In 2000, when I became Miss Mastana Bahar, a newspaper reporter asked me about my plans for marriage and children. I responded that I didn’t sit around dreaming about marriage, but wanted children. She also asked me if I’d marry a non-Indian (because that’s one of those national obsessions about Indian women, making us the only group routinely asked blatantly judgy questions about interracial relationships). Thanks to the Editor, Maxie Cuffie, a half-page, bold headline later screamed: “Miss Mastana Shocker. Wants child out of wedlock. Could marry non-Indian”.
Both forming and filling public taste for salacious details about a seemingly “sexually unconventional woman”, Cuffie’s manufacturing of a drama of sexual impropriety reflected his focus on business bottom line, not public interest. In the fifteen years since then, during which neither motherhood nor my marriage have drawn any shock, I’ve watched media headlines shape public sentiment in ways that have less to do with public good than with selling specific stories, and newspapers.
‘Have you had sex with her?’, the headline of Sheila Rampersad’s July 2, 2015 Express column, was more of this strategy. This question was asked of a US politician, but the effect of the headline, combined with the article, was to make the public see the PM’s “personal difficulties” and “awful weakness” as sex-related, thereby steering discussion that since followed into self-righteous gossip masquerading as political commentary.
Rampersad herself asked a valid question: “what are appropriate and ethical ways to investigate, reveal and discuss the Prime Minister’s alleged personal vulnerabilities in so far as they affect the public interest?” Indira Sagewan-Ali responded with a lecture about adultery, which as much as people think is wrong, has no clear connection to good or bad governmental decision-making. Diana Mahabir-Wyatt argued that the state and public have no right in the bedrooms of citizens. In defense of free speech, Kumar Mahabir appears to have jumped in on-line with questions about Rampersad’s own sexuality and alcohol consumption, without addressing her argument. It was inevitable that her question would be seen as applicable to anybody in public life. And, as if this Mad Hatter’s tea party didn’t have enough crazy table talk, Selwyn Ryan returned on Sunday to the formulaic short-cut to scandal, the “sexually unconventional woman”, as a valid subject for analysis in a column on, wait for it, psychopathic/sociopathic disorders and psychiatric disease.
We are focusing on the private lives of leaders more than the outrage that is the collapse of the ethical and institutional power of the state and its officials to reign in all individuals on our behalf. Persona matters in the midst of their failure, and is a sign of our turning the page on our own responsibility as citizens and power as voters as we mine headlines for a savior.
Maintenance of power through mass patron-client relations, which have always combined welfare with corruption, added to the power of financiers over political parties – from Jack to Ish and Steve to Andre Monteil, a man who allegedly comingles money by the millions, to SIS, which has received more than one tenth of our national budget in contracts, added to poor institutional regulation on everything from land development to environmental management is the real bacchanal.
It doesn’t matter who we put in office, they have and will all oversee massive waste and corruption, regardless of the party leaders or other candidates, whether they drink alcohol, smoke weed or have unconventional sex. And it will remain so as long we feed the interest of big business, which owns the media, by not focusing on the story of every missing dollar, then demanding accountability from public decisions and deals. Rihanna’s BBHMM is my taxpayer’s anthem. Not a vote for you unless you get all our money back where it should be.
I care less about Keith or Kamla’s personality than the sickness of misspent billions detailed in every year’s Auditor-General’s report, which no leader takes full responsibility for, which no authority has ever issued a statement on, listing immediate action being taken, and which is the greater private sleaze threatening public order. To this ex-Miss Mastana, that story is the real inter-racial shocker.