I’ve talked before about nonsensical ideas we repeat as mantra – “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” and “Time heals all wounds” are two of them. There’s another one, an American favourite, floated on momentous occasions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” Okay, the verbiage is impressive, dignified and stirring, but unless you’re a hermit in a cave in Afghanistan, you see every day how hypocritical a statement that is. An Englishman, whose name eludes me, put it nicely: “Americans hold to the proposition that all men are created equal; it had better be self-evident, for no other evidence for it exists.”
Indeed, although there are few challenges to the proposition – except perhaps from Martin Luther King or Jesse Jackson – it jumps up in our faces, every single day, how blatantly hollow those high-sounding words are. Much of what we have come to know about mankind, either empirically or anecdotally, reinforces more and more the unique qualities of each individual and refutes the contention of equality.
If you think all of us are created equal, get a good quality stereo and play a recording, any recording, of Andrea Bocelli, or play the Miles Davis CD of ‘Sketches of Spain’; listen to Victor Wooten take an electric bass guitar and make impossible sounds come out of it; watch film of the late Michael Jackson dancing; no one we know of is equal to those creations.
There is mathematical confirmation of inequality in the rankings of tennis players – #240 is clearly not equal to #2 – but you don’t even have to spend time with the list. Look at a tennis match, and you will immediately see that we come with two feet and two hands, and we stand there on the tennis court looking more or less equal before play starts, but once it begins the disparities glare from the television set. Watch Serena Williams, and you will see a player with obviously more power, and even speed, than the other ladies in the game. Serena is out of competition for four months, and the first match back her ground strokes and serve have more sting than all the top players who are match sharp.
And don’t let the motivational crowd con you with that “you can be anything you want” silliness. I can get the best tennis coach, practise night and day for two years, eat and sleep tennis, and my friend Terry Ferreira will get out of his bed in New Jersey and beat me three sets to love. I may be competitive with Terry on some things, but I’m definitely not equal to him in the athletics arena.
There’s a Trinidadian singer by the name of Gypsy who is well known as a popular calypsonian. What is not so well known is that Gypsy (his real name is Winston Peters) has a remarkable gift of improvising lyrics to songs. I’m fairly good at it, but Gypsy is in a class by himself. He will stand up spontaneously and sing verse after verse in the traditional Santi Manitay calypso format that was a feature in early calypso tents in Trinidad. Even more astonishing, Gypsy will do the same lyric improvisation with popular songs. I was with him in a hotel lobby one time waiting for a bus, and to pass the time he began singing popular songs of the day but substituting his own lyrics made up on the spot. Someone would call a song – Blueberry Hill; Don’t Be Cruel; My Way – and Gypsy would launch into a complete new set of lyrics to fit the tune. In the area of lyric improvisation, Gypsy is so far above the crowd you have to take a ladder to reach him.
I was once married to a Caymanian lady, a very senior government official, who always amazed me with her ability to speak eloquently, without notes, on the most complicated subjects, at very short notice. The first time I heard her do it – I knew she had less than 10 minutes to prepare – I was sure it was a fluke, but after the fifth or sixth performance, without a fumble, I realized she was more equal than most. It was humbling to watch.
And let me plead with you not to bring up the point that the statement was not supposed to refer to ability, but rather that it means equal rights and opportunities under the law or constitution; no such condition of equality in mankind exists in any country yet formed. Indeed, ironically, it is in the area of human possibility and achievement, where it is most often quoted, that the equality statement is actually most ridiculous. Look around at the sordid history of the world on this point, at how nations treat their people today, at the unpunished sins of the rich, at the travesties besetting the poor, and you would be persuaded that the cliché should be reworded, “All men are created unequal, with many being more unequal than others.”
I recently met Ewart Thomas, a Guyanese gentleman who is Professor of Psychology at Stanford University in California where he specialises in statistical models of behaviour. Vic Insanally, a school-mate of his, told me, “In college, we were all going along on an even keel, but when we got to Sixth Form mathematics, Ewart sailed off into areas that were beyond us.” The other boys were simply not equal to this Berbice native.
Don’t let the political rhetoric mislead you. Equality is actually the least attainable state in the human condition; there are too many factors, innocent or devious, stacked up against it. It is particularly irritating to hear intelligent and respected people, on these very grand occasions, trotting out the “all men are created equal” silliness with a straight face while everyone dutifully applauds. In this generally unfair and lopsided world, the phrase is a mockery; it should be dispatched to the garbage can and, as its originators, the Americans should be first at the bin. But then, as the Caymanians say, you know how that go.