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Alice and the Jamaican Wonderland

Lance Neita

Sunday, January 20, 2019

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“CURIOUSER and curiouser,” thought Alice in Wonderland as she surveyed the strange and eccentric dream world in which she found herself after falling down a rabbit hole.

For those not familiar with this story, Alice was the central figure of the 19th century tale of a little girl wandering through a fantasy world peopled by the oddest characters — human and animal — who take her on a journey that has fascinated readers in over 70 countries and several generations since it was written by Lewis Carroll in 1865.

Alice in Wonderland is a delightful book that plays with logic in a most roundabout way. I read it as a child and was fortunate to have rediscovered it a few years ago as I allowed nostalgia to run free and enjoy the sheer nonsense genre of this story.

The characters had their own rules, which they made up as they went along and broke them just as casually. They had their own peculiar code of conduct, which was summed up by the Duchess, who told Alice, “My child, everyone in this world has got a moral; if only you can find it.” Life simply held no complications for these extraordinary folk.

“When I use a word”, announces Humpty Dumpty, “it means just what I choose it to mean.”

So when Alice finally catches up with the White Rabbit, who she followed down the hole, and she asks him, “How long is forever?” the rabbit replies simply, “Sometimes just one second.”

And the Cheshire Cat is little help.

“I don't want to go among mad people,” Alice tells him

“Oh you can't help that,” said the cat. “We are all mad here. I am mad. You are mad.”

“How do you know that I am mad?” asked Alice.

“You must be,” said the cat, “or you wouldn't have come here.”

I have often found a parallel situation with Jamaica as we wander through the maze of eccentricities and wild goose chases that make up the fabric of our often bewildering country.

According to my journals (earlier columns in this newspaper), Alice has twice visited Jamaica and found it as delightfully confusing and infuriating as was her original Wonderland.

We are a land of contradictions, where what is often said is not necessarily what we mean. This applies particularly to politicians who must make promises and then worry later about having to fulfil them.

On her return to Jamaica in 2019 she would find that the innocent, nonsense language of the Wonderland 100 years ago has now evolved into something called doublespeak.

Doublespeak, according to Wikipedia, is language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. It is very popular nowadays because it is often used to avoid answering questions without directly stating that the specific interviewee is ignoring or rephrasing the question.

But, to be fair to our politicians, doublespeak is not restricted to their world. It has been well used in other fields by advertising agencies, salesmen, media, and I confess even speech writers and public relations men like myself who have been tempted to try to use doublespeak.

The term 'alternative facts' was first used by a US President Donald Trump media spokesperson to cover up inaccurate statements given earlier at a press conference. Alternative facts, a creature of doublespeak, is now widely used as a mock term for plain lies and falsehoods by public figures. We haven't heard much of that term in Jamaica, but just watch this space.

A good standard answer that inevitably leads to doublespeak is, “I am glad you asked that question, but first let me say this...” The 'let me say this' gives the responder enough time to ward off any further questions on that particular issue while hoping that the interviewer will forget where he left off.

Doublespeak is also a form of using language to create confusion. Public statements are oftentimes bogged down with jargon, trick phrases, and an attempt to conceal paucity of ideas with grandiose language and verbiage.

Edwin Newman, the author of A Civil Tongue, written in defence of the English language, states that the candour and accuracy expected from politicians and other leaders is more and more offset by language that conceals more than it tells, and often conceals the fact that there is little or nothing worth telling.

British Prime Minister Theresa May came up with a gem last week following her narrow victory over the no-confidence vote. May said she was staying put, according to an Associated Press report, as an election “would deepen division when we need unity, it would bring chaos when we need certainty, and it would bring delay when we need to move forward”. In other words, the country needs to move forward, but the prime minister is staying put, come what may.

The Venezuelan debate (or debacle depending on how you look at it) provides open season for Jamaican doublespeak (remember the Cheshire Cat who explained to Alice that if she wasn't mad she wouldn't have come here).

The Opposition has rained down shame and disgrace on the Government for voting against Nicolás Maduro and, worse, for their stated intent to acquire the Venezuelan Petrojam shares.

This should be enough to make the Government members all stand up and hang down their heads in shame. But the Government will have none of that. “Jamaica stands on principle,” replies the foreign minister. “The engagement will be sensitive and knotty, but Jamaica stands on principle as we always have, and we will continue to stand on principle.”

Wow! To have both a knotty engagement to untangle, and to stand on principle at the same time, will require some sort of an extraordinary gymnastic feat.

Let us go back to Alice as she pays her third visit to Jamaica. Remember what is deadly serious to us becomes simple, funny, and no big thing to Lewis Carroll, who takes a satirical view of so-called solemn matters.

For example, while on a tour escorted by the Duchess, Alice comes across a group at one end of the Wonderland.

“Why do those people carry buckets?” she asks the Duchess. “Oh, my child,” says the kindly dowager, “these are our Cabinet ministers and some 'Council of Churches' members. They are waiting on the Queen to make her grand entrance and they use the buckets to bury their heads in the sand in case she asks any difficult questions.”

The tour continues. She has come across the remnants of a party once held by a minister of Government in celebration of a speech he had made earlier on his birthday. When she asked to interview the minister he couldn't be found. She discovers, after a diligent search, that he had been standing on principle in another corner of the garden, while alternatively (and factually) sitting on a committee.

Sensible girl that she was, she decided to leave well alone.

At this point, Alice decides to leave the company of her tour guide as she has accepted an invitation to play croquet with the Queen. “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” she asks. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” replies the Duchess.

“I don't really care so long as I get somewhere.”

“In that case,” says the Duchess, “it doesn't matter which way you go. You are sure to get there if you only walk long enough.”

But the biggest lesson in the Jamaican Wonderland was yet to come. The King, apparently, was about to lead a grand street parade that day, and he would be dressed in his new clothes. With a sad look on his face, her new tour guide, the Mock Turtle, gave Alice the background of why the King would be leading the parade and what would happen that day. He explained that the King was a very vain man who loved new clothes and wore a different costume for every hour of the day.

The Mock Turtle knew, however, that two swindlers who wanted to make some money off the King had pretended to be tailors and offered to make the King the finest outfit he had ever worn. It would be made of beautiful colours, extraordinary patterns, but in addition, it would be invisible to anyone in the land who was incompetent or stupid.

“Ah,” thought the King, “this will be wonderful, for now I will know which one of my ministers are incompetent or unfit for their posts.”

So the men spent weeks weaving and weaving in a private room, but the King was cautious about visiting the room, so he sent his minister of fashion, entertainment, culture and sports to look and report on progress.

When the minister looked at the work base she thought to herself, “My goodness, I don't see anything. The men seem to be sewing in the air with a pair of large scissors. And sewing with needles but no thread. Is it possible I am stupid and unfit? No one must know this. No, it will never do for me to say I was unable to see the material.”

She went back to the King and reported that it was beautiful, using all the buzzwords that he had picked up from the swindlers. The other ministers also went to visit, looked in the room and saw nothing, but went back and told the King he was getting a number one outfit, the best in the land, fit for the fashion magazines. The Cabinet voted that the King should not keep the gown to himself, but should wear it in a procession for the entire world to see. The King agreed.

Well the King finally came to take a peek at the outfit, saw nothing, kept quiet, and was all over the tailors with compliments. He even presented them with the Order of the Country for the magnificent work they had done. Then he had them dress him carefully in the invisible outfit.

Outside the palace that fateful day the streets were lined with people, including Alice. As the King appeared, leading the grand parade, the people clapped and cheered. “Beautiful,” they said to one another, “perfect fit. Goodness, the King's new clothes are incomparable.”

And as the parade got close to Alice the King pirouetted and posed, turning around to show the people his wonderful outfit from every vantage point. Nobody in the crowd wanted it to be noticed that they were incompetent or unfit, or plain stupid.

Suddenly the voice of a little boy rang out: “But, mama, di King no have on nuh clothes, di King naked!”

“Shut yuh mout', bwoy”, said the mother, feeling shamed by her son who was making the family look stupid. “Yuh rude and a goin' sen' yuh home mek yuh father beat yuh skin.” Her neighbours also started to hush the boy: “Tell him fi keep quiet, Liza. Di bwoy fly past him nes' fi true. Facesy an' outa order.”

But it was too late. The King had heard the little boy and suddenly realised that it was true. He was completely naked. He hung his head. And the people took up the cry, “The King has no clothes.”

The Cabinet shoved their heads into their buckets of sand.

And Alice, shaking with laughter, made her final exit from Wonderland and returned to reality. Or so she thought. As she woke up and found herself back home in her garden, she saw the White Rabbit of her dreams staring at her. The rabbit ordered her to write down everything she had seen.

“But where shall I begin?” she asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” said the White Rabbit gravely, “and go on till you reach the end. Then stop.” As simple as that.

 

Lance Neita is a historian and public relations consultant. Send comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com.


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