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President Richards' Laments About Foreign Values

Now there's concern?

By Corey Gilkes
October 18, 2006


On October 6th, during an inter-faith service, President George Maxwell Richards gave a speech lamented the creeping influx of foreign values and cultures into our country. According to the Express newspaper, President Richards, "spoke of mass media images of 'glitter and glamour' and 'easy living' from foreign metropolitan areas', which young people are bombarded with..." and that "many young people, faced with these images, were willing to give up their heritage."

Now only a fool could argue otherwise; all around us we can see manifestations of foreign values, particularly values from the US. From semi-literate radio announcers talking about "summer" fetes (with a freshwater Yankee accent), to celebrations of Halloween, to young people 'blinging' and pandering to the belief that that 'blinging' is the true mark of success, to governmental advocacy of 'abstinence clubs' a la US religious fundamentalist experiments, to the increase of uncreative Brazilian/Las Vegas style bikini mas at Carnival time. I can go on and on.

But frankly I found that that speech, while there isn't anything disputable about the points raised, is either innocent or in denial about how long this problem has been around. Apart from the Taino peoples, we really cannot speak of an indigenous Trinbago culture. Trinidad and Tobago has been shaped by an interesting mix of African, Indian, Chinese, Syrian and European cultures. In the process a culture has emerged that contains elements of all these cultures and yet is not the same thing. However, we need to face some hard truths about ourselves. The imposition of foreign values go much deeper than 'globalisation' and cultural imperialism via mass communication; it has to do first and foremost with our lack of genuine pride. Don't try to argue about the way we swelled our chests when our Soca Warriors played their hearts out to qualify for the World Cup. While that is indeed, so many of the flags adorning people's cars came off right after the final preliminary match. The fact is, this is a society that still isn't sure about the identity it does have, what identity it wants to create and is very uncomfortable about some of the identities that are extant. So when President Richards called for going back to the 'old time days', I could not help but laugh. As far as I see, the present encroachment of foreign values is a direct result of our 'old time ways', specifically our obsession with things perceived as foreign.

Now there is much about the 'old days' to be admired; having grown up in the 1970s I can still recall a general feeling of civility among people regardless of ethnic background. There was a kind of togetherness among perfect strangers which, truth be told, still exists in spite of the culture of 'me-ism' that really took hold in our consciousness during the Reagan years of the1980s. But therein lies a clue; how could the self-absorbed, materialistic ethic of the US during the Reagan years influence our own lifestyles if the values that espouse it wasn't there already?

If President Richards and those of us who concur with his belief, really want to deal with the incursion of negative foreign values, then we had better take a good hard look at what those of us over thirty and the generations before us have done to facilitate said encroachment and not be too quick to cuss BET and MTV (although both are nothing but excellent ambassadors of the mind-numbing, materialistic, self-absorbed culture and values of the US). Ours is a society and a cultural outlook that is profoundly infected with self-contempt and self-doubt. Our values have always been influenced by forces from the outside. The very holidays and mainstream religions were foreign and were imposed upon us along with the secular cultural thoughts and traditions these religions grew up in. No matter how many illiterate and un-literate Bible and Qur'an wavers insist otherwise and want to claim that their religion transcends secular culture; that is an indisputable fact.

This society was essentially created by foreign powers for foreign powers. The European colonisers set up economic, legal and political systems that mirrored those of the metropole and kept hammering the message of the centrality of European ways of life. And, given the fact that this country, like many other Caribbean countries that were colonised, were created to be processing plants that supplied Europe with whatever exotic staple their elites had a taste for, there could have been no real concept of 'nation-building' for those whose lot it was to work to feed the metropole.

All that, however, is perfectly understandable and when viewed a certain way, logical. The country was created through illegitimate means and administered by a white minority whose labour force were enslaved or otherwise bound to their masters by a skillfully crafted cycle of economic dependency. So how else could the white elite govern but through violence, stifling ancestral customs and independent thinking and by inculcating a sense of the omnipotence of the Euro? The onus is upon us to identify these things clearly and use them as jumping-off points for discussions of this nature. When the education system was opened up to include the Africans and Indians who made up the bulk of the labour force, mechanisms were put in place to ensure that the colonised achieved the exact opposite of a real education: enlightenment, critical thinking and an ethic of innovativeness and initiative. The goal of most colonised people was to either strive for the best education or to ensure that their children would benefit from this education namely careers in the civil service thus escaping the drudgery and financial hopelessness of menial labour. But what we like to think is 'education' is more correctly schooling, and schooling that was designed to do nothing more than instill the mere basics of reading and writing so as to create a skilled middle-manager who would manage the society on behalf of the coloniser.

Neither can we exclude or skim over as superfluous the very important fact that the schooling system was headed by Christian missionaries. If nothing else our history is very clear on the fact that from the very beginning of our education experiments, emphasis was placed on the four "Rs" of Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and all three couched in Religion, which was explicitly and implicitly designed to dampen ideas among the colonial subjects that could undermine and eventually dispense with the society created by the British imperialists. These missionaries set up schools and churches that administered to the enslaved and later indentured servants using as their foundation theological teachings explicitly directed by the plantocracy and colonial administration that would not instill among the Africans and Indians feelings of equality with the Euros or lead to any challenge of the status quo. In any event the missionaries all came with their own ignorance and rigidly held prejudices of ancestral African, Indian and other non-Christian cultures. The aim was to inculcate among the colonised an acceptance of their social station and the superiority of foreign European values, dress concepts of the divine and economic systems. The truly 'educated' person was thus one versed in the ways, dress and mannerisms of the English and thus imbued with the idea that s/he was a British subject.

Even our taste in foods reflects predominantly foreign influence. This country, like many others, was set up to export to the metropole. Much of the food we consume isn't grown and produced here and that can be traced back to the period of enslavement and colonialism when the Brits used the politics of food to keep us subservient. By the time we achieved (flag) independence, we were saddled with debts and 'trade' obligations engineered by the British to ensure that our internal food producing dynamics could never fully get off the ground. And we were effectively socialised into preferring foods we did not produce locally. Try and get the average Trini today to make sacrifices concerning he belly nah, see what happens. Ask him to alter his diet to one that is more in keeping with food produced locally. Anyone doubting me? Ask FITUN.

So we have always looked at ourselves through the eyes of the coloniser or the imperialist. We persistently equate development and civilisation with European/Euro-American ideas of development and civilisation (read that behind the masturbatory ventures of aluminium smelter plants, the Tarouba stadium and the rash of buildings going up in Port-of-Spain). We have an almost automatic impulse to ape foreign models and possess what is sometimes an obsession with validation from the foreigner that is sometimes sickening. From the military to virtually every industry, agency and company here in Trinidad, the foreign model, the foreign instructor and training course is almost always preferred above the local no matter if the foreign one has less relevance than what was conceptualised by someone who understands the culture. And is it just me or hasn't anyone else noticed the contradiction of Max Richards complaining about foreign values and images while wearing a European suit? Seems to me that the only Caribbean man (when it comes to attire anyway) in Parliament is Gerald Yetming.

When we wear with pride suits and ties in a tropical climate, when we try to copy standards of beauty, economic and political models, when we go to foreign universities and master their academic subjects and then come back here trying to plant theories of Adam Smith, Durkheim, Locke, Hobbes, Marx and Engels, what the hell do you think that is? Turn on the TV or radio and over two-thirds of what assails your ears and eyes are foreign (yes, I know the excuses given by the owners of the media houses; they will remain just that, excuses). Radio Trinbago and Gayelle the Channel are like voices in the wilderness, but at least they are trying.

Understand me clearly; I have no problem with sons and daughters of the soil excelling in the US and European music industries like Billy Ocean, Tony Wilson, Winifred Atwell (remember them anyone? No? Too far back, ok). And that's another thing; one of the reasons why the values and cultures of the foreigner feature so prominently in our consciousness is because of our lack of preserving historical continuity. So very few know who these artistes were; no one remembers that Trinidad had a functioning recording industry of its own (that from what I've learned, actually predates many of those in the United States itself); we don't know, remember or care that our calypso was so popular in the US during the 1950s that for a brief period it actually displaced the emerging rock-and-roll music.

We pandered to foreign values when we laud their artistes and their music and did not see art, poetry and expression in our own George Bailey, Peter Minshall, Earl Lovelace, Le Roi Clarke, Atillah, Radio and Lion. We embraced foreign values when we created trade union movements, halfway houses, and Friendly Societies as replicas of metropolitan European organisations and consigned our women to the margins of these organisations. There was no BET or VH1 in existence when there was an outcry when Anthony Prospect had the Police Band play calypso as marching music or when South African singer Miriam Makeba danced in the Anglican Church in San Fernando. BET and MTV had little to do with our own shunning of steelpan since its inception. Anyone wants to explain how is it that there are more vibrant pan industries in England and Switzerland than there are here in the land of its birth?

I understand fully the pride felt when our nationals go to foreign centres of higher learning and mastering what was taught, often beating the Euro at his own games. But when we do so and then seek to transplant these models that have almost no relevance to our society, history and geography, all we are doing is keeping ourselves mentally colonised. I don't want to hear President Richards complaining about foreign materialistic values when the very university he came from stifles creative thought. So how is it going to help create home-grown epistemological and ontological constructs?

Thinkers like Lloyd Best have opined that this automatic impulse for foreign models and values is much easier to adopt than striking out on our own. Breaking new ground is fraught with uncertainty and the possibility exists that one can fail in the long run. But so what? We might also succeed. At least we would be diagnosing local problems based on our own analysis of our historical and current realities. What we need to understand is that this inundation of foreign values could only have come about so strongly because of the vacuum created by the stamping out and shunting aside of Trinidadian cultural outlook and the ancestral customs that fed it. If President Richards and others really want to put the brakes on the encroachment of negative foreign values, then he needs to do something we should have all done a long time ago and study, really study, those ancestral cultural worldviews we always had and what gave us the same thing that is being threatened now.