About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Who is Bahati’s bill meant to dupe?

His move is a masterstroke that eclipses political differences and diverts public attention from real issues to imaginary problems

Recently, Ndorwa East Member of Parliament, David Bahati, re-tabled the kill-all-gays Bill before parliament. After his presentation, where he claimed to be the moral vanguard of our society and his Bill the safety valve for our families, he received a standing ovation from both the government and opposition MPs. There is nothing that unites our politicians across the political spectrum than a shared homophobia. Indeed, it is one obsession that is equally shared by the vast majority of our esteemed citizens especially our elites that dominate public discourse in Uganda.

In fact, I estimate homophobia to enjoy more than 95 per cent support in Uganda. Therefore given the majoritarian concept of democracy that is often employed to advance homophobia, Bahati may carry the day. The concept of democracy that is often used in Uganda is akin to that of the Athenians (who invented it) in the 4th and 5th centuries BC. During the Peloponnesian war against Sparta, for example, the Athenian Assembly had power to decide the fate of any general who lost a battle. By a majority vote, they hanged each one of them until the city ran out of generals to command their armies and they lost to Sparta.

Socrates, that ever observant old man, called it a “passion driven, mob-led” circus that could never produce a stable government. Indeed, a majoritarian view of democracy turns out to be hostile to individual rights like freedom of expression or conscience. Socrates was sentenced to death by a democratic assembly in Athens – simply for disagreeing with the view that government should be governed by a mob in the marketplace. He was the first martyr of free speech.

Those who brought the indictment of impiety (that he does not recognise the gods the state recognises) against him – Anytus, Meletus and Lycon were leaders of the Democratic Party of Athens. They had captured power from Critias and his council of 30 who had governed the city since its defeat by Sparta in 404 BC. It is one of those pranks of history that the tyrant Critias did not kill Socrates, he only forbade him to continue his public debates. The trial was held before a popular court of some 500 citizens in 399 BC mostly drawn from the less educated class.

In one of the most thrilling defences of free thought, Socrates immortalised himself when he told the court: “I shall never cease from the teaching of philosophy. Whatever you do, know that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times.”

Earlier in 440 BC Anaxagoras had published his treatise “On Nature”, which caused uproar. He had called the sun, still a god to the people, a mass of stone on fire. The Athenian assembly called for his head. Yet there were hidden motives underneath the manifest ones. Anaxagoras had been a friend of Pericles. Like Museveni, Pericles had dominated Athenian politics for decades as Strategos Autokrator or commander in chief – an elected position. But when no other way could be found to weaken him, his demagogic rival, Cleon the Tanner, brought a formal indictment against Anaxagoras. He pursued the case so relentlessly that the philosopher, in spite of Pericles’ defence of him, was forced into exile.

Pratogoras, another philosopher suffered a similar fate. He had argued that “man is the measure of all things”. At the home of the dramatist, Euripides, he said that “With regard to the gods, I know not whether they exist or not.” The Athenian Assembly ordered him to leave Athens. They commandeered all his books and burned them in the marketplace.

The history of democratic Athens has always made me sceptical of majorities. In a country heavily polarised on almost every issue political and a government moving from one corruption scandal to another almost daily, Bahati’s move was a masterstroke of political genius. It makes it possible to build a new social consensus that can eclipse political differences.  The Kill-all-gays Bill is an attempt to identify a minority to be used as a punching bag to divert public attention from real issues to imaginary problems.

It is a trick one can observe in the Republican Party politics in America, a party I support because of its pro-free market stance. Lacking a shared policy platform on matters economic with America’s poor whites, Republicans, whose policy prescriptions tend to favour the rich, often pitch their electoral politics on social issues. Thus their campaigns are dominated by a defence of “American Values” – a subtle call for homophobia, anti-abortion, anti-Islam and a not so disguised racism against ethnic minorities like blacks and Hispanics. These sentiments make America’s white underclass often vote against their own economic interests.

The liberal idea was born to resist two tendencies – the tyranny of custom (located in existing social values and customs) and the despotism of the state (located in politics). In his famous essay “On Liberty” John Stuart Mill argued that the biggest threat to individual liberty is not the state. Rather, Mill opined, it is a society that is willing to use the weight of numbers to suppress and regiment minorities. Thus, the first principle of a modern liberal democratic state is the defence of minority rights.

The current attempt to pass a law to hang homosexuals goes against both the spirit and letter of a free, liberal democratic system. John Locke talked of “self-regarding acts” (actions that affect only those who indulge in them) and “other regarding acts” (acts which impact on others). If William, 30, and Derrick, 32, decided to sexually stimulate and satisfy themselves in the privacy of their bedroom, how does that harm society? However, if James stole Steven’s shirt, it harms Steven.

Rights belong to individuals, not groups. The right to liberty, to freedom, to life, to property or to sexual choice, protects individuals. Rights come under threat when others construct communal rights – like the claim by Bahati and his allies to be defending some group rights called “the traditional family” or “cultural values.” It is call for others to abandon what pleases them in the name of the majority.

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