Thursday, July 26, 2012

Comeau speeches miss the point

Kevin Comeau’s speech this week before Rotary was designed to be both provocative and the subject of sustained debate. I am not sure he wants to be helpful. Race remains the prism through which many of our social, economic and political issues are refracted and we seem set to have to endure this for the immediate future.

Understanding how our racially structured society came about, how it is being addressed today and how to remedy the damage caused by racism is as complex as it is necessary. Unfortunately, Mr Comeau’s analysis falters on both epistemological and factual grounds.

To begin with, there is the application of an American theoretical construct — the “black authenticity” construct — which is more fantasy than reality in modern Bermuda. That construct, as applied to the Progressive Labour Party, was phased out by former leader Frederick Wade during his tenure (1985-1996) and in so doing played a critical role in the PLP’s 1998 electoral victory.

The black authenticity model was critical for the development of black pride against a backdrop of white supremacy and colonial rule but it was always an impediment to electoral victory for the PLP since middle class blacks shied away from this ideology. There are certainly people today who advocate this construct but that sentiment is not reflected in the approach taken by the PLP. 

A more serious challenge with the Comeau analysis is that he places the blame for the continuance of racism on black people — the very victims of white supremacy and institutionalised racism. For him, the quest for racial justice will secure legitimacy when white people are comfortable enough to sit down and work with, presumably, black people to work through the challenges of race.

Seriously? The social history over the past 40 years is a history of black people integrating every segregated white institution they could: schools, clubs, social organisations, political parties, etc. On the other hand, whites generally, have not moved to join historically black institutions, which were always open to all races. There was no “black authenticity” construct at play here that denied white people the opportunity to join such organisations and there is none in play today.

Mr Comeau loses credibility when he permeates his speech with the theme that this government is corrupt. Having focused the entirety of his comments on what black people need to do, this corruption undercurrent is without question a bold statement that this black government is corrupt.

In making about as serious a charge as one could make about any government, does he present a shred of evidence? No. Yet his accusations stand. Governor (Sir Richard) Gozney was asked directly if he had seen any evidence of government corruption at the executive level and his answer was an unqualified “no”. Perhaps he too was on the take.

The assertion that black people vote in solidarity for the PLP is obviously false, as even a cursory look of election results since 1968 show a significant percentage of black voters have voted for parties other than the PLP. But if the view that blacks vote solidly for the PLP, even if false, so concerns Mr Comeau, why does it not equally concern him that whites vote solidly for one party? And by an even larger margin.

Perhaps more important than a government’s electoral base are the policies and legislation it puts in place. Any careful examination of successive PLP actions in this area will show policies and legislation that are “race neutral” in both design and implementation. There is undoubtedly a class bias as a party focusing on working people should act accordingly. 

We need less hyperbole, less name calling and more constructive contributions if we are to realise the vision articulated by Emperor Haile Selassie and popularised by Bob Marley — the day when “the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes”. Regrettably, this intervention by Mr Comeau sets that day further back.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Social media's pros and cons

A large part of the unofficial election campaign is being conducted through social media. Talk radio, Facebook, online news sites and blogs, for example, are now bastions of extended commentary and no doubt an important component of a more participatory democracy in the 21st century. There are some challenges with social media, however, that do impact on the nature and extent of our debates. And it is worth reflecting on these, if only to better appreciate some of the limits these media run up against. 

The first and most obvious limitation is that social media have become the vessel of such highly polarised ‘debate’ that the middle is oftentimes left out. The champions on either side convey their message with tunnel-like and unrelenting enthusiasm — and they take no prisoners. The middle is effectively silenced since their entry onto the political battlefield is viewed sceptically and any comment made is assessed, in the first instance, to detect which side they are on. Claims they are not party affiliated are more likely than not to fall on deaf or unsympathetic ears. 

A second limitation is that social media is truly the domain where fact and fiction merge. A largely unregulated environment where almost anyone can say almost anything the truth often falls victim to someone’s own political agenda. Saying something often and saying it passionately does not make it accurate and we have simply seen numerous examples of this over the years. With social media the misrepresentations of fact multiplies easily and quickly. It would be an interesting exercise to document weekly the fiction represented as fact. 

With social media, people for some reason seem to have a greater penchant for descending into the personal attack — with a plethora of irrelevant, racist, misogynist, xenophobic utterances. Some are protected under the blanket of anonymity and thus feel empowered to be as vile and as obnoxious as possible. They are cowards who deserved to be ignored; unfortunately, some of us take the bait. On this front I heed the advice of my paternal grandfather, W G Brown, who during my teen years, repeatedly and passionately told me and my siblings — in words beyond the PG rating of this medium — not to give such comments value. 

Social media also lends itself to easy manipulation by a coordinated force. With anonymity, false names and a bit of work one can greatly influence or shape any debate. Further, it seems quite clear that there are online and talk radio campaigns with particular political thrusts attempting to be presented as the collective will of a politically engaged public. Not so. A consequence of all this is a greater level of scepticism and for some, disengagement from the political process altogether.

One outcome of these four limits of social media is that we engage less in substantive debates about what really matters: the policies, programmes and visions of the respective political parties. What matters is what the current government has done, is doing and promises to do. What matters is what the opposition parties critiques of government are and what they intend to do if elected government. 

Social media are cheap to use, easy to access and have truly democratised the participatory process. When we can better shape this medium to become a more powerful vehicle for debate, thoughtful reflection and a focus on the political issues that matter to the real experiences to voters and all other residents then we will have made some real progress.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Civil servants and public policy

Anyone familiar with the classic British television series, the satirical “Yes, Minister” will know that at its core the show was about the efforts by a government Minister to lead and his battles with often recalcitrant civil servants. This fictional series was not too far from the truth. Where politicians lead and civil servants are meant to implement policy, the process is rarely smooth and without its own internal challenges.

One reason why the link between policy setting and implementation may not go smoothly is because of disagreement with the policy decision among civil servants. In almost all instances, civil servants dutifully carry out their responsibilities and implement policy directives. But not always. I recall an instance a number of years ago when a minister made a decision that was clearly contrary to the view of a particular civil servant who had responsibility to act on it. The civil servant found a multitude of reasons to explain his delay in implementation and after three months still no action had been taken. It was only when the civil servant was subjected to an intensely colourful, semi-public dressing down that he set about acting on the decision — immediately.

Policy implementation may also be delayed or set askew because of internal procedural requirements. The pace envisioned by Ministers for putting policy in place may simply not be possible given that civil servants have the responsibility to ensure that all necessary details are properly addressed. There is even likely to be a level of tension at times when a Minister wants a decision acted on immediately, yet is constrained by the need for civil servants to liaise with all appropriate parties and secure any necessary permissions. Because civil servants operate in neither an explicitly political environment nor in the private sector their sensibilities and modus operandi will necessarily be quite different and not always readily understood. The logic of the civil service is to ensure that decisions are implemented correctly, without a primary reference to the political context.

A third challenge to the smooth alignment between policy and implementation is one driven by purely internal dynamics. Like any large organisation, there is always internal politics — the small “p” sort — at play. The jockeying for power, personality conflicts and the abuses that at times ensue all conspire, even if inadvertently, to challenge the policy implementation process. This sort of political battle takes a toll on morale, sustained collaborative work and, no doubt, productivity. The politician has no real control over this domain and this must be left with the leadership with the civil service to address. 

Understanding the dynamics at play between the political leadership and the civil service provides insight into the sometimes circuitous route policy implementation takes. Noble objectives can be stymied by the practical realities; opposition to policy emanating from within can produce frustrating delays; and internal politics can weaken the system altogether. The way forward is to find strategies to minimise these realities.