By Tony Deyal
In Florida, it is illegal for a married woman to go skydiving on a Sunday. Breaking the law can result in fines, arrest and jail time. In British Colombia, it is illegal to kill Bigfoot.
Feather mattresses are banned in Argentina because “such an indulgence induces and encourages lascivious feelings.” Anyone causing a nuclear explosion in Germany faces five years in jail. These are all laws that would have caused British Judge, Lord Griffiths, to repeat what he said in the 1992 case of R. v. Kearley, “I believe that most laymen…would reply, ‘The law is an ass’.”
This comment comparing the law with a perissodactyl mammal of the genus Equidae was first made famous by the British author, Charles Dickens in the novel Oliver Twist when one of his characters, with the extremely appropriate name of “Bumble”, stated, “If the law supposed that, the law is an ass, an idiot.”
Some people have gone beyond that comparison. One writer has said the law is an “ass-pirin”, not so much a pain-killer but an “anal-gesic” with posterior motives. In many Caribbean countries, the law is an “ass-ociation” with the power of regulating its own trade and members, while ignoring that it is perceived by some citizens as a cabal and social club, protecting and shielding its flock from an incensed clientele, an increasing number of whom are complaining about misconduct, including fraudulent practices by attorneys.
For these people, the law is an “ass-essory” both before and after the fact. There are those who see the law as an “ass-et” providing its practitioners with succour and suckers at the same time. But for me and countless others it is truly an ASS or “Anachronistic, Stupid Shibboleths” in the sense of a “shibboleth” being a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.
If this is not true, then why is it illegal for a married woman to go skydiving in Florida on a Sunday? Or why, because a few vandals left gum in the trains, Singapore banned all gum substances in 1992? There are others. You may not own more than 110 pounds of potatoes at one time in Western Australia. Scotsmen must not wear anything under their kilts or be fined two beers. In Portugal, you cannot urinate in the ocean despite the difficulty of identifying a culprit. Even if their underwear is too tight, men caught publicly adjusting their frontal fit in Milan, Italy can be fined. If a policeman confronts you and you frown in public, that is also an offense.
If you are between 40 and 74 years old, a citizen of Japan, and your waist-size is over 33.5 inches for men and 35 inches for women, you will be deemed “Metabo” or overweight. The law demands an annual measurement of people within that age group and the health insurers of all companies including government organisations must provide weight loss classes to employees or be fined if they do not meet specific targets. Those who do not lose weight are ostracised.
In Britain, the country whose laws we in the Caribbean are still upholding, even when some of these laws have been changed in the “mother” country, there is a law that bans people from dying in parliament. I am not sure if that law is still on the books in Trinidad since in my days working for the prime minister’s office, subsequently writing a report on the proceedings, and even now when I accidentally take in the parliament channel, I understand how easily this can happen.
However, the members are so full of themselves and their mouthfuls of rhetoric that I doubt, even if this did occur in any of the Parliaments of the region, that anyone would notice. In the Philippines, all of our Parliamentarians would be fined every time they speak. In paragraph two of Article 287 of that country’s Revised Penal Code, “unjust vexation”, described as any behaviour or language that “could unjustifiably annoy or vex an innocent person” is punishable by arrest and a fine up to 200 pesos.
Fortunately, in most of the Caribbean countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, the closure of the railways may account for why so many of us, especially our young people with their too public displays of affection, are definitely not well trained. However, things in Britain are so bad that it is illegal to kiss at railway stations and there are even “no kissing” signs because the government believes that long embraces can cause delays for commuters. I can also understand the British law about not having sex on church steps in Birmingham, England, but adding “after the sun goes down” is what Shakespeare described in Hamlet as “a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
In Trinidad and Tobago, another consummation, also devoutly wished, took place earlier this week (Monday, January 13, 2020) in that country’s Hall of Justice. According to news reports, High Court judge, Frank Seepersad, ruled that two sections of the Sedition Act of the country infringe upon several rights of its citizens including the right to enjoy the freedom of thought and expression, join political parties and express political views, as well as the freedom of the press. His view is that Sections 3 and 4 of the Sedition Act were inconsistent and at odds with Section 1 of the country’s Republican Constitution which guarantees that Trinidad and Tobago is a sovereign, democratic State and these provisions impose disproportionate and unjustified restrictions on free speech, expression and thought.
Even though the Act has long been criticised by many, including calypsonians, as a colonial inheritance that is inconsistent with the country’s constitution, in December 2018, lawyer and government spokesman Stuart Young claimed that calls by an activist for protest action against the government was “worthy of criminal investigation and may qualify as the serious crime of sedition”. Young, on August 30, 2019, announced that the Sedition Act would not be updated while also revealing that the head of the country’s Public Service Association and political opponent of the ruling party, Watson Duke, would be charged with sedition.
Given the public response to Young, the attorney-general (who is mocked for his seemingly never-ending losing streak with prosecution and appeals) and others, it is not unlikely that Trinidad and Tobago may soon pass a new law based on one in Zimbabwe which makes it a crime to swear or gesture rudely at any motorcade of the head of government or any of his ministers.
*Tony Deyal was last seen warning Trinis of both sexes that the Sedition Act is like the one which makes it illegal to wear lacy underwear in Russia, or being allowed to beat your wife in Huntington, West Virginia, provided that you do it in public on a Sunday.