Columns

Misguided festivities, poorly targeted national honours

Franklin JOHNSTON

Friday, August 15, 2014    

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August is a month of intense jingoism. We celebrated 1962 full of hope and optimism, and 52 years on, knee-deep in IMF swill, we still celebrate full of hope and optimism — Aaah, how things change.

We love a party so Emancipation is knee-jerk; wind-up minstrels who dance at will? We celebrate when we should be sombre; revel but should be reserved. Had our ancestors defeated the Redcoats or forced a truce — fine. We can't rewrite history, but we can create myths that inspire- — our Goliath; Puff our magic dragon or our dragon of St George.

Our Independence was an administrative nicety — no pain. The British tried to dump us; left us in Taino land (Is it Crown land? Will we pay if we dump the Queen?). Our leaders got the power, the titles, gave each other gongs, ribbons across chests and honours. They got the cookie jar, "Your Worship!... kiss me neck, ah Honourable Bigga dat inna robes an medal?" — the fooliness!

Emancipation was no big deal as new values were abroad and the tide was against slavery. The trade died long before. Sugar was no longer a luxury, the world turned — as with ganja now — and our rights were restored by those who had removed them. Do we celebrate changing times or the conversion of our erstwhile masters? Emancipation was a victory for two generations of activists in London. People need to know that Independence was a paper transaction and our leaders chose the British camp. At Independence, Americans turned away from the imperialists. Why didn't Bustamante or Manley? Americans rejected class, titles, coats of arms, and honours. They aver a man is just a man so, "give us your poor..." Marcus Garvey's pith helmet and faux Brittania garb baffle me. Black power tried to align conscious words and conscious couture. We tried bush jackets, but our sartorial vision backslid; we are children of imperialism and classism. The poor will get no OD or OJ, and, like Frank Gordon, no state funeral.

As Jamaicans, we must set examples for the fatherland which still indulge the Empire. So let's create a suite of anti-imperialist, pro-people ceremonies and honours. Haiti beat the colonialist, as did America, but the paradox is that the blacks embraced France's imperial trappings while the whites repudiated Britain's — no hereditary honours, no bow and scraping in the "home of the brave". Where do we stand?

Can we mark Emancipation and Independence with a measured display of spunk and solemnity? Can we stick to the facts and be inspirational? Our historians and weavers of dreams can. The bombast of one Independence speech was sickening – far from truth with its images of war and victory. Ours emerged from a maelstrom of paperwork by a British Parliament pressured by English activists. We shed no blood so we need vision to form our pageantry, heraldry, honours, and uplift. We need a mythology which has our land and sea, our churches; the lives, words and deeds of our heroes at its core, and a touch of African and English exotica to garnish yet not overpower. We can reinvent our ceremonies.

So what can honours to do for us? Solve problems? Confer advantages? Honours must have purpose. The model now rewards time served; but many of our best had no steady job. Let's add innovation to the criteria. To build one's community is normal. Honours must be exceptional and few. Why fete a mason for doing his job? Policemen serve and protect; accountants keep books — that's the job. We incentivise the wrong things, the pedestrian task; and reward the undeserving. Why does a man in a government job who can't be fired, with benefits — ring-fenced even from the IMF — get an award for 40 years service? Why not the intrepid worker who, by ingenuity, did many jobs over 30 years? Why not productive workers in factory and farm? Honours are perverse; self-indulgent, self-serving, incestuous. In the main, the public sector — including politicians — rewards its cronies. Join the civil service and you have a 75 per cent chance of honours; in the JCF, Fire Brigade or JDF you are on fast track. If you choose to farm or manufacture, your path to honours is dark. Is this fair? Does it help the country?

So, why do some get two honours? Is "honoris causa" not a quality mark? How many do you need? A state funeral is a major honour; is it for politicians only? Why can't the JLP and PNP bury their own? A man built a business empire, thousands of jobs, billions in taxes, donated millions, does he get a state funeral? We want transparency — the criteria, the list. Politicians are in a queue to Heroes Park, so include the productive sector. Every report says Jamaica is one of the worst places for police brutality and civil service business facilitation; guess who gets most honours? Government workers were once poorly paid and awards made up the deficit. This is not now the case as, generally, they have a better package with job security. Jobs go like hot bread and many executives are paid as in business. Private jobs have no perqs or security to compare. The mischief honours tried to correct no longer exists.

What should we do? Acknowledge the perversity of the system, agree why we need it, and make it fit for purpose. What do we wish to incentivise? Innovation, conduct, production, export? Who are the doers? Target them. At times no one may meet the criteria — fine! But do not conflate military pomp with awards; so let's have the parades.

Honours must be best in class; world class. Give one per person – a terminal accolade. We depend on business for FX, taxes, food; so give out honours early. Let antiquities experts, designers, choreographers, strike new tokens and bring African exotica in with the English we now have. Let's celebrate our polyglot heritage in gongs, icon, fabric, feature, and ceremony.

Honours is a strategic resource. Entertainment and sport build our brand, and we cherish them but they cannot prosper us. We play reggae, run fast, and accumulate brand value, which our low production volumes cannot leverage. The world knows our brand, want our products, but we don't deliver. We are poor because we do not produce. Our products are cheap and we should have tripled exports last year. Not so! Honours must incentivise innovation, production, values, and build the common weal. We, too, can be prosperous. Properly used, national honours can be a game-changer. We have to make them so.

Our Emancipation was an empty conch. We have to give it gravitas in this generation. Our Independence was a foregone conclusion; a tale told by an idiot "full of sound and fury", and we must now invest it with meaning for generations yet unborn. Our honours are British pastiche, but they incentivised Henry Morgan, Faraday, Newton, Arkwright, Whittle and his jet engine, Berners-Lee, and the www we use daily. It is the duty of this generation to give our honours purpose, to incentivise people to produce and innovate. Cabinet must now act; do the right thing. Stay conscious, my friend.

Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education. franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com

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