Cultural loci and African intellectuals…

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A little while ago a friend of mine and I were discussing the recent increase in the number of countries and American States that have now legalized gay marriage or are in the process of doing so. I argued then, and maintain now, that this increase will continue indefinitely in a monotonic fashion and will most probably also accelerate after reaching a tipping point sometime in the next decade. My friend, being the sensible lad that he is, agreed that this does seem to be an increasing trend rather than just a momentary spurt, but also suggested that perhaps the tolerance and acceptance of gay marriage is really just a function of economic power which is clearly changing and that perhaps the new powers won’t be as tolerant. The economic trajectory of the West is plateauing even as BRIC countries find their feet and begin their speedy ascent. Interesting, I thought, since the changing of the guard could well mean a change in norms and values, and China and Russia (!) certainly do have a different set of values to the U.S on a variety of things, including gay marriage. But the more I got thinking about this I realized that we are nowhere near the zenith of the West’s power and influence as a hundred different examples easily show. I think if we did a global survey of brands, TV shows, celebrities, intellectuals, politicians etc., we would find the West dominates the list by 100 to 1. Of course there are some celebrities from India and Brazil that we all know – Ashwaria Rai, Tendulka, Pele, Ronaldo etc., but I can’t think of any Chinese or Russian celebrities offhand? Does that make me a bad person? Am I just a consumerist cog in the capitalist American machine succumbing to exploitation by patriarchal imperialists?! OK, perhaps a little. But the point remains that the West, and within it largely America, set the tone for the world. Economically yes, politically, yes and most important for this current discussion, America is the global trend-setter and the cultural locus of the world. A cultural version of America sneezing and the rest of the world catching a cold. Chinese elites wear American clothes and aspire to American symbols of status, wealth and power. American elites do not aspire to Chinese anything as far as I can tell. American cultural influence (and more generally Western sensibility) is here to stay, as far as I can tell. Something I am quite happy about as far as gay marriage is concerned.

The reason why I like thinking about these types of questions is that they come back to broader ones about modernization and westernization. In Africa especially, it is difficult to find textbook examples of countries that have managed to modernize rather than Westernize. I think this is probably because the path to Westernization is so well sign-posted and well travelled, with trains leaving every hour on the hour heading towards a clearly articulated and visible goal. In contrast, the path to African modernization in an African way is like bundu-bashing towards a mirage that no one has really seen before. Does the Utopian vision of an African Renaissance include things like democracy, capitalism and gender-equality? Or are these just un-African Western impositions? Some say that Africa needs these things but it needs Africanised versions of them. OK great, but how do you decide what to keep and what to scrap? Inevitably people end up asking: “Why don’t we just adopt the whole package? They look pretty happy over there in America, let’s just do what they do?” What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, no? If you dig a little deeper there are many reasons why we can’t and shouldn’t “just do what they do” ranging from national pride, personal dignity and cultural heritage, all the way to linguistic diversity and genuine social, economic and political freedom. But the only people capable of formulating and articulating the African ideals to which Africans can aspire are African intellectuals. They are necessary catalysts. Unfortunately they are in short supply. Where did all the Khama’s and Mandela’s and Nyerere’s go? Where are our 40-year-old public intellectuals challenging Western ideas and (importantly) proposing African one’s to fill their place? We have a few big mouths that love to bash the West but don’t fill the vacuum that their criticism creates. Perhaps they do exist and I don’t know about them? If you know of any young, inspiring African intellectuals please write a comment and post a link to some of their work. This is one time I hope to be wrong…

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