The role of citizens
Published: Sunday | October 18, 2009
Martin Henry, Contributor
You should have expected it. So here it is: The Role of the Citizen, the balancing sequel to last week's 'The role of the Government'. What I didn't expect was the re-opening of parliamentary debate on the Charter of Rights right after publishing The role of Government and just ahead of today's piece on the role of the citizen.
Fortuitous timing! The Charter of Rights has been debated on and off for 17 years.
While the Charter is primarily concerned with 'rights, the preamble of its 1999 incarnation, 10 years ago, does state very clearly that all individuals have duties to other individuals and to the communities to which they belong and have a responsibility to respect the rights of others and to strive for the promotion and observance of the rights recognised in the Charter. It is these responsibilities that we want to talk about today. We clamour for rights, but the low level of citizen responsibility in this country has made Jamaica a well nigh ungovernable place and makes it extraordinarily difficult for the role of government to be properly fulfilled.
Citing the closure of one of four HEART Trust/NTA skills training facilities in his constituency of Eastern Westmoreland due to under use, Luther Buchanan, according to a newspaper report earlier this year, told his lay-about constituents to take responsibility, noting that he couldn't force them to exploit opportunities. Prime Minister Golding has been singing the same song, but far too softly.
Politicians, with eyes on the next election, generally, are terrified of speaking out against the abundant slackness in citizen responsibility. They prefer to ignore it, facilitate it, hug it up, excuse it - and tek big licks for failures caused by it. The country cannot be effectively governed, and certainly cannot prosper, with such crippling levels of civic irresponsibility. Since I have never solicited anybody's vote for any position I have ever held and I am not likely to ever do so for public political office, I have no fear of irritating away votes and therefore can say what needs to be said about the low and debilitating quality of citizen responsibility in the country which is one of the principal factors frustrating good governance. But hardly anybody wants to say this. The sanctified and romanticised 'people', especially the 'poor', can do no wrong.
The very concept of citizenship in its fullness is itself poorly understood by the majority of 'the people'. "I man born ya" is the measure of the matter. Even the Constitution (Chapter II - Citizenship) says so. It adds citizenship by naturalisation and by marriage, and that's it.
But citizenship at the level which makes democracy work historically meant a member of the polity, the organised political entity, with the right of full political participation in the life of the state and the heavy responsibility of contributing to its welfare.
Under universal adult suffrage where everybody over 18 is entitled to vote it hardly crosses our mind that the privilege of belonging to and participating in the polity was historically denied to slaves, women, minorities like blacks in the United States after their emancipation, and to people without property of a certain value in Jamaica prior to 1944.
Members of the polity, citizens, must obey the laws, the big ones and the little ones, or work to have them amended. In rare cases civil disobedience against unjust and unbearably oppressive laws may be justified. Citizens are duty bound to help in law enforcement against rogue elements of the polity.
The Jamaica Constabulary Force is a civilian force. The cultivated culture of silence and of "informa fi dead" nurtures crime. Jamaica is a lawless, disorderly and violent place with entire ex-communities organised to operate outside of the legal framework of the polity. We curse politicians for organising the garrisons, the main breeding ground of crime and violence in Jamaica, and let off the hook the willing and available participants who were happy to murder, burn out, and seize the property of their neighbours on the other side of the political divide for less than 30 pieces of silver.
Members of the polity, citizens, must pay their taxes. That is how the Government of the polity gets revenue to run the state. Only 5,000 non-PAYE Jamaicans pay income tax. Only 40 per cent of property owners pay property taxes. Danville Walker is busy at Customs plugging every conceivable loophole for evading import taxes. Government must borrow more and more to keep a nation of thieves living beyond its means. And the tax burden increases on the backs of those who cannot avoid paying, triggering more evasion in a vicious cycle.
Members of the polity, citizens, must strive for personal independence and self-sufficiency. Jamaica is overwhelmingly a nation of mendicants upon the State. Today is my late mother's birthday anniversary. Although only a little boy at the time, I still remember and feel the embarrassment and reluctance with which my peasant farmer parents, highly endowed with Max Weber's famous Protestant work ethic, stretched their hands to receive welfare assistance from the Government after the devastation of Hurricane Flora in 1963. Today, the sense of entitlement to state support for every conceivable want is the order of the day.
In 1958, only 2,000 Jamaican children were getting access to high schools each year. Norman Manley's government introduced the Common Entrance Examination that year, revolutionising access to secondary education. Government 'investment' in education is the single largest investment - and the most wasted - that this country makes. But no leader has the courage to push the return on investment argument to its logical conclusion. The Government has found a bit of courage to propose withdrawing payment for four CSEC subjects because beneficiaries perform so poorly.
Farming opportunities are scorned, with Jamaica having more idle land now than at anytime since the sugar industry almost collapsed from the effects of the Sugar Duties act in the mid-19th century. The country now has lower production volumes of nearly every crop compared to 40 or 50 years ago.
Meanwhile, young people today, beginning in their early teens like their parents and grandparents before them, take promiscuous breeding for sport with the progeny fired off to become dependants of the State and parasites and predators upon the polity. Father absence is one of the massively destructive negative elements of the slack Jamaican polity.
Every polity has its lumpen proletariat. But when that lumpen proletariat, of morals and manners if not money, becomes the defining group of the polity, that polity is in trouble. The mainstreaming of depravity and crass coarseness, epitomised by dancehall, as Jamaican culture must be left undisturbed since it is the people's culture. The people dem, in the majority, have no family base, no socialisation and social base, and certainly no moral grounding, for the efficient uptake of opportunities provided by the state.
Jamaica simply does not have a sufficient base of responsible citizenship for building a peaceful, productive and prosperous polity. Respect for the rights of others and personal responsibility are of low and declining quality. The polity cannot be successfully governed without fixing these problems and building a sufficiently robust and extensive responsible citizenship.
Martin Henry is a communications consultant who may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.