By Bernard Sabiti
We will start with definitions here:
1. Pseudo-intellectual. Noun. 1. “a person exhibiting intellectual pretensions that have no basis in sound scholarship.” 2. “a person who pretends an interest in intellectual matters for reasons of status.” 3. “a person who wants to be thought of as having a lot of intelligence and knowledge but who is not really intelligent or knowledgeable.” 4. “A person who affects proficiency in scholarly and artistic pursuits whilst lacking any in-depth knowledge or critical understanding of such topics.” 5. “A person who pretends to be of greater intelligence than he or she in fact is.”
Writer Marcus Geduld expounds on these definitions with examples. Says he: “Pseudo-intellectualism is a social stance. A pseudo-intellectual wants other people to think he’s smart. He will work towards that goal in the most economical way possible. An intellectual will read a whole book, because his goal is to understand the book. A pseudo-intellectual will read the Cliff Notes, because his goal is to convince people that he’s read the book. And you don’t need to read a whole book in order to make most people think you have. Cliff Notes are more efficient.”
Intellectual fraud on the other hand is willful misreading and or misrepresentation of facts, adopting selective approaches in analyzing issues, disregarding facts that make the intellectual uncomfortable depending in his or her interests. The good thing is, we have Daniel Patrick Moyinhan, the legendary US senator who gave us the famous “you’re entitled to your own opinion not your own facts” quote. Therefore, we can take down pseudo-intellectuals and intellectual frauds using the weapon they fear the most: Facts
One of the most glaring examples of a pseudo-intellectual and intellectual frauds we have in Uganda is Andrew Mwenda. Having been taking this country and the region for a ride over the last several years, he is now being called out, especially after his recent opinion article published on Aljazeera’s website containing his criticism of US president Barack Obama’s speeches during his recent Africa trip (More on this later).
MWENDA IS IN GOOD COMPANY
Pseudo-intellectualism, and its more self-respecting cousin, intellectual fraud, have a towering legacy in history. History is awash with world figures whose thrust into national and global prominence wouldn’t have been except for their oratorical and or rhetorical gifts, their penmanship and spell-binding speaking abilities. Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, etc. Some of these giants of history would, as you know, later use their gifts for evil purposes, with tragic consequences of unseen before proportions. The former two used theirs for good and impacted the world positively. The latter two the opposite. But they all shared one thing in common: they could write, speak, or both, compellingly.
Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic invectives and other dangerous views, expressed in his Mein Kampf (My Struggle) biography sounded compelling and even reasonable to some in his day. When he came to power in 1933, the book became a best seller. His oratorical gifts had been identified by some of his superior officers after World War I, making one of them to remark: “He’s a natural born orator. His fanaticism and populism captivates listeners, forcing one to think as he does.” His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, knew he had an asset in his master’s ability to hook his audiences with his words. Most of his sweeping speeches however, contained very weak arguments that would not stand on their own if subjected to fair criticism. Except that there was no room for criticizing the Fuehrer as such an act was treasonous. That didn’t stop some critics from afar from criticizing his views. George Orwell, he of the famous “Animal Farm” classic wrote a drubbing criticism of Mein Kampf in 1940, tearing most of Hitler’s arguments to shreds, much to the Fuhrer’s chagrin. But oh, was he popular! You need to watch those WWII documentaries (available on YouTube) to see the apoplectic and ecstatic responses of his audiences to his speeches, or read about how his Mein Kampf was a must own, given as a special gift to wedding couples, etc. Not all this adulation was forced.
What I am trying to say is that most of the soaring rhetorical stuff, oral or written, once removed from their emotional whirlwinds and platitudinal covers do not stand the test of time when subjected to tough fact-based, academic examination. Some of these views tend to be found incoherent, impractical, or even gibberish. I hope you will not take this to mean that I am comparing Andrew Mwenda, who has not killed anybody, with some of the evil men of history listed above. All I am saying is that just because one has a way with words whether in spoken or written form doesn’t make them smart, or even intelligent.
MWENDA’S ATTACK ON OBAMA
In his 1,065 word article published on the Aljazeera website a few days ago, Mr. Mwenda castigates Mr. Obama for “lecturing” to Africans during his recent visit to Kenya and Ethiopia and accuses the US leader of “flagrant hypocrisy.” He continued the attack with some other accusations on his media platforms to include Mr Obama’s use of Airforce One, his comments on term limits, and other issues. He has received mostly derision but also pockets of praise for this article. In analysing Mr. Mwenda’s charges against Mr. Obama one by one, I will start again with, just like I did in this article’s introduction, some definitions:
1. Whataboutism: a tactic used by the Soviet Union in its dealings with the Western world during the Cold War. When criticisms were leveled at the Soviet Union, for example on Human Rights, Stalin’s purges and executions, nuclear proliferation, the response would be “What about…” followed by the naming of an event in the Western world. This is a classic example of “tu quoque”, (Latin for “you, too” or “you, also”) the appeal to hypocrisy, a logical fallacy which attempts to discredit the opponent’s position by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with that position, without directly refuting or disproving the opponent’s initial argument.
2. Fallacy (in Philosophy): The use of poor, or invalid reasoning for the construction of an argument. A fallacious argument may be deceptive by appearing to be better than it really is. Some fallacies are committed intentionally to manipulate or persuade by deception, while others are committed unintentionally due to carelessness or ignorance (Mr. Mwenda, who reportedly quotes medieval thinkers in his commentaries, one of his other silly, not-so-subtle ways of demonstrating to his audiences that he is intelligent, could have read Aristotle’s fallacies).
Whataboutism is therefore fallacy because the moral character or past actions of the opponent are generally irrelevant to the logic of the argument. One of the earliest uses of the technique was in 1947 after then NY governor William Averell Harriman criticized “Soviet imperialism” in a speech. A response in the communist party’s “Pravada” criticized the United States’ laws and policies regarding race and minorities.
Whataboutism is a technique still used by many repressive countries when western nations comment on their Human Rights abuses, bad governance, etc. Indeed the coverage of riots the US such as in Ferguson, Missouri, following police shootings of black men, was intense in Russian and Chinese Media. Even North Korea released statements condemning the US’ treatment of its African American citizens!
Mwenda’s criticism of Obama’s “meddling” in African affairs by pointing to the ills of that country therefore is an old card that shocks no one that reads an occasional book. It’s a fraudulent, deceptive technique that supposes that two wrongs make a right. Malcolm X’s words become relevant here: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against”. Does Mr Obama speaking the truth (on Africa’s corruption, violence, dictatorship) make those issues less important or less true because the person mentioning them is leader of a country that has a not so good historical record on the continent?
Yes the CIA murdered Lumumba. That though was in 1961, over 50 years a go. Is that the reason The Democratic Republic of Congo is still in the doldrums? The US also flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the only country since then where a nuclear bomb has been dropped. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and these other nations currently referred to as “Asian Tigers” were once under similarly brutal colonialism. What happened there?
Yes, the West still has issues such as treating immigrants badly. But they admit to those mistakes and a significant chunk of their society rejects discrimination, at least institutional discrimination. That why Marie Le Pen’s FN, UK’s UKIP and other right wing parties have a hard time winning elections there. But even if they treat immigrants badly, how does that make Africa’s big men’s brutalization of their own people OK?
The US president’s trip to Africa cost American tax payers six million dollars, with Obama hopping on Airforce one so Obama is just as wasteful as the Jet owning African despots he criticizes, Mr Mwenda argues. Now, this is the most absurd of Mr. Mwenda’s criticism of Mr. Obama. America’s GDP per capita is $53,000. Uganda’s is $570. The Boeing Company that manufactures Air force One is an American company, so is General Motors, the manufacturers of The Beast, the US leader’s presidential Limo. Lest I forget, the Gulf-stream Aerospace Corporation, makers of the Gulf-stream Jet, a favourite for Africa’s presidents, including our own Yoweri Museveni, is an American company too. There haven’t been reports of a jigger outbreak in an American city of late. Let the US leader enjoy his expensive, high presidential life because his rich country can afford it. The same can’t be said of our banana republic
WHY IS MWENDA RARELY, IF EVER CALLED OUT ON HIS PSEUDO-INTELLECTUALISM?
There are three major factors going for Mr. Mwenda as well as other intellectual frauds in Africa:
1. Very few Africans read
2. Those who do lack the time, means, and platforms of hitting back at them
3. Some do not think it is worth it.
I have read Mwenda’s writings for some time now, both before and after his metamorphosis. As a story teller, he is good. As an analyst of issues, he is not that good, even when he is at his best in terms of impartiality. Many people wrongly think that because a journalist can compellingly tell a story, he can also be a good commentator or analyst of phenomena. That is not necessarily true. His weekly, 800-word “Last word” column in HIS independent newspaper which I occasionally read doesn’t strike me as overly intellectual. I always marvel at the baseless swooning of some of his shallow followers in the comments section. Those who question his intellect he dismisses as Uganda’s “chattering class.” I guess like his dictator friends, he would rather have close to him only those that tell him what he wishes to hear.
I have also looked at Mwenda’s other works including some high profile speeches, writings and presentations over the years, including those presentations he makes at Rwanda’s ministerial retreats. I don’t think anyone has ever critically analyzed them. One that probably thrust Mwenda onto the international stage was his 2007 “TED Talk” in which he riled against Foreign Aid. I doubt anyone ever did a critical analysis of that talk. On the face of it at least, it is a very weak, utopian argument that he makes, not dissimilar to many of his other writings. I know what kind of impact these feel good speeches and writings can have on any audience. I used to get that euphoric, utopian feeling whenever I read such kind of works. When I first read Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad Poor Dad”, I almost quit my Uganda shillings 700,000 a month job the next day. I desperately wanted to make “Money work for me” rather than the other way round. My then girlfriend (bless her) talked me out of it by asking a simple question: “What next when you quit?”. Similarly, I felt mad when I first read Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid”. But I also worked in the Aid Industry and knew of the good that development assistance, despite its obvious limitations, was doing on the very basic level so I had to cool down. These superficial, feel good analyses only impress those that are not far-sighted or critical enough in their thinking or are simply unwilling or uncomfortable to factor in more cold realities by looking at the full facts.
As you all might know, Andrew Mwenda was not always like this. You can retrieve his “Mwenda’s Prison Notes”, an impressive prison diary he wrote when Museveni jailed him for calling him a villager in 2005, to get an inkling on his thinking then. Or you can similarly Google the resignation letter from The Monitor which he wrote to then chief of the Nation media group.
So, what happened to him?
That may be the Million dollar (could be Shilling, Franc, Pound, Euro, who knows?) question.
Bernard Sabiti is a researcher and policy analyst. He is the author of the recently published Uglish: A Dictionary of Ugandan English . He contested for the Bufumbira South parliamentary seat in Kisoro in 2011, the basis his other (not yet published) book, “Look After Me: The absurdity of Uganda’s bribery politics.” He can be contaced on firstname.lastname@example.org, or his WordPress blog at Ugandan English (where this article is also published), and on twitter @BSabiti
Editor’s Note: The name Andrew Mwenda is not new to this blog. Check past mentions here, here and here. It is embarrassing that for someone who claims that he is an intellectual, and his legion of fans who cite TIME and FOREIGN POLICY as their references for this ‘intellectual’ status, there is not much credible scholarly work for commentators like Bernard to look at, in trying to understand his non-existent thought. Newspaper columns, mere articles on websites, speeches and presentations however ‘intellectual’ (and Mwenda’s have been described as propaganda before), can’t be the primary products of a thinker. Real intellectuals for example Mahmood Mamdani, Sylvia Tamale, Dani Nabudere, Okot P’Bitek and more don’t philosophise primarily in newspaper articles and TED speeches and not just because TED is a new phenomenon. The newspaper materials are secondary to the primary work, the core scholarship. It’s an insult to real intellectuals when rants published online and in newspapers claim to be the only fruits of intellectual labour a ‘thinker’ can produce. On that basis alone, this blog agrees with Bernard that Andrew Mwenda is a pseudo-intellectual.