Water of National Cleansing

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 29, 2018

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeNow that the waters have subsided after the worst flooding in fifty years, we should engage in a new national discourse about who we are and whether we can keep on doing the same ole same ole and expect different results. We should decide whether we continue along our national highway using the same tired rhetoric of a happy, go-lucky people who never think or plan for tomorrow.

President Paula-Mae Weeks opened up the national conversation best when she said: “Whether causes by an Act of God, omissions or commissions of institutions or individuals or any combination thereof, this is not the time to ascribe blame. Now is the time for all to come together as a nation to render whatever assistance we can to those in such desperate need” (Express, October 22).

The flood brought out the best in our citizens and our instinctive desire to help one another. Yet, we cannot escape the human compunction to engage in national self-questioning. A country consists of a people who live together and have mutual obligations to one another. In 1962, at the beginning of our nation journey, V. S. Naipaul described us as a picaroon society, each of us trying to get his own at the expense of the other.

Dr. Eric Williams, the Father of the Nation, gave Naipaul a grant to write anything he chose. Naipaul wrote about Trini behavior. Although he was not a sociologist, he was an acute observer of human behavior and that paid enormous dividends. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage remains one of our most prescient sociological studies.

Fifty-six years later, a powerful avalanche of water (waters of national cleansing) brought home to us with great urgency our need to care for one another. It was a powerful reminder of Bob Marley’s admonition, “When the rain fall/it don’t fall on one man’s housetop. Remember that.”

We can find support for this truism in the Bible, but I prefer to draw on Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments to sketch out the moral implications of our living together and caring for one another. Smith began his treatise with the following words: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion.”

In : What He Thought, and Why It Matters, Jesse Norman, a philosopher and British MP, expanded on Smith’s thoughts: “Compassion is thus a basic principle of human nature for Adam Smith. Yet, it quickly becomes clear that the key idea here is not so much compassion in the sense of pity, but rather compassion as empathy or fellow feeling.”

Norman outlines the difference between sympathy and empathy when he says: “Sympathy is the capacity to detect and reflect the emotions of others. This then in turn enables the operation of what would now be called empathy: the imaginative capacity to place ourselves mentally, to greater or lesser extent, in the position of those who may be far removed and wildly different from us.”

To empathize presumes a moral investment in others, a capacity to see them for who they are, and a genuine determination to transcend our parochialism, particularly in a multicultural society. Empathy involves more imaginative effort or projection than sympathy. It is not a competition to see who can give more, particularly in a time of national disaster, but a genuine desire to put oneself in another man’s shoes.

It was troubling, therefore, when UNC Senator Khadija Ameen accused Government members of lacking in compassion for the storm victims. “You cannot buy compassion; you cannot PR compassion; you cannot buy wanting to care for people. You can’t buy kindness; that is the difference between you [PNM] and us [UNC]” (Express, October 22).

Was this an expression of pity or feigned compassion? Is compassion something UNC members possess through osmosis; something PNM members lack intuitively? Are UNC members more human, PNM members less so? And if compassion involves a deep sense of imaginative projection with another, wouldn’t Ameen’s moral awareness demand that she sees that attribute in all human beings?

When we started our national journey, Williams announced the national watchwords, “Discipline, Production, Tolerance.” It was a well-intentioned slogan he imposed rather than the product of a national discussion. We are still trying to give life and meaning to those sentiments.

Today we need a more intuitive grammar to grapple with the challenges that face us. The wanton killings we see around us, the callous disregard for the feelings of others, and the extreme “me-ism” of many citizens demands a different grammar-sentiments such as moral awareness, empathy for others, an unyielding generosity of spirit, and the abiding question, “What are my obligations to my brothers and sisters in this day and time?”

Things could have been worse. The president reminded us: “As dire as things are, know that we are all hoping, working and praying to bring whatever relief we can in the shortest possible time.”

Watch and pray, but let us think, talk, and plan more concretely for the coming disasters that will surely confront us.

8 Responses to “Water of National Cleansing”


  • This flood was a man made flood. The waterways has not been cleared, this Government is reactive instead of proactive. The floods of last year 2017 and this year 2018 was the worst ever recorded in TnT history. No time in the history of TnT has there been flooding of this nature.

    The PM did not respond as people would expect in a more compassionate manner. Leaders set the tone. After people saw Kamla in the flood zone walking with bags of grocery,they were stirred to help. Thousands of prepared meal were delivered to homes of those affect. The PNM fell short of the level of response required by a political party in power because the leader response was a photo opt and very tepid.

    The basis of the problem is poor flood management. The main rivers and waterways need to be cleared in advance of the rainy season. The problem is exacerbated by a culture of “duttiness” where people throw garbage particularly plastic bottles into the water ways. Which mean waterways need to be cleared and clean using new technology. Simple using a drag net can clean these water ways faster, or if UWI students could be incentivized to come up with a river clearing machine.

    Kadijah Ameen made one of the most historic speeches when she called out the government on its lack of response. One lady called the ODPM over six times whilst in distress. Stories are emerging of many citizen heroes who rescued many in distress and saved many lives. The government response was we did not have any dingy. The right thing for the government to do is to meet with those citizens and thank them publicly for doing work that the government agencies suppose to do….

  • In the class of the world’s greatest leaders Napolean Bonaparte is rated number nineteenth and President Barack Obama is rated number twentieth. But I feel their quotes are relevant and worth remembering as we battle with natural disasters and leadership to overcome our troubles. Napoleon Bonaparte said
    “A leader is a dealer in hope.” ; Barack Obama said
    “I always believe that ultimately, if people are paying attention, then we get good government and good leadership. And when we get lazy, as a democracy and civically start taking shortcuts, then it results in bad government and politics.”

    Both quotations speak to our state of national affairs. The prior administration during their 2010 – 2015 reign virtually spent billions of dollars building drains in supposedly the most vulnerable areas to combat flooding. What we learned a week ago is that that exercise was a failure. If you have to spend that kind of money to fix a water problem, you get the people who are best at doing it. The people with the best record of doing it are the Dutch. Did Kamla in her attempt to fix the problem seek the Dutch government or ask for Dutch expertise? NO! She sought the ‘expertise’ of her friendly contractors, who just ‘built drains’. Never mind where the water goes from those drains (that we now know is nowhere). These same people who benefitted from the drains building are now blaming this government for their woes.

    Our rivers and drains are filled with empty bottles, old appliances, tyres, plastics and garbage. Who do we blame? the government of course. Go to Chaguaramas bays and see the millions of plastic floating on our waterways, a disgusting sight to see. When will citizens take responsibility for their own behavior? We live for fete and more fete. We expect to behave badly and when we get sick blame the government for not taking care of us. We squander our savings then blame government for not taking care of us.

    Coming back to the professor’s thought “We should decide whether we continue along our national highway using the same tired rhetoric of a happy, go-lucky people who never think or plan for tomorrow.” Yes, but who is going to lead us there?. Part of our problem is that we look only to political leadership to guide us. At an earlier stage of our development, there were always leaders who took the mantle of leadership to air our grievances.
    Sure, we need political involvement to solve our problems but we need to stop being lazy and always looking for shortcuts to cure our ills. Lets look to community leaders to galvanize our problems and present to government for better solutions.

    • The primary purpose for building box drains in communities and neighbourhoods was to adhere to international health standards in an intelligent attempt to create more healthy and sanitary communities.
      Flooding was caused by a number of factors : unprecedented amount of rainfall, clogged waterways, massive excavation for the creation of housing subdivisions, excavation and removal of vegetation to construct new roads and highways, and in the case of HDC housing, failure to maintain and service water pumps which were installed in strategic locations anticipating flooding.

      Spreading incorrect political propaganda does not help the situation.

      • TMan, you have shown from time to time that you can be objective when you want to and I trust that you have the ability to discern a call to reason than mere prognostication. If you have a serious electrical problem , you will not look for a plumber, you will find the best electrician. If your teeth hurts you will not look for a medical doctor you will look for a dentist. The water problems around the low lying Caroni swamps are legendary. When the UNC embarked on their billion dollar box drain projects, it was to fix those problems (supposedly). It is therefore NOT POLITICAL PROPAGANDA to mention this as an exercise to correct a real problem. If the intent was real, I suppose that they looked for the best way they thought necessary to fix the problem. From the best knowledge that I and most LEARNED people know, the DUTCH are the very best at managing water related problems. To call this ‘political’ is an over simplification of my intent.

  • VS Naipaul’ evaluation of Trinidad pre-political self-rule to now , is very well on spot , and very worst at that. Presently, mudslinging it seems, is the only way to get messages politically, modern leaders speak the language of War and deception. In reality, Democracy for whatever it is , has never worked very well in Trinidad, the blame must fall on the last Generation of political Leaders, lacking in ideas, corrupted then and now, continue to have their say and way. The National Logos of Discipline – Tolerance and Production, have over the years tend to keep Trinidad together , presently, there are elements willing to get rid of Tolerance , while looking to manage Discipline and Production in the most brutal of ways . Floods should always be expected, the problem is Trinidad’ infrastructure is not ready, the Government is not ready, Developers are not ready and the most importantly, are the People ready? we know that the People had a part to play in this Monster flood. God/Nature speaks harshly to its Minions through Natural disasters , an aspect of the wrong KAMA presently engulfing Trinidad. Politics, is the science of ideas and putting same to work, this doctrine have been taken over by Graft and ME-ISM , the World over. People in Trinidad will have a Biblical price to pay for the ills of their Leaders or mis-leaders. No political party can honestly deliver in any five year Government , two four year or Five year term limits should be part of Trinidad’ constitution , Gov’t should get a chance to work and not be burdened by elections . Before this Natural disaster , the last two generations of Trinidad, in most cases have been Human Disasters , Yes, we have practically become materially gifted, which is a prelude to disasters. The Game and Plan is to get their own at the expense of each other, VS Nai’ message have always been TRUTH, but do we live in TRUTH? . The Flood may just be the impetus Mr Rowley needs to get people working , a vast number of the unemployed can be put to work , while putting Trinidad on its true PRODUCTION footing.

    • This PNM is an urban base party. All the oil and resources come from south but all development occurs north of the Caroni.

      Their supporters in Portin Fortin complaining and burning tires due to lack of economic activities. This is the same party that went about Point Fortin saying Kamla eh do nothing. Despite building the highway, starting the hospital, building a desalination plant and giving them pipe borne water for the first time. Coudray gave Point Fortin everything and more under KPB. Yet these islanders supported Rowley, take that..

  • Selwyn Cudjoe has again brought up some fundamental issues in his article. There are a number of points I would like to address. Firstly the political. Coming out of the last flood, there has arisen a narrative – the people (particularly in Central) did this feat of survival on their own. The government was inactive, nowhere to be seen. It is a false narrative which claims that the people don’t need the government to deal with catastrophes, to deal with anything. The people don’t need the government, they can govern themselves, and they don’t need the government. It’s a narrative pushed by the pied pipers of power-at-any-cost. It downplays or negates the part played by so many government agencies that were essential to surviving the ordeal of the flood. The police who took charge of road management, the soldiers and coast guard who were in the communities affected, the washing up crews, of course none of this was highlighted or even mentioned by the media. I would like to thank all those government personnel who thanklessly devoted themselves to helping the various communities survive and get over the flood. It’s a thankless job but continue doing it out of true altruism which does good without acknowledgement or thanks. That is the nature of true altruism, not the type that is there just to be on social media or for PRO purposes, that is a hollow altruism. So we have to thank not only those heroic citizens who through a sense of caring for their neighbours went out and offered help, but also the government personnel who provided essential services during the ordeal. One very noticeable thing, I heard not a word about global warming and climate change. We are a vulnerable island state, we will be affected by global warming, extreme weather and the rise of the sea level. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report last month in which it is claimed that “The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.” We have to advocate at the UN and every other available forum for action on global warming.
    Secondly, the economics. Adam Smith, in a follow up to his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” put forward a totally dichotomous economic theory in his “Wealth of Nations”. In it he claims that we should seek our own interest and in doing so you will be serving the interests of all through the actions of the “invisible hand”. His moral thought which had included the necessity of empathy in economic activity was directly challenged by this new formula. It may be that he assumed that moral sentiment should act as a restriction on our economic activity, it should corral economic activity within moral fences if you like, but the capitalism that he engendered , soon broke free any those moral fences and naked self-interest as the basis of economic activity took over. Ayn Rand later on questioned the morality of altruism and empathy and advocated rational action in the pursuit of self-interest, this to her was true morality. Ayn Rand gave rise to a capitalism gone mad, an idea that the market is the only moral agent and to which we should all bow down. It is this ideological and moral struggle that we are now immersed in globally. The market has no room for empathy or moral sentiment.
    Thirdly the spiritual dimension. Selwyn Cudjoe’s article deals with the importance of compassion and caring. Certainly the capacity for caring and compassion defines our humanity. Should government policy be based on compassion? The answer is of course caring should be part of its policy determination. However, above compassion, government should base its policy on what is right, what is just and should put those things above how we feel. Studies have shown that we feel more compassion towards those who look like us, towards those who are socially approved. In common parlance, we don’t feel too much compassion towards hard back men. So governments should base their actions, not on feelings (one day you may feel love towards someone, the other day it changes to hate), they should base their actions on what is right, what is just. So that you may go into communities that don’t look like you, but you do your duty, you act not on feeling but on duty. And at this time of Divali, it is appropriate to use the teaching of the Gita to reinforce that message. Arjuna, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, saw his cousins, many of his family, and his friends on the opposing side and he was overcome by compassion. He was disturbed and confused and did not know what to do. The Gita is the teaching to Arjuna and to mankind that what is more important than being overcome by compassion or feeling, is duty, dharma, and it exhorts all to do their duty. For in the end that is what is demanded of us as human beings, that is what lights that divine spark in all of us.

  • I want to thank Birdie Mc Clean for a thoughtful rejoinder. I was not concerned so much about compassion but wanted to emphasize the distinction between empathy and sympathy. Clearly compassion cannot be a part of government’s policy even though it can be motivated by such. Empathy is more a personal quality that has to do with how one thinks about another, particularly in times of crises.

    As to one’s dharma and/or one’s class dhrama. I believe that one’s dharma is/or tends to motivate one’s action and certainly determines how one conducts oneself in all circumstances. It has to do with one convictions and the duty one has to one’s group. Empathy is quite different. It demands that one puts one self in the place of another, to feel for the other as it were.

    At any rate, I thank you giving the article your due consideration.

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