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.

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