Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Sunday, July 06, 2003  

I don't know how many people would have noted it, but intellectual parricide was committed on Saturday in T&T. The guilty party was Professor Theodore Lewis of the University of Minnesota; the scene of the act was a column in Saturday's Express. And the victim was Lloyd Best.

It would not be overstating the case to say that Lloyd Best is the leading thinker in this country, and has been so for some 40 years. His ideas, theories and strategies have had more influence on this country than many realise; though to most, I suppose he is simply an anachronism, a man whose quixotic philosophy and seemingly arcane stratagems can be tossed away along with his failed political career.

But Best has plugged on, decade after decade, espousing his ideas in almost every forum: from the university lectern, in newspapers and journals, on public platforms, at meetings and rallies, in churches, mosques and mandirs. About the only thing that he hasn't (for deliberate reasons) done is written a book (a fact that I personally think unfortunate). Still, he has been such an influential figure that one colleague has spoken of him as one of only three people to truly understand the cypher that is Trinidad, the others being Eric Williams and VS Naipaul.

(There is, incidentally, a story Best often tells of the time he was a lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in the early 1960s, and Naipaul was staying with him while researching his book The Middle Passage. One night Naipaul returned to the house in quite a state, saying he had spent the evening listening to some of the university administration talk in distressing tones about how Best was fermenting revolution on campus.)

But to the present, and Professor Lewis. This is how he sums up the Best philosophy on the "responsible elite" this country needs to take it forward, all the while sharpening his knife:

"Such a class would not be given to overnight solutions, but rather would be willing to put in the hard work needed, and have the patience to take the long view. One dimension of such an elite would be their proletarian bonafides. They would be sprung from the grass roots, whose well-being will inform their agendas, and would be the primary criterion determining their credibility or the extent of their tenure. This elite would have moral force. They would know where they came from, so to speak. They would understand that the people giveth, and the people taketh away....

"His design for a responsible elite having been set forth, Mr Best spends the rest of his time enumerating in relentless fashion, the many psychological and historical obstacles that impede us from ever arriving at this vision. He contends, for example, that 'we rank perception through the eyes of the coloniser well ahead of perceptions we make from our own angle of vision'. We are 'half-made' and are paralysed by our 'innocence'. We have no sense of history. We lack entrepreneurial command; we lack proprietary capability needed to take command. We have no grasp of the whole. One reason for this general state of hopelessness and helplessness is that the education and school system that Eric Williams has left us may not have been suited to post-independence requirements. Thus, we are producing educated elite whose contribution amounts to little."

Having prepared his blade, the Professor goes in for the kill:

"I am very clear that we are not the same passive ex-colonial backwater we might have been once, hating who we are, seeking external validation always, and not willing to take up our beds and walk. I can’t go along with Mr Best here. And I have a message for him, and it is that this land is ours now. This is not to say that self-critique is to be shied away from. The society needs to be introspective, and if Mr Best is our medium for that, then I think we are fortunate. But it does not mean that people like me have to go along with him."

Lewis then presents his own view, saying that, far from misunderstanding what post-colonial nationhood needed, Eric Williams "mobilised the country toward selfhood" and set the stage for transforming us into the "vibrant economy" we are today. He argues that the education system, though it could be better, is good, and that we are a "delightfully arrogant, self-assured people". What we need, he says, is not pie in the sky philosophy, but practical plans and schemes for economic entrepreneurship and growth, especially among the black working class.

Where Best takes the long view, Lewis is interested in the short term, in what can be done now. He is tired of lamenting the problem. What we need is a solution. Lewis wants action, not talk; Lloyd Best's argument is that talk is the first, and most important, form of action.

I understand where Professor Lewis, and others like him who have recently (but not as openly or clinically) criticised Lloyd Best are coming from. The way I see it, these persons are willing to be less critical than Best, and accept certain givens in this society, whether they be social, political or otherwise. They believe that a foundation, however flawed, already exists upon which we can continue to build; it is how we do that that concerns them.

Best, on the other hand, sees our foundations as inimically shaky, and that basically, complete transformation of the society is the sine qua non we need before we can move ahead.

When you get down to it, Lloyd Best is, has always been, a dreamer. A dreamer with real, workable ideas in my view, but a dreamer nonetheless, practically a death sentence in a country as cynical and apathetic as T&T. And while this seems to have never bothered Best (he says he has never despaired, never lamented; and that he could wait a hundred years for change to take place) the reality still exists, the day to day reality that we all must live in, and most are prepared, in the main, to accept.

They are willing to accept it because of our relative prosperity and what has been until recently our general peacefulness; we are always comparing ourselves with nations worse off than us and concluding that, despite its faults, T&T is still a paradise.

But when you have never known better it is difficult to conceive of better, and this is why Lloyd Best will always be important. From the beginning he has had a vision for this country, and the region. He has refined that vision through the years, but it has in essence remained the same. And no matter what happens, that vision remains, a yardstick by which we can judge ourselves, towards which we can aspire, in order to bring out (pun unavoidable) the best in ourselves.

Best himself has said recently of the growing criticism of his work that it is expected, that intellectual parricide is necessary in every generation for a nation's progress. If this is so, and considering that Best is not a young man, we seem set for a changing of the intellectual guard. But, as I say, I don’t know how many people noticed.

posted by Jonathan | 11:22 AM 0 comments


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