Signs and significance, Vol. I: the UCT Library

In what will probably not ever become a series, consider this sign, displayed in the library of the University of Cape Town. The casual observer might simply pass it by, given that the casual observer is typically not that observant.

The slightly less casual observer might pause to reflect on the irony inherent in the fact that a university library approved, printed and now displays a sign that contains two spelling errors. Or, they might reflect on this a little later, shaking their heads while sipping their cognac. Continue reading “Signs and significance, Vol. I: the UCT Library”

Helen Zille and “valuable aspects of colonial heritage”.

Readers will know that I’m not partial to shaming others, and that I try to avoid polarised viewpoints. I also try to apply the principle of charity – in other words, try to understand what someone was trying to say, rather than simply judging their statements based on surface-level meaning.

And while it’s fairly easy to imagine what Helen Zille thought we should take from her tweets yesterday, it’s very difficult to comprehend how someone with so much experience and knowledge of South African politics could be so naive – or ignorant – as to tweet what she did. Continue reading “Helen Zille and “valuable aspects of colonial heritage”.”

Sugar, the SAIRR and conflicts of interest

The South African Institute for Race Relations (IRR) identifies itself as a liberal think-tank, focusing on research and ideas that might conduce to investment and economic growth.

As you’d know, the term “liberal” means many different things to different people. On my terms, the IRR has often been empathy-light, in that its idealistic vision of what the data tells us we should do can sometimes appear blind to important social and political contexts. Continue reading “Sugar, the SAIRR and conflicts of interest”

What does Trump say about us?

On June 16 of 2015, a friend and I found ourselves in a New York hotel, feeling somewhat compromised after a late night and much revelry. Thanks to our throbbing heads, the spectacle of Donald Trump’s glass elevator arrival – in order to give the first of many bombastic and often fact-free speeches in support of his Presidential ambitions – invoked many sighs and “oh my god”‘s, but not much discussion.

When we did talk of it later, and in conversations that took place in subsequent months with him and others, it was oftentimes with a tone of incredulity, in that the chances of a Trump victory – or even nomination – seemed vanishingly small, and his attempt to seek the nomination therefore a simple manifestation of an ego the size of a planet (hello Marvin!).

We all know better now, of course. By which I don’t mean that the ego stuff is false – he certainly has it, and is flaunting it like only a narcissist can. But when I arrive back in NYC on June 16 this year, Trump will have been the confirmed Republican nominee for nearly two months already, with Hillary Clinton the only remaining potential “loser” for him to defeat (once Bernie Sanders gets out of the way, that is).

And one year on, the thing I want to briefly touch on is the narrative that Trump’s ascendancy has provoked in some quarters, whereby voters are being described as “irrational” or “stupid”. Some surely are either or both of these things, but there’s no reason to think – and no plausible mechanism whereby – voters suddenly become more irrational and/or stupid, en masse, in the period since the last election, or even over a generation or two.

Describing your opponents or “enemies” via abusive terms helps us to keep “our” tribe together, and helps “them” to do the same, but it involves no attempt to explain why people might make ostensibly irrational choices, nor to help us figure out how to minimise the chances of their doing so in the future.

One part of this Trump campaign (including the behaviour of his supporters at rallies) that needs explanation is not only how you can get away with talking nonsense so much of the time, but more crucially how it can be that you can get away with blatant racism and sexism while campaigning as a Presidential candidate.

And on that aspect of things, I’d encourage you to read this piece by Thomas B. Edsall, about which a friend remarked:

Edsall here gives what I think is a crucial part of the diagnosis of Trump’s success. Decades of shaming racists, nativists, sexists, and homophobes into concealment, instead of arguing with them, has been unwise but strongly institutionalized politics and now the bill has arrived.

It’s been said before, but “call-out culture” and mob shaming on the Internet might satisfy our tribal lusts, but if you’re looking to change thinking and behaviour, you might want to consider a different tactic.

South African news media: hopefully not dead, just resting

Fridays are the day when – if I happen to walk into a store that sells newspapers – I’ll often cast a wistful gaze at the stack of Mail & Guardian papers delivered that morning, noting that my primary impulse would sooner be to straighten the stack rather than to buy a copy.

This isn’t because if you wait until Monday, the content becomes free to read online. It’s because I’ve lost my confidence in the odds of reading something worthwhile, that was so strong in the late 80’s (for its predecessor, the Weekly Mail), and continued for much of the time since then. Continue reading “South African news media: hopefully not dead, just resting”

Religious freedom in the firing line

Gateway News, the ‘South African Christian News Portal’, is always a good place to find over-reaction, misrepresentation, and unfounded panic, for example this account of ‘militant atheist groups‘ that are (shock, horror!) trying to stop Joshua Generation Church from endorsing corporal punishment.

A recent Gateway News post by Adv Nadene Badenhorst, legal counsel of FOR SA, catalogues some of the ways in which religion will find itself “in the firing line” during 2016. But a cursory look at the cases cited reveals the opposite, in that it’s religious privilege that she’s concerned about, rather than religious freedom. Continue reading “Religious freedom in the firing line”

On Mcebo Dlamini’s free speech, and his “love” for Hitler

Mcebo Dlamini is the current SRC President at Wits University, and also the current focus of much Twitter outrage, and even some conversation. Both the outrage and the conversation are due to this, from Facebook:

Responding to a commenter who wrote [about Israel] “Hitler new [sic] they were up to no good”, Dlamini replied “I love Adolf HITLER”.

Mcebo-2-339x600In the same comment thread, he claimed that all whites have a “bit of Hitler” in them. From what I’ve seen, the Facebook thread offered no context or explanation for these comments, the first of which is obviously offensive, in that it follows from a comment endorsing Hitler’s attitude towards “modern Israel”, and by extension Jews. In that context, Dlamini seems to be endorsing the Holocaust (even though I don’t believe he was in fact doing so).

When asked to explain these comments, he said

What I love about Hitler is his charisma and his capabilities to organise people. We need more leaders of such calibre. I love Adolf Hitler.

He also responded to the news that his Facebook comment had been reported with “am not removing it…..truth hurts…face it murderers”. So, he respects certain attributes of Hitler, and summarises this in saying that he “loves” Hitler, and furthermore calls out supporters of modern-day Israel for inconsistency in that they (on his version) are “murderers” themselves.

There is no doubt in my mind that these comments are anti-Semitic, as the South African Union of Jewish Students noted. I think they were so in two ways: first, because of all the villians in history, Hitler occupies a unique position. There are still hundreds of thousands of people alive that he harmed fairly directly, in arranging for the killing of relatives and friends.

The vast majority of these folk are united in being Jewish, and it is that same fact about their relatives and friends that led to their deaths. Other villians like Genghis Khan, Pol Pot and Stalin are either not as fresh in the memory, or killed more randomly. My point is that there is no need to engage in any comparison regarding who was the most evil to recognise that Hitler’s evil is uniquely powerful in the visceral response it generates even today.

The second way in which they are anti-Semitic is that they draw an equivalence between modern-day Israel and the Holocaust. As much as I disapprove of much of Israel’s behaviour in Palestine and towards Palestinians, to describe it as being intended to result in Palestinian extermination seems an unfair comparison (even though quotes to that effect can be found, I don’t think them representative).

Having noted all the above, Dlamini should nevertheless be allowed to say these offensive and stupid things. He does not “love Hitler” for having killed millions of Jews, he simply loves controversy and headlines. Dlamini appreciates certain aspects of Hitler’s personality or certain skills (while perhaps being wrong or right about those same personality attributes and skills), and expressed this hyperbolically to get attention.

That’s fine. It’s is, in fact, good. Because now the Wits students know that they have a hothead anti-Semite as their SRC President, and they can remove him from office. They should remove him from office, as if they don’t, they are endorsing his views. But that’s as far as it should go – I don’t believe Dlamini did anything illegal, and I don’t believe that the university should pursue charges against him.

(I need to highlight one additional distinction with regard to charges, though: while I don’t think that the university should charge him in open court, it might well be possible that he contravened internal university rules. In fact, I think it’s almost certain that he did so, in that Wits would no doubt have rules about offensive speech and the like.

So even if Dlamini did not engage in hate speech as per the Bill of Rights, he should be charged with breaking an internal rule if he did so, or the rule should be changed. And this does not mean the internal rule is the right rule, or that I’m endorsing it. You either apply the rule, or you change it – but you don’t ignore it.)

That’s the first over-arching point I want to make: what he said was offensive and stupid, he should not be SRC President, but he should be allowed to say it. Then:

The second point I want to make is an extension of the Tweet above, and relates to sentiments of the sort expressed by T.O. Molefe in a Tweet calling out Max du Preez for inconsistent treatment of the RhodesMustFall situation and the one currently under discussion. The claim made was that du Preez is wrong in seeing Hitler as absolutely evil, while recognising both good and bad in Rhodes.

I think that’s a serious misreading of du Preez, in that I doubt he’d deny the fact of the matter if Hitler were, for example, often to be seen helping out at the old-age home. What I mean is that noting someone’s – anyone’s – positive virtues has no necessary bearing on one’s overall attitude towards them. Du Preez’ columns on Rhodes made their distaste for Rhodes clear upfront, before noting any virtues.

Even if you think it’s wrong to even note a single virtue of someone like Rhodes (or Hitler), there is nevertheless a clear difference between saying “that was an evil person, with one or two redeeming qualities” and saying “I love this person, even though he’s universally reviled for being a mass murderer of Jews”, and leaving it at that until being asked to clarify your sentiment.

Expressing your admiration or love for a person endorses them. Expressing the sentiment that they had certain virtues does not, or at least does so far more tentatively and ambiguously. The difference is clear, and we cannot make excuses for Dlamini as a result of how some responded to Rhodes, if the issue is restricted to this one alone, namely the “I love him” followed by a belated “but…” versus “he was a bad man, albeit with a few virtues”.

(As another aside, because I know how misreadings abound, I don’t think comparisons between Rhodes and Hitler are either useful or justified. My point is merely to make the case that there is no necessary equivalence between a sentiment about the one and a sentiment about the other. Both the words and the context of their utterance matters.)

Consider saying “I hate Hitler, but…” or saying “I love Hitler, although…” – both of those will be regarded as offensive by many, but hopefully you can see that they are less so than saying “I love Hitler” and then waiting for someone to ask what you mean. If you say “I love Hitler” without qualification, you’re saying something about your character, and loudly enough that the Wits students will probably hear it.

Lastly, I’d also encourage you to read this piece about Dlamini’s history, including his extended deception of peers where he claimed to be the love-child of Zwelakhe Sisulu and a Swazi princess, as well as a student in a secret nuclear physics degree at the University of Pretoria. He’s now admitted to lying about these things, but the story told there suggests to me that taking him too seriously would be a mistake, and also that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a sympathetic ear might be more useful than shouting at him.

He expressed himself badly, yes, but that’s not always the same thing as being a bad person. Distinctions can, and should, be made.

Euthanasia and a “culture of death”

Last Thursday was the first “Openly Secular Day“, a new initiative from the Richard Dawkins Foundation (RDFS) and other secular and atheist organisations. Perhaps because of the RDFS’s involvement, I find the day to be a slightly wasted opportunity, in that it emphasises the atheism bit too much for my liking, thus impeding the important bit – secularism – unnecessarily.

Secularism is the important bit because it allows for atheist and theist folks to work together towards a common goal, which is the establishment of laws and policy that is neutral with respect to whatever your beliefs regarding supernatural entities and mystical agents might be. It’s obvious why atheists should care about this, and theists should care because they’d also not like religious laws, if those laws happened to derive from the utterances of a god other than theirs. Continue reading “Euthanasia and a “culture of death””

Blast from the past

calvinia1File this one under “random weirdness”. A few weeks ago, the editor of an anthology of poems, intended for South African high school students, asked for me to renew permission for them to include this poem of mine.

I’d forgotten that I was in this anthology – in fact, I’d pretty much forgotten that I used to write poetry. Anyway – for the interest of very few of you, here’s a free verse something about the death of my grandfather, from (I’d guess) 1993 or so.

Calvinia, 1976

Kicking pebbles along cracked pavements,
my brother and I strolled through this Karoo town.
Past pale houses, dusky streets, past the Saamstaan store
where we could always find a spinning top, stop
to listen for the sound of windmills, or watch
the trucks pass by with their smell of sheep;
their cargo destined for a place alongside potatoes
and an occasional vegetable on blue china plates.

In Calvinia, I slept in my Oupa’s bed, both of us tired
from mending farm fences, or from circling this small town
in the hours between the day’s labour, evening’s quiet.
We would wake at dawn, when he led me to the kitchen
to pour five spoons of sugar into my enamel coffee mug.
Strangely, the thermos was always full and waiting –
waiting to be emptied, along with the small jars of lard
that lined one pantry shelf; lard to spread on our toast,
or to fry the bacon and eggs of a Sunday feast.

My brother and I found a chest of drawers
in Oupa’s room one day – inside lay his store of treats:
Wilson’s toffees, the peppermint creams he placed
in our palms after dinner, or presented in small plastic bags
when he came to visit us in Cape Town. As he grew older,
and I grew older, I began to realise the purpose of these trips
to the Cape – not the gift of sweets, but a hospital bed,
transfusions, chemotherapy.

He began to visit once a week, but only to sit, drink tea,
smile weakly at my brother, me. Before long
he no longer visited, but became a regular shadow
on the living-room wall. It wasn’t too long
before the hospital became his home, and the hospital
was not his home for long.