Our regularly updated feature Language and the News will continue in the form of separate articles rather than as a single newsfeed. Click here to read yesterday’s edition.
We invite readers to join us by submitting their suggestions of words and expressions that deserve exploring, with or without original commentary. To submit a citation from the news and/or provide your own short commentary, send us an email.
February 25: Dead Empires
Perhaps the most lucid commentary on the Ukraine crisis came from the Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani. Addressing the UN Security Council earlier this week, Kenya joined the chorus of nations categorically condemning Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity as a prelude to a military assault. But unlike other nations, which have been framing their judgment only in terms of international law, Kimani proposed a measured reflection drawing on a much wider historical perspective than that of disputed territories in Eastern Europe. The experience of African nation-states, “birthed” as he reminds us in the past century, helps to clarify the crisis in Eastern Europe as just one more symptom of a pathology spawned by the Western colonial tradition.
From Repeated Mistakes to an Unmistakable Message
The New York Times didn’t bother to mention Kimani’s speech. After all, who cares about Kenya or the historical insight of Africans? The Washington Post offered two minutes of video excerpted from the ambassador’s six-minute speech. It was accompanied by a single sentence of commentary that gives no hint of the substance of his remarks: “Kenyan Ambassador to the U.N. Martin Kimani evoked Kenyan‘s colonial history while rebuking Russia’s move into eastern Ukraine at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 21.”
Carlos Mureithi at Quartz Africa penned a fuller commentary that doesn’t quite get Kimani’s real point. He begins by describing the speech as “a scathing condemnation of the Russia–Ukraine crisis, comparing it to colonialism in Africa.” But it was much more than that.
Kimani invited the Security Council to consider how the nation-states we have today were crafted by European colonial masters focused on perpetuating their own interests and indifferent to the needs and even identities of the peoples who lived in those lands and who woke up one morning to find themselves contained within newly drawn national borders. Kimani makes the surprising case for respecting those borders. However arbitrary in their design, they may serve to reign in the ethnic rivalries and tribal tendencies that exist in all regions of the globe, inevitably spawning local conflicts. But even while arguing in favor of the integrity of modern nation-states, he showed little respect for those who drew the borders and even less for the self-interested logic that guided them.
“We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires,” Kimani urges, “in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.” The populations on the receiving end of colonial logic know that even dead empires, chopped down to size, can be sources of contamination. They have left a lot of dead wood on the path of their colonial conquests. Not only does dead wood tend to rot, but, if the vestiges of the past are not cleared away, those who must continue to tread on the path frequently risk tripping over it.
Kimani evokes the specter of “nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia.” He sees a bright side in the fact that an incoherently drawn map may have helped Africa avoid the worst effects of nostalgia. The real paradox, however, is that his description of dead empires applies to the two still breathing opponents who are facing off in the current struggle: Russia and the United States.
In an article on the Russia–Ukraine crisis published on Fair Observer in December, Atul Singh and Glenn Carle highlighted Vladimir Putin’s obsession with a form of nostalgic traditionalism. They described it as “a reaction to and rejection of the cosmopolitan, international, modernizing forces of Western liberalism and capitalism.” Though Putin’s wealth is as legendary as it is secret and the Russian president appears to be as greedy as a Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, he seems possessed by a pathological nostalgia for the enforced order of the Soviet Union and perhaps even for the Tsarist Russia the Bolsheviks overturned a century ago. At the same time, Donald Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” reveals a similar pathology affecting the population of the US. It’s equally a part of President Joe Biden’s political culture. The “back” that appears in Biden’s slogan “America is back” and even in “Build Back Better” confirms that orientation.
In declining empires, the mindset of a former conqueror remains present even when conquest is no longer possible. Kimani alludes to this when he affirms that Kenya “strongly condemn[s] the trend in the last decades of powerful states, including members of this Security Council, breaching international law with little regard.” He accuses those states of betraying the ideals of the United Nations. “Multilateralism lies on its deathbed tonight,” Kimani intones. “It has been assaulted today as it has been by other powerful states in the recent past.” In other words, Putin is not an isolated case.
Kimani politely names no names. But the message is clear: There is blame to go all around and it is endemic. That is perhaps the saddest aspect of the current crisis. Sad because in wartime situations, the participating actors will always claim to act virtuously and build their propaganda around the idea of pursuing a noble cause. Putin has provocatively — and almost comically — dared to call his military operations a campaign of “demilitarization,” which most people would agree to be a virtuous act. We have already seen Biden call the various severe measures intended to cripple Russia’s economy “totally defensive.”
Empires assumed to be dead are often still able to breathe and, even with reduced liberty of movement, follow their worst habitual instincts. The two empires that squared off against each other during the Cold War to different degrees are shadows of what they once were. But their embers are still capable of producing a lot of destructive heat.
Why Monitoring Language Is Important
Language allows people to express thoughts, theories, ideas, experiences and opinions. But even while doing so, it also serves to obscure what is essential for understanding the complex nature of reality. When people use language to hide essential meaning, it is not only because they cynically seek to prevaricate or spread misinformation. It is because they strive to tell the part or the angle of the story that correlates with their needs and interests.
In the age of social media, many of our institutions and pundits proclaim their intent to root out “misinformation.” But often, in so doing, they are literally seeking to miss information.
Is there a solution? It will never be perfect, but critical thinking begins by being attentive to two things: the full context of any issue we are trying to understand and the operation of language itself. In our schools, we are taught to read and write, but, unless we bring rhetoric back into the standard curriculum, we are never taught how the power of language to both convey and distort the truth functions. There is a largely unconscious but observable historical reason for that negligence. Teaching establishments and cultural authorities fear the power of linguistic critique may be used against their authority.
Remember, Fair Observer’s Language and the News seeks to sensitize our readers to the importance of digging deeper when assimilating the wisdom of our authorities, pundits and the media that transmit their knowledge and wisdom.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.