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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Social justice is what love looks like in public

The Electoral College hammered the final nail into the US elections this week. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will form the next administration with 306 votes.

Their biggest challenge will not be the last kicks of the Trump/Pence administration but how to transform the Divided States of America. The steep hill ahead of them is instructive for Kenya as well.

In weeks leading up to the US elections, many Kenyans argued openly that the Republicans would carry the day. Mainstream American public was too racist and rightist to not grant Donald Trump another four-year term, so their argument went.

I was sceptical for a few reasons. Having lived in America in the 2000s, I know most Americans to be fundamentally decent people. People like Soren Ambrose, a dear friend who died in Nairobi recently.

Soren was born in Chicago, Illinois. He was racially white, fiercely patriotic and an energetic activist. Unlike most Americans I met, he was also deeply internationalist. He understood and was committed to the struggles of indigenous people in the Americas, the Dalit Dravidians of India and the national liberation movements of Africa.

He and his Kenyan wife of 23 years Njoki Njehu cared deeply about the disastrous impact of Structural Adjustment Policies on the global south. Under the banner of ‘50 years is enough’, they had campaigned for the abolition of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the nineties. He was also a feminist and believed in the power of women and men free of patriarchy. As a couple, it was often Njoki’s voice one heard first.

You could always hear his silent thoughts complimenting her Njoki’s arguments. Though he battled with cancer for the last two years of his life, he continued writing, teaching and demanding an end to macro-economic policies that indebted, impoverished and caused huge national and global inequalities.

He was also very funny. While many of his colleagues declared “Another World is Possible”, he often argued that this may be true, but judging by their actions, “Another Meeting Would Always Be Possible.”

Soren died weeks after the US election results. While he would have been happy with the results, he knew that building a cohesive national culture of democracy and social justice for all would not be easy.

If America was a tooth, it would have some of the biggest cavities. The tooth decay may not have started with the Trump administration, but it is fair to say the abscesses have worsened over the years.

Pre-election polls demonstrated that four out of five political supporters from both Republican and Democratic parties believed the other risked American values. Nine out of ten supporters on both sides argued that a win by the other party would place America at grave risk.

Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on mask wearing, contact tracing or whether a Covid-19 vaccine would make a difference or not. As party affiliation became the central source of meaning, definition and truth, reality itself has become contested.

At the centre of the battle for the soul of the American people there has always been people like Soren. Guided by an unwavering compass, they have held the tradition that secured women’s voting rights, racial desegregation, the right of same-sex couple to live and worship together and the demand that the USA play a progressive role in creating a world that respects everyones’ human rights.

It could be argued that the current polarisation emerges from the rigid two-party electoral system that is very American. But consider this, isn’t Kenya shaping up into a two-horse race rather than a range of political formations that we, the voters, will have a real menu of choices?

As we turn to the festive season, it is worth reflecting on how we are nurturing a listening for each other. Do we spend our time in arguments that focus on the ten per cent we disagree on, rather than the ninety per cent we do agree on? Do we define others by the problems they face or generate for us or by their aspirations?

As the great US Professor Cornel West would say, social justice is what love looks like in public. It will take people like Soren to create a nation that is in love with itself. As the Americans turn their minds to healing years of decay and cavities, we too must find ways of keeping the truth and our national values at the centre of our nation and our personal lives.

-This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard 19 December 2020


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