On Ends, Means, and Unintended Consequences

ends-means-and-unintended-consequences1

Watching Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and the subsequent capitulation of even the most hardcore conservatives has been an amusing, if depressing, experience. As someone who sat through Obama’s presidency and heard numerous “sensible” justifications for their opposition to everything he did, ranging from classics like small government and fiscal conservatism to mind-bogglers like religious freedom, it’s been very interesting to watch how Trump openly flouted many of these pillars of modern conservative philosophy and didn’t just manage to win the nomination but also got more people to turn out for him than his last two predecessors.

The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that these supposed Republican ideals are nothing more than window dressing, pretty paint over a broken house that hides the fact that the modern party is an unholy marriage of completely disparate philosophies, united only in their desire to stop progress on a meaningful scale for a lot of people.

Now I’m not saying that the people that make up the party are cruel, immoral and evil, possessing no regard for the plight of their fellow man. No. Some of them, I assume, are good people. I’m not even saying that there is something wrong with those that subscribe to all the vaunted ideals of modern Republicanism, though I’m very interested in picking their brains. Mine is a critique of the people that manage the party, the Leadership as they are called, and how their blind quest to undermine the previous president, coupled with what one might assume is a genuine belief in conservative principles, led to the terrible state of affairs we have today.

Nothing I think illustrates my point better the debate over Obamacare. There have been a lot of issues I personally believe the Republican Party has chosen the morally wrong (and sometimes factually incorrect) position on, but Obamacare holds a special place in my heart. This is probably because the debate began shortly after I arrived in the U.S., wide-eyed and politically ignorant, and watching it play out played a huge part in shaping my opinions of both parties.

Imagine for a moment that you are a dyed-in-the-wool fiscal conservative: small government, unfettered capitalism, freedom, rah-rah-rah. You don’t really believe in all this religious conservatism nonsense, but in order to advance your agenda you’ve had to make your bed with the homophobes and anti-abortionists. This is fine because if your dreams do come true, if capitalism is given the adequate rein that you want it to be given, then the gay people won’t even need the tax benefits that marriage brings, and those that want abortions would be able to afford them regardless of all the stupid restrictions your party has placed upon them.

Now a dark man with large ears comes in and wants to implement health care for the masses. This goes against everything you’ve ever believed in. It’s an expansion of government. It curtails the powers of the free market, both the producers (insurance companies) and their consumers (the populace at large). It forces people to purchase a(n expensive) product and fines them if they choose not to. This is the very epitome of everything you stand against. So you decide to go to war.

There are a bunch of strategies you can employ. The uber-religious will obviously be against it, because forcing them to provide insurance would inevitably force them to provide coverage for things they hate, like contraceptives and abortion, so you enlist them. The true small-government folk like you will hate the law by default, so you won’t need to do much convincing to get them on your side. But the rest of the country, especially those that are old or sick or know people who are old and sick, will clearly be ecstatic at the chance to reduce their insurance costs, so you have to get them on your side somehow.

This is where the political games come in. A good chunk of them are overtly racist, so the fact that Big-Ears is black automatically gets them on your side. A good chunk of them believe in the “concept” of freedom (I say concept because they are perfectly willing to sign it away when the brown people attack their monuments, or the black people criticise their policemen), so all you need to do is emphasise that this will take away their freedoms and you have them. A good chunk of the more low-key racist people have been screaming “State Rights” ever since their ancestors lost the Civil War, and then lost the segregation war, and then the affirmative action war…, and so all you need to do is tell them that the federal government is doing this and BOOM they’re against it too. Note that apart from the religious companies (not people, though in America they like to think they’re the same thing) and the true small government nuts (who incidentally are usually privileged and rich) everyone else in these chunks stands to gain immensely from nationalised, subsidised healthcare. But it doesn’t matter because you’re able to leverage all these prejudices to get them on your side. If you have a heart you can use the justifications I  mentioned before to soothe your soul and help you sleep at night. You probably already do that anyways.

Against all odds Big-Ears gets his law passed. But he won’t be president forever. So day after day, month after month you whip your people into an angry frenzy, demonising everything you possibly can about the law. Some people’s premiums go up? The law is bad. Insurance companies pull out? The law is bad. Some people are forced to change their doctors? The law is bad. Never mind that these are all different issues. Premiums were going up before the law, and went up at a slower rate after the law. Bad. Insurance companies pulled out because not enough (healthy) people signed up, a side effect of an admittedly less than stellar roll-out. Bad. People lost their doctors because of the insanely byzantine network system of insurance companies and hospitals that existed before the law, which the law didn’t really try to change. Doesn’t matter. Bad.

Note that none of these things is the fault of the law per se, and all can be fixed without repealing the law. Also note that millions of Americans got affordable health insurance for the first time and this is an objectively good thing. None of these things matter. When absolute destruction is the goal any tool will do. The law is bad. It must go.

Everything seemed set. Your people hated the law, they were begging you to get rid of it, and Big-Ears was about to leave office in a few months. But then an extremely tanned golden haired narcissist rode in and ruined all of it. You see he realised what you have been too scared to admit this whole time: that your allies aren’t really yours. Because you spent your career demonising everything your opponent did, with no regard for what you were demonising or why, you attracted a lot of people that didn’t really care about true conservative issues. The racists already hate non-white people. The religious already hate gay people and Muslims. These people don’t really care about free markets. They don’t care about real freedom. They just stuck with you because you used those things to get them to vote for you. It wasn’t even that difficult, to be honest. The people they hate – the gays and the Muslims and brown people – already liked Big-Ears so getting them to automatically hate him too didn’t require particularly strong arguments.

But these people also like having health insurance. They like having well-paying jobs. They like having benefits and extra money to spend after paying off their expenses. They don’t care that these things come from larger government. They only stood against big government because that was the guy helping the blacks and the gays and the browns. And so they listened to Tan-Man when he promised them all these things and hated on the blacks and the gays and the browns. The fact that he said openly racist things didn’t put them off; it energised them. Finally here was a man that was not afraid to couch things in politically incorrect messaging. He said what they were thinking like they were thinking it. He said it like it is.

To your dismay Tan-Man hijacked your party and won. And now the people want everything he has promised, starting with better health care. Suddenly you can’t just do what you’ve been planning all along: repeal the law and restore the free market to it’s rightful place at the top of the insurance mountain. Your people expect a replacement that is better in EVERY way. That’s why it’s been 2 months and you still haven’t repealed the law even though you symbolically did so more than 50 times in the past 4 years.

Even more worrisome, Tan-Man is also overstepping his bounds. His first month has been an administrative and political mess. His most famous executive order has been stopped dead in its tracks. He spends more time watching cable news and golfing than governing. He openly lies about easily verifiable facts. He insults the press and castigates the people that march against him. These things are all abhorrent to you. After all you just like the free market; you’re not a racist nationalist anti-free-press monster. But you can’t stand against Tan-Man. All the people that voted for him also voted for you. And they love him. If you’re not with him you’re against him, and that means you’re the enemy. All that clout you’ve built up across decades means nothing if you can’t get re-elected. That utopic free market you seek? Impossible if you’re not there to shepherd it into the limelight.

So you have to keep silent. You have to watch as his conflicts of interests multiply, as his travel expenses for a single month match those of his predecessor for a whole year, as rumours about the involvement of a rival nation-state in your government grow. You have to wait, at least until the very people that love him start to turn against him. Hopefully that can happen before you need to run for re-election. That way you can make a big show about bringing him down and your people can remain with you. And if that never happens, well this is your life now. You decided to ride the beast and now you have to go wherever it leads. After all, how were you supposed to know that exploiting nothing but the fears and prejudices of the people would lead to this sort of mess?

 

N.B: John Oliver and Vox both have excellent videos that go deeper into Obamacare and the opinions of many Trump voters concerning the law. They’re worth watching.

Image Credit: Cagle.com

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

On the “Is” in -Isms

is-in-isms1

As has become custom since I left the motherland 8 years ago, I visited home last year. Naturally my visit inspired multiple unsolicited utterances from my kinsmen. Some were expected, like complaints about my hair and questions about my familiarity (or lack thereof) with the customs of my homeland. Others were new, like the handwringing over my PhD and the concerns that it was needlessly postponing my destiny. Nigerian families, like most others, have this insatiable need to comment on every facet of your life, leading to a world where one has to guard personal details with a tradecraft that would impress an NSA agent. Uncles and aunts would wink as they tried to guess whatever new proclivities you were keeping from them, and fathers and mothers would look on with what they believed was nonchalance as they tried to deduce as much as possible from your shrugs, smiles and protests.

I was made painfully aware of my passing age, both by the shocking maturity of all the little cousins I still remembered as toddlers, and by the incessant questions on whether or not I was seeing someone and when I would be bringing them home for inspection.

This marriage issue, more than any other, consumed most of our discussion time this holiday. This is hardly surprising; my siblings and I are finally getting “old” and my parents, like all red-blooded Nigerians with children at similar ages, were suddenly very interested in the prospects of wedding plans and little grandchildren to spoil. But while I would like to go into the many and varied conversations we had on the topic of marriage (and I probably would in the near future) this post concerns something else that took up almost as much time at the dinner table.

It would be too reductive, or perhaps too vague, to claim that it was the obvious tribalism. Tribalism (and corruption, and cronyism, and nepotism, but mostly tribalism) has been the spectre that has hung over Nigeria’s head since she gained independence 57 years ago. I’ve written about it multiple times, and it’s impossible to visit Nigeria and have a conversation of sufficient length that doesn’t end up touching on the issue. But in the years since my last visit our conversations on tribalism (mostly one-sided admonitions from my parents with light interjections from myself) have transformed into conversations about a variety of “-isms”. It’s unclear whether this is because I’m getting older and so my parents are more comfortable expressing more “mature” ideas to me, or whether it’s because they have become more social-media savvy and so are now armed with more information that confirms their fears and buttresses their prejudices on the dangerous “other”. Regardless this holiday, more than ever before, the culture wars were in full effect in my household. I, of course, did my best to represent the liberal, progressive perspective I’d like to think has always been within me (Western indoctrination be damned), while my parents resolutely stood guard over the traditionalist values they felt were being eroded both at home and across the world.

We covered a lot of topics: racism; sexism; the rise of Islamic terrorism; what this meant for Islam itself as a religion; and of course the multifaceted realm of Nigerian tribalism.

I don’t consider the positions taken and the things said in justification of these positions to be of particular relevance. We mostly covered pre-existing talking points and I’d like to think that we all said very predictable things considering the sides we were on. What was really striking to me, however, was the way the things were said. Notably, when discussing the corruption that was endemic to almost every institution in Nigeria my father commented that there was “something wrong with the black man”.

I was taken aback by this. This was a blatantly racist statement, and while I’d never thought that there was something special about Nigerians that made them more likely to rise above the base instincts that inspire racism, I did think we were all well past that kind of unabashed bigotry. With incredulity I asked my father “What, you think white people are better?” And his unequivocal answer was “Yes.”

This is something you wouldn’t hear from any self-respecting person in the United States (though with the election of Trump that might actually change). Like I said that kind of blatant, obvious racism is long dead here. Racism now is much more subtle than an explicit statement on the inherent superiority of one race over another. And this sentiment is not something that I can blame solely on the older generation, a vestige of a bygone era. Sometime last year while arguing with a friend still in Nigeria he expressed a similar point of view, opining that Americans and Europeans were clearly better than Africans.

These kinds of opinions were also not limited to race. On many occasions while criticising our (northern) president my father often said some less than stellar things about the northerners, intimating that there was something wrong them as a people and this was why Nigeria had failed to make much progress in decades past. Similar views were expressed on the very nature of Islam as being the reason for the rise of terrorism. Even the much lauded “white man” was not spared. He clearly has issues of his own, evinced of course by the progressive strides made in the past few years in Western countries (rights for homosexuals being a prime example); horrific cultural deficiencies like their children’s lack of respect for elders; and more seriously the ease with which crazy people seem able to buy guns and shoot up public places.

Fortunately my horror subsided when extended conversation revealed a most interesting fact: Nigerians (or my parents at the very least) view these words in a completely different context than Americans. There is a certain presence to their words, an emphasis on the “is” in “There is something wrong with the black man.” For them it was less a statement about the inherent nature of those with higher melanin content and more statement about the current state of things vis-à-vis the Dark Continent. After all evidence suggests that there has to be something wrong with Africans; we have the same democratic institutions, the same access to technology, and in some cases (see Nigeria) much more coveted natural resources than our lighter-skinned counterparts. And yet the U.S, the U.K., France, Germany, all these countries are richer, more stable, report lower levels of corruption and display much higher levels of technological advancement. There has to be something wrong with Islam; it’s just a few centuries younger than Christianity, and yet while barely any Christians are blowing up public places in the name of Jesus and God their Muslim brothers seem incapable of not doing the same every other week.

Most progressives this side of the Atlantic would see very little difference between these present-tense isms and the more eternal kind they’re used to. The effects after all appear the same: rejection of the other, a sense of superiority, denial of rights and privileges to the “inferior” people, etc. Talking with my parents however, led to me to think that there is in fact a difference, a difference that changes things immensely when it comes to disabusing them of whatever prejudices they have formed.

With racism this is all too easy; there is a limit to the extent a self-respecting African, proud of his culture and his heritage, would believe in the superiority of another race. He has to believe that the issue with the black man is ephemeral, temporary, a brief hurdle that his race and culture are capable of rising above if they only put their minds to it. The apparently self-derogatory statements are simply a manifestation of a deep, deep frustration, the kind that comes from watching your country go from one of the most promising in the world to one whose every step is held back by angry bickering over perceived slights and hurt egos.

With ethnic tribalism it gets a little harder. Tribe and culture are very personal things, and when faced with issues the easiest scapegoat is often those around you with different habits and origins. Still, the fact that in a city like Abuja it is not just possible but basically inevitable that one would meet and forge relationships with people from all corners of the country means that all it takes is a few examples to rejigger the fond memories people have of interacting with members of other tribes, and soon their hard-line rhetoric begins to fall apart. This harkens to a bigger point about personal relationships being the salve that soothes ethnic and ideological tensions of all kinds. It’s much easier to demonise an other that you have very little personal experience with. Actually interacting with them (the good ones at any rate) goes a long way in changing opinions on the inherent failings of people as a group.

The present-tense bag of isms sees its most difficult foe with religion however. Religion is not culture. It is a statement on the very essence of the universe. It informs what you believe about the nature of life and morality, and the greater its influence on you the more likely you are to believe that those that don’t subscribe to it are wrong, utterly and completely. If these wrong people also happen to deny the divinity of your saviour, and some of their brethren take it upon themselves to murder, pillage, and terrorise innocents the world over, all in the name of their God, you’re going to have a hard time looking at them with an open mind. This was the one issue where talk after talk barely moved my parents. Religion is too close to their identities, dictates too much of how they live their lives for them to not take the glorious suicidal cries of the terrorists as statements on how their religion commanded them to live theirs.

Of course there are reasons for this difference in attitudes between countries. Nigerians never had institutionalised/legalised tribalism, nor did we have a centuries-long campaign to dehumanise and denigrate a whole segment of our population. Our nation is younger, our wounds shallower, and there is no clear dominant tribe capable of imposing its will and dogma on all the others. Had any of these been different, I have no doubt that our perspectives would hew much more closely to those of our American counterparts.

Still one has to be grateful for small blessings wherever they’re encountered. Arguing against someone willing to admit that time can have an effect on the beliefs and attitudes of people is much easier than arguing with a fundamentalist. And the thought that the bigger isms affecting Nigeria today are things that even some of the olds believe are not set in stone gives one hope for the future. Now if we could just get this corruption thing squared off things may actually start looking up for the Giant of Africa.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

On the Power of Assimilation

cinnabon

That thumbnail up there (click here for sound) is from a music video that YouTube was kind enough to serve to me as an ad before I watched another music video. (There’s an Inception joke in there somewhere…)

I was initially going to skip it, but a number of things stayed my hand. One was the fact that it sounded like she said “onye ara” at the start of the song, which in the tongue of my fathers’ means “mad man”. Of course she didn’t really say that – I have no idea what she actually said – but the thought of a white girl speaking Igbo was enough to keep me listening past the skip ad point. I was also struck by the stark contrast between her colourful pink and the bleak winter wasteland behind her, an effect I’m sure the videographer wholly intended.

Once I’d settled into actually listening to the song I decided to look up the artist. I’d never heard of her before, but her video had 30 million views on YouTube. Apparently she’s an Albanian musician. Instead of tongue-biting Albanian in the YouTube comments section though I found plain old English, indicating that she had found success in the wider, more mainstream American/English speaking markets. This woman, weaving a few English words into a song that was almost entirely Albanian, was appealing to Americans in the millions. It got me thinking: Why aren’t African, specifically Nigerian, artists making it big globally?

Don’t get me wrong, Nigerian music is currently the pride of Africa. Each year brings a crop of new artists and (relatively) new sounds that sweep the charts and fuel afro-parties for months on end. And yet even the most popular Nigerian videos/songs do not have half the views that this lady does.

On the surface there are a few reasons for this. One is that her music makes good use of the dubsteppy and synthy sounds that are currently dominating American pop.  (I’m sure these things have proper names like Weekend House or Trippy Dusk or some other shit, but I’m not a music nerd. Sue me.)  Another is that she is undeniably pretty and her video, while simple, looks excellent. I think however that the clincher here is that our artist is white, and more specifically European.

Think about it. The language barrier clearly isn’t one, or the song would have remained king of the roost in Kosovo and Kosovo alone. The sweet, lilting nature with which she sings her words, while appealing, certainly cannot be the sole reason she shot up in the charts, or even the main one; I’m pretty sure her Albanian doesn’t sound better than other hot Albanian girls’ Albanian.

Foreign artists breaking into the American mainstream, especially those that do not speak English, are a rare occurrence, at least from my lowly, non-hipster music listening vantage. They are almost always either European, Caucasian (a group in which many Middle Easterner’s would find themselves, believe it or not), or just plain lucky (see Psy and Gangnam Style). So why do Europeans find easy footing in lands Africans have failed to tread? I think it has something to do cultural synergy and assimilation.

Europe and North America have a very different relationship from that of Africa and North America. The people brought here from Europe came with a distinctly different purpose than those brought from Africa, and while there have been many arbitrary barriers to entry to the ruling race/culture across the centuries, the destruction of these barriers has still managed to somehow adhere to one single rule: How light is your skin? Once upon a time Italians weren’t “White”. Neither were Greeks, or even the bloody Irish. But today saying that an Irishman is not white would net you the same looks as saying that the earth is flat.

This gradual assimilation also leads to increased appreciation and romanticisation of the original cultures. power of assimilation2English medieval culture has long held an esteemed position in American eyes for obvious reasons, but the increased influx of non-classical Anglo Saxons has also lead to people not considering our dear Era as completely foreign. She may speak a different tongue but she looks like the mainstream, sounds like the mainstream, and employs the same tools in her art that the mainstream does, ergo acceptance.

 

One might be quick to point out the popularity of Caribbean music as an obvious counterpoint to the one I’ve made, but there are clear differences. First is that Caribbean music gained acceptance among black people in North America before being exported to the lighter-skinned mainstream as exotic. More important, however, are the reasons behind this acceptance and “exotification”.

Black people in the Caribbean have experienced the same hardship, struggle and denigration as those in the Americas, with none of the Slaves working on a plantationsuccess-by-proxy that their neighbours have been able to claw back over the years. That camaraderie is hard to duplicate; colonialism, while often tough on those colonised, is markedly different from slavery.

But not only is this kindred spirit of hardship difficult to duplicate, Africans have historically been unwilling to even acknowledge it. African immigrants in the U.S. do not want to be seen as “Black”. The stereotypes of blackness exported all over the world have led to a reluctance to associate with African-Americans, a disdain even. Black people in the U.S. are seen from outside as the gangsters, the dark underbelly of American society, responsible at best for it’s beautiful counterculture (a la rap music and R&B) and at worst for all of the country’s waywardness and crime. Immigrants don’t want to be connected with this; they want to take the shortest path to cultural dominance, and if that means stepping on the toes of their distant cousins, so be it.

Exacerbating this divide is the fact that African-Americans do not feel the same connection to their homeland as their lighter-skinned co-citizens. Where European culture has been carefully preserved and romanticised for the generations leaving the Old World, African culture had to be beaten out of those brought here initially in order to properly subjugate and  subdue them. The effect? Hearing Phyno (a man that actually includes a lot of Afro-American hip hop influences in his music) rap in Igbo does nothing for the larger African-American crowd stateside. Their heartstrings are not tugged; their minds do not imagine lush African kingdoms from times past, because there are no such images in their cultural history for them to draw on. Unable to identify with the culture fueling African music and experiencing hostility from some of the very bearers of such culture, how are they supposed to feel like they can take this music and somehow  make it their own?

And all this is before we even touch on the stereotypes behind the exotification of Caribbean music… The success of music and culture coming from the islands has not been without it’s own set of problems.

Unfortunately I don’t foresee any quick change to the status quo. Black culture is still seen as distinct from the larger, “normal” American culture, and even more distinct from that of its African cousins. Even if assimilation were to happen in my lifetime I still think we’re quite a ways from a merger of African and Afro-American culture on the scale that makes things like Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey raging successes in North America.

Anyways, I’m off to buy a cinnabon. I have a sudden, inexplicable craving.

 
 
N.B. It turns out that in the days between draft and publication the video was taken down and replaced with another, which has fewer views (but is rising fast). Trust me though, the first one had 30 million. For real.

Image Credit: Era Istrefi: Bonbon

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Poison

poison

The room smelled. It wasn’t a particularly bad smell; it wasn’t a particularly good smell. It was just a smell. It was different perfumes, different aromas, different liquors. It was different bodies, different soaps, different sweats. It was different people. Inhaling the air felt like inhaling a Friday night. Not the freshness of the open road or the staleness of a stuffy club. Just a simple, blended Friday.

There were no people in the room, none but a lone silhouette. Centre desk, surrounded by hanging lights of diverse colours and shelves stacked with shadowy shapes. Red, green, a pale blue and a blinding white, the lights both illuminated and eclipsed the singular figure, forcing an approach if one was to discern who, or what, it was.

The desk seemed to grow on advance, becoming more magnificent, more defined, an impressive wooden edifice that glistened ever so softly whenever the red lights happened upon it. The shelves appeared to grow as well, their contents becoming slightly more perceptible in the glare of the psychedelic lights. Metal, glass, rubber and wood, all were neatly arranged, as though trying to make a statement of order in the sea of chaotic visuals.

The centre man was gaunt. He sat, resigned and slouched in his chair, one hand on an invisible armrest, the other on the shiny table. His thin, long fingers tapped inaudibly on his desk, his bright eyes at odds with the subdued smile on his face. This close to him there were sounds now, faint yet very clear. A giggle here, a grunt there… the soft mumbles of conversation and dialogue, the soothing harmonics of chords and choruses. A nice little rhythm supported the cacophony, and it became clear that his fingers moved in step with this beat, his bright eyes seeming to dim and shine with flow of the music.

Things seemed happier this close to the centre man. The muted conversation was more upbeat. The giggles were like spring, the music like bliss. The lights seemed brighter, and even his once calm smile seemed wider, more inviting. With each tap of his fingers the music seemed to swell and fill the room, till it and the lights were like the entirety of existence, the stability of his position the only thing keeping the whole place from spinning away in a sea of sights and sounds.

Coins fell to the table and his eyes followed, his head nodding almost imperceptibly as he assessed their amount. His fingers still moving to the beat, his other hand reached behind him and snatched three items off the shelf. They landed gently on the table, and for the first time that night their shapes were fully recognisable.

Before him stood a bottle, tall, thin and statuesque; a powder, coarse, dark and unrefined; and a pipe, clear, clean and pristine. His fingers left the table and he spread both hands in a flourish, his music peaking in an addictive assault on the senses.

CHOOSE YOUR POISON,” he said softly.

“LIVER, OR LUNGS.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

On the Fallacy of Opinion

fallacy of opinion

Opinions. We all have them. In fact having an opinion is one of the things that allows us to understand the world around us. Our opinions are shaped by our experiences, upbringing, families, and a host of other things. Our opinions shape and are shaped by who we are. As with almost all things that human beings have and do, there is nothing inherently wrong with having an opinion. The problem arises when we start to believe our opinions are The Truth™.

See opinions are a lot like assholes. Just like opinions, barring any severe medical disabilities, we all have assholes. Our assholes are shaped by our dietary experiences, culinary habits, etc. Our assholes are all unique, ever so slightly tweaked to our persons regardless of whatever genes or dietary habits we share with the people around us.

But, you may say, assholes are dark smelly things we keep hidden away from even the closest people to us because they stink. And to that I would say: the same goes for opinions. Like assholes our opinions are terrible, stinky pieces of thought. No one tends to think this about their opinions; we all think that our opinions have been clearly and logically formed, that we put thought and reason and effort into our utterances, far more than those other people that disagree with us. But this simply isn’t true. The human mind, that wonderful mass of neurons responsible for everything we do, falls prey to such a vast amount of cognitive biases it is a wonder we are able to even figure anything out. Our minds are weak and easily influenced, and yet most of us seem to believe that the opinions they produce are somehow incontrovertible truth, handed down from the fount of knowledge itself.

Sometimes though, opinions are the best we can do. Sometimes we have no choice but to make proclamations based on experience and intuition because there is no other way to discern what is true. But sometimes, and with increasing frequency, this is not the case. Sometimes a group of people spend their lives trying to discern the truth about something and get closer than most of us can hope to imagine. These people go by many names; I like to call them scientists.

You see scientists have the cleanest assholes in the world. When they write papers, go to conferences, and submit their works for peer review, they are basically showing each other their asses. And this isn’t some hippy kumbayah circle where all assholes are accepted and there is no shame or judgement. No; this is a brutal gathering where even the smallest speck of shit could lead to cold shoulders at the very least and complete dismissal and evisceration at the worst. The bolder you are about dropping them drawers and showing your tush, the more heavily it’s going to be scrutinised, and the more likely it is that some other guy out there is going to want to prove that he has a much cleaner asshole than you, or that your asshole is just as dirty as everyone else’s in the room.

All this is to say that when all these guys get together and agree about the cleanliness of some guy or group of guys’ asshole(s), then you can be almost certain that that asshole is in fact clean. At the very least it is cleaner than anything you could come up with without putting an equal amount of time in the toilet, slaving away at your tush.

This doesn’t happen though. We have people who seem to think their half-baked opinions are just as valid, just as true, as those of the men and women that dedicate their lives to discovering the facts in their field. They believe their words should be given equal importance with the scientists’. They think because they don’t like what the experts have said, it ceases to be true.

Now sometimes, the experts don’t agree. And no I’m not talking about that one astrophysicist that happens to think he’s found holes in the theory of evolution because he read a few papers and he’s a Smart Scientist™ too. No, that guy has a very dirty evolutionary asshole. I’m talking about the different battling schools of thought in economics for example, where various objectives and influences have led to a situation where even the experts can’t reach consensus. At times like this, your asshole may be just as clean as some other guy’s asshole. May. But you still need to spend some time in the toilet of economics cleaning that thing up before you start walking around waving it in people’s faces. You cannot simply assume that disagreement among the experts gives you carte blanche to say whatever you want.

Now some may say that I am guilty of another fallacy: the appeal to authority. They’ll say I’m giving a group of people undue deference just because they happen to bear the title of scientist.  This is certainly a valid point. But compared to someone who is simply mouthing off half-formed opinions, it is entirely reasonable to listen to those with experience, especially when dealing with complex topics that most people simply would not grasp after an afternoon reading. “I am the king, therefore anything I say is true” is clearly silly. There’s nothing about being a king that makes one suddenly omniscient. “I’ve spent 20 years studying and modelling the climate, therefore you should probably pay attention when I (and 97% of my peers) say that the earth is warming” has a decidedly different ring to it.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know what the experts are saying. Sometimes a non-scientific publication would tell you that “scientists say apples cause cancer”. And then that one guy with politics or religion different from you, whose asshole you know just reeks, begins to champion that article like it’s the gospel and so you know you just have to not agree with whatever he says. First of all, you should be sceptical of any non-scientific publication making proclamations on scientific fact. Secondly, you should always look for references to actual scientific pieces. This fellow from the Tube of You has some pretty good tips on reading science news. Lack of references and no clear statement from actual scientists in the field in question (I cannot stress this bit enough) means you should probably go ahead and turn your nose up at your friend’s asshole. It stinks.

If all of this sounds a bit too difficult, too tedious for someone that just wants to say his mind and have people listen to him, well that’s because it’s supposed to be. The world is insanely complex. Believing or espousing the wrong “facts” very often has real consequences for other people. If you want your opinions to be taken seriously, either get in the field and do some real work, or put in the time to actually understand what the experts are saying. If that’s too hard then you don’t deserve to be heard. Not every asshole deserves an audience.

 

 Image Credit: 1000funnypictures.com

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

On Parleys and Presidents

parleys and presidents

I arrived in the U.S. shortly before Obama was elected president, and the past 7 years of observing American politics have been a most fun, if troubling, experience. The fun has been thanks mainly to the wit and humour of pundits like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, two wonderful “journalists” that have helped skew my political views decidedly liberal. The troubling bit however is how through it all – the fights over Obamacare, the mouth-foaming over Benghazi, the healthcare compromises on contraception, and every other political cause du jour – the one thing that stood out is how little actually got done. In the years of Obama’s presidency more time has been spent on posturing and pontificating than on actually doing stuff. If we upped the temperatures, made the corruption a little more visible and darkened the skins a tad, his government would be barely distinguishable from ours.

This of course is because of the foundational principle of American government, the famed separation-of-powers that keeps the executive and legislature as far from each other as possible. As with all systems its flaws aren’t actually apparent until shit stops working, and looking at the historic levels of gridlock hampering this country’s political apparatus it’s hard to make the argument that the system is a good one.

The opposite to this system of presidents and their separate powers is the parliamentary system, where the powers are a bit more fused. Instead of holding separate elections for the head of government and the actual government itself, the populace knows that whenever they’re electing their lawmakers they are implicitly choosing their next leader. This places a lot more responsibility on the electorate, and because lawmakers are elected on a scale much closer to the people than the president is, their votes count a whole lot more than had they just been voting for an executive or a lowly lawmaker.

Of course there is no guarantee that any one party shall emerge victorious in elections that by nature can get very fragmented, but guess what? Parliamentary systems usually also feature coalitions, where parties form alliances so that a government can be made and can pass and execute laws. It’s almost like the system is structured to make sure that the government, you know, does stuff. And because the head of government’s position is dependent on controlling the legislature, the moment his coalition fails the government is dissolved and elections are held again, forcing the electorate to really think hard about what they want in and from their leaders.

With all this in mind one starts to wonder what kind of idiots would choose the presidential system. Who would want these two bodies, the lawmakers and the law executors, to be completely separated, leading to inevitable and drawn-out gridlock when executive and legislature clash? The answer is people that are afraid of concentrated power within their borders.

Take this great Land of Freedom for example, one of the oldest running democracies in the world. At the time of their independence the early colonialists had already tasted the sweet nectar of democratically elected representatives, and considering the political and ethnic tumult that Europe was so famous for back in day (much like Africa in the past 60 years, but that’s another story entirely) it’s not surprising that anyone wanting to create a new government at the time would have liked to keep everybody as restrained as possible. Hell, back then the American government was so disparate the title “President” came about due to the fact that the holder “presided” over the meetings of the state representatives. There wasn’t even supposed to be an executive!

Even today a lot of the countries that have presidential systems (which incidentally is most of them) have seen them emerge as a result of civil war, where some general or dictator has ruled and the people want to limit his power, or as a result of a populace so divided that any one faction gaining control would spell doom for the entire country. The motherland was initially parliamentary, but after the first coup and the merging of head of state and head of government we all just kinda got used to having an executive that was completely separate from the legislature. Also it was quite clear that one of the sparks that ignited the civil war was the fact that the political parties had been very ethnocentric; at the time of Kaduna’s coup the North effectively ran the country because they had won a plurality of seats in parliament.

The ironic thing, however, about presidential systems created to ensure separation of powers is that the executive inevitably grows too powerful, and if the people are dissatisfied with their performance it becomes all but impossible to oust them until the next voting round, at which time terrible damage may have already been done to the country (see our boy Goodluck as a recent example of this). Here in the U.S. both Obama and Bush have been called “dictators” – a hilarious use of the word to any that have seen the real deal in Africa and South America – because of things they did that were contrary to the “will of the people”. In a parliamentary system it would have been easy to oust them because they would have been unable to control the true advocates of the people’s will: their representatives. Instead of calling these so-called dictators to order however, the people have had to wait for the midterms to air their grievances, and even then all they can do is stop things from happening instead of getting the things they want done.

Also it’s been clear from the past 4 elections (2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014) that liberals in America are more likely to vote in national elections than in local ones, probably because they feel that the president is more important than their representatives. Perhaps if they lived in a world where a vote for their representative was also a vote for the president that would change; the gross ineptitude of their current government was obviously not enough to get them to the polls last year.

Of course most Americans I have spoken to believe that the system is functioning as intended. It is better if nothing gets passed in a divided country; it means no one’s will is being forced on anyone else. This of course is a hilarious position to take; coalitions force people to actually work together, to tone down their rhetoric so that shit can get done. As it stands we (as in the royal we; I can’t exactly change things, being an immigrant and all) are probably going to get nothing but a lot of talking until 2016, and even then who knows?

Then again the last time this country was this polarised a war shortly followed, and the motherland didn’t last 6 years parleying before we began murdering each other too. Maybe presidents and gridlock are the way to go after all.

 

N.B. I am neither political scientist nor student of history; I simply enjoy reading. Check everything you’ve read here with your local professional.

Image credit: Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of The Black Pearl

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

On Tribalism and Missed Opportunities

triablism and missed opportunities1

I’ve been brushing up on my Nigerian history over the past few weeks, and from simply reading the great font of knowledge that is Wikipedia (and hunting down the astoundingly few references in many of its articles concerning the motherland) two things have become glaringly apparent. The first is that they teach very little of actual Nigerian history in our schools. I’m not sure whether my relative ignorance stems from the nature of my education (science-based in secondary school) or the kind of schools I went to while at home (private and Catholic), but the only things that remotely rang bells when poring over online documents on our history were the names of the presidents and the dates of amalgamation, independence, and the civil war. Everything else was like reading the history of some strange land that had nothing but name in common with my home.

The second thing that’s stuck out to me is just how deeply tribalism has set Nigeria back. I know I’ve already written about the shallow nature of Nigerian tolerance for things that are different. The fact that the nation has always been divided along tribal lines is one that is surreptitiously imprinted in the minds of every Nigerian; we hear about it in the media, see it in the way some of our relatives discuss “the others”. Still the concept of tribalism has always been more philosophical than real to me, perhaps because of my multi-tribal parents or the fact that I grew up in a city without an indigenous tribal majority. Reading the history of our country, however, has made me realise just how real it was to those in power at the birth of our nation and how different things could have been if we’d simply refrained from assuming the worst in those we didn’t know.

At the time, much like today, the primary issue facing Nigeria was corruption. The early republic was not shaping up to be the utopic vision of freedom and prosperity that many had dreamed of and it was apparent (if not to the people at the time, to me at least) that we had simply traded exploitation by the Brits with exploitation by ourselves. The prospect of an eventual communion of the spoils of independence seemed dubious to a good chunk of the populace, especially those living in Lagos and the West, and this agitation amongst the people was what set in motion the events that led to civil war.

Call me an optimist, but I’m of the opinion that activism and open dialog between citizens and their government would have led, if slowly, to some form of reform in the country. Western nations, especially in the past 100 years, have shown the power of relatively peaceful protest. Instead of letting this happen however, some young and enterprising fellows in the army decided to murder the top rulers of the country, to clear out the rabble so to speak, in order to make way for a fresh generation of idealists.

This is where different people have different stories, depending on how old they were at the time and which side of the country they came from. What all can agree on, however, is that the people that undertook our first coup were mostly Easterners, the people that died were mostly Northerners, and the people that emerged with the keys to the kingdom were, once again, mostly Easterners.

Now in a country with a more homogenous mix of peoples none of those distinctions would have made much difference. North, East, West… who cares, right? But when one considers the fact that each region represents tribal majorities that already didn’t like each other much prior to this coup, things start to look a little grim. Throw in the fact that the Northerners had a very hierarchical society, where their leaders were often not just political but also religious, and things get grimmer still. Cap it off with the much quicker educational and economic development of the Easterners and Westerners, many of whom had already started migrating to the North and taking their land, jobs and opportunities, and it becomes immediately apparent that no matter how idealistic the army brats were in their initial goals, sense alone should have prevented them from taking action, or at the very least convinced them to recruit a lot more Northerners for their cause.

Instead of the emergence of a new corruption free government what we were left with was a bloody civil war that drove the tribes of the country further apart and still did not solve the problems of resource allocation and civil freedom that triggered it in the first place. Military president after military president has robbed the country’s coffers and murdered its citizens, justifying the presence of each successive coup with the horrible precedent set by Kaduna and his boys and Ironsi’s gross mishandling in the aftermath.

What’s especially sad is that even in the early days the relative independence of each region could have led to economic competition and perhaps an eventual adoption/sharing of policies between the tribes. The Northerners, for all the talk of their feudal and religious societal structure, actually had a plan to modernise their section of the country. Instead of this slightly better future the central nature of the military federal government, coupled with its increasing reliance on oil revenues, essentially led to a country where the people hated each other but were destined to fight year after year for their “rightful” share of the massive oil money that was pouring in daily. After all why bother going it alone when money that is yours by right is going to some other man from some other place?

triablism and missed opportunities2

Sadder still is the fact that regardless of who got what share of the so called National Cake, the actual Nigerian populace never saw it. So much money has vanished in the pockets of the ruling elite it really is anyone’s guess what the country would have looked like today with responsible and sound investment. For all the posturing and name calling in the government, tribal origins have amounted to little more than bargaining chips to secure positions for those claiming to represent their brethren. One can always count on his people to back him in Nigeria, even when an outsider is the obvious better choice. The devil you know and all that.

So, not only did tribalism cause a horrible schism in the country early in our history, it has also failed to produce any real dividends for any one part of the nation. Still, there is hope right? All indications point to great expectations from Buhari’s new government even from those in the East. And it only took Nigerians over a decade of actual democracy, albeit sweetened with the ubiquitous spice of corruption, for us to kinda start paying attention. Let’s see if this new wave of national awareness can actually last.

 

Image Credit: Newtimes.co.rw

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

On Our New and Improved Democracy

new and improved democracy

So, last week our great country undertook perhaps the most significant event in its modern history: we elected Gen. Muhammadu Buhari of the APC as our president. By “we”, of course, I mean “they”. Being on the other side of the ocean I wasn’t actually present for the elections. Our electoral commission may have made giant strides in the realm of electronic voting but it hasn’t quite got to point where expatriates like myself can participate in elections. All I could do as the day drew nearer was literally watch from a distance and philosophise with my buddies on the fate of the motherland.

Many have been hailed as the true heroes of the event. Goodluck Jonathan was lauded by many for his cool and calm response to the first incumbent loss in our country’s history. Buhari was hailed as the saviour of our nation for being able to rally the people to remove what many perceived was an ineffectual and useless government. Jega, the commission’s chairman, was extolled for the pains he took to ensure that will of the people was truly heard in this free and fair election. And some, not willing to give quarter to the corrupt politicians they believe still pull the strings in our great nation, hailed the people themselves for daring to stand up and go to the polls for what they truly believed in.

Of course one need only look at the map above to see that that last claim is a little specious. People may have hailed the election of Buhari as a clear statement of the will of the country, but that map clearly shows that the elections were just as predictable as they’d ever been. Buhari is a tried and true Northerner; his home state (Katsina) could not be any farther north without leaving the country altogether. His running mate Osibanjo hails from Lagos, perhaps the most important state in all of Western Nigeria, if not the country itself. Their campaign followed the textbook Nigerian policy of selecting opposites to balance our country’s tribal tensions: If the candidate is from the North then his mate must either be from the East or the West. If he is Christian then his mate must be Muslim. If he is male…. well we haven’t quite yet reached gender parity yet but you get the idea.

Our new democracy is our old democracy. Buhari and Osibanjo came from the North and West, and their votes (green for those not in the know) came from the North and the West. Jonathan came from the South-South, a region historically and ethnically associated with the East, and his votes came from the East. The only remarkable thing about our election was the downfall of the PDP, and even that ceases to be remarkable once one realises that a good chunk of the money in the APC came from PDP defectors. This is not the first time Buhari has run for president. This is however the first time that he has had the right people behind him (read: old PDP boys).

The glaring tribal divide in our elections is made even more so when juxtaposed with elections here in the land of Red, White and Blue. In America, and most of the western world, the tribes take a different nature. Here they’re about Left vs. Right; Conservatism vs. Liberalism; Welfare vs. Bootstraps. Even in elections as terrible as ours when it comes to actual details on future policy, one can still guess which direction a candidate will lean. The more conservative candidates would probably want to spend less government money on citizens and more on corporations. The more liberal candidate would probably want to boost programs that help poorer communities and racial minorities. The direction of the country becomes a matter of ideology and philosophy, and not necessarily a matter of ancestry and language.

Of course I know that ancestry and circumstance very often dictate ideology and philosophy (one need only look at the racial divide in both and party and policy in the USA to grasp this) but it is undeniable that the motherland is much more interested in who is putting forward a policy and where they’re from, than in what the actual policy is. In that regard not much has changed, and when the stories broke of the Oba of Lagos threatening Igbos that did not vote APC in the upcoming (perhaps ongoing) Lagos gubernatorial elections, I couldn’t act surprised. Our country hasn’t metamorphosed into a shining bastion of true democracy; we just ditched the old boss for a new one with the same playbook.

I was impressed, though, by the general peacefulness following the national elections, and in that regard Goodluck Jonathan does deserve some credit. Hopefully this is one of those times where we’ve collectively taken two steps forward and one step back. It’s not unqualified progress, but if we do it long enough and often enough we might actually find ourselves in country with a different set of more fluid tribes. And while that may not necessarily be better than what we have now, at least ideas would be the candidates in our elections, not last names and states of origin.

 

Image Credit: Nigerian Elections

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

On Tolerance without Acceptance

tolerance without acceptance

A couple of months ago I found myself back in the motherland, and for those few days my thoughts were not so distant. As with every visit I’ve made since I left her shores I did not discover any drastic differences in the state of my home. Abuja, where I’ve been living since I could make my first memories, looked largely the same. The streets were unchanged. Malams still peddled their wares right on the road; drivers still cursed if you got in their way; and everyone still seemed to think that basic courtesy at junctions with broken traffic lights was a suggestion, not a necessity. Of course with the as yet unfixed electricity issues in the city this meant that every junction was always seconds away from terrible gridlock. Couple that with the excessive heat and one could understand why the police appeared very reluctant to come out onto the streets to organise the traffic; there’s only so much a handkerchief and a cool bag of pure water can do at 33 degrees.

Of course some things had changed in the two years since my last visit. The exponential rise of Nigerian celebrity was ever apparent, with concerts being announced every second on the radio and oodles of music videos on any channel you cared to tune into. Abuja’s continued growth had led to a shit ton of expressways criss-crossing right at the edge of the city, ready to take you anywhere from Gwagwalada down to Bwari. And I must say the roads were very well done; having driven on the interstates here in the land of freedom I was impressed with the neat directions and nice exits Julius Berger had bestowed on our fine city. Of course once you got to the smaller districts the roads were transformed into the pot-hole ridden messes we have all come to know and love, but on your way there you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in another city altogether. And yes that is one of the things that hasn’t changed: Julius Berger is still the primary contractor for every single thing in Abuja.

There were also police checkpoints everywhere, from the edificed entrance of our city, to the roads right in front of Banex Plaza, where the terrorists had recently made another one of their horrible statements. While I was often pissed at the slowdowns the policemen caused, most people around me seemed used to it. Uniformed, armed men walking around questioning people was now just another part of daily Abuja life.

Meeting the family was nice. Everyone seemed to have something to say about my beard. The expected comparisons with the hirsute extremists in the north-east were made, and everyone was glad that I had not become too Americanised. I still had my accent; I could still move to the Nigerian tunes; and the thought of eating pap and akara instead of bacon and eggs did not send me into fits of rage. Of course I wasn’t shocked by any of these things but too many of my relatives had heard the horror stories of those that crossed over only to return with westernised accents, manners, and wives!

And that was among the things that had not changed since my last visit: my family’s strange rejection of western companionship. As I hugged my parents and bade them farewell my mother left me with her usual exhortation: “Don’t marry oyinbo o!“, an exhortation echoed by my father and nearly every uncle I greeted while I was there. I’m used to it now, but it still strikes me as odd that they, my parents especially, could hold such views. My father studied in the UK. My mother has brothers and sisters that have settled both in the US and the land of the Brits. They travel very frequently, both to visit me and because of their work. They interact with western culture as much as anyone from a country once colonised by the British is expected to. As with most Africans they envy the progress that has been made in the West and often lament the perpetual sad state of affairs that has plagued our continent since independence. And perhaps most strangely, they have foreign friends. My mother even has foreign family members. And yet while they laugh and smile and “tolerate” the presence of these people in their lives, they’d recoil in horror if said people reached into their homes and attached themselves to one of their children.

Of course this isn’t something peculiar to my parents, nor is it peculiar to race or nationality. This tolerance of things we do not accept can be found in the two primary sources of identity in Nigeria: religion and tribe. My parents are far more progressive than most on the tribal front, seeing as they had to fight entrenched establishments to get married across tribal lines, but I get the impression that they, my father especially, do not hold such enlightened views on religion. My father doesn’t even like people that aren’t Catholic, much less non-Christian. He would talk to them, sure, befriend them even. One of our closest family friends, whose kids we’ve known since we could talk, are Muslims. My parents recently attended their daughter’s wedding. And yet were I to come to my father today and tell him that I was thinking of picking up the Koran and worshipping on Fridays I am willing to bet he’d have a stroke. Were I to tell him I was having second thoughts on the whole religion thing altogether, he might actually burst into flames right there and then.

Of course there are always excuses. With tribes and race it’s about culture. “They just don’t understand us,” my father would say in reference to bringing home a non-Nigerian woman. With religion it’s about the fact that deep down, underneath the niceties and the willingness to help and support people of all faiths, they still believe that those that don’t worship at their church are wrong, and, depending on how divergent their views are, are probably going to suffer eternally for their wrongness. While that doesn’t mean they should be dicks to them here on earth, it also doesn’t mean they’re going to sit idly by while their children are taken away from the right path to bliss and salvation. What kind of parents would they be then?

This tolerance without acceptance is not just a Nigerian thing, though. It’s a human thing. As a kid I remember watching the priest stand at the lectern and remind us that Pope John Paul II was urging people everywhere to be more tolerant of those with different beliefs. Having grown up it seems quite clear that people may have taken his words a little too literally. We are more than willing to tolerate that others have other beliefs. We’d just rather they didn’t tell us about them, or display them to us, or ask us to join them. We can accept that they do these things, we just won’t accept the things themselves. And the more we feel like they’re starting to enter our space, the more our tolerance begins to wane and our lack of acceptance begins to show.

I suspect that tolerance without acceptance is why countries with varied demographics, especially in areas like race and religion, are more likely to have very disparate political views and even fight (and sometimes kill) over them. It’s easier to tolerate without accepting when the people you have to tolerate are far away, with a different government and different laws. It’s easier when they don’t get to pick your president. Sometimes, though, it’s not enough for them to be in a different land. For some people the land has to be across the planet entirely before you can feel comfortable about tolerating their views. And the second a few of them emigrate to your place and have enough children to have influential opinions about things, the cries to “Go back to your country” suddenly get busted out and everyone realises that “tolerance” can only get you so far.

With our upcoming elections the thin veil of tolerance without acceptance has been torn once again. The more progressive people living in the cities might end up picking their parties based on the myriad of issues facing the country and the godfathers behind the candidates. But for a good chunk of Nigerians it’s going to come down to how much like them the candidates are, whether or not they represent their people, their tribe. Because while we can all tolerate the fact that an <insert tribe here> man can run, we’ll be damned if we’re going to let his people influence our lives in any way.

Image Credit: Medi Belortaja via ToonPool

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Strong Words

strong words

FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

James groaned and stared out the window for the umpteenth time that evening, a frown creasing his forehead as he tried, futilely, to return to work. He had a major exam in the morning, and at his current level he was going to need the help of the universe itself if he was to get a passing grade. The universe, however, did not seem to care about his little test. All evening long his studies had been interrupted by a series of weird pops coming from down the street. They had no rhyme or rhythm, choosing to crash into his brain at the most inopportune times, and at this point he was starting to think they existed for the sole purpose of distracting him.

Should have stayed in school this term, he thought in exasperation. He’d hoped removing himself from the raucous surroundings of the boarding house would help his concentration, but he was finding that home was just as distracting as school, and far more restrictive.

“I hope you’re working!” came his mother’s voice from downstairs, the other thing that had been interrupting his much needed study-silence.

“Yeeeess,” he mumbled back, trying to get his mind back on the integrals scrawled across his paper. The woman was a clock unto herself; her questions came, without fail, every 15 minutes.

“James?” she shouted again. “Are you studying? You haven’t gone to sleep have you? Why aren’t you answering?”

“I’m working!” he said, silently thumping his palm on the table.

“Good. You better not be playing one of those phone games. I’ll be able to hear you if you are.”

And yet you can’t hear me answer you.

“Don’t know why I even bought that thing for you. Distraction. Nothing more.”

Does this woman realise I can’t concentrate with her talking like this?

“And you better not plug your ears with that music o. That’s why you haven’t been answering me.”

“Of course, mummy,” he said in mock obeisance. “Music doesn’t help studying.”

“Eeeexactly.” Her satisfaction oozed through the half-open door.

Silence returned and James let out his breath, his eyes falling back on his papers. The half complete solution to the integral of the cosine of some stupid exponential stared back at him, daring him to complete it before the hour was through. He rubbed his face softly, trying to recall what the professor had said about substitution methods. Something about turning the integral into an algebraic equation…

He picked his pencil and began to write, separating the expression into two. It was starting to make sense now. One of the terms was recurring and if he could just…

FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

Shit!

He blinked suddenly at the paper, his epiphany banished to the furthest recesses of his mind by the suddenness of the pop. It would take another five minutes for it to return.

Shit shit shit shit shit.

He looked at the new line he had written, trying to remember. Something about using the recurring term…

FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

“That’s it,” he said as he dropped his pencil and stood from the desk. He had to get out of the house. He grabbed his phone and plugged his ears, cursing under his breath as he stepped out of his room.

His mother was on him the moment he arrived in the parlour.

“Where are you going?”

“Outside.”

“For what?”

“I need some air.”

“Air?” His mother looked around the room from above her spectacles. “I was not aware someone had shut off the air in my house. Should I start suffocating?”

“Mum…”

“Get back upstairs and continue your studies.”

“I can’t concentrate any more. I need some air.”

“Air for what? I…”

“Mummy, if I go back up there I’m not going to be able to do anything. Just let me step out for a bit… you know, stretch my legs. I’ll be fine once I’ve cleared my head.”

There was a brief pause.

“You children today.” She harrumphed and returned to her book. “Five minutes.”

James smiled and nodded and pushed the door open. He stepped outside, hitting play on his phone and allowing the smooth, sweet voice of Asa to wash over his strained brain.

“Awe…” she crooned, and was promptly interrupted by FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

Where is that noise coming from?!

He looked around as the door closed behind him, trying to locate the source of the irritating pop. The streets were dull with silence.

Perfect. The one time I’m actually interested in the sound, it goes away. I…

FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

Left! It had definitely come from the left. He turned and began to walk down the road, thumbing down the volume of his music so that he could hear the pop when it resurfaced.

FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

Again! It was ahead of him. He picked up the pace, turning his walk into in a small jog as Asa hit the chorus and began to blare once again through his headphones. “Wahidi!” she cried before James turned her down even more. Her dirge was going to have to….

FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

It was on his right now. James crossed the street, a sense of urgency seizing him as the pop came one more time…

FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

It was louder, and…

FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

… more frequent too! He was definitely close…

FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

He saw shadows in the corner ahead, heard the mumbling of voices, a brief chuckle and then…

FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

The pop was accompanied by a flash and James found himself running. He was close, so close…

He rounded the corner just as Asa was rounding off her chorus, her smooth voice dying away in his ears as his eyes noticed a little rabbit staring intently at a man rolling on the floor.

James stopped, confused. A rabbit and a man? Where had the pop come from?

The man’s back hit the wall and James stepped forward. He seemed like he was in pain.

“Excuse me, sir”, the boy started, cautious. “Are you alright?”

“No, he’s not alright.” The high-pitched whine seemed to come from the rabbit.

James stopped in his tracks. He turned very slowly, his eyes glancing down to the motionless animal. It stared back at him.

“No,” it said again. “He’s not alright.”

Oooookaaaay. It seems the integrals have finally driven me crazy.

The thought wasn’t without precedent. He had seen it happen to a senior before. The guy had been shooting for a perfect score in his Further Maths exam, and his mind had cracked under the stress. Maybe he’d heard talking rabbits too.

He shook his head and returned to the rolling man. The fellow seemed to be bleeding.

He stepped forward again and the rabbit screeched at him: “He’s not alright! Leave him.”

James’ hands were starting to shake. This can’t be happening, right? Rabbits can’t actually talk….right?!

As if reading his mind, the rabbit said: “Yes I am a talking rabbit.”

“But… but that’s not possible.”

James could have sworn the rabbit smiled.

“And yet here we are.”

Nope…. Nooope. I am not listening to a talking rabbit.

He pulled out his phone. The oddly silent, writhing man needed medical attention.

“I assure you, this is real.” The high-pitched rabbit was staring intently at him now, as if it was waiting for him to say something.

“How can this be real?” James scoffed. Rabbits couldn’t talk. Shit, certain people couldn’t talk. And he was too far from school to have accidentally ingested some of the weed the other seniors carried around. His mum had warned him about it, and he’d done his best to stay away from the stuff.

“How can it not?” the rabbit replied, its shiny black eyes staring intently at James. “I am here, and I speak.”

“Rabbits don’t talk.”

“Why yes they do. I am here, am I not?”

“I have never heard rabbits talk.”

“And yet you speak to one right now.”

“But this isn’t real. I’m dreaming.”

“Does this feel like a dream?”

James was starting to get irritated by the calm, matter-of-fact nature of this rabbit.

“Rabbits do not talk, and that’s the end of it. Either this is a dream or …”

“Or what?” the rabbit stepped forward.

James frowned. The little rodent seemed too eager.

“It’s a dream,” he replied with finality.

He unlocked his phone. He had to call someone for the bleeding man.

“Think about it, small boy. If this is a dream then why do you need to help that man?”

James stopped.

“You know this is real.”

The boy was really starting to feel like he was going crazy.

“Animals do NOT talk!” He stomped his foot and turned around. He had to get out of there, get back home. His sanity might return if he saw his mother again.

“But I am talking! What kind of foolish child are you? You have before you a talking rabbit and you’re going to walk away from it?”

James stopped, doubtful again. This is insane! Am I actually going to listen to a rabbit?

He exhaled slowly.

This is a dream, he assured himself. A stupid vivid dream, brought on by the stress from my studies. I’m gonna go home, and then I’ll wake up, and everything will be fine.

He began to walk away.

“Hey! Boy! Where are you going?”

This is all a dream…

“You’re turning your back on an excellent opportunity.”

Dream…

“I’m telling you this is real. That man is going to die!”

…. dream…?

“Stop walking away!”

Dream.

“You don’t know what you’re doing….”

James laughed, clarity returning to his embattled mind. Yeah; this is definitely a dream. Why had he even taken it seriously before? Rabbits talking. Sure.

“Seriously, kid. Rabbits can talk…”

“Riiight. And pigs can fly.”

“Yes!”

There was a small burst of light and a loud FLOOOOOOoooooooP! and the world around James suddenly began to grow taller, the reds and yellows on the street turning quickly into very dull greys.

“Whaaaa….”

Behind him he heard a gleeful laugh and another, smaller FLOOOOOOoooooooP!, and soon an immensely tall woman came strutting into view, her image very, very blurry.

What’s going on? What happened to my eyes?

“Took you long enough,” the lady said, smiling as she stooped before him. She was a giant!

Oink?”

“The man at the corner? He was much easier. The fool managed to lose an eye, a foot and his voice while freeing my sisters. The idiots abandoned me the second they were free though. Backstabbers.”

James heart was beating faster now. His eyes were bad and for some reason his weird-feeling mouth could only say “Oink”. And he was suddenly very hungry.

The woman stood and he found himself rising with her.  It was suddenly very windy.

“Oink?” he tried again.

“Oh look!” she exclaimed. “There are other pigs in the area!”

James turned his head and saw, impossibly, a pig in the distance floating into the sky, twin white wings flapping softly behind it.

Whaaaat?

The woman waved gently as the current carried him further up.

“I think he must have been crazy,” she continued, looking around the street. “He said something about the end times when he freed Isabel, so I’d look out for that. Can’t imagine being a flying pig with all that fire falling from the sky.”

Fire? What fire? What the hell is going on?!

“Toodles!” she squealed excitedly and waved again, and James saw what must have been fresh fingers popping out of her palm, all accompanied by ever receding FLOOOOOOoooooooP!s.

“Oink… oink! Oiiiiiiink!”

“Don’t worry about your voice!” she shouted as he floated away. “It’ll be back soon!”

A gust of wind carried him to the left and he saw his house, thoughts of his upcoming exam flashing suddenly across his tiny porcine mind.

“Oink”, he said again as he remembered the stupidly difficult integrals. No way he was going to be solving those tonight, not like this.

Below him an excited little child pointed and shouted, “Mom look! A flying pig!”

His mother, struggling to maintain control of all the bags she was hoisting, rolled her eyes and muttered: “Yes sweetie. And I’m the Queen of England.”

The rabbit lady smiled.

FLOOOOOOoooooooP!

 

Image Credit: Jaylynessa via deviantART

Tagged , , , , , , ,
Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: