COLUMN-A need for new cultural path

fighting goliathHardly a day passes in Barbados without the occurrence of some horrific incident of violent crime, domestic violence or abuse of women. The cutlass attack on Marva Ward and the callous shooting of three young men at Sargeant’s Village in Christ Church are just the most recent examples of this sociocultural sickness.

And if we had any doubts about how pervasive and deeply rooted this condition is, we recently had the compelling testimony of one of our secondary school principals about what he described as “walking time bombs” in our educational system.

Speaking at the December 9, 2014 Coleridge & Parry School’s annual speech day, principal Vincent Fergusson declared: “We see students who are very erratic, aggressive, threatening other students and teachers, destroying school property and, most of all, displaying signs of hopelessness. They are walking time bombs . . . .”

The principal also went on to speak about students failing drug tests and of more female students getting involved with illegal drugs.

Now, I can guarantee you that none of these incidents — the attack on Marva Ward, the shooting of the three young men, the principal’s speech — will evoke any substantial comment from our Prime Minister, Minister of Education, Attorney General, Opposition Leader, Bar Association, clergymen –– and the list goes on and on.

And the reason for the lack of a substantial response is two-fold. Firstly, it is because we currently exist in a “culture system” in which self-centred individualism is promoted, and violence against “others”, and their suffering, are trivialized. Secondly, violence and crime have become such settled features of our social reality that they no longer shock and disturb.

If we are to understand how and why we have come to this state of affairs, we need to go back to our early years of Independence, and to the testimony and advice of one of our most outstanding Caribbean scholars –– the late Professor Gordon Lewis.

Back in the mid-1960s –– when Barbados and several other Caribbean territories were on the verge of becoming Independent –– Professor Lewis urged West Indian leaders of that era to carefully consider what socioeconomic path, and what ruling value system, they were going to adopt for our new nations.

Lewis, in his magnificent work entitled The Growth Of The Modern West Indies, warned about the social and psychological deficiencies that were already present in our colonial-derived culture, and of the dangerous prospect of exacerbating and adding to those deficiencies by permitting the newly established nations to come under the sway of the cultural and material imperialism of capitalist North America.

Indeed, Professor Lewis held up before us the negative example of Puerto Rico –– the Caribbean territory that had been most exposed to the full blast of North American cultural and material imperialism. This is how Professor Lewis described the Puerto Rico of the mid-1960s:

. . . The local scene is one characterized by a population, large sections of which are at once psychologically depressed and socially disorganized, with alarmingly high percentages of mental retardation, psychosis, incest, prostitution and drug addiction: not to mention a collective inferiority complex that comes from the habit, reinforced by the externally controlled    industrialization programme, of always looking to the norteamericanos to do things, to make decisions as the controlling group in the relationship.

Well, instead of taking to heart Lewis’ wise words of caution, the leaders of our newly Independent nations gleefully embraced the so-called “American way”, making the United States their model and cultural point of reference.

But, the United States –– as we all know –– possesses a culture that is suffused with violence. For example, American television routinely features news stories (and movies) about death and destruction inflicted by the American government and its military forces on human beings all over the world; and the mainstream of American society accepts this as normal and routine.

When this national predisposition is mixed in with a popular culture that glamorizes violence and that insists on the individual right to possess guns, it is not surprising that every couple weeks some American gets it into his head to shoot down a dozen or more of his fellow citizens.

In addition, the powerful business corporations of the United States have created an intense consumerist culture in which the most powerful and sophisticated instruments and techniques of psychological conditioning are devoted to nurturing and maintaining a desensitized, atomized, uninformed, pleasure and entertainment-seeking population.

And so, if this is our model, can we really be surprised that we are progressively becoming a people devoid of a sense of kinship, or community, or connection to each other? Indeed, we are becoming more and more self-centred, self-consumed, self-righteous, and less and less capable of appreciating and valuing the worth of other human beings.

And, we too are subjecting ourselves to a surfeit of mindless entertainments, and are gradually drifting away from the guidance of a moral code.

However, there is one Caribbean country that stands out as a nation that has avoided many of the pitfalls of the American way, and that country is Cuba. The Republic of Cuba was able to avoid the American embrace largely because in April of 1961 the government of the United States imposed an economic, commercial, financial and cultural embargo on the Cuban nation and people, and insisted upon a separation between its nation and that revolutionary socialist Caribbean republic.

The Cubans will rightfully tell you that they have suffered many losses and deprivations as a result of the American embargo, but I believe that Cuba has also gained from its enforced separation from the United States.

After some 53 years of embargo and separation, Cuba –– a country of some 12 million people –– has a murder rate that is approximately one half of Barbados’. Furthermore, Cuba has become a socially cohesive society that is imbued with a strong national culture and with strong intergenerational connections among its people.

Indeed, the sense of social solidarity is so strong in Cuba , that no matter how difficult economic conditions might become, the Cuban authorities never compromise on the fundamental health, education and welfare provisions to their people. The remarkable culture and spirit of the Cuban people are further typified in the willing readiness with which they respond to people in need in other parts of the world –– the latest example being the tremendous Cuban effort to help the three Ebola-stricken West African nations.

I am not here arguing for Barbados to become another Cuba. But I would certainly like to make the point that Barbados has more to learn (and gain) from Cuba than from the United States!

In addition, I would urge that the single most effective way for Barbados and the other English-speaking Caribbean nations to pull themselves away from the destructive cultural trajectory they now find themselves on is to seriously focus on, commit themselves to, and pursue the construction of an autonomous “Caribbean civilization”, undergirded and supported by an integrated, self-sustaining economy, and with the Republic of Cuba occupying a central place in such a process.

Approximately one week ago, the political leaders of Cuba and the CARICOM states met in Havana at the Fifth CARICOM-Cuba Summit, and produced a brilliant and comprehensive “Declaration” that speaks of Cuba and the CARICOM nations collaborating in the fields of health, education, the arts, disaster preparedness, sport, food production, infrastructure development, air and sea connectivity, sustainable use of the Caribbean Sea, international diplomacy, trade, and reparations, among several other critical issues.

My advice is that we take that “Declaration” very seriously, and set about implementing it as a matter of urgency. If we do so –– with seriousness, passion and conviction –– many
of the cultural dilemmas that we now face will fade away.

(David Comissiong, an attorney-at-law, is president of the Clement Payne Movement.)

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