As I sat and listened to US President Barak Obama delivered the State of the Union addressed the one line that appealed to me immediately as a Trinibagonian-American was “self-government, is an obligation to serve your community. Despite the differences between the two countries given their stages along the development spectrum, the concept of self-government for any people in any nation is dynamically linked to the idea of self-determination, hence the comparison.
The United States has a history of 200 plus years of self-governance and it also has elements of dysfunction in government, but even within these 50 states, the people that occupy those spaces understand the idea of self-government.
Like Trinidad and Tobago, political parties also exist, however American political parties are rooted in ideological differences. Despite this, there is something uniquely amazing about American politics and I would argue that politics is the national culture in the United States. It is the only thing all 50 states have in common – the federal government is the only thing that unites these states. Furthermore, the lack of civic knowledge (or facts) by many Americans about their federal government often maligns Americans as ‘dumb’ for lack of a better term, but American civics and history is powerful to the idea of self-government and self-determination. It teaches the story of the American people, of an American dream (though sometimes deferred for many – they have social problems too), about the immigrants, about the founding fathers, about colonialism under the British, the revolutionary war, the Civil War that broke the nation apart over slavery. It talks about state’s rights (go look up the nullification crisis), people marching for the right to vote, the rights of the individual, and even speeding the idea up to today, states legalizing marijuana, a violation of federal law, but that’s federalism for you. I know this because studied it and I taught it.
Without getting lost in American history and politics, let’s get back to the idea of self-government. It is no doubt that Tobago needs self-government. Self-Government has to be taught and infused into the DNA of the Tobagonian. By mere human capital alone, if the resources were provided, we always had the spirit of self-determination because Tobagonians were viewed as hard workers and our students, despite poverty excelled way beyond now. We must find our way back to this heritage. This is a place of common ground in the Tobagonian story.
We are proud of our heritage, but we have lost a significant part of it. When my 85 year old grandfather tells me about the steamer that came to Charlotteville and all around Tobago many years gone by for agricultural produce, and to sit thousands of miles away from Man O’ War Bay, and hear another elder via internet radio talk about the steamer and the current controversy at the beachfront, it tells me we have long gone past this heritage. There is a high degree of hurt and frustration on the part of people, especially the elders, who believed times gone by were better than now.
This is the heritage of hard work and resilience. It is the heritage of things like harvest which brought communities together and in doing so strengthened them (the actual going to the church part loaded with provisions from gardens). It is the heritage that says ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child.’ Self-government is about responsibility then legislative frameworks. Self-government is about the ‘len hand’ and the ‘sou-sou’ when you can’t access banks, still want to save, and still want to do something. Self-government is about the building of community institutions that have broken down and become unresponsive to the needs of a society gone astray. Therefore, self-government is an obligation to serve your community. It is in the telling of the story that self-government becomes practical and even better a reality. The story provides a place of common ground because it our common heritage.
As I conclude, next on my agenda is the fun task of reading the report by the Constitution Commission. This is timely, but also connected. Ending like we began, the American system of government takes into consideration the people, majority and minority based on votes cast. Every elected member whether majority or minority are considered part of the government, every member can present legislation, and the when the people are mad with Washington, they are angry at Congress period. This however provides a platform for consensus building and the creation of alliances to accomplish some, as opposed to nothing.