DEMOCRACY

Lessons from America’s winter of peril

Let us debate with honesty, passion and respect, the competing visions for our beloved country

In Summary

• As Biden said, we can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbours. We can treat each other with dignity and respect.

• "Without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury, no progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos"

US President-elect Joe Biden gestures as he arrives for his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2021.
US President-elect Joe Biden gestures as he arrives for his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2021.
Image: REUTERS

Exactly 12 years before January 20, 2021, a man whose father less 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant took a most sacred oath.

On January 20, a man who once described Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy" became the oldest man to take the oath of  US president.

Joseph R. Biden took the oath of office at a time when a “once in a century virus” has killed over two million people and the “cry of survival” from a planet on a path of dangerous warming can no longer be ignored.

President Biden assumes office when a raging mob on the US Capitol proved once more that democracy everywhere is not an end state but work in progress.

Aware that the day was not a celebration of the triumph of a candidate but democracy, Biden had sobering advice that leaders and citizens across the world must heed.

Biden noted that to overcome anger, resentment, hatred and lawlessness “requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy – unity”. This is as true for America as it is true for Kenya, one year before what will be a hard fought and divisive election.

And to Kenya’s eclectic and fractious political class, and their band of ethnic devotees, these words of Biden must become our creed: “We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbours. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury, no progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos”.

And most of all fellow Kenyans, as Biden urges: “Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another. Show respect to one another. Politics doesn't have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path.”

We must never forget the shameful orgies of 2007.

Besides Biden’s, there was another voice. The voice of a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother who just graduated from Harvard. Amanda Gorman reminds us that in our darkest hour as people, “we’ve witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”

And yes, let’s face it. We will always come short as individuals and as a country. We are “far from pristine, far from polished”. The goal as  Gorman beautifully said, is to “compose a country committed to all cultures, colours, characters and conditions of man”.

As we get it into what I call the silly season of politics where anything goes, let us remember the words of a King: “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Let us debate with honesty, passion and respect, the competing visions for our beloved country. But disagreement must not lead to discord, enmity and bloodshed. We must always ponder Abraham Lincoln’s question, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Alex O. Awiti is Vice Provost at Aga Khan University. The views expressed are the writer’s