Dr Rowley’s public vulgarity

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 18, 2024

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeThe Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago was at his most vulgar on Thursday, March 9, when he sought to scandalise my name at a public meeting at Enterprise, Chaguanas. However, his public performance revealed more about his moral blindness, his public vulgarity, his intellectual narrowness and aggressive narcissism. No one who read my 28-page, carefully footnoted lecture could have arrived at his conclusion.

In his “sharp words for columnist Selwyn Cudjoe” (reporter Ria Taitt’s description), the prime minister stated: “The main point that Cudjoe produced on the platform of the crime talks was that people must examine the wealth of the Prime Minister to correlate the growth of his wealth with the growth of crime.

“Tonight, I want to tell Selwyn Cudjoe: you just haul…,” which, according to Taitt, “left the rest of the sentence to the imagination of his laughing audience” (Express, March 9).

I began my lecture, “A Quest for Truth”, by quoting the grandson of a slave who declared in 1899 that “security of person and property are the first condition of social progress”. I followed that up with Eric Williams’ declaration that “we must devise a system which gives a central place to the ideal of the sovereignty of people” and the need for civil discourse. I also cited the need to revive Williams’ “Meet the People Tour” that he initiated in 1963.

I also drew on Esdras, an apocryphal text of the Bible, and a Latin aphorism to locate the source of Williams’ rallying cry, “Great is the PNM; and It shall prevail.” Then I quoted Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and ended by paraphrasing Brutus’s words at the funeral scene of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Brutus said: “If there be any / in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, / to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was / no less than his. If then that friend demand /why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: / Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome [Trinidad & Tobago] more. Had you rather Caesar / were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen? (Act III, Scene II.)

Maybe this is the real question: should we opt for the truth, no matter how painful, or continue to live a lie that would lead to our mutual destruction?

The 16th point of my lecture with which our prime minister took such umbrage read: “In seeking to discover the truth about the escalation of crime, we should ask all of our office holders, particularly the prime minister and members of his Cabinet to declare what the wealth of they and their immediate family was in 2015 and what it is now. In that way we can see if crime is a paying concern for them or not; that is, whether their increased wealth resulted from the escalation of crime (causal) or whether their increased wealth, if there was any, just happened at the same rate at which crime increased (correlational)?”

This was a question rather than a statement.

In May 2023, the Board of Trustees of Howard University, one of the most prestigious universities in the US, awarded our prime minister an honorary Doctor of Letters. I celebrated that achievement. Then-Howard president Dr Wayne Frederick remarked: “Truth and service have been major elements of their lives [the awardees] both personally and professionally.” He described Rowley “as a renowned social and political leader, pioneering statesman and scholar”. (Express, July 6, 2023.)

An honorary Doctor of Letters is usually awarded to luminaries “who have enriched the humanities in particular, or humanity at large”; someone whose public behaviour is beyond reproach. I wonder how Howard University’s Board of Trustees would respond to our prime minister’s public vulgarity and intellectual dishonesty.

The Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists took place in Paris in September 1956. It was attended by luminaries such as Richard Wright who dedicated his book, White Man, Listen!, to Williams; Alioune Diop, editor of Presence Africaine; Leopold Senghor, father of the Negritude movement and later president of Senegal; Aimé Césaire, author of Return to My Native Land and Williams’ friend; and Jean Price-Mars, author of Ainsi parla l’Oncle.

Presence Africaine invited Williams to participate in its Second Congress that was held in Rome in 1959 to continue the discussion of the writers’ responsibility in the decolonisation process. Williams’ lecture, “The Political Leader Considered as a Man of Culture”, drew on the ancient Greeks to demonstrate his point: “The symbol of that highly civilised democracy was recognition of the political leader as a man of culture—the culture of an entire people, of an entire city-state whose representative he was.”

Williams, a fierce political fighter, understood that intellectual debates and the promotion of different approaches to political questions are vital to sustaining a democracy. He expected his successors to act with grace and panache. He would never advise a fellow citizen to “Haul your…”

In the face of such vulgarity he was more likely to say “let the jackass bray”, sentiments I warmly extend to my prime minister.

Verbal violence and public vulgarity contribute as much to a climate of violence as a young man who picks up a gun to express his violent rage.

A conscientious prime minister needs to know and value this truism.

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