Telling Cameron to heff hoff
So often recently I've been reflecting on how important it is that public figures measure their speech carefully and cautiously to avoid misunderstanding.
Consider Madame de Gaulle. When former British PM Harold Macmillan paid a visit to French President Charles de Gaulle and his wife, they spoke the language we also supposedly speak, English. Macmillan asked Madame de Gaulle what she longed for during her impending retirement. She had clearly given the matter some very serious thought, for without blinking she replied, dolefully: "A penis. All I want is a penis."
Stunned, Macmillan was initially speechless, but then cautiously replied: "... I can see your point of view ... not much time for that sort of thing nowadays".
Thing is, it wasn't that Madame de Gaulle was planning a Jamaican vacation to sample one of the famous north coast tourist packages. No. She was just mispronouncing 'happiness' with a French accent. Consider how this could have caused an international incident if Macmillan had been slightly less cautious.
Now in this time of tumult and seriousness following the visit by David Cameron, I thought it fitting to recall that so much gets lost in translation, even when people are speaking the same language.
In particular, Mr Cameron's "move on" regarding slavery didn't go down well at all. That's understating it. His comment has caused a firestorm of indignation. So much, in fact, that the hefty gifts and grants he brought along with him have been quickly forgotten, at least by us. I certainly hope the British donor doesn't decide to also forget.
Anyway, what is to Cameron's British nationalistic mind a mere blip on the historical radar and small stain on the national conscience is to us our core constitutive narrative of national formation. Our nations are not likely to see eye to eye about these things.
FOR GOOD AND ILL
Alas, even ex-leaders have to be careful about how they speak. What they say will reflect on the organisations that they emerged from and shaped. This is for good and ill.
So when Jimmy Carter made controversial statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, it caused Democrats in the United States to have to run for cover. On the other hand, the same Jimmy Carter's philanthropic activity gave a certain halo of do-goodery to the Democrats because he seemed to embody a willingness to actively engage on behalf of the downtrodden.
The same is true in Jamaica. Ex-leaders sort of shine a spotlight on the organisations left behind. Some read and write and manage football, like Mr Seaga, who is due congratulations for his deserved induction into the Wolmerian Hall of Fame recently. Others shoot birds and drink rum. Yet others, like P.J., have become statesmen of renown. By the way, that statesman has promised a biography and can't deliver it yet, even though wi ah wait an' wait.
But regarding the present matter, PJ delivered a masterstroke with his 'Open letter to Cameron', effectively single-handedly rescuing the PNP from the public-relations nightmare and tailspin that it had found itself in. That nightmare developed by Cameron, who couldn't possibly appreciate the Jamaican implications of his Tory boasts, announcing a prison agreement as a done deal, then wading into Parliament and saying: "Hey! Slavery ... yeah ... that little thing ... get over it!"
That disrespect has overshadowed everything else in a wave of public revulsion. This thing was building and building until Patterson's thunderclap. Those who admire Patterson, and those who don't, see the same thing: consummate craft.
And behind that craft is a very straightforward Jamaican reaction. In fact, it could be said that our collective psyche needed someone to tell Cameron, in perfectly diplomatic English:
"David Cameron ... doan draw my tongue. Doan trouble dis people ... 'cause wi nuh fraid a nuh bwoy, nuh gyal, no time, no how."
TOO EMOTIONALLY LOADED
I have one major problem with it all: The prison proposal has been blended into the reparation fight. So I predict that after all this, there will be no new prison. It has become too emotionally loaded, too unpopular, too electric with political tension.
Building prisons is never popular. In fact, since I canvass for views about this, I can report that the people I've spoken with express strong opposition to Government spending a red cent on the facilities. Therefore, how the British 40 per cent was delivered isn't the only problem. They're not particularly interested in the state putting up any money to make prison conditions any better.
Delroy Chuck was, of course, correct to describe our prisons as "dungeons". Security Minister Bunting says: "These institutions are literally falling apart. They are outdated and dilapidated, with limited scope for rehabilitation, severely overcrowded, substandard and inhumane."
So add the political brouhaha on top of the already entrenched opposition to making prison life less hellish and be assured that there is no new prison coming. With all the self-righteousness and international outrage at Mr Cameron that we can muster, we've methodically manoeuvred ourselves into position to leave things exactly as they are.
Thus it is that the Jamaicans of today who sit in the dungeons of Tower Street and Spanish Town will continue to suffer. Hey, at least we can congratulate ourselves for telling Mr Cameron exactly where to hop hoff and heff hoff.
- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.