I read eclectically. My younger brother gave me a Kindle in 2011 which solved two of my biggest problems: Finding myself without a book at hand; and making it impossible for random onlookers to realise that I’m reading a low-brow, serial killer stupidity as opposed to “serious” literature or something academic.
As was to happen, it was through the Kindle’s Amazon’s snooping algorithms that I found myself, embarrassed and outraged, reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
Atlas Shrugged is one of her homages, her opus even, to her steely view about the centrality of industrial capitalism to the world’s progress, and the extreme dangers of individuals and states who concern themselves with distribution, sacrificing the mind, innovation and reason, productivity and labour in an avaricious, deliberate and insidiously predatory manner couched in the name of the collective and the social good.
No surprise therefore, that Rand’s novels and philosophical stance have been appropriated by and inspired no small number of American conservatives and libertarians. Even though, contradictorily, she herself defied current-day Republican norms by being pro-choice, and anti-any legislation as concerns gay rights.
Which is not surprising since she came from a secular Jewish family that lived through the Russian revolution, lost its property and herself ultimately “purged” from higher education. She moved to the United States where she finally made sense of what had happened to her family.
Pronouncing herself a “radical for capitalism,” a defender of rational self-interest and individual rights, she denounced collectivism and statism as exemplified by communism and any impulse towards forced altruism.
So, what is it I’m finding so engrossing and relevant to Kenya today, where there’s not even a pretence at a distributive effort of the kind she condemns so wholeheartedly?
For one, the importance she places on the mind, reason, productivity and labour. The ways in which, to justify state predation, the mind, reason, productivity and labour need to be devalued and how individuals benefitting from that state predation become complicit with it in the name of “public interest” —which happens to be the interest of those in charge of the state — and the sheer viciousness of the attacks on the mind, reason, productivity and labour as the predation continues, and how we all, ultimately, comply.
But even more important, I was engrossed because this is a matter of conscience, morality and msimamo (having the resolve to stand up for conscience and morality).
And by sheer coincidence, news came in about the Nation Media Group’s dropping of David Ndii as one of its columnists. I was shocked. Whatever one may think of his many provocations, he has never been base. He uses evidence, analysis and shock tactics to make points he deeply believes in. He is the most read and commented on columnist today.
I thought of Ndii, and the dropping of Gado as satirical cartoonist a while ago. I realised, yet again, how much I deeply respect and appreciate their work. I realised we have entered the dystopia that Rand describes. When the best amongst us have to be removed. When the mind, reason, productivity and labour are sacrificed at the altar of state predation.
This is not about political partisanship, but of conscience, morality and msimamo.
L. Muthoni Wanyeki is the Africa director of the Open Society Foundations. [email protected]