Sunday, April 26, 2009

Taxing Matters...

Clovis, Jamaica Observer, April 27, 2009

It took virtually twenty years but a Jamaican government has finally taken my father's advice to tax petroleum. 1990 was the first time my Dad came to visit me here and he couldn't believe how cheap gas/petrol was. Your government is subsidizing petrol? he would incredulously ask my friends who dropped by. They should be taxing it! In India we have just raised the petrol tax again. People drive too much, there's no need to drive everywhere etc etc. (I should say that my Dad is generally full of good ideas that have earned him quite a reputation. He was recently in the news in India for having launched a 'child-tracking system').

Needless to say my father gained instant unpopularity with my friends. i remember Victor Chang kissing his teeth as he left my house one evening. The fact that my Dad (Samuel Paul) was an economist who had been adviser to the current Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he was Finance Minister and a member of various five-year plan committees didn't endear him to my friends any further. They were simply enraged by the idea that gas should be taxed.

I've come to the conclusion that there is some irrational link between the price of gas in Jamaica and public tolerance levels. Like the proverbial red rag that provokes the bull to charge, price increases in gas have repeatedly been the trigger for Jamaican rage: the only thing that is guaranteed to make public patience boil till it erupts into violent social disorder. People will willingly put up with torture, rape, murder and corruption but touch the price of gas and you've gone too far.

Las May, The Gleaner, April 24, 2009

You will therefore understand why the Jamaican government had to put its security forces on alert the night before Finance Minister Audley Shaw (Oddly Sure i call him in private) announced his tax package. The Prime Minister even made a TV appearance the evening before to address the nation. As someone put it on Twitter "He was on TV basically begging us not to set Jamaica on fire come tomorrow when the new taxes are announced." After all that the country is still recovering from the fact that for the first time in decades the much feared gas tax has been imposed without social repercussions of any sort. Surely some credit is due to the Opposition for not opportunistically inciting violence as happened in April 1999. And congratulations to the ruling party for biting the bullet and belling the cat. The gas tax was long overdue. I am my father's daughter after all (I do deplore the tax on 'printed material' and computers though).

Las May, The Gleaner, April 2, 2009

Anyhow! Those of us who Twitter and Facebook had a great time before, during and after Oddly Sure's presentation. Below is a sample of the kinds of conversations to be had on social networking sites such as Facebook. It was initiated by a Facebook friend whose status update the night before Minister Shaw's presentations said: "Wonda if me fe work tomorrow or start black d road fram tonight?" On G-day this was her status update and the conversation it generated:

WC: MEMO TO ALL CONCERNED: Due to budget constraints I will have to surrender my internet so no more FB after 2:10pm, it was nice knowing you all, to the foreigners, pls send a likkle barrel now and then as I will be facing some harsh times, to those i owe - i plead 'mentally unstable' so pls write off those debts! to ma fellow roadblackers.....'keep it blacked'! over & out!

OW at 8:54am April 23
talk the tings Winnsome what a gwane a yard!!!!! dont tell me say a de Change what dem ask fa..... a tek

SB at 9:02am April 23 via Facebook Mobile
Smaddy caan beg di driva fi slow done... One stop driva one stop.DRIVA!!!!

WC at 9:12am April 23
Steve hon, how d bus fi slow dung when no driva no een deh!! a strait collision...stay deh.....say u prayas an ask fi forgiveness!!!

SB at 9:17am April 23 via Facebook Mobile
Memba Seaga wen seh di pnp economy was like a bus going dung mount rosser hill wid no driva. Dis yah one yah is like a hijack plane wid out pilat

OW at 9:19am April 23
Winnie me feel say U vote fi the change to talk up........

WC at 9:21am April 23
rahtid!!! a true.....yes, but u know say Seaga did mix up an love war!! (lol) but me dear...dis even wos dan hijak plane....a doh even know what fi call e......u memba how Man a Yaad did say jus few weeks ago dat 'the Jamaican economy not affected by the world crisis an how we criss' an fram den me say da man d really tek we fi dunce an now him tun... Read More him mout....but we did know an eediat Mike Henry a say we need d gas tax fi fix d badly neglected roads an even dat not going to be enuff!! u shld a see him face!! bwoy no pretty

DM at 9:33am April 23 via Facebook Mobile
Lawks Winnie, mi very sarry fi hear bout di sudden heconomic downturn pon di rock but noh worry as di barrel is being packed as I tab. Just remind me of yu haddress and pray seh dem noh seajack di ship....have mercy dear Faadah and pilat we chu lifes tempestuous seas.... roger dat, 10 4, ova n hout! til wi meet ah farin again mi fren, walk good!!!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Piracy: the way the books are balanced?

Pirates are intercepted by HMS Cumberland

Image of Somali boats from , November 12, 2008

Recent events in the Gulf of Aden where Somali pirates have been boldly attacking passing ships are a reminder that piracy, like prostitution, is one of the oldest professions in the world. By the late twentieth century pirates on the high seas had become such a rarity that the word 'piracy' was hijacked to describe the activities of copyright violators. But by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century pirates were back, using the latest technology to do the same thing the fabled pirates of yore did--hold down an' tek weh—from ships that passed in the night.

To have the exploits of the Somali pirates unfold just when I happened to be reading the manuscript of a novel called Heart of a Pirate has been quite extraordinary. I was contacted by the author, Pamela Johnson, a few months ago; she wanted someone competent to read the ms and give their reactions and I had been recommended. I agreed to take a look at it but wouldn't have time to read it it till mid-March to April, I told her.

Anne Bonny

Heart of a Pirate is a novel about Anne Bonny, the female pirate who once inhabited these shores. Her story has come down to us in song and legend rather than official history. As I wrote in the blurb I sent the author:

A rollicking adventure story starring women instead of men— Heart of a Pirate brings to life the legendary female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read and the times and places they inhabited. Set in the early eighteenth-century between Jamaica, Ireland, and the Southern United States Pirate plots the coordinates of the extraordinary life of a woman who unceremoniously spit the silver spoon she was born with out of her mouth, taking to the unpredictable and dangerous high seas rather than abide by the laws of patriarchy. Pirate society itself is presented as a more democratic alternative to the hierarchical social system that ruled Britain and its colonies; the political history of Ireland and plantation slavery are referenced and undergird this bracing tale of female bravery, gallantry and piracy. Heart of a Pirate is a story of the human desire for equality and freedom, social justice and piratical valour—a thought-provoking romp of a read particularly at a time when contemporary piracy is occupying international attention again.

An adept swordswoman, who knew how to use the superior strength of men against them, Bonny was a force to reckon with. Dressed in men's clothes she took on soldiers and sailors alike, besting them and earning her place on many a pirate ship. Although to the manor born, Bonny abhorred slavery and inequality of any sort, chafing under the bit of her father's authority. She started leaving her house under cover of night to keep the company of sailors and 'women of the street' “real people who lived on the edge of life, one day to the next.”

For she understood their poverty, the small wages, the persecution and social circumstances from which many of them ran—debtor's prison in England, branding, thumbscrew and boot, whip and cane and cat o' nine tails, long, arbitrary sentences for petty theft or for being on the losing side in some religious war. Almost all had been born on the wrong side of the blanket, bastards, orphaned or abandoned as children. The men, outlawed, turned to theft as the occasion rose, and protected each other better than any army or police. Together, sword in hand, they would take back from the world what had been taken from them. Piracy was the way the books were balanced.

The pirate's code, also called the Articles of the Brethren or The Brotherhood of the Coast allowed pirates to vote for their captain who would remain captain till he was voted out. “Every man of us is a freeman and stands for his own self, but a man serves his best interest by standin' with other free men. We don't hold to colour or class or wealth. A man's not born with his rank, but earns it.”

To Anne Bonny, the pirate's code meant equality, something she had not encountered previously and now defended fiercely against the very pirates she lived with. At one point she turns on her husband demanding: “Have ye not just told me that the Code made all men equal? By what right do ye tell me how to speak...or what to think? I'm here precisely because I will have no one tell me what I can or cannot do.” At another moment she argues: “Do not try to tell me that because I am a woman, I must have a different set of rules, for God knows, I have earned my place as an equal. I am a crew member and entitled to all the privileges of any man here.”

While I was reading Heart of a Pirate the pirates of Somalia were rousing international consternation by capturing a US ship and holding its crew hostage. Though the mainstream media were quick to condemn the so-called pirates other voices disagreed. “You Are Being Lied to About Pirates” went one headline in the Huffington Post. Another account simply called Roman Piracy, was making the email rounds, linking slavery to the prevalence of piracy in Roman times:

The piracy threat which came to a head in the decade of the 60's BC was in part due to Rome's complacency about the issue. Rather than stamping out small pockets of pirates early on, they allowed piracy to flourish into a large force of marauders. A poor economy and oppressive social conditions also fed the pirate forces as men who were on the verge of bankruptcy discovered more profit as robbers and pillagers. Rome was unwilling to act conclusively toward the reduction of pirate forces because those forces, along with tax companies, provided slaves for the large luxury markets. The pirates did not attack Rome as an enemy, but treated all targets equally, as opportunities for profit. During the next century Roman senators did not find the political will to suppress the piracy, perhaps in part because it served their interests; pirates supplied tens of thousands of slaves for their Italian estates and disrupted the grain trade, thus raising prices for their produce in Rome.

I emailed Pamela Johnson remarking on the coincidence of her sympathetic portrayal of pirate society and the view that the Somalis were being unjustly demonized and might have good reason to be resorting to piracy in response to the severe social injustice they had suffered: Do you have a comment on the Somali activity? I asked.

Comments? Actually, a lot! replied Pamela.

When I first began to think of writing about this fascinating woman, and why she has been the subject of song and legend, why the story has stuck with us for so many years, I looked for the reasons why. Piracy, clearly, is not a good thing, so how could I justify the heroism of it, other than to look at the romance of Rafael Sabatini (Captain Blood) and Errol Flynn and Paul Henried movies (Paul Heinreid filmed a movie in the 50's entitled The Spanish Main that features a pirate named Anne Bonny--my first hearing of the woman when I was in my teens).

I found that answer in the scholarly theories of Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburg who studies piracy and emerging capitalism in the 18th century. Not until then did I realize the extent of poverty, unemployment, and economic stress on a society facing massive population migrations.

The pirates of Somalia face the same situation as the pirates of 'the Golden Age of Piracy', in that they face poverty, lack of education, and hopelessness. Instead, these one-time simple fishermen, men of the sea, decided to take from others who, in their view, have more. The issues in our own times are the same, the pirate's search for greater weaponry, navel tension in parts of the world, even religion.

The outcome for the men of Somalia, and indeed pirates anywhere, the Amazon region and the south China Sea, among others, is that they face overwhelming odds of retribution in superior armies, navies, and funding. When fifty-two of Bartholomew Roberts' men were hanged along the African coast, the governments of nations were making a statement, commerce will succeed, capitalism is important, men who invest will have their due. Even Anne knows she will fight anyone who tries to take the product of her own land.

Today we like to think that we are above such barbarity as gibbeting men and leaving their bodies to rot. Yet commerce will not be disrupted. Investors will lose money if the situation is not contained. Ordinary seamen will face threat, torture, and even death to move their vessels from port to port. And searobbers will die if they test themselves against superior power.

We are still faced with questions of social justice and the hard issues of finding solutions to the hopelessness of poverty, overpopulation, and ignorance born of lack of education. Wherever we cannot give to all members of society a fair footing, we will see theft. It happens everyday in all countries, not just on the seas. One man who struggles to eat will look at another who has more than he needs, wonder, and come to certain conclusions. Poverty breeds chemical dependencies for self-medication and escape, whether it be the rum of the pirates of Anne's time, or those drugs of today, adding another layer of complexity to the situation. It will take some very smart, very compassionate people to begin to unravel the factors that create poverty that continues generation to generation.

I like to think we in the United States are on the right path in electing a President who knows the poverty of communities, who has worked to better the lives of ordinary people, and who is compassionate. He understands the excess of corporate capitalism, and although we all have the right to comfort and the freedom of mobility, the earnings of our hard work and creativity, greed does abound in some areas of business. We will see.”

Heart of a Pirate is at press now and will be available for distribution at Calabash, Treasure Beach, May 23-25 this year.