There are some narrow-minded people in this country who, in their unbridled zeal to promote and defend partisan political agendas, are quick to denounce as unpatriotic prophet of doom and gloom anyone who utters the slightest criticism of their party or favourite politician, especially if the latter is in Government.
It doesn’t matter how valid the criticism may be or if it offers a valuable lesson which could lead to some improvement of one kind or another in the general condition of Barbadians. Criticism, even if it relates to an aspect of public policy, tends to be taken personally as an unwarranted attack that merits a robust response.
Although politicians sometimes engage in this mean practice, the main culprits are often misguided rank and file supporters for whom their favourite politician, well-meaning party, or hardworking Government can do no wrong. To them, everything is always fine, and criticism is nothing but a shameful expression of ingratitude.
Criticism, whether of a politician, party or Government, can be wholesome. While every person in public life generally acts with the best of intentions, no one is perfect and can get it right every time. Criticism therefore plays an important role by drawing attention to shortcomings and providing an opportunity for amends to be made.
It is unfortunate that our political culture, not only in Barbados but also across the Caribbean, makes temporary gods of politicians, especially party leaders after they are elected to government. What is even more unfortunate is that some politicians, especially if they come to office without a strong sense of self, are sometimes deluded by the roar of the crowd and behave as if they have actually achieved such status.
The late Sir Eric Matthew Gairy, flamboyant former prime minister of Grenada, once reportedly said when he was at the height of political power that anyone who criticized him criticized god. When he returned from exile in 1984 following his overthrow four years earlier, I personally witnessed diehard supporters greeting him at the former Pearl’s Airport by singing the hymn O God, Our Help In Ages Past.
Say what you like about Gairy, at least he was honest enough to say exactly how he saw himself. Other politicians may not have had such courage, but their intolerance of criticism and merciless hounding of critics left little doubt that they too saw themselves in a similar light. But being subjected to criticism is part and parcel of the experience of being in public service within a democratic system of government.
In the Caribbean, we say we practise democracy and, in the case of Barbados, even boast of having a 375-year-old Parliament. But we generally pay lip service to democracy and are inherently anti-democratic in our practice of politics. Contrary to what many believe, having elections every five years does not make a country democratic. As the 18th century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rosseau suggested, freedom associated with elections is simply an illusion.
What Rosseau had to say about the British system of government, which we in the Caribbean inherited through our colonial experience, is instructive and relevant to any meaningful discussion about improving our governance model.
“The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people are enslaved. It is nothing,” wrote Rousseau in The Social Contract.
Free and open debate of conflicting ideas lies at the heart of a true democracy, but it somehow scares the hell out of most Caribbean leaders who have traditionally exhibited autocratic tendencies. Such debate, reflecting all shades of opinion, is healthy for a country. It can bring to the fore ideas that provide effective solutions to problems.
Throughout history, free thought and discussion of ideas have always contributed to great leaps of human progress.
“Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” argued John Milton, the famous 17th century British poet and political activist in the Areopagetica, his famous work against censorship. In other words, truth inevitably triumphs over falsehood in open debate because of what Milton saw as the existence of a built-in, self-correcting mechanism in the free marketplace of ideas.
Why then is our political culture so uncomfortable with ideas that do not conform to the mainstream orthodoxy? At least, the discomfort explains the behaviour of party supporters who will go to great lengths, if necessary, to ridicule anyone, especially a person of influence, who goes against the prevailing orthodoxy. These attitudes also explain the hostility which has traditionally existed between Caribbean politicians and media houses that refuse to parrot the official line.
Unfortunately, national development suffers and our countries end up poorer as a result. People who may disagree with the ruling party but want the best for the country, and have meaningful contributions to make, often choose to remain silent instead of offering a beneficial critical perspective and then suffering the indignity of being viciously attacked by the political hyenas who are determined to defend their turf.
Let’s be brutally frank. We have not been attracting the most talented people to political life. Many highly trained and experienced professionals have a dim view of party politics. As a result, we often have little choice but to elect persons who, though enjoying some popularity at the constituency level, have no real track record of accomplishment that would add significant value to public service.
Yet we rely on these persons to make policy decisions that have far-reaching implications for the welfare of the entire nation. Why are we surprised, then, when poor decisions result? The present crisis is manifestly economic but it is deeply rooted in our politics. If we keep electing mediocre people who then behave as if they have all the answers –– when they don’t –– and keep shutting out opinions which do not conform to theirs, mediocre results will be the logical outcome.
As we look to the next general election, the current crisis presents an opportunity for us to reflect on the shortcomings of our politics, especially the harmful effects of partisanship carried to an extreme where the emphasis is on tearing down instead of building up, excluding instead of including, and dividing instead of uniting. Doesn’t all this seem to you to be a recipe for disaster?
For a better Barbados, we must resolve to break our silence which is grounded in fear, demand better of people seeking to represent our interests, and make it clear to them that Barbados is not a fiefdom where a ruling party can do as it pleases for five years but, in fact, belongs to all of us whether D, B or C.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email [email protected])