Stolen elections, Ochieng’s Jews and the interpretation of texts

Donald Trump supporters

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces, as they storm the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021.

Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski | AFP

Let me make you an offer. This year, I will try and share with you a piece of solid knowledge in each of my articles. After all, I am a mwalimu (teacher).

I am better at imparting learning than reporting and speculating on the big personalities and events that occupy the real media professionals, my journalistic friends, who generously let me share this precious space with them. Today we will talk about texts.

I was mulling over Mzee Philip Ochieng’s recent (though vintage) article about Judaism, Zionism, the Jews and the Israelis’ claim over Palestine.

Then the Washington DC debacle, the invasion of the United States Capitol Hill by a manic mob, enraged by an unsubstantiated claim that the 2020 Presidential “elections were stolen”, broke out.

My take on both matters was that the problems originated from texts and how we understood them. In the case of Israel, I felt that many of us have rather fuzzy concepts about the modern state of Israel and the political philosophy of Zionism because of our association of them with the religious scriptures (Judaic, Christian and Muslim) on which we have been raised.

Temple Mountain

Mention of “Israel” inevitably conjures up in our imagination the chosen people of God (of whom we are somehow a part), and Jerusalem, the holy city to which we are all destined.

What is known as Temple Mountain to the Judaic faithful is, to the Muslim believer, the “Haram al Sharif, from which the Messenger was taken up into heaven.

I am neither qualified nor inclined to comment on your reading and understanding of the holy texts. But these scriptural “revelations” (al kitab) should not be assumed to have direct relevance to today’s Israel state. It would probably not be prudent for us to interpret its operations and international relationships on these highly symbolic texts.

As Mzee Ochieng observes, the state grew out of the dire realisation that an ethnic and cultural community, labelled as “Jews”, scattered over many lands and sorely persecuted and even threatened with total extermination, especially in Europe, needed a safe place that they could call home. You probably have heard of even some attempts to settle them in East Africa, in present-day Uasin Gishu County.

Regarding our second instance of texts, “The elections were stolen” and its concomitants have now descended into the records of infamy as the trigger of one of the most embarrassing incidents in the history of the United States Congress.

It illustrates that, whether truthful or otherwise, texts will affect people if they are persistently repeated. Most importantly, the incident illustrates that texts and utterances are not just words but acts that profoundly affect human beings and societies and their destinies.

So, today, we talk about texts, and especially their interpretation. A text is, simply, a piece of communication, like what you are reading now. The definition, however, can be extended to include any piece of experience out of which we can make sense or detect significance. A painting, for example, or a piece of instrumental music can be regarded as a text, out of which the viewer or listener finds meaning or significance.

Movie thriller

Did you know, for example, that your appearance is a “text”? People look at your hairdo, your makeup, or your beard and moustache, the shape and colour of your mask, the size and cut of your clothes, even the texture and polish of your shoes,  and try and “make meaning” of you.

The process or method of finding or making meaning in texts is called interpretation, and it is the main occupation of language and communication specialists called semioticians. Their science is called semiotics, coming from the root of one of the Greek words for “meaning”. If human beings, homo sapiens, are also toolmakers, homo habilis, they are, equally importantly, interpreting beings, homo interpretans.

I am a strong subscriber to the theory and practice of semiotics. I am a devoted follower, through reading and study, of its best exponents, all the way from its founders, the nineteenth-century American S. C. Peirce and the early twentieth-century Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

My own favourite references are the latter twentieth-century semioticians, like the French literary connoisseur, Roland Barthes, author of The Pleasure of the Text, and the Italian scholar and novelist, Umberto Eco.

Eco is best-known for his novels, like The Name of the Rose, which was made into a movie thriller, and Foucault’s Pendulum, a brain-teaser about a pack of nerds trying to write a novel using a computer called Abulafi.

Eco, however, was also a brilliant scholar and a distinguished language and literary professor, based at the University of Bologna in north-western Italy. I meant to visit him for a tete-a-tete when I was briefly in the neighbourhood in the early 2000s, but I was told he was almost permanently travelling on international assignments.

Anyway, the central concern of semioticians with texts is that most of them have no inherent “given” meaning. We, the readers or recipients of texts, make meaning of them through an open-ended process of interpretation.

Every piece of communication is a code or, more accurately, a combination of codes, and our task as competent readers is the “cracking” of those codes in order to find significance in them.

The moral of the tale is that texts are central and crucial business in our lives and the survival of our societies. Their production, propagation and interpretation should not be left to amateurs, blunderers and opportunists. Rather, the management of texts should be entrusted to trained professionals or text-technicians, like semioticians or journalists.

Incidentally, did you note that the Senate seats in Georgia were won by an African-American pastor and a young man of Jewish identity, both Democrats? Should we be expecting new texts of “stolen elections”?

We wish you competent and perceptive texting and interpreting.

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