Monday, 11 September 2017

Review of Cult of the Will. Dr. Selwyn Ryan.

Professor Selwyn Ryan's comments on the publication of Cult of theWill by Gerard Besson

It is perhaps a coincidence that the publication of Gerard Besson's controversial book, The Cult of the Will, should occur at the same time as the defeat of the People's National Movement (PNM) in the recently concluded general elections. The book is also being outdoored at a time—Friday 9—when the Eric Williams Memorial Lecture is scheduled to be delivered at the Central Bank. One of the basic arguments of the book is that Eric Williams and the PNM are "dead" or, if not, deserve to be. 
The book consists of two basic parts. The first deals with rise and fall of the family of Francois Besson to which the author belongs. That family portrait is however not a vain exercise. Drawing on a wealth of documentary data, including wills, Besson fashions a tapestry of the black and white French creole community in Grenada and later in Trinidad from which one learns a great deal.  
The second part of the book deals, inter alia, with wills and Williams, and argues that wills had a lot to do with who got what in Trinidad's racially stratified society. It argues further that two wills in particular, involving Eric Williams and his white forbears, had a significant impact on the post independence politics of Trinidad and Tobago. 
Our analysis is confined to three of the books main arguments. The first is that Eric Williams and his intellectual patron, CLR James, wilfully and deliberately conspired to produce a contrived account of the British anti-slavery movement which Williams misused for political purposes. According to Besson, a significant aspect of the narrative, much of which is found in Capitalism and Slavery and The History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, tends to stereotype the European planters and their descendents as "villains", and characterises the African slaves, and latterly their descendants, as "victims". 
Besson's argument is that Williams consciously revised the British narrative about the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation to counter the conventional version which anchors the anti-slavery movements in British humanitarian concerns.  
Williams claimed that he had unmasked a "gross historical lie" and had unmasked "a great academic conspiracy" which had lent credibility to the British claim that they were humanitarians who had a moral right to govern and civilise the colonies. 
These arguments have, of course, long been the subject of academic argument and counterargument. For Besson, however, they are not matters that concern only academics. They have had great political consequences for Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean. As he complains, Dr Williams would carry his conspiracy theory about the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation forward into his political life. 
He would develop a political programme that would exploit these ideas. His revisionist narrative pilloried the European population in Trinidad and Tobago not only as descended from slave owners, but also of inheriting their guilt, while ignoring the complicity of the Africans who had sold their fellow Africans in exchange for trade goods. 
Besson makes two other basic points which are germane to his argument. One is that Williams' neurotic behaviour was informed by hostility to the white creole group to which his family belonged. In sum, his personality was misshaped by his belief that his family were "victims of the Will". The complaint was that the family was robbed or deprived of the various bequests that were made by their white relatives. 
This obsessive reaction was projected unto the "true inheritors" of history's bequest, viz the Afro-creole masses. His politics was thus about "revenge" and racial entitlements. "He conveniently forgot that his own forbears, his father's people, had been slave owners." 
Besson further argues that his "massa day" diatribe in 1960-61 was an attempt to exorcise his demons. It also excited the gullible and those inclined towards anti-white and anti-Indian racism. 
As Besson writes, "the Afro-creole masses would inherit what he and his family could not. He may possibly have seen his personal history as the country's destiny. He utilised political control to compensate the Afro-Creole population for the inheritance that they had long been denied. This was the basis of Williams' interpretation of the ideal welfare state, and would later form an integral part of the political culture of the PNM and of the entire country over the next 50 years." 
Besson's third thematic argument is that the paradigm that emerged from his version of history and which shaped the post independence politics of Trinidad and Tobago has now run its course. It is now time, he argued, to articulate an integrated New World narrative which treats all constituent groups as part of a whole. 
All should be beneficiaries of the will, figuratively speaking. As he argues, and we quote him at some length, "the PNM's version of who was legitimate politicised victimhood and guilt and the scapegoating of certain of its members…and served to erode ethnic harmony, respect for law and order and notions of moral and civic responsibility in the collective mind of contemporary society. The Williams narrative has contributed to the feeling that everything is outside the law and is up for grabs or reinterpretation. Many civil institutions (the police force, the administration of justice, the education system) have lost credibility and are hardly capable of conveying meaning or confidence in civil society." 
In sum, Williams and the PNM are seen to be largely responsible for most of our past and present discontents. Salvation lies in exposing the fallacies and the policies that emerge therefrom. Besson claims support in the experiences of Obama who, in his Audacity of Hope, also called for a new moral dispensation. As Obama had argued, "the role of victim was too readily embraced as a means of shedding responsibility, or asserting entitlement or claiming moral superiority over those not so victimised". 
There are some who would dismiss the book a as an anti-PNM rant, which would be a mistake. 
The book does debunk as myth a lot of what Williams and his supporters have said and did. There is however much in the book that is of great interest and which one would find intellectually provocative. It should spark public debate. The mood of the country in fact parallels some of the arguments of the book . 
It is also clear that while Williams was responsible for much that was positive about our national development, we are also paying the price for some of the behaviours which he authorised and legitimised.  
It is however too easy to blame almost everything that has gone wrong on the Williams narrative. Williams was part of a worldwide anti-colonial movement. His Massa Day Done rhetoric and his personal and cultural hubris fed on this worldwide Bandung spirit which would have flourished, stolen bequest or no stolen bequest. The discourse about the cult of the will make interesting reading, but is made to carry too much of the burden of what could be explained in other ways as I have attempted to do in my Eric Williams: The Myth and The Man.

No comments: