Of “Columnists”, “Communists”, “Calumnies” Et-Al

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By Pita Okute
Has it ever occurred to you that “columnist” rhymes with “communist” and, if you care to think about it, “calumnies” too? I realised this very recently while surveying the multitude of scribblers who make a habit (and a sneaky living, I suspect) of foisting their views on all and sundry. The galling fact also is that they do it without the least excuse!
I mean, you plunk your hard earned naira for a newspaper expecting, of course, to be informed about the latest goings on in the global square, and what do you get? Too little of the main fare, and a load of drivel masquerading as articulate reasoning by people who imagine that license is the same as fine sense.
Okay, I have to draw the line at this point. My beef is not with genuine writers handing out special insight on particular subjects, say, health and life style, sports, literature and the like. I am crossed instead with the large crowd of opinion peddlers, ever ready as they are, to pollute the public space and peace with jaundiced, half-boiled analyses. They must have something to say, it seems, on the latest fiasco or fantasy in the polity. The entire nation too must know about their views. Nonetheless, the huge majority of them add nothing worthwhile to the debates, but empty posturing couched in stylish prose. These are the certified opinion-ists who proudly lay claim to the dubious title of public affairs analysts or commentators. Only in Nigeria has that become a career description!
Yet, their peculiar job title explains the trade by what it does not say; that “public affairs” is No Man’s Land: mercenary territory of a kind, where the weapons of choice are a weighty dictionary and a prolific pen.
Going through the vast array of daily commentaries that are sold to the public on the touted erudition of some established editorial board types and their news and features desk imitators, I have come to appreciate the inelegant conclusion of the American writer, John Cheever. He it was, who famously observed that opinions are like that part of your body that is noteworthy for its very odorous functions. Everyone has them, of course, but to what avail, when they all smell?
Still, the challenge of regularly producing a viewpoint on the current kite in the socio-political sky or whatever hits your fancy can be soul-tasking. It’s no easier for the committed columnist or hack writer. Writers’ block comes in handy as a veritable obstacle to peak performance. For this reason, a number of famous bylines deserve commendation for maintaining appreciable standards of engaging communication through the years. It would not do to mention names, so that pretenders can continue, á la Cheever, to provide the needed conduit for the release of accumulated social and political gases.
And the question may rightly be asked, why are you doing this then, Mr. Pita Okute? Because, commentary is cheap and I caught the itch again to ventilate, yes, in the accepted fashion of my professional tribe. I may just be one of those, you know, the Cheever chums, but I shall do my best, I promise, to steer clear of elephants. Rather, you and I will try hard to follow our good un-hankered nostrils and tell the flowers from the sewers.

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