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Monday, August 19, 2013

Half a Century of Unreason

In The Republic Plato writes, “A ship's crew which does not understand that the art of navigation demands knowledge of the stars will stigmatize a properly qualified pilot as a star-gazing idiot, and will prevent him from navigating”. These words written circa 380 BC ring so true and in so many dimensions about our society, and especially our disdain for knowledge and evidence as a basis for public discourse and action.

The dominant cultural momentum in our society is at odds with reason and evidence. Anti-reason stretches from pop culture to the pseudo intellectual universe of university lecture theatres. Contempt for thought evidence and reflection defines the ubiquitous lassitude buttressed by FM radio, television, inept journalism, mediocre public education, scarcity of public intellectuals and most of all a slothful and ignorant public. In a letter to Colonel Charles Yancey in January 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “ If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what will never be”.

The dearth of public intellectuals is exemplified by fact that ours is a society where issues of great moment are framed and led by the political class. Our so-called intellectual class, the kind that writes newspaper columns, lives not by challenging popular opinion advanced by politicians, but by pandering to it. And in the words of Plato these mercenary intellectuals trick themselves out as philosophers. I use the word intellectual to mean someone who lives for ideas, which suggests that he or she is dedicated to the life of the mind. Few academics and almost no politician in our country today could qualify as intellectuals by this construction.

I have watched in disbelief when every time sticky issues confront us; ranging from the legacy of Dedan Kimathi to the post election violence, corruption and devolution, the Kenyan public gets paralyzed by the tranquilizing combination drug of “move on and focus on nation building and national reconciliation”. Furthermore, I am always stunned by the how little the general public understands and integrates the history of our so-called independence struggle and the contemporary political economy.

I always get  blank stares whenever I suggest that we are society differentiated more sharply by class rather than ethnicity. In my view tribalism was invented in 1966 to blunt the nascent but portent threat of land based political agitation posed to KANU by Kenya People’s Union (KPU). Jomo Kenyatta’s characterization of Bildad Kaggia as a renegade who sided with Jaramogi Odinga to challenge him annihilated Kaggia politically and instituted tribalism as a virulent antidote for a proletariat, class grievance-based politics. Today tribalism is used as a platform for polarization and political mobilization to advance competing economic interests of establishment right wing versus anti-establishment more left wing. But the slothful credulous citizen is sold the bill of goods about their turn to eat every election cycle.

Related to this and of even greater concern is that we are for the most part disinterested in the process by which truth is discovered, the canons of evidence-based reasoning – especially the embrace of open inquiry, in which process unexpected and even uncomfortable facts could be unearthed. In my view the places for free, critical and dispassionate public debate are lacking. Therefore the culture of the future will most likely be dominated by tyranny of unreason, characterized by single-minded men and women of parochial persuasion.

The surge of unreason is at odds not only with rationalism but also with what I think were the fundamental tenets of liberty. The flight from reason and fact-based action is capable of inflicting vastly greater damage to freedom and democracy, the essential foundations upon which to build equitable and sustainable economic growth. A conversation about our collective fidelity to reason, fact and the pursuit of truth is especially critical as we begin to enter the ceremonies of 50 years of independence, at which point we will drown ourselves in uncritical self-congratulatory pities of our great accomplishments.

Never has there been a more critical moment for us to harness, in addition to other tools, our collective intellectual resources to confront the reality of our most urgent challenges, including deep and worsening ethnic division, a ponderous constitution, unbridled corruption and moral decadence, poverty and rising inequality, mediocre public education and deterioration of state capability. Kenya must face the painful truth about what the disdain for reason and critical thought has cost us. 

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