“Classical Liberalism” and the Institute of Race Relations

Liberalism has always meant different things to different people. I tried to describe what its fundamental principles are, for me, almost exactly five years ago.

Re-reading that piece, the phrase “I’m by and large a ‘classical’ liberal” stands out, because it wasn’t true then, and is absurd now. At that point, I suppose I thought there was more room for social liberalism in the “classical” camp than seems to be the case now.

Fixing Ivo Vegter

ivo_vegterSome of you might think that Ivo Vegter can’t be fixed, given that he’s a resolute critic of government intervention in our lives, suspicious of the doom-and-gloom narrative around climate change, and (cautiously) pro-fracking. To be honest, I disagree with him more than I used to, especially on the climate change issue.

However, it’s partly because of his columns in the Daily Maverick that I’ve discovered that I disagree with him, and why. This is part of the point of commenting in the public domain – that arguments can be put forward, debates can be had, and minds can be changed. As John Stuart Mill famously reminded us in On Liberty, we want to encourage free speech and robust debate partly because it shows us where we are wrong, and partly because it helps us know what criticisms need to be addressed and responded to, even when we are right (or think we are right).

It’s with this in mind that I alert you to the fact that Ivo, a friend as well as a fellow columnist (at one time – I subsequently retired) at the Daily Maverick, is unwell and in need of support. If you’ve enjoyed his writing, and/or if you think that the independent columnist role is worth supporting, consider helping him out (his banking details are at the previous link). He – and many like him – earn far too little (or sometimes, nothing) for what they do, but readers often benefit greatly. As per the nature of crowdsourced initiatives, your small donation can make a difference, if there are enough of you making them.

Things worth reading on South Africa, Mandela and fake sign-language

With so much content being produced on the average day, it’s easy for some of the most worthwhile pieces to pass you by, no matter how good your network of curators might be. Today, three pieces were published that I think worthy of your serious attention, and to them I’d want to add something written earlier this week. These four columns are superb, and because I suspect that the regular readers of this website would agree, I’d like to highlight them here.

First, Ivo Vegter’s Daily Maverick column on the old South African flag that he keeps as a reminder of where we’ve been as a country, and how we got to where we are today. Ivo and I are less than a year apart in age, and my experiences overlap considerably with those expressed in the column. But it’s not the veracity of the historical details that is most important in this column, rather the way in which Ivo captures the  mood of the time, and the soothing effect that Mandela had on a fractured nation.

As I’ve written before, though, that balm came at a cost – any grand mythology tends to do so, because they encourage us to substitute honest (and painful) self-reflection with optimistic cliches (the “Rainbow Nation”) or an inflated sense of our value to the rest of the world (to think that we belong in the BRICs, for example). Honest self-reflection about South Africa is what the second column, by Chris Roper (Editor-in-Chief at the Mail & Guardian) focuses on. In “The lies Nelson Mandela taught us“, Roper reminds us that we’re not special nor exceptional, and that nobody in the rest of the world has an obligation to think we are. Mandela allowed us to believe the opposite, and telling us these lies, Roper says, might well have given us a

kick-start as a nation. But they have run their course. It’s time to trade Mandela’s lies for Jacob Zuma’s truths, hard truths though they be. The truths of our extreme ordinariness and of our distressing propensity for the three isms of the apocalypse – nepotism, despotism and cronyism.

Third, and in a similar vein, Sarah Britten brings us a Thought Leader column (also on the Mail & Guardian website) on “The eloquence of the fake-signing man” – a title that readers would surely recognise as darkly ironic, in that Thamsanqa Jantjie (the “fake signer” in question) could hardly be less eloquent (in terms of the job he was paid to do) than he actually was on the day. Instead, he speaks eloquently, and tragically, of lowered expectations and standards in South Africa – on how convincing bluster can win the day, even if you have nothing of consequence to contribute to a debate, to a classroom, a Parliament, or a Presidency.

Which neatly (almost as if by design!) brings me to the fourth column, by Tony Weaver in the Cape Times. This column is arguably about what happens when you do your job well, but offend those with power and thin skins in doing so. Weaver’s “Man Friday” column is a first-hand account of the Cape Times newsroom on the night and early morning that Mandela died, and of how well the editor, Alide Dasnois, marshalled the various resources at her disposal to produce what Weaver describes as “the best newspaper I have ever worked on”, and which was also voted as “one of the 14 best front pages in the world” by Time Magazine.

Dasnois was relieved of her position that morning, just as many South Africans were first hearing of Mandela’s death. In writing this tribute to her editorship, for the same publication, Weaver has effectively told Dr Iqbal Surve (chairperson of the newspaper group in question) that whatever his strengths might be, defending editorial independence – and judging the quality of an editor – aren’t among them. Let’s hope he doesn’t lose his column for saying so.

To the four columnists who wrote these pieces – thank you. I know that it’s sometimes rather frustrating to put such energy and thought into constructing a column, only to find that it serves mostly as troll-fodder. There will be (and are) trolls aplenty on two of the columns already, but also many who, like me, are grateful and feel enriched thanks to work such as this.

Moral hysteria as substitute for thought

Moral hysteria, and a culture of soundbites and headlines, can get in the way of seeing the merits of an alternative point of view, and perhaps changing our minds on an issue. The whole point of intellectual discourse, reading and writing is to discover where we might be wrong, and to change our minds (including sometimes turning to agnosticism) on particular issues where we seem to be wrong.

Instead, we mostly look for evidence that reinforces our existing view, and alarmingly, sometimes allow criticism or contrary evidence to serve to reinforce our existing belief (this mechanism is known as the “backfire effect”).

The case is that of Melissa Bachman, who has recently been the subject of large helpings of social media vitriol, including petitions directed at the South African government asking for her to be barred from entering the country in perpetuity. Bachman, in case you didn’t know, is a so-called “trophy killer” who recently shot and killed the lion pictured below.


Now, whatever you might think of hunting – or even eating meat – there’s absolutely no reason to think that she had done anything illegal, and therefore, anything that merited a request to bar her from the country in perpetuity. But that’s not what the petition is based on. Instead, it asserts that she should be barred from the country for being

an absolute contradiction to the culture of conservation, this country prides itself on. Her latest Facebook post features her with a lion she has just executed and murdered in our country.

The problem, of course, is that the “culture of conservation” operates within a legal framework, and that legal framework currently permits hunting, so long as the necessary licences have been obtained. If you’ve crossed your legal t’s, you can “execute and murder” (in case the execution fails, it’s good to have a backup plan) as many of the creatures you’ve been given permission to execute and murder.

The fact that you are photographed with the non-human animal that you’ve killed should not be regarded as morally salient. Critics have used emotive language such as “bloodthirsty” to describe Bachman’s hunting, even though there’s nothing that’s objectively more bloodthirsty about her photographing the lion that she has killed than there is my photographing of a particularly juicy and tender steak. I could post a steak picture every day for a month, and not be the subject of such a petition – even if I were to not give a damn about how humanely the cows (or whatever) were hunted, a concern that Bachman and other hunters might have, but be unable to reflect in a photograph.

Ivo Vegter, a former colleague at that fine online newspaper, the Daily Maverick, puts it well in the conclusion of his column “In defence of a lion killer“:

South Africa officially considers Bachman a welcome and valued visitor, and rightly so. Even if you disagree, and you arrogantly think you have the moral authority to judge her arrogance, the real story is this. Your smug superiority risks depriving South Africa of tourism revenue and employment. It risks depriving the country of much-needed funding for conservation. It risks reducing the value of our wildlife, which reduces the incentive for private farm owners to breed and protect game. Hypocritical anger is a greater threat to conservation than Bachman’s rifle will ever be.

I’d urge you to read his column, and some of the many comments to it. But in short, whether or not you are opposed to hunting, issues such as these are rarely simple. The vast majority of issues are, in fact, quite complicated. If you care about your country’s economy, you might need to (pragmatically) allow for hunting under certain conditions, for a certain time. If you care about the fate of a particular species, you might need to (pragmatically) allow for hunting under certain conditions, for a certain time. And so on.

The danger, of course, is that a pragmatic concession towards some ultimate goal can sometimes be difficult to rewind, leaving us stuck with the pragmatic concession long after it’s needed. But insofar as that concern is legitimate – and it often is – it’s not the one we typically hear. Instead, we typically hear screaming and stamping of feet, and that inspires little but turning your back and walking away.

FrackNation screening

biMy fellow columnist at the Daily Maverick, Ivo Vegter, has secured the rights to screen FrackNation in South Africa. If you’ve seen Gasland, you might think that the South African government would be giving Shell permission to destroy the Karoo, create flammable tap water, and murder a number of meerkats. If you’ve read any of Ivo’s columns, you’d know that he thinks these fears unfounded, and that fracking in the Karoo is instead likely to result in lots of cheap energy, jobs and so forth.

But regardless of which side of the fence you are on the issue of fracking, it’s important to be persuaded by evidence rather than by hysteria, unfounded fear, or emotional blackmail. And this is the problem with Gasland, in that Josh Fox simply makes stuff up (at times) in that highly successful documentary. Regardless of whether he’s right or wrong on the merits of fracking, he does his cause no good through playing fast and loose with evidence.

Well, one might hope that causes premised on hysteria and dishonesty pay a price. In this case, that hasn’t happened – in fact, Fox has been commissioned to make a sequel. Fox’s documentary did however prompt a thorough response – also in documentary form – by independent journalist Phelim McAleer. I’ve seen it, and it’s worth watching – not only because he counters many of the claims made by Fox, but also because he exposes how afraid Fox is of engaging with any critical questions.

So if you care about the issue of hydraulic fracturing – and also, care about your views on important matters being justified by all the (reasonably) available evidence, then try to attend next wek’s Cape Town premiere of FrackNation.

To quote from the press release:

The premiere will be screened at in Cape Town on 20 June 2013. Afterwards, there will be opportunity for a Q&A with me (Ivo Vegter, columnist for Daily Maverick and author of Extreme Environment).

Venue: The Labia
City: Cape Town
Date: Thursday 20 June 2013
Time: 18:00 – 20:00

Tickets are R200. You can book here:


A full house would be great, because it is important to combat lobby group propaganda, and I’d like to cover my own expenses. Please forward this to other people you think would be keen to hear an
independent take on the shale gas debate.

LeadSA responds (sort of) to Bill of Responsibilities criticism

Since the launch of the Bill of Responsibilities last week, debate on its merits and demerits has continued – mostly on Twitter, but also via two columns worth reading in the Daily Maverick (by Khadija Patel and Ivo Vegter). I’ve also written a follow-up to my previous post, which you can read in the Daily Maverick tomorrow (or here, a day or two later).

But some of you might not follow me or the other participants on Twitter, so might have missed this response from Yusuf Abramjee, published today in the Pretoria News. Mr Abramjee is the Head of News and Current Affairs at Primedia, Chairperson of the National Press Club, and a spokesperson for LeadSA. And he’s also apparently eager to embody the sentiments of the Bill of Responsibilities through allowing general hand-waving in the general direction of serious issues to replace critical and useful engagement.

And he’s not the only one. In a brief interview with John Maytham on CapeTalk567 last week, some of the questions directed at me also implied that there’s something wrong with criticising this Bill, which after all aims at something most consider good – moral regeneration and so forth. But there’s no reason to buy into this false dichotomy – I can be committed to moral regeneration, but think that it isn’t best served by a prescriptive, nanny-ish and illiberal document, which is what this Bill amounts to (see Ivo’s column, linked above).

Then, there are some on Twitter who also accuse the Bill’s critics of over-reacting. You can decide for yourself if that’s the case, but none of these critics are engaging with any of the arguments – they are simply asserting that we’re wrong, or at worst, not committed to a country in which people are aware that they have an impact on the lives of others, and on the country’s direction, and who therefore might want to think about rights and responsibilities in a non-superficial way. As Sipho Hlongwane pointed out, “there’s a whiff of ‘I was a prefect at school'” to their criticisms – and we’re all just being disobedient children.

As is the case with Yusuf Abramjee’s response (Facebook link), pasted below (without the stuff about our obligation to support SA cricket, and to switch our lights off for an hour every year):

Last week, Lead SA launched the Bill of Responsibilities for the Youth. We have a Bill of Rights in our Constitution. But with rights come responsibilities. This document is also aimed at moral regeneration.

The majority of people were positive about it. But some immediately started criticizing the Bill of Responsibilities and – without studying the contents properly -found fault with it.

We have to promote good morals and ethics. We have to address the many social ills, especially among our youth. But, the constant negativity from some quarters is worrying and it can become destructive.

Let’s not forget that with freedom of speech and expression comes responsibility. We must not open our mouths simply for the sake of it.

We have many problems in our country and if the culture of just finding fault and becoming armchair critics is going to continue, it is not going to hold our country in good stead.

We all have to work together and find solutions. We all have to roll up our sleeves. We all have to make a difference. It’s about you. It’s about our future and our country.

What a wonderful democracy we have. We are quick to point fingers but we are sometimes slow to find solutions. All South Africans need to take the negativity and turn into something positive. With every problem comes a solution.

Let’s not become a nation which embraces gloom and doom. As citizens we have rights, but that means responsibility, too.

Notice that the criticisms are simply a result of our “not reading the Bill properly”. Will we have read it properly only once we agree with it, I wonder? All the critical treatments of the Bill that I have read ask specific questions about it, and criticise clauses of it that demonstrate quite a thorough reading. It’s not a long document, after all, and seeing as it’s aimed at kids, it would be quite odd for it to present a comprehension challenge to the various smart people I read and follow on Twitter. Unless we’re all just thick, I suppose.

And besides ignoring any arguments and accusing us of not paying attention (where we actually engage with substance, rather than simply dismissing the opposing view), Abramjee also plays the negativity card in saying that the “constant negativity from some quarters is worrying and it can become destructive”. This linking of criticism with pessimism is an illegitimate way of privileging optimism – it makes critical enquiry morally coloured, and suggests that those who criticise are being unfair, or perhaps even unpatriotic.

And of course there can be criticism which is uncharitable, unfair, or motivated by an agenda other than reasoning our way to the most justified position. But if that’s the case, it needs to be demonstrated, not simply asserted. Critical enquiry – criticism – is our best resource for sorting sense from nonsense, and to discourage it is certainly not leading SA in any direction we should wish for it to go. As I’ve said before (and will expand on in tomorrow’s column), a key part of the freedoms that were secured in this country is the right to not accept someone else’s vision of life, or truth, as being compulsory for all of us. We have the right to think for ourselves, even though a consequence of that can sometimes be that we get things horribly wrong.

Finally, in a shameless finger-wagging moralising moment, Mr Abramjee tells us that “We have many problems in our country and if the culture of just finding fault and becoming armchair critics is going to continue, it is not going to hold our country in good stead”. Well, I’m not sure who he’s addressing here, but the majority of the people I’ve been engaging with on this issue get out of their armchairs all the time. They are teachers, critics, politicians, columnists and so forth, who spend the bulk of their lives engaging in various efforts to stimulate debate and thinking on the problems facing South Africa and the world in general.

Again, whether they do so well or not is not the issue. Whether they do it in the way Yusuf Abramjee or LeadSA would prefer or not is not the issue. But LeadSA and Yusuf Abramjee don’t get to decide that, and this is the point of the criticism. And we’d happily be proved wrong (speaking for myself, but a plausible assumption for the others). But proving us wrong would require engaging with the arguments – and that’s not something we’re seeing much of from some parties to this debate.