Daily Maverick Headspace Politics

Please look after the place while I’m gone

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

imagesIt’s time for a holiday. In a literal sense, because I am about to go off to a conference in Las Vegas (where some amount of holiday is difficult to avoid), but also in the more general sense of taking a break from what has become routine. One of those things is obsessing over the nuances of South Africa’s racial politics, and another is this column.

The optimism on display at the Agang launch earlier today was good to see. Many of you might share my fatigue at the constant succession of stories that don’t promote optimism – from the classification of the Nkandla report as top secret, to the ad hominem abuse of opposition parliamentarians. Last week, we even heard the absurdist – yet sadly apposite – story of how the very ambulance taking Mandela to hospital ran out of energy.

In the midst of all this, I had a Twitter argument with a black man over Dan Roodt – where I was criticising Roodt’s myopic nationalism and cherry-picking of evidence related to who was killing more of whom, and my interlocutor was defending Roodt’s right to hold those views. As long as the argument went on, I couldn’t persuade this man that while I agree that Roodt’s views can be held and freely expressed, we should certainly be on the same side in condemning them.

So, it’s a South Africa where a white liberal can now find himself disagreeing with someone (who has almost certainly borne a larger share of apartheid’s burdens) over whether a racist Afrikaner nationalist has a worthwhile point of view or not. These are strange days, indeed.

This isn’t to say that I share the pessimism that many seem to feel. I’d like to take a break from a certain form of engagement, a certain sort of discourse. Many of you might already avoid social media for exactly this reason – it’s too full of over-confident ad hoc opinions that tend towards the extremes. Depending on who you listen to, either we’re doomed or we’re in great shape, with little room for any position in-between.

The truth is most likely in-between, though, as it ever is. We’ll one day be rid of Zuma, and we’ll one day somehow get to a stage where we’re a democracy in more than only name – in other words, where the incumbent party feels the real possibility of losing power, and is thus fully motivated to do its job.

In the meanwhile, there’s plenty going on that’s far more local, far more manageable, and where it’s far easier for any and each of us to make an impact. If there’s no community project you can or want to get involved with, give to an organisation or charity that does things you support – Equal Education, DignitySA, a hospice, a hospital.

And, easiest of all, remember that each of us incentivises (and dis-incentivises) certain attitudes, behaviour and speech every day, simply though what we present to others as permissible or advisable. If you have kids, they will learn about how to treat others through you. If you have students, they learn how to think through you. Even in matters most prosaic – if you keep jumping the red light or rolling through the stop sign, don’t be surprised to see that behaviour becoming common.

In short, we can all contribute to upholding a social contract without indulging in the sanctimony of a LeadSA – and our despondency at the examples set by government sometimes allows us to forget that. We might think: with such a rot at the top, what difference does it make what I do? But for all the large-scale importance of what happens at the top, we affect each other’s lives frequently, and could sometimes do with a reminder that not everything can be blamed on the man in the high castle.

One of the things I’ve tried to do in most of the 158 columns I’ve written for the Daily Maverick is to deflate our certainty on various firm convictions. This is because oftentimes, it seems that we cede our responsibility to come to a reasoned conclusion and instead settle for something ready-made by emotion, political conviction or some other powerful force. In consequence, we’re less able to talk, debate and learn, and more often compelled to resort to the safety of stereotype.

In a young country, with a crippled education system, a corrupt administration, widespread economic inequality and still-seething racial tensions, the last thing we’d want to do is to stop thinking. So let’s not – and let’s keep encouraging each other to keep at it too. I’ll certainly be back to play my part – at this point it’s just not clear where or when that will be.

External World General

Travels in the hyperreal

Normal service* should now be able to resume here at Synapses, following a 20-day sojourn in various parts of that strange place they call America. While it’s great to be back in Cape Town, especially with World Cup fever already starting to mount, there are aspects of life there that I never fail to appreciate – most notably the generally polite (even if often formulaic) ways in which people interact. The ad-hoc manner of much social engagement here in South Africa is certainly interesting, and oftentimes a good tonic against boredom**, but I do hope we one day reach a socio-economic level whereby people’s incentives are no longer so emphatically short-term.

But short-term incentives was exactly the zone in which our trip started, in Las Vegas. The Bellagio's water showWhile I was there for a conference (on responsible gambling), that didn’t stop the Doctor and I from having plenty of fun. It’s not the sort of place I’d want to live, but if you’re there for 4 days, and are able to pretend you’re living in a video game (in which your character has plenty of disposable income), it’s a great place to be.

We wined, we dined (there’s a plethora of celeb-chef eateries in the casinos), we saw a few shows. And then we (the Doctor took another path at this point) went way south to Birmingham, Alabama, home of countless fundamentalist churches and boarded-up abortion clinics (well, I didn’t try to count, but there are a fair number). In this ocean of mental-death, a small island of deep thought presented itself at the University of Alabama, where Ross, Ladyman and Dennett (and others) spoke at a colloquium on scientific naturalism and metaphysics.

In terms of cultural difference, you’d struggle to find two American locations more divergent, but we were fortunately well-insulated from the most unwelcome sorts of Southern hospitality, while still getting to enjoy the welcome sorts (pulled pork and barbecue sauce, of course).

And then, a week of pure vacation in Maryland, which mostly involved eating and drinking, interspersed with an evening of excessive eating, drinking, and incredulity over Thanksgiving, where the Doctor and I were seated at a table including a (self-professed) redneck, a TSA agent and his military bride, and some incredibly loud children. These people were all family, in some indirect way that adds further terror to the idea of “family”.

Now were back home in Cape Town, and I’m mostly caught up with the backlog of stuff that relentlessly piles up. But most importantly, it’s good to be home – nothing reminds you more of what a great place this is to live than being away from it.

* No rash promises here: this means perhaps a post every two weeks, rather than one per month.

** The headline news item on 567 CapeTalk at 2pm today was that Charlize Theron was dining at the Waterfront, right now! The breathless reporter reported (as they do) that he had tried to gain entry to the restaurant in question (not named) to have a few words, but was not permitted entry.