Masterstrokes and omnipotence

Chief Secretary Farley Augustine. File photo/Jeff K Mayers
Chief Secretary Farley Augustine. File photo/Jeff K Mayers

The news in general in the last week has been very worrisome: dismal forecasts for the global economy, the state of health of people living everywhere being further endangered as the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads unstoppably; the standoff between Russia and the West over the future of Ukraine; the unravelling of Afghanistan and its decline into near-failed-state status; the destruction of US democracy that is being actively pursued by Republicans; China’s increasingly bellicose behaviour; the unrelenting and violent grabbing of Palestinian homes by Jewish settlers in the occupied territories; near-civil war in Sudan; landslides and flooding and all manner of environmental nightmares, tigers and endangered species being sold on Facebook.

The list is unending but in the midst of it all some good sense from none other than Tobago Chief Secretary Farley Augustine. It was a simple but not insignificant bit of news with the power to cheer one up and restore balance to the madness of our present times. A tiny ray of light that raises the human spirit.

It followed the encouraging recent occurrence of his fledgling party's ousting the powerful PNM by tapping into the hearts of the people in Tobago and ousting the powerful and out-of-touch PNM, which had everything so tied up that its representatives needed never to listen any more to the electorate to whom they owed their power. The PNM could not even locate the beating heart of the people.

Now, the Chief Secretary simply announced the abandonment of the outdated and unreasonable rules governing how citizens dress while interacting with suffocating state officialdom in Tobago.

The overbearing, moribund state apparatus trundles on, however, in Trinidad.

A woman being made to cover her arms and all bits of her feet while in a government building is ludicrous. It is an opportunity for the army of sour-faced, fed up gatekeepers to follow their masters in a ritual abuse of power.


I was once told by such a person that she could stop me from entering a building because the style of my shoe had a one-inch gap at the toe. She may have realised the nonsense of it and did allow me access, but she probably felt better by showing her potential power to thwart me.

I had already learned that slingback ladies' shoes are also against the rules, as ridiculous as that might seem. I once witnessed another such person, working in the Immigration Department of the Ministry of National Security, attempt to disallow a well-dressed woman whose elegant dress had insufficiently capped sleeves to enter for all of five minutes to collect a passport. I loaned the frantic victim my shawl and I waited outside.

The depressing aspect of such conventions is that we do not know why we indulge them, but we should not. They are relics of the control mechanisms used on the poor and unworthy members of society whose very presence was offensive to the ruling classes. They were ways of demeaning people and excluding them.

Looking “decent” is de rigueur, but what that looks like now has changed. Modern hems above knees, outdoor slippers and low-cut tops are very modest bits of apparel when you consider the norms of contemporary Carnival costuming, for example. Yet the idea of what constitutes “decent” remains unaltered.

Uniforms are a good idea as social levellers, but I still ponder the male dress code in tropical climes. In temperate climates, men use summer-weight suits in light colours that are appropriate for the time of year when temperatures match ours. Yet Caribbean men wear dark suits, not always in lightweight fabrics, year-round, and even three-piece suits.

That may be fine for the arctic air-conditioning in government and corporate offices but I do not know how men do not expire once outside. It cannot be healthy.

I wish Mr Augustine, who is very smartly dressed, though no fashion statement, as is his party leader Watson Duke, had gone further and allowed for shirtjacs or some such appropriate fashion wear to be an acceptable form of official male attire. The amount of electricity saved would be worth the simple change.

Furthermore, those simple but huge gestures empower citizens and make us feel free in the midst of the physical and mental incarceration we presently endure.

Maybe the Chief Secretary was just getting on with his agenda but his quiet masterstroke was in contrast with the shame the UK Prime Minister subjected himself to last week. The importance of leaders being in tune with the public was lost on Boris Johnson. We had the spectacle of him half-squirming in Parliament explaining how he and his staff partook in illegal lockdown parties at his offices when the public was made to follow strict rules.

He was joined in disgrace by Novak Djokovic. the world’s leading tennis player, showing himself also sufficiently omnipotent to break pandemic rules that endanger others. The idea of people learning the hard way is immediately appealing.


"Masterstrokes and omnipotence"

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