Saturday, January 20, 2018

Hometown honour — deficits and death

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Mark Fraser

 According to the book of Mark, Jesus was from Nazareth. At a certain time he returned to his hometown and began teaching but met resistance.

“Where did this man get these things?” the congregations asked and “they were offended at him”.

The disciples of Jesus were hurt at the scepticism with which their leader was received but Jesus responded: “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

Karl Hudson-Phillips QC died 11 days ago. He was a distinguished lawyer and a game-changing politician, but he will not escape harsh judgment on the People’s National Movement (PNM) public order thrust subsequent to the events of 1970. The infamous poison pen Baptist letter in 1981 claimed that harm would befall Baptists, then a backbone of the PNM, should Hudson-Phillips win that general election.

Since Hudson-Phillips’ death I have observed the fulsome tributes paid to him but the well-known phrase “prophet without honour” immediately came to mind and stayed with me. It became necessary therefore for me to return to its source and to emphasise that the words of Jesus included hometown disdain.

Those words provide the context for three questions to some of those paying tribute: Where were you when politics hurt Karl and left him near bankrupt? Why did you overlook Karl when he withdrew from party politics, built back his life and was available to make high-level contributions in further service of his country? What is the point of being disrespectful during life and friendly after the event of death? 

That is why my brief comment on his death made at the request of the media focused on the depth of the character of KHP as I called him. Bearing in mind the damage inflicted by the calypso “Ah fraid Karl” and the Baptist letter, I wrote:

“In the 1981 election he was subjected to brutal negative campaigning against him as the leader of the ONR and was badly hurt by that electoral defeat.  He set about manfully and successfully building back his legal practice and ultimately received international recognition as a lawyer.

In 1986 he readily set aside any residual political leadership ambitions he may have had so that Mr Robinson could become the leader of the NAR. That is such a contrast to other political leaders who refuse to accept that the time for gracious exit has come.

Hudson-Phillips continued to evolve and mature and participated judiciously in public life. It is to the discredit of Trinidad and Tobago that he was never invited or persuaded to be President given the breadth of his experience.”

Citizens are always moaning and groaning that the “right people” do not go into politics. Presumably right people means those not motivated by greed or by lust for power to bolster insecurities. Perhaps a retrospective on Hudson-Phillips will make those citizens more sensitive to the level of abuse that goes with current political involvement and the fair weather “friends” who desert a losing campaign with a change of jersey waiting in the car or in their back pocket.

Hudson-Phillips understood the fickleness of political encouragement.  After he refused to sign the undated letter of resignation that Prime Minister Eric Williams required of PNM parliamentarians he held a meeting in Woodford Square. I was there (1976, I think). He said he knew that citizens would tell him go forward and when he looked back there would be no one behind.

Writing in the New York Times very recently on the prospects for Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, following disclosure of the punishment of political opponents by the partial closing of the George Washington bridge to and from New York, Charles M Blow commented on negative political attacks. His words are apt to cover some of the political lashes Hudson-Phillips received.

“Political accountability veers into political bloodsport where partisans lick their chops at the idea of an opponent’s demise. It becomes unseemly and trivial and reeks of fear.”

I did not share the political views of Hudson-Phillips and have never been a member of any political party. We had the relationship of two combatants at a vigorous Bar but I believe that he was ill used after he left party politics. Although he made the first crack into the PNM political monopoly, Hudson-Phillips is an example of a man whose post public order period good works “will be interred with his bones”.

Can some belated medals and sugary after death tributes atone for the deficit in hometown honour in life? Have we considered the talent that is wasted by ostracism on account of an independent spirit or disrespect continued long after a political contest is closed? 

Can a small nation afford such a deprivation of excellence and experience and want mostly pliable persons for appointments in public life?