Dateline: CHARLOTTESVILLE (VA), USA, August 11, 2017 – A gathering of self-identified “alt-right” protestors marches through a park in this small college city waving white supremacist and Nazi-affiliated flags, chanting slogans identified with “white power” movements and so-called “Great Replacement” beliefs put forth by Islamophobes (“you will not replace us”) and slogans identified with Nazi ideology (“blood and soil”). In the name of (white) American history, they are protesting the planned removal of a statue of the general who led the army of the Confederate States of America, the Southern separatist movement that took up arms against the American government in the country’s 19th century Civil War (1861-1865). Subsequent protests result in beatings of counter-protestors and one death. Days later, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, notoriously defends the white supremacists by observing that there were “very fine people on both sides.” The organiser of this “Unite the Right” protest is known in Charlottesville for his sustained online harassment campaigns against city councilors who support the removal of racist monuments.
Dateline: CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, March 15, 2019 – An Australian man living in New Zealand attacks worshippers at two different mosques in the city of Christchurch, killing 51 and wounding many others. He is a proponent of the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant views of a global “white power” network that disseminates its rhetoric of hate and its narrative of an imperiled white race online, via unregulated spaces within “the dark web” and via encrypted social media apps. His attack on Muslim New Zealanders is met with shock and grief within the country, an outpouring of solidarity that is expressed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her immediate response: “They were New Zealanders. They are us.” Of the shooter, whom she consistently refuses to identify by name, she says, “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist…He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.” After the attacks, it becomes clear that he had been announcing his intentions in online forums and had been livestreaming the attack through a Facebook link. New Zealand moved swiftly to criminalise the viewing or sharing of the video of the attack.
Dateline: PARIS, France, May 15, 2019 – Two months after the Christchurch attack, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stands at a lectern in a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron to announce a non-binding agreement dubbed “The Christchurch Call to Action.” The agreement has as its goal the global regulation of violent extremism on the Internet and in social media messaging. Ardern calls upon assembled representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to lead the way towards an online world that is both free and harm-free by enforcing their existing standards and policies about violent and racist content, improving response times involved in removing such content when it is reported, removing accounts responsible for posting content that violates the platform’s standards, making transparent the algorithms that lead searchers to extremist content, and committing to verifiable and measurable reporting of their regulatory efforts. Affirming that the ability to access the Internet is a benefit for all, she also asserts that people experience serious harm when exposed to terrorist and extremist content online, and that we have a right to be shielded from violent hatred and abuse.
Why is this call different from all other calls?
What action can we expect in the wake of this call? And what consequences might plausibly flow from that action?
The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”, the encrypted social messaging platforms that Ardern identifies as in need of regulation. (I put the word “community” in quotes here because the meaning derived from the word’s Latin root [munis/muneris: the word for gift] makes it a darkly ironic way to describe these bands of people: if community is a gift we share with each other, their gift of poisonous hate is one that damages all those with whom it is shared.
Recognising the danger of these groups, as Ardern does, and seeking to neutralise their effects on our online and in-person worlds is important, even urgent. As Syracuse University professor Whitney Phillips observes: “It’s not that one of our systems is broken; it’s not even that all of our systems are broken…It’s that all of our systems are working…towards the spread of polluted information and the undermining of democratic participation.”
The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”…
The consequences of the way these systems are working are now as clear to New Zealanders in the wake of the Christchurch attacks as they have been to Americans, to Kenyans, to Pakistanis, and to Sri Lankans in the wake of their respective experiences of hate-fuelled terrorism. American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt reminds us that acts of violent hatred always begin with words, words that normalise and seek to justify the genocides, pogroms, and terror attacks to come. If we do not speak out against those words, she notes, we embolden the speakers in their drive to turn defamatory words into deadly actions.
So the action called for at Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit is warranted. Will it happen? Will the nations who have the ability to exert moral pressure on the companies that created and profit from these online platforms actually force a change in how white supremacist rhetoric is dealt with? Karen Kornbluh, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, who is quoted in Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief, thinks that “the best case scenario [for] the Call to Action provides the political pressure and support for platforms to increase vigilance in enforcing their terms of service against violent white supremacist networks.”
The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users. Back in 2015, for instance, Germany’s then Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection, Heiko Maas, filed a written complaint with Facebook about its practice of ignoring its own stated standards and policies for dealing with racist posts. Maas pointed out the speed with which Facebook removes photographs (like those posted by breast cancer and mastectomy survivors who seek to destigmatise their bodies) as violations of the platform’s community standards, and the corresponding inattention to user complaints about racist hate speech. A Foreign Policy analysis of Maas’s complaint letter reports that it led to an agreement between German officials and representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter – the very same companies who sent representatives to Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit –on a voluntary code of conduct that included a commitment to more timely removal of hate-filled content. That was in 2015; in Maas’s view, Facebook has subsequently failed to honour the agreement.
The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users.
Even at the international/multi-national level at which Ardern’s call is framed, it is not clear how much capability there is to reform the discursive violence inflicted on us by white supremacist digital hate cultures. Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief reports that in the wake of his own visit to the Christchurch mosques that were the scene of white supremacist terror, UN Secretary-General António Guterres committed himself to combatting hate speech.
However, in a talk at the United Nations University in Shibuya (Tokyo) on March 26, 2019, Mike Smith, former Executive Director of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, was pessimistic about the possibilities for monitoring sites on which people like the Christchurch killer engage in their mutual radicalisation. One could argue with some plausibility that the “soft power” of moral authority, widely acknowledged as one of the UN’s key strengths, should be used to speak out against hate and terror lest its silence on the matter foster a sense of impotence on the part of the international community. However, as Smith made clear, that level of monitoring on the part of international institutions (or national ones for that matter) is not feasible, even assuming there is no other claim on the resources that would be required. The only workable way to implement monitoring of online hate groups is for the tech companies to be doing it themselves and, as Ardern asked for in her Christchurch Call, to be reporting regularly on their efforts to international and national agencies.
What could possibly go wrong?
In considering the question of whether the Christchurch Call does, or can, mark the moment when the world begins to take white supremacist hate speech seriously, we need to consider what we are dealing with in that speech, in that “community”. One American think-piece published in the days following the Christchurch attacks observed that “[r]acism is America’s native form of fascism”, and I think it might be instructive to take that claim seriously. Frequently a carelessly-used and controversial epithet, fascism has been broadly defined as a political worldview in which some of a nation’s people have been given status as persons, as citizens, as lives that matter in a moral hierarchy, and others have had that status denied to them.
Seeing racism as a variant of fascism gives us the resources to understand why online white supremacist hate speech is such an intractable problem. Essayist Natasha Lennard, a theorist of the Occupy movement that erupted in the United States in 2011, insists that “fascism is not a position that is reasoned into; it is a set of perverted desires and tendencies that cannot be broken with reason alone.” Instead, she argues that fascism—which she defines as “far-right, racist nationalism”—must be fought militantly: white supremacists must be exposed, and the inadequately regulated online spaces where their views are promulgated must be shut down. A similar no-tolerance approach to the more mainstream sympathiser sites where these views are legitimised is also warranted as part of anti-fascist (antifa) organising, she thinks. The goal of those who oppose fascism, racism, and white supremacy must be to vociferously reject these views as utterly unacceptable.
The kind of intransigent approach Lennard advocates is precisely the posture that the companies providing these online platforms are so ill-equipped and unwilling to adopt. As Foreign Policy writers Christina Larson and Bharath Ganesh both make clear, social media platforms like Facebook have long cloaked themselves in a rhetoric of utopian connectedness and free speech. Absence of regulation has been pitched to users as the precondition of popular empowerment.
Ganesh points out that there is a real disparity of treatment in the ways online platforms deal with extremist speech: where German minister Heiko Maas charged that Facebook censors photographs involving nudity and leaves hate speech to flourish, Ganesh qualifies that only some speech is left unregulated. Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked. “There is a widespread consensus that the free speech implications of such shutdowns are dwarfed by the need to keep jihadi ideology out of the public sphere,” Ganesh explains. But, “right-wing extremism, white supremacy, and white nationalism…are defended on free speech grounds.”
In part, this is precisely because of the existence of more mainstream sympathiser sites (such as Breitbart, Fox, InfoWars) that ally themselves with right-wing politicians and voters, and defend white supremacists through “dog whistles” (key words and phrases that are meaningful to members of an in-group and innocuous to those on the outside), such that, as Ganesh puts it, this particular “digital hate culture…now exists in a gray area between legitimacy and extremism”. Fearing backlashes, howls of protest about censorship, and reduced revenue streams if users migrate out of their platforms, social media companies have consistently chosen to prioritise these users over the less powerful, less mobilised minority cultures who are undermined by digital hate.
Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked.
In light of this self-serving refusal to apply their own community standards even-handedly, what we are likely to see from social media platforms in response to the Christchurch Call is more legitimising of white supremacy rhetoric that is increasingly entering the mainstream of American discourse, and more policing of already marginalized viewpoints and voices. The most likely result is of their caretaking of this current situation is proliferation of the inconsistent censorship Ganesh identifies, and extension of that censorship to the very groups and users who might be calling out white supremacy. One example of this censorship of anti-racism predating the Christchurch Call involved a group of feminist activists calling themselves “Resisters,” who created an event page on Facebook to promote a 2018 anti-racism rally they planned for the anniversary of the Unite the Right hate rally in Charlottesville. Facebook removed the page on the grounds that it bore a resemblance to fake accounts they believed to be part of Russian disinformation efforts aimed at influencing the 2018 US mid-term elections.
What then must we do?
“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?” That question is also posed in the Christchurch Call, and in abstraction it is a difficult one. People committed to freedom and to flourishing social worlds want both the right to express themselves and protections against the violence and dehumanisation that hate speech enacts.
Practically speaking, however, we often can draw lines that delineate hate speech from speech that needs to be protected by guarantees of right of expression (often, views from marginalised communities). Ganesh cites Section 130 of the German Criminal Code as an example: in free, democratic Germany, it is nonetheless a criminal offense to engage in anti-Semitic hate speech and Holocaust denial. The point of this legal prohibition is to disrupt efforts to attack the dignity of marginalised individuals and cultures, which is, Ganesh contends, “what digital hate culture is designed to do.” If our legal remedies begin – as the Christchurch Call asks all remedies to – with basic human rights and basic human dignity as their central concerns, they will not, he thinks, contravene our entitlement to express ourselves.
“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?”
Those who fear that any attempt to delineate speech undeserving of protection will slide down a slippery slope into censorship often turn for support to nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stewart Mill’s impassioned argument for the necessity of robustly free speech in his 1859 work On Liberty. However, Mill’s motivation for that argument was his belief that freedom of expression is a key component of human dignity. Free speech does have limits, even for Mill; he articulates those limits in arguably his most famous contribution to Western political theory: the harm principle, which says that limits on an individual’s freedom are only justified to the extent that they prevent harm to others.
Recognising that words have the capacity to trigger action, Mill acknowledges that a society cannot tolerate as protected speech a polemic to an angry mob outside the house of a corn dealer in which one charges the corn dealer with profiteering at the expense of hungry children and calls for death to corn dealers. Building on this view that incitement to reasonably foreseeable harm or violence warrants restrictions on speech, even the United States, with its expansive constitutional protections for speech, has enshrined limitations. (One cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, for instance.)
While laws – and responsible oversight by social media platforms, if ever that can be mandated in ways they will adhere to – can structure the playing field, they cannot determine the actions of the players. For that necessary change, we must look to our own behaviours and attitudes and how each of us might play our role in reinforcing social norms. In a post-Christchurch attacks interview, American anti-racist educator Tim Wise advises people: “Pick a side. Make sure that every person in your life knows what side that is. Make sure your neighbors know. Make sure the other parents where your kids go to school know what side you are on. Make sure your classmates know. Make sure that your family knows what side you are on. Come out and make it clear that fighting racism and fascism are central to everything that you believe.”
We must, I think, resist the temptation of the easy neoliberal “solution,” the fiction that small numbers of committed individuals can neutralise a normalised culture of hate. But there is a germ of insight in Wise’s prescription. Yes, we need a better legal climate, one that levies real penalties on social media platforms that fail to monitor the content they make available in our lives; yes, we need more responsible social media companies and Internet site moderators; and we also need to all do what we can to make sure that the people who are listening to each of us are hearing messages that contribute to a healthy and caring social world.
One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” (the campaign of invective and abuse organised against women in the video game industry) was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate. Another thing I learned was that many of the casual reproducers of that organised hate are not fully culpable actors; they have been drawn into something they think they understand but when they can be made to see how harmful it is, they will renounce it. I do think Natasha Lennard is right about the futility of trying to appeal to people who have chosen hate or fascism, but there are many others on the fringes who can be influenced away from those ideas. They need to be surrounded by people in their (online and offline) lives who are speaking the language of anti-racism, feminism, multicultural inclusion, and the equal right to dignity of all human beings.
One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate.
If online hate has IRL (in real life) ramifications, then IRL influencing might be a way to save or reclaim some otherwise radicalised young people, and also a way to assert pressure on the social media platforms to “walk their talk” of wanting a more connected community. The Christchurch Call cannot, in and of itself, drive out the poison of white supremacist hate. But it can, perhaps, inspire us to make our communities (the gifts we share with each other) gifts worth receiving.
A Wake-up Call to Youth, Kenya’s Most Important ‘Tribe’
10 min read. If Kenyans under the age of 35 comprised a single “tribe”, they would be 77% of the population. Using the logic of adherents of the tyranny of numbers doctrine of tribal supremacy, the 77% should currently be dictating government policy as a democratic imperative.
Nanjala Nyabola, author of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, points out that Kenya’s first digital election in 2017 was the most expensive election in world history, at $28 per capita, more than four times higher than that of India’s $6. (That was on the first round alone.) This gargantuan deployment of resources can be attributed to the evolution of elections into a massive transnational profit-making industry that is amoral in its misappropriation of digital assets, data mining and brokerage. Thus the irony that Jubilee’s 2013 campaign strategy to frame the International Criminal Court (ICC) process as a foreign attack on Kenyan sovereignty was in fact the brainchild of a foreign corporation – the Anglo-American political consultancy Cambridge Analytica – that was based on a covert survey of 47,000 Kenyans.
Misinformation has always been critical to the survival of the colonial state. No economic caste system in the world has ever survived without the tacit approval of the majority of its serfs because from the perspective of power, it is much more costly to impose rule over an overwhelmingly antagonistic population than over one that participates willingly in its own exploitation. So it is not surprising that Kenya’s ruling oligarchy would engage firms that specialise in misinformation for profit. Their product is a personalised fiction tailored to the emotional vulnerabilities of unsuspecting citizens.
Unlike broadcast media, digital media allows private messaging below the radar of law enforcement or opposition monitors, thus making it a favourite medium for hate speech. This threat of unfettered Western capital influencing elections has no borders. Digital colonialism, as this business model has come to be known, was incubated in Kenya where “nobody was paying attention” and has since been repatriated to effectively disrupt referenda and elections around the world, including most flamboyantly in the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
Nyabola’s book begs the urgent question: If information, rather than misinformation, was our goal, how else might we have invested a hundred and forty billion shillings?
A wonderful usage of $28 per capita would be to cultivate a new identity that subverts the destructive logic of tribal politics in a way that benefits the majority of Kenyan citizens. There happens to be a “tribe” to which all of us must belong for a time, and that is the tribe of young people. Africa is the youngest continent in the world, but her colonial states are ill-suited to harness the potential of their most productive citizens, leaving thousands to decay as economic migrants in Libyan slave markets or at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. While African bodies are denied free movement, African capital and resources move freely out of the continent in the form of debt interest repayment, Chinese infrastructure payments, and most significantly, the massive misallocation of capital through corruption.
Kenyans under the age of 35 years are the most vulnerable to the shocks of systemic corruption, unemployment, lack of maternity care, ecological destruction, forced migration and the education gap. If Kenyans under the age of 35 comprised a single “tribe”, they would be 77% of the population. Using the logic of adherents of the tyranny of numbers doctrine of tribal supremacy, the 77% should currently be dictating government policy as a democratic imperative.
If the 77% were to become politically self-aware, its representation in the cabinet would be so overwhelming that it would be taken for granted. An absurd institution, such as the Ministry of ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs, would not exist because no president would be allowed to get away with insulting the 77% by giving them half a ministry. More than an insult, it would be considered profoundly undemocratic to reduce the ecological, economic and political concerns of this majority to their utility in the ICT sector. What a politically self-aware 77% would demand instead is representation at the heart of decision-making institutions in every single arm of government – regardless of whether or not ICT is involved.
Kenyans under the age of 35 years are the most vulnerable to the shocks of systemic corruption, unemployment, lack of maternity care, ecological destruction, forced migration and the education gap.
Technology and innovation are no doubt important to the 77%, but so is defending our constitution and our environment from wanton abuse of power. The 77% would resoundingly assert, “We do not wish to become Dubai or Singapore, however much you dynastic dinosaurs would wish to bribe us with that fantasy. We are a constitutional democracy and we will never trade democracy for the sake of your so-called ‘development’.”
The goal of this thought experiment is not in any way to endorse our normalised tribalism as a legitimate mode of governance, but rather to push the limits of our collective imagination. This in my estimation would do infinitely more to strengthen our public institutions without expensive bridges to nowhere. If our public policy was informed by the interests of the 77%, there would be no need for private initiatives between boardroom brothers.
Yet because private bedroom initiatives are the favourite ruling format of Kenya’s fraudulent elite, the primary function of the billions in campaign spending is to make sure that the 77% never ever becomes politically self-aware by splintering it into toothless sub-categories. Only through such fragmentation is it possible for thinking human beings to willfully vote against their own economic interests and uphold a system that concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a fraction of a percentage of the population. This is the enduring triumph of colonialism that has proved far more insidious and resilient than the freedom fighters could have ever anticipated. It has proved much harder to remove the crony capitalist ideology brought by the coloniser than it was to remove his flags because his ideology now speaks our language – very fluently.
For the tyranny of numbers ideology to function in practice, it requires more than simply state violence, plentiful though that is. It requires the erosion of public institutions supported by a massive cultural project of misinformation and fraud that turns the 77% into either slack-jawed consumers of propaganda, or alienated and apathetic gamblers. Only through this social engineering does systemic abuse of power not trigger the sort of rage that could bring our house of cards raining down.
This social engineering includes the imposition of punitive fines and defamation laws against the media, and the narrowing of the spectrum of ideas that can be freely expressed with the aim of reducing journalists to stenographers. A good example of this is how over the past month critical questions of rule of law, human rights and citizenship were effectively trivialised into a binary question of whether or not we approve of Miguna Miguna’s manners – as if our rights are contingent on good manners.
But perhaps the most crucial lever of social engineering is an education policy that eliminates creative education from its curricula with the aim of graduating a docile workforce that does not ask those in power critical questions. For the few creative professionals that do survive the education system, they still have to contend with a philistine environment that has driven many promising young artists to suicide.
As numerous contemporary educators, including myself, have pointed out, eliminating creative education is a disastrous misstep for Kenya at a time when creative thinkers are needed more than ever before. The tyranny of numbers fundamentalists have no response to our most pressing contemporary challenges – ecological destruction, systemic corruption, a debt crisis and technological unemployment – except to warn us of a repeat of the 2007/8 violence if we do not give them what they want. That is, state jobs, chase cars and overpriced initiatives, ostensibly for our sake.
For the tyranny of numbers ideology to function in practice, it requires more than simply state violence…It requires the erosion of public institutions supported by a massive cultural project of misinformation and fraud that turns the 77% into either slack-jawed consumers of propaganda, or alienated and apathetic gamblers.
As the 77% hangs onto dignity by its fingernails, a confrontation with these dynastic dinosaurs that rule Kenya is inevitable. Under the weight of economic mismanagement, fissures of discontent are beginning to crack our social fabric. As young workers struggle to support their elderly relatives, business-as-usual politicians will spend billions on divisive campaigns to preserve their cherished tyranny of numbers doctrine, adding the risk of unrest to our already mounting challenges. Kenya’s rulers have already demonstrated a willingness to encourage violence among a splintered 77% for the sake of power. The only way to avoid the grave that they are digging for us with the aid of mercenary capital is for the 77% to become politically self-conscious.
Our minds are the battleground for the survival of the dream that is Kenya. With our labour, will we pay the price for the largest debt accumulation this country has ever seen. If we are to avert catastrophe, we have no choice but to wake up from our millennial slumber and own our power. Democracy is strong when the powerful fear the citizens and not when the citizens fear the powerful. This is a form of tribalism to which I will happily subscribe long after my membership inevitably expires.
As the most dynamic segment of the population, young people are the most capable of adapting to change if only their education facilitates this innate ability. As one of the youngest countries on earth, Kenya should be reaping huge rewards from its youth bulge. Instead, we are squandering our precious resources on everything except young people and undercutting what little support they have. Where public playgrounds once sat, huge private hotels and apartments are illegally erected, complete with barbed wire fences and NO IDLING signs. Whereas once children were encouraged to love learning, now they receive the relentless message from the state that the arts and humanities in general are economically useless and therefore not worth pursuing. The thinking (or lack of) behind scrapping humanities such as art, history and literature from our public school curricula is that in our quest to become rich like Dubai or Singapore, we must prioritise science, technology and mathematics (STEM) at the expense of all other fields.
This worldview assumes that Kenya in 2020 can follow the same industrialisation path of Singapore in 1950 by making Kenya an attractive destination for labour-intensive industries that can absorb its millions of unemployed youth. That is a dangerous assumption to make in 2020 and is woefully uninformed by recent trends in digital technology, which are more likely to generate jobless “growth” and enrich a tiny fraction of our population, as is already occurring.
Our minds are the battleground for the survival of the dream that is Kenya. With our labour, will we pay the price for the largest debt accumulation this country has ever seen. If we are to avert catastrophe, we have no choice but to wake up from our millennial slumber and own our power.
In this decade, numbers such as GDP that purport to describe our lives are completely divorced from the reality of ordinary Kenyans. Capitalism powered by exponential technology has finally evolved to the point where a handful of individuals can own billions worth of shares in decentralised autonomous organizations (DAOs) that operate without human supervision.
Without a creative lens with which to evaluate our current reality, our education system will continue to lock the minds of the 77% into a hapless cycle of reactivity to the changes happening around us rather than proactively harnessing the winds change for the benefit of society at large, including our elders who depend on us for support. Moreover, the STEM prescription is rarely applied to the wealthy politicians who can afford to take their children to private schools that offer art and literature. Rather, the evidence suggests that the STEM prescription is motivated by the desire to standardise and commodify public education for the benefit of a few foreign edutech corporations marketing “scalable” solutions. Educators have tried in vain to warn against selling out the 77% to these corporations, but their money talks louder than Kenyan teachers.
Creative education, on the other hand, shows us that unlike digital information, we humans inhabit an analog planet which we must learn to see, sense and cultivate if we are to survive in it. Our growing population and finite resources such as freshwater cannot sustain the same exponential rate of growth as capital accumulation. This is an irreconcilable difference between the natural world and the digital world.
A digital sound recording can only approximate the totality of information contained in a sound wave from an actual musical instrument or a singer’s vocal chords. A digital image, no matter how dense its pixels per inch, still remains constrained by the eyesight of the viewer. No matter how much content we can upload to video platforms such as YouTube, the amount of attention we have available to spend remains constrained by our competing need for sleep. Only by appreciating the richness of the living systems that sustain human life can we hope to become architects of a digital layer that improves our wellbeing rather than harming us.
Creative education works by combining our innate passion to an external learning goal to create motivated learning. Motivated learning is the difference between studying physics in the middle of the night so that you can realise your childhood dream of building a computer game, versus studying physics in the middle of the night so that you can pass an exam in the hope of someday finding a job. In this example, the learning goal is the same – to learn physics – but the outcomes are vastly different.
Motivated learning leads to mastery and meaning, whereas coercive learning yields disengagement and alienation. Furthermore, from a social perspective, most people prefer to work with motivated peers rather than with uninspired peers, regardless of their skill level. If we are sincere in our Singaporean ambitions, creative education should become our number one priority.
Unleashing a cultural renaissance
When I was a little boy, I recall shuddering at the mention of the word “culture”. It was often spoken with an ominous air of religious obligation that conjured in my mind images of strict discipline and painful circumcision. If we wanted to find “culture”, the place we were instructed to look was in the past. The more distant that past, the better.
It was not until fairly recently that I began to develop a much more nuanced understanding of what Culture – with a big C – is. Culture is not a frozen relic of the past that we can display neatly in a rectangular museum. Culture is an evolving system of ideas, language and technologies that set the parameters for our interaction with the world. Most importantly, I learned that we have agency in setting these parameters. Most of our agrarian ancestors lived in a relatively unchanging geographic and technological context where most of their relatives lived within two days on camel-back. In this context, the most important reservoirs of knowledge were those who had lived the longest.
The same is not true today. Understanding the most culturally transformative technologies of our age is now the province of teenagers. This does not mean rewriting cherished norms, such as respect for elders, but it does, however, demand that we develop a relationship of mutual respect with our youngest citizens.
After the president congratulated himself on his “inclusivity” after appointing two twenty-something-year-olds to his cabinet this month, he urged them to “learn from your more experienced elders”. What he failed to make clear was exactly what these youth are expected to learn from elders who have presided over the worst economic mismanagement in our history and reversed our progress towards democracy.
Brothers and sisters of the 77%, if we have any self-respect, we must refuse such tokens of false friendship and instead advise the “elder” to learn from us. Until this president and his boardroom brothers are subject to the same law that is inflicted on the young people selling chapatis on the wrong side of the road, we can only be doubtful of his claims of solidarity with us. Our survival demands that we bring about a cultural renaissance. It is a collective project that no one individual can bring about alone, but one that all of us can influence by abstaining from consuming the idiocy that is sold to us in the name of “culture”. Let us create our own culture by tearing down the walls of the silos that were erected around our minds.
Stolen Minds: The Real Reason for the West’s Prosperity
9 min read. As Western nations deride China for conducting industrial and technological espionage, they fail to recognise that their own wealth was built on stolen technology and the theft of intellectual property.
“Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” – Honore de Balzac
It is 1848. The Scottish botanist Robert Fortune has transitioned from the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland, to the prestigious Horticultural Society of London. Fortune’s fascinating memoir of his first trip to China’s richly biodiverse and scenic Wu Yi highlands has got the ears of London’s nobility, particularly now that China, an imperial power in the East, hoards tea seedlings and tea technology. The status-chasing British elite remain infatuated by tea as an upper class beverage since it was introduced to Victorian high society as a cultural fad by the Portuguese royalty Catherine of Braganza.
As Sara Rose would later recount in How England Stole the World’s Favourite Drink and Changed History, Fortune was approached by a representative of the East India Trading Company to smuggle tea seedlings, Chinese tea experts and tea technology out of China into British-controlled India. The theft would become the most critical economic espionage of the 19th century and would effectively shift the global centre of economic power from the East to the West for the next 130 years. (China wouldn’t recover until the late 1970s.)
Stealing technology as a model for growing economically isn’t just a distinctly British trait. In 1258, as the 13th century Islamic scholars Al-Tabari and Ibn al-Nadim would recount, intellectual property exports were fueled by what’s now known as the Translation Movement of the late 800s AD. The project saw much of the Greek Hellenistic intellectual, economic and commercial capital translated into Arabic, a move that partly aided the rise of the Islamic Golden Age from the 12th to the 15th century. Done under the guise of integrating the large Greek-speaking populations into the expanding Islamic kingdoms, the translations helped chronicle the contributions of Greeks, Indians, and Persians to science, mathematics, trade, and philosophy.
Stealing technology as a model for growing economically isn’t just a distinctly British trait. In 1258, as the 13th century Islamic scholars Al-Tabari and Ibn al-Nadim would recount, intellectual property exports were fueled by what’s now known as the Translation Movement of the late 800s AD.
Beginning in the 600s AD, the Islamic Umayyad Empire swayed more towards militaristic conquest which, while broadening its borders, brought into its fold numerous disparate groups speaking different languages. The Abbasid Empire that followed after in the 800s benefited from the intellectual curiosity of the Buddhist-Iranian Royal Islamic family, the Barmakids, whose translation efforts rendered much of the ancient scholarly work into the Arabic language and nuances.
Soon enough the Arabic translations plus the resultant Islamic innovations made their way to Christian Europe via Sicily, Andalusia in the Mediterranean, Toledo in Spain and Venice in Italy. This Islamic conquest of Europe precipitated a Norman-Arab-Indo-Byzantium culture through which Eastern ideas seeped their way West via trade, wars and industrial espionage. This contradicts long-time Harvard professor and political scientist Samuel Huntington’s claim in the Clash of Civilizations that Islam and the West have always been incompatible and fundamentally opposed to each other.
Venice, the glassmaking capital of the ancient world, grew its commercial stature on the back of the industrial skills found in those translated texts in the Byzantium Empire and the Orient. The Venetians, well aware that industrial espionage fuels the rise or fall of nations, in 1295 passed a Venetian law that banned foreigners from learning the skill and also forbade its most skilled craftsmen from traveling out of the city. They’d go as far as locking them up in the Venetian island of Murano from which we get the legend of Murano glassmaking that has lasted till date.
However, in 1612, a Florentine priest and chemist, Antonio Neri, published his seminal work, L’artra Vetraria (The Art of Glass) that revealed industrial glassmaking secrets and made them accessible to the wider public and foreigners. Over time, the Bohemian Kingdom in the westerly region of the Czech Republic stole the glassmaking technology and so did the French.
The Victorian aristocracy not only swindled industrial tea technology from China to India, it would also loot the Indian subcontinent through the Raj colonial rule. As recounted by former United Nations diplomat Shashi Tharoor in his work Inglorious Empire, under British colonial theft, India’s share of global manufacturing fell from 27 per cent to 2 per cent.
Keep in mind that as British macroeconomist, the late Angus Maddison, had calculated, in the 1800s, China and India together accounted for 52 per cent of global trade. Colonial theft, industrial-scale looting and loss of trade secrets to Euro-American imperial powers brought these two giants to their knees.
How nations prosper
Conventional textbook wisdom dictates that the path of nations to prosperity is dependent on a multitude of variables, key among them being democracy, managed bureaucracy, equitable taxes, property rights, the size of the (in)formal sectors, and the inclusivity of the economy.
Controversial British social historian Niall Ferguson credits what he calls the six killer apps of Western civilization – competition, science, a property-owning democracy, modern medicine, a consumer society, and the Protestant work ethic – as the engines of Euromerican economic power.
Meanwhile, Coolidge lecturer and professor of economics emeritus David Landes credits Western values, primarily hard work, the advancement of scientific knowledge, and a passion for progress, as the keys to a nation’s success. In his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, he makes a treatise for the role of markets and governments, with Landes preferring a statecraft built to intervene only when necessary but one that mostly leaves the nation-state to the power of the markets for good and for ill.
In the 1800s, China and India together accounted for 52 per cent of global trade. Colonial theft, industrial-scale looting and loss of trade secrets to Euro-American imperial powers brought these two giants to their knees.
Christian historian Russell Kirk follows the path of divine discipline, his central claim being that culture itself descends from cult or religion. It’s his belief in Civilization Without a Religion that metaphysics makes it possible to establish basic set of common values out of which emerges public trust that makes greater cooperation and progress possible. Hence out of metaphysics emerges physics from which cultures grow into civilizations. This, he believed, is what gave rise to Western civilization as we know it, traced mostly to the Protestant Reformation of the 1600s when Martin Luther rebelled against the Catholic Church.
Back at the British Empire, if they imagined themselves as unique in the long chain of global industrial theft, then history awaited them. In 1791, as America’s 13 colonies emerged out of the American Revolution, Pennsylvanian economist Tench Coxe and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton were convinced that the only way the young colony could grow was through the age-old route of empire-building industrial tech theft.
In 1787, the American agent Andrew Mitchell had been intercepted by British authorities as he was trying to smuggle new British models and drawings of the latest industrial machines and technology to the US. He fled to Denmark to escape capture. The mission had been funded by Coxe, Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s friend, who’d also go on to encourage George Parkinson to steal the textile spinning machine from Britain. Massachusetts businessman Francis Cabot Lowell too pilfered the automated cloth-weaving designs and later established the massive American textile industrial town of Lowell, which is named after him.
From its inception, America encouraged immigrating foreigners, private citizens, state officers, and travelling traders to smuggle in industrial designs, drawings, and European innovation to aid in state-building. America pursued contradictory paths in which it incentivised industrial espionage and theft abroad while firming up intellectual property rights and protecting innovations at home.
Historian Doron Ben-Altar portrays America’s Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s ambition as an enabler in what he describes in Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power as “unabashed, state-sanctioned flouting of British law”. America at inception fits the model of a den of rogue economic hitmen and intellectual pirates.
The country’s list of bootlegging and contraband capitalism, as portrayed in In Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, is extensive, ranging from West Indies molasses and Dutch gunpowder in the 18th century to British industrial technologies and African slaves in the 19th century, to French condoms and Canadian booze in the early 20th century, to Mexican workers, Colombian cocaine, and Middle Eastern oil in the 21st century.
From its inception, America encouraged immigrating foreigners, private citizens, state officers, and travelling traders to smuggle in industrial designs, drawings, and European innovation to aid in state-building.
The biggest industrial theft in history though was orchestrated by the Soviet Empire and the US Allied Forces against the Nazis. As World War II heated up and Nazis were in retreat, American and Soviet scientists, researchers and analysts teamed up to loot occupied Germany of military, scientific and technological designs. Trailing behind Allied combat troops, technical teams, such as the Technical Industrial Intelligence Branch (TIIB), and the Combined Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee (CIOS), began confiscating and extricating classified research documents and detaining German experts from German corporations like Hoescht, I. G. Farben, Volkswagen, Messerschmitt, Dornier, and hundreds others in the rural towns.
Visualisation by Juliet Atellah
C. Lester Walker’s Secrets by the Thousands chronicles hundreds of instances where Allied researchers and forces stumbled upon Nazi technologies that were lightyears ahead of what Americans, Soviets, and the British had in their respective countries. This ranged from industrial dyes to V-2 bomb technologies, vaccines, infrared technology, and dairy production designs.
It didn’t take long for research teams embedded among the Allied Forces to realise that they were encountering technology that they couldn’t even operate let alone conceive. This gave birth to Operation Paperclip that saw upwards of 1600 Nazi scientists hurriedly scuttled out of the Nazi-occupied regions onto transatlantic flights heading West.
Annie Jacobsen’s account, In Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America, proves that the fathers of America’s space technology, Wernher von Braun and Kurt Debus, were senior and controversial Nazi scientists and so were physicists Georg Goubau and Friedwardt Winterberg.
The Soviets too, through Operation Osoaviakhim, repatriated more than 2,200 German specialists to work in the Soviet Union as the Red Army ransacked the other end of the Nazi Empire. The operation conducted under the leadership of Russia’s KGB boss Ivan Alexandrovich Serov on 22 October 1946 targeted mostly military technology, a tragic tunnel vision that fueled their loss during their Cold War against the West.
The Hoover Fellow Norman M. Naimark, in The Russians in Germany, paints the Soviet industrial age dilemma, given that, unlike the Americans and the Allied forces, the Germans weren’t too far from the Soviet border. The capture of the Nazi scientists therefore carried with it urgent anthropological and historical issues for which mythmaking and brainwashing were deemed necessary.
As Lester Walker notes, it’s a disturbing realisation for modern humans that the most creative period in world history may have occurred under the Nazis between 1932 and 1945, and that it was the murderous and racist Nazis’ scientific research breakthroughs that gifted the modern world a significant majority of its current industrial and technological conveniences.
Still is it even a vice if the French haven’t tried it? In a 2014 WikiLeaks cable Berry Smutny, the head of the German satellite company OHB Technology, called France the top offender when it comes to industrial espionage, terming them worse than China and Russia.
France has consistently been accused over the decades of going after military, space and aviation technology from every country it deems to have superior inventions in these fields. America’s former Defense Secretary Robert Gates asserts that besides China, France is the second most tenacious and capable cybersecurity risk to America’s defences.
It’s a disturbing realisation for modern humans that the most creative period in world history may have occurred under the Nazis between 1932 and 1945, and that it was the murderous and racist Nazis’ scientific research breakthroughs that gifted the modern world a significant majority of its current industrial and technological conveniences.
It’s laughably obtuse, therefore, given the historical economic records, for Europe and America to consistently complain over what they dub China’s massive industrial espionage. According to the US authorities, from 2011 more than 90 per cent of the State Department’s cases alleging economic espionage involving a state pointed at China, and more than two-thirds of the Department’s theft of trade secrets cases were directly linked to China.
For a country with at least 1.2 billion citizens, and 100 cities with at least 1 million people each, and at least 100 firms with a market capitalisation of over $1 billion dollars, China seems unstoppable.
Between 1978 and 2017, China lifted roughly 600 million citizens out of poverty, averaging at 20 million each year, leading to an overall 94.4 percentage points reduction in poverty. By any measure, the economic progress that started with Deng Xiaoping in 1978 remains the greatest economic miracle in the history of mankind. The country’s economic engines might keep pumping for another decade or two before it plateaus out. That’s not how the West view it though. In China, they see a rogue state who steals ideas, and one who’s refused to anchor her growth trajectory on Western patronage and powers, like Japan did in the 80s.
Trade is war
Further south, Africa’s wealth, encumbered by global geopolitical and geo-economic contestations, has consistently been the site of plunder effected through tax havens and illicit financial flows. A significant chunk of this resource theft takes advantage of weak legislation, sleaze, civil wars, population displacement, and weak governance structures. The spread and pervasiveness of this economic carnage can be at best quantified through the over $200 billion in mostly illicit outflows and less than $160 billion inflows through loans and grants.
The Ugandan scholar Yash Tandon, who’s an honorary Professor at Warwick and London Middlesex University, consistently warns African countries that trade is a battle and often a zero sum game often pegged on the scale and efficacy of industrial espionage. Africa, as a crucible of innovation over the last 3,000 years, hasn’t properly calibrated its creative contribution to modern civilization and the resultant loss from corporate espionage.
In Trade is War, Tandon demonstrably shows the Bretton Woods institutions for what they really are: internationally tentacled Western leeches designed to loot African economies and resources. His valuable insider view traces the skewed and aptly misnamed free trade agreements as simply state-sanctioned industrial espionage where economic hitmanship are ratified through charters.
African state bureaucracies, with their inherent mediocrity, often deploy the services of the intellectually weak, the illiterate and the inarticulate and sometimes the naïve among its ranks to represent them in these high stakes intergovernmental forums. The disregard for the fact that it is these global economic institutions who pass regional laws, regulations, pacts and charters ends up favouring their industries, experts, and products over those of the global South.
Crucially, the cyber-espionage bugging of the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, the dramatic break-in at South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear facility, and the KGB-cum-CIA double agent Yuri Loginov’s targeting of the Central Bank of Kenya are pretty much the highest profiled and publicised industrial-scale espionages on the continent. Often planted moles, wiretapping, bugging, spy software and rogue employees or a litany of spy methods get deployed to pilfer sensitive corporate and economic data from African state agencies, their embassies abroad, the military, public contractors, national archives, repositories, and research institutes. Africa has not only failed to protect its industrial, commercial and economic secrets, it has for the most part failed to also deploy its own industrial espionage against far much more innovative states and companies across the globe.
That’s why Tandon’s critique constitutes the single biggest indictment of the African nation-state’s lacklustre approach to global trade, the future of their states, trade secrets, and the economic welfare of their firms and citizenry. A significant cluster of African states and those of the global South seem not to have figured out that shrewd pacts, industrial theft and illicit financial flows may just be the paths that propelled the countries whose economic power Africans admire to their current First World status.
Haiti: Symbolism and Scapegoating in the Americas
11 min read. French colonialism, economic embargoes and authoritarian leadership, coupled with natural disasters, have turned Haiti into the basket case of the Western hemisphere. But what the world doesn’t recognise about this former slave colony is that it gave birth to a revolution whose roots are “numerous and deep”.
What is happening in Haiti right now?
Another president. More allegations of corruption at the highest levels. More riots in the streets. More foreigners wringing their hands publicly as they privately feed on the carcass of this once (and potentially future) prosperous part of the world. Haiti is still – as it has been for most of the last 215 years – the cliché summed up in a unitary phrase typically used to describe it in news reports: the-poorest-country-in-the-Western-hemisphere.
A recent episode of Al Jazeera’s news and social media show The Stream took up the question of whether change is possible, whether Haiti might have a future that is better than its past. One of the commentators on this question observed that the popular protests against Haiti’s current president, Jovenel Moïse, had been peaceful for the previous eighteen months and had only now turned violent. The discussion went on to note that violence is a way for people to make their voices heard, echoing the injunction attributed to American president John F. Kennedy that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”.
For long-time watchers of the nation’s politics, it is clear that what is happening in Haiti now is a consequence of the fact that the voices of the Haitian people have never been listened to, never been taken seriously, by those who have the power to clear away the obstacles that prevent people from making their lives better.
Following the current events and politics of this troubled nation easily breeds despair in those of us who watch from afar. The names change, but the misery remains a constant reality. The impulse to turn away is understandable. It is also wrong, and misguided, for at least two reasons. First, because turning away from suffering is immoral, inhumane. Second, because Haiti is not a singular case; it is an illustration of the dangers and difficulties that must be faced by any nation wishing to chart a free and independent future for itself and its people.
Once upon a time, Haiti was a French colony known as Saint Domingue. It produced the sugar and coffee wealth that propped up the pre-Revolution ancien régime. Back then, too, foreigners flooded in to enrich themselves, but in those days the adventurers some now call “vulture capitalists” fed on a body that had plenty of meat on its bones.
That unchallenged feeding frenzy ended when news of the French Revolution and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen passed by a new republican parliament in France arrived in the colony. This declaration asserted, among other things, that all Frenchmen had a right to liberty, and was a harbinger of the 1794 abolition of slavery in France. Inspired by the declaration’s guarantees, the Africans of Saint Domingue, who had been kidnapped from their homes and sold at auctions to be viciously and ruthlessly worked to death as they produced France’s sugar and coffee wealth, became the world’s first and only example of slaves who rose up and freed themselves.
For long-time watchers of the nation’s politics, it is clear that what is happening in Haiti now is a consequence of the fact that the voices of the Haitian people have never been listened to, never been taken seriously, by those who have the power to clear away the obstacles that prevent people from making their lives better.
The path to liberty and the transformation of Saint Domingue into the new nation of Haiti was neither easy nor entirely successful. It is this “not entirely realised” nature of Haiti’s revolution that provides the instructive lesson for all decolonising polities.
The birth of this new nation – an inspiration to all those who have followed in the long struggle to break the shackles of colonialism – was marked by failures to fully achieve both political and economic sovereignty. The economic consequences of the brutal 13-year-long war the former slaves fought against one of the great military powers of Europe were devastated infrastructure and the collapse of their sugar and coffee exports. Politically, the initial decades were characterised by diplomatic isolation, largely due to European belief that Haiti’s independence was an aberration, and that France would eventually reassert control over its wayward colony.
France had acquired from Spain, and at that time still held, the eastern side of the island of Hispaniola (the territory that is today the neighbouring nation of the Dominican Republic) so re-invasion by French forces was a real threat faced by the emergent nation. By 1825, however, the restored French crown was manoeuvring for monetary compensation and indemnity, for their “lost assets” – the land, and the slaves who had freed themselves—rather than reconquest.
Haiti agreed to the indemnity and the bank loans to finance the indemnity payments in the hope that French recognition would translate into diplomatic relations and economic opportunity – a move that drained the country’s coffers of precious tax revenues and foreign currency reserves all the way through until the final payment on related loans was made in 1947. These payments amounted to 122 years of economic parasitism that are valued in current US dollars at approximately $21 billion.
A toxic political tradition
The men who emerged as the revolution’s generals and leaders, first, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and then, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, were both committed to continuing the plantation economy required for the former colony’s sugar production despite overwhelming support of the population for a “cultivateur” economy of small-scale coffee farms and other self-sustaining agricultural operations.
In the waning days of the revolution, as independence was increasingly seen as possible, then likely, Toussaint declared himself Governor-General for Life, inaugurating a toxic political tradition of authoritarian rule that continues to plague Haiti. Dessalines, the general who inherited his leadership mantle after Toussaint was captured and imprisoned by the French, continued to rule as a military dictator, first declaring himself Governor-General (following Toussaint’s example), then Emperor of Haiti (in a move thought to be modelled on Napoleon Bonaparte’s example in France).
Dessalines was the leader who proclaimed both the initial declaration of Haitian independence and its remarkable Imperial Constitution of Haiti, 1805, but his growing unpopularity led to his defeat almost immediately after independence, upon which the nation was divided into a northern kingdom and a southern republic for most of the first two decades of its existence.
In the northern Kingdom of Haiti, Henri Christophe continued the Toussaint-Dessalines policy of trying to impose an authoritarian military regime and an export-based plantation economy. His rival in the southern Republic of Haiti, Alexandre Pétion, only partially cut against this orthodoxy. Trying to develop a new economic model, Pétion broke up the large plantations into smaller parcels and instituted a “sharecropping” system, while simultaneously reforming taxation policy to collect revenues from imports and exports rather than internal economic transactions. However, he also embraced political authoritarianism.
Haiti agreed to the indemnity and the bank loans to finance the indemnity payments in the hope that French recognition would translate into diplomatic relations and economic opportunity – a move that drained the country’s coffers of precious tax revenues and foreign currency reserves all the way through until the final payment on related loans was made in 1947.
The nation was reunified after Christophe’s death in 1820 by Pétion’s successor, Jean-Pierre Boyer, but the model for Haitian governance for most of its subsequent history was set: authoritarian rule that ranged from being unresponsive to the population’s needs to being openly and brutally corrupt.
It was not until 1874 that Haiti had a leader, Jean-Nicolas Nissage Saget, who served his term as president and then retired voluntarily. Nissage Saget, however, had come into office as the result of a coup, so the first truly successful transfer of power from one popularly elected president to another would have to wait until 2001 when René Préval handed the office over to Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The destructive role of Haiti’s powerful neighbour
While all of this external exploitation and internal mismanagement (political and economic) was taking place, Haiti’s most powerful neighbour, the United States, was jockeying for geopolitical advantage. Happy to trade with the colony and with the emerging nation in its early days, the United States nonetheless wanted to discourage further European expansion in the Americas (a position that later became known as the Monroe Doctrine) even as it sought opportunities to acquire territorial possessions from France and Spain.
One manifestation of this was the economic embargo on Haiti by the US from 1806 on, in collusion with France and Spain. Haiti’s American neighbour had in fact profited handsomely from the French defeat in the Haitian Revolution; in financially desperate circumstances partly attributable to the revolution, France negotiated the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, a transfer of lands around the Gulf of Mexico which, at the time, doubled the territory of the young United States.
American antipathy towards Haiti was not just about doing business with the Europeans – for example, currying further favour with the French in order to gain control over Florida; it was also driven by racist pro-slavery factions who could not tolerate the idea of a nation of self-liberated former slaves next door. For all of these reasons, the United States gave Haiti no diplomatic recognition until 1862, halfway through the US Civil War (when the Southern racists, having formed their own break-away government, were no longer in the national legislature).
Since this recognition, however, the United States has militarily occupied Haiti (from 1915 to 1934), propped up brutal dictatorships (supporting the vicious Duvaliers, for instance, as a bulwark against Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba), and colluded in removing popularly-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power (twice). It is almost too obvious and too inadequate to make the same point about Haiti that former Mexican leader Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915) made of his own country: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States!”
Unapologetic blackness: Haiti’s “new man”
The remarkable 1805 Imperial Constitution of Haiti that I alluded to above is an example of the promise that Haiti is still struggling to realise. Dessalines promulgated Haiti’s independence on January 1, 1804, calling on all “native citizens: men, women, girls and children” to defend and take pride in the country of “our birth”. He backed up that declaration with a radical re-thinking of racial hierarchy in the 1805 constitution. Article 14 of the Imperial Constitution of Haiti reads: “[a]ll distinctions of color will by necessity disappear…[and] Haitians shall be known from now on by the generic denomination of blacks..”
It is, I think, worth noting that the basis on which attempts have been made to build solidarity has changed over the years; the post-Duvalier 1987 constitution (that in fact re-constitutes Haiti as a democratic state) attempts to unite Haitians through designating Creole as the country’s common language rather than through assignment of a political “race.”. But, in a hostile and racist world, the 1805 claim that Haitian national identity would be synonymous with blackness can be read as a fundamental (hence, radical) challenge – a compelling attempt to decolonise the mind – and stands as one of the most crucial contributions that the Haitian Revolution has made to progressive struggles around rhetoric and representation.
American antipathy towards Haiti was not just about doing business with the Europeans; it was also driven by racist pro-slavery factions who could not tolerate the idea of a nation of self-liberated former slaves next door.
Arguably, it is a precursor to the non-racial conception of Algerian nationhood that Frantz Fanon celebrated in A Dying Colonialism (published in French as L’An Cinq, de la Révolution Algérienne, 1959). Where the Algerian conception of national unity (“Every individual living in Algeria is an Algerian”) was empowering because it recognised citizenship and national belonging as a matter of nominal membership in a category (one chooses to name oneself as belonging, therefore one belongs) and a matter of personal choice, rather than postulating some definitive essence that one must possess in order to qualify as a citizen of the new nation, the first Haitian constitution of 1805 sought national unity through disruption of racial categories and hierarchies. The bold declaration of what today we would call “unapologetic blackness” put Haiti at the forefront of the movement towards human liberation.
So is Haiti where we find the “patient zero” of Frantz Fanon’s new man? Perhaps. Fanon tells us – principally and most directly in The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnées de la Terre, 1961) but implicitly in all his writings – that it is decolonisation that brings forth his new man, the liberated, agentic human being who recognises the moral value of all human lives and does not allow others to compromise or restrict his (or her) ability to live fully and freely in this world that is his (or her) birthright.
We can certainly see approximations of this ideal in some of the more stirring actions and rhetoric of those we now remember as the architects of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint and Dessalines, in particular. It is the voice of Fanon’s new man that promulgates the radical rejection of racial hierarchy in the 1805 constitution, and it is the new man who was speaking when Toussaint reproached as futile his capture by the French. “In overthrowing me, only the trunk of the tree of liberty has been cut down,” he is reported to have said. “Its branches will shoot up again, for its roots are numerous and deep.”
Yet another story in anti-war activist Stan Goff’s post ‘The Haitian Intifada’ on his now defunct blog The Feral Scholar, presents Dessalines in the guise of Fanon’s new man. Goff tells the story of Dessalines’s response to French demands that he surrender: Dessalines replied to them that the Haitian people “would turn the island to ashes before they would accept the reimposition of slavery” and, to show that he meant what he said, he reportedly picked up a torch and set fire to his own house. (American podcaster Mike Duncan tells a version of this story that attributes the uncompromising response and the house-burning to Henri Christophe, not to Dessalines, but the point remains.)
But Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe were, as I have noted, all committed to continuing the plantation economy of the former colony. This required authoritarian, hierarchical rule, and forced labour for the masses, arguably a betrayal of the ideals for which the self-liberated people of Haiti had proven themselves to be willing to live and die by. I would argue that Haiti’s first leaders only fitfully embodied Fanon’s new man; he (she) was born in the masses and struggles still to survive.
Duncan, who produces a fascinating podcast series (10 seasons and counting) about political revolutions that have shaped the modern world, devotes season four to the Haitian Revolution. Despite mangling (by his own admission) many of the French and Haitian names of the people and places involved in this revolution, he pulls off the impressive task of telling a reasonably balanced history of the birth and fitful life of this nation that he styles “the avengers of the new world.”. He concludes the 19-episode season by observing:
Today, Haiti is, as everyone is contractually obligated to point out when talking about Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. They got there through the mix of the world screwing them over a lot, their own political and economic mistakes, and then environmental catastrophes caused both by God and their own hands. But they will never not be the country that was born from the only successful slave uprising in the history of the world … they had been created by a group of men and women who would not be slaves anymore, who beat back every major world power who tried to come in and tell them how it was going to be. The history of Haiti is not pretty, and Haiti is not in great shape right now. But I’m proud to know them, proud to know their history.
There is yet another story worth knowing in order to assess what respect and what honour we owe to the people of Haiti. In the colony of Saint Domingue, one French delicacy of choice at fine dinners was said to be pumpkin soup, a delicate strained velouté. One of the decolonising moves of the Haitian people was to create their own pumpkin soup that they now call joumou. Joumou is not the refined, decadent delicacy the French colonisers sipped; it is a hearty meal full of chunks of meat, bones for flavour, pumpkin, gourd, and any other vegetables one has on hand – anything one can think of to put in a soup will find its way into someone’s joumou. It is an everyday soup, and an improvisatory one. Many cooks have their own jealously-guarded special recipes and it is a standard – even obligatory – feature on the menu of Haitian restaurants.
But Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe were, as I have noted, all committed to continuing the plantation economy of the former colony. This required authoritarian, hierarchical rule, and forced labour for the masses, arguably a betrayal of the ideals for which the self-liberated people of Haiti had proven themselves to be willing to live and die by.
But joumou has a deep traditional significance when it is eaten on January 1, the first day of the new year and the anniversary of the day in 1804 that Haiti declared itself a free, independent black republic. On this anniversary, joumou is cooked to be shared with family and neighbours in a ritual of hope and solidarity. In Haitian diasporic communities like the one found in Montréal, Haitian restaurants open early in the morning on New Year’s Day so that members of the diaspora who do not have the time or cooking facilities to make their own soup (often migrant workers) can eat joumou as their own first meal of the year.
As we celebrate another year and all the promise it holds, spare a thought for all the Haitians, at home and in these diasporic communities around the world, who are sharing their joumou with each other in the enduring hope that they will find a path to the full realisation of their revolution that reshaped our world.
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