I like Keith Rowley, I have to confess.
Despite his clear flaws, his ill-temperedness, the periodic ugliness of his masculinity. Despite my puzzlement at many people he chooses to assign leadership. I have always been a serious admirer of his charisma, striking intelligence and considerable oratory, whether at lofty nation-building or hoarse picong. Perhaps my fondness is because of the very Africanness some allege is the source of local oligarchs’ ambivalence over his leadership-worthiness.
Arguably, such sentiment should not matter in these pages. But I’ve lamented here how the eagerness among those writing on our editorial pages to strengthen a culture of public accountability often descends into an off-with-their-heads intolerance for error that doesn’t allow for leaders’ vulnerability or growth. I want my political leaders to evidence their humanity.
And it’s no secret that I believe that the Opposition’s unmasking of any pretence Keith might have to moral piety in intimate matters is good for the nation, and that it’s enabled a more honest approach to policy- and lawmaking on sexuality and in response to the actual forms our Caribbean families take.
I also welcomed the crassness with which Dr. Rowley told the nation of a friend’s fear of a digital-rectal examination, as he shared results of his own prostate cancer tests last year, using a graphic soundbite the electronic media loved replaying as often as possible. I did not see in those words the brutish crudeness focus-group consultants appear to have advised the UNC is a representation of Rowley that has negative traction among some voters. I saw his unvarnished remarks then as a powerful example of a prime minister being honest with the nation’s men about masculinity and homophobia, and how they harm our health.
But I think the Prime Minister is really afraid of his softer side.
My dear friends in Womantra make so many go tizzic on social media when, as feminist activists, they decide where it’s important to target their own activism and bodies, unapologetically. Every time Womantra garners public attention, hundreds type furiously from their armchairs, opining about what is protest-worthy and how bad feminism is. I wish all that energy went into making change.
Last week Womantra led many others taking our Prime Minister to task for his public remarks about women and domestic violence. Some of those scoldings were partisan critiques, including ones from challengers to his leadership of the PNM, which no one should take seriously.
But Dr. Rowley was wrong for both the content and tone of his remarks, “I am not in your bedroom. I am not in your choice of men.”
The reasons why several others have already pointed out. First, he got it dead wrong. Women are often killed precisely when they exercise good “judgment,” in leaving a violent relationship. An order of protection is not a piece of paper: it is the core state enforcement remedy we have for domestic violence, yet one a PNM official like Tobago Assembly member Hilton Sandy was found to have violated flagrantly. The Attorney General must promote the essential and dedicated role of police in enforcing protection orders as law, not a way they “try to help” victims. Neither is domestic violence simply a matter of individual relationships: it is a cultural issue. The Community Development Minister’s role in addressing it ought to be strengthening how communities are ensuring victim protection, engaging violent men, and teaching boys—not just girls—about choices.
What baffled me most as the licks rained down on Keith was why he failed to learn anything from the Port of Spain mayor he led his party in pushing off the ledge after eerily similar utterances, exactly a year ago. Had Raymond TimKee apologised unreservedly and with contrition following equally cynical comments about the discovery of murdered Japanese pannist Asami Nagakiya in the Savannah last Ash Wednesday, I bet he would easily have kept his job.
How had the PM failed to internalise that lesson?
I wondered aloud why it never occurred to Keith Rowley last week to simply soften up, and say: I was wrong. I’m eager to learn from my mistakes. How do women think I and my Government can? It seemed so simple to me. Because he was wrong.
Those in his party and Government waste political capital and state resources defending his comments. Worst of all was the way the Gender and Child Affairs portfolio in the PM’s Office was compromised by being enrolled as the framework through which his defensive apology was communicated.
Those who love the Prime Minister need to teach him this. It is not only the lesson every good spouse learns—to say “Yes, dear” to diffuse conflict. Contrition is a powerful act of leadership. It is something we need to teach boys. It is one thing that will help prevent gender-based violence. There are many opportunities in the Prime Minister’s national conversations to still do so.