By Dr Selwyn Cudjoe
January 05, 2021
“So Trinidad was and remains a materialist immigrant society, continually growing and changing, never settling into any pattern, always retaining the atmosphere of the camp… [This explains] its special character, its ebullience and irresponsibility… an indifference to virtue as well as to vice.”
—VS Naipaul, The Middle Passage
In 1960 Eric Williams, premier of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), suggested to VS Naipaul, one of our premier writers, that he write a non-fiction book about the West Indies that the T&T government would support financially. Williams assured Naipaul he “could write about any aspect of the region and visit whatever territories [he] wished” to accomplish his objectives.
Naipaul had been away from the island for about 12 years, having studied at Oxford University and written four novels. He says as soon as he touched down on the island, he felt the same fear he had endured while he lived on the island.
He writes: “I knew Trinidad to be unimportant, uncreative, cynical… Power was recognised, but dignity was allowed to no one. Every person of eminence was held to be crooked and contemptible. We lived in a society which denied itself heroes…
“Though we knew that something was wrong with our society, we made no attempt to assess it. Trinidad was too unimportant and we could never be convinced of the value of reading the history of a place which was, as everyone said, only a dot on the map of the world. Our interest was all in the world outside, the remoter the better… Our past was buried and no one cared to dig it up…
“There was no community. We were of various races, religions, sets and cliques; and we had somehow found ourselves on the same small island. Nothing bound us together except this common residence. There was no nationalist feeling; there could be none. There was no profound anti-imperialist feeling; indeed, it was only our Britishness, our belonging to the British Empire, which gave us any identity. So protests could only be individual, isolated, unheeded.”
Williams formed a nationalist party that was supposed to channel our nationalist feelings (however insubstantial) into something more concrete. Competing identities prevented us from achieving this goal. The Democratic Labour Party was concerned primarily about Indian interests, the Party of Political Progress Group (POPPG) promoted the white middle-class interest, while the PNM, many would argue, pushed the black interest.
Sixty years later, we remain a divided nation without any common direction, the truth of Naipaul’s observations still ringing in our ears.
We should consider the following ideas as we move into the next decade:
[SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS] We need to be more self-aware and take more pride in ourselves and our nation. Hegel argued that “Man is Self-Consciousness. He is conscious of himself, conscious of human reality and dignity; and it is in this that he is essentially different from animals. Desire is what transforms Being, revealed to itself by itself in (true) knowledge.” (Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel)
[CIVILITY] We need to be more civil to one another, more conscious about how we speak to and about one another, whether we agree with them or not. Let’s dispense with the name-calling and treat each other with the dignity that s/he deserves.
[LEADING BY EXAMPLE] Our leaders, by virtue of their positions, are our role models. All eyes are on them and their behaviour. The President said it best: “Those in authority must, like Caesar’s wife, be above suspicion and reproach in their dealings.” (Express, January 1)
[COMMUNITY] We cannot be a national community unless each of us accepts the entirety of our country’s history as his/her own. Reading and understanding our history, as Naipaul says, is important for national coherence.
[BE PHILOSOPHERS RATHER THAN IDEOLOGUES] An intellectual changes his mind in light of new knowledge; an ideologue maintains the same position regardless of the any new information that is revealed. An intellectual aspires to a better understanding of the world; an ideologue remains comfortable staying in the old world.
[FREEDOM & NECESSITY] Frederick Engels says: “Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence of natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definitive ends.” (Anti-Duhring)
Being free does not mean that one cannot shout “fire” in a theatre—one is always free to do so—or to jump from a 100-storey building. Freedom consists in recognising the necessity of one’s action; that is, if one jumps from a 100-storey building, one should be prepared to accept the consequences of such actions.
[ANALYSIS VERSUS DESCRIPTION] Human beings possess the capacity to think. Description merely tells us about the surface dimensions of reality, an enumeration of dates and times. Analysis consists in seeking to find the essence of a phenomenon. Let’s try to discover what makes things tick rather than babbling tired clichés about how things used to be and why we can’t locate our destiny in the future order of things.
The President captured this shortcoming when she admonished: “While the Government of the day may well have some of these matters [such as poverty, joblessness] in its sights, those in the kitchen are feeling the heat daily and are not sympathetic to hackneyed excuses, promises of action and sob stories of doing one’s best, which they have heard ad nauseum, with nothing to show for it.”
We must think more deeply/philosophically about our condition. While we attend to our material wants, we must give equal thought to our inner spiritual needs. In 2021 we should aspire to achieve virtue, rather than vice, as Naipaul suggests. It is also in keeping with our national motto.