Front Porch | Sir Arthur’s enduring democratic spirit at 91
On Saturday, May 11, former Governor General Sir Arthur Foulkes celebrates his 91st birthday. Longevity provides perspective.
The nonagenarian is a wellspring of knowledge and wisdom, honed from insatiable curiosity, a voracious appetite for learning and a lifetime involvement in public affairs.
Sir Arthur was a leading public intellectual for over half a century, sharing his insights and progressivism in the political arena and in the press during the struggle for majority rule, independence and post-independence.
His worldview and thoughts, especially about liberal democracy and the genius of parliamentary democracy, helped to shape the modern Bahamas and will endure.
He remains vigilant and concerned about the lack of knowledge about the nature of our governmental system for which he fought mightily in two political parties.
This concern includes some in the political arena and the many commentators, talk show hosts, journalists and letter writers who are often terribly ignorant of the most basic facts about our system of government. He is particularly exercised and worried about the conflation of the U.S. system of government with ours.
The former head of state, minister, diplomat, senator and member of Parliament opposes term limits, defends a system of Cabinet-based collective responsibility and cherishes many other well-tested conventions of our Westminster-based parliamentary democracy.
He is aghast at imports from the U.S. such as attorneys acting as public relations spinmeisters adjudicating a client’s case in the press. He deplores the lack of respect for sub judice, with some commentators prone to prejudicing a case before the courts.
A constitutional father, Sir Arthur penned the original preamble to the independence constitution, which was somewhat tweaked before appearing in this foundational document.
He was a prolific writer who wrote a weekly column for decades, his thoughts and sharp critiques gracing both major dailies. His pen typically proved mightier than the swords and arrows wielded against him by political opponents.
At 91, his curiosity and hunger for knowledge are undimmed and often unmatched. Though his gait may have slowed, his mind and intellectual vigor remain vibrant. A self-admitted lifelong “news junkie”, Sir Arthur still consumes local and international news. He roves the Internet for information.
A journalist at heart, he cannot help obsessively editing in his mind the stories of the day including content, grammar and style.
The former news editor at The Tribune, who left the paper to help found and edit Bahamian Times, the PLP organ which played a leading role in helping usher in majority rule, Sir Arthur views journalism as critical to the protection and flourishing of democracy.
He delights in the current talent of Bahamian journalists but laments the myriad deficits in the print and broadcast media, especially the tabloid journalism that has taken hold in some media establishments.
He abhors sloppiness, slipshod research and a lack of thoroughness and due diligence when it comes to a writer or commentator ensuring he or she is in possession of the facts. He finds a cavalier attitude toward facts by reporters and writers a cardinal sin.
The man who has penned more words than just about any Bahamian in our history, except for his late mentor Sir Etienne Dupuch, recently circulated to friends an article from the Common Dreams website on World Freedom Press Day written by Christian Christensen last week offering 10 reasons why press freedom matters.
Christensen wrote: “Questioning power: A truly free and independent press is a fundamental tool for holding those in and with power — be it political, economic or social — to account.
“When journalism aligns itself too closely with, or is co-opted by, any of these agents of power, citizens suffer. And, make no mistake about it… an alignment with corporate power can be just as corrosive to journalism and free press as an alignment with political power.
“Visions of citizenship: The presence of high quality, critical press helps to shape a vision of citizenship that goes beyond simply voting once every four years, or of citizenship as being your role as a consumer. It generates a vision of citizenship where there is a sense of engagement with community, and sense of collective destiny and responsibility that extends beyond politics and market.”
Christensen continued: “The devil is in the details: There is no substitute for depth, detail and context. None.”
Like many other observers in the country, Sir Arthur laments the number of articles and stories in the dailies and on the evening news broadcasts which lack “depth, detail and context”.
Christensen also wrote: “Storytelling: Good journalism isn’t just about giving facts, it’s also about presenting facts in an engaging fashion. In other words, it’s about storytelling that appeals to multiple facets of our personalities, brains, emotions and intellects. The best journalism is art, and art enriches.
“There’s more to life: There is life beyond politics, economy or the military. A free and independent press contributes to democracy and society by also covering the arts, culture, sports, etc.
“This brings us back to the notion of citizenship: good journalism that covers multiple aspects of human existence generates a synergy effect where the total is greater than the sum of the individual parts.”
Sir Arthur views a good deal of the commentary by observers and some journalists as one-dimensionally obsessed with the political battles of the day and incurious of other seminal issues, especially today, such as the effects of climate change and environmental destruction.
Christensen addressed the importance of self-reflection by the media: “Media investigate themselves: This is a tough one as it is very rare… but important. A free, vibrant and critical press also interrogates the power of the institutions of journalism and media in society. It interrogates the relationship between media, politics and market.
“And, it interrogates how media wield their considerable storytelling and agenda-setting power. It is self-reflexive and self-critical. Media are agents of power, and should be investigated as such.”
Back in the 1970s Arthur Foulkes began to write increasingly on emerging environmental problems. Decades later, his most urgent and overwhelming worries are those of climate change and the environmental degradation caused by human activity including the rapid extinction of scores of species.
The latter was highlighted yesterday in a United Nations report on the extinction of species, which found that one million species are at risk of extinction, quite a number within a scant few decades.
Sir Arthur is filled with dread about these existential threats globally and the impact on The Bahamas, including on coral reefs, fishing stocks, mangroves and the country’s biodiversity.
A great-grandfather, Sir Arthur shares the urgency of UNESCO Director General Achim Steiner, who commented after the report’s release: “This essential report reminds each of us of the obvious truth: the present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations a planet that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity.”
A former diplomat and fiercely Bahamian patriot, Sir Arthur is a cosmopolitan spirit who is committed to what he calls the civilization movement of humanity. He is a proud Caribbean man and regionalist, whose mother was born in Haiti and whose father was born in Jamaica.
Sir Arthur celebrates that a Bahamian child born of parents born elsewhere could rise to become head of state or any other profession or office in The Bahamas. He bears no distinction as to who is a Bahamian in terms of whether an individual is naturally born or naturalized as a citizen.
For him, being a Bahamian is a matter of heart and spirit, a love of country which expresses itself in genuine word and deed and not in empty expressions of nationalism based on prejudice or racism or the visceral fear of foreigners.
In addition to a complex of environmental threats which are stalking and upending global and national politics and economics, Sir Arthur fears the current global rise of xenophobia and ethno-nationalism, sparked mostly by refugee crises caused by wars and violence but also by the accelerating effects of climate change.
Sir Arthur is ever watchful about how xenophobia and racism are manifested at home, especially the boldly naked and indecent assaults in some tabloids and in other quarters on the dignity of Haitians.
He laments also the demonization of foreigners, including foreign investors and foreign expertise. He insists that like other countries, including developed ones, The Bahamas needs foreign expertise to help in national development.
He observes that, just as the country does not have all the financial capital it needs, we also do not have all the skills required, so we must bring in foreigners when we need them. Of course, he also insists that qualified Bahamians should come first.
For nearly 70 years, Sir Arthur Foulkes has exemplified the best of the human and the Bahamian spirit in his public life.
Even as he celebrates both, he remains vigilant about the threats to our well-being and democracy including an uninformed citizenry, xenophobia and the existential threats caused to our environment and health because of the rapacious greed of corporate interests and the corresponding rampant materialism that is poisoning and suffocating our planet.
His advice at 91: Never, ever give up, and remain eternally vigilant!