The New York Times’ cheap shot

It is not in the nature of newspapers like the New York Times, on those occasions when they must pay a measure of editorial attention to countries like Guyana, long arbitrarily grouped as ‘banana republics,’ to fail to litter their offerings with ill-informed and open ridicule, sparing no feelings. It is their way of continually re-marking an ingrained line between “First World and “Third World” countries, between development and decadence.  It is a behavioural ‘culture’ that is driven by a logic of its own and one which we on this side of the divide have always struggled to come to terms with.

 Nothing, in truth, has really changed since the decades of the 1970’s and 1980’s when the demeaning characterization of countries like Guyana proceeded under a wholly fraudulent justification ‘sold’ to us and to the rest of the world as ‘the reality,’ embodied in the right of the so-called First World to proffer their view as gospel. We, one might add, have, by and large accepted that view (or at least never robustly challenged it) without too much fuss.

Clifford Krauss’ New York Times’ July 20th article is the latest bearer of the tiding that contrary to what some of us might have thought, those days are far from passed and gone. What Krauss’ piece (The $20 billion Question For Guyana) does is remind us that the ‘old order’ persists and that much of what constitutes media freedom from a western perspective, that is, really hasn’t changed during all those intervening years. But then we must bear in mind that ‘doctrines’ fashioned in the womb of deep-seated prejudice don’t simply roll over and die. Krauss, it seems, is a disciple of that enduring doctrine.

 Sometimes you get to wondering whether the familiar, far-fetched clichés routinely pressed into service by sections of the western media to characterize countries like Guyana are not stored in pre-packaged journalistic formulae in the archives of newspapers like the New York Times and periodically trotted out in pursuit of one end or another. You wonder whether, his lap top apart, Mr. Krauss would not have packed as well a generous handful of those demeaning clichés amongst his notes so that they could eventually be conveniently interwoven into whatever substantive story he may have been assigned to write.

Why else would he – in pursuit of a story that supposedly has to do with the likely fortunes of an oil-rich Guyana- lay down, at the very beginning of his piece the image of much of Guyana as “a vast, watery wilderness with only three paved highways,” the rest of the country comprising mostly “a few dirt roads between villages that sit on stilts along rivers snaking through the rain forest” and where “children in remote areas go to school in dugout canoes and play naked in the muggy heat.” Krauss persists: “Hugging the coast are musty clapboard towns like Georgetown, the capital, which seems forgotten by time, honeycombed with canals first built by Dutch settlers and African slaves. The power grid is so unreliable that blackouts are a regular plague in the cities, while in much of the countryside there is no electricity at all. Such is the unlikely setting for the world’s next big oil boom.” For all its challenges and its shortcomings this, surely, is not the Guyana that those of us who live here know.

 That is the perception of Guyana that Krauss brought here in his prejudiced perceptions and which both he and the New York Times know only too well are perceptions that could become embedded in the mindsets of potential investors and which could trigger other unfortunate realities. They know but yet they persist in what, truth be told, is a mix of character assassination and economic sabotage of countries like Guyana, in the process, parading in our faces their right to what they loosely describe as media freedom.

Nor does one have to delve too deeply into the psyche that created Krauss’ piece to unearth a none too subtle undertone to the effect that, put before countries like Guyana, the opportunity of an impending oil bonanza is really like casting pearls before swine. There is no logic that should spare Krauss and the New York Times the opprobrium that ought to derive from such a cruel and demeaning characterization directed at a country that has been poor and seeking an escape route from poverty for all of its existence.

 By the same token, those of our political leaders who either allow what Krauss has had to say to pass (at least up until now) without so much as a meaningful murmur or worse, those who seem to think that a qualified criticism of Krauss’ cant fits in snugly with their particular partisan political postures are pathetically misguided. How, as a nation, we respond to these misrepresentations of who and what we are as well are also viewed by potential investors as yardsticks for measuring the extent of the case that we make for their attentions. All these are considerations that we must factor into how we treat with Mr. Krauss and the New York Times.  

 No one should expect, of course, that with 2020 fast approaching, Guyana will be spared the critical scrutiny of the international community insofar as its readiness or otherwise for managing a multi-billion-dollar natural resource asset is concerned. That, however, is not what Krauss’ piece is about. His ‘oil story,’ sits at the periphery of a tissue of ridicule and lies, his mission being (or at least so it seems) to make the point to readers of the New York Times that the promise of oil wealth sits uneasily in the lap of a country that lies, more or less, on the periphery of civilization as we know it. Guyana, as Krauss sees it, is nothing more than a country of predominantly “musty clapboard towns” ill-equipped to handle the $20 billion challenge that lies ahead and therefore altogether undeserving of having been saddled with such a demanding challenge. There should be neither compromise nor qualification is us telling both Mr. Krauss and the New York Times that their characterization of Guyana is not only factually untrue but, as well, an unpardonable outrage, a ‘cheap shot’ that does not sit well with us. It is the least, perhaps, frankly, the most that we can do.

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