A case of catching straws

They say that a drowning man will catch at a straw. Of course, the straw will not save him but, in an emotionally chaotic state of deep desperation, the man finds himself unable to think clearly enough to figure that out for himself. Instead, he sees the straw as providing that last glimmer of hope of clinging to dear life which, by the second, is rapidly slipping away.

During the recent Estimates Debate in the House of Assembly, Barbadians saw, through a number of baffling statements from a few parliamentarians on the Government side, a panicking and despairing Democratic Labour Party (DLP) cast in the image of that drowning man. Carefully studied and analyzed, words can be very revealing. A window to the soul, words can reveal on a sensory level what escapes detection by the naked eye.

In this particular instance, the narrative of the speakers in question provided valuable insight into the emotional and psychological state of the DLP, less than a year before Barbadian voters pass judgement in a general election on the its performance in government over the last nine years. Trying to appear strong and confident, the Dems came across as weak and worried.

From where or whom will they find comfort? David Thompson, who ably led the DLP back to government in the 2008 general election after a 14-year sojourn in the political wilderness, is no longer around. If he were, his calming exhortation would be “Don’t panic!” for which he was well known. But unfortunately for the Dems since Thompson’s death, they have been more or less like sheep without a shepherd. In the circumstances, walking through the valley of the shadow of political death, naturally, will be cause for trepidation.

Which most likely explains the edginess which was apparent during the recent Estimates Debate, most notably by Minister of Social Care Steve Blackett. It seems, from his reaction, that he somehow deciphered that there was a significant political threat from an innocent 13-year-old boy speaking at a rally following the Opposition-organized March of Disgust against the Government earlier this month.

Arguing that the presence of Khaleel Kothdiwala on the Barbados Labour Party (BLP)-sponsored platform was “equivalent, as far as I’m concerned, to sexual abuse or physical abuse”, a clearly incensed Blackett said he was minded to report the matter to the Child Care Board. It did not end there, however. In a statement which conjured up the frightening spectre of Earth a run red, the title of a Richie Spice reggae hit song, Blackett also raised the possibility of “bloodshed in this country based on how they (the BLP Opposition) are behaving and how they are conducting themselves in public life in Barbados”.

Such an occurrence, needless to say, would be unprecedented in our post-1937 experience. What could have triggered such a melodramatic reaction from the good minister? What is so fundamentally wrong about a 13-year-old appearing on a public platform and exercising his Constitutional right to speak his mind with passion, conviction and eloquence on national issues as a citizen of Barbados? In conferring the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, the Constitution of Barbados, to the best of my knowledge, does not discriminate on the basis of age.

What most likely was the underlying issue was the turn-out of 10,000 for the protest, according to some estimates. It obviously took the Dems by surprise and threw them into a temporary state of denial, especially seeing that Georgie Porgie, their lead propagandist, had expended so much energy in the preceding days trying to persuade Barbadians against attending. Failing to do so, his explanation of the turn-out was that it had to be a “rent a crowd”.

From observation, the turn-out was representative of a cross-section of the Barbadian community, as opposed to being a typical BLP crowd. As increasingly dissenting DLP Cabinet Minister Donville Inniss pragmatically acknowledged, “I think anytime you have a sizeable portion of the population taking to the streets, albeit in a very civilized manner, they are sending a message and the Government must take note.” It is not surprising that Inniss’ reaction contrasted sharply with Blackett’s. Politically speaking, we are dealing with chalk and cheese.

In politics, it always pays to remain cool, calm and collected especially during times of adversity, lest what is said in the heat of a moment has the effect of aggravating an already bad situation. As a friend through my long and close association with her late husband, David, I especially offer this piece of advice to Mrs. Mara Thompson, the St John MP. Her  below-the-belt “childless” remark was totally unnecessary.

But, getting back to Blackett, what he probably gleaned from the march, with much anguish, was the uncomfortable but unmistakably clear and strong sign of a major swing away from the DLP towards the BLP — a bad omen for his own political future, having scraped home by a relatively small margin in the last general election to retain his St Michael Central seat. Given the current trend, he most likely will be among the first casualties next time around.

What the DLP has effectively achieved in one swoop, by making an issue of young Kothdiwala who, I predict, is destined to be a future MP, is further alienation of the youth vote. Having demonstrated that the 2008 Youth Manifesto was nothing but an empty, vote-grabbing gesture, and then repudiating the cornerstone Errol Barrow policy of free university education, the DLP had already lost significant ground among the youth. Now, the Dems are essentially saying that speaking at a political rally is not for teenagers. David Thompson has to be turning in his grave.

Given the backlash to Blackett’s remarks, the DLP may have  succeeded in eroding any support they had within the closely-knit Indian-Muslim community. Younger generation members who are Barbadian-born and bred like young Khaleel, are legitimately looking to play a greater role in national affairs as any other citizen. If Blackett is so concerned about child abuse, why didn’t he, especially as Minister of Culture, speak out, for example, against a few reported instances of grown women allowing little boys to “wuk-kup” on their “bumsies”, in full public view, on Kadooment Day? But then again, perhaps such behaviour can be excused in the name of culture.

Instead of rushing to criticize, the Dems should have lavished praise on the articulate young lad. If I were in Blackett’s position, I would have personally sought an audience with Khaleel to offer compliments on his amazing speaking skills and to invite him to come on board as an adviser on youth matters so that the Government could benefit from his perspectives. That would have been a masterstroke which would have pushed the DLP’s ratings up a few notches. At a a time when so many young people seem disinterested about engaging the political process, adults have a duty to encourage and support the few who are coming forward instead of discouraging them.

A cardinal rule in politics is that one should always choose one’s battles carefully. In choosing to make a big hullabaloo of a 13 year old’s appearance at a political rally, the drowning DLP probably thought grabbing at this straw would have been a life-saver. They got it wrong. What they clearly overlooked is that a straw sometimes can also break a camel’s back.

(Reudon Eversley is a Carleton University-trained political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: reudon@gmx.com)

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