If you work in and around official Washington, it helps to remember where you came from. Not so much as an ego check but because the fundamental rationale for so much of the work that goes on here is based on the idea of improving the lives of people elsewhere. This, after all, is the global headquarters of government of, by, and for the people.
Too often, those people and those lives get lost in the heat of the moment, especially the supernova kind of heat sometimes generated by Washington’s ideological wars. To give context and perspective to the work, it helps to remember that Social Security is not just an entitlement-reform issue but also the only income some people get every month, or that the drawdown in Afghanistan means fewer wakes in VFW halls and church basements across the country. Regular reminders of the world beyond and some recall of your place in it are not bad touchstones.
For me, dipping into that memory bank is a little bit of a marvel: I grew up in Trinidad, a tiny blob of land in the southern Caribbean with a cultural ethos so different from official Washington that it’s like, well, a different country. I come from a bacchanal people; we specialize in fun and take seriously the business of not taking yourself seriously. This is the polar opposite of the Washington where I work. I like to think I have a less contrived view of the world, in part because of my upbringing.
But a couple of jarring stories related to Trinidad have recently shattered the conceit that I come from a simpler, more genuine place.
First, V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate in literature, who was also born in Trinidad, ran his mouth about the inferiority of female writers. Essentially, his point was that they were inferior as an entire gender when compared with him personally. He singled out Jane Austen as one example. “I read a piece of writing, and within a paragraph or two, I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me,” Naipaul said in an interview with The Guardian. Women’s problem? Sentimentality and a narrow view of the world, in his words. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” Naipaul is 78, but his is not some generational blind spot. He is just an ass.
No matter how remote my connection with Naipaul, it has become harder because I’m in the thrall of the work he has produced, because somewhere deep inside I want to be like Naipaul the writer. And I know that part of that ambition is built on the flimsy coincidence that we were born in the same place. The fact is, there is almost no one alive, male or female, who writes better or with more persuasive power than Naipaul. There is a certain sinewed truth that he is able to marshal in single prose sentences that does not exist elsewhere in the English language. I have a friend who went to the same high school as Naipaul and whose advice about the Nobelist is to read what he writes and not listen to what he says.
Then, to further undermine the idea of my simple past, The New York Times earlier this week published a 2,400-word story on Jack Warner, the former vice president of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, detailing his history of suspect management practices. The story was datelined Port of Spain and went on to chronicle the accusations against Warner, ranging from bribery to low-grade extortion, that forced him to resign his post.
Noting that most of the criminal-level allegations remain unproven, the story describes Warner as “disgraced” and “polarizing.” It recounts the claim that he attempted to buy votes for an ally in the election for FIFA president. Opponents also accuse him of acquiring jewelry for his wife and government contracts for his children. “His critics have long contended that Warner epitomized FIFA’s lack of accountability and transparency, reflected its outsized sense of entitlement, used soccer to enrich himself and his family, and retaliated against those who opposed him,” The Times reported.
Warner is also a member of the Trinidad Parliament. He represents a constituency called Chaguanas West, where he is hugely popular and known for solving the problems of ordinary people. Coincidentally, Naipaul was born in Chaguanas, a little town on the edge of a swamp that I remember as full of mangroves and blue crabs. Nothing about Chaguanas suggests prominence on the world stage—except, of course, Naipaul and Warner.
Naipaul opens his 1989 novel, A Bend in the River, this way: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” To my mind, there may be no truer, more inspirational sentence ever written, and that it was written by someone who walked the same streets that I walked as a kid inspires a certain pride. Both Naipaul and Warner made places for themselves in the world, but they have taken a toll on my belief that I come from some simpler, saner place than the Washington I live in now.
This article appears in the June 25, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.