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Singing an anthem does not a nation make

“Our (society) is thrown open to the world, and we never expel a foreigner or prevent him from seeing or learning anything…we rely not upon management or trickery, but upon our own hearts and hands. We are called a democracy; for the administration is in the hands of the many and not the few. No man is barred from public service because of poverty or low birth. Personal merit is the standard for which a citizen is distinguished. Not only in our public life are we liberal, but also as regards our freedom from suspicion of one another in the pursuits of everyday life; for we do not feel resentment at our neighbour if he does as he likes. Wealth we employ rather as an opportunity for action than as a subject for boasting. With us it is no disgrace to be poor; the true disgrace is to do nothing to avoid poverty.”

Feel inspired? Does that sound like a society you’d like to be a part of? Certainly, the society described is open to new ideas; free of base suspicions; protective of the the collective rather than just the individual; and upholding enlightened ideas about the nature of wealth.

A thoroughly modern place, would you not say, founded on 21st-century ideas about the individual and the state?

Think again. The excerpt above is from a declaration of principles for an open society that came into being more than 25 centuries ago: the Athens of ancient Greece. It was delivered by Pericles, the famous orator and general of Athens when it was the centre of the western world. The modern language is from Roland Gross, a Socratic scholar; but the ideas are as old as the ages.

And now on to the question that you know I’m about to ask. Does our country, Kenya, live up to the ideals of ancient Athens? Is it (1) A place that embraces democracy as a defining principle; (2) A country that is known for original thought and fresh ideas; (3) A society that embraces outsiders and their new perspectives; (4) A community that values wealth for what can be done with it for the good of all?

Don’t be in any doubt: the answers to those questions are: (1) No; (2) Not even vaguely; (3) Absolutely not; and (4) Ha ha.

If we live in a society that cannot even remotely live up to principles others defined millennia ago, then what should we call ourselves? It is really time to ask that question, and to answer it. If we are going to regroup as a country and re-imagine our society, we need to be guided by a set of principles and ideas at least as bold, enlightened and inspiring as those that the Greeks came up with all those centuries ago.

A great society is built on great principles and values, and on an abiding belief in decency and fairness. Otherwise it has no right to call itself a society at all. It is merely a collection of conflicted people, competing interests and bad behaviour. Recent events in Kenya confirm that merely singing an anthem together does not a nation make.

Now is the time to go back to fundamentals: why are we together, what do we commonly believe in, and what will guide us as we go forward?

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