Wed | Feb 26, 2020

Daniel Thwaites | Highway to perdition

Published:Sunday | June 17, 2018 | 12:00 AM
A truck proceeds downhill on a section of Edward Seaga Highway on June 12.

Once you start down the road – or highway – to perdition, it can be hard to turn back. I’m speaking, of course, of the ongoing 'naming war' that erupted with the administration’s decision to name the North-South highway after the Labour Party’s elder statesman, the one and only Edward Philip George.

I don’t question for a minute the righteousness of the desire to memorialise Papa Eddie with a national monument, even on top of HEART, Port Authority, Petrojam and MIND tributes he already has, but when it’s done in the face of protestation, controversy, and strenuous opposition, it makes me wonder if it mightn’t open up a nasty can of worms.

I’m suggesting that it’s not such a good idea to get into the naming wars, not least because it becomes a never-ending cycle. Witness the agitation among some PNP supporters that the highway be renamed if and when the party is returned to power. It shows the danger and farcical potential. It could become a naming and shaming tug-o’-war, with petty vindictiveness and the shifting sands of electoral success confusing the national road map.

I look at that with fear and dread. My sense of geographical direction is already seriously 'challenged'. So add to that a road that’s marked 'Seaga Highway' on the map, and then because of a governmental change, I see 'Simpson Miller Highway' on a road sign, terminal confusion might ensue. That could be our future.

Take note that renaming controversies are very real and can emerge easily. In Spain, there have been movements to purge streets and squares of names originating in the Franco period. In Russia, whole cities have had to be renamed to exorcise the Bolshevik nightmare. St Petersburg became Petrograd became Leningrad became St Petersburg again.

So the prospect of a Seaga, then Simpson Miller, then Seaga, then Simpson Miller is not beyond our powers of national absurdity. It could even settle into a Seaga-Simpson Miller historical compromise, which would confuse future students. They would probably conclude that these two were a married couple. So what? It was a secret ceremony. On the north coast. He wanted a Poco celebration, but she refused. You get the picture.

But I digress.

Another interesting threat and opportunity arises from the St Catherine Municipal Corporation's resolution that 'their' portion of the highway get named after Portia. That’s a different solution to the conundrum, and maybe one pointing to a lasting solution to these problems.

See, the problem might be that there’s a scarcity of public works to carry the names of our Great Leaders. And that’s because we haven’t built all that much since the British left. But if we split up the assets among the parties, and shared them like a traditional piece of bullo-wuk, the problem is solved. And that’s what I’m all about - solutions!

Plus, there’s something cynically fitting about slicing up the naming work like we traditionally do to bushing, roadwork, painting, and so on. Why should the white-collar work be different?

So we name the various government buildings floor by floor. One floor for Labourites. The next one for Comrades. The only problem is if a building has an uneven number of floors, but we can solve that with a building code resolution. Solutions, solutions!

Or we do various portions of buildings, so that the 'Desmond McKenzie footpath and front door' lead to the 'Harry Douglas Lobby and Entranceway'. Then you ride the 'Ruel Reid Elevator' up to the 'O.T. Williams First Floor'. In no time everybody is fully satisfied.

The North-South highway itself covers some 230 kilometres, meaning that everybody in Parliament and the Senate could get a kilometre and still there would be plenty spare for the future. The only caveat is that each honouree must bear the cost of erecting his or her own sign to tell travellers whose kilometre they are currently enjoying.

You see, what we have to do is remove the scarcity out of the thing.

But alright: warnings aside, let’s address this issue more traditionally, like a proper Gleaner columnist. Elections have consequences, one of which is that the winner gets to name roads and buildings after whomever he wants, and unless there is overwhelming public outcry – and, actually, even in the face of overwhelming public outcry – that’s his prerogative.

All things considered, Mr Seaga is a good choice to name a highway after. Whether this particular highway was the best fit is debatable. I don’t think so, mostly because so far as I can tell, he had nothing to do with it. But that’s not a requirement either: Nelson Mandela had nothing to do with Mandela Highway.

So, controversy notwithstanding, Eddie has earned the right to be remembered, with respect, by all future Jamaicans. And to those anxious to disinter past national tragedies, particularly our disastrous bit-player role in the Cold War, let’s insist that there’s a statute of limitation on political bitterness. Meaning that, although we must cherish the memory and truth of the past, after a while, you have to let go of the desire to prosecute and punish.

But clearly there’s a better way to do these things. Perhaps a Joint Select Committee of Parliament could decide on naming so as to lessen the poisonous adversariality of it? I wonder. The danger is that our politicians might just then agree among themselves to name things after themselves, and we could end up with Everald Warmington Peak (formerly Blue Mountain). Yeah, come to think of it, this is probably another thing that needs to be turned over to civil society.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to