Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The fascist impulse


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I do not normally use labels when I write. One of the many things I learned from Lloyd Best is that it is always better to describe a phenomenon in as much detail as possible rather than merely affix a label to it. For Lloyd, the use of labels was often not only a sign of intellectual laziness but also usually resulted in more confusion than clarification.

I use the label in my headline today because, notwithstanding Lloyd's caution, the fact is that when one describes a phenomenon and that description demonstrates that the phenomenon walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, then there is little point in refraining from calling it a duck.

I was moved to such ruminations after viewing the television broadcast of the UNC's meeting in Debe last Monday night. It was with utter disbelief and an ever-increasing sense of outrage that I witnessed the spectacle of a procession of Government ministers each trying to outdo the other in terms of the extent of ridicule and vituperation that they could heap on the head of Dr Wayne Kublalsingh because of his hunger strike.

But it was the Minister of National Security and chairman of the UNC, Jack Warner, who outdid all others when he stated, "They say the Prime Minister is killing Wayne Kublalsingh, but he is killing himself and he better do it quickly." I was completely stunned and it was then that the thought entered my head that 'this man is sounding like a fascist'.

Before going any further I think that it is only right that I should openly state where I stand on Dr Kublalsingh's hunger strike and the cause on behalf of which he has undertaken that action. As far as the cause is concerned I neither support nor reject the position of the Highway Re-Route Movement. I simply do not have the necessary information on which to make a reasoned judgement and frankly this is more the movement's failing than that of the Government.

As far as Dr Kublalsingh's hunger strike is concerned. I recognise it as a bold political act which has succeeded in garnering tremendous publicity but I have considerable misgivings as to the appropriateness of the action relative to the cause. Violence, in my view, is always a last resort, even when it is violence inflicted on oneself. I do, however, recognise Dr Kublalsingh's right to use such legal actions as he thinks fit to advance his cause.

I also recognise that his hunger strike has placed the Government in a highly untenable situation since, on the one hand, they cannot give in to what they have deemed to be an attempt at 'blackmail' while on the other hand they run tremendous risks of grave political damage if it is perceived that they stood by and allowed Dr Kublalsingh to do irreparable damage to his health or, in the worst case, to die.

The Government therefore finds itself on the horns of a dilemma and the outpouring of vituperation which took place last Monday night was a clear indication of the extent of their frustration with their inability to deal effectively with the situation. But that, equally as clearly, is no excuse for such atrocious conduct. In the words of former prime minister Basdeo Panday, the Government ministers were, "inhumane, distasteful, callous and insensitive".

Jack Warner, however, was all that and then something more.

What Mr Warner's expressed desire that Dr Kublalsingh should hurry up and kill himself betrayed was not only a cold-hearted disregard for human life but, as well, a view, implicit in that expressed desire, that the lives of those who opposed the Government and more particularly he himself, were worthless, of no significance and such persons were better off dead.

As disturbing as such a view undoubtedly is to any civilised person, taken by itself it merely brands Mr Warner as someone bereft of any spirit of human kindness. But Mr Warner's comment cannot be taken by itself. He has been in government long enough and has said and done enough to establish a pattern of behaviour based upon which a judgement of his political persona might reasonably be made.

Let us remind ourselves of some of the elements of that pattern of behaviour. It was Mr Warner who, earlier this year, without even the cover of a State of Emergency, took it upon himself to call out armed soldiers to mount a military sortie against the Re-Route Movement and to demolish their campsite.

His actions on that occasion were clearly illegal and unconstitutional and yet, when faced with a barrage of justifiable criticism from citizens his response evinced no remorse or regret but came in the form of a belligerent threat to the population that "if allyuh believe what you saw in Debe, allyuh haven't seen anything yet; mark my words".

It was Mr Warner a few weeks ago who, again illegally and unconstitutionally, issued an edict to ban the release of crime reports and statistics by the police. It was Mr Warner who attacked the media and threatened to chastise them. It was Mr Warner who was attempting to buy a particular media house. And it was Mr Warner who only recently, without apparent objection from the Commissioner or from the Police Service Commission, offered to make (or made) from his own pockets "incentive payments" to members of the Police Service.

What this pattern of behaviour demonstrates is a consistent and unrelenting effort to assert control over key institutions of public life and public freedom, particularly the military and the media. What this pattern demonstrates is an unapologetic disregard for constitutional boundaries and a systematic attempt to push beyond their limits. What this pattern demonstrates is a perverse determination to advance his political goals by any means necessary.

For one scholar the very essence of fascism is "its frightening impulse to rule over every dimension of life". Or as another scholar puts it: "A fascist is anyone who aspires to be able to control what you read, what you watch, and what you listen to. A fascist is anyone who aspires to crush human dignity and freedom by controlling the lives of others. They brook absolutely no disagreement or discussion and want to control everything, utterly."

In the end, of course, Lloyd Best was right. Labels do not describe a thing. I doubt that Mr Warner would even recognise his own impulses in the descriptions above. He is no philosopher and is not given to theoretical introspection. He only knows what he wants and that there is no morality, no legality, no constitutionality and no person that is going to stand in the way of his efforts to achieve those things.

But still, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…..

—Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.