On Abune Paulos Statue and Birhanu Nega’s Paper
We are transfixed by the Abune Paulos statue saga. In Ethiopia, no leader, not even Mengistu Hailemariam, erected one’s own statue that symbolizes a bizarre personality cult and pomp of shameless proportion. We thought that despite the fair share of ruthless dictators and personalized governments we have had, this was alien to us. Ethiopia was not Turkmenistan. It was not going to happen. Our assumptions were deeply unsettled by not a politician as one might plausibly expect, but a man who leads a church of nearly half of the country’s population.
As it is the act of the patriarch and his people, most of those who debate the statue’s meaning and validity do so only in terms of the tenets of the church’s teaching and its history. They take it as an internal debate; something that “others” have no standing in. But the truth is this: this is not a bust erected in a compound of a church. It is in a public space in one of the trendiest areas of our capital. Monuments and statues in cities have profound human value. They not only represent the human condition; they are part of the condition itself.
Before the figure of Abune Paulos with his outstretched hands became the latest addition to the statues and monuments of Addis Ababa, the city had seen little building in that front in the 19 years of EPRDF rule although it has become richer and many new swanky districts have been built. This is given little attention as a testament to our new predicament – that of lack of broadly and roughly settled understanding of history.
This story is about the ghosts of the 1960s and 70s student movement. The movement and its radical members are often regarded as Marxist. Yes, they read and shouted Marxist slogans. Yes, they used Marxist terms in the general discourse on Ethiopia. Yes, they were influenced by the Marxist intellectual and political winds blowing from other parts of the world. But in habit of thought and action, they were deeply immersed in the tradition of relativism and iconoclasm. Endless critique was taken as critical thinking. Unsystematic historical revisionism was confused for “intellectual” history. The politics of difference was the authoritative framework of historical interpretation. The general discourse of the era assailed the country’s bulwark institutions and cultures with pious zeal. These were done in the name of exposing “illusions” and “delusions”. They apparently knew a lot of Marxist vocabulary, that generation.
There is something seductive about relativism. Claims that there are no objective facts or/and that all facts are social constructions have a liberating appeal. Objective facts seem at first sight constraints on freedom. To understand that objective facts, as in Quine’s famous story of sailors, can be the planks(mainly rotten) to stand on to build a ship on water needs deep intellectual discourse; something that – as some of the members are now testifying – was sorely lacking during the revolutionary period.
It is worth nothing that this is not an attack on relativism as a plausibly interesting and illuminating thought experiment or even a limited guiding principle of political action, but a statement on the unsystematic, terribly simplistic relativism of the radical generation. One of the effects of this habit of thought and action after it became the dominant part of our public life has been the inability and unwillingness to reach some points of agreement regarding our history and its actors, a lack of the necessary platform upon which we stand to pursue further aims and aspirations. The unspoken moratorium on building monuments and statues in our city was the consequence of this crisis. And where there is a void, someone definitely steps in.
Philosopher Robert Nozick recounts a story William James once wrote in one of his letters.
A person approached James and said: “The world rests on a large turtle.” “And what does the turtle rest upon?” James asked. “Another turtle,” said the person. “And what…,” began James, who then was interrupted: “Professor James, it is turtles all the way down.”
The world of “turtles all the way down” is not the world of freedom. It is where contentions about truth and facts are solved by unbridled and unregulated wealth, power, shameless bullying and criminality. “When the world is denied all substance and perception is blind,” historian Hayden White asked, “who is to say who are the chosen and who are the damned? On what grounds can we assert that the insane, the criminal and the barbarian are wrong?” If White was suggesting that there was no authority, he was wrong. The insane, the criminal and the barbarian are the authorities in such a world. The fate of radical, unsystematic relativism is the absolutism of criminality.
The leader of the Abune Paulos statue committee, former beauty queen Ejegayehu Beyene, said with the authoritative voice of a religious historian that the patriarch had done more positive things for the church than his predecessors. She needed no confirmation of her thesis from church historians or religious leaders, no consultation of church scholars on the religious practices and doctrines regarding statues, no opinion from Ethiopians on what they would think and feel about a statue of the patriarch in a public place.
She just declared her truth and erected the damn statue.
On Birhanu Nega’s paper
I don’t know what to make of Birhanu Nega’s paper presented at the Oromo Studies Association Conference. If it was a political speech, it was too long and complex. If it was a political speech delivered for an academic audience, I would say well-done. If it was an academic article, Its reliance mostly on Democracy and Difference, an authoritative book of essays edited by a great thinker, but not exhaustive of the area of discussion Birhanu raised, made it weak.
But it shows that as a politician Birhanu’s support for classical liberalism as espoused by Humbolt, Constant, J.S. Mill, and Tocqueville has undergone some changes. Instead, he seems to be embracing neo-Rawlsian liberalism, which under serious challenge from communitarianism, Marxism and theories of identity modified some of its principles to remain- despite all its discontents- as the most coherent, humane and viable of all political ideas. Whether he takes this new position as a pragmatic move to form alliances with the ethno-nationalist political groups or as a principled commitment, it is a welcome change. Classical liberalism was becoming a threat to any progress in creating a stable political community in Ethiopia as radical ethno-nationalism. The center is where Leencho meets Birhanu.