Thursday, August 30, 2012

Protect Freedom of Speech

We are now immersed in an intense debate surrounding free speech issues. Social media, comment pages on electronic news sites and talk radio have created a wide arena for public debate, banter and a great deal of mudslinging. While many of these comments can best be described with a depressing number of negative adjectives — sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc. — they share common ground in that this freedom to express oneself is now taken for granted. It has not always been so.

Free speech in Bermuda has only really developed over the past ten years; twenty years ago our Island was constrained by a culture of intimidation and backroom tactics exerted by the power elite to stifle dissenting opinions. So much so was this the case that a Royal Commissioner Justice Stephen Tumim in 1992 referred to a “fear of speaking out” as a fundamental challenge for Bermuda. 

One personal story illustrates the nature of the political terrain 20 years ago. In 1993 I produced and hosted a weekly television show called Behind the Headlines, where I interviewed prominent personalities on key issues. When I sought to interview the Minister of Finance and the Shadow Minister, the Minister declined, leaving me to interview only the Shadow Minister. After this interview the Broadcasting Commission labelled my show a political broadcast and sought to impose significant restraints. When I appeared before the commission, chaired by Louise Jackson, and explained the show was of a “political nature” but not a “political broadcast” as outlined in the relevant legislation, the commission told me I did not understand the law. One member, John Plowman, asked me, “What is your real agenda?” With two directly opposed views the show remained off the air. Immediately after the 1993 general election the commission wrote to me indicating they now accept my position the programme was indeed of a “political nature”, not a “political broadcast” and that I was free to resume my broadcast. My conclusion was the obvious one: the politically appointed commission members did not want open discussion on political issues in the run up to an election.

Such tactics would never be tolerated today and we have evolved to a place where the public across the political spectrum takes for granted the centrality of free speech in our discourse. But with free speech comes responsibility; and we are unfortunately inundated with a great deal of irresponsibility today. Some of this irresponsibility causes embarrassment to individuals and poses challenges for political parties, although the latter are fair game. Amidst calls for restraint there is the inevitable call for the state to be more assertive in exercising control over what people say. Any move in this direction would be unwise and would require challenge — we cannot go back 20 years. The reality is that free and democratic societies — and we aspire to that — must protect this right to free speech.

One way to shift the tenor of our public discourse is to lead by the example you wish to set. If you think anonymous writers are anathema to sincere debate, ignore them. If you conclude that talk show caller is making merely personal attacks and not dealing with issues, ignore them. And if you determine the person challenging your position never seeks to actually engage you in debate but merely vents, then perhaps they should be ignored as well.

Free speech is a cornerstone of a strong democracy. It needs to be both cherished and respected. When we respect this right perhaps more of us will exercise it responsibly.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lessons from the Olympics

There is much we can learn from the recently concluded 2012 Olympics. These games were impressive on many fronts — from the opening ceremony, to the daily and perfectly executed competitions to the behind the scenes efficient management — and London, indeed Britain, has a great deal to be proud of. The spirit of the Olympics extends well beyond the competition among nations for gold and it makes sense to reflect on what lessons can be discerned.

An obvious lesson is that talent is the significant relevant factor, not privilege. Too often in other areas of life we reward people either because of a privileged background or some connection that gives them a head start over others. Those who try to cheat the Olympic system are usually found out and they lose out altogether. The rigour with which the International Olympic Committee enforces the focus on talent and a level playing field sends the right message to those talented athletes from small and smaller countries that through hard work their raw talent and ability can translate into success — witness Kirani James from Grenada.

It is important to note that while there is a focus on winning medals, even those who do not win medals can still showcase their talent and growth. Our own Roy Allen Burch set a new Bermuda record, while just missing out on making the finals. Both he and our national swim coach, Ben Smith, should be applauded for this. Success can come in a multitude of forms. 

With the Olympics we see the emergence of national pride that at times may be euphoric but never jingoist. It often has a unifying effect on a country as citizens suspend the daily battles with real and imagined enemies and thrust their support behind their athletes, with momentum gaining as one advances to the next round and the medals are won. There is much to be said about events that can bring a country together, where its citizens come to appreciate that at times the pursuit of the national interest minimises other differences that exist. 

An enduring characteristic of the Olympic spirit is a clearly demonstrated respect for people of all nations and a policy of zero tolerance for those racists and bigots who would tarnish this image through their actions. Their administration of justice in this arena was clear, swift and definitive. A consequence of this is that all athletes and their representatives are more likely to have high confidence levels that there will be minimal factors at play to take their focus away from the games themselves. 

Of particular note this year, the Olympics demonstrated that they can adjust their policies and rules given a changed set of realities. Having respect for all religions meant there had to be found a way to accommodate Muslim women who wanted to compete and continue to practice their faith. This was accomplished with little fanfare yet set an important precedent which no doubt will evolve further in 2016. The IOC made the sensible decision to allow Oscar ‘Blade Runner’ Pistorius to compete and, again, set an important precedent for the admission of competitors with prosthetic limbs.

Finally, the infrastructure built for the Olympics provided the backdrop for these impressive Olympics. It is true that there were significant cost over runs — a report from the Said Business School at Oxford University puts it at £8.4 billion, double the original estimate of £4.2 billion — but there is little doubt the tremendous investment into economically depressed areas of London will reap long rewards for the people living there.

The spirit of the Olympics has now been passed on to Rio de Janeiro; the legacy of London is both instructive and encouraging.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Disagree, but keep talking

Let me first thank Kevin Comeau for his response in the Tuesday edition of this newspaper to my earlier comments. This is precisely the sort of engaged debate we should be having around critical issues rather than the diatribes passing for discussion and the exchanges burdened by the non-sequitur. I therefore accept his invitation to respond.

Mr Comeau begins by asserting that the undercurrent of my argument is that he is “politically motivated”. Untrue. His comments are undoubtedly political insofar as he wants to see important progress in Bermuda on the issue of race but I have no idea of Kevin’s political proclivities nor is it germane to our debate. Nothing in my comments can support his contention in this regard.

It is true that I encouraged Mr Comeau to take his clear passion for addressing the race issue beyond the private domain to the public arena; as a matter of practice, though, I do not disclose the contents of my private discussion with private figures along with their identities to the public, unless explicitly authorised to do so. Further, I hold the view that Kevin is serious in his intent to improve Bermuda’s racial landscape — I simply disagree with much of his analysis and prescription.

The intellectual flaw in the Comeau analysis is the simplistic belief in a dual construct to explain the totality of black advocacy: “black authenticity” vs “morality based” constructs. 

The two fundamental problems are: (1) these constructs are imported from the US onto a completely different socio-economic and political terrain and (2) it examines black people as one dimensional characters. But we are also male, female, young, old, rich and poor. Reducing the analysis to race marginalises the importance of class and therefore clouds the reality of real political struggles. I document this in my book, “Bermuda and the Struggle for Reform”. As a consequence, I reject the labelling of me by Kevin as a “racial equity advocate.” My activism is more complex and more expansive than this. 

There are many who want to believe corruption is rampant in this Government. Mr Comeau says there is “strong circumstantial evidence.” He bases the entirety of his argument on cost overruns on capital projects making inferences about secret deals and questionable conduct by officials. Overruns on capital projects are not unique to this Government nor is it unique to Bermuda. A few months ago I had a long discussion with an individual who was a central figure in the expansion of the airport under the UBP. He explained credibly how the initial budget of $9 million ended up costing taxpayers $27 million. 

In general, though, Mr Comeau is right when he raises the alarm bells about overruns, while I believe he is wrong as to the reasons. A report published by the UK based Taxpayers’ Alliance ( shows that the average net cost overrun on capital projects in the UK is 38 percent. The larger projects tend to have the greatest cost overrun. The US conservative think tank the Cato Institute argues that these findings match US findings. When explaining this, the Cato Institute opines “the inefficiencies in government stem from deep, structural factors, not the skills of the particular politicians or administrators in office.” This is consistent with my publicly expressed position that governments should not be managing large capital projects.

I think Mr Comeau may have been unintentional in blaming black people for the problems of race today but there is no doubt this is precisely what he is doing. His argument may be logical — the black authenticity construct leads to a hostile environment for whites — but it has no applicability in Bermuda. It is a false construct. 

The entirety of his comments refers to what black people should be doing to create the terrain for white participation. Putting party politics aside, since that is shaped by class as much as it is by race, there is the realm of civil society which plays a pivotal role in shaping consciousness. The sad reality is that whites have not and do not generally participate in historically black institutions and events while blacks have done the reverse, at times under great duress. The recent brouhaha over the lack of white people attending the Carifta Games is one manifestation of this sentiment.

Many of us walk down the path in search of ways and strategies to create a more harmonious, stronger and united Bermuda. We see the proverbial Promised Land. Kevin Comeau and I seek the same objective even when we disagree about how to explain our current situation and the way forward. But dialogue such as this is a necessary precondition for any progressive steps forward.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cricket, Cup Match and life

Whenever decision day draws near each year, both sides roll out their team and there is an unrelenting fight to see who will emerge victorious. The Island will clearly be divided, we will be saturated with a litany of colorful commentary- both positive and negative - and there will be a great deal of handwringing as the numbers come in. The people, however, will have to content themselves as passionate observers from the sidelines. This, after all, is Cup Match.

Born out of Emancipation celebratory activities, Cup Match, along with the numerous related activities, has now established itself as our most popular, most vibrant, most colourful cultural activity of the year. Almost all of us are engaged in something over this, for all intents and purposes, four-day holiday. The cricket match in Somerset, though, is the hub around which all else revolved.

In his brilliant book, “Beyond a Boundary”, the Trinidadian intellectual CLR James explored the relationship between cricket and the wider society; an analysis that still resonates today. Both Somerset and St George’s ensured team discipline and presented a united front, even if there were cracks in the armour. The strategies adopted to achieve a win were critical and there no doubt there will be many commentators critically assessing Somerset’s strong win. Team endurance is always a critical factor as they have to contend with the often oppressive conditions on the ground; not unlike the challenges facing other teams seeking a win.

As much as the team has to work together there is room for individual excellence: one or two players through their exceptional talents can help carry the day for their team: witness the superb performances of Greg Maybury and Kamau Leverock this year.

Team captains are the leaders, chief strategists and the ones tasked with adjusting the play according to events on the field. A captain without courage, unable to excite and mobilise his team or paralysed by over-analysis will not likely make it back next year in that same position. Merely aspiring to be team captain is not a sufficient qualification - the responsibilities are too great and the prize too valuable. Competence, courage and conviction are great qualities to begin with. 

The match was surrounded by highly opinionated spectators, who critically assessed each stroke, each play and the performance of each player. As is to be expected. Unlike other arenas where teams contest for victory, the partisan nature of Cup Match is such that loyalty reigns supreme - no switching of allegiances here. These allegiances run deep and have even been known to divide families, at least during the duration of the game.

Anyone having grown up in Bermuda will know that it is difficult to remain neutral when casting an opinion about the outcome of the match. The platitudes ending with, “and may the best team win” ring hollow with me and many others. Why? Because we know which is the better team, we know the talent of their players and we believe their strategy will carry them to victory. For many of us this is sufficient reason to stay to the wicket.