16.05.2019 | Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
We live in plural and diverse societies. Should the populism of a few concern us?
Might I respond to you in two parts? The first is a general survey of the figurative territory, the second is a little more intimate, and in between the texts are more questions than there are answers.
First, a confession. The position from which I survey the topic? In a word: Schadenfreudian.
The place, space and time from which this theme has popped; the fact of one being a creature from one of those post enlightenment world-imagined alterities, places whose actual narratives of existence and meaning have been written over and then , persistently reframed elsewhere, and a grammar not of their making imposed, whose experiences of life are treated as ‘exotic’ or ‘absurd’, whose experiences of what is known as ‘populism’ had been written off as human aberrations, rather than as signals of what can unfold in any human society, at any time; whose people have, for too long, endured ceaseless pontifications from, mostly, Euro-American secular missionaries expounding on the merits of a secular trinity of ‘democracy’, human rights’, and the ‘rule of law’, and who has also watched in futile furious helplessness as that unholy trinity was brutally delivered by similar pontificators to places like Iraq, Libya, or Afghanistan, and done with no sense of irony that millions were/are murdered in the process…well, coming from that kind of place…I am mostly unsurprised by the variety of human resistances emerging against what was once assumed as a state of ‘progressive’ ‘normal’ in the ordering of the world.
graphicrecording.cool There must be some philosopher/theologian who can confirm that there is a limit to how much hypocrisy the human spirit can endure before it struggles for a way out through whomever promises that new pathway.
Anyway, now onto the topic, Populism.
To start, what are we here for? No, not ‘us’, this ethereal digital community of ideas, but Us, as the human race? Yes, yes, I am going a little ontological on you. To compound things let me ‘do’ axiology: what do we value? What do we consider better? Also, when I say ‘we’ do I presume that ‘we’ all feel, sense, think the same way about particular values, principles and ideals? What about those of us who subscribe more and more to notions on and of ‘pluriversality’ (proposed by the likes of Franz Hinkelammert, Enrique Dussel, Raymundo Pannikar and of course, Walter Mignolo; in essence, a notion that negates the idea of a presumed/assumed ‘universal’) should the current preoccupation with ‘populism’ by a portion of our pluriverse concern us? Why concern ourselves with what, to all extents and purposes, is merely one of a number of disturbing phenomena that characterizes this seemingly apocalyptic age? Is the present unease over populism justified given that it is certainly not alien to the collective human experience after all? What exactly lies at the heart of the collective soul’s unease? The fear of the return and march of a familiar revenant, or is this suppressed grief at the loss of assumed certainties?
The quickest way to rise as a politician, it seems to be, is by thumbing one`s nose at political correctness.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Populism’ in popular understanding assumes that, among other factors, at some point some demagogue will emerge to stand high on a podium to shout, mostly once illicit things on behalf of ‘the people’. That ‘shout’ is a topic in itself. It needs its own autopsy. It appears that the quickest way to rise as a politician even in Europe and America, is by choosing to thumb one's nose at the assorted dogma and canons of political correctness.
One must wonder if part of the expansion of what is now perceived in the liberal press as a wound is because of the non-existence of forums to speak directly to, and without prior judgements of the character of a general disquiet. It is simpler to join the crowds that are declaring their passion for ‘democracy’ rather than admit to an inner desire to have a caudillo as sovereign, particularly if the one storing the longing in their heart is also a scholar.
As an African wanderer who ventures into different spaces of human encounter, seemingly benign and with no dog in anybody’s fight, I have been able to experience, some public masks drop in intimate settings. Two years ago, I shared a meal with an evolutionary biologist who later admitted in wry tone, that they had voted for Mr. Donald John Trump, and who wished the 45th President of the USA a long life. This person could never declare himself in public, or tell this to their peers and feel safe. They know they would be vilified, labelled, shouted down before losing their job. Built up steam will find an outlet, even if it does so by creating a terrible explosion, isn’t that correct? Another question then proposes itself: do these gesture to the limitations to the imagination of ‘democracy’? Are these then not the very seeds for a rebellion against constraints, the thing that surges into ‘populism’ (or ethno-chauvinism, ethno-nationalism, tribalism)?
Everything is interconnected. Many have stated this, and nothing more connected or continuous as the past is to the present.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Beyond the title, beyond its synonyms, what lurks as a disturbing question in the collective human spirit? What does the human dread so that any number of false prophets acquire not only a hearing, but also a vote? What does a society that is uncomfortable with populism offer as a counter narrative/epistemology potent and inspiring enough to dissipate its energy? And in the reckoning of questions there is another truth that needs to be summoned to light; that of the most abiding of our fears as humans, the fear of the other. This fear that has made an abyss of this elegant earth of ours. The constrained scope of this letter does not permit the sort of excavatory digging into and through human wounds to get to the core, the root that feeds the current existential crisis.
What is now referred to as populism (ethno-chauvinism, ethno-nationalism, tribalism) comes, not from the ethers, but is a result of an inherited pattern of thought
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
and imagination of human governance, its contents and discontents. Its characteristics differ from context to context, in the Anglo-American spheres the more virulent reactions also coincide with the influx of those regarded as ‘other’, who are, in an odd repetition, always rendered as grotesque. But why is this the case? From which epistemological sense does this impulse emerge? In identifying this, is it then possible to address directly what ‘uneases’ generate the human symptom we now know as ‘populism’? To what goal? What is the ‘better deal’ on offer that is itself capable of rousing the best of the yearnings of those now seeking messianic demagogues to articulate their dreams (for them, nightmares for others)? Is this even possible?
Still, it is fascinating to read how populism’s intention and meaning has evolved faster than the promises of a Kenyan politician ever since its May 1891 Kansas Farmers Alliance roots, whose life was compromised by internal tribalists/racists/exclusivists—ça plus ça change, ça plus la meme—making itself vulnerable to appropriation by all sorts at all times. Its core elements are still stirred by population disaffection, perceived inequalities, it appeals to people’s unspoken fears, weariness with the loss of ‘values’ and a grand sense that ‘the system is rigged’, the fear of the ‘other’, and grand offered by a demagogic leader who offers a vision for the restoration/ realisation of an ideal.
A friend, the writer Binyavanga Wainaina sat in a café in Nairobi critiquing my early offerings of the book Dust. I had been summoned there immediately after he had phoned to say, without pre-amble, his tone rather stern: “Yvonne, this is crap.”
Among the many things he proposed, to get the story going, to get the work in order was this (and I am paraphrasing it completely): Get to the bone of the situation. Get to the heart of the word. The word ‘beast’, is more effective and conveys the truth of what you wish to convey in this context than the word ‘animal.’ Truthfulness, he emphasized. And if you are going to write about the abyss, for fuck’s sake, jump in, look around, and give it its most truthful name, hell. Then write the hell about it.
There is something about a lexicon, something about the words we plaster around a situation. There is caution about how a word is used to refer to a common condition occurring in different places: if it happens in any of the ‘Sub’ Saharan African nations, it is ‘tribalism’; if it in Eastern Europe, it is ethno-nationalism, if in Western Europe or America, it is ‘populism’, if in Asia it is often ethno-chauvinism, right?
To what purpose?
Should the grotesque be hierarchized?
Who is to blame? Is it the still canonized Charles Darwin and his “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, and his apostles? Does this situation then address the human crisis at the heart of this …manifestation? Would agreeing to a common human lexicon to address the shared demon change things for those who wish to hope and dream differently?
Ágnes Heller’s’ scalpel-edged honing into aspects of the contradiction drew my attention to the idea of ‘languaging’, and what this opens, closes or directs.
“….I would speak instead of a kind of re-feudalization. These ethno-nationalist parties do not even claim to support the “people”; they support the “nation”; they claim to defend the nation against all its enemies….” Agnes Heller (2019)
Dictator. Tribalist. Ethno-chauvinist. One can connect Mr. Trump’s dramatic anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim statements to any of those from a tableau of our vilest local demagogues. The most useful thing to know about the grotesque is that it disfigures reality and the humanity in pretty much the same way, no matter where it shows up in the world. Now, I am keen on words that cut to the bone, no matter whose bone is under the microscope, the point being that a remedy is desired, if that at all is possible.
What one does understand now, at least drawing from the great databank of history, is that when populism surges, it is a canary in the mine shaft suggesting that the fumes of a, usually unspoken, un-rendered, unarticulated major human existential crisis is in the offing. It is this, the dense shadow of the existential crisis, the naming of the unease in the soul/heart that one now yearns for a complete grammar of, in order to be able to truly see what routes out of such an abyss are etched out in truthfulness, (Euphemisms, even the most convenient ones, do not apply).
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor