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Dear Editor: Hope for change; how we can avoid Demming’s five reasons to fear for T&T’s future

“Inequality begets further inequality as the elites furiously kick down the ladder by which they ascended, only lowering it to bring up their friends, families and allies. This happens everywhere but we may be more keenly aware here because of the political rivalry and our multi-ethnic makeup…

“Jared Diamond, in speaking about societal collapse, noted that it is caused by the conflict of interest between the short-term interests of the decision-making elites and the long-term interests of the whole society. He claims this is especially prone to occur when the elites can insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. Again, not unique to Trinidad and Tobago.

“The core question remains: how do we create transformational change?”

In the following Letter to the Editor, columnist Noble Phillip responds to Keita Demming’s column “Five reasons the worst is to come in T&T” and offers reason for optimism:

Photo: Trinbago Knight Riders fans get behind the Trinidad and Tobago cricket franchise during CPL action against Jamaica Tallawahs at the Queen’s Park Oval on 10 August 2018.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/CA-Images)

“How can we be hopeful about change?”

“Start by doing what is necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

These words of Francis of Assisi came to mind while reading Keita Demming’s provocative column “Five reasons the worst is to come in T&T”.

While I agree with the gist of this assessment of our country, I differ about the possible outcome, and by joining this conversation I hope that he and others will see the possibilities and help us make here a better place.

That the system protects itself is not unique to Trinidad and Tobago. It is a feature of bureaucracy, not a bug. The elites, from time immemorial, fight to keep their hands on the wheel to the exclusion of all others. Breaking rules is not for the faint-hearted and seldom for the old. Those who never dare will always focus on failure. Ignore them.

The elites all over the world seek to game the governing institutions. Who would have thought that someone would “pull rank” using the title of “Minister” effortlessly in resolving a routine police exchange? But it has happened in two successive administrations.

Photo: Public Utilities Minister Robert Le Hunte.

With an increasing proportion of our elites being educated in what are now more exclusive schools and living in gated communities, there comes an increased social distance between their lives and those upon whom their decisions will impact.

This detached, increasingly self-serving social elite makes for a less cohesive and connected society. The “blue light” syndrome, as described by Kamla Persad-Bissessar is real but it is not unique to us.

Chris Hayes’ 2012 book Twilight of the Elites is instructive. We cannot swap out one set of elites for another. He criticises “the cult of smartness” which believes that intelligence is an ordinal quality so that we could rank intelligent people. He expounds, “while smartness is necessary for competent elites, it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy and ethical rigour are all as important.”

But inequality begets further inequality as the elites furiously kick down the ladder by which they ascended, only lowering it to bring up their friends, families and allies. This happens everywhere but we may be more keenly aware here because of the political rivalry and our multi-ethnic makeup. But the quality of decisions will not necessarily be improved.

The issue of ignoring signals is not uniquely Trini but it is really an expression of belief in enduring resilience. This is our “God is a Trini” syndrome; God loves us, we will bounce back. Our hills are a great metaphor: after each successive dry season and bush fire, the trees take longer to recover but they do.

Photo: Edghill “MX Prime” Thomas (left) and the Ultimate Rejects perform their monster 2017 hit, “Full Extreme.”

This resilience prompts us to brush the lengthening recovery period aside until eventually there is only wild bush. We see the time, but we believe that everything will be fine until the rains come and there are no trees.

Jared Diamond, in speaking about societal collapse, noted that it is caused by the conflict of interest between the short-term interests of the decision-making elites and the long-term interests of the whole society. He claims this is especially prone to occur when the elites can insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. Again, not unique to Trinidad and Tobago.

The core question remains: how do we create transformational change? Do we tackle the status quo frontally or do we aim for piecemeal reform?

The young have the energy to tackle change, but history tells us that the former does not work. Slavery is a good example: we abolished it, but the vestiges have morphed and remain resistant.

I think we have two examples of the second approach to consider. The first is Walter Rodney’s “groundings” model in which he taught the grassroots “sitting on a little oil drum”. The other is the subversive gathering of the civil society in challenging the official story line of the Petrotrin board.

Photo: Workers at Petrotrin refinery.
(Copyright Industriall.union.org)

Folade Mutota commandeered the UWI forum to announce an alternative discussion at which there were reportedly 16 or so civil society groups and none of the speakers were otherwise on the mainstream fora. The TTEITI is creating an alternative stream of information that seeks to be discussed more broadly.

The point? We need to create alternative institutions when the main ones do not serve our purposes. The brave of heart are doing it in pockets… until the bush fire catches.

I am heartened by these developments and hold hope for my country.

About Noble Philip

Noble Philip
Noble Philip, a retired business executive, is trying to interpret Jesus’ relationships with the poor and rich among us. A Seeker, not a Saint.

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