ROAR of Ravi Dev 12-1
There is no question that the citizens of a society must see it as a “common venture” even as we reject conceptions of “nation” that are oppressive to existing diversities. “Nation” and “state” have to be disarticulated. But we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater and we Guyanese have to achieve some commonality of outlook to survive. Whether we like it or not, the modern state is a reality and the unit within which we act and which has sovereignty in the international arena. At independence, we inherited a state but not a nation, since the reality of our coming together ensured that we had no common culture “looming out of some immemorable past” as some other countries had. One does not identify with the state just like that – and that’s partially why we clung to our ethnicities. The problem before us is how do we construct a “unity” of the peoples within our state that does not seek to obliterate our diversities.
We propose that we demarcate our cultural sphere as a private one, with minimal state intervention in terms of definition and to build the overarching unity we need in the public sphere. What we are suggesting is that we move from the idea of a “national culture” as a site for identification to the shared practice of a political ideology as the basis for engendering such identification within the state. Rather than those, such as Rex Nettleford, who demand that all ethnic groups assimilate into Creole culture to become “one nation”, we propose that a feeling of “we the people” – of “Guyanese-ness” – can be engendered in the process of our conscious construction of a democratic state.
We situate this construction of a national outlook within what we have labeled “Project Democracy” – the creation of conditions where we are all treated as one, equally, by the state. Equality of opportunity; human rights, encouragement, of diversities, due process; justice and fair play and rule of the law may seem dry compared to the warmth of the blood ties of “nation”, but they can engender the unity of public purpose and the recognition of individual worth where we can be proud of our common citizenship. Citizenship of Guyana has to become something that has concrete meaning to all of us. Institutions have to be organized around values that are consonant with the goals of the particular society.
Universalism is never power neutral – its defenders always have a certain interest in it. Contra to the proponents of the universalism of Creole Culture to the Caribbean and Guyana, we should not repeat the American mistake (of privileging European culture) here and privilege any one group. Similarly, since the state itself had justified its legitimacy through the goal of all its citizens living by the principles and values of its ideology, if this is seen not to be the reality for some, the status quo will be challenged by the excluded. The movement towards allowing citizens to constantly authenticate themselves ideologically is always enabled: multiculturalism becomes part and parcel of the “nation by design”.
For Guyana then, our ethnicities would be defined outside our “Guyaneseness” and to be African-Guyanese, Amerindian-Guyanese or Indian-Guyanese, etc would not be contradictory in any sense. The first part of our identity would be specific, while the latter universalistic. The “national” will now be a space where ethnically imagined communities can live and share. To be Guyanese would be to share moral precepts – norms, values, and attitudes – rather than shared cultural experience and practice. A good Guyanese would be one who is loyal to this country and strives to practice the secular universalistic ideological values it extols.
Guyana is, therefore, is at a critical moment where we are attempting to get a handle on ensuring that state power is equitably distributed amongst the several ethnic groups in our society which is a precursor to the creation of the space necessary for such co-existence. Multiculturalism is not just about cultural practices: it is also a signifier of the power relations of society. It is only when power is distributed equitably that the ideological values mean anything to the culturally embedded individual.
This is the content of a national identity.