Bring Back the American Draft

The question of whether we need a universal military draft will be important as long as this country is placing thousands of young men and women in harm’s way in Iraq. As long as Americans are being shipped off to war, then everyone should be vulnerable, not just those who, because of economic circumstances, are attracted by lucrative enlistment bonuses and educational says Charles Rangel, the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from New York. You can read more here.

The draft is a logical extension of democracy. If a nation is deciding on whether to wage war or not, one of the questions its citizens should have to ask is whether they are ready to step in harm’s way for the aims that their government is pursuing. The war in Iraq for instance is being fought by young people from the poorest backgrounds, many who signed on just because they did not have other economic options, while almost none of their leaders in the White House and Congress have experienced war or even have children in uniform. In fact a large number actively avoided the Vietnam draft and got off by being connected to the high and mighty.

I have so often railed against the state, especially the Kenyan one, on this blog but there is something about this posture that can sometimes be a bit false, particularly if it is in wartime. Let me stay with the United States for a minute. In the most general terms, both the Left and the Right of that country regard their politics to be in some way opposed to the state even as they fight for the right to possess and direct it. Both sides are after all arguably different strains of classical liberalism with its clarion call of individual rights not only pre-existing the state but taking precedence over it.

From the Left comes the rebellion against The Man who is supposed to support the military or use it to not only dominate and control society – the playground of the (vulnerable) progressive individual with his inalienable rights – but also to embark on a violent imperialism abroad. The Right also fights The Man who it supposes to be a be-suited bureaucrat determined to bring the economy – the playground of the profit-maximizing individual to whom private property is virtue – under his malign control. Both sides regard the state warily and want it cut down to size when it does not serve them. The hunger for power by these two broad groupings is ever present, and is really at the heart of their critiques against the state. If you were a Martian and heard either side rail about the evils of state-power, as I have done so often myself, you would think that the state is run by robots or is a very big animal with a will totally disconnected from the politics of the day.

Yet the government, if democracy exists in America, is created and maintained by the interaction between these camps. The government to put it more simply is the people. If it wages war, so do they. So why should the poorest among them, eighteen year olds from trailer parks who sign on to get a college education and a job, have to be shredded by IUDs while the rest sit back and snipe at each other over the actions of the government from their safe seats?

It does not matter that an individual American did not support the war personally; celebrating his country as a democracy means that he implicitly has to own the actions of the present government. Military service and the draft are an extension of democratic citizenship and not to be understood as an extension of Left or Right politics, or for whom you cast your vote, or the anger or delight you feel as news of the war carries to you.

But in politics as in life nothing is so clear-cut. I suspect that my reasoning opens a Pandora’s Box. If indeed the government is the people in a democracy – take or give some problems here or there – then it might make logical sense for civilians to be violently attacked by forces opposed to that nation’s policies. The more robust and realized a democracy is, the thinner gets the boundaries between citizen, military and government. Thus it would make perfect, if heinous and cruel, sense to attack the citizen of a democratic country because you are opposed to his government’s actions.

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Craftsman Versus World

Matthew Crawford writing in The New Atlantis on why I should have paid more attention in wood- and metal-work class.

In the age of think tanks, consulting firms, and IKEA, craftsmanship seems to be in decline. Shop class is becoming rarer, and our children are told that college is the ticket to an “open future” as a “knowledge worker.” This rejection of craftsmanship wrongly ignores the cognitive, social, and remunerative rewards of skilled manual work, and wrongly assumes that white-collar work always engages the mind.

excerpt:

Because craftsmanship refers to objective standards that do not issue from the self and its desires, it poses a challenge to the ethic of consumerism, as the sociologist Richard Sennett has recently argued. The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new. The craftsman is then more possessive, more tied to what is present, the dead incarnation of past labor; the consumer is more free, more imaginative, and so more valorous according to those who would sell us things. Being able to think materially about material goods, hence critically, gives one some independence from the manipulations of marketing, which typically divert attention from what a thing is to a back-story intimated through associations, the point of which is to exaggerate minor differences between brands. Knowing the production narrative, or at least being able to plausibly imagine it, renders the social narrative of the advertisement less potent. The tradesman has an impoverished fantasy life compared to the ideal consumer; he is more utilitarian and less given to soaring hopes. But he is also more autonomous.

This would seem to be significant for any political typology. Political theorists from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson have questioned the republican virtue of the mechanic, finding him too narrow in his concerns to be moved by the public good. Yet this assessment was made before the full flowering of mass communication and mass conformity, which pose a different set of problems for the republican character: enervation of judgment and erosion of the independent spirit. Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political. The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the distinction between the Right Way and the Wrong Way. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life—a disinterested, articulable, and publicly affirmable idea of the good. Such a strong ontology is somewhat at odds with the cutting-edge institutions of the new capitalism, and with the educational regime that aims to supply those institutions with suitable workers—pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills.

The rest of the essay can be found here.

Fernando Botero and Abu Ghraib

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Fernando Botero is showing his incredible new paintings of the Abu Ghraib torture scenes at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. You can see more of them at Slate.com

Hornsleth: Danish Artist and Ugandan Village

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I have just stumbled into Mr. Kristian von Hornsleth, intrepid Danish artist known for audacious works such as the Fuck Me Daddy Bikini and his generally dark view of the art world and art lovers (see his poem, ‘FUCK YOU ART LOVERS.’)

Now his war against global capitalism and consumerism (take a look at his Fuck You Art Lovers dildo) has moved to Buteyongera in Mukono district, a small village north of Kampala, Uganda. The project was to give 108 villagers pigs and other farm animals if they agreed to legally add Hornsleth to their name. Each of the villagers has now been issued a national Uganda ID card showing their new Hornsleth name and their photos holding this ID are to be works of art exhibited around the world.

In five years, the plan is to paid five thousand villagers to become Hornsleths. (Read more here) A Ugandan colleague tells me that newspapers in Uganda and government officials have lambasted the show – calling it a neo-colonial plot – while the new Hornsleths, in possession of their newfound animal wealth, have been largely supportive.

All I can do is laugh. This is the funniest art project that I have come across since I tried making one in my high school art class and failed miserably. Kristian von Hornsleth cannot be satirised, he is already satire. I actually think that this project is doing exactly what art is meant to do which is to provoke.

Kristian’s intention ‘to show in his work the dirty way of global capitalism and confront it with the humane and ethic thinking of his art.’ The work’s ‘political meaning’ as his website puts it is to highlight the depredations and manipulations that Africa suffers at the hands of global capital. But its real thorn, the real controversy is in the willingness of the villagers to change their names and the reactions by their leaders. As the website expresses it, the new Hornsleths are so removed from the world of (Danish/international?) art that their profiting by taking on the name of a ‘worldwide famous artist’ is so ‘abstract for them that they neglect the implications.’

Predictably from the rafters of the Ugandan politician came the howl of condemnation, the singed racial pride, the invocation of anti-imperialism. From the villagers will be silence and emails like this one quoted enthusiastically on Hornsleth.com

‘hello Hornsleth,
you havedone a wonderfull job in Mukono district and am from wakiso district from a vertain village called Nkowe. But can you please do some helping in my village so that we can be rescured out of poverty that my people are facing now. I am a student of makerere university doing a Bachelors Degree in development studies.
Roger M___’

The email says it all assuming that it is a real email actually sent by this Roger whose representations are truthful. The development student at the national university, as hopelessly addicted to donor monies as so much of Uganda seems to be – ready to prostrate himself in whatever fashion in return for ‘development’ which is the result of an externally driven, handout based process. The ‘fight against poverty’ such a constant refrain, the poverty itself so biting and unrelieved by hope from any other direction other than government and donor.

While Roger thus pleads, his State Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Dr James Nsaba Buturo comes from the other end of the spectrum with a dose of national pride. Or at least that is what he believes it to be: “The government cannot allow such a project to continue. This man owns a cult and he is a homosexual. His agenda is not good for the country. He uses obscene language and has no respect and kind words for God. As soon as he arrives in the country, police will catch up with him to investigate his activities,” he says. This happens just a few days before he is cited by the press for misappropriating government funds. Yes that’s right, the minister of ethics and integrity accused of stealing government funds. (Makes you wonder what documents are on his desk: in the in-tray lies and theft while the out-tray carries truth and virtue?)

The comedy, because you have to laugh not to cry, becomes even more hysterical when you consider that this same minister who would have the project closed down serves a government that receives over fifty percent of its budget from countries like Denmark where Kristian von Hornsleth hails from.

So the circus wheel turns. Hornsleth who thinks he is exposing global capital is instead revealing a lot more than that, more than the ‘ignorance’ of the villagers to the art world. He is actually drawing the lid on the painful contradictions on Ugandan/African nationhood, the absurdities buried in our ideas of citizenship and development and leadership.

More could be said on this subject and in fact it will but first I must consider yet another of Kristian von Hornsleth’s worthy projects, namely Futilism. As in the Futilistic Society which is based on the manifesto that this philosopher, artist and architect has written. Hornsleth has declared war on ‘boredom, routine, institutions and traditions’ and this is a struggle that will be waged so that its result, hopefully when you the bored reader have taken in the ‘blinding clarity and a hazy overload’ of his words, will be to reach into chaos and darkness and away from what is meaningless and futile.

Isn’t it all quite wonderful?

Change of Subject and Trip to Asia

I suspect that there is a saboteur out to get bullets and honey; in the last week paragraphs have disappeared from the blog and I just now had a techie friend fix the problem (with embarrasing ease.) Maybe this is what I get for dipping my toes into Kenya’s treacherous tribal wars, in which case I must get away. And by that I mean that I am planning to visit Asia for the very first time.

Yes, this son of the soil is going to get into one of those machines made by man to visit at least a couple of cities in India and possibly one in China. I will be there for a week or two at the most so I suspect that I will not have the chance to see much. But planning and thinking of the trip has brought me low in shame. China has a billion people and I do not have a single close friend that I can call there. How pathetic is that? India is the same with all the Indians I know in the States or in Kenya so that again I do not have a person to call on anywhere on that sub-continent (except for the folks I will be working with for a few days.)

For this reason, I have lately been trying to chat up my Indian neighbors in the hope of some introductions with very little success – they just nod politely and keep walking. Yesterday afternoon I saw a piece of paper on the ground and picked it up only to find that it was a letter in english with some Hindi writing (I assume); I guess it must have been dropped by one of them or blown over from their place. Curiosity got the better of me and so I read it. The only exceptional item was the question whether the recipient had ‘managed to make any new negro friends…’ The thing is that I have been re-reading my James Baldwin lately and so this word negro has been much on my mind but I had no idea that there were still people using it to this day. Is it a bad thing? What does it mean? Assuming that the letter belonged to my neighbors, I really think I should befriend them – maybe all their words are frozen in 1960s ‘jive-turkey’ Americanisms.

If I do get to make this trip, I will be the second person in my close family to have been in Asia. My grandfather fought with the King’s African Rifles in Burma. Well, he didn’t really fight since he was a medic (and therefore was called doctor by everyone in Sigona, Kiambu till he passed away) but he was over there.

Most Kenyans do not know with what tenacity and success our grandfathers fought in that campaign since our relentlessly nationalist reading of history leaves no space to acknowledge Africans who fought for the British against the Japanese or the Germans. What this means in my own life is that I grew up around men who had traveled the world, maybe had even performed great feats in battle and never got to hear about it. I wish I had known what I know now before he died. So many memories in my family seem to just be buried and forgotten. And yet daily I read accounts of other peoples who have fought this or that campaign, who have traveled across that sea or that desert, while not having a single idea whether my own blood ever had the same experiences. It is crazy shit to live in a continent that is the most ancient – the cradle of mankind no less – and not know anything much about my own grandfather’s life. I won’t even get into the fact that I have never heard more than a few words about his father and mother, or theirs.

In the States, my black American friends would occasionally remark on how wonderful it was that I ‘had a history’ and a ‘name’ when theirs had been stolen from them by history. How to explain that in the most personal terms, they could trace their lineages further back than I could mine. That they could pop into courthouses and libraries and come away with records and stories of their grandparent’s parents when I could barely name mine or even tell where they had lived, what they had done. It is as my friend Wambui says, I live in an ancient world without having a history. How to explain to them that I may not have a “slave name” but that I do not really know the meaning of my name. It was handed to me from my grandfather as he received it from his grandfather but I was never told what it meant, where it came from, why for heaven’s sake our naming system was as it is. And please do not tell me of pyramids and the great Kush, they are as remote to me in personal terms as the Han Dynasty or ancient Greece. Of course I feel some nationalist pride once in a while at the thought of the Swahili trading empire or even Nubia and Egypt but I have no a personal sense of linkage with that time and those people because my history looms up short – maybe eighty to a hundred years at the most.
I wonder what this does to me. Am I freed by not being bound by a past, freer to create my life, to imagine different courses? Or am I like a corkscrew in a raging ocean, without direction, without the foundations of history on which to build my life? Hell, are these questions even relevant anymore?

A Letter to My Father, and Others

Dear Baba,

This is an odd and public and rhetorical letter, on a subject that recent tradition has asked us to sweep under the carpet. I find myself, at 35, at odds with the tone and nature and political space that is Gikuyu. For the first time in my life, in the Kibaki government, my identity as a Gikuyu has been questioned, I have seen text messages distributed amongst Gikuyus about “beasts from the West” and the like.

You have brought me up to be a skeptical person, a thinking person, a Kenyan first, a Nakuru boy, a person who believes in solid institutions, in building them, and growing them – as you did so well for so many years.

This present wave of “uGikuyu” seems to have sucked up a whole generation of people: who believe that the future of Kenya lies ONLY under a Gikuyu umbrella. To me this seems like crazy and corrupt politics, capitalising on the post- Mau Mau, and post Kenyatta entitlements and paranoias that have been past on from parent to child, often without explanation or analysis – and now what is we have is a vague formless fear of the unknown from the ‘other side’.

Last week, some young man, a university graduate told me that the clashes were about “the KAMATUSA tribes killing the Gikuyus”. Basic information would counter this – but educated people, PARENTS, are passing this bigotry on.

On the other side of our family: from Mum’s side, a genocide happened.

I find I cannot be silent about the politiking and the text messaging xenophobia that has infected, it seems, all sensible Gikuyus. I say this because no prominent people are speaking against this: this insane kitchen cabinet of an insane presidency is using fear to keep Gikuyus on their side, and this is causing serious damage to our place, and the place of our children in a future Kenya. Not even the Moi Kalenjin junta caused so much social and tribal friction, in such a short time. It is now Gikuyu versus Kenya – with yuppies saying Kenya does not know what it talking about because Kibaki has planted flowers in roundabouts.

Like any, many young people, I am at a loss what do or say. We are heading to a very dangerous place, displaying a sense of entitlement and ethnic chauvinism that can only lead to violence – all, its seems, to keep a few people who made money during Kenyatta’s time happy and wealthy.

Some friends of mine have said that we are “owed” because we “suffered” under Moi.

Who did not suffer under Moi?

Many people want to speak of these things and agree there is a problem in bars and huddles and not in public. Few people have this conversation with their parents. In clear and naked transparency. Why?

You did not bring me up to react like this.

I will not react like this. I know how much you have believed and invested in the idea of a functional and forward-looking Kenya. I feel that the Gikuyus who feel this way should make themselves public – it is not an affirmation of anything, no ideology – simply a declaration of one’s loyalty to a good and clean Kenya

Is it not time that right minded people started to speak out?

I am sending this email out to you all trusted friends, with love. Post, and distribute this if you can.

Please forward the question to those you feel want to start a dialogue. What is the challenge of this generation? Why is nobody of your generation making their stand clear? Is this government something to approve of? Are “we” behind this new government?

Am I missing a particular conversation?

Why can’t we name this problem?

How can we stop the hate?

With much love,

Your son,

Binyavanga Wainaina

Staring Death in the Face on the Drive to Jomo Kenyatta Airport

After a week of Digital Indaba polemics, entertaining outraged comments from South Africa, I had my moment of Outrage on the way to the airport yesterday morning. My flight for Addis Ababa from Nairobi was scheduled to leave at such a time as made it necessary for me to be at the airport by 5.30am. As is always the case in Nairobi, this departure was heading toward the ‘one for the road’ till flight-time script. But Sohos where we were downing beers – and which I dislike and yet for some reason keep finding myself patronizing – closed early and I was forced to return home in good time to pack and get some sleep. The plan was for K____, my usual taxi driver, to turn up in good time and so he did. As I got into the battered Toyota, I noticed he was quieter than usual, that the front end had a new largish dent and that he seemed to have forgotten the way out of my place. But then I thought it must be the late hour and that perhaps even the curious slowness of his driving was due to his having woken up earlier than usual. This working theory, plus the mild hangover I was suffering all fled as we were pulling into Mbagathi Way (a highway under construction so that both directions of traffic have to share a single road.) My dear K____ was at the stop sign for a full minute though the road was quite empty of traffic. He only decided to pull out, with excruciating slowness, the moment cars were bearing down on us from both directions. They came screeching to a stop and one of the drivers rolled down his window and let go such a furious – and at such an early hour, impressive – flood of curses. K_____ merely nodded his head slowly from side to side as if in sadness that the other drivers could be so unreasonable and unskilled. It was only when he proceeded to drive in the middle of the road, seeming to weave toward the path of oncoming cars, as if somehow their headlights were what to aim for, that I realized that K____ – he of the frequent lectures on the importance of responsibility and punctuality in the working man – was roaring drunk.

‘K____,’ I asked carefully hoping not to distract him further, ‘have you been drinking?’ Silence. ‘Have you been drinking, please tell me,’ I pleaded knowing by this time that the answer must be in the affirmative. Oncoming cars were hooting and driving half on the road and half off it to avoid the Grim Ripper who was clearly now in control of that Toyota. And K____ was his angel of death. What with his sleepy answers, sunken, darkened cheeks, that now as I looked at him made me realize that for the past year I have been getting rides from a man who has ceded much of the flesh of his body to cheap liquors and late hours. I knew that we were never going to make by the time we got to the roundabout near the Barbados Children’s Home, about two kilometers from my first realization that he was drunk out of his mind.

‘I think I must have eaten something that disagreed with me,’ came the reply after long minutes of waiting. I have myself used this never-to-be-believed phrase and the next one as well. ‘I think I am just really sleepy, I have been having such a tough time sleeping. I even scrapped a gate on my way to you.’ The grave for mmk it was, even before the end of the Digital Indaba talkfest. Perhaps this is what comes of questioning do-gooding. That God, the lover of justice and empowerment, sends a drunk driver to your doorstep who crashes you head-on into an oncoming truck. Maybe K____ too had been rude to White South Africans as he carried them from the airport and so Justice was going to kill two birds with one stone.

‘Pullover K____, now!’ by this time I was hysterical. What a bad way to go.

Long story short: he stopped and I took over and drove to the airport with him fast asleep and even snoring in the back. I parked the car with him still fast asleep in it and took my flight. Once again Nairobi having ushered me into its curious blend of terror and comedy, on the way to Addis Ababa where dangerous driving such as K’s would not even make me twitch an eyelid as common and normal as it seems once I am here.