Cultural policy exists globally

Dear Editor,

In Ms Ryhaan Shah’s last letter, she comments about yours truly, “Such machinations do, however, make him perfectly suited for a position as a public official in Guyana. With all his busyness with policy making, etc, he does appear to be more of a typical local politician than a writer.”

I’m not sure where Ms Shah sees a dichotomy between the creation of literature and involvement in politics or political struggle but it clearly cannot be from the examples of history. Writers from Marcus Aurelius to Jose Marti to Pablo Neruda to even Martin Carter to whom she refers have functioned in political/administrative capacities throughout recorded time.

Perhaps the best model of a creative writer who was directly involved in not just political struggle but in actual government was Czechoslovakian playwright and president, Vaclav Havel who wrote:

“Let us admit that most of us writers feel an essential aversion to politics. By taking such a position, however, we accept the perverted principle of specialization, according to which some are paid to write about the horrors of the world and human responsibility and others to deal with those horrors and bear the human responsibility for them.”

With regard to cultural policy and its role in development, she repeats her position, “that culture is something of the people, by the people, for the people and from the people and that government has no business in any of it. I also questioned the anachronism of having a Ministry of Culture.” While I respect Ms Shah’s personal opinion on how culture should function, I give perhaps a little more consideration to the mountains of academic data and actual functional cultural policy that exist globally, including the UK where Ms Shah publishes her books.   She seems out of touch with the scope and role of cultural policies around the world at present so for her education (and with no eye-pass intended) I will outline both what I am doing, the global context and how it is relevant to Guyana within that global context.

Cultural policy as is being constructed under the Janus project is divided into three core areas. The first focuses on Culture in Development, in keeping with the UN Resolution of December 2010 which inter alia exhorts member states and other stakeholders to “incorporate culture into all development policies.” For the purposes of Guyana, my policy places a particular focus on Culture and Citizenship, Culture and Education, and Culture and the Environment. The first is particularly important, and the academic literature to support this is overwhelming, from Brackette Williams to Clem Seecharan; simply put, Guyana’s critical problem is that our divisions and our underdevelopment have cultural roots, particularly with regard to our concepts of who is worthy of citizenship and who is not.

The second has to do with the preservation and consolidation of our heritage. Indeed, this is the first task that we are collectively assigned in our constitution, as flawed as it may be. The Preamble states that “We, The Guyanese People, Proud heirs of the indomitable will of our forebears, in a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation, proclaim this Constitution in order to: Safeguard and build on the rich heritage, won through tireless struggle, bequeathed us by our forebears…” Unfortunately, we have been terrible at safeguarding that heritage, from the loss of Amerindian languages to the burning down of the Umana Yana to the clear removal of mangroves on the bank of the Demerara in order to facilitate a Harbour Bridge view of the Princess Hotel. A comprehensive heritage component of an overarching national cultural policy would, for example, set out the rules, procedures and mechanisms for the preservation and/or restoration of both the tangible and intangible heritage.

The final core component of the document I am producing has to do with creative industries. Simply put, a failing commodities-based economy has to seek economic diversification and when one puts into perspective that the last Harry Potter movie made more profit in two months than a crumbling GuySuCo’s total revenue in ten years, then we need to start paying attention to putting in place the sort of policy that guides the establishment and sustenance of creative industries, beginning with intellectual property legislation.

I’m not sure what countries Ms Shah uses as an example of excellence and standards in cultural affairs but I can assure her that all of them have cultural policies in place, either as a single holistic document and/or a body of interrelated policies and practices. You cannot claim Guyana is below standard and then resist efforts to bring it up to the standards you claim to admire. I understand that some writers may lack either the affinity or capacity for handling both literary work as well as policy work but I certainly do not consider myself one of them.

Finally, Ms Shah repeats the fallacy that I require attention from the political administration. I require only that the state is not used to discriminate against competent people, and if it is that monies are allocated for the development of culture, that it is done so innovatively, equitably and transparently. To say that my listing of acts of discrimination (which she asked for me to outline) is somehow a cry for attention is to in effect sanction that discrimination and give support to the lie that political party and state are indistinguishable from each other, and that a citizen should forfeit their right not just to free expression but to earn a living.

Yours faithfully,

Ruel Johnson

Janus Cultural

Policy Initiative

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