Friday, February 24, 2012

Review: The Trouble With Nigeria

Chinua Achebe (of Things Fall Apart fame) didn’t write The Trouble With Nigeria as a timeless treatise on government, the human condition, or leadership.  It was written with one country—his own—in mind, at a particular moment—it was first published in 1983.  Even the crisis, the trouble of the title, is specific, and Achebe names and shames with a palpable rage, a taut yet controlled fury that no writer could summon when writing in the abstract about the universal. 

The Trouble With Nigeria is brilliant because it is raw.  Achebe is not writing years after the fact.  The pain that the acts of grotesque corruption he describes (the earmarking of payment to ‘ghost workers’ and the shipment of mud into the country by phantom importers, to name but two examples) have caused him has not yet been lessened by scarification.  He writes with the hope of making a mark on the moment (and the back-cover of my edition, 1984, speculates as to whether Achebe had “an influence on the actions of the leaders of the 1983 New Year’s Eve coup in Nigeria?”). 

The Trouble With Nigeria is also brilliant because Achebe is writing about his home, and cares very deeply.  His is no idealised Nigeria, though, and his love is of the tough variety.  “It is a measure of our self delusion”, he writes, “that we can talk about developing tourism in Nigeria.  Only a masochist with an exuberant taste for self-violence will pick Nigeria for a holiday; only a character out of Tutuola seeking to know punishment and poverty first hand!” (10) 

And The Trouble with Nigeria is brilliant because of his elegant prose, constructed expertly and wielded easily, its almost laconic absence of flourish doing nothing to dull its biting edge.  It could not be a more different book from Things Fall Apart, but it too will leave you chuckling here, white-knuckled there, and with much to turn over and over and over again in your mind on closing it.

Because in spite of its specificity, in spite of the intensity with which it locks onto its target—the Nigerian political elite who, Achebe writes, are largely the cause of the troubles—it cannot help but cause some meditation on troubles in one’s own home, wherever that might be (although references, like that to the London Barbican as the Eighth Wonder of the World, might seem a bit dated) (41).

It is a book that people of all political persuasions in the United States could benefit from reading.  And I suspect that, if readers put aside their preconceptions and approached Achebe’s deceptively slim volume with an open mind, its impact might be greater than all the railing of our own commentators.  Achebe’s tract, you see, is not ideological in the obvious sense of the word.  Many Africans discuss their countries’ politics today in terms that, to me, are disconcertingly free of ideology.  ‘Devoid’ might be a better word, because the absence of ideology isn’t simply that—it is also the presence of a cruder debate about which politicians will ‘feed’ which people; about who will reap the benefits if ‘their man’ is at the top. 

There is no discussion about the appropriate role of government, the character of democracy, or the specific policies and ambitions that differentiate one political figure from another.  All of this—the sharp distinctions that we bemoan as partisanship but which lend our politics substance—is subsumed beneath the surety that whomever wins will bend—very likely crookedly—all the apparatuses of the state to misdirect the flow of material and less tangible benefits of citizenship to ‘their people’.  This is clientele politics.  Just imagine the outrage that would surely break loose if it was found that a political party in our country was devoted to the enrichment of a small elite to the detriment—the impoverishment if need be—of the majority who comprise the public.

Now Achebe was not praising the absence of ideology.  He would have, I imagine, wished it into the debate.  His issue is with the stance on (or for) venality that Nigeria’s leaders since independence in 1960 took.  But along the way, he offers observations which I suspect are as relevant outside Nigeria in 1983 as in it.  And they are, or ought to be, reflections and observations which touch on the practise of politics rather than on this or that policy aim.

The trouble with Nigeria has become the subject of our small talk in much the same way as the weather has for the English”.  My first thought was of California’s own malaise, diagnosed as incurable, as chronic, by our current Governor.  “But there is a great danger”, Achebe warns, “in consigning life-and-death issue to the daily routine of small talk.  No one can do much about the weather: we must accept it and live with or under it.  But national bad habits are a different matter; we resign ourselves to them at our peril” (2). 

I suspect that Achebe’s indictment of political sloganeering, and the use of the easy phrase, the weightless, ephemeral “virtue”, is one which could apply to politickers in all times and all places.  Things like “‘unity’ and ‘faith”, he writes (coincidentally, two of the platitudes best-beloved by our own political elite) “are not absolute” (12).  They require further probing: “Faith in what...Unity to what end?”  The relativity of these “virtues” becomes a destructive, divisive power in the hands of politicians—all the more so in the hands of those who profess to eschew compromise, which they brand as morally corrosive. 

If the purpose of a government is to mediate between competing claims, to decipher something as eternally elusive as “the will of the people”, and to work toward something as nobly conceived as the common good, it will need firmer principles governing its own operations than the whims of a corporate patriarch, a culture warrior, or even a Harvard-educated lawyer.  Like unharnessed horses, these political breeds are liable to bolt at the first whiff of danger that drifts up to them through the polls.

But when their backs are to the walls, wily politicians—American every bit as much as Nigerians—have one final recourse.  They take refuge in the easily-fashioned but nonetheless precarious redoubt of patriotism. 
“Who is a patriot?” Achebe muses with the professorial calm that bids the answerer beware of an easy answer.  Achebe’s: “He is a person who loves his country.  He is not a person who says he loves his country.  He is not even a person who shouts or swears or recites or sings his love of his country.  He is one who cares deeply about the happiness and well-being of his country and all its people.  Patriotism is an emotion of love directed by a critical intelligence” (15). 

Achebe also identifies those who to his mind are clearly not patriots: “Naturally they will be extremely loud in their adulation of the country and its system, and will be anxious to pass themselves off as patriots and to vilify those who disagree with them as trouble-makers or even traitors.  But doomed is the nation which permits such people to define patriotism for it.  Their definition”, and here, admire the aplomb with which Achebe twists his rhetorical knife, “would be about as objective as a Rents Act devised by a committee of avaricious landlords, or the encomiums that a colony of blood-sucking ticks might be expected to shower upon the bull on whose back they batten” (16).  Or, if I may, as the pollution laws written up by, well, polluters.  Or as the ‘national’ economic program designed by people whose lifelong devotion has been to the financial and real estate industries that...well, you know the story.

Finally, and most obviously presentist-ly, Achebe has the briefest of words on education.  These words made me think of the indefatigable ability of aggrieved demagogues like Rick Santorum to misfire on all fronts.  Santorum, and those who share his almost pitiful fascination with their alleged cultural victimhood, is constantly bemoaning the colonisation of schools by godless liberals (or maybe their Islamofascists, or perhaps secular communists—I can never keep them straight), and the domination of our universities by liberal elitists. 
The perceived disenfranchisement of the supposed national majority of Christian fundamentalists entirely misses the point of education, or what ought to be its point: that is, the creation of educated citizens.  “To be educated is, after all”, Achebe reminds us (and I hope that it is a reminder—that it stirs some hint of recognition in the backs of all our minds), “to develop the questioning habit, to be sceptical of easy promises and to use past experiences creatively” (53).  Or to put it differently: don’t settle.  Because the cloud of muck at the bottom of the pond rises from the impact of a mentally-emasculated, conceptually-complacent body as thickly if that body is left-wing as if it is right-wing.  Education ought to threaten nothing but a stultifying status quo unless something else has good reason to fear a citizenry armed with curiosity and thought.


* Chinua Achebe, The Trouble with Nigeria (Harlow: Heinemann, 1984).

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Snippets from the Archives

How I spend my days:

I’d always thought that the irresistible attraction of Britain’s Prince Philip’s foot to his mouth (or perhaps more accurately, its basically permanent inhabitancy of the back reaches of his throat) was a product of age...a curmudgeonly sort of thing.  But as far back as 1962 the Duke of Edinburgh (how does he ever keep these various titles straight?) was putting his foot in it.  In his capacity as a World Wildlife Fund figurehead (I can just picture him eying the Panda: “Mmmm, wonder how that goes with pheasant?  If I had one on my estate I could find out...  Have to see if the missus will get me one...”) the Duke inveighed against poaching, and targeted African “get rich quick” poachers who were selling rhino horn to the Chinese, who “for some inexplicable reason...think it acts as a love potion ... I should have thought that the population statistics alone would have convinced anyone that those things were obviously unnecessary”.*

*KW20/11.  Overseas press Comment.  1962 to 1963.  Box 46, Shelf 5487.


It was tough work being the Speaker of the Legislative Council in Colonial Kenya, but there were some perks.  One of these was the right to label language as ‘unparliamentary’. 

Speaker Sir Ferdinand Cavendish-Bentinck chided parliamentarians as follows on 19 June 1957 after a display of spectacular disrespect exploded on the floor during a gripping debate of the Committee of Supply on the vote to the Agricultural Department for the year. 

 “I think it is unparliamentary”, Sir Ferdinand fumed, “to impute the possession of phoney commercial ideas or a phoney commercial brain to another Member.  Also, if I may say so, I think that it isunparliamentary to call another Member a flamingo. 

“I also must add that although the wearing of a hat is permissible and, indeed, on occasions mandatory in the House of Commons, paper hats have invariably been ruled out of order”.

* Kenya Legislative Council Debates, 19 June 1957.  For the record, I have no idea who was wearing a paper hat, or why.  Nor, alas, was I able to discover the reason for some poor sod having been tarred with the ‘flamingo’ slur...


People from many parts of the world will be familiar with the concept of an annual address by some executive authority, even a rather doddery and toothless one (and I suspect the greater the pageantry, the more doddery and toothless...).  In the U.S. we have the State of the Union.  In Britain they have the Queen’s address at the State Opening of Parliament.  In Canada, I believe they call the indignity of pretending to be a sovereign nation while grovelling in front of the Governor General the Speech from the Throne or something similarly amusing. 

In the U.S. the response to the SOTU takes a ritualistic form.  In the Obama Presidency, the lucky Republican chosen to deliver this response calls the President a satanic, fascist dictator, bent on forcing his secular, Islamist, socialist values on the country.  Somewhere in there they refer to him as a radical environmentalist and allude to his mysterious national origins.

Well it was apparently traditional for the Tanganyika Governor’s annual address to be met with a similar response.  When His Excellency pronounced on the state of the territory in September of 1957, the Assistant Minister for Lands, D P K Makwaia, was chosen to deliver the response.  It came as follows:

“Sir, I feel honoured and privileged to have been asked to move the Address in Reply to the speech delivered by His Excellency the Governor during the opening ceremony of the present Session of this Honourable Council.  I believe that Honourable Members on both sides of the House will agree with me that His Excellency’s speech, as an exposition of the affairs of the country, was a comprehensive, clear and constructive masterpiece.  Indeed, whatever differences there may be on matters of detail there can be no doubt that the broad path of Tanganyika’s future development depends on a satisfactory equilibrium between political, social and economic development...”*

I bet Obama wishes he could find a Republican as congenial as Makwaia!

* Tanganyika Legislative Council Debates.  18 September 1957.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Rick Santorum, Prophet

If there was ever one Republican presidential candidate who I was sure would miss out on a moment in the sun, it was Rick Santorum.  Because in a field of crude culture warriors whose grip on reality is tenuous at best, he has been the crudest and angriest, amongst the most blissfully ignorant and happily hateful—guaranteed to lose a general election to President Obama, but not before turning the country into a charred battleground.

I don’t make this assertion as an exercise in Republican-bashing.  I would not, for example, say the same thing about Mitt Romney, as distasteful and destructive as I find his elevation of corporations to the status of living, breathing human beings, or his embrace of trickle-down economics.  I think that Romney is an intelligent albeit misguided man.  For too long his intelligence was bent to serve the interests of the likes of Bain Capital, and I doubt whether he is really capable of grasping what middle- and working class citizens need.  But I don’t think that, as President, he would be as knee-jerk an operator as he is during the Republican Primary.

It pains me to say this, but it is my suspicion that a Romney Presidency would look a lot like an Obama one, except that Romney would be drifting into dangerous waters—the casual waging of conflicts abroad, a cynical refusal to take environmental threats seriously, a disinterest in combating growing inequality—propelled by a genial belief in unregulated capitalism rather than by the political expediency which blows the Obama administration so easily off-course. 

But Rick Santorum, the new GOP frontrunner, is cut from an altogether different sort of cloth.  I won’t even get into the raw hatred and bigotry Santorum brings to the debate when he talks about gay and lesbian couples, an obsession of his that goes back a sufficiently long time to be very well documented.  Some highlights from the last several months. 

On September 7, in one of the early GOP debates, Santorum explained to the audience that the social welfare system punishes people.  This might be news to anyone on social security or Medicare.  It would also undoubtedly come as a surprise to anyone receiving food stamps or unemployment benefits.  Those of us who attended public schools, public colleges, or public universities, or who enjoy visiting National Parks or Historic Sites would also be dismayed to know that we were duped into considering ourselves the beneficiaries of this institutions and that in actuality we were being punished!

In the same debate, Santorum began raving about Ronald Reagan melting like the Wicked Witch of the West.  This, if I read my notes aright, had something to do with Libya.

I’m tempted to rest my case there, but on September 22, Santorum went one better, and argued that we should do away with public employee unions.  Now Santorum, like every other ideologue on the right, can point to cases of abuse in a similar vein to those who scuttle across the border and bring back some Canadian who is disgruntled about healthcare in that country.  The poor Canuck in question is paraded on U.S. television as an example of how horrible any form of nationalised healthcare is, and we’re asked to believe that the rest of his or her countrymen, plus the British, the French, the Germans, the Belgians, the Danes, the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Spanish, etc, etc, etc, are too stupid to realise that they’re being subjected to some wicked, liberty-killing socialist experiment.

But in all seriousness, the anti-union tirades are surprising coming from someone who trumpets the working class, industry, factories, blue-collar workers, etc, as the mainstay of our economy.  These are the people who have benefited the most from unionisation.  Their predecessors were the backbone of the union movement, and they are the reason we have a 40-hour day, a five-day week, pensions, insurance, laws about safety in the workplace, and recourse to demand any improvement in working conditions. 

But Santorum isn’t just a demagogue and a hypocrite.  He’s also a warmongerer.  And possibly nuts.
In one of the Republican’s foreign policy debates, Santorum insisted that we need to “take out [Iran’s] nuclear capability”.  Now I don’t know how the Joint Chiefs would interpret the command to “take out” something, but I have an inkling that it might involve bombs raining down on yet another country as part of the U.S.’s on-going campaign to lose friends and alienate people.  And kill lots of foreigners.  For one thing, we don’t really know how far along Iran’s nuclear projects are.  Secondly, there’s a certain hypocrisy in one bunch of religious fundamentalists who want to exclude nonconformists from public debate–both Santorum and his old mentor, New Gingrich (known to this blog as The Newt Who Would be King...but who probably won’t) have form on this count—saying that other countries can’t have nuclear weapons (especially when, under the first group of fundamentalist nut jobs’ Great Leader, they attacked the second country in question and aided a mad dictator by the name of Saddam Hussein in waging war on it).  Finally, the ease with which Santorum advocates the waging of war and the use of assassination (which he did in the same segment of this debate) is downright disturbing.

But the National Security program of a President Santorum would extend well beyond the waging of neoconservative wars flavoured with the kind of crusading spirit that, to his credit, George W Bush was careful to avoid using.  His would be a program unencumbered by dissenting points of view.  He would “get people together who share my point of view”.  When pressed on this point by the moderator at the time, Santorum expressed disbelief at the idea that he would consult with or hire people who might have the temerity to disagree with him.  His befuddlement at the idea was genuine.  This is a man convinced of his righteousness, and who believe that righteousness is an adequate substitute for information and debate.

Santorum also expressed his belief that “you don’t have rights unless you play by the rules”.  This is chilling, and gives us a sense of what a President Santorum might have done to civil rights or anti-war protestors in the 1960s or ‘70s who relied on civil disobedience in the face of state disinterest that could rapidly transform into hostility.  It tells us where his sympathies would have been when courageous demonstrators broke the law to initiate the ‘Arab Spring’.  We know what Rick Santorum would think of environmental activists who have used civil disobedience to bring attention to polluting industries and companies.  And in Santorum’s book, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which in engaging in civil disobedience to call our attention to glaring and growing inequality in the U.S., would be no different from Al Qaeda.

In an October debate, Santorum again showed his indiscretion, ranting, “I want to beat China.  I want to go to war with China”.  I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was speaking figuratively, or was referencing a trade war.  Even so, the eschewing of diplomacy and the launching of these verbal attacks on a country that we should be doing our best to better understand and build common ground with smacks of an itchy-trigger finger and of a mind driven by anger and somewhat devoid of much else.

In the same debate, Santorum ridiculed the idea of making cuts to the military, ensuring that schools, health programs, parks, public radio, welfare programs, social services, scientific innovation, and government sponsorship of our economic recovery will bear the brunt of the cuts he wants to force upon us.  He also accused Iran of wanting to be the Supreme Leader of both the Islamic and Secular Worlds.  This left me a trifle confused, but perhaps he’s taking a leaf out of The Newt’s book (The Newt regularly references a godless secularist movement which has as its aim the transformation of the United States into a part of an Islamic Caliphate...).

In November we were treated to the Iowa Thanksgiving Family Forum.  Here Santorum made the argument that our rights come from God, in a stunning display of ignorance about the process whereby thirteen colonies threw some tea in a harbour, drew up a constitution and bill of rights, fought a war against the world’s largest empire, and made those documents—written, I feel at pains to point out, by mortal men—law.  Laws which, we should remember, have been modified to do little things like make black people citizens, give women voting rights, require that Senators be elected by their constituents, etc. 

Santorum carried on in this vein, insisting that God “has laws that we must abide by.  Unlike Islam where higher and civil laws are the same, we have separate civil laws but those must comport with our higher laws”.  A couple of points.  Firstly, you can’t really get around the history that suggests that we’ve made our own laws.  Secondly, someone needs to point out to him that Islam isn’t a country.  There are a very large number of countries with Muslim majorities, and in each of these, religion (in which there are variations) stands in a different place with relation to the state.  Finally, it sort of sounds like Santorum is actually advocating that the United States adopt a legal system that resembles his imagined Country of Islam.  This is where I wonder whether Santorum is really an idiot, or whether he’s a miserable, manipulative, hatemonger who preys on and seeks to expand on people’s fears.

Of course Santorum couldn’t have let this debate pass without blaming all of our problems on the “secular” left.  This “left” has, according to the dear former Senator, “co-opted and taken over the academic institutions of this country [...] the culture, the popular culture”.  He urged Republicans to fight to stop “the filth com[ing] through the television”.  Again, I really can’t believe that someone could actually believe that anything objectionable they see on television is all the fault of “the secular left”.  How could he actually buy into the conceit that only people who agree with him on every single issue are “moral”?  When Santorum talks about morality by comparing equality of marriage between two people of the same sex to couplings between people and animals, he reminds you of nothing more than an overgrown frat boy who, while telling offensive locker-room jokes, has stumbled into the national limelight and decided he wants to inhabit an office for which he is utterly unfit. 

And then there was the Tea Party debate.  At this august gathering, Santorum told the Tea Partiers that “You attract Latino voters by talking [...] about having English as the official language of this country”.  Now English-Only legislation would “bar government employees from providing non-English language assistance and services”, marking a further exclusionary turn in our policy towards immigrants.  But perhaps Santorum was actually thinking of the well-being of the Hispanic citizens of the U.S., doing his noble best to keep them out of the grips of that secular Islamist government. 

Santorum has also been notable for his almost violent responses to Texas Congressman Ron Paul at these debates.  He called Paul “irresponsible” for claiming that our foreign policy was responsible for 9/11 and suggested that the Congressman was “parroting Osama bin Laden”.  “We were not”, Santorum insisted furiously, “attacked because of our actions, we were attacked because [...] we have a civilisation that is antithetical to the civilisation of the jihadists and they want to kill us because of who we are and what we stand for”.  So we can add ‘narcissist’ to ‘religious fundamentalist’, ‘economic fundamentalist’ and ‘bigot’.  Most societies around the world don’t actually orbit around the United States.  People are more concerned with what is happening in their own countries, and I feel pretty safe in promising that no one “hates us for our freedoms”.  As a rule, people probably don’t think very much about U.S. policy or government.  Until, that is, we conduct propaganda campaigns against them or their neighbours, start labelling them “terrorists”, prop up their dictators, bomb their infrastructure to the ground, kill their inhabitants, and imprison some of them without trial.

Which it makes Santorum’s claim that “we stand for freedom and opportunity for everyone around the world” a particularly rich illustration of the man’s ignorance.  We have undertaken military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Lebanon, and Pakistan which have nothing to do with “freedom and opportunity”.  We have propped up and in some cases continue to prop up sadistic and/or kleptocratic regimes in the Congo, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the Philippines, Kenya, Guatemala and El Salvador, to name but a few.  Santorum, like too many in both parties, is totally unwilling to understand cause-and-effect as it applies to our foreign policy.

On the home front, in a December debate, Santorum argued for the repeal of corporate taxes and regulations.  He also attacked Mitt Romney for having the temerity to suggest that we develop any kind of plan or timeline for an economic program.  “I don’t need some government bean-counter”, Santorum said angrily (anger seems to be a big part of his campaign).  Presumably he’s content to leave us in the hands of the corporate “bean-counters” who ran the banks and the real estate market into the ground.

In the last few weeks, his poll numbers on the rise, Santorum has taken to rolling around in his own verbal excrement for the entertainment of the media, soiling our already debased political conversation further by trading in innuendo and open slur.  He contended that Obama doesn’t care about people.  He was quoted by CNN saying, “[For Obama] it’s not about your job.  It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology”.  Santorum suggested that Obama’s attempts to reduce emissions—universally recognised as harmful—were a “political science goal”.  A “political science goal” which he is convinced is about “oppressing religious freedom” and “impos[ing] a moral code” at deviance from Christianity. 

Santorum went on: “I just said that when you have a world view that elevates the Earth above man and says that we can’t take those resources, because we’re going to harm the Earth by things that frankly are just not scientifically proven ... The politicization of the whole global warming debate, I mean, this is just all an attempt to centralize power and give more power to the government”.  I am grateful that I cannot get inside of Santorum’s head to determine whether he believes this garbage, but the fact that spewing nonsense wins him people’s support is disturbing.

It is an incontrovertible fact that we live on a place called Earth.  Its resources are finite, and in some cases we are well on our way to destroying them.  We have pushed many, many species to extinction, we are rapidly destroying ecosystems, together with the life forms and resources they contain.  It is true that we don’t fully understand the consequences of this destruction, but they cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be positive.  Even if we are not morally moved at the prospect of killing off entire species of animals, destroying the rainforests of entire continents, depleting the fish in entire oceans, fouling water and turning fields and forests into rubbish-strewn wastelands, surely we can at least see that the effects of these actions on our health—through the crops we grow, the animals we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the conditions in which increasing numbers of us must live as a result of our unchecked depredations—will be deleterious in the extreme.

There is no question that deregulation as advocated by Santorum would lead to umpteen more cases like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  When geographically-specialized industries are allowed to spout fumes into the air and pump them into the water, those regions suffer.  California’s Central Valley—where quality of life indicators are lower than anywhere else in the state—are a perfect example of this.  It is common sense as well as scientifically-unassailable fact that air and water pollution are bad for people.  That an additional byproduct of various social and environmental abuses is the warming of the planet which will have potentially-catastrophic consequences, just makes the matter all the more urgent.  It is pathetic that hacks like Santorum go around trying to make political hay from this.

Santorum’s accusations as regards “motive” are truly bizarre.  Because there are plenty of us—progressives, social democrats, socialists, communists, whatever—who believe very strongly that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about governing, living, and treating one another in the context of our society.  But it’s bizarre to suggest that this is a “political science goal”, some kind of “project” that has no reference to people’s livelihoods.  As is the suggestion that the expansion of “Government” is an end in itself for those on the political left.  I feel at pains to point out that many of the left-wing people I know are Christians, plenty of those are Catholics like Santorum, and many of both—shock, horror!—have a strong environmental or land ethic.  It’s an illustration of how unbalanced Santorum appears to be, how blinded by hate for this imagined “secular left” he has become, to the point that it is truly scary to contemplate a Santorum Presidency.