Fri | Jan 28, 2022

Editorial | Becoming a national hero

Published:Thursday | December 9, 2021 | 12:06 AM

P.J. PATTERSON, the former prime minister, is right. The question of whether Jamaica declares new national heroes should be process-driven, rather than the result of an excitable whim ignited by what other people have done.

There is already established in law a mechanism for how this is to be done, which, if it is being adhered to, would make Mr Patterson’s suggestion for the appointment of a special committee to consider the matter redundant. Unless, that is, the public debate that specific people be declared national heroes is intended to fall within a broader review of the national honours scheme, which Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that he had in September.

The matter of who qualifies as a Jamaican national hero is, of course, a reprise of an old debate. It has new legs because just over a week ago, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley, to some controversy, named the Barbados-born, US-based pop artiste Rihanna as the island’s 11th, and second living, national hero, alongside legendary cricketer Sir Garfield Sobers. Rihanna’s elevation was announced at the ceremony marking Barbados’ removal of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and transitioning to a republic. The island now has a ceremonial president, rather than a governor general representing the Queen.

In Jamaica, proponents of the elevation of cultural icons, the late Louise Bennett-Coverley and Bob Marley, to national hero status, now argue that if a 33-year-old singer and actress, whose career has been marked by the culture of celebrity and dogged by controversy, can be declared a Barbadian national hero, there is no reason why two Jamaican artistes of substance should not be accorded similar recognition.

We make no comment on Barbados’ decision on Rihanna, or the basis thereof.

WORTHY OF NATIONAL HONOUR

With respect to Marley and ‘Miss Lou’, Jamaica has already agreed that they are worthy of national honour. Both are members of the Order of Merit, third in precedence among national honours and reserved for Jamaicans (and on an honorary basis to foreigners) who have “achieved eminent international distinction in the field of science, the arts, literature or any other endeavour”.

There can be no question that Miss Lou’s and Bob Marley’s were authentic Jamaican voices that transcended national boundaries, to echo globally. They help embolden other people’s aspirations.

Indeed, four decades after his death, Bob Marley, a Rastafarian, remains the premier voice of reggae music and his songs continue to inspire political movements around the world. Before Marley, Ms Bennett-Coverley, a humorist, poet, and storyteller – the national griot of sorts – did the unthinkable for her time. She wrote and performed in the lingua franca of Jamaica – the island’s Patois. She was part of a national(ist) movement that helped to build confidence among a class of Jamaicans who, hitherto, had little social voice. And she was immensely entertaining.

The question now is whether Bob Marley and Miss Lou, in their own circumstances and adjusted for these times, scale the hurdle we established for Marcus Garvey in these columns 57 years ago, at the time of the return of his remains to Jamaica. Or if that criterion needs to be amended for today. We observed then that the real test of Garvey’s fitness to be a national hero was the “performance and permanence and permeation of the ideas (he) promulgated”, and whether his philosophy had survived. For this, there is a process.

Unlike other orders, the management of which are subject to regulations established by the governor general, the arrangement for national heroes is specifically set out in the National Honours and Awards Act of 1969. The law makes the governor general the chancellor of the Society of the Order of National Heroes, and also establishes an “advisory committee”, among whose functions is “to make such investigations as it thinks fit to determine persons, living or dead, upon whom may be conferred the honour of National Hero ... and to report to the prime minister the result of those investigations”.

UNAWARE OF COMMITTEE MEMBERS

The committee, which is appointed by the prime minister, consists of no fewer than seven people, including two each from the Senate and the House. They are to serve for three years, but are eligible for reappointment. On the face of it, therefore, this committee ought to be always in place. However, few people outside the arcane and narrow confines of the world of government protocol seem to be aware who its members are. The management of the other societies of orders is similarly opaque.

An example of this lack of transparency is what happened in September in the wake of the public outcry against the plan to bestow the Order of Distinction on Rev Al Miller, the preacher who was convicted for the irresponsible management of his gun and for transporting the fugitive crime boss, Christopher Coke. Mr Miller’s honour was rescinded and Mr Holness subsequently announced a review of the selection process for honours. It was, however, never announced who is doing the review and how the public might contribute to the exercise.

Naming people national heroes, or conferring other honours on them, ought not to be, or perceived to be, an esoteric exercise that is outside the realm of ordinary folk. Neither should it be treated as confetti that is in easy, decorative grasp of the connected. Jamaicans should believe, and have good reasons to do so, that national awards represent the best of us and that achieving them signifies something substantially beyond ourselves.

Perhaps, if he has this sense of the honours, Mr Holness should command his review group, whoever they are, to restart the process – with transparency. They should engage Jamaicans.