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Talking Loud and Saying Nothing

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: September 26, 2003

[In two of his columns, "Cudjoe's Crusades" (July 30) and "Dangerous Demands" (August 13), Sat Maharaj used Lloyd Best's intemperate and wholly dishonest commentary, "Throwing Words Leaves a Bad Taste" (Express, July 21), to criticize and demean my scholarship and my person. Fairness demands that the Guardian publish my response to Mr. Best so that Mr. Maharaj's comments can be seen for the deceptiveness that they are. Incidentally, I submitted these remarks to the Guardian on July 24, a day after my mother died. I can think of no finer tribute to her memory than the publication of this statement. It reflects the courage she taught and the determination she instilled to stand up for what one believes.]

Whenever I read Lloyd Best's overblown rhetoric, I am tempted to reflect on Philipp Frank's observation about Albert Einstein's discernment. He observed: "Einstein liked to read some philosophers because they made more or less superficial and obscure statements in beautiful language about all sorts of things, statements that often aroused an emotion like beautiful music and gave rise to reveries and meditations on the world. Schopenhauer was pre-eminently a writer of this kind and Einstein like to read him without taking his views seriously"

On the other hand, Einstein liked to read David Hume, an English philosopher, because of the "unsurpassable clarity of his presentation and his avoidance of any ambiguities intended to give an impression of profundity." Hume rejected all metaphysical concepts "if they could not be established by experience and logical derivations," a posture that led him to reconsider the all-too-easy connection that we make between cause and effect. In reading Best one is led to wonder if he inundates his prose with so many convoluted phrases and exacerbating circumlocutions the better to obscure the questions under discussion.

In his article, "Throwing Words leave a bad taste" (Express, July 21), Best presumes to respond to my concerns about the ethics of his wife and the appropriateness of his disciple's theoretical formulations. He suggests that I wish "take Best on. But snide. So he takes great care not to stick his neck out." What utter rubbish! I have absolutely no desire to take on Best even though I would dearly like to deconstruct most of the non-sense he offers as profundity each week in the pages of the Express. Each week, Best offers three articles of approximately 6,000 words. Therefore, in any given year Best uses 312,000 words to parade his monologues, which certainly make neither for debate nor sustained discussion. What we have is a Lloyd Best monopoly on words in which no one is particularly interested given the sparcity of responses that are offered to his columns.

I would delighted to take Best on word for word, idea for idea if the editors of the Express had the decency to understand that Best's ideas are not the only ideas in the public arena and that sufficient room must be made for other voices if he really wants to engage in a serious dialogue with other thinkers in the society. So let us put his pretence to rest. Lloyd Best monopolies the newspapers. It will conduce better to public discourse if more persons are included in these debates.

So much for Best's disingeniousness and the built-in advantages he enjoys which he now presumes to be the normal mode of dialoging. Since I cannot deal with all of the issues he raised in his response to my articles I will deal with one substantive issue and some of the silliness he offers.

First, the silliness. I will like Best to tell me what academic convention has been violated when I use the term "the journalist" rather than the journalist's name. I understand this to be an option of a journalist. The only question is whether I quoted the journalist correctly. If I did not, he ought to point out where I erred and how, in so doing, I distorted or mis-represented the ideas of the journalist. Needless to say, my not citing the journalist's name signified the unoriginal content of the ideas that were presented, a right that I will continue to exercise. Second. That my appointment to the Central Bank's Board of Directors scandalized the bank is a serious charge. One would have thought that Best, an enemy of academic credentials, would have welcomed the selection to the Bank's Board of an ordinary citizen who has demonstrated a commitment to public service, independence of mind and integrity. Honesty implies that I acknowledge my limitations in the area of monetary policy. Commitment to service demands that I do everything in my power to strengthen my shortcomings. At this point, my challenge is to develop a better understanding of monetary and fiscal policies in order to serve my society better. Only time will prove the correctness or incorrectness of Best assumption and the quality of the service I provide to my society.

Third. Since Best is enamored with the term "epistemology," I wonder how he knows that Naipaul "wouldn't even piss on" the book I wrote about the latter's work? If so, he should present his evidence. Rather than rely on mindless speculation (of course, there is always the chance that Naipaul told Best that he would not even "piss" on my book), he should tell us what he objects to in my work and why. Under the circumstances it is not even important to repeat some of the accolades that greeted my book upon its publication and even as recently as a year ago. Suffice it to say that when I was writing my book, Patricia Naipaul, Naipaul's first wife, wrote to say that Naipaul "admires my work greatly." Some months later in 1987, on his way to the southern United States to write The Way of the World, Naipaul called my house and, in our conversation, asked why I thought his work is important.

Now, to the more substantive argument. To reiterate my argument of July 11. I said then, and repeat now, that Sunity Maharaj acted in an unethical manner when she accepted the executive directorship of the Commonwealth Journalist Association after serving on a committee to select an appropriate candidate for the position. I won't rehearse the arguments I made except to state that Best, an honorable man, should tell us whether he thinks it proper, ethical, honest and morally responsible for Maharaj to accept a position for which she was a selector.

Secondly, I questioned the journalist ethics of the Express in not publishing any story (except a report on MATT's news conference) about the appropriateness of Ms. Maharaj behavior. I made it clear then, and reiterate now, that while the Express, as so many other newspapers, exposes everybody's else's business, it maintains a noticeable silence when it comes to the affairs of those in its own house. The Express did not even publish this journalist's comments on the issue. Such behavior cannot promote the goal of good journalism.

That was the substance of my article. Best has an obligation to tell us what he disagrees with on these two issues and why. Within this context, I also wish to contest Best's position with regards to the relation between the individual and the system of a given society. Best states: "I've repeatedly stated that our political condition should not be ascribed to corrupt politicians or to wicked leaders but mainly to 'system problems' above the individual." Such a formulation is not entirely accurate, particularly if we keep in mind that an individual, a biological organism, is not quite the same thing as a person, a social being.

More importantly, "system problems," in all times and in all places, cannot be seen as being above "the individual." I will argue that the system and the individual exist in a dialectical unity, one taking precedence over the other depending upon the given situation at hand. In seeking to understand social and/or political events, the trick, or the science as Best would say, is to discern when one trumps the other and how, under the circumstances, one deals with that aspect of the phenomenon. In other words, the social or political scientist must answer the following question: how do the system and the individual interrelate in any social system and what player, at any given time, dictates the tempo of the event under scrutiny?

Let me give an example of what I mean. It is entirely true to say that the system of apartheid of South Africa or the system of segregation in the southern United States conduced to the making of certain behaviors. But it is equally as true that a person, as Marx pointed out, "is a nexus of social relations." An institution or a system is not some disembodied entity. It presumes the subjective responses of individuals who make up the social totality although, at times, the social system can and does assume a life of its own as, of course, the individual. A social system cannot operate independently of the individual social agent. It follows therefore, that change only comes about when a social actor (an individual) acts. Such action sets in train a chain of re-actions that results in the transformation of the system and even the individual.

Such a proposition assumes that even though the segregation system of southern U.S. was inhuman (and it created evil human beings) it took the action of an individual, Rosa Parks, who decided that she was tired and was not giving up her seat to a white man, to change the system. As a moral agent--not a faceless non-entity functioning in a disembodied system-Parks' action, that is, the action of an individual, ignited an action that led to what can be called the third revolution of the United States: the civil rights revolution that completed a dream Jefferson and others had at the beginning of the U.S. republic. To argue, therefore, that the "'system problem' is above the individual" is not entirely correct. I would prefer to say that although a system takes on a life of its own, it always depends upon the individual actors, who are moral agents, to set it in train. One is neither above nor below the other. They always interrelate, the relative importance of each always being determined by the particular project under examination.

Such a formulation brings us to the behavior of Ms. Maharaj. Since individuals are moral agents who act within a social system, their behavior, moral or otherwise, always affects the moral and ethical direction of a society. Their behavior is related centrally to the transformation of the social order, which, in the end, conduces to the social good or its opposite.

Journalism, as Best knows only too well, has been described as the fourth estate. Citizens, through their laws, grant them the right to operate for the education and entertainment of the society. To achieve its objective, the newspaper must be seen as being open, honest and fair. However, the newspaper is not simply ink on a paper. It involves individuals making judgments such as whether Best gets 312,000 words a year, what story goes on the from page, and how much of the news is fit to print. Individuals make these judgments. When, therefore, an individual betrays that trust and acts in ways that are likely to be construed as dishonorable they take the society a notch down and distort a people's integrity. Rather than speak in general terms of "system problem" functioning above the individual, the question under examination would have yielded better results if Mr. Best explored how the general (in this case, the system) inter-related with the individual (Ms. Maharaj) to achieve a given result and whether, under the circumstances, Ms. Maharaj's behavior conduce to the social good. This is the question to which Best should respond.

In other words, it is only by teasing out this relation in its material context-delving into the world of cause and effect-that one can determine the appropriateness of Ms. Maharaj's behavior. Hume noted: "All reasonings concerning matter of fact are founded on the relation of cause and effect…We can never infer the existence of one object from another, unless they be connected together, either mediately or immediately" (Abstract of a Treatise of Human Understanding). Such an examination (Best might call it doing the hard work) cannot be wished away by beautiful phrases, high blown language and meaningless constructions that signify very little. Only an honest appraisal of Ms. Maharaj's behavior can save the day.

I will like to tackle other issues that Lloyd Best raised such as the Naipaulian notion that we are bereft of a past, the distinction between historical and the literary modes of analysis, the half-made nature of our societies and his ubiquitous interpretation of what constitutes "the epistemic challenge." Unlike Lloyd Best, I do not enjoy the privilege of posting "To Be Continued" at the end of my articles. My only wish is that I can be given the opportunity to deal with some of the utterly unacceptable ways in which Mr. Best formulates matters.

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