By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 04, 2022
“You may know the man by the conversation he keeps.”
—Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Our Prime Minister, Dr Keith Rowley, is reputed to have said to US President Joe Biden that the salient factor in our democracy is his capacity to listen to the opinions of his people. I hope he meant that he listened not only to what they say loudly and directly, but also to what isn’t said aloud but is equally as pertinent.
This is important: the Prime Minister’s success in office over the next four years depends upon his listening not only to what is said directly, but also to what is communicated silently.
I raise this because of what was conveyed to the PNM during the Tobago election. Many of those messages were conveyed in the hymn, “Move Satan Move”. The lyrics read: “Move Satan Move/ Let me pass/ Move Satan Move/ Let me pass/ For I am born again/ I’m saved and sanctified/ Move Satan Move/Let me pass.”
There is little doubt that Satan, in this context, was used to represent the figure of the prime minister.
These complaints of the prime minister not listening to ordinary citizens, particularly those in his party, are coming in from all sides. It is alleged that the prime minister prefers to listen to the bankers and the money bags of the party. However, the prime minister should not lose sight of the people—the ordinary people—who play a central role in determining who governs them, who ultimately speaks on their behalf, and who seems to embody their pain.
Carla Peterson, for example, in her essay “Recovering the Black Female Body”, reminds us that when we think of a body, we only think of its physical composition—its flesh and its bones or the outgrowth of nail and hair. However, the body “is never simply matter, for it is never divorced from perception and interpretation”.
This is why it is not sufficient to say, as my friend Lynette Joseph has, “The victory of the Progressive Democratic Patriots is momentous and we look forward to see how well the young people can manage Tobago.” (Express, December 15). This statement is true, but we cannot lose sight of the deeper reality that it signifies: a repudiation of PNM’s indifference to the pain and suffering of its followers.
In spite of all the goodwill that Dr Rowley may have for his followers, he has failed to communicate this to them in a respectful manner. So that when Ancel Roget and his union, the Civil Servants, and the uniformed officers say they would not take the Covid vaccine, they are trying to send an important message to the Government.
Much of the opposition to what I think is a reasonable proposal (taking the vaccines to protect one’s life) is not directed against the proposed solution, but is fuelled by a deep contempt for the person who is proposing it. It suggests a belief that they are not being listened to. This is even more tragic when the leaders of T&T’s foremost Christian faiths support the Government’s proposals about taking the vaccines and the boosters, and warn against the divisiveness in our society.
Dr Rowley has lost much of the moral authority he may have had because of his tendency to disregard legitimate criticism levelled against his leadership. For example, many PNM stalwarts have bemoaned that the party organs have ceased to function. The give-and-take that operated at PNM’s General Council and which informed the party’s policies is a thing of the past. Many believe that the major decisions of the party are made in an authoritarian manner.
Sometimes we get caught up in the dissembling nature of the physical body. It prevents us from seeing the forest from the trees. Those who bow down and worship the leader and send all those flattering text messages prevent him from getting a realistic view of what is taking place in the party.
This is why, in the early years of the PNM, on the Sunday evening before the general election, the members of the Orisha faith came to the constituency offices to pray to the gods of our faith to remove the obstacles placed in our way. It was thought that these religions, such as Vodun and Shango, were comprehensive enough to embrace the religious sentiments of diverse human beings.
Whatever we may think about our early political leaders, at least they understood that constant conversing with the people was essential to the success of its political and social endeavours. Yet, even Dr Eric Williams’s popularity declined when he ceased to listen to his people.
In 1993, in my introduction to Eric E Williams Speaks, I noted: “As long as Williams and the masses were in conversation, Williams kept his ears open and listened to what they were saying. Once he ceased to listen, he merely uttered himself and thereby estranged himself from his people… As result, his conversation with his people ceased and his discourse ran into a dead end.”
Although this is the age of the Internet and the exploration of space, “When the word ‘conversation’ first came into English usage, it meant ‘living among or familiarity with’ other people.” (FT, December 24.) It is still true that a political entity cannot remain attractive to its followers unless it listens respectfully to what they say.
In Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes reminds us: “You may know the man by the conversation he keeps.” Leaders must be in constant conversation with their supporters if they wish to remain relevant to their lives. Or, more to the point, the PNM can only resuscitate itself through the conversations it enters into with its members.