gall and gumption

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Glare and The Heat

I'm not talking about the weather, either. The Minister of Tourism in the Bahamas has resigned over allegations that he had an affair with ANS. Tom had emailed me an article about this tiny little piece of the Anna Nicole Smith Death Sideshow, which is on the tube now I think 24 hours a day, but at that time the minister had not resigned yet.

Well, we are now aware of at least one man who is not claiming paternity, which is surely noteworthy.

Gibson came under pressure to step down after the publication last week of photographs of him and Smith embracing on a bed and reports that he had fast-tracked her application for residency in the Caribbean nation.

Critics said he granted her residency status on the basis of their close friendship when, in fact, she met none of the criteria for such a permit.

Tom wondered why this would be such a big deal there.

Well, it's simple. The Caribbean basically has come to rely on tourism as the main source of revenue. Sugar is just about dead, bananas died about 10 years ago (killed off actually), bauxite has been undependable. And so for most countries what they have to take to market is tourism. And Caribbean tourism marketing is all about how you can come down to de islands mon and relax and have fun on de beautiful beaches. No Problem, Mon. And you hear about the rent-a-dreads and the passa passa etc., not to mention calypso. There's a whole genre of calypso songs in which a white woman comes down to the islands for Carnival and goes mad bumping and grinding in the streets. So the impression overall is of an easy-going, laid-back place with a great tolerance for public displays of lasciviousness, like the dancing you see in Carnival.

And the truth is that people fornicate like minks there. The man who does not have several girlfriends, the man who does not cheat on his wife, the man who is not chasing tail from one end of his island to the other, is the exception. But not officially. Officially and in their public characters most West Indian people tend to see themselves as very socially conservative.

Where this conservatism has become apparent is in two areas:

The extreme bigotry against homosexuals that so baffles people in the States. About two years ago the authorities in Nevis actually turned away a gay cruise, alleging fears that the men on board were all going to be running around the island naked. This was rubbish of course, but they persuaded themselves of it quite easily.

Second, attitudes to HIV/AIDS and prevention strategies. The Caribbean has the fastest increasing rate of infection outside of Sub-Saharan Africa (it's not equally distributed, but the rates in a few countries -- especially Haiti, Guyana, and the Dominican Republic -- are so high they bring the whole region up. And the resistance to the distribution of condoms (where teenage sex is epidemic, and where having multiple partners is the informal norm) is so far proving really hard to overcome.

It appears in a lot of other, smaller ways, if you live there, but you get the picture.

The people you never see in the ads are the people who don't spend their Sundays at the beach but spend them in church. And that is most of the people who are really local, who don't really have much exposure to the tourists. The most powerful non-governmental organization in any Caribbean country is the Council of Churches, because the church is the means by which most people will pursue their social aspirations and set themselves up as respectable people. The only other avenues are power and money.

There are married men in the Caribbean who will spend a whole Sunday at some wash-foot church and on Monday afternoon are in their cars trolling the gates of the high schools looking for girls. This sort of thing has been SOP in the Caribbean for generations. My uncle, who is writing down some of my family history, summed up his grandparents' generation: "They were nasty."

So as you can imagine these are very conflicted issues, and the way most people resolve the conflict is to maintain appearances. I can recall a couple of the Great Fornicators of my acquaintance in the islands, and when they were ready to get up on their legs and stand on their little dignity they were so ferocious in their indignation!

Add to the mix the presence of someone like ANS who in a place like that is basically an 800-lb gorilla of a white woman. It is alleged that this minister gave her a fast track for immigration papers so she could settle in the Bahamas. Well, I don't know of any country in the world -- especially a Caribbean country -- where they wouldn't throw the place open to anybody who showed up with the sort of millions that Smith had. A few years ago an American man showed up in Grenada with papers stating him to be a citizen of (I kid you not) The Dominion of Melchizedek, and a photograph of an enormous ruby, and on the basis of these bona fides was able to open a bank, run it there for about four years, and defraud investors in the US and Canada of hundreds of millions of dollars. This is my absolute favorite offshore story of all time. Unbeatable.

So that's not really it, I think. What bugs people is that image of him in bed with her. First of all it is the exposure of a kind of "slackness" that is officially not tolerated. Second of all, it hits on really old suspicious about white women, suspicions that go back deep in history. That is, the black man who is in bed with a white woman is in a humiliating position; he's a sexual servant. This seems weird, but it is only a sort of subconscious acknowledgment of longstanding inequality. And even though the little embrace with Smith was most likely perfectly innocent, first of all West Indians don't really go in officially for that kind of over-the-top Hollywood display of affection and secondly the photograph had this implication: that he didn't mind doing something that had the appearance that he was a white woman's sex slave. So it was embarrassing in several different ways, as you can see. That's my theory of why he had to go.

What would be fun would be to be down at the beach bar where all the lawyers drink and listen to the jokes. It would be wrong but it would be fun.


At 6:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The extreme bigotry against homosexuals that so baffles people in the States. About two years ago the authorities in Nevis actually turned away a gay cruise, alleging fears that the men on board were all going to be running around the island naked. This was rubbish of course, but they persuaded themselves of it quite easily.

Too easily. Two gay tourists were attacked in St. Martin in Feb. of ’06. Two leading gay-rights activists were also murdered in Jamaica in the same year. As anyone who’s seen the HBO doc All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise, Ms. O’Donnell’s cruise ship was also greeted by protesters when it pulled into port at Nassau.

A number of the nurses I’ve worked with are from the Caribbean. One of them, an otherwise enlightened and progressive woman, apparently shares the atavistic prejudices of her compatriots. Once, during an amused and amusing exchange on the ineffable Dick Cheney, she rather startled me with this apercu: “What can you expect from someone like that? Look at his daughter, a Lesbian. What does that tell you?” It tells me that Et in Arcadia homophobia, alas.

P.S.: Lovely memoir/homage re Fowler.


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