating their chests for Obama. They flood the airwaves voicing their support for his historic candidacy. And for what reason, other than the color of his skin? Could they name a single Obama policy that they agree with? As a matter of fact, I'm sure these Manning loving, holier than thou, Bible-quoting types would disagree with the #1 ranked most liberal Senator and his #3 ranked running mate on issues of abortion, gay rights and embryonic stem cell research.

It's simply racism repackaged and a dearth of objectivity and constancy on their part. It's not sour grapes. Our elections are done and dusted, at least for another 4 years. But it speaks to our political immaturity that we can support the candidate professing change in a foreign land, while our own Rome burned and we twiddled our thumbs while staining our index fingers for the status quo.

But tomorrow night, by all accounts, will be Barack's night. Whether he gets to 270 early on, if at all, is left to be seen. But his campaign has broken barriers and given people a reason to be energised. It has levelled the competition and organised its supporters in unprecedented fashion. And come tomorrow night, the coronation of audacious hope will signal the end of the beginning, as he inherits a land broken, a people more in need now than they have been for over 70 years and a world looking towards him for guidance in the face of global uncertainty.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Raindrops keep Falling...

Have you ever seen the rain fall in the wrong direction? Its silvery wisps gradually intensifying to crystal drops then to angry, pounding waves, each trying to outdo each other. The lush, green hills have faded into obscurity, veiled now by a white sheet of precipitation. The birds have gone silent.
The rustling leaves, gently portending the impending deluge have been replaced by battered foliage.

And unlike the way it began, it stops suddenly. Lightning crashes and the wind picks up where the cloudburst left off. Silence is replaced by more silence. Eerie pervasions tempt the heavens once more. This time, the downpour begins, accompanied by its supporting cast of light, sound and air. Unrefined souls may curse the deities. I turn off the music to listen to the symphony that has been provided by Heaven. I turn my head around to engage the beauty of the Earth.

The camera can capture but a fleeting moment; no substitute for the first hand ocular experience and a grave injustice to the magnificence that has just been witnessed. It reinforces an appreciation for life. It hastens us to put into perspective, life’s petty and petit dramas. It calms and brings sanity to the insanity of daily life. For others, it may be a twenty minute spell of rain that brings inconvenience, damp and cold. For me, it is a welcome interlude and a new beginning.

The birds sing again to pierce the deafening silence, no doubt prompted by the feast unearthed by the driving monsoon. It is over now. The breeze will blow chill tonight. Lovers will entangle in embraces, fuelled by the aphrodisiac of the air. And me? I will sip graciously from the vino chalice. I will appreciate the moon. I will think of my own. I will promise. I will dream fearlessly for if the rain can fall in the wrong direction, then so can I.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Audacity of Hope

'There is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America - there's the United States of America.'-Barack Obama

Barack Obama has all but sealed the deal. And for the first time in America’s illustrious 231 year history, a major party will not send a white male to the presidential race. That he should emerge from the Democratic party never seemed in doubt, but in an election year where change is the theme, it cannot be more fitting that it is embodied by the son of a Kenyan immigrant with Muslim roots.

Tragic though it may be, Hillary Clinton’s inevitable coronation fell flat in the popular wave of support that has now landed Obama the nomination. It may have proven to be Hillary’s first and only shot at the nomination. What must be even more disheartening for her is Hillary’s calculated approach to it, refusing in 2004 to challenge the incumbent Bush 43 on the grounds of inexperience and being a first term junior senator from New York. Obama in 2008 is what Hillary could have been in 2004. The only difference is that he took the risk and challenged the mainstream thinking.

Now that the nomination is secured, she and her campaign have resorted to desperate tactics. They want to change the yardstick by which the nomination should be decided. In essence, they claim that she is the more electable than Obama and would pose a greater challenge to John McCain in the general election. What then, is the point of holding 54 primaries if, at the end of it all she assumes the ‘elitist’ position of telling the people that they don’t know what’s good for themselves and that superdelegates should decide the nomination.

Secondly, she is trying to have the votes in Michigan and Florida count, even though those states were forewarned about the consequences (ie. loss of 100% of their delegates at the DNC convention) of holding their primaries too early. At best, it is a dishonest way of adding to her delegate count since, following the rules as set down by the party, neither Obama nor Edwards campaigned in Florida and did not even have their names on the ballot in Michigan. It is exactly the kind of politics that Obama has denounced on the trail. It is a guttural, do-whatever-it takes, bring-down-whomever-gets-in-my-way politics that Americans seem to have found a way out of, through Obama.

And Obama himself, dogged lately by accusations of elitism and Rev. Wright, has emerged above the fray and positioned himself to become, if elected, perhaps the greatest statesmanesque president since Kennedy. And for good reason. His speeches inspire. His message is one of hope. It is, ironically, in the midst of change and a look to the future, a throwback to the past, where America was viewed as a nation of hope. Where dreams could be realized if one worked hard. Not the capitalistic mess that it has become, where health is in shambles, veterans are taken for a ride and spending is out of control. Obama is the voice of hope. He is the agent of change that people choose to believe in.

But he will have a myriad of challenges. He has to deal with a record deficit and an unpopular war. He will, if elected, for the first time in living memory and discounting the Cold War, inherit a battle that neither he nor his party initiated. And he may even have to battle more than John McCain leading up to the fall election.

Clinton is mortally wounded. The rising tide of young voters and widespread apathy for what passes as normal behaviour in Washington has denied her what she viewed was an entitlement. The Clinton brand is damaged. Bill has hurt his standing in the African American community. There seems to be no respite from the hemorrhage of supporters defecting to the Obama camp. Clinton will want another shot at the presidency. At 60, she probably will have only one more realistic chance, in 2012. And unless she plans to mount an insurgent campaign against an incumbent Obama, it would serve her better if McCain is elected this year to the White House. The impetus that she will gain should McCain fail to vastly improve on his predecessor will once again set in motion a much better prepared Clinton machine to assume the Presidency from what will more than likely be a one-term stint from McCain.

It is Obama’s Achilles’ heel. He may have won the nomination this time. But for all intents and purposes, it will be his only chance. He will either create the most significant bit of history since the abolition of slavery or will fade into the background as another ‘has run.’ It is a challenge and a tragedy for a man of 46. But it is the embodiment of the message that he has disseminated since he announced for the presidency. The message of hope. It is perhaps an indictment on American society as a whole that such a message should resonate so deeply. That things have gotten so bad that they see Obama as a knight in shining armor coming to rescue them. Moreover, foreign policy has been so bad that the world looks on, almost urging Americans not to screw this one up.

They are expectations that Obama will have to play down. Tangible change will not be immediate. In a world of mass media and the internet, he will be the most scrutinized president in history. Any faux pas will be pounced upon as evidence of inexperience and naivety. Success will bring the inevitable challenges, but more so, it will bring to an end the 20 year old Bush-Clinton dynasty. And unless Obama decides to offer Clinton the Vice Presidential post, it will be the first time in almost 24 years, that neither a Bush nor a Clinton would have their names on the ticket. It is this paradigm shift that will allow Obama to capitalize on the notion of change but it is also from such high levels of approval initially, that the only way to go would be down. It is almost surreal that Americans will know the result of their vote on Guy Fawkes day. In a fairytale world, it couldn’t be more perfect.

His rhetoric is almost flawless. His taglines are catchy and they resonate. He has risen above the challenges of name recognition versus the Clinton machine, to name vilification (Osama anyone?), to defending his religious affiliations. He has won the most states, the most votes and the most delegates. He has won the admiration and respect of millions. He is the presumptive nominee, despite the machinations of the Clinton campaign. And, for whatever it’s worth, he has my endorsement. America needs Barack Obama. The world needs Barack Obama. And for 12 hours on November 4th, 2008, if Americans vote with the courage of their convictions, audacious hope would have gotten a man elected to the most powerful position in the world.

'Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.'- Barack Obama