Phi Beta Cons

Kurtz and Achebe Understand Culture

Stanley Kurtz’s absolutely dazzling article at NRO today on the violence in Kenya calls to mind Chinua Achebe’s much less well known second novel, No Longer at Ease (the title comes from T.S. Eliot), which, admittedly, is also not as compelling as his first, though still worth reading.  While Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, focuses on the original conflict between Britain and the tribesmen of the future Nigeria, the second novel focuses on the first generation to mature under colonialism.  Now the British are attempting to create a modern state in Nigeria and to cultivate a native elite capable of governing.  The main character feels an awful tension between his government job in the capital city and his allegiance to his tribe back home.  The tribal council has supported his education and his advance, and, rather innocently, expect him to obtain favors for them.  This begins to involve him in almost inevitable corruption.  The whole thing speaks to the importance of underlying cultural structures in the creation of responsible government.  
As Stanley writes,

the rule of law, civil society, and individual liberties themselves depend upon a still deeper layer of cultural underpinning. Societies built around nuclear families, and around religious and cultural traditions that stress the freedom, equality, and sacredness of individual human beings, have the basic ingredients out of which rule of law, civic associations, political freedoms, and the modern state develop. Societies in which individual freedom is subordinated to the honor and advantage of the kin-group (and where non-Western religious and cultural traditions reinforce these values) are far less likely to develop genuine liberal democracy, or even a vibrant modern economy and state.

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