Reflecting on a dying year and looking towards a new one

Keeble McFarlane

Saturday, December 29, 2012

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AS we pause on the threshold of a new year, let us take the customary look back at the year that is about to end, in its jumbled admixture of madness and rationality, malevolence and goodness; stupidity and rationality; abysmal ignorance and pinnacles of understanding together with those unforeseen happenings which, in their totality, enrich our existence.

It was for many a time of reflection on the half-century of this island as an independent entity. When we switched from the Union Jack to our own national symbol that August of 1962, most of us had very little idea where the journey would take us, both individually and as a communal whole. As it turned out, this has been a hill-and-gully ride of the sort no one could have anticipated.

On the positive side, we have experienced the development of a rich culture, with important contributions to the world in music, literature and the performing arts. Our athletes have raced themselves into record books as well as the consciousness of the world, and in the process have acquired a state of personal well-being beyond their wildest imaginings. Some of our political figures have had an impact on the outside world far beyond the importance of this small nation, and the political system, while far from perfect, has managed to remain fully democratic with regular and fully accepted changes of government.

But we cannot overlook the negatives, mainly the self-destructive love affair with casual violence and the gun culture. Every day, the gun claims a new helping in a seemingly never-ending quest to slake its unrelenting hunger for flesh and thirst for blood. While many other former colonies which began in approximately our condition now far surpass us in economic and social development, we continue to wallow in backwardness and thwarted development. Our infrastructure remains sub-standard for the most part as we find ourselves deeper and deeper in hock to the soulless international lending agencies with their draconian demands inimical to the welfare of the country's less well-off citizens.

During the past year we have seen just how capricious and destructive nature can be.

A hurricane which began in an unusual place -- between Jamaica and Colombia -- whooshed across this island as well as Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas before sweeping up the east coast of the United States to join forces with another storm and lay waste to stretches of the northeastern US. Parts of eastern Australia suffered unusual floods after continuing torrential rains inundated vast tracts of territory. Late in the year, Typhoon Bopha , known as "Pablo" in the Philippines, caused considerable damage in the island of Mindanao and killed almost 1100 people, with more than 800 still missing.

In Pakistan and Bangladesh, fires at garment factories whose products feed big-name stores in North America and Europe claimed several hundred lives and injured hundreds more. These factories are the modern incarnation of Dickensian sweat shops, with minimal regard for health and safety standards which are mandatory in the developed countries. A fire at a prison in Honduras in February killed 360 prisoners held under some of the most primitive conditions.

Turmoil continued in Egypt after the dramatic upheavals in Tahrir Square and elsewhere last year dethroned the long-time dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and resulted in the election of a member of the Islamic Brotherhood as president. The new president, Mohamed Morsi, soon found himself at the centre of a controversy over constitutional amendments which his opponents say will usher in an Islamic state and crush the rights of religious and cultural minorities.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Israel and the Palestinians continued their hostilities, drawing in the new Egyptian regime and the US to strong-arm Israel and Hamas into suspending their hostilities. Israel's obdurate Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, interjected himself into the US presidential election by siding with the politically tone-deaf loser, Mitt Romney, but seems on track to be re-elected firmly in the new year. The US and its allies in Europe continued with their campaign against Iran, which is working on what it says is a nuclear energy programme. The west doubts that, claiming that Iran wants to make nuclear weapons. Nowhere is the paranoia more pronounced than in Israel, where opinion is divided on whether to use military power to nip Iran's programme in the bud. Netanyahu even went to the UN General Assembly with simplistic charts to support his arguments that Iran is well on its way to making the bomb.

The bloodbath in Syria continues as President Bashir Al-Assad holds fast in the face of growing opposition to his regime. The conflict has been going on for 21 months and has claimed some 44,000 lives. Assad is losing more and more support, with the latest high-level defector being his military police chief, who has fled to neighbouring Turkey and who claims many other senior officers side with him and will escape when they can. International efforts to try to stop the bloodshed crash and burn with alarming regularity.

Burma continues to behave more and more like a normal country, and Barack Obama, fresh from his re-election as President of the US, visited the once-isolated country to bolster the fledgling forces of democracy. And in Africa, the presidents of Mali and Guinea-Bissau have been deposed in military coups. Unrest continues elsewhere, particularly in the democratic Republic of Congo, where lawlessness continues to claim hundreds of lives in vast stretches where rival militia groups operate freely while the government in Kinshasa looks on helplessly.

Science moved forward, with China sending three astronauts — one of them a woman — on a mission to dock with an orbiting module. This puts them in a very limited league — only the US and Russia have successfully performed this kind of mission. In France and Switzerland, scientists at the big research facility known as CERN conducted experiments at the Large Hadron Collider and announced the discovery of a new sub-atomic particle with properties resembling the theoretical Higgs Boson.

And in a rueful sign of the times, after 244 years of publication, the Encyclopaedia Britannica discontinued its print edition. Now, would-be scholars won't have to wrestle a huge book from the library shelf to look up the Higgs Boson. Instead, they can go on line — but for a fee.

On a personal note — it's just a little over 10 years since I started writing for this newspaper. At the rate of one column a week, that amounts to well over 500 items. It's been quite a ride, as my editors give me complete latitude in choosing what to discuss. The only limitation is space, and while the remuneration is modest, I consider it a privilege to be afforded this little soapbox to get things off my chest, and the discipline of having to conjure up a new piece each week is good for the old grey matter. I hope to be here for as long as the Jamaica Observer will have me and as long as I can do what I enjoy doing.

Have a wonderful celebration!




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