The great South African nondebate (2)

Following on from my previous post, that sought to frame or introduce an exchange of views between Gareth van Onselen (GvO) and Scott Burnett (SB), I’ll now proceed to look at some of the arguments they each presented.

The summary is this: I don’t believe either of them to be uncharitable towards many of the central points the other is making. I do however think they are talking past each other, because they speak from opposite ends of a significant divide regarding the role identity plays (and, should play) in conferring argumentative authority.

Burnett, for example, spends much time recounting ways in which white people “live in a system that is skewed to our advantage”, and concludes his first response with the suggestion that GvO pretends “that we don’t also have to slay the demon of white racism”.

The suggestion throughout is that GvO is “promoting denialism” of this, by questioning the regularity and the emphatic nature of some accusations of racism, which he (GvO) feels can create an atmosphere of “though policing” where no other conversations can be productively held (because all conversations end up turning on race).

It shouldn’t need pointing out, but GvO is fully aware of white privilege, while simultaneously being concerned at how the phrase can be used as a “generic insult”. Both of these things can be true at the same time, even if you think it’s used as an insult less/more frequently than he does, and even if you think the problem of white privilege is under/overstated.

So to spend time presenting the case for the existence of white privilege and suggesting that GvO isn’t conscious of it, as SB does, is to defeat a straw person. GvO’s column is about something else entirely – it is about whether arguments gain or lose credibility because of who is doing the arguing, rather than what they say.

GvO argues for the existence of inflated rhetoric and hasty moral judgement in South African political discourse. Furthermore, he argues that this interferes with the possibility of discussing anything else, for example poverty, and that any interventions in political debates are judged more by how they are perceived (the emotional responses to them) than by their content.

As I’ve said in the past, it’s obviously true that

the liberal impulse of treating ideas according to their merits can be criticised for assuming the possibility of cultural and value-neutrality – and that possibility might well be a fiction, where it’s simply the case that one set of norms has become the default.

But this doesn’t mean that an attempt to engage with something other than a national preoccupation – as important as that preoccupation might be (and is, in our case with regard to race) – proves that the speaker isn’t concerned with that preoccupation.

The same applies to the manner of engagement. You might not believe that this or any other topic is suited to a dispassionate liberal gaze – you might think no topics are, and that the gaze in question is fundamentally flawed or corrupted. That’s a point of view, to be sure, but it’s not an obviously true one.

Thinking that people aren’t concerned about the “correct” things, on the basis of what they don’t say or the argumentative style they deploy not only ignores their actual argument, but can also present your own argument as being unfalsifiable. That’s a bad thing, for those of you who don’t know the term – it means that nothing can prove you wrong (or, that there is no available evidence/argument that would make you change your mind). That’s not debating or arguing, but rather simple dogmatism.

Even if the liberal attitude of arguments standing or falling on their own merits can confer blindness to relevant aspects of lived realities and emotional responses, it doesn’t necessarily do so (those data could, after all, be included in the argument). And, even if person X (maybe GvO) has appeared blind to those aspects in some context or another, he’s not necessarily being so in any particular or the present case, just because he chooses to talk about something else.

The point is that conclusions aren’t demonstrated to be true simply by asserting that they are. If GvO argued for a climate that is hostile to thinking about and discussing ideas (where race isn’t foregrounded), it’s circular to say that arguments are meaningless unless race is foregrounded.

You could say that GvO overstates the problem, to be sure. I think he does, and is thus to my mind guilty of creating a minor straw man of his own. Minor, because I agree that the problem he highlights exists – I know from responses to things I’ve written that the fear of misinterpretation when talking about identity has led me to say or not say certain things. Not because I believe them to be wrong, but because I don’t feel like dealing with being shouted at on Twitter.

Overstating the problem, if that’s what he does, doesn’t make the problem itself nonexistent. But if you don’t believe the problem exists at all, then surely that’s the argument to be made, rather than to argue (as SB does) that some other problem is not only what you should focus on, but also the cause of you focusing on the wrong thing in the first place?

A last point, or rather, theme: SB, in a response on Facebook, suggested that the “significant divide” I spoke of above (I used “chasm” on Facebook) would disappear if I “clearly distinguished ‘argument’ from ‘evidence’ and thought about that in relation to racism”.

Well, no, it wouldn’t, because SB never discussed whether GvO has any (never mind good) evidence for his claim that public discourse tends to a racial analysis to the exclusion of any other factors. (GvO doesn’t provide positive evidence either, which might have been a good place for SB to start a rebuttal to the actual argument.)

The closest SB comes is in accusing GvO of an abuse of Orwell’s concept of a “thought crime”, in referring to how our utterances are policed and interpreted via race-based analyses. As I say above, you can indeed make the claim that GvO overstates the problem here – but the problem with SB’s response is that a) not only is it a response to something other than what GvO argued, but b) its analysis of one of GvO’s premises is cripplingly superficial.

The premise I refer to is this: GvO argues that one of the ways debates on race become intractable, result in misunderstanding and sometimes outrage, and more generally command attention to the exclusion of other debates is that they operate in the realm of emotion and subjectivity, rather than reason and objectivity.

I’ve problematised the liberal notion of objectivity above, and more extensively in the past, so won’t labour that point now. But just to repeat an important point: the fact that it’s difficult to see beyond a fixed, or privileged, point of view doesn’t make it impossible to do so, and doesn’t make someone who attempts to do so blind to those difficulties.

Burnett, by contrast, responds to these difficulties by obliterating them via a theory of privilege, which he seems to firmly believe in. As I say, I don’t think he’s at all uncharitable in an intentional way, but the point needs to be made that one cannot assert a contested theory of political engagement as if it were fact, while using that same theory to discredit the arguments of those who disagree with you.

SB says, for example,

First we must stop denying the simple asymmetry involved in antiblack racism: if you do not inhabit a black body, your opinion on whether something you did or said was antiblack racist is just not that relevant. A similar asymmetry applies to sexist acts.

Van Onselen writes that some people make accusations of racism but that “they are often wrong”. How would he know? Because, as he then goes on to imply, he thinks the people so accused are, in general, good people?

This is the ancient and rather ridiculous notion that virtuous acts are simply acts performed by virtuous people. These days, ethics tends to focus more on consequences. When the consequence is feeling hurt, belittled or unfairly treated, then the person so affected has far greater authority when reporting on it. Of course they are not the only authority, and everyone deserves to be heard. But you are not an expert on somebody else’s experience. Even when you really feel you were misunderstood, sometimes the adult thing to do is to listen and learn, apologise, and endeavour not to make the same mistake again.

Leaving aside SB’s view on ethics, which I’d contest, that’s not a “simple asymmetry” at all. As I’ve argued in the past, “while speaking from a particular vantage point can mean that you have a better understanding of arguments related to that vantage point, it offers no guarantees of this”. In other words, we need to still engage with an argument, rather than dismiss it (or grant extra credibility) because of who is uttering it.

There’s certainly an asymmetry in how credible your voice and opinion is perceived to be – there’s no disputing that. And (3rd paragraph of the quote) of course it’s true that the person who experienced something has greater authority regarding how something feels – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have greater authority in terms of any overall analysis of the problem, or how to fix it.

First person, lived experience certainly grants emotional authority, but that is here being conflated with argumentative authority.

I also don’t mean to dispute the value of listening, as SB says in those closing lines. One should listen especially acutely if you’re aware that you’re likely to have certain biases, as I know I do. But one listens in an attempt to gain enough information and understanding to offset those biases, and SB can either allow that it’s possible to do so – in which case any of us are potential authorities – or say that it’s impossible to do so, in which case GvO is by definition wrong, no matter what he says.

To re-state, and in conclusion: the argument is really about whether we can assess claims and evidence on merit, or whether who the speaker is is always a defining variable of that merit, regardless of what is said. I’ve said many times, and here again, while we can say with confidence that who the speaker is often matters in terms of how we perceive authority, that doesn’t settle the question of whether it should do so.

In essence, this is nothing but the long-standing debate regarding whether reason can operate independently of power. If you think not, then of course you’ll conclude that GvO (and I) are wrong. If you think they can operate independently, you might wonder, like I do, what SB’s response had to do with GvO’s column.

In both cases, though, it’s a mistake to assume malice or wilful obfuscation. We’re talking about incompatible views on evidence and on epistemic authority, and each side of this debate (I’m talking about readers, rather than GvO and SB) need to read relevant contributions with that in mind.

The point is that SB’s diagnosis of GvO finding the “very idea of white privilege so threatening” speaks from inside a theoretical perspective, and refuses to engage on GvO’s terms. Likewise, I imagine that those sympathetic to SB’s point of view will think that GvO is being obtuse, stubborn, stupid or worse, rather than engaging SB’s argument on its own terms.

Meanwhile, nobody (well, I can think of one person) from the suite of under-40ish columnists are writing about, say, the economy. Everyone is writing about race. Most of our Twitter arguments are about race. As I say, that’s important – to my mind, even perhaps the most important thing to talk about.

But it’s not the only thing to talk about. If conversations can sometimes usefully be about something else – but always end up being about race in any case – then that conversation has been derailed, and we’ve missed out.

Does this happen often enough that it’s worth writing the column GvO did? I don’t know, but I suspect that the answer is “yes”.

P.S. I don’t know if I’ll address the 3rd and 4th columns, as I’ve probably said enough on this already. So, in case I don’t, here’s GvO’s response to SB, and SB’s response to that – which is as far as the sequence extends, at least at time of writing.

Burnett and van Onselen: the great South African nondebate, indeed (1)

Gareth van Onselen (columnist in Business Day, and previously a senior member of the Democratic Alliance staff) and Scott Burnett (PhD candidate at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies) have been involved in an interesting exchange of views on the topic of race, and on the function race plays in South African political discussions.

There have, at this point, been two contributions from each of them. Gareth van Onselen’s (GvO) initial column carried the headline “The great South African nondebate“, and – if one were to focus only on Burnett’s response, it is indeed a nondebate, in that I think Burnett mischaracterises GvO’s column, and thus fails to respond to its argument.

GvO says as much in his response-to-the-response, but I’d like to offer my own reasons why I think this is the case rather than rely on GvO’s. I want to do so because Burnett’s first column has attracted a fair bit of praise from many friends and acquaintances, especially from those who regularly offer commentary on social justice issues in South Africa.

I think those people are not being sufficiently attentive to what GvO is saying, and that some of them – Burnett in particular – are misreading him completely, and in doing so, simply proving his point.

This post is but a prologue, in that it will be long enough if I simply lay some groundwork, rather than focusing on the arguments themselves. I’ll be focusing on the first two parts of the exchange in the first follow-up post, hopefully this week, and then later offer some thoughts on the second set of columns.

There are two obvious impediments to reading GvO charitably. The first is in the claim or implication that he’s irredeemably tainted by being (variously) a previous Communications Director at the DA and a staunch liberal. A more infrequent but equally ad hominem response might imply that being male or white is a handicap to his thinking (or at least, understanding).

The second is perhaps exactly part of what GvO’s column was claiming, which is that every discussion on South African politics is somehow faulty (or considered incomplete) unless it ticks certain rhetorical and moral boxes. A white South African has to profess understanding of systemic discrimination, the lingering (and still strong) effects of cultural capital and so forth before they can be regarded as a sincere interlocutor.

This amounts to a small, but not trivial, bar to fair argument regarding other aspects of South African political discourse. It should be permissible to highlight certain issues without your views on other issues being assumed, simply because you don’t account for them.

It is not implausible to me that so-called “virtue signalling” has become almost obligatory in South African political debates, and the “problem” with GvO is that he’s far more interested in the argument in the abstract than in cataloguing how he, as an individual, is “guilty” or “not guilty” of various sins.

The second impediment to reading him charitably is thus that he can appear more unsympathetic to certain issues (systemic discrimination, for example) than he might actually be. I’ve had these sorts of arguments myself, where I’m assumed to have view x because I speak in the abstract and detached language of philosophy, rather than foregrounding the subjective realities of the people I’m talking about (including myself).

Thanks to having it pointed out to me, I now know that if I want to be understood (and not have various motives misattributed), I might need to say things in a different way. But, this is an issue of rhetorical strategy – it says nothing about the content of my views.

With the above as prologue to comment on the actual arguments of their respective pieces, I’d encourage you to read them both (again, for some), carefully and objectively. Sorry for the tease, but for now, I’ll leave it there.

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.

Rhodes, “mad panics”, and inappropriate analogies

Since leaving the Democratic Alliance, Gareth van Onselen has become one of the more consistently interesting columnists we have in South African media. “Interesting” might seem to be a weasel-word to some of you, but having now spent a few minutes trying to find the right word, I find it’s the best I can do.

His columns are seldom bad, and are sometimes very good. They are often challenging, especially to folks like myself who think of themselves as liberals, and challenging our views – and making us think – is the primary task of a columnist.

It’s true that some use the “liberal” label, as well as his past party affiliation, as convenient means of dismissing van Onselen’s contributions. These critics miss the point, I feel – mostly because those are fairly straightforward ad hominem comments rather than engagements with substance, but also because they see his dogged adherence to principle as evidence of ideological blindness.

Van Onselen isn’t subtle in his criticisms, but they are typically very thoughtful, and thought-provoking for those who choose to engage with them. He is also deeply committed to certain values, which can loosely be described as those of classical liberalism.

He makes no attempt to hide that ideological conviction, and applies it consistently – which means that we can either try to undermine the foundation itself, or his interpretation of it.

As with the Michael Cardo piece on UCT’s “pathetic capitulation” on the question of the Rhodes statue, I think van Onselen’s recent column on the same topic gives UCT too little credit, and also exaggerates the likely consequences of the Rhodes statue removal.

1339056551-fahrenheit451Furthermore, I find its liberalism unduly prescriptive, in that it asserts that the status quo (at least in terms of the historical record, and the statue in particular) must be preserved, because removing it is to succumb to an unthinking populism, or even worse, a re-programming of society, of language, and of value (as was portrayed in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451), rather than seeing how changing the status quo could better serve a liberal outcome.

He also uses the analogy of Brett Murray’s The Spear, and this analogy is to my mind equally poor – not for being hyperbolic (as is the case with Farenheit 451), but because the two things are crucially dissimilar.

You need to read his column (in fact, the transcript of a speech), because I’m not going to do it justice here. There is plenty in it to think about, and to be challenged by, especially if you regard yourself as a liberal. It’s long, and I want to be brief – so apologies for only picking up on a few things below.

First, the column takes a value-laden starting point – the presence of the statue at UCT – as a legitimate normative and neutral starting point. This is why the Farenheit 451 analogy is hyperbolic. If we are liberal, and committed to individual freedom, it is of course a concern if we start privileging certain views (by extension, cultures, artistic expressions and statues) above others.

But the point about the removal of Rhodes (for those who supported that decision, like me) is that its presence did that privileging already, and that its removal is therefore more compatible with this liberal goal, in that it was its presence in such pride of place that resulted in some students being unable to feel as much part of the institution as others.

A focus on the underlying goals and values of liberalism should not be obscured by historical contingencies, and should certainly not be defined by a privileged set of norms that are thought to be beyond question. We can agree that all things being equal, statues should not be torn down, sure – but all things were not equal in this case.

By contrast to burning books, students were forced to see this statue, and to see it as emblematic of their university. They could choose to not read a book, but they could not choose to have the statue standing in pride of place at UCT. There is no reason to burn a book, because you have the option of not reading it – here there was no analogous option.

Likewise with The Spear – the analogy fails because the cases are too dissimilar. An artwork like The Spear is created for a community who typically self-select to engage with it. This is not the case with the Rhodes statue. The Spear was a case in which people were perfectly entitled to their offence, but were not entitled to the remedy of destroying it or removing it.

Neither the Goodman Gallery, nor Brett Murray, are established as institutions for the national good, that are intended to serve an educational purpose while trying to avoid privileging people by virtue of their race, class and so forth. You can object to The Spear, lament its existence, and then move on – it’s wrong to destroy it. UCT, by contrast, is being negligent if it picks at some scab of yours every day you are there.

Our understanding of liberalism should not be allowed to ossify, as I think it can do when we take the current situation for granted, instead of being more Utilitarian about maximising liberty – even when that means changing something about the present (like moving a statue).

As I noted in the third part of this piece on modern challenges to free speech, other aspects of liberalism might need updating also, in that if the environment changes, different sorts of remedies or interventions might work better than those we used in the 19th Century.

Or, as John Maynard Keynes put it, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

South Africa’s 2014 National Elections, in brief

I’ll be brief, simply because other people have written, or are writing, data-driven analyses that will end up being more valuable than these few fragments.

First, it is, or should be, a source of great head-scratching for some as to how the ANC didn’t lose more support than it did. My predictions had them achieving 62%, but even so, I think they should ideally have lost more ground than they did.

The short version of why I think they didn’t lose more is simply because there is a vast difference between the media I consume, and the people I talk to, compared with what the average South African consumes and who they talk to.

ELECTIONS-2014-01-709x700Those of us on Twitter, in academia and (occasionally, as I am of late) in the media themselves can, just as everyone else, mistake their personal filter bubbles for popular sentiment. And as much as one might wish it were different, it really doesn’t seem as if the scandals of Nkandla and Waterkloof, or the obscenity of Marikana, made as much of a difference as we thought it would.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, as some seem to want us to believe, that we have an unsophisticated electorate. Voters the world over vote on what they experience, and what they know – and the task before us is to understand the motivations for those who vote ANC despite these scandals, not think them defective because they don’t vote otherwise in protest. To be frank, in countries like ours (with the class divisions so closely correlated with race), arguments around “unsophisticated electorates” seem to frequently be little but cover for racist sentiments.

For example, note that in KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC won a larger number of votes than in 2009, and that even though the turnout there was lower than in 2009, the percentage drop in turnout was less than the national average. If Zuma was the problem (or rather, if Zuma was perceived to be the problem), KZN would be a likely place to observe a significant decrease in ANC support, or increasing apathy at the ballot box – neither of which seem to be the case.

So, why did the ANC not lose more support, in as adverse circumstances as one can imagine? One suggestion would be that the competition – besides the EFF, which grew from nothing to attracting 6.35% of the vote – isn’t offering a compelling alternative. The DA, as Stanley Greenberg put it a week before the election, might in retrospect have wanted to spend more time punting its successes than the ANC’s failures, one presumes because people are more interested in what you can do for them, rather than what the other party is failing to do for you.

This is perhaps related to the issue that I’ve mentioned before in my review of Eusebius McKaiser’s “Could I vote DA?“, namely that of the DA’s occasional tone-deafness, in this case arguably manifested in a focus on negative commentary on the failures of others, which – if you’re (wrongly, but nevertheless) identified as a white party – easily conforms to a race-based caricature whereby you’re the party of white privilege telling the (black) liberation party that they aren’t up to the job.

Even if people don’t think this way (and I don’t think many do), they might feel this way, and emotional factors also influence voting behaviour. This has been a concern for some in the DA for going back at least as far as Ryan Coetzee’s 2006 document detailing a strategy for becoming a “party for all”, and I’m not convinced that the lesson of separating the rational and emotional has ever completely been learnt in the party.

Which brings me, in conclusion, to today’s Business Day column by Gareth van Onselen, in which he discusses Lindiwe Mazibuko’s decision to take a sabbatical year, in order to study at the Kennedy School at Harvard.  First, congratulations and best wishes to Lindiwe, whom I’m friendly with. Regardless of anything else, it’s a great opportunity, and she’ll (and we’ll, if she returns to active politics) benefit from her choice.

But second, if his account is correct, it does point to significant tension within the Democratic Alliance around leadership and strategic direction. Some tension isn’t at all unusual in any large organisation, but the extent of it, as detailed in the column, should be very troubling to anyone who – like me – is committed to the liberal tradition in South Africa, and who has hopes for the DA to be flag-bearers for that tradition.

Not, to be clear, because I don’t think they’re capable of doing that. But more because internal squabbles, and their public airing, don’t create the impression of a coherent policy direction, or of broad agreement with a particular policy direction. As I’ve said many times over the years, I’d prefer to evidence to trump impressions, but it’s all too clear that they often don’t.

The ANC, with its established advantage in the electoral market, can get away with bad optics. The DA, less so.

[Edit]The DA’s current Director of Communications, Gavin Davis, has now responded to the van Onselen column linked above (my link is to his blog, but the piece was also carried as a letter in the Business Day.[/edit]

Eusebius McKaiser asks: “Could I vote DA?”

Finding myself in a bookstore with some time to kill, I sat down to read Eusebius McKaiser’s new book, Could I Vote DA?, and am now in a position to recommend that (some of) you do so, too.

Regardless of the book’s title – although the DA (the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s only self-identified liberal party) is the main focus – Eusebius does a fine job of capturing the essence of some key ideas in politics, such as the point and value of a political ideology, what liberalism entails and doesn’t entail, affirmative action, and the strategic and tactical dilemmas faced by those in the political arena.

The book is overtly (even proudly) subjective, and Eusebius’s character is manifest on every page. For some people that will be a negative, but for those of you who can read past an impression of a character that’s not your preference, the personal narrative does, I think, help to bring the ideas to the forefront.

One aspect of the book and its subjectivity that I wasn’t enamoured of was what seemed (at times) to be gratuitous sniping at some former and current DA representatives or employees, in particular their former Executive Director of Communications, Gareth van Onselen (also a friend). They don’t see eye to eye on some things, and neither of them are fond of being told they are wrong, but Eusebius’s account of some recent dealings between van Onselen and people in the DA seemed a little too eager to “school” van Onselen.

(Much of the conversation regarding Gareth van Onselen is in a chapter detailing the disagreement between himself and Mmusi Mainane – the DA’s National Spokesperson and Deputy Federal Chairperson – on the topic of ubuntu, so this is an opportune time to link you to an email conversation Gareth and I had on the topic of ubuntu a couple of years ago.)

The language of the book is very informal, containing many colloquialisms and much slang. In tone and content, I’d think it well-suited to a younger audience – perhaps those “born frees” that will be voting in a National Election for the first time.

Those of you who know your political philosophy won’t learn much by way of theory, but can certainly still enjoy the book not only for how it might get you to think about issues again, even afresh (of value, because our beliefs and views can easily calcify without our realising it), but also for its gossip value – Eusebius gets to hear plenty of interesting stories while hosting his morning show on PowerFM, and in similar gigs prior to that.

The question of what market this was aimed at is an interesting one – the book retails for roughly R230, which might, I fear, place it slightly out of that youth market’s comfort zone. Stephen Grootes recently published SA Politics Unspun for around R185, and while Richard Calland’s The Zuma Years retails for a similar price to Eusebius’s book, Calland’s is research-intensive rather than a piece of reflective political philosophy.

These books aren’t directly comparable, but they do give a sense of what other publishers thought a reasonable price for a book about politics, in a market that we know doesn’t read an awful amount in any case. I hope I’m wrong, and that Eusebius can treat me to a gloating dinner with his royalties later this year.

A final though: the key point, for me, made in Eusebius’s book was regarding the tension between principle and pragmatism, and how difficult it is to strike a balance that both satisfies the electorate while not selling out the values you are ostensibly promoting. The DA has mostly stuck to (an attempted) defence of principle, even while foundering in doing so at various points (to mention just one example, Eusebius highlights the illiberal stance of Helen Zille on HIV/AIDS, something I’ve also previously written about).

But when they try to make a case for something that’s about more than only principle – or when they make a case for a principle in a way that’s designed to appeal to more people than only their liberal base (if that is still their base at all, as I questioned when writing about the Maimane vs. van Onselen thing, their message seldom seems both co-ordinated and coherent. Last year’s BBBEE confusion was the most striking example of this, and these examples all speak of a party that knows it needs to change it’s manner of engaging our voting population, rather than the voting population that can be found in textbooks.

Eusebius makes this case very well, and very thoughtfully, and his book is a welcome contribution to South Africa’s political debate, especially with an election less than three months away.

Liberalism, the Democratic Alliance and identity

Mmusi-MaimaneThere’s perhaps an argument for saying this about any election, but to my mind, the upcoming national elections in 2014 will be South Africa’s most interesting since our first (democratic) election in 1994. Various factors align to make it so – the ANC’s corrupt leadership, and President Zuma’s apparent inability or unwillingness to do anything but enrich himself; the untested effects of Ramaphosa’s re-emergence as a political force; the reaction of a nation to scandals (Limpopo textbooks) and murderous police (Marikana); and whether these (and other) factors will lead to mass apathy and a low voter turnout, or to more votes being cast for the official opposition.

And that’s where another complication can be introduced – one that I intend to be the topic of this post – namely the identity of the Democratic Alliance, and whether liberalism can accommodate concepts like ubuntu, or be sympathetic to “African-ness” (whatever either of those terms might mean). In her Sunday column for the City Press, Carien du Plessis asked:

Rather than splitting hairs on whether its leaders are true blue liberals or not, the party would do well to think about how its version of liberalism could include rather than reject Africanness and concepts that are a hot sell among a South African electorate craving some feel-good ubuntu.

Otherwise the DA could be wandering in an elitist wilderness forever.

The “splitting hairs” she refers to is contained in a sequence of op-ed’s and blog posts by Mmusi Maimane (DA national spokesperson), Gareth van Onselen (previously communications head at the DA, then executive director for innovation and projects, and now resigned from party leadership) and Gavin Davis (current communications director for the DA, but writing in his personal capacity). If you want to read them, go here, here and here.

I don’t think it’s splitting hairs to contest whether or not leaders are true blue liberals, if we believe that there’s something important about being one, and can agree on what liberalism is. Van Onselen has strong views on what liberalism is, and on how the DA should compete for the flourishing of liberal ideas in South African politics. Du Plessis, in saying that the party should think about how it could include African-ness and ubuntu, is making the implicit claim that liberalism can include those concepts. Well, the DA’s “version” of liberalism can, at least – and it’s exactly what this version should be that van Onselen is concerned with, arguing that these are essentially illiberal ideas.

So, I think a legitimate case can be made that if we were to foreground (or “include”, however we end up defining that) these concepts, this would involve some sort of betrayal of classical liberal values. For some, that would be a good thing, for others a bad one. And we can argue about whether that makes the party no longer liberal, or liberal-lite, or whatever.

But let’s be careful of thinking this a crucial step in defining the nature of the party, or rather, let’s acknowledge the fact that the party hasn’t been a classically liberal one for quite some time now. To pick only some recent examples, some would say that a liberal party should not bow to religious pressure and act as a respondent in a court case aimed at the revocation of a liquor license on the grounds that booze would be sold next to a mosque. Some would say that our provincial transport MEC didn’t sound very liberal when threatening to confiscate the car keys of sleepy drivers, and when asked if this was legal, saying “I have no idea, but I don’t care either”. There was Helen Zille’s suggestion that she’d like to make the wearing of condoms law in non-monogamous sexual intercourse, or Jack Bloom’s claim that “maybe if we all prayed more the social change we desire will happen” – which, while not obviously illiberal, certainly makes human agency and freedom seem subservient to some powerful force in the clouds.

So in summary, this might in the end be hair-splitting, because the party might have stopped being liberal a while back now. And perhaps van Onselen knows this, and is now saying things (at least, publicly) that he’s been thinking for some time. And, maybe, we can understand his concern at what Maimane had to say, in that Maimane is likely to be an increasingly influential force within the party, and thus serves as a bellwether for the ideological stance of the party in 2014 and beyond, where the party might start openly embracing illiberal ideas, rather than having to suffer through occasional bouts of illiberality from one of more of its leaders.

Maimane’s comments do matter, as do any prominent DA official’s comments on topics like these, because they indicate not only ideological direction, but also the extent to which a party is willing to compromise, and how honestly it’s willing to do so. For instance, Maimane could have chosen to say: “liberalism cannot include collectivist ideas like ubuntu, and in this respect, I consider liberalism flawed”. Or, he could argue that this version (to go back to du Plessis’ suggestion) of liberalism is more suited to a people who do have strong collectivist tendencies – or even that freedom has to include the freedom to be part of a collective, even if that seems counterintuitive to some.

But van Onselen is right in pointing out that Maimane does himself seem to believe in the idea that “being African” means something, and he also seems to think it should mean something – not just to him, but to “Africans”. And that is illiberal, because if Maimane restricted himself to the purely descriptive claim that “many people in Africa seem to believe X” or the more personal “I happen to believe or feel X” there would be less of an issue, in that self-identification is part of what liberalism is about. Prescribing versions of identity, or (at least) presenting them as normative, runs counter to self-identification, and thus to liberalism.

The problem, though, is that as much as you’d be free to think of yourself as an African, or to subscribe to something like ubuntu (on Inside Politics, van Onselen and I have previously discussed what that concept means) within a broad liberal framework, the DA don’t create the impression of welcoming those sorts of self-identification – and this is the real problem, and has been since the party came into existence (and before – I remember having the same debates at PFP Youth meetings in the 1980’s, and I’m sure they were discussed long before then too).

(An aside: on Twitter, van Onselen stated that the “ideas themselves are illiberal“, so he’d presumably dispute the paragraph above. I’d argue that whether African-ness was illiberal or not would depend entirely on what it meant, for you, seeing as we’re now talking about self-identification rather than someone else’s label. If African-ness means some sort of sentimental attachment to the continent, for example, calling that illiberal seems to me as false as it would be to call my identification as a Manchester United fan illiberal”.)

As I was saying, these debates have gone on for some time. To my mind, this is the same debate that Ryan Coetzee (former and current all sorts of things, but at the time, writing as CEO of the DA) was talking about in a 2006 strategy document where he noted (in a passage explicitly framed as generalisation) that:

all South Africans don’t share the same concerns about what might be called “identity issues” … white South Africans don’t have the same attachment to the cultural heritage of black South Africans – indeed black South Africans have always felt that their culture is regarded as inferior by whites, and that by extension they themselves are regarded as inferior.

The DA in 2013 looks vastly different to the DA of 2006, partly because it has taken the lead on initiatives (street renaming) and policy (basic income grant) that demonstrate a commitment to redressing history’s injustices rather than reinforcing some “neoliberal” caricature of wiping the slate clean, and letting people compete in some Darwinian pure market economy.

But if we say things like “ubuntu and African-ness are illiberal”, or  that Mmusi Maimane is being unfaithful to the tenets of liberalism in trying to define those concepts, an impression of hostility to that “cultural heritage” would be created. You might think it wrong that people perceive it as hostile – perhaps preferring that the argument be had on the facts, rather than on the emotive impact of pointing out those facts – and I would agree that it’s not ideal that we can’t dispassionately consider the merits of these competing views.

Unfortunately, humans – and politics – have never been only about the facts, or about rationality. Many of you might think the facts have even less to do with political argument than rhetoric does, and I’d be reluctant to disagree. So, when we ask if liberalism can “accommodate” these concepts, even if the answer turns out to be “no”, we should be concerned about how we get to that answer.

Asserting that it is the correct answer in a way that dismisses competing views as a nonsense can do little but feed in to a stereotype about liberals and liberalism, namely that they are and it is un-African. The concept is flawed, and it’s to my mind a nonsense, especially when prescribed to others.

But nobody will listen to your arguments as to why that might be the case if they think you’re insulting them, or even worse, telling them what they should believe – or ironically, even perhaps who they should be.

Freedom of the press doesn’t entail facilitating bias

An edited (see strikethrough in text) version of this column for The Daily Maverick

Reactions to the Democratic Alliance’s delisting of Sowetan journalist Anna Majavu have ranged from outrage to disinterest, although it’s fair to say that outrage is the dominant tone, with one organisation (the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) going so far as to say that the decision was “Goebbels-inspired”. However, very few people seem to have considered the argument in favour of her delisting.