Mirages of history and intellectual dishonesty

Canute Thompson, PhD

Sunday, November 12, 2017

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Modern America continues to grapple with mass shootings. At the time I began this article Las Vegas was the latest incident with some 59 deaths, but since then there have been two other mass killings — New York (eight deaths) and Texas (26 deaths).

The American media labelled the Las Vegas incident the worst mass shooting in “modern” American history, and Texas the worst in that state's history. Is this selective reporting or intellectual dishonesty?

It is always sad when any human life is savagely taken, or lost when it could be saved. But there is a certain blindness and intellectual dishonesty about mass shootings in America that must be exposed. Elements of the American political class, gun lobby, and Second Amendment establishment insist that guns do not kill people, people do. US President Donald Trump, speaking on the Texas massacre, said: “This is not a gun issue,” rather “it is a mental health issue.” Trump perhaps epitomises the hypocrisy that is typical of America. When a white racist takes many lives it is an act of evil. When someone by the name of Mohammed does it, it is terrorism, and his travel ban becomes all the more relevant, he claims.

In the same way some people argued that the solution for Las Vegas would be more people having guns to shoot back — even at 320 feet in the air — Trump says that the possession of a gun by another citizen brought an end to the shooting in Texas. The same argument was made about Sandy Hook when 26 people, mainly children, were killed. The gun lobby argued then that the cure would have been found in teachers having guns. So why don't they all just get guns to take to church and school and work?

Memory loss and hypocrisy

Sadly, Las Vegas, New York, and most recently Texas (if another does not happen before this article gets published) are all likely to pass from memory as fast as have Orlando, Sandy Hook, and many others before.

But beyond the hypocrisy of Trump and the Republican establishment is the amnesia, intellectual dishonesty, and engrained racism of the powerful in America, whose blinkered view of the world does not even permit them to acknowledge mass killings which predate “modern” American history.

The very act of creating a distinction between modern and pre-modern American history is the belly of the dishonesty. A hundred years ago, in 1917, some 700 blacks were presumed killed in what was known as the East St Louis riots. That tragedy should have gone down in history as the worst mass killing in American history, but since the victims were blacks that incident would not count. There have been at least three mass killings of blacks in the 1900s. These are the Greenwood Riots in Tulsa Oklahoma in 1921, in which at least 300 blacks were killed and thousands left homeless; Texas, 1910, 200 blacks killed; Florida, 1923, 150 blacks killed; and Arizona, 1919, 100 blacks killed. What appear to be sanitised versions of the history state the number of fatalities at significantly lower numbers.

But the narrative in the media is about “modern” American history. A society that does not confront its past is bound to repeat it, and America is living that reality. And the speed with which these massacres pass, with nothing being done, makes them all appear like mirages.

Jamaica's attempted denial of reality

We here in Jamaica had better not become too self-righteous about the failure of America to candidly confront its demons as we too have our demons. Our political and economic classes have colluded to hide from us the real stats on murders — mostly of poor (black) males, the root causes of which are partly found in a political culture that relies on gangs.

Having capitulated to the pressures of the Government, the newspapers no longer carry daily tallies of murders — as though that can halt the spate we are now seeing, with 2017 being 25 per cent ahead of 2016. Our refusal to reckon publicly with the numbers may be likened to the preference of America. We had better confront root causes.

In the same way some in America hide in the claim that the cause is not the prevalence of guns, but mental illness, we in Jamaica hide in the argument that it is mainly inter-gang violence, as if that puts us any less at risk. If the trend continues, it will see us reaching in excess of 60 per 100,000 in 2017.

From 'A' to ZOSO

The Government has implemented the hastily conceived zones of special operations (ZOSO) Act. The hype about ZOSO died down with the designation of Mt Salem being extended for another 60 days and Denham being declared a ZOSO under what might be its first 60 days. We have to wonder what this ZOSO is all about.

I recall being roundly criticised for asserting that, based on the parameters set by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, the ZOSO was bound to fail. Despite Holness's revision of the metrics, there is no evidence that the operation is of any value.

One of the many sage residents of St James said, “We want to see peace all over St James, not only in Mt Salem.” The rest of us would add, not just Denham Town and Mt Salem, but all of Jamaica.

The one and only way that ZOSO can be said to be a success is if after the 60, 120, or whatever number of days the community is restored to sustainable peace and productivity (and not just of babies) and the operation being replicated elsewhere produces similar results. Outside of that, ZOSO will be no more than hype and public relations, as Hugh Blackford wrote in his piece in the Jamaica Observer on Monday, November 6, 2017.

But what has the Mt Salem ZOSO really achieved? Recovery of five guns? Any normal police operation achieves that and more all the time. Who got paid for guns that were turned in? Thugs? Why was the Mt Salem ZOSO not extended to neighbouring Salt Spring? Politics? And why Mt Salem, given that more murders are being committed in other St James communities? Politics? How different is this politics from that being played by the American media over massacres in modern versus pre-modern American history or the Republicans over guns and gun control. If the Government is playing politics with crime it would be the worse form of deception of, and disservice to, the Jamaican people.

Whether we admit or not...

So the PNP has suffered a humiliating defeat in the St Mary South Eastern by-elections. What accounted for this major JLP victory? Do we have the intellectual courage to say what happened? Some commentators have sought to tiptoe around the issue, while the attitude of others is that of “ah nuh nutten”.

The allegations of vote-buying have been more than a whisper. Fact or sour grapes? But, in addition to the virtual pretence by some in the media that nothing unusual happened, is the self-contradictions of others. Ian Boyne, who characterises the JLP win as Holness “Dunn-ing” Peter Phillips, argues that the comments of PNP Deputy General Secretary Basil Waite that this was a grand “buy election” insults the people of St Mary South Eastern. This contradicts his criticism of Waite when he writes:

“Party funders were also very pragmatic. They saw support for the JLP as sensible and strategic, for the party has State power with all its largesse. This made the JLP flush with funds and they used it liberally. But we have to ask: What does it say about our people if they are so easily bribed that, irrespective of the issues, they will sell their votes to those willing to pay the most? What does it say about our citizenry?”

You can't have it both ways, Ian. You can't in one breath criticise Waite's truth-speak and then in the other breath offer an even more stinging condemnation.

There is no doubt that the PNP blundered with the choice of a candidate who was handicapped by not having Jamaican citizenship. There is also no doubt that the PNP fell asleep at the wheel if it could not say how many new electors it had enumerated compared to the JLP which could account for several hundreds. But did not Daryl Vaz win his seat in Portland Western in 2007 despite being a dual citizen? From all appearances, the issue real explanation for the JLP win is that it outspent the PNP.

That our electoral system is held hostage to big money will not strengthen us in the fight against crime, it will weaken us. Vote-buying is a crime. We cannot explain or excuse one form of criminal behaviour and then expect citizens to take us seriously when we call on them to report crimes and join in the fight against crime. But we should not hold our breath that either political party will pursue campaign financing reforms that would put an end to vote-buying. For, in addition to the desire of the political parties to gain State power at any cost, many companies and individuals who fund political parties want to have leverage over the party in power. Thus there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around in high places on many sides.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or




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