Our Unresponsible ‘elite’


It was the inimitable Lloyd Best who coined the adjective ‘unresponsible’ and used it to describe and characterize the elites of Caribbean society. All societies have elites. These are the people who are effectively the guardians of what is held to be right and noble in the society. Some of the elite hold high office. Some do not. Some are wealthy and well-heeled. Some are not. Some have attended the very best of universities. Some have not. All of them take responsibility for the place in which they live and guard its territory, its values and way of life. The elite also deals in an exemplary fashion with those of its members who cross the line of what is right and proper. Presidents and governors are impeached. Justices are stripped of their offices. Top businessmen are jailed swiftly for any criminal transgressions. Parliamentarians and ministers of government are brought to book publicly for lack of accountability and integrity.
Now, it should be pointed out, ‘unresponsible’ does not mean quite the same as ‘irresponsible’. When someone is irresponsible, s/he actually knows or ought to know and understand what his/her responsibility is and what is required to discharge that responsibility, and chooses not to be responsible. The man or woman who knows that s/he has HIV and proceeds to an act of unprotected intercourse is being irresponsible. The motorist who accelerates on the yellow light and goes through the intersection on the red light is irresponsible. ‘Unresponsibility’ is different. The unresponsible person either really does not know or understand what his responsibility is, or if he does know what it is, does not know how to discharge that responsibility in the given circumstances.As John Kenneth Galbraith observed, ‘they do not know what they do not know’. The unresponsible person acts in a fashion which right-thinking people would view as unacceptable or inappropriate. Persons who act unresponsibly may not trouble to ask themselves the question: “What does Responsibility demand of me in this situation?” The notion, and the subtle but important difference with the notion of ‘irresponsibility’, explains a great deal and we need to acknowledge this insight as one of Lloyd Best’s important contributions to Caribbean thought.
When for example, we see people littering our streets and tossing bottles and cans out of the windows of their cars, and when we note that these same people would not do the same in London or New York, we begin to grasp the nature and the roots of ‘unresponsibility’. When WASA workers dig up the roads and leave the road in a state of disrepair (and the leak often still unrepaired) such that vehicles must now navigate through and around their ‘work’, that is ‘unresponsibility’. It is unresponsibility because (1) there are clearly no operating standards governing the conduct and completion of their work; (2) there is no (effective) supervision of the work and its results so as to ensure that motorists are not put at risk during and after the repair, and (3) despite perennial complaints over the years, nobody perceives that this is a problem that needs to be addressed and resolved by implementing standards for the repair of leaks which includes restoring the surface to be safe for vehicles and then inculcating those standards through effective supervision by someone who understands the responsibilities which attach to the task and consistently and diligently discharges those responsibilities. WASA’s executive management does not understand what is required to repair leaking mains responsibly.

If acts of unresponsibility were confined only to the despoliation of the environment by littering, digging up the roads and leaving them impassable for weeks on end, or official condonation of sleeping on the sidewalk, that would be bad enough. But unresponsibility is a national cultural affliction affecting persons of every class, ethnicity and status in the society, albeit to varying degrees. Unresponsibility can be identified in policy-making, in the making of appointments, even in legislating and in judicial decision-making. It is everywhere in this society.
If unresponsibility were to be confined to the less well-educated manual workers or to the managerial class, it would be bad enough. Where a society has an unresponsible elite, it is in serious trouble. I am well aware that some persons may find the term ‘elite’ to be offensive. But all societies must have elites. Even a genuine republic like the United States of America has an elite. There, the elite are the graduates of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other Ivy League schools and the faculties of those institutions, the wealthy Wall Street businessmen, the leaders of trades unions, the high ranking clergy and the senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill. They can be of any ethnicity, age or creed. In the UK, the elite comprises the royalty and peers, members of the House of Lords, and top politicians, labour leaders and businessmen. They would have attended Eton and Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge. The elite in a society understands deeply the values of the society and its responsibility to uphold those values in the face of any threat, even against members of their own elite who transgress. Responsible elites take ‘ownership’ of the place they inhabit; they protect it and defend it. They are financially and/or morally independent and are therefore not easily suborned.
In Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean, our elites are our government ministers, preeminently of course the prime minister, parliamentarians, judges, leading bankers and businessmen, permanent secretaries in the public service, top military and police officers, university academics and directors of state enterprises and statutory boards. They can be found in cocktail parties; they travel abroad frequently in first or business class, and are invited to the Independence Day parade and maybe even the Prime Minister’s residence. They would have attended schools like St. Mary’s College, QRC, Naparima or Presentation, St Augustine Girls, Bishop’s or St Joseph’s Convent. Many would have been educated abroad. One aspires to be part of the local elite and one of the ways to become part of the elite is to be invited in through one of the portals of business, state enterprise directorship, senatorship or government ministry. Elite status is not so much earned as ascribed, and the ascription often is made by association with the Government and more particularly, with the Prime Minister.
But what of our elite here in Trinidad and Tobago?

Emile Elias

The passage of the Integrity in Public Life Act 2000 was emblematic of the unresponsibility of our parliamentarians operating in what is supposed to be the highest forum in the land. This was an issue affecting the fundamental rights of a class of persons (‘persons in public life’) and which could visit dire consequences on these persons for failure to declare their assets fully and on time while in the service of the state. On that occasion, the parliamentarians collectively subordinated mature consideration of a matter with serious implications to scoring petty political points about who had more, or less, integrity than the other and in the process opened a Pandora’s box of problems which will not be easily closed.

We witnessed after a long hiatus the appointment to a new Integrity Commission of Jeffrey McFarlane, who was a ‘person in public life’ and disqualified from being so appointed by the legislation. The act of appointing McFarlane was an act of unresponsibility on the part of the President. But it was also unresponsible of McFarlane to accept the appointment. As a member of the elite, it was incumbent on him, knowing what Responsibility requires and knowing that he was subject to the Integrity Act, to undertake the due diligence required to ascertain whether or not he should accept. If he had done so and still accepted, he would have been irresponsible. If he did not do so, and I suspect that he did not, overawed as he probably was with the invitation from on high, he was unresponsible, that is, he failed to do what Responsibility required. It was unresponsible of Henry Charles, a highly gifted and intelligent priest, to accept the appointment to the Commission without doing due diligence on the Canon law of his church and blithely accepting the President’s preparedness to overlook the fact that he had ethical cocoa in the sun.
These are but a couple of recent examples which provoked national scandal. Examples can be multiplied ad nauseam. How does one explain Sherman McNicholls in the Sharma matter, the denial of a radio licence to the Maha Sabha, the dragging out of the Piarco Airport corruption inquiry even to the now ongoing extradition hearings, Karen Nunez-Tesheira’s defiance and Patrick Manning’s acquiescence in the face of a patent conflict of interest in respect of CL Financial, Nizam Mohammed’s failure to follow the lawful directions of a police officer and his egregious failure to understand the scope and remit of his office as chairman of the Police Service Commission, and now Mary King’s behaviour in the award of a contract to a family owned firm. The list goes on.
We must be quite clear. Anyone is capable on a given occasion of acting unresponsibly and the problem is not uniquely a Trinidad and Tobago problem. However, what distinguishes this country from, say, the United States of America or the United Kingdom is that in those countries, the society’s elite as a whole will always act aggressively to defend the nation’s fundamental values. The impeachment of Richard Nixon, the (unsuccessful) impeachment of Bill Clinton, the ouster of Rod Blagojevich, the governor of Illinois who allegedly tried to sell Obama’s vacated Senate seat, the Conservative Party’s ouster of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, the speed and aggression with which David Cameron and Gordon Brown dealt with parliamentary expense claims, the prosecution and jailing of the executives of Enron, Worldcom and countless others, mark societies where the elite understands what Responsibility requires, and they do not shirk it.
In our case, this kind of elite behaviour is the exception rather than the rule. But there are notable exceptions. Margaret Chow’s preparedness to resign from the post of executive director of the HDC to defend her position to the Uff Commission; Emile Elias’ preparedness to take the powerful Central Bank all the way to the Privy Council on the Trinidad Cooperative Bank matter; Sat Maharaj’s dogged prosecution of the need to recast the nation’s highest honour from its Christian associations in a multi-religious society, and his equally dogged pursuit of a broadcast licence in the face of political obstruction; the Integrity Commission’s preparedness to resign en bloc in the face of judicial censure, even though several members then sitting were not even part of the offensive decision of the predecessor Commission; ANR Robinson’s questioning of the appointment to the Senate of large numbers of candidates defeated at the general election; Marlene du Coudray’s defiance of prime ministerial power, and Keith Rowley’s sterling defence of the unseemly attempts to assassinate his character. These persons did not acquiesce, kowtow, or crumble in the face of unresponsible power or seek to hold on to office. Rather, they understood what Responsibility required and discharged it, whatever the outcome or consequences. One should also acknowledge here the role of the media in uncovering instances of unresponsible behaviour and calling out what might otherwise be covered up.
Lloyd Best was extremely perceptive and entirely correct. This country, by and large, has an unresponsible elite, an elite who are happy to hold two or more passports, who accept offices for which they are unqualified and honours they do not deserve and who see the country as a place through which they are passing and for which they need take no ownership. It is because we have an unresponsible elite that we are in serious trouble. We need an elite comprised of persons who will ask at every turn “What does Responsibility require of me in this situation?”- and then take principled action through to its consequences, whatever those may be, and whatever the personal cost. Yet, when we note Gene Miles, the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment during the 1990 attempted coup and in recent times, Margaret Chow, Keith Rowley, Sat Maharaj, ANR Robinson, Marlene du Coudray, and Emile Elias, it is also clear that there is hope, that all is not lost for our nation, and we can yet build a civilization in this country founded on values which are universally shared and stoutly defended.

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