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Ask the Governor

Denis Solomon • 1,225 words

In his intention to legislate against calypsonians vilifying public figures Mr. Panday has an unexpected ally. The government of China.

In his intention to legislate against calypsonians vilifying public figures Mr. Panday has an unexpected ally.

The government of China.

The Parliament (if you can call it that) of that splendid democracy has just announced its plan to abolish the civil liberties granted by the departing British to the people of Hong Kong. Among other things, the Chinese intend to make the shouting of slogans against public figures illegal.

The irony is that for the entire course of the British occupation the people of Hong Kong, as inhabitants of a crown colony, had no rights at all. The Governor could ban whatever he wanted. Any provisions for democracy put in place by the British before their departure were put in place for the same reason they had been denied before – to insulate Hong Kong from Chinese influence.

In Britain itself, of course, you could criticise and lampoon whomever you wanted, even, latterly, the Royal Family. The Spitting Image television show regularly depicted the Prince of Wales as a half-wit. The satirical magazine Private Eye’s series of sketches purporting to be letters from Mr. Denis Thatcher to a friend was so successful that it was made into a review called “Anyone for Denis” that ran for a long time to packed houses at the Whitehall Theatre in London. It portrayed the Prime Minister’s husband as a bumbling drunk of antediluvian political beliefs surrounded by disreputable horse-racing cronies. A theme running through all the sketches was the presence of Soviet spies with radio equipment permanently ensconced in a cupboard at Number Ten Downing Street. The sedulously cultivated looks and diction of the Prime Minister herself were parodied with wicked accuracy, and insinuations of misuse of her influence to advance the business affairs of her unintelligent son were given full play.

Mrs. Thatcher, who fought successfully to stop the publication of the memoirs of retired MI5 agents, would not even have thought of trying to ban “Anyone for Denis?”. In fact she went to see it with her husband.

What has this got to do with us? Simply that after thirty-five years of independence, which we tell ourselves we struggled to obtain (in fact we did nothing of the kind – it was thrust upon us, and half the population did not even want it) we are not following the liberal example of the British in Britain, but perpetuating the oppressive authoritarianism of their colonial regimes, which the Chinese are now re-introducing.

Raffique Shah, in an article in the Mirror, tells how in our own colonial past calypsonians had to submit their songs for censorship to the chief of police, and quotes the specific instance of a song by the Roaring Lion. That was in the thirties, when labour unrest and the imminence of war offered some excuse to the authorities. But I remember an instance from the late forties or early fifties. There used to be a show at the old Astor Cinema called “Local Talent on Parade”. One night an aspiring calypsonian sang a song called “Don’t ask me, ask de Governor”. The lyrics were a series of questions such as how an Indian woman could have a baby with blue eyes, and the answer was the song’s title. The reference was to a woman of the local bourgeoisie who was reputed to have had a baby for the Governor.

I have often wondered if anyone else remembers that song. I am one of the few people ever to have heard it, for it was banned the next day and never sung in public again.

The same woman, incidentally, later had another scurrilous calypso sung about her, but it didn’t involve the Governor, so there was no ban.

The Chinese are wrapping up their repressive proposal in some nonsense about courtesy and not confrontation being the Chinese way. Just as Panday and Ramesh never talk about attacks on public figures but always “attacks on public figures and encouragement of racial discord”. Censorship of the Press under the smokescreen of freedom of information; censorship of the tents under the smokescreen of preventing racial hatred.

The trouble is that the colonial cast of mind Panday is perpetuating is shared to some degree by practically everyone in the country. In almost all the outpourings in defence of freedom of expression in calypso there is, sooner or later, a qualification. Alana D’Abreau in the Mirror writes that crude calypsos will always be with us BUT satire and picong must embody good taste and propriety (a contradiction if ever there was one). Former Senate President Michael Williams says that freedom to criticise politicians is guaranteed by the Constitution, BUT Wayne Hayde, as a policeman, shouldn’t criticise “the institution he serves” (Hayde didn’t criticise an institution, he criticised the Prime Minister). Raffique Shah says that politicians meddle with calypsonians’ freedom of expression at their own risk, BUT calypsos should be “squeaky clean” if they are broadcast outside the country.

Why can so few people contemplate the prospect of absolutely unfettered freedom for artists to be as delicate or as gross as the spirit moves them? I share Maxie Cuffie’s disgust at Sugar Aloes’ mockery of Pamela Nicholson’s supposed infirmity, but like him I do not think it should suffer any more censorship than the disapproval of people like myself. If I had heard the song in the tent I would have booed it. If I had been a manager of a radio station I would not have played it. But if I were Prime Minister I wouldn’t even contemplate banning it, or any other song.

Nobody can acquire good taste without being exposed to what is gross as well as what is delicate. And there are activities where bad taste is in fact good taste; satire is one of them.

I know Mr. Panday doesn’t understand this, being innocent of artistic judgement. I know that like Sat Maharaj and others his reactions to criticism are refracted through what Maxie Cuffie calls a sense of political hurt. I know he is a politician and therefore by definition paranoid. But beyond that he is a puzzle to me. Surely as an educated individual he should have some objective, even if not deeply felt, image of a democratic leader, and a sense of the need to project it. What is disturbing about him is that he seems to feel not the slightest need to do so. He pays far less lip service to democratic values than any other West Indian politician. His fulminations against examples of licence he purports to detect are invariably followed up either by proposals for legislative control or actual reprisals against individuals. His initial reactions are never moderated by mature reflection.

My tentative diagnosis is a sense of personal inadequacy coupled with a feeling of political invincibility. Combine that with an approach to governance that is primitive in the extreme and you have a dangerous mix. For “national unity” then read “one-party government”, and you will see that the analogy with China is not so far-fetched.

Since for half the population Mr. Panday can do no wrong, and the other half share his authoritarian instincts to a greater or lesser degree, the only way to deal with the problem Mr. Panday’s government poses for us is to deal with ourselves. Will we succeed? Don’t ask me. Ask the governor.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top