Taunting the Critic

by Onyemaechi Ogbunwezeh

Self-appointed guardians of political possibility who desire to mask their untenable neutrality when moral issues are on the dock would always essay to dry-clean their consciences by asking: why don’t you come down from your ivory perch, and correct the ills pervading the Nigerian society which you so passionately write about.

Why don’t you seek an elective post and implement that vision of yours? Why don’t you come back to Nigeria and do all those things you are running your mouth about?

These questions have been recurring decimals in the history of revolutions across time. That is why I am neither miffed by its insistence nor repulsed by the Schadenfreude it wishes to celebrate.

All the various layers of the Jewish crowds who witnessed the good works of Jesus like those who profited off his gastronomic largesse when he fed five thousand with few loaves and few fishes; the bookmakers who sold bets on how long he would still chastise the Pharisees before they conspire to decapitate him; even those who profiteered off his popularity, sold ticket to his shows and the allied industries that grew out of his itinerant moral crusades from the Galilee to Jerusalem; the hoteliers that housed people and made a buck; the “pure water” sellers that hawked that liquid gold to myriads of thirsty throats following him around the dusty countrysides; the akara and Moi-Moi hawkers as well as all other fast food peddlers of those days who managed the gastronomic emergencies engendered by such mass movements: all of them comfortably forgot that guy at the first signs of trouble. All of them were coaxed into uniting to rebuke and taunt a guy of whose generous self-giving, they all benefited from.

Many of them were among those who stood at the foot of the cross at that inglorious venue called the PLACE of SKULL- Golgotha, to mock a guy who gave them his all.

“If you were the son of God, come down from your perch on that cross”. They taunted him!

If men who profited from the philanthropy of a guy seen by many as the Son of God could stand before the tribunes of men and direct a tsunami of taunts on their benefactor, then who am I to think that my insignificance could escape such taunting queries.

To that end, I answer as follows:

Your questions are legitimate!!!!

But they emanate from a pedestrian provincialism which worships the false dogma that public office is the only way to change human society.

That provincialism is a child of a diseased, parochial insularity seen mainly across many African societies of today. This is the unfortunate trajectory which ended up canonizing partisan politics and firebrand religion as the major pathways to social change, while actively neglecting every other sector of human endeavor and ingenuity in the process.

This explains why politicians and preachers are the richest set of people in many African social spaces. Not inventors as a class. Not authors. Not teachers who instructed men in virtue. Not bearers of creative energies. Not pioneers who advanced our knowledge of our nature and ourselves. Not the genius who showed us the way to the stars. Not the musician whose melodies soothed our souls. Not the frontiersman who paved a way through any uncharted territory. Not the revolutionary in any field who confronted our ignorance and superstition and forced them to recede.


Not these set of people.

These ones are the endangered species of our various societies across Africa.

We have ingloriously succeeded in etching this debilitating provincialism into our social DNA.

We did that the day we awarded millions to a winner of a campus beauty pageant while dishing out a certificate emblazoned with amateur calligraphy to the best graduating student.

We did that the day we awarded a Chieftancy title to a political thief while neglecting the services of the local Palmwine tapper who stilled our thirst across our villages with his skill and honesty.

We did that the day we allowed the politician who is supposed to be a servant of the people to stampede the people he is serving off the roads so that his convoy comprising himself and his retinue of hangers-on could speedily pass by to attend to their mistresses and concubines without portfolio.

These gatekeepers of political orthodoxy have failed to realize that Aristotle’s contention that man is a political animal enjoys an eternal relevance across time and territory. They forget that the art of public writing is seriously political. They forget also that the way a society apportions its titles, its wealth and its privileges; its rights, duties and responsibilities, are all political.

Over and above that, they forget that it is only a sick society that deceives itself into thinking that a political office is the only avenue for correcting sociopolitical anomalies. They forget that by reading you alone, they are reading your contributions in that social experiment.

They forget that every society requires thinkers. The thinkers are the engines driving every social experiment. You don’t see your car engine when you are driving. But you hear it. Once anything happens to that engine, the car stops moving. And once a society disobeys the operating manual of that car, the car packs up and either becomes a wreck, a positive risk of the dangerous variety, or a nuisance to all and sundry.

You may not see a social critic or thinker in public office. But that does not nullify his essence or importance. But you read him. You hear him. He has a function which he is fulfilling just fine. If a society goes rogue by ignoring her thinkers, that society will degenerate into an intellectual retrogression that makes development impossible.

Development is not an accident that berths on a society by chance. It is a rational, consciously planned effort to dominate nature. Be it infrastructural, organizational, socio-cultural or economic.

To that end, the questioners failed to realize the amount of philosophy and thinking that it takes to develop one minuscule part of human society. They fail to realize that writers have shaped human society much more than professional politicians ever have or ever could.

They have failed to realize that Aristotle with his theory of letting the best people become rulers in society; or Plato enunciating in his Republic his idea of philosophers becoming Kings or Kings’ philosophers; through to St. Augustine’s Civitas Dei; to the amoral politics of Machiavelli’s Prince; to Thomas Hobbes State of Nature theory; John Locke’s ideas on democracy; Thomas Paine’s ideas on the rights of man; Baron de Montesquieu with his division of powers; to Karl Marx ideas on the insufficiency of capitalism, through to John Rawls’ theory of justice; and all the controversies, and synthesis they generated across time; have done more than any partisan politician ever could to move and change human society in profound ways.

These guys enunciated their visions and ideas in their writings. None of them had public office save for St. Augustine, who became a Bishop.

Their contemporaries may also have taunted them to come down from their ivory towers and get into public office.

But anyone who has much more than a hat’s rack upon his neck quickly realizes, just like Napoleon Bonaparte did. The pen is mightier than the sword!!!

Even dictators know this.

They know that every battle is won or lost in the human mind; since whatever happens to a man first happens to him in his mind. They know that whoever controls the minds of the people controls the destiny of the State. They know that the easiest way to enslave a man is to enslave his mind. This was why Bob Marley in his Redemption Song pointedly told us “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”.

Little wonder governments have ministries of information. This was a metamorphosis of the ecclesial “Propaganda Fidei”. Governments got into the business of essaying to gain and control minds using their information media because history taught them the mind is what should be won for all other things to fall into place.

History has shown that writers are more important to a society than politicians. This explains why the Christian church for years had an “Indexorum Prohibitorum” (Index of forbidden books), through, which the Church exercised an iron-grip control, and epistemic authority over what the “hewers of wood, and drawers of water” across medieval Europe were allowed to read or know and what not.

This also explains why Adolf Hitler made a bonfire out of books written by Jews at the threshold to his tyranny. And why the earliest things he did on marching into Poland at the beginning of World War II was to arrest and slaughter the creme de la creme of Polish intelligentsia.

This also explained why the Nigerian Army was looking to arrest Chinua Achebe after the first military coup; based on the fictions of his novel, “A man of the People”, almost incarnating in the first coup. Forget not that agents of the Nigerian government were suspected to have murdered Dele Giwa in 1986 using a letter bomb. Okey Ndibe is still being harassed by the Nigeria Security Services due to his writing.

This explains why writers and philosophers have been condemned to hemlock like Socrates was when ancient Greece committed a cosmic crime against philosophy. It explains why writers are exiled like Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay was.

Writers have been movers of societies and shapers of men and their minds. This explains why they have forever been thorns in the sides of dictatorships of all forms; both political and epistemic. This is why they have been the waterloo of totalitarianisms; both social and otherwise. This is why they have been the boils on the scrotal sac of every supremacist absolutist who feels he is above human society.

Writers have been gadflies of the State. They have always wielded the leash that seeks to limit power. Power is afraid of the pen. History is replete with examples of that. Power is a dog that forever needs a leash because power, according to Noam Chomsky, is and remains a “very violent institution”. And like Lord Acton contended, power has this ontological tendency of corrupting anyone and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Aristotle contended that anyone who thinks himself too big for human society is either a god or a beast. Power has the tendency of making gods out of men. And since no man can be a god, such men have become beasts. And writers have been calling them out since time began.

Writers have caricatured and satirically taunted those epistemological pretenders or political opportunists who think that their ephemeral hold on power is all there is.

Shakespeare’s cue to kill Cesar in his work, “Julius Cesar”, was when Caesar uttered those words equating himself to deity. “Hence wilt thou lift up Olympus”, said Cesar. Olympus was the seat of the Roman gods. And to ask anyone to lift up Olympus before you could grant his request, was equivalent to crowning yourself with the diadems of deity. That is not only a supreme insult; it is a death sentence. Ceasar did that and signed his death certificate. It was at that point that Casca screamed: “Speak hands for me”. And the conspirators caused a rain of daggers to pierce Ceasar’s heart and end his history.

Writers have been revolutionaries who change human time and our visions of eternity. Without the writings of Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany, the Christian church would still have been a stinking morass of usurious simony. Without the writings of Galileo, the Christian church would still have been arrogating itself the power beyond its competence; of teaching men how the heavens go, instead of concentrating on teaching them how to go to heaven. Without writers like JeanJacques Rosseau, Voltaire, John Locke, Thomas Paine, Victor Hugo and many others, democracy and human rights would still have been the exclusive reserve of the Kings by Divine rights whose feudal vision of human society enslaved Europe for centuries.

I don’t equate myself with any of these greats. I am an eternal student of their engagement.

As I sit on this perch contemplating my country and society, I am of the opinion that development without philosophy is impossible. A society that makes mincemeat of her thinkers is one that has banished herself to the isles of dysfunction.

Thought and action are the two wings with which a society flies to Uhuru. Action without thought is dysfunctionally artisanal. Thought without action is the theatre of dreams. Both must be married to each other before society could be coaxed to offer us the fullness of life, which is the desire of the human heart.

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