Saturday, April 20, 2024

SATURDAY’S CHILD: Elementary, my dears


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“WHICH IS IT TO-DAY,” I asked, “morphine or cocaine?” He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened. “It is cocaine,” he said, “a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?” – The Sign Of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, (1890)

It was elementary, therefore, when I saw that the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago had decreed a seven-per cent cut of the budgets of all state entities for the 2015 – 2016 financial year to immediately think of the formula made popular by Holmes.

Prime ministers, presidents and other people of might (and not maybes) do not need drugs to prescribe or inject seven-per-cent solutions. They are high and mighty but do not owe their lofty stature to cocaine. While Hollywood’s “high society”, including Iron Man might need drugs, the political big-shots do not need a shot in the arm. They have already been shot in the head with the power of power. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want test a man’s character, give him power.” Historian Lord Acton is responsible for the best summation of the effect of power on those who have it: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Corruption here does not refer to bribery, fraud and other sins of commission only, but in the whole range of delusions, decision-making and deeds of the powerful including grandeur and the sense that they are invincible, invulnerable and can do no wrong. Disgraced US President Richard Nixon said it all: “When the president does it that means it is not illegal.”

In addition to its tendency to corrupt, there are two other characteristics of power that I have identified from looking at the powerful in the Caribbean, especially in Trinidad and Tobago. The first is that power is an amnesiac ­– it makes you forget your promises and your past. You deliberately do not remember where you came from, the people who helped you to get where you are and your responsibilities to the society at large and not to special interest groups. From the time you start hobnobbing with the rich and famous, and with help from the obsequious minions who surround, flatter and suck up to you, amnesia sets in with a force and effect greater than even a hundred-per-cent solution. The other effect of power is that it is an aphrodisiac. It makes you feel a surge that is even greater than the normal sex urge. You feel you can do anything with and to anyone – screw them royally in fact without the slightest twinge of conscience or reprisal. As Edmund Burke said, “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.”

We in the Caribbean have experienced our share of leaders who have become victims of the power they wield and which, in the end, destroys them. The Duvaliers in Haiti (Papa and Baby Doc) and, in the English-speaking West Indies, Eric Gairy and Forbes Burnham, the most interesting of them all. Burnham banned the importation of a lot of food items, especially flour, potatoes, some forms of rice and split peas (dhal). Bread was an “imperialist” food. He insisted that people use local ground provisions including cassava, yams and dasheen instead but never ensured that local supplies of these tubers were adequate to meet demand. However, this draconian extreme applied to the “ordinary” people only. A Guyanese man wrote recently about his car being seized because he picked up a passenger with ten pounds of flour. I once shopped in the same supermarket in Barbados with Mrs Burnham and she bought everything that was banned to take back to Guyana with her. I understood from my Guyanese friends this was the norm for those who derived power from Burnham. I also found out that Mr Burnham wore custom-made boots and rode a white horse through the streets and slums of Georgetown. A Guyanese columnist wrote, “Just after he took power in the 1960’s he could be seen every morning riding his horse around the city, often with a bunch of children excitedly running alongside the horses.”

The statement recently by Prime Minister Rowley of Trinidad about women who cannot peel cassava, his advocacy of “farine” (what is left of the cassava after the juice has been removed) as a cereal, and the increasing use of breadfruit is disturbing and made worse by justifying charging value added tax (VAT) on salt, a commodity which has enormous symbolic and historical significance that goes beyond its cost. This is really adding salt to the VAT wounds. The poet, Shelley, asked the question, “If winter comes can spring be far behind?” If cassava comes, and the gulf is already widening, how far behind are the boots and the horse? 

• Tony Deyal was last seen quoting Lord Acton: “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”


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