The lessons of history by Wesley Gibbings

For technical reasons I am unable to “reblog” Mr. Gibbings’ post, but you can find it here. I follow Mr. Gibbings, a Trinidadian journalist, on Twitter. He is more economical in his tweets than I am – I am a profligate tweeter. Once I start, I cannot seem to stop.

Putting that aside, I was struck by his thoughtful piece on “lessons learned” (or having to be unlearned, perhaps) in this corner of the Earth. Indeed, what is so special about us? Some recent remarks by Caribbean commentators, in this time of COVID, do indeed “reek of a sense of invulnerability and privilege.” We are no more or less fragile than anyone else. And, as I reflected in my last post, vulnerable we are. As vulnerable as the Earth we are bent on destroying.

This also reminds me of the poem “Ozymandias” by the romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Thank you, Mr. Gibbings, for this piece.

The lessons of history

April 14, 2021

Wesley Gibbings

Two months from now, with the advent of the annual hurricane season, the Caribbean region will come face to face with yet another challenge to its resolve to persist as a viable, sovereign geographical space.

We have latterly added to chronic socio-political dysfunctionality, extreme weather events, earthquakes and volcanoes, the unfolding reality of the climate crisis and now, another pandemic.

We’ve been down all these roads before. It is in the natural course of history that nations are tested from time to time to the limits of their endurance. In most instances they prevail. In others they collapse and disappear – if not from internecine disquiet, from the weight of exogenous destructive and predatory forces.

I have more than once attracted considerable vitriol for suggesting that a long review of history witnesses the disappearance of civilisations far greater than ours, and that there is no objective reason why we should be any less vulnerable or more privileged, particularly as small island states.

Following a public lecture on the future of Caribbean media at the Montego Bay Campus of UWI almost exactly five years ago, an angry university student from an OECS nation walked up to me with a telling-off.

I had wondered aloud during my presentation how, given small space and woefully finite natural resources, his country continued to exist as a sovereign state attempting to make it into the future alone – even frequently denying the value of an integrated regional space.

Then, more recently, one T&T journalist was inclined to reference the “tiny island” state of St Vincent and the Grenadines – blissfully unmindful of the context of our own small size and vulnerabilities. I suppose this means we are a “big” island. Steups.

La Soufrière on the island of St. Vincent has been erupting daily since April 9, 2021. (Photo: UWI Seismic Research Centre)

Here we go again, I told one colleague, the “small island” talk that occupies permanent, obsessive space in the minds of ethno-centric commentators, some of whom have emerged in recent days regurgitating the political myth of imported votes 65 years ago.

Meanwhile, not far from our own small island state, the Mayans once thrived throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. When the pandemic storm ends, travel and see for yourself what remains of their legacy. There are other examples. Look them up. Pre-Columbian Tainos. Indus civilisation. The Khmer Empire.

The Pacific island of Tuvalu is sinking. (Photo: Sean Gallagher/UK Guardian)

I have also visited the Pacific region more than once. You can look down from your aircraft and see the disappearing atolls. In Tebunginako, Kiribati, the village church stands in the ocean when the tide comes in. Tuvalu – with a vote equal to ours, the United States, Russia, and China individually – is known as a disappearing island.

I have noted to the consternation of many that, in some instances, the continued existence of some of our regional constituents as states flying independence flags challenges several historical norms – whatever the state of self-delusion. That many of our economies defy the meaning of the texts.

Venezuela once thrived as a modern metropolis next door. We visited frequently for tourism, shopping, and the camaraderie of neighbours. Today, it stands testimony to the ravages of political depravity.

There is very little to suggest our own immunity. The quality of the current responses to adjoining tragedies do little to engender optimism that a wholesome approach by all elements is adopted to prepare for challenges beyond immediate pandemic and economic woes.

Desperate Venezuelans fleeing political and economic disaster are “de Venes”. The government is advised “not to bring the Vinceys here.” There were convulsions when Dominicans were invited to rest their weary heads here following Hurricane Maria in 2019. I shall not be apologetic about insisting that all of this has emerged mainly from the same quarters.

Such is the work of vandals, unmindful of our own susceptibilities and many with one foot planted outside home terrain, who applaud each pandemic misstep and have led the way with everything from early COVID denial to current vaccination hesitancy.  

None of this suggests meek compliance with authority or silence on breaches of rights, proper political behaviour, or plain common sense.

But what we have been witnessing reeks of a sense of invulnerability and privilege. Two weeks ago, someone was declaring the demise of CARICOM. Today, an empathetic regional response can make the difference between life and death. Just saying.

Wesley Gibbings is a Trinidadian journalist/newspaper columnist and media trainer who has been in the business for over 35 years covering assignments all over the Caribbean and in Latin America. Extensive journalistic work on Caribbean public affairs and activism in the area of press freedom. Publications include five collections of poems, numerous seminar papers on Caribbean media and contributions to a number of books. Publishing credentials also include editorial management of several technical books and journals. Received the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Percy Qoboza Foreign Journalists Award in 2017 for work in the promotion of press freedom in the Caribbean. Twitter: @wgibbings

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