A season of lectures
Published: Sunday | March 29, 2009
Martin Henry, Contributor
First, there was Kent Pantry, QC, former director of public prosecutions and now dean of the new faculty of law at the University of Technology (UTech). Then there was Professor Anthony Harriott, University of the West Indies (UWI) criminologist. And then Professor Brian Moore, formerly of the History Department of the UWI and now at Colgate University in New York.
And these are just the ones that I caught in what appears to be a flourishing public-lecture season. Then last Wednesday evening, the Roxborough Institute, a new think tank initiated by former UWI lecturer and minister of government, Dr Peter Phillips, was launched.
This looks like a good moment for ideas. But then again, perhaps not. Cabinet went into retreat last week in preparation for the 'crisis Budget' of 2009-2010 without any clear evidence of any grounding in a coherent set of evidence-based ideas about the role and responsibi-lities of Government in the face of the worst financial and economic crisis that the world has seen in at least three-quarters of a century.
In the same vein, the West Portland 'referendum' was a bread-and-butter contest between two ideologically adrift parties whose main difference might be the colour of their shirts.
Kent Pantry delivered the 22nd lecture in UTech's Anniversary Lecture series. He spoke on the enormously important topic of 'Law As a foundation for social, economic and political development'. There was precious little media coverage, and the availability of Pantry's thoughtful delivery is not helped by the fact that the lecture has not been printed by the university for distribution. It will be posted on the UTech website.
Laws and development
From the staring point that, "fortunately for us in Jamaica, our laws have been used to a great extent to foster social, economic and political development," Pantry delivered a tour de force of legal history and a wide range of pieces of legislation in the social, economic and political domain and their impact on 'development'.
Jamaica is faced with a raft of demands for legislative adjustments. What will be the jurisprudential and philosophical underpinnings of these rushing changes?
I was hoping that Kent Pantry would have waded more deeply into these murky waters of legal change and offered some prescriptions for how we could proceed to critically apply law as an instrument for social, economic and political development at this time of rushing demands for legal adjustment in every sphere.
Professor Anthony Harriott deli-vered this year's GraceKennedy Foundation (GFK) Lecture - the 21st 'Controlling Violent Crime: Models and Policy Options'. Perhaps the most startling - and depressing - thing which this leading criminologist told his audience was that it would take 20-30 years for Jamaica to achieve a level of 'normal crime'. By normal crime he means crime not exceeding 25 per cent of global averages, which means a five-fold reduction in murders.
Well, no one can wait that long for normal crime. While it is risky for lay persons to challenge the data and the analysis, we certainly can disagree with the projections, especially in the sphere of human action where will is paramount. "If having an extraordinary crime problem is difficult," the lecturer told us, "an even greater problem is when a country does not have the institutional capacity to respond to it effectively. Even more difficult is when the country has neither the capacity nor the collective will to make changes that are necessary in order to effectively respond."
Replete with comparative data and a strong literature review, the GKF lecture (which is published and available from the foundation) focused on strategies and models of crime control. "The intellectual challenges are perhaps the least difficult of all. Political leadership and building trust and confidence are going to be crucial," the lecturer said.
Some members of Harriott's audience, including me, agreed with the questioner whose intervention implied that the scholarly criminologist was seriously underplaying the role of values and attitudes and family in both the cause of and solution to crime. Carl Stone, whose professorial chair Harriott probably occupies as professor of political sociology, closed his shortened lifework with a brilliant study of 'Values, Norms and Personality Development in Jamaica', which precisely linked shifts in values and norms to the escalating crime-and-violence situation and which offered clear recommendations for reversing the trend. The retreating members of the Govern-ment executive would do well to dig up and consider these recommendations.
We move right along to Professor Brian Moore's delivery of the 25th Annual Elsa Goveia Memorial Lecture, 'The Struggle for the Cultural Soul of Jamaica after Morant Bay'. I am not sure if the Elsa Goveia whom Professor Sir Roy Augier described as the first woman professor of history at Mona, brilliant scholar, and Moore's PhD supervisor, would have been proud of her student's lecture. Moore's thesis and homily were na´vely simplistic: An abstract, homogenous "cultural elite", first made up of whites and high browns then of educated middle-class-uptown Jamaicans, has been waging an unsuccessful 200-year long war against the "people's culture", particularly over obeah, sex, illegitimacy and marriage, language and music.
We had optimistically thought that the long-standing defining features of Mona social scholarship, of viewing society through the lenses of clean-cut class and race warfare and the uncritical celebration of things African and equally uncritical denigration of things European, had matured into a more sophisticated treatment of Caribbean reality.
Without tangling unduly with the expert professor of history, who spent the tail-end of his presentation attacking people, it seems pretty clear from any, even cursory, comparative study of human societies that cultures don't all equally deliver the results of democracy, economic development, social order and human well-being and, therefore, there are legitimate grounds for judging negatively elements of our own culture, be they from Africa, Asia, or Europe, or manufactured here.
We live in the midst of cultural contradictions. There is high respect for a judiciary based on a millennium of English common law (Pantry), but also high tolerance for violence (Harriott). The practical results on the ground are high levels of crime and violence, much of it deeply embedded in community structure, a clogged court system, poor economic performance on a base of poor family structure, 'slackness' in the music and everywhere else, and social decay and endemic disorder.
We hope the new Roxborough Institute will solve the problem of financing thought, will find its own independent-thinking niche, and will produce rigorous results deli-vered in ordinary language. We hope that the results will be useful for policy and action towards social, economic, political - and even moral - transformation of a society that can't wait 20 years for normal crime and normal development.
Martin Henry is a communications consultant who may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.