‘Criticism’ gained one of its greatest victories over ‘Sycophancy’, with the dismal collapse of US Policy and Strategy in South-East Asia. Throughout the preceding years, critics like Senator William Fulbright and others had condemned US involvement in the region, while “Super Patriots”, as Fulbright called those who opposed him, hailed it, and deceived many US Presidents into believing in the false optimism. When Fulbright and his agitators were subsequently vindicated, Fulbright said: “To criticize one’s country is to do it a service, and to pay it a compliment. It’s a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing. It is a compliment, because it evidences a belief that the country can do better than it is doing. In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not in its taste, but in its effect; not in how it makes people feel nasty at the moment, but in how it makes them feel, and moves them to act in the long run. Criticism may embarrass the country’s leaders in the short run, but strengthen their hand in the long run. It may destroy a consensus of policy; while expressing a consensus of values. Criticism in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism; a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar ritual of national adulation”.
In a lecture delivered at the University of Ibadan, on April 4, 1975, Professor B.J. Dudley, described ‘Skepticism’ as a political virtue with a catalyst effect to the progress of society. He said: “Unless a people cultivate a skeptical attitude; or alternatively, unless a governmental system accepts and tolerates political skepticism on the part of its citizenry, that citizenry cannot exhibit the property of virtuousness. Institutions develop and change; not through fortuitous events, or through some weltgelist manifesting itself in an unconscious world historical process; but through design and criticism; and specifically, criticism which proceeds from a skeptical outlook. Modernity and change come only from a preparedness intellectually, to deny, to withhold assent, and to oppose. Unless we can be skeptical about the present, there can hardly be a hopeful future”.
In his: “Letters to a German Friend”, Albert Camus said: “No, I didn’t love my country, if pointing out what is unjust in what we love amounts to not loving; if insisting that what we love should measure up to the finest image we have of her amounts to not loving”. But in Nigeria, the reverse order prevails; as enemies chant: “Short (not Long) live the King”; and drink to the ill (not health) of the King; and the King believes them; believes in them; and considers them as loyalists.
Humans have a great propensity for the obsession called ‘Vanity’; and nothing administers to this more than obsequious flattery. Nothing also wounds vain ego more than criticism. Sycophancy is not only peculiar to Nigeria, but what distinguishes Nigeria’s version is the seeming blindness of power-holders to the fact that our political scenario has a unique predilection for creating countless characters who chant: “Hail Him” at dawn; and “Crucify Him”, at dusk; when the political order is reversed. Our power-holders fail to note that sycophants appeal to their vanity through antics like showering vain encomiums, deification, and telling outright lies in their favor, only to ingratiate themselves to them, and gain their patronage; and get so carried away, that they end up believing in the deification; and equating criticism with enmity; and sycophancy with loyalty. This ultimately ruins them because it divorces them from reality, by failing to present them with a true assessment of their successes and failures. In their days out of power, the sycophants would have vanished, and left them to the lonely, sordid reality, and truth, that they are actually powerless ordinary mortals. In this state, they are tortured in solitude by their unforgiving consciences. The lavish mention they enjoyed in the Press, and the overflowing gifts they received from ‘admirers’ when in power, would have ceased, and they would barely be mentioned, except in revulsion.
Let us distinguish between the sycophant and the true critic, because too many sycophants disguise as critics. The true critic’s objective is constructive (not destructive); and he is the antithesis of all that characterizes the sycophant. He is bold; and because he doesn’t fawn on power-holders to gain patronage, is self-confident, and constantly reminds the power-holder of his mortality, and infallibility. From a skeptical stance, he objectively examines and analyzes the positivity and negativity of the power-holder’s policies, with a view to providing valid and constructive criticisms, in the expectation that this would provide the power-holder with the necessary direction to order society better. He invites the power-holder into the real world and points him to hard and agonizing realities (where they exist); with the earnest hope that the power-holder would divorce him or herself from the false utopian claims of the sycophant in the interest of society. The true critic is driven by a healthy skepticism about imperfections in society; and will boldly criticize any power-holder who demands, accepts, or expects to be exempt from criticism or censorship, for arrogating to him or her-self, a right, status, or mandate that not even God claims. Thomas Paine explained this better, though couched in philosophical language when he said: “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worse state, an intolerable one”.
The sycophant on the other hand, is slavish, cowardly, and lacks self confidence. He is hypocritical in his demonstration of approbation towards any and everything the power-holder does. He dreads offending the power-holder, and irrevocably mortgages his natural right as a citizen to criticize; but rather advocates an acquiescence or unquestioning acceptance and support of any status quo, even if it is oppressive, repressive, or pernicious to the collective aims, aspirations, and goals of the masses. He fawns on leadership, and in his bid to be identified as a loyalist of the power-holder, deifies him. But then, the sycophant invariably and unwittingly imprisons him or herself under the suffocating web he or she had woven around the power-holder; because a deified power-holder, often assumes the status of a god, and becomes arrogant, pompous, and feels indestructible. The logical culmination of such a pathological state (as evidenced by history) is self-destruction. In the words of Professor J.B. Dudley: “Those who deny a place for skepticism in politics, seek not to preserve the State; they infact undermine the State”.
Sycophancy provides a false perspective, and exalts the empty leadership of the power-holder, in return for patronage; and ultimately aims at enriching ‘self’; while constructive criticism spotlights reality and advocates for true leadership (though it evokes the power-holder’s antagonism); and ultimately aims at enriching ‘society’. The sycophant’s flattery is deceptively soothing, and appeals to the power-holder’s base sentiments, while the critic’s criticism is uncompromisingly sharp, but constructive; but administers to the most sublime aspects of the power-holder’s humanity, or rational faculties. Whenever power-holders fall, sycophants are quick to extricate themselves by issuing denials and disclaimers about such power-holders they once deified; while constructive critics proudly stand tall, and are vindicated.
If power-holders are servants of the people, (which is what they are supposed to be), they must be accountable to the people they serve; and who reposed in them the sacred trust of stewardship. It follows from this, that the people have a natural right to question, criticize, or even censor their power-holders, with a view to bettering society. A skeptical mind is a sine-qua-non to social advancement; and so, unless we are comfortable with being labeled a ‘sheepish population’ we should not rob criticism of its place in our society. God help our power-holders note that sycophants are extremely dangerous to them, because they sequester them from the prevailing realities, and point out non-existent enemies to them for the sole purpose of enjoying privileges and gains from their falsehoods. God help our power-holders come to accept the truth that a friend is one who will look into your face, and chide you for error; and not the one who tells you ‘all is well, in Sodom and Gomorrah’. That is the enemy! God save our power-holders.