A year ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie found herself in the eye of a Leftwing storm. In an interview about feminism, she had said that transgender women who used to be men did not suffer discrimination to the same extent that women did. Feminists and transgender women were furious. They attacked her for seeming to suggest that transgender women were less of women and belittling their experience of gender-based discrimination. Adichie response: “What’s interesting to me is this is in many ways about language and I think it also illustrates the less pleasant aspects of the American Left, that there sometimes is a kind of language orthodoxy that you’re supposed to participate in, and when you don’t there’s a kind of backlash that gets very personal and very hostile and very closed to debate.” This was not so much a language orthodoxy of the American Left as it was the ideological orthodoxy of the Left in general. When she responded, Adichie could not have foreseen how restrictive and prescriptive this ideological orthodoxy would become and, how again, she would fall victim to its ever narrowing definition of who a fighter for justice is and an ever widening definition of who is a traitor to the progressive cause.
In a recent article in The Guardian UK, titled “When Chimamanda Met Hillary: A Tale of How Liberals Cosy up to Power,” Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto argues that liberals and writers have abandoned their role of holding power to account and have instead become cheerleaders of a “murderous Western imperialism and racism.” As a case in point, she cites Adichie’s interview with Hillary Clinton in which the writer failed to confront the former Secretary of State about her “ruinous human rights record.” While Adichie receives the most censure for this cheerleading, other figures like Salman Rushdie and Michelle Obama are mentioned as being, to various degrees, complicit in it. For Rushdie, evidence of complicity was his support of the overthrow of the Taliban regime. I presume that Rushdie’s position on the Taliban was informed by antipathy to Islamic fundamentalism and to the extremely violent means it deploys to accomplish its medieval puritanical goals, including, as in its Indonesian expression, parents strapping explosives on their small children and sending them on suicide missions. Rushdie knows this extremism first hand, having lived in hiding for years after a death sentence was passed on him in 1989 by the mullahs of Iran who deemed his novel The Satanic Verses insulting to Islam. By rules of fair debate, his stance on the Taliban is, therefore, a reasonable one. But, according to Bhutto, any position opposed to the Taliban on the basis of the group’s murderous sexism and religious bigotry, if I may adapt Bhutto’s phrase, which I am sure she throws around at conferences with appropriate histrionics, is proof of allegiance to retrogressive imperialist forces.
As for Michelle Obama, her crime is that she now “moves in the depoliticized world of celebrity in which it is possible to call George W. Bush, the war mongering Republican notorious for his callous treatment of African-Americans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, her ‘partner in crime.’” This assertion is a falsehood on several levels. First, it is possible to be a celebrity and at the same time be an activist for progressive causes. Celebrity can even give a major boost to a cause. Think Muhammad Ali or Eleanor Roosevelt. Second, celebrities can communicate powerful messages without ever uttering a political word. For instance, even if Lupita Nyong’o never uttered a political statement, her being in Hollywood, wearing her dark skin and afro unconsciously, normalizing these attributes in a context in which even black women look at them as somehow odd, is a powerful political and cultural statement. Third, it is dangerous of Bhutto to insinuate that Michelle Obama, a woman who had to struggle every step of the way to become what she is, a woman who was objected to by the white community because of her strong views on race, is now complicit in the ill-treatment of African-Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Surely, Bhutto must understand the context in which a former First Lady could, at least in public, pal around with a former president no matter their policy differences. Fourth, Bhutto, by arguing that, unlike Hillary, Michelle was not part of her husband’s policies, insinuates that President Obama’s policies identified him as part of the Western establishment pushing an imperialist and murderous agenda.
Bhutto is of course entitled to criticize Obama’s policies, and many progressive commentators have. But she cannot be dismissive of the fact there were many ways in which the Obama presidency was subversive of the Western political establishment and its worldview. First, he challenged the idea that a puritan American ethic was being polluted by multiculturalism. Second, he disrupted the Cold War mentality that was casting China as the new antagonist in the epic struggle between “good” and “evil.” His views were informed by a complex and nuanced understanding of a changing society and world. For his pains, he was accused of being a traitor to American values by a Christian Right that was emerging from the fringes of American politics and taking over the Republican Party. Throughout his tenure, Obama used the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to defend women’s rights and other marginalized groups. In his Nelson Mandela lecture earlier this year, Obama gave arguably the greatest defence of the democratic idea since Mandela’s speech during the Rivonia trial. In the speech, he warned of re-grouping forces of retrogression. In the fight for justice and equality, he challenged all to look outwards as well inwards, as there was not a single racial, religious and traditional community without hierarchies of oppression. Last but by no means the least are his signature legislative and policy achievements. For Bhutto to now ignore the practical and historical significance of Obama’s presidency and, instead, see it as a continuity of Western imperialist hegemony is by any measure of assessment an extremist view.
As with Obama, it is legitimate to take issue with Hillary Clinton’s policy stances. But there can be no denying that she has broken the glass ceiling for women around the world. During her husband’s administration, her efforts to reform healthcare were defeated, not on merit but on ideological grounds. Clinton has been a great campaigner for children’s rights around the world. And so Adichie’s admiration for her is justifiable on these and other grounds. To equate that admiration with being a “moderator for power” and a cheerleader of its human rights excesses again demonstrates the growing extremism of the Left. Of this increasingly shrill and intolerant Left, which closes rather than expands debate, Adichie said: “There is a kind of self-righteousness to the ultra-left that is hard for me to stomach.”
There is also a recklessness to it that is hard for many to stomach. How else would one describe the African Left’s insinuation that Mandela was a sellout because he did not drive the whites to the sea and its concomitant championing of Robert Mugabe as a vanguard of the African revolution? Mandela gave South Africa the most liberal constitution in history. Robert Mugabe’s rapacious dictatorship was wreaking havoc in Zimbabwe. This outrageous discrepancy was not an oversight; it is a growing tendency in leftwing activism, as the following examples will demonstrate.
A few years ago, an American NGO made a video about Joseph Kony, the Ugandan rebel leader indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity and who still remains at large. The idea of the video, the group said, was to revive global efforts in capturing the war criminal. But the video drew outrage from the Left. The video, it was claimed, was a continuation of the patronizing Western attitude towards Africa, the Western benefactor coming to the rescue of hapless Africans. The sober voice of Ghanaian-American writer Malaka Grant posing, “Why did an African not start the Kony campaign?,” was lost in the loud self-righteous uproar. More importantly, the focus on Joseph Kony was lost. When the issue died out, and with it the opportunity for self-dramatization, it was all quiet again on the Leftist front. As for Joseph Kony, his rapes and murders continued apace.
Then Donald Trump insulted Africa by referring to the continent as a bunch of “shithole countries,” provoking the ire of the Left and rightly so. But of all the fulminations I read, not a single one expressed anger at the actions and behavior of African politicians that create the conditions that make us objects of ridicule and insult. The Left rightly raises questions about the treatment of migrants in Europe, but fails to ask the more fundamental question: Why are thousands willing to risk their lives to go and sweep the streets of Europe? Does it not strike the Left as odd that everyone, including the United Nations, is holding meetings about the migrant crisis, but African governments, who cause the mass exodus through sheer and blatant thievery, and their “labour union,” the African Union, look on with indifference?
Leftists, especially those based in the West, not only shy away from criticizing governments from the so-called Global South, they also instruct those of us who reside here, victims of and witnesses to larceny on an epic scale, not to do so. Doing so, the lecture goes, plays into the evil designs of Western imperialism. Those were the exact words an editor of a London-based magazine told a gathering of African journalists in Namibia. The absence of even a little sense of irony was bewildering. Here was a man who had escaped Jerry Rawling’s tyrannical regime now lecturing journalists that criticism of their governments was feeding into the false narrative of an incompetent Africa of dictators, corruption and gross human rights abuses. In similar fashion, Bhutto warns writers from the Global South not to fall into the imperialist trap of denouncing their governments: “Writers from the global south have long been burdened with the expectation that they respond to every terrorist atrocity in their countries, and denounce their governments and large numbers of their fellow citizens. They can only be amazed at how quickly even left-leaning writers in the west defer to brute authority and rush to place a human face over it.” One can be forgiven for thinking that the Left is only interested in waging a nationalist ideological war against the West in which the real conditions of the people in the Global South are just incidental. As proof of this, compare their approach to Dr Denis Mukwege’s 2018 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. The Left uses ideological formulas to explain issues; Dr Mukwege called for specific actions to eliminate rape as a weapon of war.
With shades of Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Fatima Bhutto writes: “Now more than ever, it is imperative to insist that writers must resist power at all times.” It is grossly unfair to assume that writers who come into close proximity with power in the course of their work become contaminated by it. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a longtime friend of Fidel Castro and Maya Angelou was invited by Bill Clinton to read a poem at his inauguration. Angelou could not have found a more potent stage to recite her poem about inclusivity. Clearly, proximity to power did not make her or Marquez any less effective in their writing or any less committed to the cause of justice? But Bhutto is not alone in this high-handed prescription of what writers should or should not do. The literary establishment in Kenya kept chiding young writers given voice by Kwani?, the literary journal founded by Binyavanga Wainaina, that if they wanted their writing to be “real” African literature, they had to turn their works into pedagogical tools. And US-based Nigerian social critic Ikhide Ikheloa decried a predilection in new African writing for “poverty porn,” which he defined as an obsession with strife, and the mire of Africa’s economic dysfunction. Western publishers, too, lecture African writers on what is and what is not African literature. Adichie once recalled her book being rejected by an American publisher because it was not “African enough.” And so the poor African writer of today is caught in the middle of Leftists demanding pedagogical works, African cultural nationalists nostalgic for the post-colonial novel, and Western publishers who want to see anthropological fiction. But would not African literature in particular and world literature in general be much poorer without a mix of love stories, poems about flowers, out-of-this-world fantasies, and fiction infused with political consciousness? Giving writers instructions on how to conduct interviews or what they should or not write does disservice to the idea of, as the Hundred Flower Campaign mantra goes, letting “a thousand flowers bloom and a thousand schools of thought contend.” There is only one thing writers should do, and that is “to write well,” as Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said.
Fatima Bhutto says that the noble cause of resistance is poorly served when writers take up the roles of TV hosts. Why does she assume that there is only one way of resisting? Resisting can be in the form of Gandhi’s passive resistance, in the form of justifiable armed resistance, or even in the form of “liberation theology.” Adichie’s interview with Clinton, and later with Michelle Obama, gives her another vantage. She becomes wiser and stronger in subtle and obvious ways, and consequently, the ideas and causes she advocates or symbolizes gain critical mileage. But Bhutto is not satisfied with prescribing the correct forms of resistance; she wants the word “resistance” to be used exclusively by those she judges to be authentic fighters for justice.
Bhutto is right that the West has many crimes to answer for, including America’s brutal war waged on villagers in Vietnam and its support of neo-Nazi regimes in Latin America. But so, too, do the former Soviet Union and its satellite states for the great injustices they inflicted on their own people. Traditional societies in Africa and Asia, upheld by the Left as paragons of egalitarianism and democracy, continue to inflict great suffering on large sections of their population. In Africa and the Arab world, millions of young girls are forced to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a practice whose violence and terror, and the large populations it cripples physically and psychologically, should qualify it as a crime against humanity. In India, the caste system continues to dehumanize millions of its citizens. All of these entities should be held to account.
A central idea in Leftist orthodoxy, one repeated by Fatima Bhutto in her essay, is that the greatest threat to peace and democracy in the world continues to be the “colossal and constant violence inflicted by the West.” In my view, there are three great threats to freedom, equality and democracy today. One is the idea that if you pray differently you deserve to die, and that women’s freedom and education, alongside sports, dance, music, historical monuments, cinema, etc, are an affront to God. The second is the increasing growth of a rogue capitalism which has led to a few billionaires controlling much of the world’s wealth. The third is the limiting of debate by a reckless ultra Left and an extremist Rightwing ideology.
We must all fight for justice. But the tendency to prescribe for everyone the correct ways of fighting and, worse, dismissing people who might use methods we do not approve of are impediments. The fight for justice is grueling and dangerous because the exploitative class and oppressive traditions are powerful and deeply entrenched in our countries and cultures. We need everyone on board, resisting in whatever way they deem fit. Freddie De Boer argues that “You can’t grow a mass party when the daily operation of your movement involves finding more and more heretics to ostracize from the community.” This Leftwing form of McCarthyism is self-defeating because the job of finding heretics is a never-ending one. Today, Bhutto has found Adichie, the Clintons, the Obamas, Madeliene Albright, and Salman Rushdie, among others, to be—to various degrees of severity—‘heretics.’ Tomorrow, more radical and reckless Leftist criteria will judge Bhutto guilty of some transgression and castigate her as a ‘heretic.’
About the Writer:
Tee Ngugi is a columnist and writer. His essays, short fiction and op-eds have appeared in New Orleans Review, Kwani?, Jahazi, The New Black Magazine, Timbuktu, and The East African, among others. His collection of short stories, Seasons of Love and Despair, was published in 2015 by East African Educational Publishers.