Monday, February 19, 2018

The silent majority


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Congratulations President Anthony Carmona on your inauguration on Monday last.

I am pleased, Mr President, that you hit for six out of the stadium, the use of the phrase "gang-related" which is used to trivialise murder. I pray that your much-advertised "niceness" will be infused with firmness because attempts will promptly be made to seduce you into making politically convenient appointments to the Integrity Commission and to exploit your goodwill in other ways.

Your pugnacious inaugural speech suggests you will not be a pushover but, Mr President, you take up office at a time of turbulence and discontent and I would like to reflect on that.

Governments, whether democratically elected or not, periodically find themselves resisting determined and vocal protest. Every decade in my lifetime illustrates that. Neither popularity at the time of election nor repression is a guarantee against protest directed at their rulers by the citizens who elected them or over whom they hold dictatorial power.

Even in repressive conditions, protest surfaces as happened in Budapest, Hungary (1956); Prague in the former Czechoslovakia (1968); East Germany when the Berlin wall came down (1989); Tiananmen Square (1989); and, currently, the so-called Arab Spring.

A prime example in a democratic state, from which I take my theme, occurred in the US in the time of presidents Johnson and Nixon, when the Vietnam War split the US apart for more than a decade until 1975. It produced extraordinary scenes of confrontation, civil unrest and sustained media focus.

Here in Trinidad and Tobago Eric Williams had to deal with the turbulent events of the Black Power Movement in 1970. On the day of the Basil Davis funeral, Port of Spain held its breath fearfully. We also suffered the attempted coup of 1990, but it came as a bitter flash. It was not heralded or preceded by demonstrations.

The protests against the Vietnam War caused the normally robust President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election. Richard Nixon, who succeeded him, raised the profile of the phrase "silent majority" by insisting the anti-war protesters were a destructive minority who gained prominence only because the silent majority, who were not opposed to the war, did not make their voices heard publicly.

In political parlance, reference to the silent majority is now a standard refuge for politicians under the stress of vocal public opinion, no less so than attacks on the media and commentators.

When the seminal events, to which I have referred above, are looked at with the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent the voices of protest made a difference, at least in the long term, however much the establishment reviled them at the time. In fact, Nixon himself went into the 1968 presidential campaign promising the "new leadership will end the war".

The lesson for a new president, therefore, is that standing your ground after balanced consideration is the surest way to make a difference. The so-called silent majority requires leadership, with finesse in the President's case, and by protest, if necessary, by the rest of us who speak our minds.

The current Government has been under pressure over its handling of national security.

The new President has arrived between the passing of the bill to give soldiers the power of arrest in the House of Representatives and the debate on it in the Senate. Subject to his right to be fully informed and to caution if necessary before he acts, he has no constitutional power to do anything other than to assent to the bill once it becomes an act and is presented to him for assent.

The President's muted role in legislation is why the burden on the Independent senators is so heavy. They are the only practical line of resistance to special majority legislation. Such legislation by definition requires more than careful scrutiny because a vote to pass it is a vote to agree that in the circumstances of the case the Constitution should be breached.

I have already presumed to offer the new President a piece of advice, which is, not to take the politically blatant bait to interfere with the Independent senators. I oppose the new President interfering with the Independent senators on constitutional grounds, which I have previously elucidated. As it happens, intervention any time, before or after the crucial Senate vote on the soldier powers-of-arrest legislation, will be subject to adverse interpretation and will tarnish the sheen on the newly minted President.

Of course there will be occasions on which President Carmona will be cried down. That is inherent in decision-making because someone will always be on the "wrong" side of a decision. It is equally inherent in not being part of the so-called silent majority. Those of us who "risk" expressing views on contemporary affairs are usually undeterred by a bad-mouthing or a lost brief or piece of business.

That's life in the Third World.