The “new self-confidence” – an old theme

Independence has an empowering effect – in Africa as in the whole world

by Peter Küpfer

Saying “no” – to the pressure to conform to those who set the tone – is not popular in “guided democracies”, especially among their leaders. The leaders of these guided democracies, by which we mean formally democratic governments that function as a de facto authoritarian government, love “their” people only selectively. Wire-pullers have something in common with one another in all types of political systems – with those leasing “authoritarian” or so-called “freedom-defending” systems alike. In dictatorships, the dictator’s love for “his” people often takes the form of a spurious version of care. He “sacrifices” himself for the difficult office of steering the state, because the people are not yet mature enough to be able to decide for themselves.
  In the West’s “advance” party democracies, also guided by “soft power”, real commitment to the people is also a highly fickle passion among the self-described elites. Their vows to work for the people’s welfare are typically very frequent, especially before elections. Afterwards, they can go so far as to classify a “no” vote on their policies as “unconstitutional” – this without remorse but with legal consequences. Yet democratic constitutions oblige governments to put the welfare and freedom of their people (which surely includes freedom of expression) at the forefront of their governance, above all else.

Therefore, to say “no” justifiably and emphatically in the face of the current undermining of real democracy is and remains a popular virtue. It is a disgrace for our submissive, head-nodding democracies that this redemptive rejection comes from countries that have long been considered the poorest of the poor – for example from the Sahel zone. In plain language, their “no” means: “We have had enough of your sort of development aid. We don’t need it – non, merci! On the other hand, we need the right to develop ourselves – ça oui, alors!”
  A look at classical literature – for example, at a fable by the once fabulously famous, widely read (even in schools), and often bitterly realistic classicist Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695) – is unexpectedly instructive in this regard.

The Wolf and the Dog, according
to Jean de La Fontaine* 

A wolf was emaciated to the bone from the hopeless hunt for prey. Moreover, what had been within reach near the farm in the clearing was now guarded day and night by watchdogs. Suddenly, one of them stood in front of him. The wolf recognised him immediately. The dog had slipped away in an unguarded moment and was now on his own in the deep forest. He came just in time for the wolf. The first impulse of the impoverished “Sir Wulf” is to attack and tear to pieces such a dog of the pack that is making his life miserable.
  owever, the fellow in front of him looks impressive. So instead of starting a fierce fight, the wolf approaches his tamed and strong relative in a civilized manner, complimenting him on his imposing stature.

So, then, in civil conversation
The wolf express’d his admiration
Of Tray’s [of the hound’s] fine case. Said Tray, politely,
“Yourself, good sir, may be as sightly;
Quit but the woods, advised by me.
For all your fellows here, I see,
Are shabby wretches, lean and gaunt,
Belike to die of haggard want.
With such a pack, of course it follows,
One fights for every bit he swallows.
Come, then, with me, and share
On equal terms our princely fare!”

Of course, the wolf knows from his own experience that nothing is given to anyone in this world. So he asks the farmyard dog the obvious question: “What would I have to do for that?”

Replies the dog: “To bark a little now and then,
To chase off duns and beggar men,
£To fawn on friends that come or go forth,
Your master please, and so forth;
For which you have to eat
All sorts of well-cook’d meat –
Cold pullets, pigeons, savoury messes –
Besides unnumber’d fond caresses …”

Thus, the frozen-through wolf starts to feel warm all over. He already imagines a carefree old age. On the way to the farm gate, attentively trotting along beside his mentor, he learns even more animating details. All at once, his gaze falls on the badly bruised neck of his companion, and he stops.

But faring on, he spies
A gall’d spot on the mastiff’s neck.
“What’s that?” he cries. “O, nothing but a speck.”
“A speck?” Ay, ay; “tis not enough to pain me;
Perhaps the collar’s mark by which they chain me.”
“Chain! chain you! What! run you not, then,
Just where you please, and when?”
“Not always, sir; but what of that?”
“Enough for me, to spoil your fat!
It ought to be a precious price
Which could to servile chains entice;
For me, I’ll shun them while I’ve wit.”
So ran Sir Wolf, and runneth yet.

So versed La Fontaine, four hundred years ago at that. His critique of unprincipled conformity, of which there were enough living examples during his lifetime in the France of Louis XIV, is palpable. The illustration of Jean–Jacques Grandville in the garb of the French post-revolutionary monarchy (who represents the dog in the typical clothing of the again privileged French bourgeoisie, keen to realise the slogan Enrichissez-vous!) shows that La Fontaine’s critique of conformity towards those who set the tone was still relevant two hundred years later.
  And today? Today, well-developed countries could also adopt the great ‘No’ exemplified in the fable. Even the predominantly head-nodding part of the leadership in the EU and in Switzerland, those who are politically and commercially restrained. Such a ‘no’ to the adaptation to the American style of life and democracy, largely adopted by EU-Europe, including unquestioned war vassalage, is still an option for Western democracies – it is, in fact, an urgent one.
  What will it be like in a few years? Returning to one’s natural freedom, of which the wolf has a fairly realistic idea, means in practice, at least for the global West, coming to terms with less luxury and fewer external comforts. Who knows? Maybe, if we have the courage to get by with a little less, one day it will be much more. It could also bring a little more independence, or, which is the same thing, more freedom. Not a bought freedom, but a real one. Not a bought freedom that pleases our master, but a real freedom, which will be able to make us, Europeans or Africans or others, go the way that is truly ours, running “just where you please and when …”.  •

*  The Fables of La Fontaine. Elizur Wright, trans. B. W. M. Gibbs, 1882. Project Gutenberg edition, 2014. Fable I.5: “The Wolf and the Dog” (Le loup et le chien). Interpolations by Peter Küpfer.

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