ROGER CLARKE is no Marie Antoinette, even though there was an effort to dress him up as one. What I'm saying is that even though this cross-dressing thing is getting out of hand, and even though the make-up artists can fool-up anyone, the Red Poll Bull cannot be easily mistaken for the Habsburg Princess who supposedly said, "Let them eat cake!" when told about the unavailability of bread for the Parisian masses. But when it was initially reported, Clarke's "Let them eat oxtail!" had that out-of-touch feel.
We later learned that Clarke hadn't exactly said that at all. He had merely suggested that there were alternatives to the chicken-chassis. But the story was just too good, and had too much comic and political potential, so it took wing, so to speak. Incidentally, Marie Antoinette never said 'Let them eat cake' either, but that's another story.
I wonder why are we importing chicken back at all? It takes six weeks for a chicken to grow from hatchling to full-sized and harvestable bird. Why don't we rear our own birds? Is that beyond our commercial skill and powers of organisation?
Chicken back is an interesting food. We obviously could provide it for ourselves, but we import it. Despite a facially smaller price, the actual content of protein is probably less than if that same money was spent to buy other meat. So we buy it because we like it, not only because it's cheap.
RICH OR POOR PEOPLE FOOD?
Even more fascinating is that it's not entirely clear whether chicken back is food of the rich or of the poor. We in Jamaica know it as an inexpensive way to add some meat flavour to food, and as a cheap protein. But today it is 'short' in Jamaica because in other parts of the world, new affluence permits them to buy chicken parts that they previously would not have been able to have at all. Chicken back is, to them, a luxury and sign of wealth.
Another thing: chicken back is money. Or more precisely, the government licence to import chicken-back is money. Therefore, transparency in the issuance of those licences is worth having. Why not publish the list of the recipients of those import licences over the last 10 years?
I was cued into this as an issue when in March of last year, Christopher Levy, CEO of the Jamaica Broilers Group said in a letter to Gleaner's Editor:
"I had appealed to Dr Tufton for his understanding and intervention through the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, at a time when the importation of chicken neck and back had skyrocketed by more than 200 per cent - permits for which were granted under his tenure. It is well known on the streets that people who had no previous history of the retailing or wholesaling of chicken were being granted permits."
Though not directly related, this uproar over the chicken back took me back to one of the most disturbing but instructive little books I have on the shelf. It's called Squalid Kingston, 1890-1920: How the Poor Lived, Moved and Had Their Being, and uses the findings of this great newspaper, The Gleaner, to explore the lives of really poor people in Kingston round about the turn of the 20th century.
While it is perennially fashionable and sort of pseudo-revolutionary to say that nothing has changed since slavery/colonial-days/ Independence (take your pick), the slightest inspection of the record says quite the opposite. The nature of the crushing poverty in the Kingston slums is very different now than it was then.
Consider also that by medical advance and the public purse all Jamaicans have access to health-care miracles that would have astonished Queen Victoria. Remember that she lost her husband, Albert, to typhoid. Nowadays you may have to wait in a line to get some antibiotics, but you get them and carry on with life.
Of course, it is not so simple, because men do not ordinarily conduct their self-assessments (and therefore determine contentment) against the lives of their grandparents, but rather against their contemporaries. It is the enduring truth in H.L. Mencken's definition of a wealthy man as one who earns $100 a year more than his wife's sister's husband. Think about it.
Like the uncertain status of chicken back, it turns out that our sense of wealth and poverty is relational and very much affected by what's happening with the 'Joneses'.
Poverty and Schmoverty
'Schmoverty' is defined by the Urban Dictionary as "The delusional thought process that develops when one thinks one is poor because one cannot buy an iPod, Starbucks, or a new Hollister Jeans." In Jamaican terms, it's thinking that one is impoverished because of an inability to afford a smartphone, Clarks, and tight jeans.
While there is a depressingly large amount of poverty to be found, there is also a fair amount of schmoverty in Jamaica, and distinguishing between the two is important for public policy, political philosophy, and personal sanity.
That would include the fashionistas who supposedly cannot afford any contribution to their children's schooling or their own health care. Take the man who, last week, skipped seamlessly from telling me about hanging out at the yacht club with his girl, to then complaining about the cost of books for his high-school daughter. It's not the complaint about the cost that's alarming, it's the bitterness and sense of being set upon by life. Well, if you're chilling at the yacht club, things aren't all bad, and instead of having more children, buy a boat! Children are, after all, the ultimate luxury, and in general people should pay for their own extravagancies.
Then there was that spectacular report about people taking loans to fund extended partying over the Emancipendence period. No doubt some will return home, rum-soaked, and cry poverty. Well, the increased demand for the chicken parts from China, to whom we grow more indebted daily, and which is the true cause of the chicken-back shortage, ought not to surprise us at all.
Daniel Thwaites is a partner of Thwaites Law Firm in Jamaica, and Thwaites, Lundgren & D'Arcy in New York. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.