Orville Taylor | Seaga: Man of contradictions but a don in the end
Perhaps it is fitting that he had a closed casket because very few were brave enough to stare him directly in the face. He was affectionately called the ‘One Don’ by cartoonists and my impression is that after a while, he relished the title. Eddie Seaga was no pushover; a fearless man, with hair oil groomed hair, he did not take back chat from any area dons. Sporting a pair of dark glasses for much of his political life, this added to the mystique as a serious roughneck. Debonair, in Italian-style suits, one could be forgiven for even calling him ‘Seagalucci’.
In the 1970s, we referred to very dark sunglasses as ‘mafia’ and that doubtless added to the mysteriousness as well. That he was a revivalist, a man who jumped ‘poco’, conjured up images of a ‘sciance man’, one to be touched with kid’s gloves.
Jump to September 2018, and here I was interviewing him, a man with reduced mobility but with a clarity of mind that befuddled me. He was speaking about the events of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and when I told him that his recall was impressive, he calmly replied, “How can anyone forget something like that?” Of course, I was tempted to see how much of the horrors of the 1970s, 1980s, and the early 1990s he remembered, but there is a time and place for such enquiries.
This column is not the place for any digging up of ghosts just yet. However, there are legacy issues and lessons to be learned from this icon of Jamaican politics. For me, he was neither a hero nor an anti-hero, but like all flawed men, he was a contradiction of good and bad. History, or rather sociology, shall determine on which side he truly falls.
True, he is associated with the era of the late 1960s to 1970s and early 1980s, when we seemed to be in the middle of a civil war, but I am a social scientist and there must be some other measure of his impact on the society. He made a decision to shed his American citizenship, which he had by birthright and not from descent via family or naturalisation. Jamaica, for him, was home and although he had very strong allegiance to the Reagan administration, he was Jamaican and Jamaican first. It would take another 40 years before some of his political ‘descendants’ even got the message.
Coming to prominence in the 1960s, when Jamaica was going through its own identity schizophrenia, he embraced the local culture. Even today, there is a lot of negative and sheer ignorance surrounding our indigenous African-based syncretic religions, as the hysteria of overzealous Christians, like the colonial masters, shove everything tinted with African spiritualism into the still undefined practice of obeah. He was a social anthropologist, schooled in the tradition where that discipline was seamless to sociology.
Seaga’s early scholarly work on the cultural practice is still considered pioneering. Remember, this was the 1960s when anything black was seen as subversive. His own party in government was in an unmitigated war against Rastafari, banned Black Beauty , the story of a horse, and blocked Walter Rodney from returning to his job at the plantation on which I work. Yet, as contradictory as he was, the government of the 1960s brought Haile Selassie, Martin Luther King Jr and the Queen here, within months of each other. But that was Eddie Blinds; paradoxical in many ways.
Few know that it was Eddie, not Chris Blackwell, who discovered the Bob Marley and the Wailers and was a major progenitor of Jamaica popular music.
FUNNY AT TIMES
In power in the 1980s, Seaga facilitated the creation of employment, reducing the unemployment rate to a two-decade low. Yet, as he gave us HEART, the best innovation in education since independence, his intolerance took out the soul and sole of the trade union movement, thus creating the formula for his party’s loss in 1989, as it was in the 1960s.
Yet, Eddie was funny at times; yes, amusing. Everyone in this generation remember his allusions to his virility, with his alliterative vim, vigour and vitality, although one can be forgiven if one’s imagination makes one see a list, including another V word. His slow and deliberate use of the now outlawed Buju Banton’s chorus, led to his political opponent of the 1990s to 2000s, P.J. Patterson, scurrying to emphasise his impeccable credentials as a ‘vaginophile’. True, Seaga lost at the polls but the public had a hell of a laugh. In the end, he had the last laugh because his evidence is still here, a young woman now, when his opponents might have run out of seeds long before.
Back in the 1980s, he was at an event where his nemesis Michael Manley was also. The electronic system started tripping in and out. Not to be daunted, he gave Manley the look and said something about being accustomed to a Mike which was malfunctioning.
For me, though, despite his perceived dictatorial style of leadership, there is one thing which shows his contradiction and also his honour. In 1983, he called a snap ‘selection’ and a flatfooted Manley made the dumbest move of his career, deciding to boycott the polls. Of course, that was a perverse move unto our democracy by Maas Eddie, and he occupied all seats in Parliament. Appointing independent senators, he could’ve done as he wished, including modifying the Constitution to increase his power. Yet, he did nothing of the sort, thus preserving our democracy and eventually paying the ultimate political price; failure to hold on to an election despite his vitality.
Thus, in my books, for all that one thinks about him, by refusing to make himself a king, he, in my books, is a real Don. When the dust settles, and the tears are dried, we will realise how large a gap he has left.
- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.