from Brenda in Hove, UK: Another ‘Blursday’

Prof. Brenda Gourley

‘Blursday’, ‘covidiot’ and ‘doomscroll’ are in Times Magazine’s collection depicting the year ‘2020 in Language. I relate to these three particularly. In the UK we are now in the third strict lockdown in a year – but, given the risks for our age group, my husband and I have effectively been in strict lockdown since last March.

You will understand my recognition of ‘blursday’ as an excellent way of describing my life at the moment, a life where one day is so very like another that it is difficult to know which day of the week it is.   

You will pardon my exasperation at Covidiots who include the members of government here who thought letting people celebrate Christmas with their families a good idea. With family in America you can well imagine that ‘exasperation’ hardly covers my feelings towards an administration that largely ignored the Covid reality – and encouraged that same attitude in its millions of supporters. It is , however, no longer useful to merely describe them and the many millions of Americans who clearly think the same way as ‘idiots’. There are deep underlying issues here.

That brings me to ‘Doomscrolling’. Watching the news began to feel like ‘doomscrolling’ some time ago and we decided to limit the number of broadcasts we watch every day. There is just too much bad news out there. And then came the events at the Capitol in Washington last week. I was back to ‘doomscrolling’. I would think impeachment is the least of the consequences in store for Trump. We will see. One is not filled with confidence. And, given the number of his supporters and their deep and strongly held sense of grievance, Biden will have a difficult job restoring trust in the system. And it is not just the US system where trust has been eroded. The whole Brexit debate was fuelled by the many who no longer believed the establishment in power was working for them.

But exasperation, and doomscrolling and the blurred focus of the days do not cover the one overriding feeling I have at this time – and that is a sense of grief.

The grief is prompted by my concern for what young people make of all this, and what it all means for the lives of our children and grandchildren. It is not just the pandemic – although that has certainly highlighted many of the fault-lines in our society and I suspect that life will never be the same for many of us. It is that – but so much more. We are seeing almost in real time major geographic and political shifts which are already reformulating many of the premises on which so many of us in the West have built our relatively comfortable lives.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on many lives and yet we don’t see urgency in the kind of responses that such catastrophe should elicit. Governments that have been unable to come to grips with a pandemic do not fill us with confidence that they are equal to this larger and more threatening challenge. No wonder the Greta Thunbergs of the world feel they have to act. They do.

The changes wrought by technology and all that it has enabled have made the world better in so many ways with amazing innovations being announced all the time (not the least of which is the new vaccine). But it has also exposed a deep digital divide and made many jobs redundant. New kinds of jobs are being invented and yet education systems have been slow to change accordingly – and it is young people who are feeling the burden of this, their schooling interrupted and even cut short, they are to be thrust into a cruel and ridiculous ‘gig’ economy (if they find a job at all) and equipped only with the education of yesteryear. They are the future architects of a new world and the support they are given wholly inadequate.

The balance of world power from West to East, long foretold, is happening at a much greater pace than predicted and helped along by weak leadership in the West and the rise of populist cultures fed on the thin gruel of conspiracy theories, ‘alternative facts’, the importance of ‘celebrity’ and social media untethered by the laws of libel, incitement and hate speech. Some call this ‘the age of impunity’ where all sorts of behaviours including egregious human rights abuses are tolerated. Young, impressionable minds need to be strong to resist the siren calls.  It is hard.

It is true that from great upheavals there often comes great change. I do hope that the Black Lives Matter movement prompted by the death of George Floyd and others will take hold and fuel change. I am only cautiously optimistic. If those storming the Capitol last week had been black or Muslim I can’t help believing that the police response would have been a whole lot more violent. So we are not there yet. But I do believe there has been at least some change – but can young people rely on this?

The success of populist cultures has exposed the inadequacy of so-called ‘democratic’ systems of government and with the inequalities between rich and poor are more stark than ever before, no wonder there are so many angry people. Again too many people, young and older, do not have the opportunities to fulfil their potential. 

No young people are sheltered from these realities. Social media ensures that. No place for innocence now. My heart grieves.  

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: ‘Democracy in Chains’

cover of the latest Economist

November 3. My husband tells me he doesn’t want to hear about Trump any more. Neither do. I wish he was still just one of the pantheon of narcissistic TV personalities that frequent the front pages of our weekly celebrity gossip magazine, Woman’s Day … old copies that you might pick up in the dentist’s waiting room … the junk pages you flipped over to move on to featured recipes.

For that is where Donald Trump belongs, where he started … in over-the-top gossip magazines.

I hope that after January 20, 2021 Trump can disappear into the background of the world and we will never have to hear from him. Apparently in Australia, about 25% of the population said they had confidence in President Trump trying to do the right thing for world affairs (whereas 87% supported Barack Obama during his presidency). This is very low for our country as usually we support our closest ally.

Within the USA, the trend of the population supporting the standing president has been declining since 2013 when it’s stood at 66% – being favourable support for President Barack Obama. This declining perception of the standing USA president is repeated across the Western World. I wonder to what extent American voters comprehend this.

From Australia, there’s nothing we can do about the unfolding events in the USA. We have two children and four grandchildren living there. This heightens my anxiety. And it is not just Trump and his bombastic ignorance and lies, it is the damage done to the body politic by him and his enablers: the loss of trust in the democratic system; the extent of the gerrymandering going on; the stark racial divide; the erosion of the separation of powers and the weakening of the media.

So, I am thinking about the beautiful passage in Ecclesiastes 3:1-3:22…about times in our human life. No doubt we are going to be doing some of this in a few days’ time.

(I like the old King James’ bible version. It is worth re-visiting.)

‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;’

They forgot about … ‘A time to be anxious’!

I have been slowly reading People, Power and Profits by Joseph E. Stiglitz (2019). Slowly, because there is much to absorb. This is what I read today. (Page 160 in the Penguin edition, Chapter 8 on Restoring Democracy.)

‘It is becoming clearer that the objective of the Republican Party is a permanent rule of the minority over the majority. This is an imperative for them because the policies for which they had advocated, from regressive taxation (taxing the rich at lower rates than the rest), to cutting back on Social Security and Medicare, and cutting back on government more generally, are anathema to the majority of voters. Republicans have to make sure that the majority doesn’t get control. And if the majority does get control, they have to make sure that it can’t put in place the policies that it would like, and which would advance the interests of the majority. As Nancy Maclean, professor of history at Duke University put it, they have to put “democracy in chains“.

What more can one say about what is at stake in the USA?

from Louis in Johannesburg: South African (SA) socio/political dynamics-an anthropologist view

September 20.

“Those who were seen dancing, were thought to be insane, by those who couldn’t hear the music.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

During the Democratic Alliance (DA) reign of Mmusi Maimane, Gwen Ngwenya was appointed in 2019 head of policy. Her nonracial policy pronouncements went unheard by the party leadership at the time. Fast forward to September 2020, her policy emerges once more from the DA national convention to an aggressive chorus of condemnation from mainstream media and various members of the commentariat. 

A few voices that criticize Gwen Ngwenya also consider that she may in future be seen as a thought leader: the first person to apply critical thinking to the issue of non-racialist policy. ‘Racist’ being used in a pejorative sense and ‘racialist’ being used in an anthropological sense. At least the current DA leadership seem to be listening.

The ruling party in South Africa have yet to reach what may be called “their Magna Carta moment”. England reached this moment in 1215 and laid the foundations for the rule of law and protection of property rights from the vagaries of tribal chiefs and kings. The Charter of the Forest of 1217 a companion document protected the rights of commoners to plant crops for family sustenance, gather fuel and graze their cattle. It was never meant as a basis for possessing large tracks of land as basis for wealth. These foundational documents provide the basis where the spirit and the letter of the constitution hold citizens to account through a process of self-regulation, as well as the rule of law through independent judges and the courts. In South Africa we have a way to go to catch up to England of 1215 and 1217? When we look back from 2040, we may mark this moment as the watershed that took us away from a relativist world of politics and policy implementation to an analytical, evidence-based world of policy.

As the Nationalist Party copied its colonial masters so the ANC alliance has emulated the Nationalist Party government insofar as race-based policies are concerned. No new thinking in sight. So much for ANC non-racialism. One of the ANC founding documents, the Freedom Charter from Kliptown, Soweto in 1955, speaks clearly of non-racialism, non-sexist and a country that belongs to all who live in it. However, the current crop of ANC leaders choose to emulate the apartheid racist policies including racial classification.

A well-known SA industrialist once said, in all revolutions there is damage, in the South African revolution the damage has been to the quality of thinking. We seem to have sunk into a morass of relativist thinking where critical thinking is almost entirely lacking. Even main-stream journalists seem to be in an echo chamber where they pass ignorance around as analysis and insight.

Past President Zuma continues to ask these same journalists “Tell me what have I done wrong?”

What he means is that he has not been found guilty in any court of law of any crime. I think he with many others believe, notwithstanding allegations based on investigations that they are complying with the rule of law, huh?

All of this when critical race theory and a firestorm of cancel culture in the USA the UK and elsewhere in the west, fueled by non-liberal thinking threatens to undermine western democratic foundations. It reminds me of how Mao used the Red Guards to remove any traditional cultural reminders which were in accordance with Maoist philosophy holding society back, so-doing opening the way for the great leap forward.

IMHO Gwen Ngwenya’s non-racial policy offers us the first glimpse of principle-based policy where what may be called radical non-racialism, is central. (Policy Document available on request – health warning 58-page document!). As the beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us there is no African version of principles and values. This may be confusing to many. Ngwenya’s policy document goes unrecognised by mainstream media as thought leadership, for now. So what’s new? Galileo, Darwin, Martin Luther King Junior, van Zyl-Slabbert and Smuts. These visionaries, ahead of their times, had to endure emotional criticism from “those who could not hear the music.”

Classical liberalism reflected in the metrics of The Heritage Foundation, The Fraser institute and the Cato Institute has an undeniable association with wealth creation.

“Classical liberalism is a political ideology and a branch of liberalism which advocates civil liberties under the rule of law with an emphasis on economic freedom. Closely related to economic liberalism, it developed in the early 19th century, building on ideas from the previous century as a response to urbanisation and to the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America (Wikipedia  2020).

From David Maughan Brown in York: Happy Birthday

June 10th

I woke up this morning to the sound of a military band playing the national anthem and gathered that this was in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh’s 99th birthday.  How bizarre is that?  It happens every year and the same happens on the birthdays of other members of the Royal family.  The oddity of the ritual never ceases to astonish me.   I commented in an earlier blog on the eccentricity, to put it politely, of a supposedly ‘national’ anthem whose exclusive focus lies on a single individual.  Its plea to the deity to enable her ‘long to reign over us’ has clearly been met by the Queen’s 68 year reign, but carrying on earnestly praying for her to live long into the future now she is 94 seems to be pushing it where both optimism and the powers of the deity are concerned.  But leaving the anthem itself aside, heralding the Duke’s birthday by playing his wife’s tune, and thereby further erasing his individual identity, is going too far.

The Duke of Edinburgh seems to me to deserve a lot better.  He is not responsible for the supreme social inequity of inherited wealth and privilege that inclines some of us to republicanism.  He may have been prone to the odd faux pas over the years, but he has performed an exceptionally unenviable subordinate role to the Queen with great diligence for almost all of what must have seemed 68 very long years.  Whether precisely accurate as to the detail or not, the television series The Crown has, I suspect, conveyed a fairly accurate idea of some of the difficulties of his position.

The 1995 Royal Visit to Natal in 1995 coincided with a fund-raising visit Brenda had to make to the United States, so it fell on me to spend a couple of hours showing him round the Howard College campus of the University of Natal, and then to attend an evening reception on the royal yacht Britannia, where I spent some further time chatting to him.   I found him very engaging and easy to talk to, and he was clearly genuinely interested in, and asked penetrating questions about, the exhibitions we had mounted for him, for what must have been his umpteen hundredth visit to a university campus over the course of the more than forty years during which he had by then been performing the role.  He even managed to refrain from commenting on the fact that the Union Jack that had been brought out of mothballs for his visit was inadvertently being flown upside down on the University’s flag-pole in his honour. Not being practised in such matters, I hadn’t noticed; I am sure he would have.   

The last two or three years have succeeding in shredding the credibility of our version of ‘democracy’ as a political system.   It has landed us with a government that has mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic so hopelessly badly that an OECD analysis shows that our economy is on track to be the worst affected of all the world’s major economies, with a probable slump in 2020 of over 11%.  That is without taking any account of the rapidly approaching economic insanity of a probable ‘no deal’ with the EU at the end of the transition period.  Our Brexiteer cabinet couldn’t be trusted to run a Sunday school picnic without losing half the children and leaving the rest with food poisoning.  A marginally different version of democracy has landed the United States with the execrable Donald Trump.  I wouldn’t advocate it, but in a crisis like this a return to monarchy right now could only be an improvement.  Any one of our monarch’s combination of experience, wisdom and intelligence would be extremely welcome.   But if the Duke of Edinburgh makes it to his hundredth birthday, as I’m sure we all hope he will, could someone please make sure that the BBC has the decency and tact to get the military band to play a simple ‘Happy Birthday to you’ for him instead of playing his wife’s tune as she passes the congratulatory telegram to him over the cornflakes.  The Duke of Edinburgh’s very special day will surely deserve to be recognised as his day rather than hers.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Majesty

May 9th

The abiding memory of yesterday’s 75th anniversary of VE day will not be of the socially distanced wreath-laying ceremonies, or the archive footage of the 1945 celebrations, but of the four-minute speech delivered at 9.00pm by Her Majesty the Queen.   Exactly a month ago, after she had delivered her subtly modulated Coronavirus speech, I expressed my admiration for that speech and, while making it clear that I am not instinctively a monarchist, suggested that, if the current President of the USA and our Prime Minister are anything to go by, we can be thankful we have a queen as our Head of State rather than a president.  Those who are sensitive to such matters might have noticed that I omitted the formal ‘Her Majesty’ title when referring to the Queen at that time.

My Concise Oxford dictionary gives ‘majesty’ as ‘impressive stateliness, dignity or authority, especially of bearing and language’ as its primary definition, and adds, as its secondary definition, that it ‘forms part of several titles given to a sovereign’.  Last night the Queen demonstrated her usual, wholly understated, dignity, authority and stateliness entirely independently of her title.  Many of the women, and probably some of the men, watching on television will have noted that being a Majesty is clearly the key to having access to a hairdresser in these socially distanced times, but few are likely to have resented her for that. 

The carefully choreographed timing of the Queen’s speech to commence at 9pm to echo the timing of her father, King George VI’s, ‘victory’ speech 75 years ago served perfectly to underline the continuity of the monarchy, as I have no doubt it was intended to.  The speech itself was brilliantly crafted as a piece of rhetoric, illustrating for the benefit of some of our politicians that rhetoric doesn’t have to show itself off as being rhetorical to be effective: ‘At the start the outlook seemed bleak, the end distant, the outcome uncertain.  But we kept faith that the cause was right.’ No direct reference was made to the current Covid-19 pandemic, there was none of the crude battle-related imagery we have become wearily inured to, but the analogy with World War II was implicit in, ‘Never give up, never despair – that was the message of VE Day.’

Indirectly, and without in any obvious way crossing the forbidden boundary between the political realm and the business of that other realm she is Queen of, Her Majesty’s speech managed to make crystal clear what she thinks about the UK’s departure from the EU: ‘The greatest tribute to their sacrifice [those who fell in the war] is that countries who were once sworn enemies are now friends working side by side for the peace, prosperity and health of us all.’  Why on earth, she didn’t need to go on to ask, would anyone in his right mind want to stop working side by side with those other countries for the peace, prosperity and health of us all, and selfishly try to go it alone in friendless and self-defeating isolation?

The inclusiveness of that ‘of us all’, where the Queen locates herself alongside all her subjects, makes me wonder, as I often do, what she thinks every time she hears our embarrassing national anthem, for which she, of course, is not responsible.  If there were to be a global equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest into which all 195 independent sovereign states in the world (I also watch ‘Pointless’ too often) were to be obliged to enter their national anthems, ours with its sycophantic banality would be likely to come out at the very bottom, with ‘nul points.’ Rather than praying fawningly for the victoriousness and gloriousness of a lone monarch, the national anthems of other countries tend to focus more, as the Queen’s speech did, on the wellbeing of all the people of those countries.

The Queen has seen off a motley procession of 13 Prime Ministers during her reign, and ended up now with Boris Johnson, from whom God might recently have had to resist the temptation save her.  Monarchy is a very much less than ideal political system, and there is no guarantee whatever that the Queen’s successors will be able to match her when it comes to majesty.  But then, as Johnson and Trump demonstrate all too clearly, democracy also has the potential for disastrously bad outcomes.  I didn’t think I would ever say it, but in the present context and after yesterday evening’s four-minute tour de force of a speech, long live the Queen!

Guest contribution: From Christopher Merrett in Pietermaritzburg: a creeping coup in South Africa?

a casspir (mine-protected armoured personnel carrier)

April 26, 2020. Sharp Thoughts. South Africa is currently run by big fat people with guns and an attitude to match. Seeing pictures of a casspir entering a Cape Town township, an entire wedding arrested in KwaZulu-Natal, and heavily armed troops storming into Alexandra (allegedly killing Collins Khosa on his property on 10 April and assaulting people in the street and forcing them to do humiliating physical exercises) brought back haunting and disturbing memories of the emergency years of the apartheid-era. Judging by the broadcast traffic report there are numerous roadblocks. Ten thousand people have reportedly been arrested in KwaZulu-Natal alone.

Using the armed forces to police civilians is always an extremely bad idea. Soldiers are trained in aggression and to kill, not to ensure co-operation from citizens. They have no policing skills and sooner or later, by the very order of things, someone will die. High-ranking army officers appearing before the parliamentary joint standing committee on defence justified the potentially murderous behaviour of their troops on the grounds that they were ‘provoked’ by people ‘insulting’ their commander-in-chief (i.e., the president of South Africa). This would apparently ‘not be tolerated’. It is clearly news to them that provocation is not a crime, nor is insulting the president unless a charge is laid and the courts find otherwise; but parliament acted in its customary limp-wristed fashion and issued no rebuke. 

Soldiers instinctively look for an enemy and in the case of South Africa there they are: legions of increasingly hungry, angry and demonstrative people. The government evaded responsibility for the Marikana massacre of miners in August 2012, but the consequences of another bloodbath, this time in a busy township or crowded informal settlement rather than among some remote koppies, will be dire.

From the very outset the ANC government has treated a global public health threat in a militaristic way. The term ‘state of disaster’ is a misnomer: there is no disaster – yet – especially in comparison with other ongoing calamities like the murder rate, road fatalities, and deaths from HIV/AIDS and TB. This is no war, but a military approach suits the ANC’s collective psyche. Command centres, whatever they might be, resonate with the idea of a ruling party issuing orders, not an accountable government. They also tap into a tradition of so-called centralised democracy in which a group of chosen cadres debate an issue and then instruct everyone else on the non-negotiable ‘line’. Similarly, there are echoes of armed struggle when power issued from the barrel of a gun.

This may sound fanciful, and maybe is, but there is a sense that a coup is underway in South Africa: strange things have happened before under cover of public health emergencies when the citizenry is faced with an existential threat and there are ruthless authoritarians looking for opportunities. Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, described Khosa’s death as no more than ‘unfortunate’. This is an alleged murder of a civilian on his property but the case has been referred to the military ombudsman. The family has courageously gone to Constitutional Court to establish their rights to due process as citizens of a democracy. 

There is an air of enduring paternalism about the ANC; the phrase ‘our people’ being a big giveaway when describing the citizenry. The party has many members of intelligence and ability, but the factionalism and patronage that are now its essential nature do not favour the thoughtful and rational. They nurture and promote limited people with loud voices and a predisposition to command rather than reason, plan and explain. The ANC approached this looming crisis with a clear desire to appear tough and muscular and in some senses this seems to have worked. Many South Africans are still under the illusion that they are ahead of the world and that life will soon get back to normal rather than the reality that an epidemic is soon to descend. It is an unfortunate consequence also of a nation that basks in sporting metaphor rather than a more cerebral approach to problems. This will not be another Rugby World Cup victory.

South Africa has all the fine trappings of democracy; but it is dysfunctional. The institutions designed to protect it have either never performed adequately (for instance, parliament) or have been deliberately hollowed out to allow free rein for racketeers and looters. If the rule of law were in operation, many of those in government would be behind bars wearing orange outfits. Damaged and compromised public institutions and an economy already on the edge of a cliff before anyone had heard of Covid-19 have now been joined by draconian regulations (there is nothing more severe than being told you cannot earn a living by other people on big fat salaries) enforced by authoritarian security forces.

If it were not already the case, this is a recipe for violent upheaval. Even if that is avoided, there are serious concerns about the most basic of future freedoms. We are currently told that authoritarian measures are required for our collective good, to save lives (although intelligent commentators are increasingly vocal about saving livelihoods as well). A staged relaxation of regulations is planned from 1 May that may include provincial and regional variations, but this could last many months. And just as we as individuals are getting used to new modes of behaviour that will become the norm in future, the ANC is also becoming comfortable with new autocratic methods of government. Fortunately, the judiciary is one of few national institutions that remain largely uncompromised, but civil society organisations and the Constitutional Court are going to need to be very alert and active in defence of democracy in future. Economic decline means that the ANC presides over an increasingly failed state and it will search desperately for means to maintain power. Covid-19 has handed it an authoritarian opportunity on a plate.

Suspicions about this have been further raised by the news that 73,000 more defence force personnel are to be deployed (or employed as the government likes to describe it) until 26 June, making over 75,000 in all. Many of these are medical, engineering, transport and logistical staff, but a large number will join those already in full combat gear and moving around our streets with R5 assault rifles. It is now clear that this extra deployment did not correctly follow parliamentary procedure by first involving the presiding officers and is presumably unconstitutional.

Cyril Ramaphosa is the reasonable face of the ANC. Even within his party it is reckoned that but for him it might have lost the 2019 general election, largely through abstentions. He is now saddled with a Cabinet that is a state of disaster in itself. Given the bleak national outlook on all fronts why does he not demonstrate that he is a true leader of South Africa? There is already anecdotal evidence that the presidency and some government departments are open to ideas beyond the stale ideology of the ANC that all too frequently reeks of eastern Europe circa 1970 and is totally disengaged from the present-day realities and needs of South Africa. Why does he not assemble a high-profile advisory council (no, not another command centre) of the intelligent and competent from opposition political parties, civil society and the professions to encourage a free flow of ideas that could feed into government decision making? 

A war-like approach will neither defeat the virus, nor preserve a viable nation. The old mantras of the ANC look more and more flimsy in an increasingly volatile situation and Ramaphosa now has a virus-created gap to introduce new approaches and attitudes. Or will he allow the camouflage-coloured minds of his Cabinet hawks and the security cluster to steer the country into an authoritarian future?