The dignity of office

This week I flew to Washington to testify at the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights about Caribbean laws meant to keep people in their sexual place. I choose to fly United Airlines to avoid Miami International Airport, the circle of hell that is American Airlines’s gateway to the US. A token of our market’s importance to United, its Piarco departures, now it’s low season, are at the ungodly hours of 12:18 and, in my case 6:39, am.

Two families with infants who made the airport trek in the wee hours arrived, like me, just under an hour shy of the departure time. Their check-in counter already abandoned, a United agent nonetheless appeared to deliver a lecture about arriving three hours early to “the posse”, as her colleague disparagingly nicknamed the parents and children—their customers—loudly under her breath. Both families were told they could not be boarded—on instructions of the supervisor. A baggage handler took my documents inside and got me on the half-empty flight.

The incident is one of many ways ordinary people with little power enforce unfairness and indignity against other ordinary people every day.

Like when I attended a Grenada orphanage Christmas party down the hill from my Auntie Shirley’s house, and the caregivers took away a resident’s gift toy to replace mine, which I had complained was defective. That small childhood moment of privilege and guilt taught me viscerally about injustice.

No different than our holding on to laws against private intimacy, there is no business or human logic to defend what happened at the airport, other than our fondness of our power to impose rules on those we can. People we like or have ethnic or political kinship with we treat with human care and dignity; others, we can decide to take theirs away.

That is why I want to take up the President’s challenge to provide a gush of fresh breeze over the mouldy idea of “the dignity of high office” he is seeking to litigate into new life. I confess I have done everything growling, disingenuous, uncouth and self-serving he accused of in his UWI graduation remarks, responding in the most colourful and unprintable fashion online to his engagement of Rachel Price’s comments about his wife’s attire, and allowing Global Voices to disseminate my cussridden crassness, hopefully worldwide. Because I believe, as a Caribbean person and a writer, that polyphony is my heritage, and I ought to be as fluent in a canal or calypso tent as in a classroom or Sunday column.

Since the official heralding of His Excellency’s mystery Senior Counsel epistle, we’ve been having a national conversation about Mrs. Carmona’s dress-sense, in which my fellow bulldogs have traversed the terrain of thinskinnedness, misogyny and a comedienne’s freedom to joke. But I want to dwell on this troubling notion of the dignity of office, on which the President has hinged his patriarchal defence of his wife and family.

I agree with those who’ve assailed the many humourless condemnations of both Mrs. Carmona’s and Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s apparel and appearance, often seeking to characterise these as their personal failures to uphold the dignity of their office. It’s no accident that, like Oma Panday, Indian women are the targets. But I see little to distinguish those attacks from parallel ones on Rachel Price as an African woman for not being sufficiently ladylike. All of them are fruit of a place we are determined to keep women in, regardless to office, of a dignity they are supposed to constantly work hard to uphold, which always remains in our judgment to take away, whether through the penis, the hand or the tongue.

But entitlement to dignity does not attach to office. Dignity of the person should be the right of everyone. The very notion of dignity of office is grounded on the indignity of unimportant people, who are roped out of the numerous “VIP sections” of our national life, who suffer the insecurity of our wealthy, violent nation, who wipe their backsides on the benches of the bandit factory of our magistrates’ courts and health facilities every day, being dispensed injustice and inequality, whose intimate lives are kept criminalised by the Prime Minister’s caring. Until we create a suite of national institutions that protect and promote the dignity of all of us, I’m afraid the President doesn’t get to use the one he inhabits to ensure his wife doesn’t get heckled for an ugly dress.

Far from this idea of enhanced protection of ceremonial officeholders our new powers-you-think President thinks he and his family ought to enjoy, like the monarchy, our robust and precious political traditions instead protect the most irreverent picong about our highest officials.

I made fun of Rachel Priceand her court outfitswhen she lost the case against her daughter’s teacher. We have mutual friends, she was good-natured about my ribbing, posting a note on my Facebook page; though she seemed to think I was ungrateful for her support of LGBTI causes. Mrs. Carmona should be free to wear whatever she likes, and we to laugh as loudly as we like.

Besides, one would have hoped a divorced Eric Williams, an Alzheimic Patricia Robinson, Minister Hazel Manning and Dr. Gregory Bissessar would push this sexist tradition of a First Lady into extinction. Every time I think of the defence of Mrs. Carmona’s midsection from defamation, I imagine the Prime Minister defending the dignity of Mr. Bissessar’s pipe.

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