Philosophy and Literature / The Forum

THE FIRST TALK: THE ECONOMY OF MOB JUSTICE, LYNCHING

By Immanuel Lokwei,

A peculiar thing I’m noticing about most of my fellow countrymen (and women if you’re a gender-sensitive reader) is the way they express their non-domestic complaints; they complain enthusiastically.

You could easily dispel this observation by pointing out that this quality is commonplace among many nationalities across the globe and therefore the observation thoughtlessly highlights a “commonplace,” not an idiosyncrasy. Well, you do that and while you are at it, I will bypass my experience landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (where on looking through the window, I saw parallel runways separating two swaths of neglected grasslands, and since I had a patriotic ego and image to safeguard, it was more convenient just to avert my eyes and think of the prospect of seeing the vaunted Thika highway). Instead, I will mention the short-lived excitement at the Foreign Currency Exchange kiosk; that was soon gulped down by the prices of food commodities at an adjacent restaurant and the taxicab fare from the airport to downtown Nairobi. And did I also mention that my country-people are also intellectually stubborn? I hold my ground to whatever you might remark about this observation: apropos of how we complain, we are a unique lot.

This article is about the first hot-economy wave that nearly scathed my optimism upon arriving – it is a rediscovery of my bourgeois origin that you will understand in due course. Does the title also promise an exposition on lynching? And how are these two (economy and lynching) connected? You are in the right place.

The grassland experience at the airport is nothing compared to the uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassing involuntary U-turns, maneuvers, and retreats I beat through the exit at several restaurants downtown. Nothing outside these restaurants indicated that the atmosphere inside would be unwelcoming. It is the content of the menu, the prices on the menu that I begrudge. No one retreats all their life, and since I was famished, I had to settle on one restaurant and part grudgingly with more than “fifty thousand shillings” just for a meager unsatisfying meal. Okay, it was a little over nine hundred Kenyan shillings, but the impact was analogous to spending thousands and thousands of shillings on nothing. No kidding. Thanks to Kenyan culture that the waitresses and waiters (gender equality) do not expect tips for the services they render; otherwise I would have had to forfeit my pants or something. I do not know though about the expectations of Kenyan waiters and waitresses working in four, five, or eleven-star hotels. NEVER BEEN THERE!

Before my trip back home, I thought I had, at least by Kenyan standards, moved up and settled comfortably within the stratum of the bourgeoisie. But landing in Nairobi confirmed that this thinking was another of my characteristic 2013 disillusionments.

The rising towers in Nairobi are not only made of concrete materials. In this category are included: rent, food prices, the fucking Wi-Fi and taxi fares, to name but a few. Rent, food, and fare have a particular synergistic intimacy going on among them; the upward evolution of one, let’s say rent, has a direct and immediate influence on the other two. If Kenyans can now enjoy faster speeds on the recently-constructed highways, these three make up a much faster inflation highway.

Okay. I have some dollars. But to unscrupulously indulge in the charming dream-of life of Nairobi would be to let myself “free fall” into the lowest class – the rock bottom, the “scum” of society. You might think that the poor most dreaded poverty; but it is the born bourgeois like myself who most fears economic degradation. Case in point: the poor lottery-winners who squander their serendipitously-found fortune unwittingly and in a matter of months jump into the “back to my roots” bandwagon. I will give you a little of my history.

I was born in affluence, in a kind of “royal cradle” in Bethlehem. My childhood memories are full of those privileges. But then I grew up in a Nazareth of poverty; I was actually a “scum” among “scum,” though unlike other “scum” I was always conscious of the foreignness of the surrounding environment. Like the “new poor” in Eric Hoffer’s book, The True Believer, I fervently kept the memory of my affluent past and without wanting to reconcile myself with the unfortunate abject conditions of the time, I latched onto hope that my former “royal bubble” would dribble by to reclaim and never let me go. So you will understand that poverty is not the only element inspiring my fear of economic “free fall”; as a matter of fact I am accustomed to heights because I belong up there, because I was born up there. I am a bourgeois. I am a born bourgeois and I cannot be reckless with my economic nobility, which your good memory can remind you was once lost but now is found.

I might have some coins saved now, but if I give free rein to my indulgent tendencies I surely won’t be exempted from the threat of degradation. Furthermore, I lack the immutability that is so evident in the demeanors of Nairobi residents.

Due to these pressures, Nairobi proved uninhabitable. A person of my economic caliber and origin, and of course economic uncertainty, could not withstand it. Eldoret then – the town of my youth – naturally became the next stopover. Nairobi indeed is the existential chasm where the economically soft-at-heart fear tread. It seems to have refuted my dreams that I belonged to the bourgeoisie.

Okay fine, I may have been a one-time itinerant of the middle-class; perhaps I was a deluded dreamer. The mortality of sustaining my bourgeois’ luxury – that is frequenting these Nairobi restaurants and extending my stay in Nairobi as I would have wished – is truly unsettling. And this perturbation, just like wonder, induced a philosophical rumination on the extent the concept of “bourgeois” is geographically-dependent; disregard my not well-travelled portfolio, some truths can be discovered a priori. But these experiences and philosophizing and realizations combined do not surpass another of my Nairobian encounter.

Robbery in Nairobi.

The anecdote that follows and the mortal threat that qualifies this story as interesting can’t wait any longer. My American phone was snatched away and the thief literally, in a very disrespectful manner, moseyed away along the heavily jammed highway; I’m used to seeing thieves flee after their exploits, but this one was an arrogant one. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t stretch my hand to slap his face for its disrespect or even better drop a huge boulder on his head, since I was seated buckled up inside a North-Rift shuttle van.

Though from the same event, the thief and I were on opposite ends of an emotional spectrum: He out there on the streets thanking the God of thieves for an eventful day and divine protection, and I watching with bewilderment and frustration. Perhaps he felt exalted by a kind of Robin Hood feeling: robbing the rich and spoiling the poor for not letting the poor do the work themselves. In hindsight though, I should have concentrated on positive hermeneutics. I now realize that the thief really wouldn’t have singled me out were it not for the bourgeois aura that I subconsciously emanated and which he promptly detected; this is the kind of objectivity I can appreciate.

In Nairobi as you will come to learn, nobody bothers about the seven stages of grief. An incident occurs, there’s instant acknowledgement of what has transpired and Justice is then sought if it’s a reasonable possibility.

The entire team of travellers in the van started moralizing about the incident. “These people (robbers) should be lynched.” Everybody roared. I was the loudest as predicated by the first law of victimization.

The encounter with the thief, the painful loss of my device (and almost of my arm when the hands of my beloved thief swept through like an hawk), and the supportive reaction of my fellow passengers were epic. To give credit where it is due, my assailant was quite exceptional, a man seasoned by his trade. Several moments after recuperating from the shock and after the emotions and excitement of my fellow passengers had cooled down in order that reason might re-enter, I actually couldn’t help but admire his performance. This is not Stockholm syndrome, just to make matters clear here.

I sympathized with my beloved thief (now I call him beloved), concluding that it must have been the imperatives of economic realities in Nairobi that bred his motivation and action. “I can relate to him.” I told my fellow passengers.

To assume that a robber would chose not to steal but he’s compelled to do so by economic pressures is to argue, following the same logic, that political privilege and legal authority are the ‘prima causa’ of corruption and abuse of power,” one passenger commented. “It is to deny that corrupt public servants have the free will and sufficient strengths to resist or choose corruption.

I could see that this passenger meant that there are many poor folks, perhaps even less able (body-wise and economically) than my beloved assailant, but who nonetheless maintain that scruple which inspires respect for property not one’s own. He also seemed to mean that not all public officers (MPs, Senators, etc.) are ipso facto corrupt, and so legal authority and political privileges are not overriding factors for upright conduct.

Passenger on the left said, his dwarfish stature very conspicuous even though he was seated: “Your arguments boil down to a quest for Justice and I laugh at your naiveties. My adulthood experience of Justice is a strong reminiscence of the disparate portions of porridge that were served to well and least connected students. But why then is Justice served asymmetrically? If we truly believed public officers do steal our properties, especially land and tax-payers’ money, if we believe these properties are indeed our properties, then most of the public property embezzlers should be lynched just like we lynch every local thief we get hold of.” I guess that bastard of a dwarf felt some genius-like sensation. It is very likely that his dwarfism is a result of injustice in the world, the deficits of porridge he suffered while a pupil. In my mind I wondered how could someone be so doubly stricken: to be a dwarf and at the same time be mentally shortsighted. I responded:

Your comment is shallow, quite stupid.” Laughter erupted and I let that comical comment linger a bit before I added: “Public property is nobody’s property, everybody’s property is nobody’s. You can lay direct claim on your property but how can you claim or even pretend that public or government’s property is your own? My property is (opening my eyes wider) my property and that’s why interference with individual property is personal and therefore warrants my direct and immediate reaction.” You may think that I make very simple and obvious suppositions but the moment at the time was ripe for anyone who made such a comment to feel genius. The two-second silence that followed was not long enough for me to savor this sensation.

A passenger with glasses also wanted to demonstrate his ability to counter arguments.

What about, for instance, the Unga Revolution and the Occupy Parliament movements?” (Apparently there are some Kenyans who entertain the notion that Unga Revolution is their “French Revolution” in the making.)

What?” I will be generous to reframe the question, “What [about them]?” The driver though didn’t mention the closed clause.

These cases illustrate that Kenyan individuals are actually fighting for the public good.” The passenger with glasses continued. “I think we can agree that public good is different from personal good but I also think you [me your narrator] are wrong to claim that we act only when our ownerships of our individual properties are compromised and that we are never nor minimally motivated to action by an abstract sense of ownership.”

The van’s tout replied: “If it is complaining, that we do. Some call it activism. But beyond that we absolutely do zero; we eventually fall back to our daily patterns of life and forget why we even complained in the first place; perhaps the social universe and the pace in which we have to ride along with it is too fast for us to keep record and remember everything.” He then added. “To juxtapose our inadequate political activism and cases where personal properties are stolen and the thief is apprehended by wananchi (citizens), in the latter case, unlike in the first, justice is sought to the end. And what form justice? The blood and life of the thief, a tire on his neck or a boulder [YES] on his head; nothing more, nothing less. I think the American Kenyan [referring me] is right. At the end of the day, we only act fully when the issue is about our personal property, based on things that affect us immediately.”

new-three-fish

The discussion dragged on for some time and was eventually dying steadily when our interest to moralize and politicize was again ignited. Someone, I don’t exactly remember who (oh it’s the dwarf), made a general comment about women. He said it is hard to understand women just like it is hard to analyze the Kenyan social and political phenomena. Why the system is as it is and what makes Kenyans “tick” is like asking the old philosophical question “What is the Woman?” We all aboard unanimously concluded that the dwarf had some wits. But now you should realize that all the passengers were male. We agreed that in matters concerning women, Immanuel Kant is our leader and educator. But regarding the Kenyan political and social maze we have no one to look up to for insights and guidelines but our own conjectures and periodically some flaky political scientists; and we definitely cannot follow Kant in this matter since with Kenyan socio-political phenomena being uniquely African, Kant’s views would be abrasive.

Anyways, here is a synopsis of some of the points we more or less agreed upon (Maybe you might question how I am able to remember all the details of that night’s discourse. If Yoram Kaniuk consigned his 80-year-old self to recall the happenings of a 1948 independence war he took part in, and the old man did a great job and even asserted “Memory is what I write is memory,” I, who is much much younger and brilliant and of bourgeois origin, I definitely have better chances):

First, we acknowledged that economic imperatives and corruption of power and authority are misleading excuses that conceal the real motivation for robbery, public funds embezzlement and abuse of authority. If we are to search carefully, the source of robbery and corruption is to be located in our cultural habits, our behavioral habits and ideological attitudes. The most influential defect is in our tendency and our fondness for shortcuts, for “willingness to bend the “rules” to acquired material wealth and control, begotten not by a certain genetic factor but more through our excessive obsession with material influence and the sheer desirability of flaunting these acquisitions rather. Of course in theory we sometimes claim to value integrity of the human individual and society at large. But theory has limits and Kenya widely affirms this.

Second, in an ideal society, justice should be meted out evenly without regard to individuals, economic status, political privilege or authority. But we are not yet an ideal society and so we cannot really lynch corrupt public officers involved in graft and abuse of power. The mob that does the lynching needs concrete and visible, that is, very personal evidence, in order to implement their notion of justice; whether it is a skewed notion or not, that’s for the victim to determine (second law of victimization). It is also hard to imagine a public good as a personal good and as having direct and personal consequences, resulting in the lack of initiative to safeguard every public good.

Third, though lynching doesn’t touch the heart of the problem (the habitual tendency to disrespect property not one’s own), and though it fails to act as a reliable deterrent to other potential thieves, it is nonetheless a necessary act of justice. The aggrieved victims need some form of appeasement especially in places where the law enforcement organs are untrustworthy or slow to act. We called this the third law of victimization based on Newton’s third law of physics, which someone said it says something about every action “deserving” a reaction, blah blah blah, and could therefore be a “metaphor for justice.” We don’t know whether Newton mentions anything about the proportionality of these action-reaction forces, but to us on board any form of appeasement is necessary first; the issues of proportionality, just like truths, can be dealt with in the future.

Now the fourth and fifth points are what I contributed, believe me.

Fourth, though we have been angered and harbor accumulated hatred for our political system, when we meet these politicians, their presence inspires a kind of awe and fear. So we awkwardly feel resentment at them while at the same time admire the privileged positions of authority they occupy. The most that this ambiguous feeling can allow us is protest, theoretically, while in practice it undermines what we actually value and what we wish we could have done: overhaul the whole corrupt political and unfair social system. Perhaps Kafka would argue that this ambiguity is our essence. I was quite glad for this ambiguous feeling for it predicted that the Unga Revolution, if it will ever pull itself out of its stagnation, won’t materialize into a French Revolution, at least not in my time. For I being a bourgeois, I wouldn’t want to be disposed. Which bourgeois would?

Fifth, there is a peculiar form of complacency inflicting most Kenyans. It is not that the majority of Kenyans do not act but that their actions are insignificant. Once they complain, they retire to their old mentalities that fate (Karma, GOD, etc.…) will deal with the rest. If not these mentalities, they adopt a defeatist attitude that “Kenya has its owners.” It is therefore understandable that after speaking up about their complaints, many Kenyans become more proud and more content with the courage they showed, their awareness and critique of the status quo, and are therefore less concerned with the attainment of the full objectives they cried out for. There is also the history of mortal threats and deaths that some very serious activists have faced which every Kenyan is aware of. From the point of view of many Kenyans, advocacy and speaking up are tasks they can do, and some do, but these people are fewer than a handful and they are always worrying about their lives. End result: unproductive activism and widespread complacency with the status quo.

End of Points.

The economy of lynching, beside it being a discriminating fucker, entails picking one’s battles. It is an economical discretion that while it boldly proclaims death as the final cure of the addictive thrills experienced and that consequently bonds those involved in larceny, it cowardly shy away where most needed. It is prudently knowing when to take issues personally, the forms of legal channels to pursue and the notions of justice to invoke. This is how Kenyans survive and live on. It is knowing that an ordinary robber can easily be caught and that he is a possible vent for unleashing all the accumulated anger even though in a real sense the embezzlers of public goods do more extensive harm than the immediate sensations of loss and fear caused by street robbers. Perhaps the idea of lynching and justice, and the divide between public and personal property is defined by the possibility of catching the culprit. And only petty culprits are caught; perhaps Justice is petty.

Of the local thieves and the political bureaucracy, though the latter are mostly the culprits and predators and hence ought to be more vulnerable to the judiciary system, it is the former who are consistently vulnerable and always punished. Though the masses might speak up about the neglect and terribleness of the governing hegemony, they know that they are mostly pushing an immovable wall. So at least the masses are content with themselves when they speak up, even though their voices usually yield no fruits.

Their unconcealed excitement while speaking up betrays the purpose for speaking up; it is as if the excitement is a mark of self-congratulation for at least having the balls to speak up. Most lack what Nietzsche essentially called “anger of ressentiment.”

The slaves’ revolt in morals begins with this, that ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those who are denied the real reaction, that of the deed, and who compensate with an imaginary revenge.[1]

We may not yet have cultivated this political ressentiment in ourselves, but we are philosophically inclined to chat away our problems.

Oh here is a Sixth point I almost left out (I also contributed it): In the words of Eric Hoffer, many of the poor, the abjectly poor, cannot be recruited to be the driving force let’s say of the Unga Revolution since most of these poor are in daily desperate struggle for food and shelter and “the intensified struggle for existence “is a static rather than a dynamic influence.””[2] So it seems that the only hope for social and political change is to mobilize the bourgeois. Well, I am a bourgeois not interested in becoming a political Robin Hood; let the poor do their own work if they want and if not, let them bury their own dead then.

We eventually arrived in Eldoret. The infrastructure has really improved and I was glad to have witnessed only one road accident on the road unlike it used to be in the past. A friend was waiting at the van’s station. I inquired about the taxis and was surprised that the fare hasn’t changed much. Now this is my town.

In order to restore my previous charred sense of belongingness in the bourgeois class, I hired five taxis right away: one for me, one for my friend, two taxis for my luggage and the other one to just escort. The entourage soon set off majestically to Kapseret village. I was a real bourgeois doing what bourgeois do best: soaring up in luxury and privilege.

My final parting shot with my fellow passengers, who were in that moment shocked by my outlandish extravagancy, was an allusion to the famous dictum that the Athenians reminded the people of ancient Melos. “The Strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Maybe this is what our country is all about.


[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich; Kaufmann, Walter (1977-01-27). The Portable Nietzsche.

 

[2] Hoffer, Eric (2011-05-10). The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

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