My Dinner With Kofi
Not Kofi Annan, nor anyone you have likely ever heard of or met.
Nor have we actually had dinner together, although we keep meaning to. We talk often because we both enjoy our conversations and learn from them, hence another opportunity is always to be desired.
That’s the part that puzzles some people immensely as they think Kofi and I should be natural antagonists.
Not that Kofi is a right winger or ideologue in any sense. In most respects he is a pretty typical middle class professional with slightly left of center, somewhat progressive principles and beliefs. He is educated, intelligent, thoughtful, and has broad life experiences across several cultures.
It’s just that his experiences living and working on four continents has made Kofi quite cynical about activism, or any actions directed beyond one’s immediate sphere for that matter. I don’t think I misrepresent him in saying that he believes that such things are futile, potentially risky, and hence just foolish. As such people seem to expect us to be at constant loggerheads
Of course within my activist community I do not lack for intelligent, informed people to spend my time with. Many of them just as interesting or more so than Kofi, but there are two aspects to our relationship that I particularly value. I mention this because for me they are quite revealing about the progressive community at large, and hence worth sharing.
The first would be that while Kofi has a life style more or less equivalent to many professional progressives that I know, his is not supposedly informed by any particular politic. Kofi lives up to his income and makes no pretenses about why he owns a vehicle or consumes meat as often as he feels like it. That’s what he wants and he can afford it, end of story.
That’s it in a nutshell. Kofi is not lying to himself about these things and hence does not need to lie to me. He does not claim to “need” a large vehicle or vacations in the Caribbean, he just wants them. As such we can discuss these things honestly; their ecological and social impacts, the moral and ethical implications with or without assumed political consequences, and so on.
With too many progressives an attempt at the same conversation begins with the lie of “need.” Given that our indulgence in these luxuries is depriving others of things that are actual needs, such as food and water, the use of the term is insulting at best. Regardless, predicated on that lie, everything that follows in such conversations is useless nonsense.
In contrast Kofi does not pretend that life without a large vehicle, or indeed any vehicle, would be an intolerable hardship. He is perfectly aware that for him it is a luxury convenience just as it is for most people. As such we are able to talk about it in those terms and he gives me insight into the real motives and reasons for owning one.
In the same vein Kofi accepts the science behind climate change and the ecological/social impacts of his life style since his self-image is not wedded to justifying his lifestyle by pretending the facts are anything but what they are. Again this makes intelligent, informative dialogue possible.
An important corollary is that Kofi is quite a generous person who is constantly giving of himself to those around him. As such I get the impression that if I were to ever offer a convincing case for activism he would take it up. His rejection is based on the conviction that it is futile idiocy and not a hidden agenda of self-indulgence.
Of course within my circle I know quite a few people of great integrity and conviction who do all they reasonably can both personally and politically. Unfortunately they are for the most part just as ignorant as I am about the motives and reasoning of the broader public. As such they are not as helpful to me as Kofi is for gaining understanding and insight that I need.
Further, fellow activists accept many of the same premises of the progressive movement as I do. As such by talking to one another we do not gain any insight into what aspects of our worldview the typical soft progressive merely gives lip service to, but does not actually embrace.
Kofi does not share these beliefs and perspectives and will challenge them as they come up. As such he acts as both a guide to what things need to be more clearly articulated or explained, as well as an opportunity to do so. Here again these are important lessons for taking into the broader community.
An obvious sub-text to this is that I consider that the “problem” is not the tea baggers and red necks who use four wheel drive SUVs for spite, but rather the progressives who drive them under the pretense of “need.” The right-wingers may be labouring under paranoid delusions that climate science is flawed, that social justice is a front for grabbing power, etc, but are their delusions any more ridiculous or destructive than those on the left?
In a world that must de-carbonize by at least 90% more or less immediately the broader progressive community acts as though travel mugs and cloth shopping bags that are only occasionally used are sufficient to qualify as ‘doing one’s part.’ That having a number of friends of colour somehow excuses or atones for the death and misery we are causing to communities of colour the world over. That holding pro-labour views is somehow a substitute for buying union made goods.
It’s nonsense. Nonsense just as ridiculous and destructive as the right-wing nonsense. Further, just as the right-wing fantasies of global conspiracy prevent rational dialogue, so do the fantasies of “needing” what are by any rational assessment things that are obviously luxuries. It’s a lie.
Granted in a culture geared to the private automobile it is true that some people actually do “need” a vehicle. Equally I have friends with medical conditions such as Chron’s disease for whom vegetarianism is not an option. However these exceptions amount to a tiny fraction of those who claim the need.
How are people to take us seriously when we apparently do not take ourselves seriously? We will never be a force to be reckoned with while we invest more energy into rationalizations than we do into rational action. How we change this is something I cannot learn from Kofi.
The obvious and logical extension of the “need” discussion is “Fine, if you “need” ______, then what is your solution?” It is not enough to simply claim an exemption on the premise that these issues are someone else’s problem. If your reasoning is legitimate then you should be able to articulate a rough plan as to how we deal with these issues that is consistent with your behaviour and still coherent, rational and fact based.
In most cases there is no such solution possible. Undoubtedly that is why the topic is scrupulously avoided in most cases. Regardless, it is discussion we must have. How do we as a movement support one another in actually living the solutions rather than simply contriving to look like we care?
You see, I believe most people do care, and would adopt the changes if they saw them as viable. Somehow, even within our own communities, we are failing to demonstrate that they are not merely viable, but desirable.
That broader community discussion cannot happen until more people acknowledge the need for changes in their own lives and sincerely start seeking alternatives. The internal discussion must switch from listing reasons why we personally can’t change to sincerely exploring ways in which we can.
“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into” — Jonathan Swift
As for dinner with Kofi, we have scheduled ourselves for the Wednesday after he gets back from his latest trip; I’m thinking Chinese would be good.
All images from the movie My Dinner with Andre