Caribbean electoral traditions include linguistic legerdemain where facety wit turns the most offensive or politically incorrect utterance into something you can’t help smiling at, even if in secret. That’s the point. To say things that would otherwise be entirely crass and cringeworthy.
But you have to do it well. And playfully.
Even in protest, you had to admire Keith Rowley’s “bark at my dog…ignore she cat” remark last election. The immortal 2000 line about Mr Bissessar’s pipe. Patrick Manning’s rejoinder to accusations of spending on a no-show UTT tailoring instructor, assailing his counterpart’s fashion-industry illiteracy, despite appearance on several catwalks – else she would not have been seen walking up Frederick Street (during Ellis Clarke’s funeral procession) dressed as the midnight robber.
But much of what prompts Brigid Annisette-George to consistently play the character of Speaker as a finger-wagging primary schoolmistress is the opposite. Humourless invective from both political benches.
Barry Padarath and his sexuality are often a lightning rod for poor parliamentary picong, as often as not for his own disappointingly histrionic performances. Teasing the PM as admiring his new suit opens the door for the AG to suggest if it were less tight, his outbursts might be less dramatic. His comment to the culture minister, during last month’s budget review, that she needs to learn to count and her ministry should be renamed the Ministry of Betty Crocker and Hansel & Gretel for a $4,000 Carifesta cake, didn’t land any less schoolyardlike than Darryl Smith’s widely condemned reference to Padarath by the altered name of his constituency four years ago.
The minister’s “cooing” insistence (as one reporter put it) that Padarath was an overwhelmed new parent unable to pay full attention to details was priceless banter, triggering a crude retort about Keith Rowley’s fertility that suspended the sitting, as a PNM MP the media declined to name joined Colm Imbert in telling Padarath to pick up his handbag and go home to breastfeed his child. It was a remark that could easily elicit one of those secret smiles.
Many would argue that joking can dangerously dress up hate as playful. There’s a thin line between making fun of someone’s dignity and finding violence against them acceptable or even laughable. The Cocorite teenager’s 2011 Granny Quilla video and Rayad Mohammed’s 2017 Facebook posts wishing sexual violence on women close to Rowley are telling examples.
Last election I mocked Camille Robinson-Regis as PNM’s “lady-vice” chairman. As its Women’s League complained, the UNC, guided by its British consultants, was taking campaigning to a new low in demonising black masculinity, Robinson-Regis, I argued, took it to an old low, mounting a political platform in Arima with picong over Gregory Bissessar’s role in providing women access to reproductive services to score cheap political points.
“This is why I won’t vote,” one friend, now living in Jamaica, Facebooked in response.
Naked appeals around abortion and sexual rights, I had thought, helped the PNM lose the 2010 election, as those soured by them stayed home.
So it was quite a surprise, listening to the party’s local government election kickoff broadcast from Exodus’s panyard, to hear Robinson-Regis re-dredging the trough of sexual innuendo in framing the party’s campaign message. You can’t hold us accountable for Darryl Smith on sexual harassment, she argued bafflingly; the UNC was worse. Claiming, like Mark Antony, she was “not a petty woman,” she then took delight in chronicling in salacious detail every sexual allegation – several long debunked – against UNC ministers.
This is PNM’s appeal for corporation seat votes, I kept blinking at my radio?
Then she got to Delmon Baker, whom a proven fraudster he was intimate with tried to blackmail in 2014. Baker resisted, and the media were happy to help the man put their business on the air – lead story at 7. The allegation was an unwanted sexual advance during a return visit to the minister’s home, after one during which he was sexually touched. Baker told the public the claims were false, he would not be extorted, and would clear his name. The media reported Anthony Nester was charged for making the allegation; and Newsday revealed his other extortions.
But Camille couldn’t resist the deliciousness of middle-aged homophobia, the relish women of her generation take at the idea of homosexuality. She giggled, “Like these doctors like this thing, boy…His accuser claims that Baker abused his trust and sexually assaulted him twice. Him, eh. Him…a gentleman.”
What’s the difference between Camille and Donald Trump demeaning Mexicans and joking about people with disabilities?
I don’t know who the PNM wants to vote for sexual innuendo and homophobia, and why these base appeals win. Despite radically different views by a younger generation, our legacy parties still think treating LGBTI people as citizens is a vote-loser; so let’s assume that means no manifesto promises.
But it isn’t hard for a party to afford every group in the nation respect, however it manages its policy platform. The PNM executive ought to be disciplined enough to do that.