Who will we be “after” Covid-19?

When I was selling books on the floor of a branch of Olsson’s Books, an independent bookstore in Baltimore, MD 30 years ago, Robert Pirsig’s Lila: An Inquiry into Morals arrived in one of our regular shipments from the distributors. Lila was the sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992.

#BlueWhale: a greater threat to journalistic reputations than to teens

Any suicide that isn’t preceded by careful deliberation, in full knowledge of its consequences, is undoubtedly a sad thing. Other suicides would often be tragic also, as much as I respect the freedom to make that choice, outside of the moralistic prescriptions of societal norms.

Teen suicide would often not be preceded by that deliberation. We’re more vulnerable then, and might be inclined to overestimate our misery, and underestimate our prospects for the future.

The Huffington Post and your masturbatory co-workers

This post isn’t about “fake news“, a term which has gone from useful to meaningless in a record time. It’s about nonsense published as if it’s news, and about the willingness on the part of some publications (okay, one in this case) to take a published piece of nonsense and then make it even worse in order to get you to visit their website.

New York, The Cure

T and D and I recently went to New York, to witness The Cure in concert at Madison Square Garden. D should really be writing this story, as he’s the professional storyteller, who often tells stories so well that you can hardly believe them to be true.

Perhaps I’m the right second-choice, though, as while T could derive the quotient of any two numbers you give him to 5 decimal places (maybe more – no insult intended!), and then tell you something about the importance of that number to some vital – but really obscure – detail regarding human history, he doesn’t style himself as a writer.

I think I took too few photographs, but photographs wouldn’t tell the full story in any case. Neither will I, but here are a few pieces of the story, starting with a subway ride to Coney Island. It was lunchtime, and I had impressed upon T and D the importance of visiting Totonno for pizza.

Two years previously, I had tried to take B, K, and S to the same establishment, walking the 700 meters or so from the subway stop to the pizzeria (that’s far, at midday in July), only to find that they were closed. Today, I had made sure they were open, and the pizza was as good as I remembered.

Walking out, T and I wondered whether D was a Cure fan of sufficient intensity to really think this pilgrimage worthwhile. So we set him the standard test in these situations, namely asking what his favourite album was. He answered correctly, and T and I knew we were all of like mind.

After pizza, we expended (too few of our) carbohydrates on a boardwalk-walk, ending up at a cocktail bar, where we scored an extra frozen margarita, after the charming and generous barkeep caused a little spillage in handing it to D – or when D grasped it too eagerly. In any event, 3 guys, 4 cups. 4 strong cups, drunk alongside a bare-torso’d and buff man, sporting a tattoo of a Saint, and far too many muscles.

We got back to Manhattan late afternoon, and decided to have drinks at the rooftop bar of my hotel. There was a woman collecting money at the entrance to the elevator – a “couvert charge”, as so many signs at the entrance to clubs in the 80’s and 90’s read. But my room was on the 10th floor, and these folks were ‘my guests’, so we headed towards my floor, and simply passed it by, arriving at the rooftop shortly thereafter.

D went outside, and T and I went to the bar. Cosmopolitans sounded like a good idea to us, and so it was that we emerged into the New York skyline with three glowingly-pink drinks. Onto a rooftop patio populated entirely by muscular black men taking selfies, and who were quite clearly gay.

One of them asked us what we were drinking. D told him it was a Cosmopolitan. He turned his string vest away from us, and D took a photo of our three pink drinks, with that man in the background, taking a selfie.

Later, we walked to Madison Square Garden, where the efficiency was impressive. As was D’s – while T and I stood in the queue to buy T-shirts, he struck up a conversation with a random stranger, which ended up resulting in

  • a seat 10 rows from the front, where D calculated that he would (if he wanted to) be able to run onstage and seize one of Robert Smith’s guitars before security got to him, and
  • advice from one of the security guards that he could use whatever bathroom he liked, depending on which queue was shorter, because by law, they were not allowed to ask whether you identified as male, or female, or whether you reject the choice entirely.

T and I were between D and the nosebleed seats, and alongside two very enthusiastic women, one of whom was quite bonkersly happy, all googley-eyed and yelling things I couldn’t hear or chose to ignore. For some reason, T bought them a few drinks, and they spilled vodka on my Cure T-shirt as it lay on the ground in a bag next to T.

The concert was easily the best one I’ve ever been to. The sound was perfect, the songs were old, and the Garden was full of people as excited to be there as I was. We drank many vodkas, and many bourbons after those. We smiled, from the first note to the last note of the (4th!) encore.

Waking up the next morning, I thought to myself: Suggesting that D walk me home (we were heading in the same direction) is the sort of thing I can imagine a friend like T thinking of. Happily following the suggestion is likewise the sort of thing a friend like D wouldn’t hesitate to do.

And when I saw them both the next morning, it turned out that this is exactly what happened.

Ungovernables from the subcontinent, busy in Berlin

I returned yesterday from a week in Berlin, which I can highly recommend for those of you who haven’t visited. While I don’t normally do the standard touristy stuff, there’s so much history in this city that I thought it well-worth the guided tours that our group went on.

The traveling party consisted of a bunch of folks from #Africablogging, a blogging network I joined last year, that is dedicated to supporting democratic culture and debate in Africa, and the trip was generously sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung media programme.

The highlights are too many to mention, but I’d recommend a trip to the lakeside villa where the Wannssee Conference was held in order to plan the “final solution”, the Jewish Museum, and the Stasi prison Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen.

The other highlight was that we got to attend (and I spoke, on freedom of speech in the age of social media) re:publica, a very worthwhile conference on all things Internet and digital media. There were fantastic talks on drones, surveillance, Snowden, trolls, and more.

Randall Munroe of xkcd was there, Laurie Penny was there, and around another 6 500 people were there too, so it was rather festive, given the lovely Spring weather and the German penchant for drinking beer all day.

And, the other thing I really enjoyed was spending time with my fellow #Africablogging authors, from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nairobi and elsewhere on the continent.

In marked contrast to South African conversations, for example the conversations sparked by the incident I wrote of in my last post, we spoke about race and politics openly, and honestly, without folks leaping to conclusions or forcing you to accept false dichotomies.

I haven’t figured out why South Africans seem (in general) so averse to nuance in political conversations, and so keen on identity politics being allowed to dictate those conversations, by contrast to my experience of other sub-Saharan cultures. But however it is that they got there, I hope we too can, someday.

In memoriam: Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)

There are already hundreds of tributes to Prince out there, with many more to come as people hear of his death, yesterday. I heard about it last night at dinner with friends, and was, for a long moment, rather inconsolable.

He was a musician that provided a fair chunk of the soundtrack to my life, and that of many others. I was a fan pretty much from the beginning – other Capetonians will remember those very expensive import LP’s we bought from that place in the Golden Acre whose name I can’t remember, and it was there that I found a copy of “Dirty Mind” in 1980, before Tipper Gore had an “explicit lyrics” warning pasted on to it.

I quickly filled the back-catalogue of his first two albums, and then bought everything else for a decade or two, until his output became too voluminous (and, to be honest, inconsistent) to keep up with.

In 1990, I was coaching tennis to bratty American kids (including one of GW Bush’s grandsons!) in upstate New York, and remember one night when some of the camp counselors and coaches were persuaded that it was a good idea to go and see Bryan Adams perform in Canada.

I stayed behind, because Bryan Adams, and because the rest of us had planned a party. We went to Forest Lake, smoked a joint, drank too much beer, and lay on the shore while a friend played Purple Rain at an absurd volume through his car speakers.

I did so last night also, but without the joint or the beer, although the whisky was good and plentiful. We played “Darling Nikki” too, at my wife’s suggestion, even though that’s the name of an adolescent crush that she doesn’t like being reminded of.

That’s a signal of how much his music means to many folk. And rightly so – younger readers and those who don’t know his music might not appreciate just how damn good he was.

All the early albums had liner notes that read “Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince”. He did everything, in other words. The legend had it that he could play 20 instruments by the time he was in his late teens.

He turned other people into stars too, or gave them some of their most memorable songs – Sinead O’Connor, with Prince’s song “Nothing Compares to U”, written for a band called The Family. The Bangles, with “Manic Monday”, Chaka Khan, with “I Feel For You”. “The Glamorous Life” for Sheila E. And there are plenty more.

Few other people would be able to maintain the falsetto he does in this performance of Purple Rain while simultaneously playing a ridiculously good guitar solo. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s just today – but it feels like nobody else could.

We’ll miss you.


Meryl Streep gets sucked into Twitter’s echo chamber

You’ve no doubt heard of Meryl Streep’s response when asked what her views were on the all-white judging panel at the Berlin Film Festival. She was reported to have said “we’re all Africans, really”.

The quote was first reported by Associated Press on February 11, but then became the pretext of a number of think-pieces – most of them critical, including dismissals of her view with comments like “we thought you were better than this“.

Culturally appropriative cuisine and “institutional collusion”

There certainly are offensive ways of stereotyping people or appropriating cultures, regardless of whether or not one intends to be offensive. Blackface is one, as is describing Jewish people as greedy, or Scots as miserly, or “immigrants” as lazy, and so forth.

Other stereotypes cause less offense, for example regarding lawyers as predatory or accountants as boring. Clearly, there’s are difference between these sets of examples, in that ethnic slurs – particularly those directed at marginalised groups – are likely to hurt more.

Holy Cows – Gareth van Onselen on initiation, Zille and more

Earlier this week I was in conversation with Gareth van Onselen (GvO) at a launch event for his new book, Holy Cows: The ambiguities of being South African.

As far as I can tell, the event wasn’t recorded, which is a pity as I think we had an interesting dialogue on various contentious issues that are raised – either directly or by implication – in the book.

Two of the book’s themes seem to be of particular interest, judging by the conversation at the other launch event I attended, as well as social media and other comment.

Helen Zille is first up, if we address these themes in the sequence they appear in the book. GvO spends two chapters discussing Zille’s Twitter persona, in an exercise that one review (linked immediately above) called “a little creepy and obsessive”.

(There’s a chapter in the book on Pyramid, an obscure quiz show that ran on CCV-TV in 1995 and 1996, and I’d think that GvO having watched every episode of that a fair bit more obsessive.)

DSC_1066The chapters on Zille highlight various themes that recur throughout her Twitter output, and demonstrate that being as engaged as she is (it’s more accurate to say ‘was’, since stepping down as leader) allows us to establish a rather different view on her preoccupations and political dispositions than what you find in carefully-crafted newsletters and speeches.

One of the things that comes through rather strongly is Christian conservatism, in particular her negative attitude towards drugs, alcohol and sex. I’ve written on some of these things myself in the past, and also expressed views on her religious outlook in general, and think that cataloguing the Tweets in the manner than GvO does is useful for making the case.

Furthermore, the case is useful to make, for two related reasons – first, because even if Zille is committed to your liberty, in the sense that a roughly liberal party ought to be – the moralising tone of so many of the Tweets leave one feeling that her liberalism can be rather grudging.

Second (and I’m not attributing these observations to GvO), the hectoring and inflexible message that emerges from quite a few of the Tweets don’t provide enough of a counterpoint to the ANC’s political messaging.

Again, what I’d hope for from a liberal party is a tone and content that encourages critical reflection on issues. I wouldn’t expect that from a nationalist party like the ANC – but tonally, there’s little to pick between them, at least if you regard Zille as representative of the party.

In short, I think the wealth of data collected by GvO in these chapters give us interesting things to think about on the micro issue of a particular person’s political branding, as well as the macro issue of the various South African political brands in the market and how they are differentiated.

The second issue I’ll touch on is ritual circumcision, as discussed in chapter 7. Again, I’ve also written a column on this subject, but mine resulted in nowhere near the abuse that GvO’s shorter treatment (shorter than in his book, I mean) of the issue in his Business Day column did.

According to Xolela Mangcu, GvO’s column was “hate speech“. According to another correspondent, GvO was an “outsider” who also engages in inconsistent reasoning by not discussing all sorts of other cultural practices equally critically.

There’s one politically interesting issue here, and then another issue that is interesting mostly because it demonstrates a moral deficit on the part of these two critics.

The politically interesting issue is the question of who gets to comment on which issues – whether you need to be from a certain “culture” to criticise its practices. I think – and I know GvO does – that the arguments are what matter, not where they come from.

But tone can make people more or less receptive to a message, and this is (partly) why a column like mine led to less abuse, in that I foregrounded my outsider status (for pragmatic reasons only – not because I think it relevant to the argument).

GvO wrote in a certain style (and those of you who are actually interested in the arguments should read the book, not only the short column), and that style might or might not have been maximally productive to reader engagement. But again, that’s a separate point to whether the argument is sound or not.

The second issue is this: if there’s a cultural practice which does, on occasion, result in deaths and injuries, there’s a real problem to address – and it’s a far more significant problem than a “white” man having the temerity to criticise a cultural practice.

Yes, it’s true that this particular practice can be conducted harmlessly (using the word loosely, in that I’m ignoring the reinforcement of patriarchy, etc.). So if anyone says that deaths and maiming are always a necessary consequence of initiation, they are wrong and ignorant.

GvO doesn’t do that. And by all means, correct him or anyone else on particular facts they get wrong – but for as long as there exists a subset of traditional rituals that are open to the sorts of criticisms contained in the article and the book, there’s an argument to respond to.

Because if you don’t respond to the argument, then you’re telling us that according to you, the politics of identity – wherein a “white” man isn’t allowed to criticise something from “black” culture – is more important than deaths.

Or, you’re expressing a logical principle that only insiders can speak on whatever the insider topic is. And if this is the case, follow it to its logical conclusions – men can’t speak about something experienced by women, and vice-versa. The poor can’t talk about the rich. The Spanish can’t talk about the English, and so forth.

Most of the time, though, what it sounds like you’re saying is that this is something you’d simply like to have exempted from any outsider criticism, and that seems inexcusably lazy to me.

Ideology, interpolation and artistic intent

41M7ZMFHYMLThe Story of O is commonly considered to be a pornographic novel. As with any artwork that challenges moral sensibilities, a “pornographic” novel expose us to things that are morally abhorrent to us, while simultaneously leaving us uncompelled to condone what is described.

The interesting thing about The Story of O, for the purposes of this post, is that the brutality and abuse that O is subjected to seem to actually be morally acceptable in the fictional world of the story.

And herein lies my focus: is The Story of O, or any work of literature that has an implicit moral stance which we find unacceptable, to be valued less as a work of literature because of its unacceptable moral stance?

Second, should the fact that one or more of us feel outrage at something in an artwork mean that the artwork should not be shown, produced or performed?

The contemporary example that made me want to air these issues is the Estonian composer Jonas Tarm, who had intended to play “Marsh u Nebuttya” (“March to Oblivion”) at Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago.

The Carnegie performance was cancelled, after

it was brought to the administrators’ attention, in a letter of complaint signed “a Nazi survivor,” that the piece incorporates about 45 seconds of the “Horst Wessel” song, the Nazi anthem.

This, despite the fact that that the “Horst Wessel” song has been used in various compositions for many years, often as negative commentary on Nazism, and was in this piece framed negatively also (via the manner in which Mr. Tarm introduces the segment).

It seems that it was precisely his intention to get people to think about that historical period critically, and perhaps to feel some discomfort while doing so – but political and emotional sensitivities have made that impossible in the Carnegie Hall case.

This is not a judgement on those sensitivities themselves, but more on (as a friend put it) the apparent decline in our ability to interpolate between texts.

The failure of our ability to interpolate, in other words, is our failure to see things in a context, and to play off various texts (including, in the case of “O”, the moral text), off against each other.

More worrying, perhaps, is our conceding to that decline, in setting standards of offence, and what offence legitimises, that cater to serve the interests of those who are most offended (or who can claim to be so).

Victory goes to the most sensitive, which simply serves to incentivise people to be hypersensitive.

The same set of questions arise in terms of the genesis of art – for example, when (if ever) questions about the moral character of the artist matter, regardless of the quality of the art. For example, can (and should) one enjoy art produced by a child abuser, murderer, rapist, etc.?

This issue is, I feel, intrinsically connected to the question of what we value works of art for. It is true that we “possess a capacity to entertain a thought without accepting it”, to quote Malcolm Budd’s paper “Belief and sincerity in poetry”, and to my mind, this capacity is an essential component of enjoying art.

But Budd points out that a reader can enjoy a text “also on account of the poem’s expressing a philosophy that he believes”. If I subscribe to Christian values, I might enjoy Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress because of the way that text glorifies those values, just as Hitler would probably have derived great pleasure from watching Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

But works that can be described as propagandistic, in the sense that they exist primarily for the purpose of convincing the audience of the worthiness of a certain moral stance, are not, I feel germane to this discussion. The reason for this is the categorial intentions of the author.

It seems fair to say that most texts (and here I mean text in a broad sense, to include things like movies), while containing an implicit moral stance, do not exist primarily for the purpose of converting others to that stance. Works that do exist for this purpose may be considered as manifestos, but not as literary texts (for the purposes of this discussion).

So a movie such as Triumph of the Will may be viewed with distaste in the same way as we might view a swastika with distaste, while a text that can be more broadly conceived as containing a moral stance which we may find offensive, without actually having been conceived for the purpose of promoting it, should not be viewed with distaste for the same reasons. To do so would be, I feel, a type of category error.

If we set the bar at “someone could find this morally offensive”, the problem would be that is becomes impossible to find a text that has any objective (or at least, non-partisan) artistic value.

And that some texts have value, considered solely as literary texts, is a thesis which seems intuitively correct – they can make us feel, or make us think, as independent virtues regardless of their (for example) propagandistic value.

While it’s true that the moral or political stance of the audience often precludes the possibility of reading the art “on its own merits”, those merits have to include more than simply those stances.

And while there are contexts in which things are clearly simply abusive towards an audience, or only intended to provoke without additional artistic intent, the fact that we – or some of us – can’t read art in a context, outside of our subjective sensitivities, seems to be a deficiency of and in the audience, rather than in the art.

Speaking on related issues to these, the author of the New York Times piece linked above says (in relation to Mr Tarm’s composition):

I’d like a chance to think about [these issues] for myself. The New York Youth Symphony should program “Marsh u Nebuttya” on its next Carnegie program and give me, and the rest of the audience, that opportunity.

Precisely. These questions are sometimes not easy, but we get no closer to answering them by refusing to allow them to be asked.