Watching (the TV series) Suits a couple of weeks ago, I found myself transfixed by the protagonist, Harvey (Gabriel Macht)—his impeccable suit, steely jaw, and cockerel swagger—and thinking: this dude is cool. (It’s called a “man crush,” I’ve been told.) When Harvey’s female alter ego, the lovely Jessica (Gina Torres) came on, I had my mouth open for a good ten seconds, staring. (It’s called “horniness”—no one needed to tell me that.) And I realised why I watch the show: The pleasure I get from beauty. It’s also the reason I like the A&E series Longmire, whose protagonist is a saturnine middle-aged sheriff in a town in Wyoming, USA. The beauty is in the mountains, the autumnal landscape, and the sheriff’s moral clarity. Of course, these aesthetic satoris could reveal no more than the unedited internal monologue of a middle-aged man with no social life. But it could also be that human beings are hard-wired to seek beauty, and I, like everyone else, find myself needing it more and more in these ugly times. The question is (as we approach our 50th), why should I need to seek beauty outside of Trinidad? We live, say the tourists whose approval is so important to us, in a beautiful country. And when I go to Tobago, or Maracas when it’s empty, or drive through the fallow canefields in south, I believe it.
But looking around Trinidad, I see mostly ugliness. The ugliness begins with the State’s conception of beauty, “Carnival Culture,” which it promotes via performances (cf the Keshorn motorcade) monuments, and policy. It manifests in the physical environment. Driving through the business drags from PoS to Point Fortin, you feel slightly ill: garbage everywhere; public spaces are filthy; business places are cheap and mean-looking; people miserable and violent. Driving through any small town in the US, UK, or Barbados, you’re taken by the cleanliness, order, and charm of places happy to be themselves. In big cities, an aesthetic logic underlies the appearance, to which we unconsciously respond—these are the qualities everyone leaves Trinidad to find, and more and more are leaving, as our “nationalism” grows. It’s been established (by Edward T Hall and Henri Lefebvre et al) that physical environment, behaviour, and culture, are related. And from what we’re seeing in Trinidad now, that relation is locked in a vicious spiral of ugliness. The interaction of these elements was described by BC Pires in these pages last Friday, describing how random people set up a tent round the Savannah, put on ear-shattering music, and started partying relentlessly, on a Tuesday night. Noise, and behaviour like this, are becoming forms of personal and aesthetic assault—a symptom of our growing national ugliness. And the symptoms are spreading. A letter to the editor in last Friday’s Guardian by Beverly Conyers told of her community’s losing a park they’d laboured to build to itinerant footballers, who had threatened and abused residents who tried to reclaim it. The miscreants included lawyers, professionals, university people and others of that ilk. Similar dramas of personal and criminal violence are reenacted every day throughout the society. Driving through Chase Village and St Mary’s a few weeks ago on a Sunday morning, every few hundred yards I saw and heard a bar, with massive speakers roaring, packed with drunken patrons. On any holiday, you see and hear the noise and violence on the beach, the roads, in any public space. Drunken aggressiveness, violent sexuality, noise—the Trini cultural trifecta.
How did enjoyment, and the pleasure at physical beauty become equal to violence, crudity, and noise? How did ugliness become beauty? In a small state like this, the State’s role in citizens’ images of themselves and the nation is inestimable. The masses who rely on the state institutions (and media) to show them how national values and ideals are made manifest, see, hear and internalise the image of a violent, ugly Carnival nation as their destiny. The psychology of this is well-established—George Orwell (1984) and Philip Zimbardo (The Stanford Prison Experiment) have demonstrated that people can be taught to derive pleasure from anything, even self-destruction. (Zimbardo contributed a fascinating article about reversing the transformation of good people into evil in the collection Social Psychological Dynamics, edited by (UWI’s) Derek Chadee and Aleksandra Kostic.) This potential pitfall of nationalism and independence was noted long ago. Sir Arthur Lewis, the first UWI Vice Chancellor, addressing graduates at Mona in 1961, said: “We have to set to work to create the kind of image of ourselves (as) a tolerant, well-trained, sensible people…the world badly needs practical people as much as we need the world.” The new image, Lewis said, could be helped by the “remarkable efflorescence of the arts which has occurred in recent years.” But “the only field where we lag is in music, where a false nationalism has persuaded us that the steelband is a significant contribution to the world’s heritage of music.” The steelband, in Lewis’s mind (as in my own), was an anomaly and synecdoche for a dead-end cultural trajectory, which he saw become the norm within a decade. This would explain why he left the UWI as Vice Chancellor and went to Princeton to complete his career. One way to look at this is that the ugliness vanquished the first black man to win a Nobel Prize in any area but peace, and perhaps the most influential social scientist in West Indian history. And it vanquished many others who came after. Now, the destiny of Trinidad, and the region, is vested in people who should be in padded rooms, who try to convince us that ugliness is beauty, ignorance is strength, and war is peace. And they’re succeeding.