In 1972 the late Godfather of Soul, James Brown, had a huge hit that began with the following lyrics, “like a dull knife that just ain’t cutting, you talking loud and saying nothing”. The song reached number 27 on the US Billboard charts and added significantly to the image of Brown as Soul Brother No 1. When asked about the idea behind the song, he said it was “aimed at the politicians who were running their mouths but had no knowledge of what life was like for a lot of people”.
Politicians have been running their mouths for decades and some believe if they talk loud enough and say the same things over and over, people will believe them. They are so repetitive that their words eventually become meaningless and a phrase like “zero tolerance” becomes nothing more than empty rhetoric. Another favourite is the so-called “war on poverty” which every administration claims to be waging. However, despite an annual budget in excess of TT$50 billion, there is a report which states “more than 20 per cent of the population is living below the poverty line in Trinidad and Tobago”.
According to the Civil Society’s Review of the Progress Towards the Millennium Development Goals, over 200,000 people endure poverty and hunger on a regular basis. How is this possible in oil-rich T&T, where the nation’s nouveau riche compete with each other for the latest model Porsche? Nevertheless, the promise of better days for all and a more equitable sharing of the national pie continues to be made. In this regard, it would be interesting to see how the many words of support and concern for the plight of La Brea will translate into sustainable community development. The last thing the people of La Brea need is more “ole talk” and more promises. Slogans and platitudes cannot solve problems like high unemployment or poverty, and it is time to put aside the PR gimmicks and the political posturing. I understand the La Brea Community Council is working on a document called “The La Brea Agenda” and hopefully this will reflect the aspirations of the residents themselves.
Unfortunately, any time there’s a crisis and panic begins to set in, the language tends to get more strident and outrageous. This type of rhetoric is not confined to politics and Shakespeare often used it to portray vanity and conceit in his characters. In Julius Caesar, for instance, the supreme Roman ruler boasts that “danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he. We are two lions littered in one day and I the elder and more terrible”. And what about the words of the English poet Shelley?—“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look upon my works ye mighty and despair.”
In T&T this form of oratory is more commonly known as “robber talk”, which is described as a “boastful, grandiose style of speaking”. The term comes from one of our popular Carnival characters, the traditional Midnight Robber who swaggers through the streets on carnival day, making the most outlandish claims and boasting about imaginary conquests in far-off lands. They brag about killing lions and tigers with their bare hands while battling the most fearsome villains in history.
Politicians delight in such hyperbole and uttering hollow threats about “stamping out cockroaches” although, with the arrival of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from the United States, the lyrics have now changed to “crushing the ‘big fish’”. However, in commenting on the recent drug bust in Norfolk, Virginia, a source revealed in the Express that “the shipping of cocaine from these shores was planned and well orchestrated, and might have been going on for close to two years”. If this is true, then what has happened to all the dirty money? Could some of it have been used to bribe officials or fund political campaigns? By the way, what about the container of chicken laced with marijuana?
And while the American law enforcement officials go about their task with quiet efficiency, local politicians continue to talk up a storm, seizing every opportunity to “big up” themselves.
In the heyday of the spaghetti western, it was referred to as “gun-talk” and it was used to frighten opponents and project an image of invincibility. Hundreds would flock to cinemas across the country to see the popular heroes and villains in action. Among them were Franco Nero the original Django, Lee Van Cleef, Fernando Sancho, Eli Wallach, Jack “Snake Eye” Elam and of course Clint Eastwood.
While the fans were mesmerised by the many “shootouts” and saloon brawls, it was the “gun-talk” that had a more lasting effect on them. A good example was the boasting of the villainous Fernando Sancho when he wanted to remind his followers he was the king of outlaws. “You see that hill?” he asked them pointing to a nearby peak. “Only bad men live on that hill and the badder you are, the higher up you live.” He then rocked back, took a shot of whisky and growled, “I live at the top!” Needless to say the audience went wild with loud shouts of approval, especially from the “pit” section. Unfortunately, when our politicians try the same technique, the response is often a loud “steups” or worse. The public knows the difference between “gun-talk” in a western and “dotishness” in a parliament.
There is a quote by the great Greek philosopher Plato that is currently played on the popular I95.5 FM frequency. Given all the grandiose “robber talk” that assaults our senses on a daily basis, it is worth repeating... “wise men speak because they have something to say, fools speak because they have to say something”.
Let us strive to be wiser and less foolish.
• Richard Braithwaite is a