PATRIOTISM AND ITS VULGAR APPLICATION


By Professor SELWYN CUDJOE, Originally published in the Trinidad Express on January 8, 2023

OVER the past two weeks Minister Stuart Young has proclaimed his patriotism and his commitment to the central tenet of our National Anthem: ‘Here every creed and race find an equal place.’ Anyone who objects to his interpretation of this aspect of the anthem is accused of being a racist or, as he said recently, of playing ‘the unsavoury race card’. He has accused me of attacking him ‘on the basis of race’ ( Express, January 2).

Anyone who has read my articles carefully would agree that I said nothing disparaging about Young, nor did I attack his character. I am inclined to accept that he is a hard worker and is committed to ‘the positive growth and continued development’ of our society. He has been cordial and respectful to me on the three occasions that I have met him. While I commend those attributes, I am more concerned about the capacity of our leaders to think logically and coherently about the problems that face our society.

Young joined the People’s National Movement (PNM) in 2014. I have supported PNM from its inception in 1956 and have been an active party member since the 1960s. On April 22, 1960, I marched in the rain on that famous journey from Chaguaramas to Woodford Square where Dr Eric Williams announced our country’s right to reclaim Chaguaramas. He also condemned the seven deadly sins of colonialism (Williams, ‘The Chaguaramas Declaration’).

In 1996 when Dr Keith Rowley challenged Patrick Manning for the leadership of the PNM, I assisted in composing his oppositional manifesto in which we used the arguments of William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears (1996), as the central premise of his candidacy. When Rowley lost his fight against Manning and party members began to heckle him at the bar of the Chaguaramas Convention Hall, I took him to the home of Jackie Lazarus to shield him from their taunts.

In 2002, Joel Krieger, a Harvard-trained political scientist, and I spent ten days with Patrick Manning as we crafted PNM’s Vision 2020 statement. After we finished our work we dined at Soong’s Great Wall Restaurant in San Fernando, as Joan Yuille-Williams and Hazel Manning can testify. They were also present at the dinner. Just for the record: we produced this massive document without charging PNM a cent.

When the United National Congress (UNC) defeated the PNM in 2010, I was among about 150 people who went to Curepe Junior Secondary (now St Joseph Secondary) to lick our wounds and to prepare for the next election at which we were successful. Keith Rowley can attest to the truth of this statement.

Minister Young does not possess a patent to the central meaning of the National Anthem. When one asserts that every creed and race finds an equal place in our society, it implies that there are various groups within the society and that each group presents its own challenges and has its own demands.

To say that the needs of the black group have been left unattended or neglected, as I have argued, is a proposition that may be contested. It cannot be placed under a rubric called racism. More importantly, the injunction, ‘Here every creed and race find an equal place’ is more an aspirational statement than an accomplished fact. It is a goal to which we must aspire, hence our national motto: ‘Together we aspire, together we achieve.’ Therein lies the promise of our society.

How do we achieve this objective?

At the very least, we can begin to think about these goals in a nuanced and forthright manner. Even in thinking about this we ought to be careful of the benefits that some citizens achieve by virtue of their position in the society. That is why I am so concerned about the special advantages that Young is given by virtue of his special relationship to the prime minister and why some thinkers, more experienced than I, warn that without the necessary guardrails some party members can become ‘more equal than others’.

One of the most precious commodities in any democracy is the exercise of free critical thought. Necessarily, these thoughts must be accompanied by actions. Still, when one person is given multiple tasks (chairmanship of the party, Minister of Energy, Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, and constituency representative) without the necessary preparation, one wonders if one can pay enough attention to any of these functions.

When Minister Young accuses me of racism, I am inclined to think of Samuel Johnson’s injunction, ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ Aakar Patel, chair of Amnesty International India, explained what Johnson meant by this statement: ‘Any crime and any misbehaviour was tolerated as long as it was committed by one who kept shouting that he loved his country. And, on the other hand, the individual who questioned the behaviour of the country or government was a traitor, no matter how noble he/she was.’ (Outlook, October 29, 2019).

Young has to be careful about his protestation of ultra-patriotism. It would have been much better if he responded to the questions that I raised rather than deal with clichés that need to be contextualised and examined. The PNM has always thrived and prospered because of the quality of its ideas, not only by the amount of money any individual or corporation contributes to the party’s coffers.

As the new year begins, the PNM is called upon to offer creative solutions to the problems that affect the country. Therefore, it would be wise if the party chairman heeded Dr Johnson’s notion about the pitfalls of patriotism and remember that calling someone a racist, in societies such as ours, is disingenuous and dishonourable. It is really the last port of call of resistance for someone who may not possess the noblest motives.

-Prof Cudjoe’s e-mail address is scudjoe@wellesley.edu. He can be reached @ Professor Cudjoe.

SELWYN CUDJOE

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