Of titles, honours and real heroesWednesday, October 20, 2021
Last Monday a grateful nation observed National Heroes' Day when we paid tribute to the life and worth of seven from among us who made significant contributions to the development of our country.
This year's observation was done under the theme 'Saluting Our Heroes…Safeguarding Our Legacy'. The cynic in me wondered: What legacy are we safeguarding?
We are yet to come to terms with some of the persistent legacies of our colonial past, such as bowing to The Queen as our constitutional monarch. We have failed to carry out any meaningful reform of the constitution, which still embodies the Westminster system from which we were purportedly liberated in 1962. The only persistent legacy of note since the British handed us our freedom has been rampant criminality and persistent poverty and corruption.
So, what are we really safeguarding?
Nevertheless, like other human beings, we are a people given to heaping honour and accolades on those who we believe have done exceptionally well. Our athletes, musicians, scientists, and politicians are so highlighted. There is nothing wrong with this, although serious doubt can sometimes be cast on the worthiness of personalities so honoured.
We are also a people obsessed with titles. A Member of Parliament is dubbed “honourable”. Never mind that some of them — in thought, word, and deed — have never truly qualified for that title to be placed before their names. Nevertheless, the title endures, even when some of those who hold them behave dishonourably or descend into the abyss of corruption. And, when titles are assigned, they are held onto tenaciously, if not arrogantly. People of lesser rank and status are often reminded of the status of the title holder.
The Jamaican prime minister, the primus inter pares, cannot be satisfied with the simple title of honourable. In reviewing titles assigned to prime ministers, the P J Patterson Administration came up with the “most honourable”. This was clearly intended to set the prime minister way above the rest. It was to invest in him or her a veneer of authority to which ordinary Jamaicans could never aspire. It was afforded only to the members of a ruling elite — past, present or in the future — and guaranteed by ascending to the position of president of the political party of which he or she is a member.
It is the last relic of our colonial past — the office of the governor general — that I find most offensive. This is not to criticise any holder of that office, all of whom have served honourably in executing the demands of that office. But, in 2021, as the representative of the titular head of State, the Queen of England, I find it offensive that no law in Jamaica made by the people's representatives in Parliament can become effective unless it is signed by the Queen's representative. Furthermore, the Privy Council, based in the motherland, still retains veto power over any adjudication arising in any court in Jamaica that ends up before it for a final word.
We talk about freedom and lionise Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley as heroes for having “struggled” for our Independence, but we have no sovereignty over our appellate jurisdiction. Is that a legacy worth preserving or safeguarding?
Have you ever noticed that the governor general has more titles to his name than a zipper has teeth? I used to be amused when Florizel Glasspole — bless his soul — as governor general, would often read out, no doubt proudly, the foreign insignia and titles assigned to him by his British masters. He had a stentorian voice and you had no doubt that he was enjoying the office.
How comfortable should the present governor general feel when he puts on his official regalia and parades titles that he knows no longer bear any resemblance to the present aspirations of the Jamaican people? He must feel as bitter as gall to be the titular representation of a past that should have long been buried. He is a victim of that past. But, though he claims to love his country, he is reinforcing a psychology of enslavement that prevents Jamaica from reaping the prosperity it truly deserves.
However, these are not things that seem to preoccupy the mind of a governor general. The pomp and ceremony of the office places him way above his fellow Jamaicans. He is waited on — they have to wait, often in long lines to get anything done. Like Dives, he dines sumptuously at their expense, while too many of them, like Lazarus, have to be content with the crumbs that fall from the master's tables. Pity the poor, hungry Jamaican who dares to stone a ripe mango at the residence of the governor general!
It is in the Church that I find the love of titles most appalling. For an institution which names Jesus Christ as its Lord — a person, who when he walked on the Earth, shunned titles, and to whom personal honour and prestige were anathema — it is shameful the plethora of titles that the Church assigns to those who rise in the ranks.
As a priest, I have never been able to accept the demarcation that is established between the lowly priest who works with the faithful in the congregation and the psychology of power that dominates that person's mind when he ascends to high offices in the Church, such as bishop, archbishop, Monsignor, or pope. Once the mitre goes on the head something supernatural seems to happen to the brain cells. Suddenly that person is no longer an ordinary human being, but a demi-god who forgets the stone from which he or she was hewn and the ground from which he or she was dug.
Of course, not all behave this way. Though prisoners of the office they occupy, they do their best to carry out the twin demands of the gospel, that is, loving their neighbours and, by example, seeking to make disciples of others. But they, too, are victims of an institutionalised Church, whose long history is characterised by an interplay of ecclesiastical and hierarchical power.
In this sense they are no different from the Masonic Lodge, another place that glorifies titles of all descriptions. I don't want to be harsh, but they, like the politicians, have no appetite to reform the system. To place emphasis where it truly belongs — the propagation of the gospel of Christ — is to detract from the enjoyment of the appurtenances of power and glory which the office guarantees.
So let me say a word for the true heroes and heroines to be celebrated. They are the insignificant and forgotten ones who do more to build the society than many who are lionised.
Yes, I will celebrate the nurses and doctors and other members of the medical profession and hospital teams, such as the forgotten porters, who have faced the worst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Against great unknowns and great danger, they have persevered to keep the nation. There will be no streets named after them, but their worth to the society is incalculable.
I salute the teachers who have had to engineer innovative methods to help their students at a time when they could not interface in the classrooms. I salute the struggling single parent who fights hard each day to put food on the table and to encourage their children to a better path.
I salute the inner-city kid who, against humiliating ridicule and offensive stereotyping, makes it to university and becomes a useful member of society. He shunned the gun when it was given to him as a an alternative. He did not fail those who reposed trust in him.
These and many others are the real heroes and heroines that ought to be celebrated. They may not get the accolades of society or have monuments constructed in their names, but they are the bedrock on which a progressive, healthy, and prosperous society is built.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life's Storm and Your Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.