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Trinidad before and after the Fall

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

To continue from last week, the public sphere and public life seem quite poor for ideas or smart people. Debate and education are mere noise: cliché, diatribe, personal animus clothed in civic or political language. But it wasn’t always like this. If you examined Trinidad from 1946–1956 you would see a much more interesting country in embryo. The leading politician (Albert Gomes) had been a literary provocateur. The society seemed comfortable with a mix of the artistic, commercial and pragmatic.

Edgar Mittelholzer, Alfred Mendes, Eric Roach, Seepersad Naipaul and Sam Selvon contributed (fiction) stories to the Sunday Guardian. Errol Hill campaigned for a national theatre. A group called “rebel artists” staged protest exhibitions. Beryl McBurnie opened the Little Carib Theatre.

The arts were aided by a strong public education programme, of which public lectures were an important and popular medium. Around 1950, Eric Williams (et al) began presenting lectures at the public library on history and current events. Raymond Quevedo and Mitto Sampson gave lectures on culture.

Gomes and others began writing (in the press) the basic apologia for the steelband movement and “national culture.” Indian scholars visited and gave lectures to the Indian community, encouraging them (among other things) to embrace their position as citizens of the New World. (Unlike a decade later when their presence was erased in national media and symbolism, Indians were very visible and active in the national sphere.)

The radio company Rediffusion came into existence after the war (with statutory kangkatang, as the government granted an exclusive licence to the foreign-owned “Radio Diffusion” under dubious circumstances). Radio became a powerful educational medium in a way that can scarcely be imagined today.

Outside the formal media were debating societies, literary circles, literary magazines and civil society groups. All in all, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a society serious about education and progress. Local themes were important, but British antecedents were valued; no contempt for European knowledge, or delusions about its replacement with specious “local” knowledge.

The social consequences of the decade were falling crime, increasing education and economic growth. Politics was garrulous, but representative, and not racially poisonous as they became a decade later and remain today.

The first few years of the PNM were a continuation of the progressive agenda that preceded it. The main text of the independence movement is generally held to be Eric Williams’s collected fulgurations once he was let go from the Caribbean Commission in 1955, and was persuaded to stand for elections in 1956, but this overshadows much more. A high point in civic life was a series of lectures CLR James delivered at the public library in 1960 (subsequently published as Modern Politics).

James traced the course of western political society from the Greeks and Romans through the Bible, Shakespeare, the Enlightenment and, of course, Marx and Lenin. He spent much time on Enlightenment philosophers, like Rousseau and Voltaire, and the gradual evolution of western society. 

His intention was to locate Trinidad in the flux of unfolding western history. If one theme pervaded, it was the notion “progressive evolution,” which, riding the wave of post-war optimism, assumed the future was going to be better. This describes the general eidos of the society before 1956.

It’s not maudlin to suggest that no trace of the optimism or erudition remains in public discourse today. We suffer an endless barrage of simplistic analysis of our social and economic situations, complete with disastrous prescriptions and explanations from half-formed minds and people.

The artists who, like James, saw themselves as inheritors of the best of the European tradition, left. Those who followed were infected with a disease called “nationalism” which took offence at the very thought. It was a failure of ideas by 1960, which would culminate in 1970, 1990 and 2001.

As the 1960s progressed, many of the people who would have contributed to and materialised those ideas left—about 100,000 per decade for the next three decades. People like CLR James, who wanted to build a society, left. Trevor Sudama came back to bring down an elected government. And he’s still here. We live today in a society created from the detritus.

The act of rebuilding after devastation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Europe and Japan were demolished and recovered quite well after the war, because they had social and cultural blueprints to follow. The rebuilding released locked up potential which transformed the societies, and the world. But the Trinidadian society rebuilt after the massive bleeding of human capital from 1960—1990 is a mere echo of the original.

Gordon Rohlehr, in an essay, Man Talking to Man (in My Strangled City), describes the society’s ideative state between 1970 and 1984: “At times it seems that there has been no true dialogue, but rather several rudely interrupted and fragmented monologues modified by a shared forum of public platitudes in which all groups can easily participate without compromising their private positions.”

How this came about is suggested by the fate of James, and specifically, the fate of the 1960  lectures. According to Martin Glaberman in his introduction, the first edition of Modern Politics was “suppressed” by Williams and “for many years, printed copies lay in a warehouse in Port-of-Spain under guard.” This was not an isolated act: many Trinidadians, like James, Gomes, Kwame Ture, were hounded from the country of their birth, and with them, their knowledge and ideas.

We’ve come to accept this casual contempt for non-conforming knowledge, its erasure or suppression, and its substitution with sterile pabulum, as normal. Hence the terrible emptiness in and out of Parliament, and why, the richer we get, the poorer and more miserable we become.


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