Thursday, April 21, 2011

When art becomes political

In his brilliant little book, Ways of Seeing, John Berger focuses on the social and political construction of art and the extent to which social values are reflected. Art matters in part because it offers some commentary about society, past or present. Public art takes on an even more significant role since it is thrust before a wider audience and is not confined to the small numbers visiting art galleries nor secluded in private homes. Bermuda is now benefitting from an increase in public art, mainly sculptures, and each conveys a different message a distinct message coming from the art's sponsor, reflecting their own social values.

The rendering of Johnny Barnes at Crow Lane has been around for many years, is meant to reflect the spirit of Bermuda, and is seemingly embraced by many. To formalise an image of a black man as smiling and jovial in such a one-dimensional message reduces its essence to the superficial and is a nod back to our oppressive past. It is almost as if nothing else about Johnny Barnes matters other than he makes some people happy during their morning drive into Hamilton. In one of the ironies of history, this image is located at the very site the courageous Sally Bassett was burned at the stake. This is akin to dancing on sacred ground.

The image of Sally Bassett on the Cabinet grounds tells a story of a bold, courageous and defiant slave woman. Its dimensions are meant to instill awe and force you to look up to her. The sculpture is brutally honest since it shows exactly what the old elite did to her: tie her up, place her in the middle of a pile of wood, set that wood alight and send her to a painful death. It is a sad sign of where we are today when segments of the community can decry this recognition and yet celebrate Johnny Barnes. Bassett is the only slave in our recorded history who took a stand against the pernicious system that was slavery and should be lauded by all. Every other country celebrates those men and women who fought evil and oppression, and so of course, so should we. 

Adjacent to the City Hall car park is an abstract sculpture commissioned to acknowledge the fight against racial segregation. In sharp contrast to the power of Sally Bassett, this image is devoid of passion and it is devoid of meaning. As art it is beautifully crafted, aesthetically, but it tells no story and it has no connection to history. It seems clear the backers of this public art wanted no controversy and this they have achieved. With this accomplishment, however, we are left with a well designed public space where the art has no relevance. Works of art are produced with a purpose in mind. The purpose of this one is not readily discernible.

HSBC recently unveiled its contribution to public art with its “Against da Tide” sculpture on Front Street. This art is an obvious exercise in ambiguity, tempting the public to read into it what they wish. It is symbolic with powerful imagery; and because it is not meant to be accurate historically by design, it can be interpreted on a number of levels: historical commentary, economic, political, social or business progress today. One of the world's largest banks, HSBC, has made a decision to remain neutral on all matters yet not shy away from provoking thought. Anyone who has seen their expansive advertising campaigns at numerous airports worldwide will find this approach effectively, different ways of seeing to be consistently applied with their branding.

Art is not disconnected from society but an important part of it. It helps to convey messages and can help shape views. We need more public art in more public space to break up the bland uniformity of commercial development. When we get public art with an important message we can appreciate it even more.

Partisanship Passing for Debate

In July, 1998, I sat in the office of a senior executive at XL, having just concluded our agreement for my company to conduct some research for his company. Stretching back in his chair he asked: “So who's going to win the election?” I replied, “The PLP” and explained why, based on my polling. His body language and skin coloration immediately reflected apprehension about this comment and the remaining few minutes of our hitherto cordial chat were strained. Over the next few weeks he refused to respond to any of my e-mails and the contract was lost. 

A year or so later, as chairman of the Taxi Advisory Council, I invited the representative of taxi owners to make a submission so that we could negotiate a long overdue rate increase. Upon hearing his presentation, I thanked him and indicated this was a useful point of departure for negotiations. His response: “Oh no, this is our first and last position. We have nothing further to negotiate.” This intransigence meant no further discussions took place for a while and taxi drivers were forced to wait at least 18 months before they received any increase. These anecdotes reflect two characteristics that unfortunately still resonate in our community today. Firstly, there is the visceral reaction to ideas that run contrary to one's own, effectively, a refusal to accept there are legitimate alternative viewpoints. Secondly, we see a demonstrated unwillingness to engage on a level of mutual respect to address issues, even when the outcome could provide benefits for all affected parties. 

In practice, this means far too many of our “discussions” are not really that at all. Rather, we seem to have a series of conversations that criss-cross each other but no real engagement. We see this, for example, in the far too significant numbers of people who seem intent on arguing extreme positions not that they necessarily believe it irrespective of the facts. This is perhaps most apparent in the artificial debate between those who argue the government has done nothing right and those who argue the government has done nothing wrong, perfunctory gestures to the other side notwithstanding. 

There are those who simply dismiss facts, whether of history or not, simply because it does not fit into their worldview. Such was the view of an aquaintance who told me recently that he dismissed my poll results entirely because he could not accept the finding that 20 percent of people thought things were moving in the right direction. 

Race and politics remain the two significant hotspots in our discourse today and this is where these characteristics are most pronounced. 

My views on race were articulated in this newspaper almost four years ago and I intend to have it reprinted in full next week. At this point, I think it is important that we never use race as a crutch, as a sub-text of every discussion. On the other hand, there are times when race matters and is critical to enhancing our understanding of issues. Intelligent and honest debate does not shy away from this; particularly if one wants to educate to transform society into a better place. Acting as if you are blind so that you cannot see what's going on as did the wife of a fascist leader in Bertolucci's 1900 does not change the reality. An inconvenient truth is a truth nevertheless. 

Political discourse has devolved to the point where the sensible majority refuse to engage, frustrated as they are by the intolerably partisan nature of much of what passes for debate. It is easy to conclude there are those who care more about their party position than anything else and are resolutely opposed to aknowledging anything of value from “the other side”.

Continuing along this path will simply create a larger segment of disaffected, apathetic voters who may well disengage from the political process altogether. Many of our young people are already heading down that path. We can get to a point of genuine engagement on issues and with a focus on outcomes beneficial to our country. To achieve this we require a greater proportion of our leadership, broadly defined, and our opinion shapers to lead by example.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

We must confront our social malaise

As another family mourns the murder of a loved one, Bermuda mourns as well. This cycle of senseless killings leaves our country wounded, weakened and wary about the future. Wounded because these killings strike at the very essence of what Bermuda once was—a place where such violence was the exceptional, shocking event rather than the far to frequent nightmare it is today. We are weakened because we rely on our reputation for stability to grow our economy; and that reputation gets more soiled with every gunshot fired. We have good cause to be wary about what the future holds for us since there is no obvious solution in sight. But it is an end to this we must seek.

Views about how to reduce violence tend to have two major foci. On the one hand, there is the emphasis on encouraging the police service and the justice system more generally to do more and to ensure they have all the resources to identify, capture and put away those who commit such crimes. On the other hand, the argument is made that we have to better understand, and then fix, the social dynamics involved in placing people in circumstances where violent crime is a likely outcome. It is obvious that these two elements have relevance and appropriate policy must necessarily derive from both. 

Many of us have long simply assumed the upsurge in gun violence is directly connected to the illicit drug trade. In turn this has led to some calls to legalize or at least decriminalize specific prohibited drugs to take the violence out of the equation. Recent information coming out of court proceedings and from the Bermuda Police Service, though, very strongly indicates this violence has less to do with protecting territory or drug deals gone wrong and more to do with personal matters. If this is true, we have a more challenging dynamic to confront. 

Illicit drug dealers are simply business people acting outside of the law—they too need to assess margins, market share and employee satisfaction. The added complication they face is the cat and mouse game with law enforcement: the possibility of great reward is juxtaposed with the risk they could do some serious time in prison. Violence is not an inherent characteristic of this trade and anyone around in the 1970s knows this.  Indeed most, if not all drug dealers would no doubt be content to ply their trade profitably away from the light of public scrutiny and without violence.

How then do we make sense of killings that come out of a personal vendetta or because of some disrespect shown? And more importantly, what do we do about it? It is difficult to fathom someone willing to take another life because of an insult and then be prepared to spend the next twenty years in prison because of this. But as a young friend patiently explained to me recently, we have a critical mass of young people who simply live for the here and now, who have no expectation they will even reach 30 years of age, whose entire world is shaped by the limited sphere in which they move, and who see no way out. For them, their social standing is enhanced by the acts they commit to ensure “enough respect.” These young people reject much of what we embrace and take for granted: our rules, our political elites, our way of life. And we fail to connect with them today.

It is this alienation that needs to be addressed. We must use our combined efforts to find ways to have meaningful dialogues with young people who now feel they have been discarded by us and are apart from society. The police must certainly continue their role to act decisively on those who commit violent acts but, regrettably, their role is always after the fact. 

When we act decisively to confront the social malaise coming out of the impoverished neighbourhoods that all too often provided the breeding ground for violence we will have made progress.  This is one of our greatest challenges today. It is a challenge where failure cannot be an option.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Time to Expedite the Land Title Registry

For some decades now, successive Bermuda governments have articulated the need for a land tile registry. The current government has made more progress than any previously but the process remains slow, with little tangible results after years of dealing with it. Having all property registered on this comparatively small land mass would provide a guarantee of title and allow for the buying and selling of property faster and more cheaply. Why no decisive step has been taken in this direction is not clearly discernable, but it needs to be taken; and it needs to be taken now.

A land title registry would simplify the land acquisition process. Currently, one has to engage a lawyer to do a title search to verify the seller of the property has clear title and that there are no encumbrances. Since the Bermuda Bar Council has decided to propose a recommended fee schedule for legal fees based on the value of the property (which lawyers all seem to have adopted), the legal cost for a $1,000,000 property will be in excess of $10,000. A land title registry should reduce these costs. It is not clear why the Bar Council has this recommended pricing structure when the norm is for lawyers to charge by the hour. The work certainly does not increase based on the price of the property.

One of the most compelling reasons for establishing a land title registry in Bermuda is that it will help bring closure to the numerous allegations of land fraud, allegations which have circulated for decades; and almost in a whisper just below the pale of public discourse.  Bermuda has a dirty history when land ownership was involved—and it didn’t end with Tucker’s Town. During the 1960s and 70s vulnerable Bermudians had their land stolen from them by the unscrupulous collusion between realtors and lawyers. Typically, the scheme would work as follows: a poorly educated person, alcoholic, or overly trusting soul would be identified. In some cases, the victim would actually sign documents dispersing the land, only for the family to find out much later and with little recourse. In other cases, the lawyer would simply draw up new deeds, with someone in the real estate company owning the property and then selling that property to happy and unsuspecting new homeowners. Later on the genuine owners and their descendants would hold the title deeds to property but have to contend with other ‘owners’. Many have simply given up since they have no means to engage a lawyer to pursue their claim. Others have pursued a process made convoluted by lawyers who have taken many tangents other than pursue the relevance of the title deeds.  In one case in the 1970s though, a rougher form of justice was pursued.  A realtor had a “for sale” sign on a piece of undeveloped land, which came as a complete surprise to the owner. When the owner visited the realtor’s office with a machete, the sign was quickly taken down.  Too many others, though, have had their land simply taken from their family while still holding the title deeds.

With the land title registry everyone’s claim to land would be a matter of showing who has clear title. There is no doubt that a number of people are today living on property where they are unable to show clear title. This is not their fault. It is the fault of the realtors who misappropriated the land and lawyers who fabricated “clear title”. Many families who are victims of this practice have yet to get justice and establishing the registry is a critical step along that path to justice.

During this period of budget cutbacks and a government hiring freeze now is not the time to call on government to commit public resources to the establishment of this land title registry. What government can do is create the mechanism for a self-financed agency tasked with compiling this registry, as is the practice in other countries. It is important Bermuda get this registry. It is important the victims get justice. And it is important government take leadership on this.