Freedom to present

On Tuesday this week, we celebrated Emancipation and on next week Monday we will celebrate the 38th anniversary of our independence as a country. These are two milestones of freedom marking a triumph over two different types of domination. Slavery was abolished in the Commonwealth Caribbean 162 years ago. Independence in Jamaica, marking the end of colonial rule, came 124 years later. It is important to consider these two monumental liberation processes together.

The outstanding Jamaican scholar Orlando Patterson, Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, in his highly acclaimed book Freedom, defines three types of faces or aspects of freedom: personal freedom, sovereign freedom, and civic freedom. Personal freedom is doing as one pleases within the limits of other persons’ desires to do the same. Sovereign freedom is doing as one pleases regardless of the wishes and desires of others. It is the power to appropriate more than one’s fair share of freedom. It is the capacity to restrict the freedom of others and to impose control over others. Civic freedom is the capacity of adult members of a community to participate in the life of that community and to share in its governance. Civic freedom is belonging to, having rights in and being involved in the governance of one’s community.

Using Patterson’s very insightful classification and definition of freedom it is clear that there is conflict, contradiction, and tension between personal and sovereign freedom. It is civic freedom that moderates and arbitrates these conflicts and tensions. It is the democracy and the rule of law implemented and practised at all levels of society and community that settles and moderates the issues related to encroachment on the freedom of others.

Emancipation celebrates the establishment of personal freedom for people of African ancestry that were brought to Jamaica as slaves. Almost everything written about the post-emancipation period of our history speaks to the assertion and exercise of the personhood of people of African ancestry. Independence marks the institutionalisation of civic freedom in Jamaica. The process started with the granting of adult suffrage and representative government in 1943 and the first elections under this franchise in 1944. What followed next was a transition of power from the colonial masters to the Jamaica people, through the stage of full internal self-government in the latter part of the 1950s and then political independence in 1962.

We are now living in freedom as a result of both emancipation and independence. We are enjoying personal and civic freedom based on the sacrifices of our forebears. It is necessary therefore to reflect on our stewardship in the exercise of freedom as we live in freedom.

In reflecting on that experience it seems clear that much of our current problems and difficulties as a country has stemmed from two sources. First, a large number of people are wantonly and carelessly exercising sovereign freedom. Second, civic freedom appears to be becoming increasingly impotent to moderate and arbitrate the conflicts and tensions created by this cavalier exercise of sovereign freedom.

In Jamaica today, there are gods everywhere. Walk into any Government office and most private businesses presiding over an area of scarcity and there will be no lack of persons at all levels of that organisation that will be making it plain to you that they are in charge and that you are required to wait on their pleasure. Delve into the factors related to the collapse of the financial sector and you will find numerous instances in which the common good of the country and the best interests of shareholders, policyholders, depositors, and employees were disregarded and ignored. Look at the quarrels and squabbles within the JLP and issues of sovereign freedom are written over them in the large writ. Walk into inner-city communities and you must deal with the area don. Lines are broken with impunity because of the wanton disregard for natural justice in terms of first come first serve. Drive on the roads and observe the extent to which drivers encroach on the personal freedom of others. Listen to the common complaints of citizens with respect to their treatment by many police officers and it is clear that the issue is about lack of respect. The common references to all and sundry as ‘bwoy’ and ‘gyal’ testifies eloquently to the extent to which some people elevate themselves to superior positions and disrespect others in the exercise of authority.

The weakening of civic freedom is manifested in our seeming inability to enforce rules and laws. Invariably, those who have violated the freedom of others are stoutly defended, making villains of those who would uphold the rule or the law. To me, the prime example of this growing civic impotence is the case of the electoral system. Well over one million adult Jamaicans have been treated as criminals for the purpose of voting. We have been required to be photographed and fingerprinted for that purpose. A huge amount of money was spent to put this system in place. Laws were passed to deal with offenders. The whole system and process were justified on the basis of identifying and dealing with offenders in the process of ensuring the integrity of the polls. Of the 1.2 million persons that have gone through this process, just over 8,000 cases of fraud have been uncovered. This is a very small minority. But to date, no one has been prosecuted. The outrage is that there has been no outrage at this failure to follow through on the very basis on which the system was established.

It could well be argued that a people who have been dominated are most prone to misuse power and freedom when they finally acquire it. Accordingly, it is said that time will take care of the difficulties that presently beset us as experience teaches prudence and good sense.

As I see it, our current actions are courting new forms of domination. We are already in the clutches of external control through our high level of indebtedness. As a country and society, we need to take immediate steps to deal constructively with these issues related to the exercise of sovereign freedom by strengthening civic responsibility and deepening democratic processes at all levels. We appear to be squandering the sacrifices of our forebears whose legacy of freedom is symbolized in the celebration of emancipation and independence.