April 26, 2010

The Beautyful Ones Are (still) Not Yet Born

Posted in Literature, Malaysia, Reflections, The Cause at 9:40 pm by egalitaria

When I started this blog more than four years ago (as a young, fresh wide-eyed newcomer into the working world), one of my first posts was titled “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born“. In that particular post, I made reference to the Moorthy case and candlelight vigils, which, I believe, was one of the catalysts in many people’s participation in the vibrant civil society movement of today. But today, I am compelled to write again of this book by Ayi Kwei Armah, which so simply and profoundly describes the nature of a rotting nation – and the decisions that different people choose to make amidst this rottenness.

The book describes the protagonist, named “Man” in an African nation (he is given no other name, most likely to remind us he represents just any one of us citizens), whose country has just been taken over by a new regime, overthrowing an old corrupted government through democratic process. This new regime, however, begins to show signs of adopting the very same culture as did the old one. One of his old buddies, for example, succumbs to the sweetness of a luxurious life complete with huge cars, a posh home and furniture, and modern imports from the Western world. It is obvious the means by which this friend has obtained such wealth. 

On the opposite end, “Man” chugs away at his laborious day job at a railway station, having the opportunity to accept bribes in order to better his livelihood, but makes the most difficult choice of pushing it away. One of the most poignant scenes is when “Man” is scoffed at by his own wife, for he cannot afford to purchase the most basic of necessities of shoes for his children. This is in stark comparison with his friend’s possessions, and at one stage he is forced to weigh the moral costs and benefits of maintaining his “straight as an arrow” stance. Why bother sticking to the moral high ground, when his own children can’t wear shoes? Better to let them wear shoes than to continue resisting temptation, after all, is it not? 

The daily trudgery of “Man” goes on. Until… one day, there are rumours of yet another coup. “Man” hurries home to be with his wife and children. At some point, the rumours become reality, and his friend comes looking for him in desperate fear, as he is being witch-hunted himself. He has lost everything, his wealth, his material possessions, and is being hunted down as he was part of the well-oiled government machinery that was so very much despised, despite having gained its seat through idealist and democratic means. There is an ugly scene in which he is forced to escape through the toilet chute and emerges with faeces upon his body, replete with the most horrible odour. (One can draw parallels to the corrupt politician and all he represents). 

“Man” is eventually vindicated. No richer for his choice made, he walks as a free man. Free from any guilt of having behaved in the same morally corrupt manner as all of his friends in the apparently new democracy. This individual decision, to walk the path most would have otherwise laughed at, is the defining difference. 

The darker side of the story is that (as far as this fictitious African nation was concerned, extendable of course to all countries in the world, including ours) coups are cyclical. The regime change (once, at the beginning of the book and twice, at the end) signified merely the innate nature of humanity to fall into the trap of selfishness and greed. Ayi Kwei Armah was describing his own nation’s downfall, Ghana, and its leader Nkrumah, during its struggle post-independence. 

Perhaps it will take numerous generations before the Beautyful Ones can be born in this country of ours. As it is, too few individual “Men” make that very difficult choice of saying no to any sort of temptation. The pull of money and power is too strong for most. In the January 2010 Economist issue, there was an article describing a Psychological experiment which proved the maxim we all know too well, that power corrupts, and the more you hanger after power the more likely it is you are to be corruptible, whilst the reverse is true. If you do not think you deserve the particular position you are placed in, the less corruptible you are. (The experiment also revealed other interesting things, such as the fact that politicians have a higher moral standard for society, but a lower one for themselves). 

“Man” in this book was one of the rare, beautyful ones who in his simplicity, plodded through life being true and just. Must we remind ourselves of the reasons revolutions are sought after and fought? Is this not what we are slaving away for? 

For, the Beautyful ones are still not yet born.

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