Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Turning Point

Mark Twain identified the turning point of his life as his infection with measles at age twelve. That was precocious of him. Mine occurred at age 26 in the US Consulate in London at ten o’clock one morning. I expect most people’s personal turning-points occur more in young adulthood than in childhood.

Fearful of a local measles epidemic, Samuel’s mother confined him to the house pro tem. Impatient with delaying what he reckoned to be the inevitable, he sought out an infected friend and crawled into his bed. When the epidemic had run its course – with the boys luckily still alive – Sam’s furious mother gave up on his schooling and apprenticed him to a printer of books.

Captivated by stories of the Amazon River, he ran away on a Mississippi river-boat headed for the international port of New Orleans. With no money, he stayed on the river, became a pilot, then a writer of occasional stories, then a literary legend. It all began with the measles.

I had never thought to identify my own turning point, until I read about Mark Twain’s the other day. It was always taken for granted in our house that I would travel overseas. There was never a realistic likelihood that I wouldn’t. My boss in Toowoomba had invested a lot of hope that I would abandon the ambition and become a partner in his accountancy firm. At age 22, I was made manager of his branch-office in Brisbane, and he wasn’t happy to lose me. It might have been a turning point if I’d stayed, but I didn’t and it wasn’t.

My adventures overseas were all merely incidents along the path of my manifest destiny. Linda was a large part of that destiny – as it transpired – but meeting her [Zorba the Greek, blogged in January 2012] wasn’t a turning-point either. The day before that meeting, a Yugoslavia peasant woman had caused me to miss a vital signpost [A back road to Bulgaria, March 2012] and end up in Greece by mistake. Missing the signpost was certainly the key turning point in my domestic circumstances, but it didn’t result in a deviation from The Master Plan.

That Plan called for the replenishment of my finances while auditing in the USA, then (if nothing exciting distracted me) heading home to Australia and probably the eventual partnership that awaited me. If something exciting did distract me there, I would go with the flow and wherever the wind blew. I might well have married, and sired American children. I would surely have wangled a transfer to somewhere warm, like Florida. All I needed to do was fill in the US Immigration form in London, and wait my turn.

But, as I explained in Almost American in February 2012, the waiting line in the Consulate was a long one, and to fill in time I went round the corner to the Canadian Consulate, where they interviewed me immediately. I never went back to the other place. Linda met me off the plane in Toronto a month later.

The New York office of Touche Ross & Co would never have sent any of its auditors on secondment to its correspondent office in The Bahamas, a British colony offshore from Florida. Even if it had done, the trust company in Nassau would never have given them access to its clients’ records. Nor would the trust company have hired an American auditor. US auditors were reckoned to be vulnerable to blackmail by the IRS. They still are, actually.

The Nassau trust company introduced us to the world of offshore tax-havens. We earned more money than we knew what to do with. Retirement was the obvious thing to do. And when that didn’t work out, we turned to another tax-haven – Vila in the New Hebrides, later Vanuatu. And when the next retirement didn’t work out, we turned to Cayman. It’s been a good life.

The wages-summary Touche Toronto gave me for the 1966 tax year said: Salary $8000, less Tax $1200 = Net $6800. I remember thinking, $1200! That’s 15%! Outrageous! I’ll never pay Income Tax again, if I can help it! That vow marked a turning point, too, in a way.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shame and scandal in the family

Doing some family-history research online, my niece in Australia discovered that one of our ancestors was murdered with an axe while lying drunk one night on his front lawn. He was a wife-beater, and one of his sons probably did him in. There was no trial, but the inquest made for some fun reading. The authorities may not have tried too hard to find the culprit.

Linda was shocked – shocked! – to hear the news. Her family-tree has nothing that can compete with such a scandal. She had a distant aunt of five generations ago who was a freelance prostitute down by the London docks, but pfft! Who hasn’t? Not in the same bracket as a murdered wife-beater, is it?

All families have skeletons in the closet. We today have no reason to be ashamed of them, or proud of ancestral heroes. We had nothing to do with what they did, any more than vice-versa. Bad stories are sometimes disappointing, sometimes amusing; but unless they’re personal to us, what do they matter? (I’ve never understood why people boast about important ancestors. Why brag about your family’s having come down in the world?)

Some of my family’s skeletons involved religion. When my Catholic great-uncle was discovered to have sired a child by his secretary, his wife and siblings were upset less by the illegitimacy than by the fact that the secretary was a Protestant. In Toowoomba, in those days, a “mixed marriage” meant one between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

My father’s hometown was a hotbed of mutual suspicion and contempt. The Protestant spouse in a mixed marriage came under heavy pressure to surrender the children to the mercies of The Church. My mother refused to knuckle under, which brought her a lot of ill-will from the other side. A visiting bishop referred to her “that woman”, and prayed for the souls of her lost children.

Much of the ill-will was tribal; the local Catholics were all of Irish descent, and the Irish-English chasm was as wide as eight hundred years of British invasions and occupation had made it. In 1981 the RC priest in my ancestral village in Tipperary was indignant. “Ours have always been tolerant parishes”, he said. “Protestants would have helped your ancestors build the parish church we’re sitting in.” I told my mother later, but she looked doubtful.

Here in Cayman, Caymanians have never had much of a problem with mixed-religion unions, whether blessed by a church service or not. There must have been plenty of problems with mixed-race unions, in the aftermath of plantation-slavery, but the public record is silent on the matter. Nothing seems to have been recorded of domestic unions during and after slavery. Surely, it’s high time to break the taboo. What’s the point of hiding old truths in the broom-cupboards with the skeletons? 

During slavery, almost all black-white unions would have involved rape by slave-owners. That’s an uncomfortable fact that we just have to live with. Sex between superiors and inferiors is usually categorised as rape because genuinely free consent can’t be presumed. Today in Cayman it sometimes happens between male employers and their female migrant domestics whose indentures they own. That’s a taboo subject, too.

Homosexual rape has always happened between male guards and inmates in prisons and asylums, and among inmates. It would certainly have occurred between European sailors and African men on the prison-ships crossing the Atlantic. And among the African captives themselves? Very likely. The latter is yet another taboo subject, throughout the Caribbean. But a prison is a prison, after all.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Children without books

[As with so many of my blog-posts, this one is of general application, not just to Cayman.]

Cayman’s government schools are failing most of their pupils. The Education Establishment and the local media concentrate their attention on the minority of academically bright pupils, while ignoring the majority of academically dull ones. High-school graduations are a topic of scorn. (“Academically dull” is NOT the same as “stupid”, by the way.) My February post Protection versus Education explained the origin of this system.

There are various reasons why some children are disadvantaged. Being raised in homes by parents who disrespect the virtues of discipline and learning is one; being distracted by shiftless siblings or companions is another. But most of the blame rests on homes without books.

Homes without books rarely produce children who can read comfortably or write grammatically. Even in this Internet Age, books are an essential base for learning. You can buy a book for ten or twenty cents at a yard sale, leave it behind somewhere, and replace it for the same price at the next yard sale.

Cayman’s charity “op” shops are replete with books. The Humane Society’s are relatively expensive, but the NCVO and Red Cross don’t have many books priced higher than fifty cents. The George Town Library occasionally flogs hard-cover books for 25 cents. I have shelves full of tatty old books on history and geography that I value highly.

A home without books is no proper place for a child, and it reflects poorly on our local rulers in the Civil Service and Legislative Assembly that such homes exist in Cayman. Considering the tens of billions of dollars raised by our government over recent decades, there should be no Caymanian child forced by circumstances to live without books. How could our representatives get their priorities so wrong, in such a tiny community?

While politicians and Civil Servants “earn” their wages and pensions by shuffling papers, our private-sector leaders concern themselves with newspaper photographs of large cheques for college scholarships. Each photo buys an extra Work Permit or two, so it’s a good investment; but there’s no investment of thought and care. Cayman doesn’t need more college graduates, as much as it needs a local labour force that is literate.

Local business organisations fall short of what they should be doing. After all, their members are forced by law to hire semi-illiterate high-school graduates and to educate them on the job. Yet the Chamber of Commerce, Cayman Finance, the Tourism Association and the rest all pursue their agendas without focussing on the prospect of a permanently alienated and illiterate underclass. For half the price of a photo-op scholarship, every bookless child in Cayman could be helped towards a productive future.

Fancy-shmancy schools don’t fix literacy, and aren’t necessary to education at any level. Rather, they are monuments to vanity, and provide no help for academic under-achievers. Before our government’s coffers became awash with money from the tax-haven, the children of the Islands were taught at home by their mothers or casual tutors. That wasn’t such a bad thing.

My brother and I were taught at home on the farm by our mother, until a one-room shack was knocked up by the local men out of slab-timber. The State Education Department 250 miles away provided moral support and a 17-year-old teacher straight from training-college.

The school opened with thirteen pupils, aged from four to eight. The room measured eighteen feet by twelve; it had one door and two window-spaces with board-shutters. No air-con, no fans. Older Caymanians will relate to that – and to the slates and those slate-pencil things that had to be sharpened on the nearest rock. No school dinners, no cold drinks, no flushing toilets, no fans. Did I mention there were no fans? No fans. We dripped sweat onto our books, just like we did at home.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A weekend in Cuba

It took a weekend in Havana a couple of years ago to remind me that my travelling days are over. It wasn’t as much fun as that sort of thing used to be. The last time I had visited a “new” country was 1989, and the country was Grenada, where the natives speak a wonderfully melodic variety of English. In the parts of Havana where we visited, half of the natives spoke even less English than we did Spanish, for goodness sake.

We met a young chap whose father had been born in Jamaica, moved to the Isle of Pines, sired a son in New York, and now lived back in Cuba. He (the son) was one of only two Cubans we met who had ever heard of the Cayman Islands, a hundred miles to the south. The other was a retired maths teacher who was selling off his collection of books and minor heirlooms from a stall in one of the Plazas in the Old City every weekend.

The teacher’s pension was ten US dollars a month plus (I think) free accommodation and rationed utilities. There are no frills to life in Cuba, thanks partly to the power of the civil service (which owns or licences all economic activity) and partly to the American blockade of the past fifty years. Everybody with some service or goods of value to tourists does relatively well; the government makes concessions to them.

We were there in the off-season, but tourists were thronging the streets and squares of the Old City. They were mostly Latinos: our sightseeing bus was packed with a tour-group of Colombians. We heard English spoken by only two couples the whole weekend – one from England, the other from Canada. No English-speaking West Indians at all.

For US$30 a night, we rented a room in a run-down private apartment on the edge of the Old City – now a beautifully renovated tourist trap. Little putt-putts were cheap, and young men on tricycles seemed glad of $3 to pedal us home through the dark streets at night. The town was as safe as houses – somewhat safer, actually, considering the state of the poorer dwellings.

Our room looked down on the roof of a block of flats where four dogs, uncounted chickens and an old man lived all together in a nest of lumber that vaguely resembled a shed. Did he sell the eggs and fatten the dogs for their meat? Who knows? It was a bizarre example of urban poverty – though not unique in our region. I’ve seen a lot worse in Haiti and Jamaica.

Many people, when they think of Cuba, think of the longtime US military occupation of Guantanamo Bay and the torture camp there that gives the Island a bad name. The unelected government of independent Cuba no doubt has its own torture camps, though it does have the grace to be embarrassed about their existence. Cuban nationals in ramshackle boats wash up in Cayman from time to time; but no refugees from the American camp ever do. Independent Cuba may, arguably, be the less oppressive place.

The mainstream US media organs all reflect the fact that the US’s rulers classify the Republic of Cuba as an enemy. In fact, Cuba is a long way from the Big Bad Communist North-Korean Hell that most Americans are ignorant enough to believe it is. (These days, of course, Big Brother is as much of a presence in the US itself as in most of its enemies! As the preacher said, “To every thing there is a season...”)

The people of Havana seem to be a delightfully cheerful bunch, on the whole. The Latino temperament is amazingly resilient. Just about everyone works for the government, and their pleasure in what they do – and the loose discipline – is probably the same as any governments’ employees’ is. In Cayman, too, government provides a regular wage to its Civil Servants, plus the opportunity to make some private money on the side. Havana is a very Caribbean town, as well as a very Latin one.

Less than human (torture)

Communities in the Western World are cracking down on sex-offenders. These days, their names go down in an official Register – for life, sometimes. If convicted of a sex-crime against children, they must not live near a school or (sometimes) even be near a school. The Police must keep track of where they live. In some US states their names and home addresses must be open to public enquiry. Recidivism is rife among sex-offenders, apparently. They just can’t (most of them) hold themselves back from indulging their weaknesses.

I wonder if the same self-indulgence occurs among those who make careers of torture and mutilation. US and NATO drone-pilots, for instance, and prison guards at Guantanamo and other torture-camps – do they suffer withdrawals symptoms when they are back home in civilian life?

Do the pilots miss the thrill of taking close-up videos of body-parts of all ages and sexes being splattered around village streets? I’ve read some pretty gruesome descriptions of such mutilations – both of the original targets and their families and of the rescuers caught by the “double-tap” follow-up rockets.

Do the torturers miss the thrill of physically restraining their victims, and of hearing the cries of pain and anguish? Surely they must. For psychopaths – and we can take it for granted that torturers are psychopaths – the adrenalin rush must be like a powerful drug. Every day, a new fix. Just like for addicted sex-offenders.

What do they all do when their tours of duty end? Some sign on as security contractors to Armies and their corporate sponsors; some join domestic Police Forces (which would explain the growing brutality of those) or become Prison Officers. But most of them just take up ordinary jobs and keep their heads down, like their Japanese and German exemplars did after World War II.

Isn’t it in the public interest to know where they work and live? What a shock it would be, to discover one of them behind you in the supermarket line, muttering with impatience, or sitting at the next table in a restaurant. These are people whose lives have for years been focussed on committing horrific acts of extreme violence against civilians. Their minds are filled with a thousand images of bleeding meat and screaming children – bleeding and screaming that they themselves have been responsible for.

Being psychopaths, they must hunger for fresh images. They can’t look at a stranger – especially an unarmed and helpless one – without assessing the stranger’s capacity for agony. “Hmmm. I don’t have official status any more, but I have a sharp knife and a basement. I wonder if I would feel the same rush as I used to do. Well, there’s only one way to find out...”

Why are people like that allowed to prowl the streets? They are infinitely more dangerous than most sex-offenders.

When a professional torturer greets a friend or acquaintance, he shakes hands with the same hand that he twisted a victim’s throat or gut or balls with, following an eager wait for the doctor to revive a body for another session. (In the armies, all the torturers are professionals; they’re all well paid, with generous pensions and medical benefits.)

A blog-post of mine last April (The war against women) speculated that the only safe perpetrators and witnesses of atrocities were those whose memories keep them awake at nights. Those who sleep soundly are the psychopaths, who aren’t capable of remorse. They are less than human, which is what makes them such excellent mutilators of minds and bodies.

Free Labour vs Slave Labour

Here we are, late in the year 2013, and our local rulers still won’t accept that Cayman’s forty-year experiment with affirmative action and indentured migrant labour has failed. Sigh. How much more evidence do they need? Why are they such slow learners?

Cayman has three thousand registered unemployed men and women – in a community that employs 20,000 migrants, mostly unskilled. Despite all the pressure brought to bear on them by the authorities, private-sector employers continually refuse to hire individuals who can’t be fired for incompetence. Our government does hire incompetents, because one of its major duties is to be the employer of last resort. In fact, our three thousand unemployed are unemployable: even government won’t hire them.

But not all of them are unemployed. Some have unrecorded jobs in illegal occupations such as burglary, drug-dealing, pimping and prostitution. A few make a reasonable living by begging from strangers in the street or outside supermarkets. Some receive free meals, beds and occasional cash allowances from parents or other relatives; in effect, they live off their inheritances. None starve to death, and (to the best of my knowledge) none are actually homeless.

Further fiddling with the Immigration Law and regulations will not help a single one of them. Not one. So before our politicians toss any more xenophobic accusations around like confetti, they ought to stop pretending that permanent protectionism is the answer to the problem.

All intelligent people know that the answer to the problem is to abolish the indentured-labour system that all too often resembles bond-slavery. Only migrant labour is bound by indentures; only Caymanian labour is free to switch employers at whim. And free labour can never compete fairly with slave labour of any kind.

Our public servants are in thrall to Caymanian householders and other employers of unskilled labour. Most government bureaucrats run private businesses at taxpayers’ expense, and benefit mightily from the cheap migrant workers. Immigration Officers are famous for importing foreign slaves-in-all-but-name and selling their services. Again: free Caymanian workers can’t compete.

Unfortunately, there is zero chance that our politicians will acknowledge the truth. So the indentured servitude of the past forty years will be with us for another forty. What a prospect! Somebody once defined insanity as doing the exact same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time. Yet that is what the politicians are doing. Well, they can fiddle with the protectionist legislation till the cows come home: the result will be the same. The insanity looks set to continue forever.

What humbug, to embrace the concept of human rights, while endorsing indentured servitude. If our local politicians – and the FCO clerks to whom they report – were honest in the matter, they would abandon the legal exploitation of migrants, and would accept the full blame for our local unemployment. To be clear: the blame is NOT the private-sector businesses: it is our rulers’ defiance of a basic law of economics. Let’s say it once more: free labour cannot compete with slavery.

Three years ago I posted on this blog an article called Everybody’s Cheating, commenting on how employers got around the law and how governments manipulated it. In February of this year (2013) I posted Protection versus Education, explaining the origin of the current indentures system, when the unskilled Caymanians of forty years ago were set up for exploitation by an alliance of the local elite of the day and the FCO clerks of the day.

They were tricked into giving up an educated future for the mirage of protection from competition by foreigners. Thus, the entitlement culture was born.