Media coverage of the new Governor-General
January 16, 2009
I sent a version of this letter to the editor on January 16, 2008.
To the editor:
I find the media-driven discussion about the newly appointed Governor-General to be quite disturbing. The absence of basic contextual information, the oblique prejudices as well as speculative claims being expressed about Mr. Allen’s religious beliefs reflect the shortcomings of the reportage on the issue.
It is curious to me why the Gleaner has chosen to represent the new Governor-General in a particular way ie. of highlighting his religious affiliation and thus using it as a qualifier. In light of the prejudices and misinformation that persist about SDA, producing a headline about a “pastor turned GG” and “Adventist cleric” is bound to both inflame public prejudices as well as distract us from the important questions like: why do we still have a Governor-General, and what role do we want the Governor-General to fulfill, given that there is little effort being made for Jamaica to become a republic?
If there has not been any discussion about the religious orientations of the former Governor-General, why is so much being made of the current appointee? Surely it is Mr. Allen’s decision about how he will balance the needs or demands of his spiritual faith in light of this particular position that he has chosen to accept? Surely, given his stature in the SDA denomination, that he would know about the requirements of the job, and that he would have consulted with other members of the SDA leadership before making this decision?
Likewise, the public queries of members of the SDA also reflect their own sense of betrayal, as well as a staunch defense of those practices which they seem to think are being called into question by Mr. Allen’s appointment. Here again, the confusion about and intolerance of diversity of religious practices among SDA becomes evident, and which the media reportage could clarify, but has not done so far. If indeed it is a matter of interpretation whether Mr. Allen is indeed violating some core religious tenet that precludes members of the SDA from participating in political duties, then it would be helpful if the answer did not come from hearsay and speculation, but from the research conducted by the reporters.
But more to the point, it seems as if the objections about Mr. Allen being religious and thus prone to using his political status to proselytize and impose his religious beliefs onto the society, are really about his being Seventh-Day Adventist and not, say, a member of the Church of God. The hypocrisy of many of those who complain becomes evident: there has been no such outcry about melding individual religious beliefs with politics up until now, no matter how retrograde those beliefs have been, and no matter how often we see such a lethal combination of religious beliefs and political power working against the interests of Jamaican people. Indeed, it is rare that media reportage treats religious affiliation as anything but an ordinary, albeit required, part of one’s biography, especially for persons involved in politics.
As I hear all the jokes about jerk pork being banned and people being forced to close their shops and stay home on Saturday, I also hear how easily it is for Jamaicans to be mobilized based on fear and ignorance, rather than on actual information. Underlying the obsessive detailing of all the ways in which the new Governor-General will be handicapped by his religious orientation, then, is the profound fear that one version of fundamentalist Christianity is about to eclipse the other version that is increasingly holding us hostage in this society. That may well happen; after all, the SDA denomination is very active and successful in terms of creating viable institutions that can have a meaningful impact on Jamaican society beyond the physical places of worship and direct proselytizing. Its fundamentalist rivals haven’t been as successful in this regard.
In practice, we should have and continue to be concerned about all our political leaders – appointed or not, symbolic figurehead or not – and the ways that they continue to manipulate and misinterpret religious doctrine to support their own narrow stances.
Given that there is little recognition of the dangers of making religious fundamentalism a part of our political structure, those of us who would prefer a more secular polity are seeing more of the same, and are duly afraid. It seems that all the chatter about “the church” becoming more involved in public life has fallen on the PM’s ears. Aside from the specific practices that SDA use to distinguish themselves, the moral conservatism articulated by Bruce Golding is no different from that coming from the new Governor-General.
So, if there is anything to fear about this appointment, it is this: Amidst the political and economic failures that surround us, this government is being remarkably consistent in finding ways to enshrine conservative religious views everywhere it can, including in the most symbolic of positions. I would think all the devout “law and order” folks who are constantly decrying the death of “morals and values” in Jamaica would be happy; they may have just gotten their strongest ally and defender yet.