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Diane Phillips: We Cherish Excellence Yet Tolerate So Much That Falls Short

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Diane Phillips

By Diane Phillips

Like thousands in The Bahamas, we have been glued to the TV since the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang started on February 9. And like others who we assume are equally glued, we asked ourselves why are we so fascinated by sports like downhill skiing and ice dancing that are about as akin to life in The Bahamas as radiators and car seat warmers? The answer was not difficult to come by. We are fascinated, enthralled and entranced by the continuous display of excellence. We may not be able to ski or power through 980s off a steep ramp that would terrify us if we just had to walk it, but we appreciate excellence and the discipline and determination it takes to get there.

So if we are such great appreciators of excellence, why do we tolerate such slackness in our behaviour, in how we treat each other and our surroundings? If we are dazzled by greatness, why do we as a culture or society fall short in how we view ourselves and our community?

How did we get so disengaged? Dr David Allen, one of the great thinkers of The Bahamas, believes that a portion of the population has been so traumatised that we suffer social fragmentation both in an emotional and cognitive sense. He traces the beginning of the social disconnect to the epidemic of crack cocaine addiction. When you speak with him and realise the extent of gang warfare and violence and the mental fragility of a whole segment of society that feels disconnected, you begin to see how fragile the social fabric is.

It helps to explain a portion of why the island of New Providence looks the way it does and particularly in high density areas of the inner city where abandoned vehicles are accepted as a not unexpected component of the general landscape, as much a part of street life as moving vehicles.

Pericles Maillis, when he was president of the Bahamas National Trust, once said: “Bahamians have an incredible tolerance for chronic ugliness”. Tolerance may be an admirable trait in many cases, but tolerating ugliness created by ourselves is a different story.

When does our patience wear thin with those among us who litter, who think throwing fast food containers out of a car window is an acceptable form of disposal?

When do we say enough is enough when the thoughtless, self-absorbed neighbour tosses used mattresses, refrigerators and worn sofas outside?

When do we as a society say your building with its roof caved in or its second storey balcony falling or its broken windows in full view is a blight on our historic town?

When do we take our own surroundings as seriously as we take a foreign nation’s medal score at the Olympics?

If you think it is a stretch to link the Winter Olympics and the paucity of respect for our surroundings, you can blame the strange comparison on my early dementia or you can look at it the way I see it. There must be a very good reason why we admire excellence in others yet do not demand it of ourselves.

So to explore that if you take the implications of what both Dr Allen and Pericles Maillis said about the causes and the effect of why and how we tolerate what we should never accept, I would add a third component.

We have a tax system that rewards ugliness.

I am sure it did not start out to do that, but real property tax rewards those who ignore their properties because the lower the value, the less tax the property owner pays and if the property is in really bad condition there may be almost no tax at all.

So we are forgiving those who present us with appalling ugliness due to lack of attention, care and upkeep. The result is a situation, for instance, where a building with majestic lines has fallen into total disrepair, most recently its roof caving in. Unfortunately, or otherwise, the building is in a very public space, directly across from Government House. And we do not mean to pick on just that one. There are dozens and dozens across the island of New Providence. There are several, members of what was once called Nassau’s Dirty Dozen, where paint is peeling, doors are missing, windows are broken and weeds are weaving their way in and out, growing through floors and cracks. These once proud structures were a part of the architectural treasure trove of The Bahamas. Today they are but sites where glory days of old are distant memories increasingly fading into oblivion.

There is a cure and that is the good news. It is as simple as instituting penalties and fines for purposeful neglect, wanton placement of unpermitted signage or illegal dumping. We can remove abandoned vehicles as the present government already has, reportedly moving more than 2,000 in recent months. But if we do not change the culture and if we do not change the way property is assessed, we will repeat this cry for better treatment of our surroundings endlessly.

Before we flip back to the TV and the next sport coming down the pipe as another Olympics draws closer to completion, it’s worth looking at a medal count and understanding what foundation underpins those who win.

Look at the stats. Of the 2,952 athletes from 92 countries competing in 102 events in 15 categories of sport and athleticism, Norway with 109 athletes is strongly out in front as of this writing. Guess what else Norway is? Near the top of the list in just about everything that makes a place desirable – health care, security, human rights, and oh yes, cleanliness. Pretty impressive.

Clean matters whether it is a clean sweep at the Olympics or how we sweep our streets in a community that makes us proud to be Bahamian.

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