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Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Near the end of Elizabeth Topp’s and Alex de Verteuil’s creditable documentary, ’70— Remembering a Revolution, on the Black Power marches, an interviewee observed that the freeing of the mutineers was the biggest tragedy of 1970. The impression it left in the public mind was that there are no consequences for illegal or subversive actions. This was reinforced after 1990,when the Muslimeen were freed. The “public mind” and “public imagination” sound vague, but they are real. People can be made to believe, and act on, a few ideas, sometimes against their will, through concerted action of mass media and manipulation of symbolism and authority, directed at the public mind. George Orwell’s novel, 1984, illustrates how such manipulation works. The key features of the Orwellian state include the ability to “rewrite” and reinterpret history via mass media, schools and other institutions; giving the masses endless, mindless entertainment to distract them; providing an authorised target for hatred; and purging dissenters. This is based in real psychology, and is known as “the power of the situation.” 
The landmark experiment on the phenomenon, the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971,was conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, and described in his book, The Lucifer Effect. It’s been used by (notably) the Nazis, the Serbs and the Hutus in Rwanda. When the Iron Curtain fell in the 1990s, Eastern Europeans were reportedly amazed at how perfectly 1984 described Soviet Communism. It works in big and small theatres. Experiments in high school classrooms in the US showed that a change as simple as a badge, or singling out students who are lefthanded, or blue eyed, and the teacher (recognised authority) designating them superior or inferior, could change the class’s attitudes to them rapidly and dras- tically. Importantly, the “situation” can be manipulated without the consent of those affected, and not every person, or even a majority, has to be convinced. Once a critical mass of people is affected, and the message is continually and authoritatively reinforced, the paradigm holds. In Trinidad, it seems clear that our “situation” produces crime and social pathology. There are long- and short-term views on how our situation evolved, but I’ll sketch the short-term view here. It begins in 1995.
The UNC’s accession to government traumatised many of the believers in post-independence ethnic nationalist myths. Coincidently, the talk radio phenomenon found Trinidad just then, and the UNC’s attempt to introduce media legislation started a war for, ostensibly, “press freedom,”which allowed much overt racial-political hatred to be spewed without consequences. I refer, of course, to i95.5 and Power 102,whose heroes propounded that one group was entitled to the “Treasury,” the other was not; one group had stolen the other’s patrimony, and were not “real” Trinidadians, and so on. These messages echoed in calypso, and the “nationalist”movement became defenders of national “culture,”which meant Carnival, which meant the PNM. (I make this argument fully in my book, Breaking the News, and I’d be interested to hear any alternative explanations of what is described in the paragraphs above.) But this phenomenon was also a concrete manifestation of the PNM’s intertwining itself into the narratives of nation, culture, and ethnicity from the 60s. The culture it created sprang to its defence.Hence the messages trumpeted via radio, Carnival, and throughout the “culture,” included “resistance,” retaking patrimony from those who had stolen it (Cro Cro’s Kidnap Dem), and the entitlement to “retake” the State through dubious means by virtue of moral authority (ANR Robinson’s appointment of the PNM to government in 2001 on the basis of “moral and spiritual values”). 
This translates into a situation of moral laissez faire, or more simply: do what you want, mash up de place, get orn bad. The unwritten corollaries to this were that the State’s authority was not supreme,which many criminals noted, and that the “official” values (basic Christian values) were not morally binding. However, the attitudes could not be erased when the PNM eventually got back in power. The first sign of the effects of this programme on vulnerable sections of the population became clear in February 2003, the schools’ Soca Storm concert, where thousands of school children rioted, after some girls attacked a WPC for her firearm. Many who had engineered the moral/electoral victory of the PNM in 2002 chose not to see it, but the signs were mushrooming. The kidnapping epidemic had started, and the murders had started to climb. The crime was one end of a spectrum of criminal behaviour, which started with aggressiveness, interpersonal hostility in the civic sphere, and a general sense of omnibus entitlement for being wronged by the world. 
This was (to repeat) cultivated for six years (1996-2002), and was meant to point to the “Indian” government, but it couldn’t be turned off post- 2002. Among the black urban underclass— with its weak family bonds and absence of mitigating social institutions —it was a catalyst for marginal criminality to become full-blown criminality. This does not mean all, or even a majority, of the urban underclass became criminals—just a critical mass, a relatively small percentage, but enough to “infect” the host communities, and evolve into complex organisations (aka gangs), a process and structure in which, incidentally, the PNM invested. (One has to wonder how the PNM saw this.) Among the other sectors of the community, like large and small businesses (aka “Indians”), the conditioning manifested in the contempt for the rules (environmental and building codes etc), open stealing (Clico), and a pervasive tiefing mentality,which wrecked environment, infrastructure, and social capital. The result is where we are today: aggressiveness, hostility, a pervasive sense of being wronged, and a self-assumed right to take back what you feel is yours, hence, endemic criminality.   Continued next week