Why must it take shame and disgrace?Sunday, April 11, 2021
John Leonard, American literary and cultural critic, famously said: “To be capable of embarrassment is the beginning of moral consciousness. Honour grows from qualms.” More closer home, most of us are familiar with the local expression: “It look like dem shame tree dead.” It has profound cultural and related significance. I think a lack of and/or incapacity to feel shame on a national scale is a great hindrance to social, economic, political, and moral development in a country.
Consider these three state of affairs and how shame at a national level played a critical role in galvanising far-reaching action:
1) 1980 General Election
2) public transportation
3) national debt
Free and fair election
Harken to the 1980 General Election. It was an event that was characterised by grotesque violence. In an insightful article entitled 'The bloody general election that changed Jamaica', H G Helps, editor-at- large for this newspaper, noted these and other blood-soaked details: “The 1980 poll, though, saw 844 people murdered, by police official statistics, a figure that political analysts believe — due to the limitations and challenges in recording criminal activities at the time — was higher.
“Almost 35 per cent of those killed were slaughtered in the constituency of St Andrew West Central, which had the JLP's [Jamaica Labour Party] Ferdinand Yap and the PNP's [People's National Party] Carl “Russian” Thompson as candidates...
“Manley's decision to sever ties with the IMF [International Monetary Fund] in March 1980 led to further hardships, including a struggle to pay public servants; 11,000 of whom, he said, would have to be chopped from the State payroll in order to shore up the $50-million budget for fiscal year 1980/81. This led to a strike by over 300 workers of the Government-run Jamaica Public Service Company that virtually plunged 70 per cent of Jamaica into darkness.
“Blood started to flow swifter than the river Nile as tension rose between JLP and PNP factions.
“The Eventide Home fire, in which 153 old women were burnt to a crisp, occurred May 21. Police said that the building for the old and indigent was torched by men from the St Andrew Southern constituency.
“An incident known as the 'Gold Street Massacre' resulted in five men being killed in the JLP enclave of Gold Street, Southside, in central Kingston, in April, the same month in which the Hannah Town Police Station was attacked by gunmen, with one policeman and a civilian dying in the incident.
“As the political Administration of the day became increasingly jumpy about opposition to its policies, the Jamaica Defence Force detained 24 soldiers and three civilians for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Government. All 27 were later freed.
“Several people were killed on National Heroes' Day, mere days before the election, and there was further bloodshed in the St Elizabeth South Eastern community of Top Hill when JLP and PNP supporters clashed.
“The Denham Town Police Station also came in for fierce attacks from gunmen.” ( Jamaica Observer, October 30, 2012)
The 1980 General Election was the mother of violent elections in Jamaica and the Caribbean. The rotten seeds of this cataclysmic event were not placed in the ground by accident. The were planted some 40 years before they sprang up and almost choked us.
Unfriendly banter, nasty epithets, and vitriol which graduated into stone-throwing and distribution of assorted weapons, inclusive of Molotov cocktails, thereafter involving guns, were the thorns from which political violence germinated.
The sordid 1976 State of Public Emergency and the holding of a general election during one of the most horrendous periods since political independence was a maturing of an invasive plant.
Jamaica went to the edge of the political abyss in the run-up to and during the mentioned events.
A linchpin of our developing democracy, our electoral process was internationally stamped as shaky at best, and crumbling at worse. We were a model of how not to manage a national election apparatus.
By 1978-1979, I think the leaders — for the PNP, Prime Minister Michael Manley, and for the JLP, Edward Seaga — recognised that they were neck-deep in a zero-sum political game. I believe this powerful realisation helped to expedite the formation of the Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC), which was established under the Representation of the People (Interim Electoral Reform) Act enacted in 1979.
International pressure on Jamaica to align her electoral process with global minimum standards also helped to advance local demands for electoral reforms. And, most importantly, there was a weight of national shame at the tumbledown state of our then election process by a critical mass of Jamaicans. They had decided that enough was enough. Their verdict was uncompromising; we had to rid ourselves of a great shame. There is copious evidence of their coordinated lobbying in the archives of The Gleaner.
Manley, Seaga, and other key interests had been pressed in the direction of transformational electoral reforms. These reforms continue to be of great benefit to Jamaica and several other countries which have adopted our model.
Cruelty on wheels
Recall that there was a time in Jamaica when headlines like these were commonplace in the national newspapers: 'Middle passage minibuses', 'School boy kills 'ductor', 'Shotta buses; dangerous rides', 'Preacher rebukes pregnant woman on Coaster bus', 'Four die in Clarendon minibus crash'; 'Sex Coasters the newest fad'.
Public transport was used by some as a conduit to satisfy their deviant sexual obsessions. Perverted males used the opportunity of buses packed like the proverbial sardine tin to 'rub up' on near-powerless females. Commuters, in general, were often preyed upon by pickpockets and louts. In those days, one had great difficulty deciphering who was the legitimate 'ductor. Yes, there was a time when it was de rigueur that you took a bath immediately after taking a ride on public transportation in the Kingston Metropolitan Transport Region (KMTR) and many other parts of Jamaica. Thousands of commuters were forced to endure cruel conditions on a daily basis.
Songs by locals and foreigners decried the awful state of public transportation. I remember the famous Blinkin' Bus with the lines: “So here we are, we nuh got nuh car, cyaan pop nuh style, mi business spoil. Dis kind ah bus, mek Christian cuss when yuh haffi ride pon the blinkin' bus…”
I remember, too, that there was a song titled Two White Girls Pon A Mini Bus by a group called The Word, which chronicled the hazards of travelling into Kingston city via minibus from Ocho Rios.
Songs about the dastardly state of public transportation were released with great regularity. What masqueraded as public transportation was a cause of great shame for Jamaicans. Negative public sentiment gradually morphed into action of various forms, including the deluging of radio talk shows with complaints, scores of columns and letters to newspapers denouncing the then state of public transportation, peaceful demonstrations, and vigorous Opposition support in Parliament.
To former Prime Minister P J Patterson's credit, a seismic shift was made in public transportation in the KMTR in the late 1990s, with the creation of the Jamaica Urban Transit Company Limited (JUTC). All administrations have sensibly improved on the system subsequently.
Before the advent of the JUTC, what existed in the KMTR for public transportation was a disaster. Dr Peter Phillips actually did the heavy lifting which has resulted in a relatively decent public transportation system for the region. Phillips was transport and works minister from 1998 to 2001.
National shame is indeed an important mechanism of positive change and advancement. It solidifies people's resolve, ignites docile consciousness and powerfully awakens our common humanity. The collective national shame of a country resulted in the rejection of disrespect and death, which characterised a transport system which mentally maimed thousands and caused physical injuries — some of which have left permanent scars — on dozens of Jamaicans.
On the edge
Some people, for reasons best known to them, shy away from admitting it, but there was a time when Jamaica was so indebted we did not have the resources to 'flag down even a proper stale bread cart', such was rural folks' description for chronic indebtedness. We were the laughing stock of the Caribbean and were legitimately tagged with the ignominious nomenclature, 'Poor Man of the Caribbean'.
Jamaica was referred to as an economic basket case and a model of underachievement by credible international publications.
To make matters worse, Jamaica received a gut punch from the 2007/8 global economic crisis. This global tectonic shock exacerbated Jamaica's fiscal situation. It became unsustainable. The reality that the economy was on the brink of capsizing, and palpable national shame, however, helped to cause a sea change in how we structured/managed our national economic affairs.
Starting in 2010, the Bruce Golding-led Administration, with Audley Shaw as the finance minister, began decisive actions, including two domestic debt exchanges, to put Jamaica's debt trajectory on a more sustainable path.
The Portia Simpson Miller-led Administration, with Dr Peter Phillips as the man in charge of the national purse, also deserves a tremendous amount of credit for continuing and strengthening the tough economic reforms during 2011-16. I recall Dr Phillips revealing in an interview that he had to put up with a lot of disrespect from individuals and entities in the international negotiating space, who reasoned that Jamaica's economy was unsalvageable. Some, doubtless, will declare, how dare they treat Jamaica with such disdain? Well, the reality is we had placed ourselves in a position for them to 'tek step wid wi' [to be humiliated].
Episodes of national humiliation should not be death sentences or occasions for wallowing in perpetual self-pity. Instead, they should be catalysts for speedy and conscientious corrective actions. We adopted that approach in relation to fixing the national electoral process, public transportation in the KMTR, and economic reform, we need to do so, too, in relation to metastasising crime in our country.
What of crime?
At the time of writing, statistics from the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) showed that 393 Jamaicans had been slaughtered since the start of the year. Our murder rate has remained spectacularly abnormal for just over two decades.
Last Sunday I said, among other things, in my The Agenda piece: “There has to be a new national consciousness that we want a different kind of society, followed by a total overhaul of this society. No, I am not talking about Utopia. Other countries have done it.
“Our leaders in Parliament must lead that process, not with mere words, pseudo science, stale regurgitations, and submission to fads, but seismic legislations. We must demand these, or be satisfied with the rot and the consequences.”
One of my readers asked me: “When might the 'new consciousness' come?”
We will not get to this turning point until a critical mass passes the threshold of national shame and forces action to cauterise this wanton waste of human life.
MAJ makes sense
Last Wednesday the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) appealed to the Government to extend the tight anti-COVID-19 measures until there is a satisfactory decline in the rate of hospitalisation. I think this is a very sensible suggestion.
Last Thursday it was announced that Jamaica recorded 15 COVID-19-related deaths in the previous 24 hours, and 204 new cases. We are approaching 650 COVID-19-related deaths. Media reports say some critical physical resources are in short supply. There are shortages of key staff at hospitals across the country and, of course, it is evident that vaccine shipments are slow in coming.
The Andrew Holness-led Administration is walking a tight rope of choices. I think it makes sense not to add another layer of trauma by cancelling out the gains which health officials say have been realised from these three consecutive weeks of lockdown.
Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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