Mon | Jul 15, 2019

Daniel Thwaites | Let’s pay great tribute but chill on the national hero part

Published:Sunday | June 23, 2019 | 12:24 AM

Edward Seaga should not be declared a national hero, and certainly not yet. I read where Desmond McKenzie has recommended it, and while it may be understandable that he feels that way about his political godfather, that’s not a majority position or one likely to withstand sustained critical interrogation.

I’ve said my piece about Mr Seaga’s unquestionable greatness. I repeat: ‘Seaga good nuh backside!’ But we mustn’t carry dis ting too far. Nuance is important.

Even while people, myself included, have been lavishing Mr Seaga with encomiums, let us recall that he was a general in our undeclared civil war. His stridently anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-Cuba stances in the ’70s are the aspect of his legacy most likely to excite his most ardent supporters and most relentless critics.

In those days, many who still stride among us said and did things that would raise every hair on our heads in these gentler times. And while it can hardly be right to make Mr Seaga (and his reputation) the single sacrificial victim for the national atonement which that period still requires, it is not wrong to say that he was no easy smaddy. In fact, as I was at pains to point out, it’s why we admire him, even begrudgingly.

There are very few Jamaicans who want to revisit those times, not least because while there were very many actors, there were very few heroes.

It is evident that we don’t have the belly to open and peer into that sizeable can of worms, so nowadays the convention is for the sides to just keep on cussing. Thus we have the absurdity of the Senate president abusing the occasion of Parliament’s special sitting to honour Mr Seaga, to demand an apology for the ’76 state of emergency without asking for his colleague, the Speaker of the House, Pearnel Charles, to say something about why he might have been thought suitable for detention at that time.

Criterion for National Hero

Anyway, what is the criterion for national hero?

The Jamaica Information Service website had the following terse (and unhelpful) description:

“The Order of National Hero is the most senior order. The honour of the Order of National Hero may be conferred upon any person who was born in Jamaica or is, or at the time of his or her death was, a citizen of Jamaica and rendered to Jamaica service of a most distinguished nature.”

As guidance for who should or shouldn’t be in the club, that’s hardly helpful.

Anyhow, the status of national hero is the closest we come in this secular dispensation to the Church’s practice of naming saints. And once that’s done, what ensues is no longer history, but hagiography, adulatory and idealised renditions of history.

Mind you, hagiography is an esteemed line of work, but it is better to leave it in the religious realm. It has limited to no applicability in the political world.

It’s also worth noting that it’s customary to wait a few decades, and sometimes centuries, before canonisation. Let the facts emerge, the story unfold, and the sharp edges dull with time.

Besides, it becomes almost impossible to criticise someone after they’ve been canonised with the national hero status.

Frankly, even the roster of heroes as it now stands could do with some critical reappraisal. I’m not just talking about the jury being out about whether Nanny actually existed, or that the image we’ve adopted of Paul Bogle is somebody else.

BEYOND CRITICISM

I have had heated arguments to try and establish among true believers that maybe – just maybe – Garvey’s weird exchanges with the Ku Klux Klan was a sad miscalculation for which he was rightly criticised by other black leaders of the time. That is because once it’s established that a man is beyond criticism … surprise, surprise … he becomes beyond criticism!

Plus, the nifty contrivance of naming the founders of the two major political parties national heroes is a transparent political peacemaking effort, meant to sanctify and legitimise both political parties. But it papered over a fair deal of shadiness. In particular, the bizarre and unique William Clarke, for all his obvious political genius, mightn’t have been included in the canon of heroes absent the need to counter-balance Norman Manley.

But back to the civil war. So far, Jamaica hasn’t been able to manage even the most basic truth and reconciliation about it. Meanwhile, the weaponry introduced into the country, courtesy of the amazingly long shelf life of guns, still turn up to wreak havoc. The gangs and garrisons persist. Up till 2010, the remnants of the Shower Posse triggered an unprecedented level of carnage.

Mr Seaga’s canonisation would be followed swiftly by the call to canonise Michael Manley as well. At that point, despite Jamaica exhibiting all the symptoms of a post-war society, we would be at pains to even mention what happened. It all would have slipped down the memory hole, and the violence, poverty, and tribal aggression would be left like the famous Cheshire Cat’s grin from Alice in Wonderland:

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice, “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”

Respect due to Papa Eddie. But national hero? No. Or, at least, not yet.

 Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.