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OFF CENTRE: You know who I am?


Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: You know  who I am?

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I wondered if I was hearing right: “You know who I am now compared with who I was in 1966?” Well, not the exact words that you and I encountered recently but deserving of the cigar.

Don’t let it matter who the source was. Go deeper.

Of course, we are more “developed” than we were in 1966! Which significantly democratic, even half-civilised, even non-independent country isn’t?

Do you think that in 2066 it will be worth comparing where we are then with where we were in 1966? Do you think that citizens of the United States should find it worth making a comparison next July 4 with the state of their country in 1776?

Of course not! No more than on his 60th birthday a man should be measuring his progress largely on the basis of a comparison with when he set out on his own. Ah mean, certain things (challenges, tools, opportunities, understandings, etc.) did not even exist at the time of launching out.

At each anniversary of Independence, or whenever, we should not be evaluating ourselves as a nation in that simplistic way.

Without undervaluing your progress, any refined assessment will always be against where you reasonably ought to be. Better than is often not as good as you could be, whether in terms of other people/countries or in terms of earlier times.

Yes, I know November gone. But I also know that although in large measure the spouge and the flat irons and the “monkeys” and the folk songs gone back to wherever they were fetched from, the Barbadian enterprise of nationhood en gone away, waiting to re-emerge next November.

 

Measure sensibly

 

I know, too, that if we fail to measure ourselves sensibly and sophisticatedly on an Independence anniversary, those ways of looking at ourselves will travel with us.

And there is one area that we scarcely ever seem to measure ourselves in.

What kind of people we are almost routinely escapes the assessors. I cahn understand it. We talk about education, health, home ownership, labour, provision of care for the disabled, the aged, the vulnerable. We go on about the economy, the environment, tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, various amenities, provision of opportunity and so on.

Like the kind of people we are is not critical to the kind of success we will have. While the concept of nation obviously speaks to the idea of managing all those things, it is also fundamentally about people (and obviously their values and character) and their cohesiveness.

We got National Anthem, motto and pledge all filled with character expectations yet these things don’t much factor into our general assessment of us as a nation.

The pledge: “allegiance”, “uphold and defend”, “by my living” – that’s about what kind of people we are supposed to be.

The National Anthem: “pride”, “binds our hearts”, “strict guardians”, “firm craftsmen”, “no doubts and fears [as we go with God]”.

And the motto. All right, officially it is Pride And Industry.

 But sometimes I think that if “I don’t cay ’bout a fellow” is not the national motto for many people these days, it must surely be “You know who I am?”

The evidence that not a few may well have installed the former is all around us, as we meet fewer clues that we are proceeding with the requisite self-dignity, diligence and hard work.  

Of the latter (“You know . . .”), frequently you meet people who are obviously straining for your deference – or for your understanding that they are in a “higher league” than you.

I asked earlier this year: “Where else [but Barbados] does such a high concentration – proportion, not raw numbers – of individuals puff themselves up on which school they went to, what kind of house they live in, which prominent people they know (and hobnob with), what kind of car they drive, what kind of (flat-screen) TV they have?

“I en done: the level of their educational credentials (not the outstanding product of their exam passing), what profession they are in/what kind of job they have, what professions their children are in, what position they have, how much money they make and/or have, all the places they have travelled to (and how often).”

All these things that spell a craving for a self-indulgent, advantage-seeking elevation, rather than a pursuit of a healthy equality with others. And we building a nation, yuh.

Others in the Caribbean used to be taken aback at the scent of “better-than-youness” that many Barbadians gave off.

Maybe not so much these days in our travels but it has probably increased in its incidence at home.

Surely a sense of equality among its citizens should be one of the highest goals any nation

aims for. This is no small matter, as I hope to demonstrate in another article.

 

Superiority

 

Now, lemme make it clear that I mean equality in dignity, in humanity. So I fully understand that the policeman who pulls me over to check my driver’s licence or my insurance or road tax documents has positional superiority in that situation, but he is not to mistake that for general superiority and fail to treat me with the dignity that any fellow human being deserves.

And as he executes his job I should not be menacing him with “You know who I am?” Neither of us should be on a one-upmanship trip.

There is no doubt that nationhood is about a people moving forward with what some have called “social solidarity”. A special sense of affiliation, you could say.

Can we dare say we are working on these things when the kind of people we are is not in the assessment of what we have made of our nationhood? And when so much evidence points in negative directions? And when there are no easily identified pervasive means by which we seem to be positively shaping ourselves towards the character aspects of nationhood?

How can we be on our way to a good place in those fundamental aspects when we have put so many things, even taxpayer-funded education (with its elitist hierarchy and our pitching it as being for better personal prospects) on the track to a self-serving, prestige-bound, better-than-you “You know who I am?”

Do we really know who we are in the character qualities that would make for strong (if properly interpreted) nationhood? Assess that too.

• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email [email protected]

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