March 18, 2004
There is little doubt that some individuals have played outstanding roles in Guyanese history and it is good that their contributions should be celebrated and commemorated. Most cultures, however, conscious of the dangers of the 'cult of the individual' try to avoid the exaggerated and unquestioning reverence and deference to public figures, regardless of their assumed merits.
This is particularly true for politicians since, in a multi-party, multi-ethnic polity, undue adulation to members of one group is likely to stir resentment among members of other groups. Public recognition, it is felt, is best given to outstanding inventors, discoverers and scientists whose contributions benefit all and whose images on currency notes, postage stamps and schoolchildren's exercise books are not only unlikely to be controversial but would promote national pride.
The ideology of Marxism, particularly, proscrib-ed the 'cult of the individual' on the grounds that the lives of leaders, no matter how popular, could not be substituted for the collective experience of the masses who were regarded as the 'motive force' of history. Paradoxically, it was in Marxist states that the 'cult of the individual' became most deeply en-trenched with adulation being paid to its leaders. Images of Mao Zedong in China; Kim Il Sung in Korea; Joseph Stalin in Russia; Joseph Tito in Yugoslavia; and Enver Hoxha in Albania, for example, appeared on highways, schools, stadiums, universities and other public places with an intensity that can be described only as fanatical fetishism.
All men and women are not equal and it is obvious that, in Guyana's history, some have done more than others. The question is, who are the fittest to be remembered, and in what manner?
From colonial times, Guyana inherited a plethora of place-names after the likes of James Light, James Longden, James Carmichael-Smyth, Benjamin D'Urban, Gordon Lethem and others. But these men are historical curiosities not objects of veneration. Here and there, too, schools have been named after distinguished educators such as J.C. Chandi-singh, F.E. Pollard, Cyril Potter and others.
Over the past half-century, few would doubt that two Presidents have been among the most prominent political personalities, although some would disagree as to the actual degree of the damage done, or the contribution made, by each. There have been objections to the appearance of the President's photographs on exercise book covers, at the controversial 'mass games', and of his family name adorning housing developments.
Another wave of commemoration seems to be en train, adding a fat catalogue of institutions which have been named, or renamed, and surpassing anything that went before. These include the international airport which, as some Amerindians protested, had already been named in their community's collective honour; a Dental Centre; a Research Institute; an ecological park at Lima, Essequibo; a monument at Karasabai in the Pakaraimas; a university lecture theatre; and a Children's Fund launched by Mr. Yesu Persaud.
It is quite possible that more will come. George-town's Mayor had to be dissuaded from renaming High Street, Kingston, and Louis Lalman's proposal for the East Coast Demerara Embankment road to be named for the late President is still to be adopted.
One peril of the practice of labelling public property with private names is the unwelcome introduction of cultism in an already volatile political environment. Another is that the new iconolatry, serving partisan interests, would paint an incomplete and oversimplified picture of a complex pattern of historical reality.
Yet, again, it is possible that, like Stalingrad or Leningrad in the former USSR, new rulers may eventually emerge to erase the names of those who went before only to inscribe their own.