Fear & The August 4 Referendum

In a timely news segment, Rachel Maddow demonstrates how fear is used as a political strategy. As, in fact, the most successful political strategy. She argues, convincingly, that we tend to think effective political strategies depend on maligning one’s opponents. And that might be wrong. The best strategy (and here I am extrapolating) creates affect-coalitions: not people who think or believe the same things, but people who feel the same things.

The strategy creating fear-driven affect-coalitions has dominated the Kenyan referendum process. From Christians being warned that the Kadhi courts will impose Sharia law to social conservatives being cautioned that the Draft Constitution will permit gay marriage to the biggest fear driver of all, that without a new Constitution, we will descend into post-election violence again. Other fears abound. That the Draft Constitution will simply prop up ethno-cracies, that rejecting it will destroy fragile government coalitions, that our feelings about and actions toward the future rest solely or predominantly on this document.

And I have wondered why we cannot talk around this document. Why we grant the fear mongers the power to drive this process. I have wondered why we continue to believe that our abilities to shape and share the future depend on sets of legal codes. How have we come to believe that elegantly wrought codes will produce ethical relations? How have we come to trust legal documents more than we trust ourselves?

I worry that our faith in constitutions demonstrates a corresponding attenuation of our faith in ourselves. That we have lost not only the ability but the will to envision living together. And that we hope the constitution will restore some of that faith.

Not all of this is bad.

It is possible to envision the constitution, all constitutions, as promises we give to each other. As shared goals and aspirations. As guides to good faith and guarantors of expectations. It is possible to envision the constitution as more than the zero-sum game conjured up by the politics of fear. And it should be possible to say that the texture of our lives together, the ethical orientations we have toward each other, the mutual obligations of care need not be anchored in any particular legal document. That the document is not what imposes how we can feel about each other, but expresses, rather, a commitment to uphold ethical actions.

I sketch here an overly optimistic vision. One that insists, perhaps against reason, that the referendum process does matter and should matter, but not too much. One that looks at August 8, 2010, August 9, 2011, August 10, 2012, and sees a Kenya in which the Christians and the Muslims live in harmony; in which the heterosexuals and the homosexuals acknowledge each others’ shared humanity; in which the urban and the rural aspire to environmentally sustainable practices; in which the politician and the citizen share resources equitably; in which the bosses and the workers create and share profits ethically.

We can share much more beyond winning and losing. We can share tomorrow and the tomorrows that follow.

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