Patriotism: A Bludgeon With Which to Pummel the Kenyan Opposition

In response to President Kenyatta's recent lecture on patriotism, I pulled out my tattered copy of "Samuel Johnson: The Major Works" by the British writer and poet for a refresher on said topic. In his piece titled "The Patriot," the Scotsman harangues, not about patriotism in general, but about what he views as false patriotism as offered by the likes of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute and then-Prime Minister. Mr. Johnson offers that "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel" - a line directed at those who advance themselves by appealing to the patriotism of others or feigning concern for their country when their actions or policy proposals are antithetical to that announced loyalty.

I am not saying that this is what President Uhuru Kenyatta is doing. On the other hand, I am loath to give his invocation of "patriotism" a free pass. He is, after all, a politician not immune to what Mr. Johnson is pointing out.

I saw first-hand the "foreign-affairs-stops-at-the-water's-edge" pledge completely ignored by President Obama's opponents during his terms in office. Maybe it is this experience that has made me look askance at Mr. Kenyatta's "you-don't-wash-your-dirty-linen-in-public-or-invite-visitors-to-your-house-and-start-quarreling-with-your-spouse" story; partly embodied in John McCain's contrived "Country First" tagline of his failed presidential run of 2008.

It is one thing to oppose policy proposals on factual and honest philosophical grounds. It is an entirely different discussion to react, reflexively, against all proposals put forth just because it's suggested by an opponent. It doesn't help when those opposing the proposals appear unable to put together coherent counter-proposals.

However, calling out corruption, nepotism, tribalism or other ills perpetrated at the highest level of Mr. Kenyatta's government IS not unpatriotic nor is it "standing in the way of development and progress meant to benefit all Kenyans." This is particularly true when most "development" projects are shrouded in secrecy, inexplicable cost overruns and/or "typos, software glitches or whatever." Having spirited debates on issues with far-reaching implications is not unpatriotic; it is the prudent thing to do.

Patriotism was used to bludgeon opponents of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq into acquiescing to Mr. Bush's bone-headed decision. The ramifications of that decision are still being felt to this day with no discernable end in sight. Similarly, Kenyans are still paying the price, literally and figuratively, for their failure to speak out, indeed act emphatically, against some decisions made by their leaders who alternately told WanaKenya Halisi to "pull together," "follow footsteps" or "Kibaki tosha!" even as these very leaders parlayed their positions into inordinate amounts of (ill-gotten) personal wealth.

By calling out Coalition for Reforms and Democracy's (CORD) leadership on its hypocrisy and double-standards, Mr. Obama (unwittingly?) gave Mr. Kenyatta ammo with which to attack them - the opposition. On the other hand, they are yet to offer any compelling reason why Kenyans should give them a chance to lead.

It is fair to have a debate about the timing of the opposition's message to President Obama during the trip but continuing with President Kenyatta's version of "vitandawili," there comes a time when a spouse (Kenyans/Opposition) has to reveal or remind the visitor (Obama) that the bruise on their face is not from falling down while attempting a Yoga pose, but indeed the result of domestic violence (abuse of office/corruption/impunity etc.). This is particularly true when repeated acts of abuse (Waiguru, Ranguma, Miwani Sugar Co., List of Shame etc.) mar the lead-up to the visit. The pretense of domestic harmony is then affirmed when the abuse resumes shortly after the visitor bids farewell (Auditor-General's revelation of budgetary malfeasance).

The caution about "washing one's dirty linen in public" is partly what allowed the US Government to experiment on black airmen, without their consent or knowledge, the effects of untreated syphilis. Similarly, the decision to keep hidden the Catholic Church's dirty laundry led to the institution's history of repeated pedophilia! And there is nothing neither hyperbolic nor "over-the-top" about these two examples.

In the words of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."

I would like to believe that all Kenyans want the best for their country. It is what John McCain said of his then-opponent Barack Obama -- that he was a true and patriotic American who loved his country just as much as those who were claiming that he, Obama, was un-American. Mr. McCain then went on to say that the differences he had with Mr. Obama were philosophical and that the two men had distinctively different thoughts on how to best lead the country whose presidency they were vying for.

To paraphrase a favorite satirist, one can disagree with the policy proposals of a leader and still be patriotic. The construct of being in the opposition and voicing opposing views, indeed demanding better, regardless of the audience, AND loving country are not mutually exclusive as Mr. Kenyatta would like Kenyans to believe.