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The Carnival Delusion
So: it’s the last day of slavery, or colonialism. Evil white dudes mount a dais, or gibbet, and address the formerly colonised or enslaved. They say: “Now look here, chaps. We’re leaving. You’re free (snickers). We’ll take with us science, technology, civic values, and the notion of a productive society.
“But we’ll leave you with Carnival. You may sing calypsoes till you’re blue in the face (snickers). You may beat drums till your fingers fall off. You may dress your most succulent hotties in pornographic costumes, and trot them in the streets. We will come back for Carnival and publicly do things to them in daylight we used to have to do at night before ‘independence.’” And, guffawing, former masters depart. Eric Williams and the PNM bark and cheer. The rest of the population runs after the white dudes saying: “Take me with you.”
OK, they didn’t make a speech, but that’s what happened. That conflict, as to the nature and identity of post-colonial Trinidad, played out in the 1960s. Two mutually exclusive positions emerged. One was the desire to industrialise. The other was the determination to establish an “identity” via Carnival as “the” national festival, and an indigenous, viable social paradigm.
Throughout the 60s, this narrative was everywhere, like Steelbands Sell T&T (Guardian, August 24, 1964). In 1965, Carnival went to the UK. On September 4, 1966, Therese Mills, on the Guardian’s front page, reported that calypsonians protested South African singer Miriam Makeba’s performing here because they weren’t included. They picketed Otis Redding the next month for the same reason. (Many more examples exist.)
So Carnival demanded inclusion in the national idea, and got it, but it didn’t work out. The T&T Festival in 1968, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, was crammed with pan, calypso, and corporate sponsorship. It failed. The final arbiters of viability—the paying public—stayed away. (And PanTrinbago still vex and begging.)
Yet state promotion of Carnival as a national ideal persisted. This was because as Carnival was failing as a social paradigm; it was consolidating PNM ethnic nationalism, keeping the PNM in power—its real purpose.
On January 11, 1959, the Guardian’s headline was Carnival Nationalised by Request. Eric Williams said this was in response to “objections repeated by responsible citizens over the last ten years” to the “commercialised character overtaking the celebration” and the Guardian’s control of it. I’m sure this statement’s coming after the 1958 federal election defeat was purely coincidental.
But the Carnivalisation of the national imaginary through the 1960s also precipitated a cannibalistic national attitude that wasn’t there in the 1950s. That attitude manifested alongside, and in opposition to, the drive to industrialise, in hostility and determination among unions and workers to be militant, and halt progress via strikes and labour unrest.
In the wider society were escalating crime and social and ethnic unrest. According to the 1970 Annual Statistical Digest, in 1950, total reported crimes numbered 43,043. In 1956, it was 35,483. In 1966, after the PNM decade, it was 53,558.
No less an observer than Arthur Lewis observed the conflict. In discussing the future of the region in 1961 (Guardian, June 15), he said West Indians had to “set to work to create an image of…a tolerant, well-trained people whose arrival in a new country makes things better, not worse.” A diversion from this, he said, was “a false nationalism which has persuaded us that the steelband is a serious contribution to world’s heritage of music.”
Lewis left soon after, like many smart, ambitious people. And by 1970, it was all over. Black Power exploded, and Trinis gushed out in the thousands for Canada and the US. If it were not for the oil shock of 1973, Trinidad might be Jamaica today. (Yes: our prosperity is due to dumb luck.)
But, paradoxically, as oil money flowed in, more human and social capital flowed out—and no one asks why, given our new wealth, the rush to leave continued. It could be the fact that oil money fed the Carnival mentality, which seeped into every institution. It acted as a narcotic/opiate, enabling nihilism and political laissez-faire that allowed PNM corruption to flourish.
The logical climax of this was 1990. Those who desired stable, productive lives understood this, foresaw its final result, and left.
By 1991, the society was materially and intellectually exhausted, and the Carnival itself enervated. The new PNM administration, as always, out of ideas, went back to page one of the PNM playbook, Carnival as Tourism, betting that no one remembered the 1960s.
When the UNC took up Government in 1996, Carnivalists revived the rest of the 60s strategy, and Carnival again became the national African everything. (Keith Nurse and Christine Ho’s collection Globalisation, Diaspora and Caribbean Popular Culture has a couple of essays on this.)
When the PNM returned in 2002, its oil lotto-win allowed it to revive the cannibalistic attitude of the 60s. And thanks to the explosion of PNM media, PNM sleepers in academia, and money to artificially augment its growth and visibility, the Carnival delusion was implanted in the nation’s consciousness with unbelievable force, obliterating whatever morality, civic values and common decency remained.
In line with “new” post-colonial and tourism ideas, Carnival society became the antithesis to the metropole: chaos to their order; instinct to their rationality; emotion to their logic. This used to be an insult. Not now. The result? A sad, deluded society, wallowing in trauma and denial: mass drunkenness is now patriotism, narcissism is self-esteem, and intellect is impotence.
Put another way: war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. But that’s another, frighteningly similar, story. If only Carnivalists could read.
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