Thursday, January 21, 2010
American-Style 'Progress' Leaving Its Mark on Trinidad
Insight on the News
Sept 16, 2003
Byline: Nicholas Stix, SPECIAL TO INSIGHT
"Let no child be left behind"; ... "It takes a village to raise a child"; ... "Quality time"; ... "Crime Stoppers." Each of the foregoing, unfortunate phrases is supposed by many to be an expression of progress, is as American as Enron and now is at home in … the West Indian Republic of Trinidad and Tobago?
During our just-concluded annual visit to my wife's folks in Trinidad, my family was bombarded with warmed-over Americanisms on television. (While prosperous, tiny Tobago with its beautiful beaches is the preferred destination of tourists, 93 percent of the 1.3 million largely hardworking, hard-luck citizens in the two-island republic live in Trinidad.)
In 2001, then-prime minister Basdeo Panday of the (Indian) United National Congress Party demanded, "Let no child be left behind." Panday got American welfare guru Marian Wright Edelman's phrase from his American political consultant, Trinidadian-born, retired California congressman Mervyn Dymally. In a bold reform, Panday extended schooling for all Trinidadians and Tobagonians beyond grammar school. While acknowledging that many of the reform's beneficiaries had little to gain from extended schooling, Panday spoke of "remedial education."
In the United States, most folks are unaware of how such "progress" routinely works. In my Hungarian-born grandmother's benighted day, children in America graduated literate from grammar school, as she did in 1907. Today, however, functional illiterates now routinely are graduated from U.S. high schools and admitted to college.
While Trinidadian politicians speak of educational opportunity, once-rigid school discipline is collapsing. Three years ago, a then 16-year-old nephew of mine dropped out of school. Though he was strong enough to cut sugarcane in the blazing sun for 12 hours a day, he could not handle the routine violence of school.
"It takes a village to raise a child," now spouted by nonprofit organizations in Trinidad, is a made-in-America "African" saying. Taken literally, it would mean that each village could have only one child. Indeed, its meaning has nothing to do with villages; rather, it is an argument for replacing parents with agents of the state.
American-style progress in Trinidad has resulted in the nascent spread of out-of-wedlock childbirth, which until recently was extremely rare. Compared to the United States, the Trinidadian family is intact, but it won't be able to withstand much more "progress."
"Quality time" is a phrase coined by a yuppie journalist to put a happy face on middle-class child neglect. In late July, the new chairman of the Princes Town Regional Corporation, Kemchan Ramdath, said that he sought to make the town a tourist destination for families wishing to "spend quality time together." But sleepy "P-Town" shuts down at 5 p.m.!
Children require immense quantities of time—just ask my son! In the vast majority of Trinidadian families, the husband works and the wife still stays at home to raise the children. Quantity time—what a revolutionary concept.
"Crime Stoppers" is a program in U.S. cities that asks citizens to call a telephone number to report information on crimes. Prior to the advent of Crime Stoppers, folks talked to the local beat cop or called his precinct.
In Trinidad, the people are besieged by criminals. The first seven months of this year saw 112 kidnappings, the hottest new felony. Initially, businessmen were kidnapped for substantial ransoms; now, any member of the middle class is fair game.
Prime Minister Patrick Manning of the (black) People's National Movement Party (who beat Panday in a controversial 2001 election) has an American consultant on crime, counterterrorism guru Kelly McCann. In July, McCann advised people to deal with crime by calling Crime Stoppers, and not to arm themselves.
Consultants are people who amass fortunes by spreading bankrupt ideas around the world. Tropical Trinidad has the world's sweetest mangoes, and is the birthplace of steel-pan music. But the government just performed a mercy killing on the sugarcane industry, which for centuries was Trinidad's chief form of employment. Trinidad needs consultants like it needs more mosquitoes.
American influences go back to at least World War II. In A House for Mr. Biswas, the Trinidadian-set masterpiece by Trinidad's greatest writer, Nobel-laureate V.S. Naipaul, the novel's narrator tells of the positive influence of the Americans, much to the misfortune of protagonist Mohun Biswas. A journalist covering the poverty beat, Biswas is hired away from his Port-of-Spain newspaper to be chief investigator for a new "Community Welfare Department." But as the war ends, the department is shut down. "[T]he war, the American bases, an awareness of America had given everyone the urge, and many the means, to self-improvement. The encouragement and guidance of the department were not needed."
Those were the days—when American-style progress truly was beneficial.
Nicholas Stix is associate editor of Toogood Reports. His work has appeared in Insight, the American Enterprise and Middle American News.