OpinionTreaty with Contempt Dept.

We should have met Obama with caution, not celebration

From the way we carried on, you’d have thought it was Tessanne Chin inside the blue-and-white Boeing.  President Obama’s two-day visit in April, for him an expediency, was for us a brush with divinity.  Reflecting the mood, this newspaper became a cover-to-cover paean to the quiet American, with rhapsodies from correspondents and columnists, academics and ambassadors.  Devon Dick wanted us to rename a highway.  The state-run JIS released a YouTube video titled ‘Barack on the Rock’, as if we were hosting the lead vocalist from a boy band instead of a man with nuclear launch codes.

Our hero-worship springs from Mr Obama’s mixed-race ascendancy to the Oval Office and his picture-perfect family life — smart wife, solid marriage, sweet daughters.  His unlikely achievements, along with his good looks, make him an easy role model for a former slave colony with one in two absentee fathers.  But the danger of adulation, as in all religions, is not the light on the pulpit but the shadow behind the altar.

Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding, Mr Obama commands the most active military in the world, who makes sure that what America wants, America damn well gets.  A ‘working visit’ from the US president is like a friendly visit from your boss — only one of you gets to relax.  And like an Arnett Gardens helper hosting her Cherry Gardens employer, it happens infrequently (once every 30 years) and requires new curtains (hence the re-paved streets and displaced street vendors).

Mr Obama commands the most active military in the world

Seems wasteful, but we misstep at our peril.  Mr Obama’s foreign policy disregards the developing world, killing Pakistani, Afghani, Somali and Yemeni citizens in the name of freedom.  The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates 50 people were killed by US aerial strikes in May, with a total ticking towards 5,000.  That number may not impress, originating a hemisphere away, where we think terrorists proliferate.  But many of the people being killed aren’t soldiers, they’re civilians like us — farmers, teachers, women, children.

How similar are the victims to Jamaicans?  Momina Bibi, a 67-year-old midwife, was picking okra from her garden when an American drone strike scorched her from the earth in 2013.  Only some of her nine grandchildren were injured by shrapnel, but all of them have been scarred for life.  “I no longer love blue skies,” said Zubair, 13.  “In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.”

Yes, the United States has created a world where brown-skinned children worry the sky will fall on their heads.  And if you think, hey, the leader of the free world is a busy guy, he might not have heard this story, think again — Zubair was testifying before the US Congress.  There has been no apology.  Through thousands of deaths, the commander-in-chief has maintained a culpable silence, broken only when an Italian and American were targeted, which prompted his “profound regret”.

This double-standard isn’t a failing of Mr Obama per se; it’s a prerequisite for the presidency.  Americans believe, as they tell us ad nauseam, that they’re “the greatest country on earth”.  Naturally, their leaders share that exceptionalism.  They can’t elect someone who considers Jamaicans as equals any more than we can elect someone who thinks gays deserve the right to marry.  Mr Obama’s drone warfare is no better or worse than George W Bush’s torture prisons or Bill Clinton’s sanctions, which UNICEF estimates killed 500,000 Iraqi children.  (For perspective, 3,000 Americans died on 9/11.)

Were these leaders from anywhere else, they’d probably appear in front of the International Court of Justice.  But no one wants to risk America’s wrath.  Symbolic gestures must suffice, as in Berlin last year, when the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights asked the German government to charge Mr Bush as a war criminal.  History has a weird sense of humour.

America can’t treat us as equals, because they’re convinced they’re exceptional

None of this is to suggest we should burn rather than hoist the American flag — that would be equally silly.  But until we behave with restraint, and then self-respect, we shouldn’t expect it from others.  Opening his UWI town hall, Mr Obama referenced Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce.  “There’s a lotta people out there.  And they’re the fastest,” he joked, all but leaning forward and playing peek-a-boo.  China produces Olympic weightlifters the way we churn out sprinters, but none of the president’s trips to Beijing have included a shout-out to Lü Xiaojun or Zhou Lulu about how “they’re the strongest.”  Why?  Because that’s how you talk to your middle child, not the Middle Kingdom.

Being small and poor doesn’t have to mean being a doormat.  Last year, economists at Harvard and Dartmouth created an easy metric of global influence: for each country, they simply divided their share of United Nations personnel by their share of world population.  Sweden, staffing 4% of the UN Secretariat with 0.2% of the world’s people, took the top spot, followed by Norway and Finland.  Guess who was No. 8, way ahead of the US?  That’s right — Jamaica, with ten times as much sway as our size would suggest.  The good news is we’ve got a lot of time to learn dignity from our diplomats — the next visit from an American president won’t be until about 2045, via secure teleportation.

A version of this article appeared in The Jamaica Gleaner in print on page G3 on 14 Jun 2015.

OpinionRetired hurt Dept.

The significance of Shivnarine Chanderpaul

In a perfect world, it would have been his swan song.  Two home games against archrival Australia, echoing the India tour only eighteen months earlier, in which he and the sporting world said goodbye to Sachin Tendulkar.  On recent evenings, he might have recalled the electric joy and sadness that filled Wankhede Stadium, and allowed himself a similar daydream — the cameras, the press, the handshakes, the interviews, the guard of honour led by Michael Clarke, and above all the cheering, jeering, gyrating crowd in Sabina Park, all gathered to witness his final walk from pavilion to pitch.

It was not to be.  The West Indies selectors did not pick Shivnarine Chanderpaul against the men from Oz, creating a rather harsher exit for the 40-year-old veteran — dropped from his team, with all the ignominy and inadequacy of an aging spouse left holding the alimony cheque.  When the glint of the axe appeared, Chanderpaul texted his old teammate and new coach Phil Simmons, requesting clemency.  There was none.  “Unfortunately,” Simmons replied, “length of service is not a criterion for selection.”

Were Chanderpaul regarded with the reverence accorded George Headley, Garry Sobers, Vivian Richards or compatriot Brian Lara, such a blunt coda would be inconceivable.  But where those batsmen displayed panache and grace at the stumps, the elfin Guyanese has only ever had a kind of awkward utilitarianism to offer, full of quirks and oddities.  We enjoy when great players make success look easy; Chanderpaul, from start to finish, revealed cricket to be hard work.  And his Indian heritage made entry to Windies sainthood difficult, since it is unfairly reserved for the more Afrocentric (witness our undying pride in the heroes that ‘blackwashed’ England in the 1980s).

Unlike other greats, the elfin Guyanese plays with a kind of awkward utilitarianism

Moreover, his dismissal seemed to fit one of the ur-stories of sport — the elite athlete, singularly focused, deaf to criticism and blind to his declining powers, who must finally be ushered off for his own sake as much as ours (see Muhammed Ali, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong et al).  But Chanderpaul deserves better, if not from the WICB then from us, the unwashed masses.  He is likely gone from the international stage, but we can at least remember him well, and for what he was — the last of the great West Indian juju-men.

Of the 3,000 souls to ever play Test cricket, only 35 have retired with a batting average over fifty, only 24 have survived two decades, and only eight have done both, among them Headley, Sobers and Chanderpaul.  Even that illustrious company belies his unique contribution, because no one in those shortlists — which, lest you forget, contains the greatest batsmen of all time — remained unbeaten at the wicket more often (18%), a fitting crown for the man who Shane Warne complained “you need[ed] to crowbar away from the crease.”  The Guyanese ‘Tiger’ earned his stripes in 164 Tests, more than anyone else in a maroon cap, as many as Chris Gayle’s and Marlon Samuels’s entire careers combined.  He was, in brief, the most reliable batsman in history.

What the numbers cannot divulge is that Chanderpaul was also the last West Indian with that special mystique, the last one who knew the pungent linseed-oil smell of dominance firsthand, who felt an unbroken lineage of calypso custodians behind every cover drive, who could conjure the spectre of defeat in his opponents simply by padding up.  His disappearance marks the dying breath of the greatest dynasty in sport, from 1978 to 1995, when the West Indies ruled the world.  All that’s left now are a bunch of orphans, scrounging for scraps at the foot of the ICC rankings table.

Shiv’s disappearance marks the dying breath of the greatest dynasty in sport

To be fair, the decline in Windies cricket is a misnomer, more accurately described as stagnation amidst a rise elsewhere.  Just as sabermetrics upended baseball, creating new winners and losers, so cricket transformed itself in the 1990s from a game of talent to a game of training and technology, a change that benefited richer nations at the expense of the poorer.  Thus Australia, England, and South Africa have batted the top spots between them since 1995, while Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies (alongside newcomers Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) continue to struggle.

This more precise, more demanding, more lucrative sport has less room for anomalies like the boy from Unity Village, whose crab-like stance, unorthodox shuffle-step and overall eccentricity would now be excised in the name of efficiency and an IPL contract.  (Plus, you can’t take your guard with LCD light-up bails.)  For better or worse, the game has moved on, rejuvenated for a new century, with restless impatience for nostalgia.  All the old generals (Jayawardene, Kallis, Tendulkar) have fallen.  The last man standing — as always, as it should be — was Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

Correction: The version of this article which appeared in The Jamaica Gleaner online and in print on pages G1 and G6 on 7 Jun 2015 contained the mixed metaphor ‘ignite the spectre of defeat’. The sentence has been amended.

OpinionOne nation under fraud Dept.

The lottery is a nasty tax on poor people

On Thursday, some lucky Jamaican won the biggest Lotto jackpot ever — US$3.4 million.  Someone else clinched the US$1 million Super Lotto last week.  Huzzah — if they’re good with money, these two nouveau riche can buy their dream houses, his-and-hers German cars, extended vacations at Couples, set aside American-college tuition for all their children, and still have a tidy sum for the retirement fund.  Sadly, that fiscally-responsible utopia is unlikely to emerge, because when they had far less, the winners were already wasting money on lottery tickets.

It’s hard to see the folly through the blinding light of fortune, and you might be itching to scratch your favourite numbers at the corner vendor, entranced by the proximity of wealth.  Hey, those guys were struggling just like me, and now they’re filthy rich!  Maybe I’ll be next!  Don’t do it.  You’re a thousand times more likely to be murdered by Christmas than hit the Lotto jackpot.  Playing the lottery is a fool’s errand, and a fool and his money… well, you know the rest.

There are two tricks that underpin all lottos.  The first is mathematical — in a game of random chance, it’s hard to know what will happen next, but easy to know what will happen overall.  Flip a coin, and you have no way to tell how it will land.  Flip a hundred coins, however, and it’s child’s play to intuit that roughly half will be heads.  In the same way, Supreme Ventures (SVL) doesn’t know or care what happens in tomorrow’s Pick3 draw — they can predict almost exactly how many players will win over the next ten years, which allows them to tilt today’s prices and prizes in their favour.

The second trick is psychological, thanks to humans being born optimists.  Studies show that we badly overestimate our chances of success in marriage, in sports, in the workplace — in short, in life.  Why?  British neuroscientist Tali Sharot found that our brain is physically better at processing good news than bad news about the future, an evolutionary adaptation that keeps us smiling despite knowing we’ll die someday.  When people were asked to imagine their own tomorrows, she notes in her book ‘The Optimism Bias’, “even the most banal life events [took] a dramatic turn for the better.”

Two tricks underpin all lottos — one mathematical, the other psychological

Betting-and-gaming companies use their rational calculations and our irrational expectations to grow an orchard of poison apples — the slot machine, the blackjack table, the horse racecard, and the unfairest of them all, the lottery ticket — knowing that we can’t resist taking a bite, and then another, and then another.  For Supreme Ventures, that means gargantuan piles of money — J$41 billion last year alone — and an ever-expanding gambling kingdom, including the JustBet and Acropolis brands.

But why punish success?  After all, we need robust, profitable local companies to employ some of the 420,000 Jamaicans out of work.  If we don’t blame Bigga soft drinks for capitalizing on our weakness for sugar, why chastise Supreme Ventures for exploiting our weakness for hope?

Because everyone indulges their sweet tooth, but it’s usually the poor who play the lottery.  The wealthy don’t need bouncing ping-pong balls, having already won life’s sweepstakes through inheritance or ingenuity.  And middle class families are more likely to invest their earnings in the bank, the bungalow and the baby.  It’s low-income folks, without steady jobs, social mobility or statistics degrees, who are especially susceptible to dream merchants.  “Mi love Cash Pot.  It addictive like smoking,” says Sheron Ellis, mother and Fletcher’s Land resident.  “If mi win a money, we cook, and if mi gamble and lose, mi just bear [the hunger].”

That’s a brutal set of choices to be enabling.  If I walked through Fletcher’s Land selling fake property deeds for $100, I could be rightly jailed for taking advantage of lower-class illiteracy.  Supreme Ventures runs the same scheme at the same price, yet its executives are routinely venerated, despite exploiting the Jamaican people’s innumeracy.

Taking advantage of people’s illiteracy is illegal, but exploiting their innumeracy is richly rewarded

The math couldn’t be simpler.  In Cash Pot, the five-times-a-day colossus which accounts for two-thirds of SVL’s revenue (J$26 billion in 2014), participants pick a number between 1 and 36.  For a regular player to break even, then, the company would have to back every $1 wagered with $36 of potential reward (since you can’t win more than 1/36th of the time).  Instead, they offer a loss-making $26 multiplier, literally banking on the ignorance of its customers.  When your business model boils down to conning people without great CXC results, you’re at best unethical and at worst a criminal.  Supreme Ventures is perfectly aware of this, which is why they promote their token contributions to sports, health and education programmes so heavily, hoping a spritz of disinfectant will cover the rotten stench.

The truth is the lottery is a nasty business, the kind of enterprise that thrives in dark-paneled boardrooms, away from public scrutiny, where commerce can trump compassion.  Supreme Ventures co-founders Paul Hoo (company holdings worth US$7 million) and Ian Levy (US$10 million) owe their eye-watering wealth partly to their old Campion College and Jamaica College degrees, but more so their willingness to levy a tax on the innumerate and repackage it, Janus-faced, as a ticket to their dreams.  But if you’re good with money, there’s only one way to really win big — buy stock in Supreme Ventures instead.

A version of this article appeared in The Jamaica Gleaner online on 30 May 2015, and in print on 31 May 2015, on pages F1 and F8. The online version was then removed following a complaint from Supreme Ventures Ltd. An apology appeared in print on 1 Jun 2015, and again on 7 Jun 2015. The article may contain defamatory content.

OpinionMinority Rapport Dept.

Jamaica is not a democracy

If we didn’t lie to ourselves, life would be unbearable.  An honest appraisal of our bellies, billets and bank accounts would lead most of us to depression, so we enchant ourselves with comfortable falsehoods.  We say that inner beauty is what matters, despite studies showing that attractive people are more successful.  We insist that someday we’ll make it big, even though income inequality in Jamaica is worse than in Haiti.  And we continue to believe that we live in a democracy, in the face of dispiriting evidence to the contrary.

Politicians and armchair philosophers tend to pooh-pooh such blanket statements as hyperbole or histrionics.  Armed with a pocket Oxford, it seems obvious that in Jamaica, ‘the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them’.  And there discussion ends, quod erat democracy. But if we are using such a basic qualifying exam, our graduating class must also include China, where you can vote in provincial elections but you can’t tweet about them, and Libya, whose ‘Western’ parliamentary government is younger than celebrityke North West.

Clearly, when we talk about democracy, we mean something a little more sophisticated than the way schoolboys organize themselves into scrimmage teams (“Okay, you and Devon pick the sides”).  In the context of a nation-state, what we usually want is a modern liberal democracy, which is a fancy way of saying our elected officials will protect everybody’s rights, whether we voted for them or not, and indeed whether we can vote for them or not.  What separates Angola from Australia, Belarus from Belgium, and Chad from Chile is not really their systems of governance, but that in the former, only the rights of the majority are respected, and in the latter, the rights of minorities matter a great deal, too.

Liberal democracies have free elections, citizens who obey the law and governments who safeguard freedoms

Liberal democracies are easy to spot — they have free and fair elections, between parties with real differences, where the citizens obey the rule of law, and in exchange the government safeguards their freedoms.  That’s a fairly simple syllabus to study, so let’s see how Jamaica does in this advanced course.

Right away, we’re in trouble.  For the last 40 years, our capital city has been a broken mirror, with sharply delineated communities drawing blood every election cycle.  These splintered garrisons function as political blocs, with local dons allied to local members of parliament, and party allegiance ruthlessly enforced.  There might be a perverse kind of fairness in both the PNP and JLP playing these war games, but surely we can agree that many Kingstonians do not enjoy freedom of political expression.  When your ghettoes are named after notorious global hotspots (Gaza, Vietnam, Tel Aviv, et al), you know something is rotten in the state of your democracy.

This sense of barely contained lawlessness pervades every area of public life in Jamaica.  We park on the sidewalk and walk in the road; we speed through red lights and stop in the middle of dual carriageways; we evade taxes and provoke fights; we steal bicycles and phones and electricity and piles of gravel; we arrive late and leave work early; we sleep on the job, sleep through church and then sleep around on our spouses.  In fact, subverting authority and being unashamed of it (“Fire fi Babylon!”) is part of our national identity.  With overwhelmed judges and underpaid policemen, laws in Jamaica aren’t so much stipulations as suggestions.

Jamaica is a populist tribal theocracy, ruled by strongmen with a Bible in one hand and a bulletproof vest in the other

Since we can’t bother to play by the rules, it’s hardly surprising that our leaders can’t bother to look out for all the players.  Earlier this year, mass rallies designed to intimidate and denigrate gay Jamaicans were met with appalling silence by politicians, who value their popularity more than their principles.  Domestic abuse is a nationwide epidemic, but women can find little recourse in state programmes or protections.  And government officials openly discourage religious tolerance.  Case in point — junior minister Damion Crawford, who said publicly last week, “All of a sudden everybody a atheist and agnostic and undecided and non-believer unuh need fi rahtid stop it… that a nuh Jamaica.

Fair elections?  Not really.  Rule of law?  Not so much.  Universal civil rights?  Not even close.  Although in theory we are a liberal democracy, in practice Jamaica is a populist tribal theocracy, ruled by short-sighted strongmen with a Bible in one hand and a bulletproof vest in the other, one well-timed uprising away from being a failed state.  This is why we are treated like background entertainment in the international community.  It isn’t because we are a small country (Luxembourg is smaller, with a fifth the population) or because we are a young country (Singapore is younger and has political clout).  It’s because we are an incompetent country, whose contribution to the world stage is limited to music and athletics.

Depressing?  Maybe, but there’s a 52-year-old bit of paper that claims the power to change it lies entirely with us.

OpinionTangled Webs Dept.

Anansi and the strange fruit

Once, no rain fell for a very long time, and Anansi couldn’t find anything for himself or his children to eat.  There was a place not too far away with a thousand banana trees, but Anansi was afraid to go. Bredda Rat went there two weeks ago to get food and never came back.  Bredda Mongoose went there last week to get food and never came back.  But now his children were too hungry, and Anansi decided to take a chance and go.

When Anansi got there, he couldn’t believe his luck.  Banana trees spread in neat rows as far as he could see.  There was enough food to feed his children for a year.  But Anansi remembered Bredda Rat and Bredda Mongoose, and thought it might be a trap.  So he decided to look around and make sure it was safe.

He came to a clearing with a huge guango tree, and hanging from the tree was a strange fruit.  So he went to take a closer look and realized it was a man, swaying in the breeze.  Anansi said, “Bredda Man, why you hanging from the tree?”  But the man did not answer.

A few hours after that Anansi came to another clearing, this time with a big mahogany tree, and hanging from the tree was another strange fruit.  He crawled closer and realized it was a woman.  Anansi said, “Sista Woman, why you hanging from the tree?”  And the woman looked like she was trying to answer, but only whispers came out.  So Anansi climbed the tree and then he heard what the woman was saying: “Mas Fletcher… Mas Fletcher… Mas Fletcher…”  And then the woman stopped whispering, her feet swaying gently in the breeze.

Just as it was getting dark, Anansi came to a little shack, and thought maybe he could find a bag to gather up all the bananas he would take home the next day.  When he went inside, all he saw was straw on the ground and a man lying on the straw.  He was naked and there were iron shackles around his hands and feet.  Anansi said, “Bredda Man, is who tie you up?”  And the man said, “Mas Fletcher.”  Anansi asked, “Why?”  The man answered, “Because we ran away, three of us, and when Mas Fletcher find us, he said if we fight, they would kill our families.  But if we surrender and let them hang us, they will make sure our children always have food to eat.”

Anansi couldn’t believe his luck once again.  Now he wouldn’t even have to carry the bananas back home.  All he had to do was hang off the ground and play dead, and Mas Fletcher would feed his children forever.  What a trick!  Then Anansi looked beside the naked man and saw the bones of Bredda Rat and Bredda Mongoose.  But the man didn’t look dangerous or even angry, so Anansi wasn’t afraid.  He said to the man, “Where is Mas Fletcher?”  Before he could answer, the door to the shack flew open, and a fat man stood there with a lantern in his hand.  Anansi knew right away it was Mas Fletcher.

The fat man said, “Cudjoe, you should never have run away.”  Anansi looked around for a piece of string or rope, but there was nothing in the room except straw.  Then Anansi saw a loose thread dangling from Mas Fletcher’s silk shirt, and knew what to do.  He crawled up Mas Fletcher’s pant leg, up his sleeve, and tied the loose thread to his own bottom.  Just as he was about to jump, the naked man shouted, “Mas Fletcher!  Mas Fletcher!  There’s a spider on you shirt, and if it bite you, it will kill you!”  And Mas Fletcher tried to hit Anansi, but Anansi scrambled to the middle of the fat man’s back, where Mas Fletcher couldn’t reach him.

Then the naked man said, “Give me the lantern, Mas Fletcher.  I will kill the spider for you.”  And because Mas Fletcher did not want to be bitten, he handed over the lantern.  Then Cudjoe hit Mas Fletcher hard on the back of his head with the lantern, and the fat man fell to the ground, and the lantern smashed and ignited the straw.  And Cudjoe grabbed the keys from the fat man’s belt and unshackled himself.  Anansi could feel the heat of the flames and was afraid, but there was nowhere to go.  Cudjoe looked at Anansi and held out his dark-skinned hand.  “Come, Kwaku Anansi,” he said, “let us two tricksters escape into the night.”  And Anansi climbed onto Cudjoe’s hand and they left the shack burning bright orange.

That is why to this day, Cudjoe’s descendants are free.  And that is also why, if you look in a tree, you will see Anansi hanging from a silk thread, playing dead to get food for his children.

OpinionHeavenly Hoax Dept.

There's no deeper meaning to life — deal with it

“The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one.”
— Sigmund Freud

In the film ‘The Invention of Lying’, an old woman lies in a hospital bed, terrified and clinging to life.  Her son, seeing her fear, whispers through his tears, “Mum, you’re wrong about what happens when you die.  It’s not an eternity of nothingness.  You go to your favourite place in the whole world, and anyone you’ve ever loved and who’s ever loved you will be there, and you’ll be young again.  There’s no pain.  Just love and happiness.  Say hello to Dad for me.  Tell him I love him.”  And, with a smile on her wrinkled face, the old woman passes.

We’re desperate for our lives to mean something.  We’re so desperate for meaning we’re willing to graft it onto our bruised psyches.  We’ll believe preposterous claims without any evidence, if doing so transforms our random experiences — two years of med school, a broken engagement and a toddler — into a tidy narrative.  Two out of three Jamaicans believe they’re being watched by the celestial bouncer of the original Christmas party, and spend their lives trying to qualify for an all-access pass.  Despite studies proving that prayer doesn’t work, two million of us ask God for guidance.  It turns out we never really outgrow Santa Claus; we just pretend the untouched pile of milk and cookies isn’t there.

We’ll believe anything if it transforms our random experiences into a tidy narrative

But why?  Why do we perform such elaborate mental origami, imagining people we cannot see and ignoring people we can?  Because our fictions are more flattering than the truth of our existence, and we’re a notoriously insecure species.  We start worrying as soon as we’re wheeled out of the nursery, and we don’t stop until we’re wheeled into the nursing home.  We worry about our weight and our hair, and whether Sandra at the office has noticed we have too much of one and too little of the other, and how long we should wait before answering her text, and what we should say, and if she likes lobster, and why we bothered to ask her out in the first place.  Forget joy, anger, grief and lust — our defining emotion is anxiety.

In fact, worrying is almost literally what makes us human.  Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says we are ‘the only animal that thinks about the future’ (though new research reveals that apes also make basic plans).  Our huge frontal lobes are whizzing, whirring worrying machines, which is why mid-century doctors lobotomized their neurotic patients — without the ability to contemplate tomorrow, today is a rather pleasant place to be.

Our adult fairy tales — post-mortem paradises featuring an all-star lineup of family and friends — are a transparent way to minimize our anxieties.  Life is complex, with each choice potentially a pebble that heralds a landslide.  Religious faith reduces all that to a binary decision: Does God approve?  Alas, this still leaves us in disarray.  Does he prefer us to be bankers or basket-weavers, live in New York or New Delhi, marry Lisa or Hannah?  “We’re all here for a reason” is the cocaine of enlightenment, an attempt to skip the tedious, tortuous process of making mistakes and finding our way with a snort of uncut determinism.

We are a cosmic hiccup, the arbitrary result of billions of years of evolution

The truth is we are nothing more or less than rearranged stardust, a cosmic hiccup, the arbitrary result of billions of years of evolution, with an assist from a handful of meteors.  We are weaker than the horse, slower than the dog, more fragile than the cow and more fussy than the pig.  Yet we domesticated them all with our overinflated brains.  We’re here by chance but not fortune; what we are is fixed, but what we become is not.

Yes, like other animals, we’re shackled to the imperatives of nutrition, rest and reproduction.  But we’re also smart enough to add our own items to the list, and it’s insulting to our hard-won intelligence not to try.  Surrender superstition and think.  What constitutes a life well-lived?  Nelson Mandela suggests the “difference we have made to the lives of others”, but there are many valid answers — travel, wisdom, hedonism, charity.  The key is you get to decide, and for worrywarts like us, that’s the most reassuring thought of all.

OpinionMe Generation Dept.

How to think for yourself

“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself.  Aloud.”
— Coco Chanel

Imagine an algorithm — let’s call it Voxbot — that scours the web, scooping up editorials, interviews, blogs, posts and tweets.  Voxbot figures out what people are talking about, and when it finds a cluster of similar opinions, it generates content with the same slant.  So it might plant a pro-abortion piece in the New York Times, for example.  It’s a kind of barometer of prevailing windbags.

Now imagine we let Voxbot loose in Jamaica.  What would it spit out?  Maybe a fashion piece on Yendi.  A glowing retrospective on Tessanne.  A poem on police killings.  A screed against the IMF.  But also more esoteric posts, on a distaste for black-and-white movies, an affinity for Mallah chicken, nostalgia for old dancehall and scorn for the Prime Minister.

How many of your convictions would Voxbot reproduce?  How many of your private thoughts would turn out to be public domain?  What percentage of your personality would reveal itself to be manufactured on the assembly line of Jamaican society?

Contrary to what our mothers told us, we’re anything but special.  Almost every thought we have is a slavish reflection of what those around us think, which is itself a reflection of what those around them think, so on and so on in an endless echo chamber of secondhand intelligence.  Forget sophisticated computer code.  Strip us down to our bare essentials — age, gender, education — and our lives would still spill forth in depressing and predictable detail.  Middle-aged woman with a bachelor’s?  You don’t have anything against gays, so long as it’s not in your face.  Young man out of high school?  You can’t wait for the English football season to start.

To be alone is to glimpse the emptiness of our lives, and our failure to matter

How did we assimilate into this bland mush?  Easy.  From the instant we jolt into consciousness in the morning to the moment we close our eyes at night, we are afraid of being alone.  To be alone is to glimpse the emptiness of our lives, and our comprehensive failure to matter.  So we push the terrifying solitude away with whatever we can find — sitcoms, soda, radio, the web, the news, pornography, social media, instant messages, apps, junk food, leftovers, liquor, loud music.  Anything to delay silence, to destroy stillness, to distract us from ourselves.  Our lives become a neverending effort in procrastination.

But there is a way out of the Orwellian soup of conformity.  Stop.  Stop doing everything you’ve been doing.  Stop checking Facebook.  Stop playing TwoDots on your phone.  Stop falling asleep on the couch to syndicated episodes of Family Feud.  Stop uploading pictures of your dog to Instagram.  Stop listening to Drake (whoever he is).  Stop watching comic book movies on Netflix.  Instead, read.  Exercise.  Go outside.  Invite friends over.  Eat a fruit.  Write.  Compose.  Dance in the dark.  Create.

To become people we must curate our experiences

Thinking for yourself is as simple as sitting quietly.  When is the last time you sat in traffic without reaching for the radio?  Or sat at home without the television on?  Or sat on the toilet without your smartphone?  To become people we must curate our own experiences.  We must cultivate interests instead of collecting them by default.  We must pursue goals rather than drunkenly stumbling from event to event, day to day, occupation to occupation.

It all sounds a little New Age, but every great scientist, artist, philosopher and skeptic throughout history began with these disciplined steps.  How do we know?  If they didn’t, we would never have heard of them.  They would have been us.

OpinionStraight and Narrow-minded Dept.

'The gay agenda' is a cheap scare tactic

Usually what people don’t understand they try to destroy.”
— Damien Eckols, one of the West Memphis Three, at age 18

High-fives all around.  Thanks to our dogged persistence, homophobia is now a part of our global brand, a little smear of hate across smiling images of Tessanne, Shelly-Ann, Laurie-Ann and the gang.  While America and Europe move with haste towards equality, we’ve cemented Jamaica on the list of places with terrible human rights records — countries like Egypt, Uganda and Ghana.  According to a recent study by Pew Research, this split is no accident — richer, developed nations are generally more tolerant of gays.  In addition to poverty and geography, they found one other attribute to be a ‘strong’ predictor of prejudice — religion.

Religions are natural hosts for the virus of discrimination, since by definition they divide people into two camps — believer and non-believer, disciple and heathen, the chosen and the damned.  Inevitably, whoever has the power gets to decide who’s good and who’s evil.  In Jamaica, that’s the fundamentalist Christian churches, subsidized and guided by their American counterparts.  These hard-line denominations — our Adventist, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Church of God, Church of God of Prophecy, New Testament Church of God, Pentecostal and United branches — focus on baptism, an individual relationship with God, the infallibility of the Bible… and the sin of homosexuality.

Seen in that context, the deleterious climate for gay rights is hardly surprising.  More unexpected is that the perpetrators of prejudice have developed a fetish for cross-dressing as its victims.  Mark Wignall, Alfred Sangster and many others continue to conjure the boogeyman of ‘the gay agenda’ — an imaginary conspiracy of powerful homosexuals lurking in the shadows, bent on unraveling the moral fabric of our wholesome family-based society with their deviant practices.

Heterosexuals control every sphere of influence in Jamaica

Let’s start with the obvious.  Heterosexuals control every sphere of influence in Jamaica.  The Prime Minister is a heterosexual.  The Leader of the Opposition is a heterosexual.  The Minister of National Security is a heterosexual par excellence.  So, too, the Minister of Culture, the Minister of Finance, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the recent Commissioner of Police, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, the Vice-Chancellor of the UWI, the General Manager of TVJ, the CEO of Digicel, the CEO of GraceKennedy, the CEO of Sagicor, the Managing Director of Wisynco, and whoever else runs our little republic.  Okay?  The portals of power are in penovaginal hands.  The revolution is not happening tomorrow.

Kingston is a city of roughly a million souls, with a large natural bay, a 19th-century newspaper and vibrant art.  What if we could snap our fingers and turn it into the devil’s playground, with homosexuals free to do as they please?  What would our beloved capital city look like?

Probably a lot like San Francisco — a city of roughly a million souls, with a large natural bay, a 19th-century newspaper, vibrant art and the highest gay population, by percentage, of any American city (an admirable 15%).  Sadly for evangelicals, though, San Francisco also has the fastest-growing economy in the US, is a global center of innovation, finance and technology, and would be as rich as Sweden if it were listed as a country.  To top it off, it recovered from the global recession faster than anywhere else.  If that’s hell on earth, I’d like to fit my horns and pitchfork now, please.

‘The gay agenda’ is a boogeyman that makes the perpetrators of prejudice look like its victims

But maybe you think no amount of material wealth can offset the immorality of homosexuality.  Fine, let’s trade a large-scale experiment for a small-scale one.  What if we took a regular God-fearing Jamaican, some Mr Williams or Mr Brown, and gave him a gay child?  Would the reality of knowing and loving the person cause a more balanced outlook?  Let’s raise the stakes and make it a clergyman.  Better yet, from the most pious town in Jamaica.  How about then?  No need for sorcery.  Here’s Pastor Browne from Mandeville earlier this week:

“My daughter’s sexuality has not changed anything about her; she is still just as ambitious and intelligent and still has the same dreams and hopes as any other young woman.  Gay Jamaicans do not want anything but the right to live, work and spend time with their loved ones.”

To call an insistence on dignity and respect ‘the gay agenda’ is to call the body’s need to respire and pump blood ‘the anatomical agenda’.  Every human being deserves the same freedoms that fundamentalists are now abusing.  How warped has the Jamaican church become?  Under current criteria, Jesus himself wouldn’t qualify for salvation — he was infamously gentle, kissed his countrymen and supposedly never had a girlfriend.

OpinionCheeky Behaviour Dept.

The buggery law is an offence against us all

Not so long ago, a group of concerned clergy published ‘A Call for Unity’, an open letter urging their communities to obey existing Jim Crow laws.  Fortunately, the letter was smuggled into a Birmingham jail cell, where Dr Martin Luther King penned his famous response, since translated into 40 languages and transmitted around the world.

“There are two types of laws,” he wrote, “just and unjust.  One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’  Now, what is the difference between the two?  How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?  Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

Those eight white Alabama preachers, despite their best intentions, found themselves on the wrong side of history.  They were not evil men.  They were honest men with honest families, trying to keep things the way they were, the way they understood, the way they had been raised.  But that meant tolerating laws that degraded human beings, laws that would not — and could not — last.  Like the walls of Jericho, segregation statutes came tumbling down, taking us all closer to a world where people are judged by the content of their character.

Now it is our turn.

Important moments do not arrive with orchestral scores and Denzel Washington

You might not think we are living through a moment of similar impact, but important moments do not arrive with orchestral scores and Denzel Washington.  They look ordinary until, like fireworks, they explode into significance.

Professor Brendan Bain’s firing has ignited a wave of religious protests that have literally and figuratively made their way from the gates of the University of the West Indies to the heart of Half Way Tree.  Last week, an anti-gay rally drew 25,000 supporters and incredulous international coverage.  It was a call for unity, organized by honest clergymen, urging their communities to uphold the existing anti-sodomy laws.

If it sounds dangerously familiar, it’s because it is.  The prejudice of the Offences Against the Person Act is nakedly clear: “Whosoever shall be convicted of the abominable crime of buggery…”, “any male person who, in public or private, commits… any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty…”  If you’re somehow having trouble seeing the bias, try substituting ‘female’ for ‘male’, or better yet, ‘genuine intimacy’ for ‘gross indecency’.

Yes, sometimes bad things happen — men, women, and children are abused, assaulted and raped.  But we do not ban owning kitchen knives or picking kids up from school or meeting a date on a Friday night.  Even though Amnesty International documents a ‘very high… rate of sexual violence against women in Jamaica’, there is no movement afoot to outlaw vaginal intercourse.  Why not?  Because it would degrade our human personality to do so (and it wouldn’t stop us from copulating).

If you do not meet the approval of the Christian authorities, you must live in the shadows

As it is, we live in a highly repressed society, with both sexes squeezed into narrow corridors of acceptable behaviour and appearance.  If you have dark skin, a belly, libido on Saturday and guilt on Sunday, you are the sine qua non of Jamaica.  But if you are of ambiguous descent, if you are bilingual or bisexual, if you are an atheist or an activist, if you use words like sine qua non, if your hair or clothes or gait or gestures or a hundred other social signifiers do not meet the approval of the dominant Christian authorities, you are implicitly stripped of your national membership and consigned to live in the shadows.

This is discrimination, pure and simple, and it is not worthy of a people who so recently escaped its wrath under a different name.  We should be ashamed of ourselves.  We should be rallying not to defend but to dismantle our buggery legislation, because it degrades the humanity of those it affects.  If the long arm of the law wants to reach into our bedrooms, it must grab hold of all of us equally, regardless of sexual orientation.  Anything else is unjust.

Rev Stevenson Samuels, chairman of the group of churches behind the Half Way Tree rally, claims to be “opposing injustice wherever it is, asking that the nation rise up for truth and rights… and that our laws be based on these premises.”  Indeed, that is a worthy goal, and one shared by the remarkable black American preacher who fought to secure a lasting dignity for his fellow men.  If we are to repeat history, let us do so in the measure of our compassion rather than the longevity of our condemnation.

OpinionHome Bittersweet Home Dept.

Depression tastes like Jamaica

We’ve all seen a rat in a glue trap.  An awesome and gruesome sight, watching a living creature struggle against the inevitability of death.  At first, it is certain of its escape, and tries to rip itself loose.  But that only entangles it further in the lethal paste.  Now the fear comes.  It sets to work gnawing away at anything it can reach — the glue, the plastic, its own limbs — desperate for freedom.  Then panic washes in, palpable and recognizable.  Using its last reserves of strength, it thrashes about — violently, recklessly, and in vain.  It is now hopelessly trapped, stuck in the tiny spotlight of its tiny stage until the final curtain falls.  And so it stops.  Its last moments are that of pathetic, paralysed terror, silent and still, unable to move, barely able to breathe, slowly succumbing to its exertions and exhaustion.

That’s life in Jamaica.

If you live abroad, Jamaica is disappointing.  You read online about the violence and shake your head.  On the phone with your sister, you hear about the crime and empathize, secretly thankful for the intervening distance.  You alleviate your nephew’s poverty, sending down supplies and urging him to come up for school.  You visit — briefly — and lament with your spouse the missed opportunities and downward spirals and how very sad and very bad and what’s the word, oh yes, disappointing it all is, from the safety of your dual citizenship.

We have visited anger and fatigue and disappointment and found them wanting

But we who live in Jamaica are not disappointed.  Disappointment would be a vast improvement in our outlook.  We would be overjoyed to be disappointed.  No, we are still working our asses off in the blazing-hot sun, watching our hands and feet get thicker and uglier each year.  We are still sitting in traffic with a metastasizing army of taximen who will surely jump the line in Heaven after they find themselves prematurely at its gates.  We are still afraid to go out too early in the morning, too late at night, in too large or small a group to too crowded or isolated a place, and certainly not in our nice clothes or new car.  We have visited anger and fatigue and disappointment and found them wanting.  Truth be told, we’re goddamn depressed.

In the Nat King Cole classic, “Mona Lisa”, he croons about an elusive woman: “So many dreams have been brought to your doorstep / They just lie there, and they die there”.  That’s Jamrock, a graveyard of dreams piled higher than the Riverton City dump, and twice as pungent.  Success is something that happens far away, and if it happens to us, we stand and stare at it in dumb shock, like a child greeted by a stranger.  Then we recover quickly, before other people smell it and come running.  Because success in our island is a rare and wondrous thing, not to be expected and not to be hoped for too fervently, nightly prayers notwithstanding.

Success in Jamaica is not to be expected or hoped for too fervently

Yet we feel even more private with our failure, as if the reason our dreams do not flourish in this barren wasteland is our individual gardening skills.  We come up with excuses and rationalizations, delays and procrastinations.  We plant more seeds, different seeds, better seeds.  We try shade and less shade and no shade, more water  and less water, fertilizers and dances and that thing we laughed at openly when it was first suggested.  To no avail.  Come Monday, we have the same job in the same office, with a different title and the same salary.

And so eventually we give up, for it is in the nature of depression to win a war of attrition.  Like the wretched rat, we stop fighting.  We lay down in the glue, and wait.  This is what you see when you walk the city — the vendors selling newspapers, the workers digging up the road, the nurses at the bus stop.  It looks like we’re busy, but we’re really just waiting.  We have been beaten — by the heat, the hustle, the humility of repeated failure.  The woman who answers the phone when you call, the man who is fixing your bathroom, the manager who runs your branch — all broken by a slavery greater than our capacity to withstand it.  We are a defeated people, born and living on a new kind of plantation, or as we like to call it — home.