Editorial | Dr Clarke erred again
Few things in Edward Seaga’s political life pained him more than P.J. Patterson’s statement to a campaign crowd that if he descended the platform and moved among them no one could tell the difference.
“Mr Seaga felt it was unkind because of all the things he had done for the Jamaican poor,” Prudence Kidd-Deans, one of Mr Seaga’s closest aides, told this newspaper.
Ms Kidd-Deans might have inserted the word ‘black’ to qualify the poor Jamaicans Seaga had helped, and who he believed were being rallied against him on the basis of race.
Seaga, a former prime minister and leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), was a white Jamaican of Arab descent. Patterson, who was Jamaica’s longest-serving prime minister, is unmistakable black in a country whose population overwhelmingly looks like him.
Patterson was normally a mild-mannered politician. But his code-switching on the hustings said everything. As did, most people believe, Finance Minister Nigel Clarke’s pinning of the “Massa Mark” tag on Opposition Leader Mark Golding in Parliament last week.
Both instances – notwithstanding Dr Clarke’s dizzying employment of sophistry on Tuesday to argue otherwise – arrive at similar places. It did Dr Clarke little credit that rather than apologise to Parliament, where his indiscretion occurred, and to Jamaica for his unfortunate remark, he doubled down on the statement and sought to mark his critics out as either fellow travellers of Mr Golding’s People’s National Party (PNP) or incapable of grasping nuanced arguments. Dr Clarke is patently wrong on both counts.
EASY POLITICAL GAIN
Nigel Clarke is a black Jamaican. Mr Golding is white. Dr Clarke insists that he does not engage in identity politics, especially with respect to race. Until last week, his record on that front was impeccable.
However, what most people perceive as Dr Clarke’s attempt at easy political gain by exploiting Mr Golding’s race – while maintaining plausible deniability – was on the face of it premeditated, curated and choreographed. Until it misfired.
Prior to the finance minister closing the Budget Debate, Mr Golding, celebrating his party’s upward movement in opinion polls, claimed that his PNP was being blamed by Labourites for every problem faced by the JLP. “Damn fools!” Mr Golding quipped. He has subsequently apologised for the remark.
In Parliament, Dr Clarke chided Mr Golding for the statement, saying it painted his party’s supporters as idiots. It did not sound like Mr Golding, Dr Clarke teased, but rather like “Massa Mark”.
Employed against white people in the Jamaican context, ‘Massa’ is a pejorative term/word that evokes the privilege and power of slave owners and their descendants, who still wish to lord it over black people.
Dr Clarke insists that was not the context in which he used the term, but rather to describe, as is often done in Jamaica, “a perceived attitude of those with power in relation to others, not a colour. It describes a perceived disposition, not a race”.
“And it is an acceptable term of the Jamaican language that frequently appears, non-racially, in the written and spoken word,” he said.
However, that was not how some of Dr Clarke’s parliamentary colleagues interpreted his statement. One declared that ‘Massa’ was an appropriate designation for Mr Golding because he was the “descendant of a slave master”.
Further, having supposedly rebuked Mr Golding’s attitude rather than using a code-switching device to conjure race, Dr Clarke did not end there. In chiding Mr Golding for having denied and belittled the Government’s long stretch of introducing no new taxes, Dr Clarke reached for the ‘Massa’ tag.
“It hurt Massa Mark, you si,” he said. “It bun him.”
The sobriquet ‘Massa’ in reference to Mr Golding appears a further nine times in Dr Clarke’s prepared speech. He, however, did not use the word again, perhaps because of the uproar that occurred in the House when PNP member Angela Brown Burke attempted to have Dr Clarke withdraw the statement, and rudely defied the Speaker on being pressed to withdraw her own unparliamentary remarks.
Of course, the additional appearances of the ‘Massa’ handle in Dr Clarke’s circulated text isn’t hard proof of anything – neither of intent nor state of mind.
Indeed, Dr Clarke told Parliament he has nothing for which to apologise.
“I regret that some persons may have viewed my remarks as racially motivated,” he said. “To again be clear, this was never my intention. To apologise, however, would be to legitimise what simply is not true.”
No one believes that Dr Clarke is racist. And there is a possibility that what he claims was his intention was indeed the case. But sometimes people do not communicate what they intend. The messages are distorted by the dissonance of their own making.
In which event, Dr Clarke’s “Massa Mark” message, as transmitted, was very much in the vein of a code-switching, like if he were to offer to step into the crowd. Maybe on reflection, Dr Clarke will appreciate why he owes Parliament and Jamaica an apology.