At a critical time during the French Revolution in the 18th Century, Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis the XVI, made one of history\’s most insensitive remarks on the plight of hungry and angry masses. Upon being informed that mobs were protesting in the streets of Paris because there was no bread, she replied snootily: "Let them eat cake."
The Queen was so detached from the suffering of the poverty-stricken masses that she had no idea that the country had run out of food and that the rioting mobs did not have the luxury of choosing between bread and cake! What followed was a disastrous sequence of events that culminated in one of history\’s most devastating social uprisings.
Louis XVI was a member of a dynasty which had tyrannised France for centuries. But it collapsed in a mere 36 months after the cost of living had become unbearable, forcing the crowds to take to the streets.
Hungry and angry peasants launched the revolution as an assault on the entrenched privileges of the feudal aristocracy – including untold wealth – in a sea of excruciating poverty in the massif central.
It was out of this Revolutionary rubble – which led both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and thousands of other VIPs to the guillotine – that the new Enlightenment principles of citizenship and inalienable rights arose, inspired by the American Revolution of 1776 and the then still new US Constitution, 13 years earlier.
For the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was passed in August, 1789, hot on the heels of the American Revolution. This marked the end of feudalism and continued the legacy of the liberal revolution that kept the world on its tenterhooks.
France\’s privileged feudal rulers and classes never saw the Revolution coming, for they lived in the Ivory Tower and were completely detached from, if not oblivious to, the suffering of the populace.
But such detachment of affluence and privilege from the realities of indigence and oppression that the King\’s "subjects" were suffering was not a preserve of Louis XVI\’s France.
And while historians disagree on whether the cake remarks should be attributed to Marie Antoinette, its insensitivity shows that the rich and the privileged can be so out of touch with their poor as to be callous and uncaring.
The disconnect between the well-off and what Frantz Fanon – in his classic study of the colonial mentality called The Wretched of the Earth is today writ larger than ever before.
And, in Kenya\’s case, it is nowhere more starkly evident than in the unfolding crisis over the cost of living and the plight of the poor, who comprise the great majority of our population and subsist on less than US$1 a day.
The escalating prices of consumer goods, particularly food and fuel, are producing circumstances in which a cross section of poor Kenyans are literally starving in the midst of plenty. Starvation is a nasty experience. The pangs of hunger, not knowing where the next meal will come from, are harrowing and one of the most dehumanising experiences in life.
When it happens in a 21st Century context, in a country like Kenya and in the age of ICTs and the Internet, an age of plenty when tens of millions in countries like China, India and Brazil are being lifted out of poverty, something is wrong with our policy planning, governance and media.
ICTs have transformed agriculture, greening a desert country like Israel, making it very largely food-secure if not, in fact, self-sufficient. With enlightened and visionary planning, the same software and hardware can be deployed in Kenya.
Kenya\’s ruling classes and super-rich are caught up in their own air-conditioned cocoons, where the plight of the poor majority is merely like rumours filtering in from another country.
Like France\’s feudal elite three centuries ago, our conscience is numb and our moral compass is broken. We are obsessed with petty and irrelevant politics and merely react to issues instead of being proactive.
What\’s worse, we seem to blame all our mess on the political class. We do not recognise the fact that there is a failure of leadership in all sectors, including the media, the family and even in moral leadership. For instance, the poor fellow who decides to marry several wives and sires more than a dozen children yet has only two acres of land cannot expect any Government to provide for his needs.
The media have a tremendous responsibility in times like this and cannot afford to simply become conveyor belts or even to continue with the obsession with court trials and political sensationalism. The time and space the media allocate to The Hague affair and the Ocampo Six simply amounts to overkill.
That the media coverage of the unfolding food crisis and the escalating costs of essential commodities is lopsided is beyond argument. The piecemeal, sporadic and isolated coverage has the flavour of a freak show.
It is merely meant to shock and awe, then lull the masses into forgetfulness, until the next tragedy strikes. This failure to view and analyse the big picture with an eye on practicable and lasting solutions to real life issues has been the bane of our news media for a long time.
Is it not time we began to set the agenda and offer practical solutions to the real problems bedevilling the country?
The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya email:emutua @information.go.ke