politics

Courtly Gentleman vs. Flamboyant Businessman

Writing for the NYT, Jeffrey Gettleman has described the Kenyan election as a battle (if you will) between two different kinds of men who embody two forms of masculinity. As a courtly gentleman (reincarnated from Elizabethan England no doubt) Kibaki represents the vestiges of empire: he is its progeny and heir. Raila, though, is a bit harder to figure out: he seems, in the terms of the article, much like a Donald Trump figure. (Incidentally, it’s telling that almost all the coverage from the west has termed Raila “flamboyant.”) Depending on how one reads the term “flamboyant,” Raila could be read as a figure who combines Bill Clinton and George Bush, both “flamboyant” characters in their own ways.

Of course, the opposition between the “courtly” gentleman and the “flamboyant” businessman, and here I want to focus primarily on the adjectives, calls to mind longstanding and deeply historical divisions of class and race, of old world and new world distinctions, of the division between civilized and uncivilized subjects. Kibaki’s reticence is appropriated into an idiom of gentility, suggesting he has the right kind of education and mien while Raila’s exuberance be-speaks a certain kind of African authenticity, what Senghor might term an expression of negritude.

These adjectives, I am suggesting, tell us something quite interesting about how African (and the metonymic slide is important here) masculinities are understood and misunderstood, translated and mistranslated so that they register within a western context. It goes without saying that such acts of (mis)translation reify distinctions forged within colonialism, distinctions that rely on a developmental logic in which Africans move from savagery (often flamboyant, but not always) to civilization, courtliness, that is.

My real topic, much more so a brief comment, has to do with the rhetoric of development that has surrounded the election; repeatedly, reports have spoken of Kenyans “maturing,” of democracy “developing.” I am rankled by the developmental logic of such statements, in part, because they ignore the fissures and tensions of “developed democracies” (see the previous US elections; see France) to infantilize African countries, which are always “developing,” held suspended in perpetual childhood (enhanced of course by generous infantilizing gestures in the form of aid, giving and withholding).

At the risk of infuriating many political scientists, let me say: there is no such thing as a fully realized or mature democracy. The bundle of promises, desires, attachments, and obligations suggested by the term democracy (far beyond the rite of a certain way of voting) are more than matched by the irrational, inchoate, and utopian dreams and promises that remain unrealized, and perhaps unrealizable. There is, of course, a smart way to talk about this in terms of the relationship between capitalism and democracy, that their interdependence is, perhaps paradoxically, the limit of democracy’s realization, especially if we imagine social equality as one of democracy’s promises.

But I’m tired—I just had multiple job interviews with incredibly brilliant people who sucked my brain dry. So I cannot actually think. And I probably shouldn’t post this.

I will.

2 thoughts on “Courtly Gentleman vs. Flamboyant Businessman

  1. Thank you for posting that anyway. You have made several good points, and I believe we are all the richer in perspective for having read them. Much appreciated. If this is what comes from a dry brain, then what will from a well hydrated one!…

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