Saturday, December 31, 2011

The politicians and the politics of the 1990s -- even of 2007 -- are obsolete... And as far as the politics of The Bahamas is concerned, both of our long-standing parties have seemed comfortable with the formula bequeathed to us by our colonial forefathers; a pepper-pot of traditionalism in some areas and a discourse of modernisation in others -- a dish which has resulted in the gradual disintegration of the Bahamian middle class over the last decade in the face of a global economy in transition, concentrating wealth more and more in fewer peoples' hands

Making the case for a national political debate


EXPLICITLY, my intention is to present an argument for why I believe this election season requires a debate between the leaders of the three most visible political parties.

There are, I would argue, questions that remain concerning the lack of any pronounced or marked ideological difference between these three parties, and in these difficult times the Bahamas needs thoughtful and critical leadership.

Public debate should enrich the political process and supply Bahamians with varying and alternative imaginings of our possibilities as nation. It seems clear to me that the level of public debate in the Bahamas cannot adequately answer this challenge.

As a bonus, I hope this piece will also serve as an indictment of politics as usual in the Bahamas and an appeal directed especially at young voters. Those with influence often accuse us of apathy while simultaneously shirking responsibility for our current condition.

I fear that we will follow in their footsteps -- deifying political leaders and being baptised in red, yellow or green (or whatever the colours of the day are) on the altar of our own political immaturity. This is not the time to reify that tradition; we know now where that path leads. Look around you.

Bahamians have unfortunately been let down by a great deal of our erstwhile political pundit class, many of whom seem, quite frankly, bitter. A number of these political commentators betray what can only be described as hurt feelings and personal vendettas in their writing and on the radio.

In turn they've become the spin doctors of choice for their patron political parties, making house calls even. I'm certainly skeptical that they can be relied on to provide non-partisan opinions and I've long since rid myself of the expectation that this particular sphere of influence will ever mount a meaningful challenge to the status quo.

Colin A Hughes reminds us in his book, Race and Politics in the Bahamas, during the run-up to the 1967 election, the two most read papers in the Bahamas, The Tribune and The Nassau Guardian, both seemed to support the ruling United Bahamian Party (UBP).

These days there is no white supremacist regime that must be challenged. Instead, the status quo is represented by the uncritical and empty party politics that characterises our electoral contests.

As the revolutionary theorist, Antonio Gramsci, makes clear, there are two types of intellectuals: those who align with emergent, new intellectual and social forces, and those who work to maintain the old. The Bahamas has more than its fair share of the latter.

Facebook has seemingly provided an opportunity for more democratic political debate. However, upon closer inspection, you realise that only a few people are actually speaking.

The walls for Bahamian political Facebook groups are dominated by a small fraction of the members, most of whom are vehemently partisan mouth pieces for their team of choice.

I use the word "team" carefully, because many Bahamians treat political parties like they would a sport team -- counting who had the most people at the home game, idolising the star quarterback, comparing the roster and trash talking.

Most sports teams are devoid of ideology and I would argue our political parties are as well. For the majority of Bahamians, I would imagine that this doesn't matter; what counts is which team scores the winning touchdown. We've yet to learn that in this kind of a game everyone loses.
Sadly, referencing Hughes' book, you will quickly learn that in the early years of the 20th century the Bahamian electorate viewed the election season as a chance to get something for nothing -- then it was rum and rice. What is now, a free T-shirt and a Christmas ham?

When, as made clear by the Bahamian Wikileaks, our politicians are comfortable claiming that "free paraphernalia" is one of the most important factors in winning an election, this particular piece of history becomes significant.

Hughes' also remarks that for politicians, elections amounted to nothing more than sporting events, a game between peers carried out over generations. Ninety plus years later and things seems remarkably the same. Maybe it's an age thing but when politicians shout, "Come on down," at each other across the parliamentary aisle I can't help but think of "The Price is Right."

The lack of universal participation on Facebook may be because of apathy, but I've observed another possible explanation: outsiders and disagreeable opinions are not welcome.

In preparation for this article I decided to engage in some informal ethnographic research. I even participated in the discussion on few posts as an independent voter.

In one particular instance, my intervention was not appreciated. According to one of the regulars, my point of view apparently violated the "wisdom of God." And when I pointed out the wisdom of God, as espoused by man, has been used by man to inflict pain and suffering, no less on our own ancestors, things got ugly.

The good Christian who originally countered my argument Biblically, called me everything but a child of God, blocked me and apparently continued insulting me so that I could not respond. Meanwhile, others rushed to the post, and with a click of the "Like" button and "lol" in repetition, they patted each other on their virtual backs for maintaining a comfortable level of ignorance and aggressively defending business as usual.

This perhaps provides some insight: even on Facebook, where the access to political debate has been democratised, only certain people get to speak about certain things, and only in certain ways. There is no space on the Bahamian political landscape for alternative political discourses and few have been brave enough to try and make space.

Go off the reservation, show the ruptures of illogicality in age-old political wisdom, the senselessness in so-called political common sense, and face a collective wrath.

You can dare to question the status-quo but know that at the very least you and possibly your family will be blocked, insulted and laughed at. This is something made intelligible after my last article for this paper. My untraditional (dare I say un-Bahamian) position on homosexuality cost a family member a job opportunity. None of this makes for meaningful, respectful or productive debate, does it?

How then can a national political debate transform the grim picture I've just painted?

Honestly, it can't. But, it is a step in the right direction. Against my better judgment, I want to suggest that if anyone should be responsible for showing the Bahamian people how to conduct the kind of political debates necessary for us arrive at the best political conclusion for our country, it is our political leaders.

A nationally televised, internet streamed, radio broadcast of our two seasoned political leaders and the firebrand new contender debating policy, defining differences in ideology and comparing visions of the Bahamian future is beneficial for all, especially the Bahamian people.

I know I'm not alone when I say that I'm interested in hearing what our hopeful leaders have to offer, outside of the theatrics of adversarial parliamentary posturing and away from the throngs of adoring fans. Despite the fact that some political leaders believe they must no longer compete for their inevitable ascendancy, that they are tried and tested, these are new and unusual times.

The politicians and the politics of the 1990s -- even of 2007 -- are obsolete. And as far as the politics of the Bahamas is concerned, both of our long-standing parties have seemed comfortable with the formula bequeathed to us by our colonial forefathers, a pepper-pot of traditionalism in some areas and a discourse of modernisation in others -- a dish which has resulted in the gradual disintegration of the Bahamian middle class over the last decade in the face of a global economy in transition, concentrating wealth more and more in fewer peoples' hands.

This is also not the most opportune time for a greenhorn politician to stake a leadership claim with a less than impressive political resume. The simple answer would be to say the Bahamas needs a new politician or a new political party, when in actuality what I think we need is a new politics. I am left unconvinced that, in what has become a politics plagued by ego, we should suffer yet another political contender asserting his dominion over our government with an air of entitlement.

Prime Minister Ingraham could once and for all show the truth of the Free National Movement's record, and himself as a man of action. Mr Christie could mount a clear opposition to the FNM, and set out a bold vision for the Bahamas as imagined by the Progressive Liberal Party. It would also benefit Mr McCartney, who could finally show all of those who doubt him that he can contend on the national level and that Democratic National Alliance's promises of hope for the Bahamian people are not empty.

Not only is it time for Prime Minister Ingraham, Mr Christie and Mr. McCartney to explain why any of them should be allowed to stand at our country's helm in these rough waters, but it is time for the people of this country to require it of them. In the past, we've failed to hold our leaders truly accountable.

When the Prime Minister feels it is within his right to say that the new contender won't be carrying "his tings" anywhere, the Bahamian people must necessarily retort, "Tell us why you think you'll be carrying our tings anywhere?"

When the leader of the opposition places the blame for our country's current economic condition squarely on the shoulders of the sitting government, the Bahamian people must necessarily inquire, "How does your partisan rhetoric square with the reality of a global economic downturn, and what exactly would you do differently?"

When the dewy political newcomer promises change and hope, the Bahamian people must necessarily interrogate - "How do you intend to deliver given the greenness of you and your party -- a hastily stitched together team of entrants -- and what can you offer that will change the game?"

And, when the only difference between the various parties seem to be colour scheme and personality, aren't we really choosing between parties intent on steering us basically down the same path, perhaps some more vigorously than others?

To echo a ghost from the Bahamian political past, and referencing Hughes' book yet again, in 1971 the youthful Vanguard Nationalist and Socialist Party (VNSP) wrote of the PLP, "The lack of a basic and coherent political philosophy ...has been a major factor in its failure correct the abuses of Bahamian society by the wealthy few, to create genuine political and economic opportunity."

When it comes to politics, in the same way the media and the electorate have remained seemingly unchanged decades later, I would argue that the charge levied against the PLP in 1971 is true of all our political parties today. You may not like the source but they had a point then and they have point now.

What we have here is not a failure to communicate but a history of neglect concerning the Bahamian political consciousness by the Bahamian political elite -- neglect that, in the end, benefits them. It's time we do something differently.

They say a people deserves its leaders. If that is true, it begs the question, what kind of a people are we?

Post-1973 Bahamians have often shown themselves to be a people divided by frivolous considerations like loyalty to political parties with no clear ideological direction and politicians that are scandal ridden, self-indulgent and entitled.

Because of our inability to unite around holding our political leaders accountable, those whose interests are contrary to the welfare of the Bahamian working and middle classes often succeed in having those interests met.

I hate to use polemical and loaded phrases like "ruling class" and "foreign interests," but as Bahamians battle each other over an ever-widening terrain, even on virtual socialscapes like Facebook, it is the Bahamian bourgeoisie, the ruling class, and foreign interests that benefit from this distraction.

Our leaders should be the ones fighting -- warring for our trust and confidence, crusading for our well-being. Until we demand that our government and the opposition speak to their value outside of the comfortable, staged events of political rallies and the "Real Politicians of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas" docudrama that is our parliament proceedings (divas, cat fights and all), those of us who the government should serve -- the people -- will find ourselves left fighting over whatever gets tossed our way. And sadly, at this moment, there's not much to go around.

Joey Gaskins is a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in Politics. He was born in Grand Bahama and is currently studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he has attained his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies and has begun a Doctoral Degree in Sociology. Joey also writes for the Bahamas Weekly and the Nassau Liberal.

December 30, 2011