Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Let’s end the personal attacks

Debating important national issues takes on an additional layer of complexity in small societies like Bermuda: the space between opinion leaders and the public is a lot smaller. This lack of distance creates a more intimate environment for interaction but it can also and regrettably, often does produce a more acrimonious environment where careful rational debate is supplanted by hyperbolic invective. We must do better.

One step along the way to doing better is to ensure our debates are driven by facts not supposition, not innuendo and not distortion. We should not be debating facts but rather how we choose to interpret them and the context in which they are placed. Last week’s conflict involving the BIU and PTB saw “the facts” of the issue as reported and discussed at length changing almost daily.

This no doubt contributed to the escalating war of words and the resulting industrial action. It should give us all pause that far too many of our “debates” permeating the public are punctuated with strongly held views without careful regard for the facts on the ground. On any given day you will find this on talk radio, blogs, readers’ comments on news websites, social media sites and letters to the Editor. 

Emotions are a good thing in the right place. They should, however, have no prime position in national debates on critical issues. Some among us believe the stronger they argue their point emotionally the better their argument. While campaigning against the death penalty 20 years ago I was often challenged by people who would ask a question along the following lines: “What if it was your son or daughter killed?”

My view is that trying to persuade people to arrive at a decision on important policy matters based on an emotional (and often personal) argument is the basis for faulty policy. Such policy requires clarity of thought and no emotional baggage. Listen to many arguments made today and you will discern the emotional argument increasingly replacing the more objective assessments. To be clear, this argument refers to the mode of inquiry and not necessarily the positions taken on issues, since I feel emotionally driven arguments occupy all sides of the views expressed.

The Roman philosopher and orator Cicero once said: “We must make a personal attack when there is no argumentative basis for our speech.” These words resonate loudly in modern Bermuda. Rather than assess people’s views on issues and the logical/factual basis of their argument we see an increasing trend toward the ad hominem attack.

I find this is most often a consequence of those whose own arguments are weak or lacking in logic. My grandfather would dismiss such opponents by saying: “You couldn’t fight your way out of a wet paper bag.” Unfortunately, there are those who genuinely believe such arguments are both compelling and effective. An important consequence for Bermuda is that many people sit quietly on the sidelines, even if uncomfortably, and refuse to engage. They no doubt care as deeply about issues and want to see problems fixed as those of us publicly expressing our views but shy away, in part, because of the acrimony they see at play today.

We will certainly grow as a country when we can have national dialogues on important issues while remaining focused on these issues and jettisoning the emotional rhetoric and personal attacks. Having differing views on issues -- even on who can best run the country -- is actually a good thing since I believe it is through this interaction that we can arrive at better and more informed decisions. When people on opposite sides acknowledge and respect that there are alternate, legitimate arguments then we will have arrived at a more mature place for our country.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

BAD is Good, Vote Boycott Is Not

BAD is acting badly. In the latest incarnation of its long running effort to abolish conscription in Bermuda, Bermudians Against the Draft have launched a campaign to persuade young black men not to cast their ballot in the next general election. Their rationale for adopting this stance is that neither political party supports their position and so, they want these men to disengage from the political process altogether. This makes little sense and will hardly advance their cause.

My position on abolishing conscription was made clear in my January 5 column and I stand in support of the core goal of BAD. Their strategy and tactics, though, are flawed and this has had the effect of minimising what should be a more widely embraced struggle. The forced labour argument is a non-starter from a legal standpoint and they have to know this: the European Union constitution sets that out clearly and they therefore cannot win at the European Court of Justice. And if the case for forced labour is made on common sense grounds then, logically, one would have to make the same argument about compulsory education.

With the legal setbacks confronting them, BAD has embarked upon what can only be seen as armchair activism: a call to do nothing, a call to reject the arena of politics altogether. There is a hint of political savvy in this since the call taps into the pre-existing alienation, apathy and discontent the under-30s already feel and who already vote in lower proportions than the older population. But there can be no measure of success of their efforts. In the absence of this, BAD will be able to claim success no matter what the turnout. It will, however, not advance their noble goal. How could the decision not to participate in an election strengthen their position? The answer is simple: it does not.

A vote boycott should be rejected not because our forefathers fought so valiantly for the right to vote and our current leaders won voting equity. And it should not be rejected because voting should be every citizens’ moral obligation. Rather, we should reject a vote boycott because voting is one very powerful tool for helping to effect change. Take away the vote and you take away power vested in people. What BAD may want to consider is how best to utilise the power of the vote reflected among its supporters to push forward its objectives.

If BAD is so convinced the political parties are weak vessels for the political change they want to see, they should test their support directly and publicly and run an independent candidate, or two. That would be a powerful measure of the backing they receive. This would send a message to young people that change is possible when you engage the political process; that disengagement keeps the status quo in place and renders you voiceless.

The abolition of conscription will come to this Island and that goal should be embraced by all. BAD’s approach, though, sometimes seems determined to reduce its public support by how it characterises the issue effectively creating straw men. One of its most visible faces, Jamel Hardtman, recently wrote on his Facebook page that there are three types of people who do not oppose conscription: (1) those who “lack intelligence on the issue” (2) those who are “just dishonest” and (3) those “who just don’t care”. This simplistic, almost juvenile portrayal of the range of views speaks to a wider level of intolerance in the group and, I think, has inhibited the expansion of their support. 

By calling for a vote boycott, they may further constrain the public backing their cause deserves.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Price of Ignoring the Vulnerable

The images of burning buildings, youths hurling improvised missiles and riot clad police officers attempting to restore order could have come from any number of Middle East countries a few months ago. But this is London, today. Facing the worst urban violence Britain has seen since Brixton 30 years ago, the UK government seems unable or unwilling to fully comprehend what it is confronting. Just as the uprisings in the Middle East have their origins in systemic problems in society there can be no doubt that there are root causes in the UK providing the backdrop for this wave of lawlessness.

Prime Minister David Cameron needs to understand these root causes if he is to arrive at a long-term solution. It is simply superficial and incorrect to describe the violence, as did Mr Cameron, as “criminality, pure and simple” and to argue “it has to be confronted and defeated”. For Home Secretary Theresa May it was mere “thuggery”.

These may make for good sound bites created by government speech writers; and they may show a robust determination to stand up to the perpetrators of violence that will resonate with specific audiences. Such comments, though, will not move England toward an enduring solution to its present problem.

Bermudians will know that our riots in 1977 were not “criminality, pure and simple” nor was it thuggery. Rather, as Lord Pitt of Hampstead concluded in his Royal Commission report on these riots Bermuda was beset with some deep rooted problems that gave rise to the lawlessness precipitated by the executions of Erskine Burrows and Larry Tacklyn. Similarly, Lord Scarman in his report on the Brixton riots in 1981 noted systemic challenges between the police and black youth. Both reports precipitated a number of changes, which while not sorting out all of the challenges identified, made some headway in ameliorating the social problems identified as the root cause.

Against a backdrop of a global recession Tottenham is one of London’s poorest boroughs, with more than 10,000 people on unemployment benefits. Similar challenges, mainly for younger people, prevail in other affected areas. We speak of disaffected youth in Bermuda; in the UK there is increasing talk of a lost generation.

While the government tightens its belt and people feel the pinch, the gap between rich and poor escalates dramatically: in 2010, the combined wealth of the 1,000 wealthiest Britons increased by 30 percent to £333 billion. Alongside this, our consumerist society reinforced by the advertising industry and popular culture contributes toward a definition of self-worth which equates value with material possessions. And so, those who do not have will take it when the opportunity presents itself. 

Politically, the UK government has grown rapidly out of touch with its most vulnerable underclass. Its raft of cost cutting measures has affected this sector deeply and this too must be a contributing cause. It seems sometimes that politicians sitting in closed rooms making national decisions have little appreciation of the consequences for ordinary people. This lack of appreciation almost always comes at a price.

These factors must be at play in any careful consideration of the anarchy visited upon the people in London. Tottenham has paid a high price for this and the many innocent victims have had their lives irrevocably and negatively transformed. Writing in The Telegraph, Mary Riddell makes an insightful point when she writes that “the capital city of an advanced nation has reverted to a Hobbesian dystopia of chaos and brutality”. To end this requires both insight and understanding.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Parliament's Failure

Note: this is an excerpt from my Bermuda and the Struggle for Reform: Race, Politics and Ideology, 1944-1998. Available August 10.
Although the BWA was, by the 1950s, an institution which had all but exhaled its last breath—a consequence of the restrictive 1946 trade union legislation—its quest for social and political reform would be successfully taken up by two grass-roots movements.  These movements carved an important historical place for themselves in that they accomplished in a relatively short period of time what years of parliamentary wrangling and status quo politics had failed to achieve. The struggle for an end to racial segregation in the movie theatres and the campaign to win adult suffrage for all Bermudians demonstrated the power of direct action by organised blacks and workers.  However much these important advances for workers and black Bermudians symbolised the strength inherent in collective responses to socio-political problems, they also brought further into relief the dichotomy which emerged through the BWA under Gordon: a sharp distinction in the tactics, policies and proposals by the acknowledged black/working class leadership and those advanced by the rank and file membership. What is inherently different about this later stage in the working class struggle for social reform is that when workers feel their issues and concerns are not being adequately addressed by their leadership they initiate action themselves rather than retreat into passivity. 

    In addition to the divide in strategy between the leadership and the masses, other themes discussed in previous chapters ring with striking familiarity and would lay the foundation for political discourse and mobilisation during the age of democracy.  The salience of racial ideology—that prism through which all struggles are refracted—continues to inform the struggle for, and the resistance to, reform; further, it obfuscates the class strategies pursued by racial elites. These efforts to win reform further support the proposition that social change benefiting workers is least likely to take place when reliance is placed on the established channels of political participation and power brokering.  Perhaps more importantly, agreements decided upon without sensitivity to the concerns of workers will, as Gramsci observed, "only have any meaning in parliament; it will be binding on the leaders, but will have no value for the masses."[i]

Ending Racial Segregation: Class Politics/Class Strategies

    Racial segregation in Bermuda, as late as the 1950s, was much akin to racist practices in the United States and South Africa, although in Bermuda it was largely accomplished by custom and practice—without signs.  The context for this has been detailed already, but two instances of this policy of racial exclusion during the 1950s—both of which gained attention in the international media—symbolised the white ruling elite's refusal even to offer minor concessions as well as the impotence of the black leadership.  A black Guyanese politician, Edwin McDavid, was, in July 1953, en route from his country to London to receive a knighthood, when his airplane was forced to land in Bermuda due to mechanical problems.  When he attempted to check into the St. Georges Hotel he was informed that while his white companions would be accepted, he and his wife would have to go to one of the (few) hotels which offered blacks accommodations.  McDavid protested this by returning to the airport and remaining there all night until the plane was ready to depart.  The six black Members of Colonial Parliament sent a letter of protest to the Governor, but it seems they were more affronted because the policy was directed at a dignitary rather than the principle itself.[ii] 

    Some months later, in October, following her coronation, Queen Elizabeth II visited Bermuda as part of her tour of British territories.  At a state dinner held as part of the programme, thirty persons were invited, but not one of them was black.  It was not until the British media condemned this slur on black Bermudians and people of colour, more generally—"Sir Alexander Hood, Governor of Bermuda, has contrived to celebrate the start of the Queen's tour throughout the Commonwealth by insulting more than 500,000,000 of its inhabitants", wrote The Daily Herald—that the black leadership commented on the matter.[iii] It appears, then, that during this era Bermuda's black/working class leadership would be more reactive in its approach to social and political issues rather than setting the pace for reform.

Association for Bermudian Affairs

    It was against the backdrop of practices such as these that black Bermudians and some whites sought ways to bring an end to segregationist policies.  Toward the end of the 1940s a group of middle class Bermudians formed a group called the Association for Bermudian Affairs; members included Hilton and Georgine Hill, Carol Hill, Eva Robinson, Fred Barnes, Yvonne Blackett and David Critchley, the only white member.  This group met for a number of years and discussed ways of dealing with a number of social problems—from racism and the restricted franchise to ruling class tactics to divide Bermudians and the cost of living. Eventually they put these ideas together in a pamphlet entitled An Analysis of Bermuda's Social Problems[iv]  The fear of directly challenging Bermuda's dominant class, which so typified the middle class resistance, was evident in their strategy: they were careful to retain their anonymity with this detailed indictment of Bermuda by having the document printed in Canada and expunging any indication of authorship. The ABA's pamphlet identified the roots of Bermuda's social problems in racism and the limited franchise[v] and then proceeded to give consideration of its ramifications for Bermuda along with a programme of action for solving these problems.

    One of the strategies pursued by the ABA was to protest the segregationist policy at one of the movie theatres, the Play House.  The group’s members handed out leaflets condemning the racist practice and then proceeded into the theatre separately and sat in the section designated for whites; once the theatre management realised the ABA's strategy, they instructed the ushers to leave them alone and devised a response typical of the white ruling class: an attempt at creating division within the black community.  Two directors of the theatre—M. A. Gibbons and William J. Young—proposed the ABA provide them with a list of "nice coloured" Bermudians who in turn would be allowed to sit in the white section.[vi]  This was immediately rejected by the ABA as a thinly veiled racial insult and there was no shift at all in theatre segregationist policy.

    Despite the efforts of the ABA and its vision of a reformed Bermuda this association was not able to generate mass support. This can be partially explained in that there was never any attempt to directly involve or mobilise black workers and thus the ABA could easily be perceived as an aloof middle class entity. Their lack of success at winning social reform notwithstanding, this group did manage to push the House of Assembly to consider, once again, the question of race and racial practices in Bermuda. 

Parliamentary Select Committee on Race Relations

    In April 1953, a select parliamentary committee was appointed to consider the race question. This group of black and white Members of Colonial Parliament[vii] would meet for eight months and report to the House late January 1954 after lengthy consideration of a detailed agenda.  The agenda included consideration of occupational opportunities for blacks in government service, institutions subsidised by the government and those in the private sector.  It also included the problems of segregation in government or aided organisations; non-governmental and unaided organisations; and Trade Development Policy toward black tourists. Finally, this committee examined black political representation and immigration policy.[viii]  Never before had a group of politicians met to consider at length the question of race and there were quite high expectations that these legislators would recognise the need to introduce immediate reforms.  As the Committee itself observed:

We have recognized that never before, so far as is known, has a Committee of the House been appointed for the sole purpose of considering the vital matter of racial relations.  Accordingly the members of the Committee have felt a great responsibility to achieve by unanimity, if possible, agreements and understandings which it is hoped will advance racial harmony and the community welfare.[ix]

    The introductory remarks in the report, however, quickly dispersed any hope that the fundamental issues of concern to blacks would be addressed in a meaningful manner.  While the Committee recognised that "racial tension has increased in these Islands within the last ten years" and a continuance "must lead to serious difficulties" their proposals would be seriously limited by a number of self-serving caveats:

We have appreciated that reforms, however necessary and advisable, must win acceptance and that the goal must be towards steady progress, with the minimum dislocation of government services and the private sensibilities of all sections of the community.  We are conscious too, that due regard must be had to the protection of our travel industry, the major means of our livelihood.  It is always debatable what effects, if any, more liberal policies might have on the tourist trade but it seems clear that some caution is justified. In spite of anti-discrimination legislation abroad it is evident that prejudice has, by no means, been eradicated. In the development of the policies which this Report recommends, we must be careful to keep our reforms in line with the generally accepted conditions of the countries from which we get a majority of our visitors, if we are to avoid the risk of endangering our vital trade interests....We have endeavoured to be fair but realistic and we consider our recommendations go far towards removing existing grievances.[x]

    When considering the question of occupational opportunities for blacks, the committee noted that within the civil service two considerations were paramount: maintaining full efficiency and a policy free from racial discrimination.  But the committee contradicted itself in dealing with this issue.  On the one hand, they argued they did not want to create "unhappy conditions in the Service" and thought "the immediate treatment of some final objectives should be tempered by practical considerations."[xi]  On the other hand, they accepted that [p]rogress in opening the Service to coloured people expedited.[xii]  With respect to employment in the private sector, the committee accepted that government must demonstrate leadership in the area of better opportunities for blacks but felt it was "most inadvisable to enact any legislation in Bermuda to force private employers to accept employees not of their choice."[xiii]

    On the topic of racial segregation in the private and public sectors, the committee clearly demonstrated its support for the existing practices. The Bermuda Tennis Stadium, a set of courts built by government, excluded blacks from playing—except for two weeks each year. This committee proposed building another stadium for blacks and allow "the present arrangements of the Bermuda Tennis Stadium be left undisturbed."[xiv]  In the interests of pride in the traditions of the Bermuda Militia and the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps the continuance of these racially segregated units was supported by the committee; racial segregation in the schools was supported because the "social difficulties and resentments, which would be engendered if the schools were integrated, do not justify such radical departure from existing policies."[xv]  And in dealing with public places providing amusement, entertainment or refreshment—restaurants and cinemas, for example—but also churches, the committee noted that some places excluded blacks altogether, whereas others had a policy of preferred seating.  Their conclusion was that "proprietors of private enterprises must retain the right of approving the clientele which they propose to solicit."[xvi]

    Led by future government leader Henry Tucker, this group of white and black politicians refused to endorse any significantly new racial policy.  As members of Bermuda's ruling class controlling an undemocratic state and with no organised mass resistance from below, the white MCPs had little to gain by proposing racially progressive policy.  As we saw during the early years of the BWA, the ruling class technique was one of calculated accommodation in response to a clear and immediate danger to its interests.  There was, however, no such threat in 1954. For their part, the black members of the committee—including E.F. Gordon—demonstrated the problems inherent when a disjuncture exists between the masses and their acknowledged leaders.  These men sat on that committee intending to secure advance for blacks but came out with nothing to be proud of; and their signatures on the final document—not even a minority report—would send a message to blacks/workers in Bermuda that they must act for themselves if they were to win reforms. 

[i].  Antonio Gramsci Selections from Political Writings: 1921-1926 (New York:  International Publishers, 1978) pg.52.
[ii].  Randolph Williams Peaceful Warrior: Sir Edward Trenton Richards (Bermuda: Camden Editions, 1988) pg. 101.
[iii].  Williams, pp. 102-3.
[iv]. (Bermuda, n.d.).  This was published in the first half of the 1950s.
[v].  See ibid., chapters 1 and 2.
[vi].  Eva Hodgson "A Storm in a Teacup": The 1959 Bermuda Theatre Boycott and Its Aftermath (Bermuda: The Writers' Machine, 1989) pg. 13.
[vii].  Black members included E. F. Gordon, Hilton Hill, Russell Pearman, and E. T. Richards; white members included Henry Tucker, as chairman, James Pearman, N. H. P. Vesey and H. T. Watlington.
[viii].  See Journals of the House of Assembly 25 January 1954, pp. 479-480.
[ix].  ibid., pg. 480.
[x].  ibid. pg. 481.
[xi].  ibid., pg. 482.
[xii].  ibid.
[xiii]. ibid., pg. 486.
[xiv]. ibid., pg. 487.
[xv].  ibid., pg. 488.
[xvi].  ibid., pg. 488.