On the Stopping of Bucks

It wasn’t me.

It’s not my fault.

Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.

We live in a country, or in an era, or in a culture, or in something, where personal responsibility is hard to come by. Very few of us have ever done anything wrong. No. We make mistakes; none of us is perfect. When we transgress, it’s always because of some external force. The road was slippery. The tree stepped out in front of us. Our finger slipped on the trigger and we miss and shoot the man. Or, we grow up poor. We didn’t have the advantages you have. We don’t know no better. The neighbour made us do it. The devil made us do it. God made us do it.

We live in a society in which bucks are passed around and around, where if we watch them we are liable to grow dizzy with the movement. If we listen to ourselves, we are all leaves floating in the wind, corks a-bobbing on the sea. We have no volition of our own; we are at the mercy of circumstance.

It is a rare, rare thing to find someone who will say, as American President Harry Truman once became famous for saying: the buck stops here.

No. Around here, bucks don’t often stop. Nothing is ever anyone’s fault. We play the politics of blame so well we have almost forgotten how to engage with issues. The result: we become so busy pointing our fingers at one another when we notice problems that we never get around to fixing any of them.

Let me begin with the freshest controversy: Junkanoo. It’s January, after all. Now I shall say first off that this year has been one of the better ones with regard to blame and finger-pointing — at least so far — because to some degree there are fewer scapegoats around. This year the Junkanoos, particularly the competitors, held a lot of the responsibility for the parades. The Junkanoo Corporation of The Bahamas was given the authority to deal with the training of the judges and the tallying and the administration of the parades, and for the most part things went very well. Except. On Boxing Day, someone overlooked the biggest competitive category at all.

Now we must admire the way in which that mistake was handled. The Chairman of the Parades Management Board took full responsibility for it. It may not have been directly his fault, in that he didn’t overlook the Overall Group Costume category personally, but he took responsibility for it because it was his job to be responsible for it. Applause, Ken — well done. What he didn’t say, but could have, was that the overlooking was a collective thing: that it wasn’t something that one person or one group messed up on, but that it was something that happened in an open room in full view of the group observers who had come in to monitor the judging and the tallying of the parade. The Chairman wasn’t the only person who had the responsibility of ensuring that the right things were provided to the judges; every group who sent an observer shared in that responsibility. And it would seem to me that because not one of them noticed the error, the responsibility must be shared.

That’s a concrete example, and a recent one, of how bucks get passed — and how they get stopped. We’re about to enter a two-year period of buck-passing now, and we can prepare ourselves for some spectacular examples. The general elections may not be around the corner, but they’re down the road, and already bucks have begun flying around. It’s always easy when one is in opposition to point at the weaknesses in the government’s actions — and for the government to throw the weaknesses back at the opposition. No problem ever has an origin (beyond the actions of The Other Party) — and no problem has a real solution (beyond the deliverance of The Only Party). Buck-passing at its best.

The thing is that reality works against us all. While we’re so busy passing the buck — from NJC to Ministry to JCB, or from FNM to PLP to UBP, or from little man to big man to the Devil/God — problems are multiplying. When no one is responsible, everything crumbles.

There is a branch of mathematics and physics that argues that no action that is independent, that even the smallest activity has repercussions elsewhere in the world. It’s called chaos theory, and it demonstrates that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in the Amazon can create tornadoes in the mid-western USA. According to this theory, the most careless, harmless action can have massive results far away. Of course, (and as usual), the scientists are arriving late at a point that theologians have known forever — since Cain, if we go in for the Old Testament. We are our brothers’ keepers; we are all responsible for what happens around us. To pass the buck is not to duck responsibility at all; it’s to ensure that nothing ever changes, nothing ever improves.

Of course, it’s not our fault — is it? We exist on the borders of the United States of America, after all. And they had this culture long before us.

We can’t help it, right?

Wrong. As soon as we shoulder the responsibility we all bear for the society in which we live, as soon as we accept the buck, we can help it — and we will.