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A jubilee grander than 'big deal'

By Lennox Grant

This Prime Minister is a lot more travelled than the people of the country she leads. We have, then, to take her word for it that the rest of the world is impressed by what Trinidad and Tobago has to show in the name of progress.

Until she said so last week, I for one hadn't noticed that the world had much noticed us. Over five continents, however, Ms Persad-Bissessar has been moving among people of eminence more or less matching her own in T&T.

From such encounters, presumably, she got the message that the big world out there has paid attention to the little strivings comprising T&T's life and times. Until she launched the 50th Independence anniversary, I could never imagine a reason for the season that goes like this: "My Government has made this celebration a big deal because Trinidad and Tobago's rapid progress is becoming a very big deal to the world looking on."

We who, in 1962, were literally attending school, today happily qualify as "old-school" in attitude. I have ripened in age thinking Independence to be "our thing" or, at worst, "we ting".

The "our" and the "we" mean Trinidad and Tobago. A long title, both as noun phrase and compound-adjective, but it's what we have, all we are.

I've made a point of correcting Caribbean journalist colleagues who default to shorthand references such as "the Trinidadian government". No such entity exists, I insist.

At the "Golden Jubilee" launch, I heard the T&T Prime Minister saying "Trinbagonian", as if confirming some linguistic consensus, evolved here over 50 years.

Old-school crank notwithstanding, I would answer if so called, but remain unready to self-identify as "Trinbagonian". I could live with "Trini", knowing precisely what I mean by that, thus not presuming it a viable designation for inhabitants northeast of the Toco lighthouse toward Cove Estate.

  Since I scribbled notes while watching Monday night TV, it has struck me that to invoke Independence is to prompt countless compulsively quarrelsome digressions. Let me, then, get back to the "big deal" that got me started.

For the notion of making a "big deal" implies exalting or exaggerating something beyond its intrinsic merit. Again, maybe, as a child of that, T&T's Independence appears eminently worthy of commemoration by those who feel uplifted or even ennobled by it. 

The Independence anniversary rhetorically  reaffirms what T&T has all been about, in the half-century since it embarked on a historically inevitable journey. Borrowing imagery of Lloyd Best, T&T, in a step bespeaking adulthood, on August 31, 1962 took up its bed and walked. 

A T&T government's enthusiasm for celebrating the 50th anniversary should accordingly come in a naturally overflowing way.  In Ms Persad-Bissessar's "big deal" lies the possibly unconscious suggestion that to strike up the band and to crank up the engines of celebration is to risk overdoing it.

Still more nationally self-diminishing is her suggestion that the scale of celebration could be influenced by the endorsement of those in "the world looking on". To cite those who see T&T's "rapid progress (as a) very big deal" is to claim the validation of others for what should be a proudly national exercise.

It was for me a lifelong learnable moment to read TIME magazine's snippy characterisation of Prime Minister Eric Williams as an "Oxford-educated mulatto". In September 1962, I looked up the word "mulatto", but even then the American newsmagazine's tagline for T&T's Independence superhero struck me instructively as loaded with a low-calibre payload of meaning.

Referring to herself as sixth in the line of "distinguished" prime ministers, Ms Persad-Bissessar didn't single out the one 50 years ago by name, word or deed. It was Dr Williams who, from the same Queen's Hall stage, had chaired April 25-27, 1962 constitutional conference, from which the Opposition had walked out in the first hour, with the press totally barred.

It took Colonial Office arm-twisting at Marlborough House in London to produce what Ms Persad-Bissessar hails as a "compromise" constitution.  But the Queen's Hall fiasco, where Dr Williams and Ellis Clarke railroaded a draft, was gratifyingly hailed by many participants, for whom "consultation" was yet to be invented.

Vincent Tothill, a sympathetic Scottish physician, writing about 1920s Trinidad, observed the low expectations for public discourse: "There is a whole, vast mass of untouched public opinion which is no less important because it is dumb."

Historian Williams later identified the origins of the colonial psychology that acquiesced to the exercise of domination and subservience, over which he nevertheless presided: "Here, then, is the reality of Independence— seeking to deal with our problems…with a mentality conceived in slavery, cradled in indenture, and nurtured in colonialism."

In April 2012, that "mentality", which shrugged off, and even praised, the Williams-Clarke talking down to people, is unrecognisable in T&T today. While public servants publicly lampoon their "line" minister in Port of Spain, "goonta" types in Champs Fleurs stop East-West Corridor traffic in protest against police.

Independent T&T has gone all the way from being mostly submissive to power to becoming maybe ungovernable. Such is the outcome of governing ourselves; and we would have it no other way.

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