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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Our Imperialism


Dr. Lester CN Simon

We remember those days in school when the teacher would ask the class a very difficult question and some seemingly insignificant pupil at the back of the class would raise his hand time and again only to be ignored time and again until, one day apparently for cheap amusement, the teacher decided to point at him and the whole class erupted in raucous laughter even before he uttered a single word.

The question is about the possibility of West Indian integration. The reply from the unassuming pupil is that regional integration is only possible if we read comic books. When the laughter stops, the additional requirement is that we must also read English history, with a little bit of French, Spanish and Dutch history thrown in for good measure, which is a roundabout way of saying we must know the history of the making of the West Indies. Knowledge of the history of the uniting of the states of North America would also help.

People cannot be integrated by benign invitation. Integration can only come by force. Force by war or force by famine or force by necessity or force by clever, seductive marketing; but by force and force alone. Economic development or economic ruin must precede and herald the force of integration.

When we sneer at regional integration by recalling the failed West Indian Federation and remind the large islanders that they did not want us then when they were up therefore we small islanders do not want them now when the tables are turned, we do not understand the economics of turning tables.

The best time to argue for integration and get the terms you desire is when you are on top. Antigua and Barbuda in particular and the OECS in general must not make the same mistake the Greater Antilles made decades ago. Saying one from ten leaves naught on two separate occasions decades apart is not a claim of knowledge of special mathematics. It is the claim of clowns and mimic men. Now is the time to develop the OECS and the region on our terms before the tables turn again and bring back the days when, on landing in Jamaica in 1970 and going to a bank, I was told that my dollar from Antigua and Barbuda was worth thirty seven (or was it thirty eight) Jamaican cents. Small island people had small money. Now big island people spend big money for small things.

We understand from our English lesson that imperialism works best when imperialists profess, and some actually believe and would swear to the heavens, that their mission is to civilize the natives and deliver them from evil unto Christ and into the kingdom of heaven. We know the tools that are usually used in imperialist conversions; tools that were not invented by the English although they, as we might say, took the cake, the cake pan, the oven and the entire kitchen and held the patent; tools that were as obvious during the Stone Age as they are useful today in the USA.

The central and quintessential fighting tool of culture, as noted recently in Antigua by George Lamming, has been reduced to the singularity of entertainment with vulgar disregard for intellectualism and other elements of our culture, which is the sum total of the way we see and represent ourselves. The singularity of entertainment as culture is particularly obnoxious given our colonial history.

Here is one simple English lesson on integration from the history of the British Empire: “This is London calling…”, a station identification mantra during and after World War II of BBC broadcasting to occupied and colonized countries. So now, if Britain can seek and find ways to unify millions of people separated by wider seas and oceans than we are separated by in the Caribbean sea, where oh where is our Caribbean Broadcasting Service (CBC)? CBC is a government-owned media corporation located in Barbados. Its stated mission is, “To provide consistently, superior quality educational, informative and entertaining programs and services that inspire and enrich our Caribbean peoples' lives……” According to their web site, CBC operates a television station and three FM radio stations. None of the CBC radio stations can be picked up in Antigua and Barbuda under normal circumstances and, I am told, they cannot even reach as near as Trinidad.

We cannot begin to dream, let alone talk or hold meetings, about regional integration in the absence of regular, constant, daily and hourly broadcasting of a single, unifying, regional radio station throughout the Caribbean, even if we foolishly continue to reduce our culture to the most vulgar singularity of cheap entertainment, as Lamming lamented.

If the central dogma of imperialism is the extension of a country’s influence through acquisition of colonies and dependencies, I am compelled to posit that Antigua and Barbuda is a de facto imperialist nation in denial. The colonies and dependencies are already here in the national matrix. We are in the perfect, pole position to embark on the development of this country and by extension the development and integration of the region within and beyond the OECS.

But there is a self-defeating danger native and natural to all imperialist nations that we can only try to diminish and must always seek to control. It is the schizophrenia of belonging. I recall in vivid colour seeing on television in London in 1987 a Barbadian elderly gentleman with characteristic Bajan accent espousing in London the virtues of England because, “The English do things right”. Why then was he so stark raving mad on the cold, lonely streets of London? Because, my Windrush friend, having admired the party, heard the wonderful music and dressed up for the dance, when he got to the door of the dancehall, someone told him he was not invited.

The debate on CSME and the virtues of Caricom must be broadened and deepened because the glass of Caribbean integration is not half empty, it is half full. This must be manifested and topped up to the brim by using the modern technology of radio broadcasting. I know imperialism through radio broadcasting works because when I was a child and did not want to speak as a child and sought to put away all childish things and look for all the exciting things young virile and feral boys look for, BBC’s radio drama sparked my imagination. I am not ashamed to report that since my secondary school days in the sixties, unless I am very tired, I cannot fall asleep unless my radio is tuned to BBC.

Worse, England’s most popular patriotic song, Jerusalem, with words by William Blake and music by Sir Hubert Parry, is usually sung on the Last Night of the Proms. In my mind, it echoes the pastoral days in primary school when our favourite teacher would take us outside the concrete jungle of the classroom and sit us down on the grass. “...I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: Till we have built Jerusalem, In England’s green & pleasant Land…..”
By the bye, the very first time I landed in England, I experienced immense difficult falling asleep, not because of jet lag but because it took me almost all night to find the real, imperial BBC World Service instead of the local BBC stations and when I did, it was not at all the same but I still managed to fall asleep.

Some fundamental lessons in life are by definition universal. The best way to honour George Lamming and the memories of our heroes and realize our potential is to smash the old Caricom gramophone record Lamming referred to and use regional radio to redefine and broadcast our culture to solidify Caricom and herald the CSME. Some English lessons must be learnt, studied and practiced even if we do not like the teacher and even if we run the risk, which we must minimize, of some of us getting all dressed up and ending up at the wrong dancehall door.

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