Thoughtlessness and the after-life of neo-liberal democracy

By IndepthAfrica
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Jul 5th, 2012
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Sokari Ekine

SOUTH AFRICA: EMANCIPATORY VISION, NOT LEGISLATION

Over the past three weeks at least seven LGBTIQ people have been murdered in South Africa, in Cape Town, in Kuruman in the Northern Province, in Soweto and in Limpopo. Yet the government, religious leaders, community leaders outside the LGBTI community have remained silent. As Richard Pithouse shows in his article “Can Zuma’s “Second Transition” Take Us Off the Boil?”, the police who are supposed to protect people are themselves part of the violence. [http://bit.ly/P7QNmI]. He gives the example of Khayelitsha township, Cape Town where 11 people have been murdered by vigilante ‘justice’ and where the people no longer have confidence in the police for good reasons.

“They [Human Rights organisations] have also reported that, across the country, the police themselves are engaging in torture and murder on a scale not seen since the 1980s.

“When regular homophobic and vigilante murders more suited to a vision of hell than any conception of a democratic society are considered in the contest of the scale of gendered violence and xenophobia, an evil that is most consistently perpetrated by the state itself, as well as the criminal neglect that leaves children without school books and shack dwellers to confront relentless fires year after year, it’s clear that our society is in serious trouble.

“When state responses to all this are not structured in simple contempt they tend to point to the apartheid and colonial past as the source of all evil. But some things, like the police, or the ways that we are turning on each other, are getting worse and so easy assumption about time being on the side of progress amount to a form of denialism.”

To Pithouse the problem boils down to “a lack of credible emancipatory vision for society as a whole”. It is “persistence and popular protest” that will ultimately force change and not a reliance on an ANC government which has shown itself to be singularly focused on progress through “private advancement”. He provides, as an example, the poor peoples movement:

“We should recall that during the disaster of May 2008 there were no xenophobic attacks in areas under the control of political projects as diverse as Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and the Merafong Demarcation Forum in Khutsong. What these very different organisations had in common was a sense of a collective struggle for a shared and qualitatively better future and an understanding that that struggle was structured on a vertical rather than horizontal plane. There is a critical difference between fighting for your share of the proverbial cake, or some crumbs from it, and struggling, with others, for a better society.”

At a moment when the murder of lesbian, transgender and gay people is becoming a weekly tragedy and the LGBTIQ movement is left hurt, frustrated and without a collective vision, it might be advised to think beyond legislative solutions such as legal status for hate crimes. After all there are already existing laws to protect the rights of LGBTI people but they, like many other laws, are ignored. Initiatives have to come from below and that includes the search for political allies within transformative movements.

Jaco Barnard-Naude’s post in the South African blog, Constitutionally Speaking [http://bit.ly/LvJ9KX] goes some way to develop Pithous’s argument about the lack of an ‘emancipatory vision’ in South African politics. In “Thoughtlessness and Reflective Judgement in Democracy”, Barnard-Naude sets the landscape for his article with a statement on the “democratic subject” in the age of the blogosphere and Social Networks. A time and space which he likens to a

‘‘kind of afterlife of neoliberal democracy, the permissive society and hyper-technological, so-called “late” capitalism….Under these conditions, everyone is entitled not only to have an opinion, but also to broadcast it across the world.”

In this scenario, reflective judgement ‘thought’ is increasingly replaced by “thoughtfulness”, which Hannah Arendt describes as

“the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ that have become trivial and empty.”

Reading this and being in a moment of self-absorption, I immediately felt Adrendt and the author were speaking to me personally, leaving me feeling slightly panicked and most definitely reflective. My conclusion is that we have all been here at least twice but if we know this is where we are or have been, we can easily find our way to a more enlightened mode of ‘thought’. Feeling is a key word here as it does not always sit with reason. I wish to digress briefly and recount a recent discussion with a friend on the deluge of news and commentary we are all bombarded with daily through blogs, news websites, radio, TV, Twitter, Facebook, Google + and email.

Everything is geared to reading, watching and listening. There is some talking but this is overpowered by the other three actions. I was at my wits end and starting to believe age was catching up with me and I wanted off planet earth. The other fear I had was I might be loosing my ability to observe my natural surroundings. I would no longer see the background of my and the lives of others. My question was, what is the point of all this information if I am unable to act? Worse, and here I don’t wish to imply I know everything but seriously, most of what I read or hear I have heard before not 10, 20 years ago but yesterday. I conclude that the world is repeated a million times over every day. I am worried that, if not careful such feelings could lead to a state of ‘thoughtlessness’ which I am desperate to avoid. Anyone else experiencing these thoughts will find Barnard-Naude’s article useful.

To continue. He points out the political implications of ‘thoughtlessness’ which are a cause for serious concern.

“On the political implications of thoughtlessness Arendt is clear. Thoughtlessness is what ultimately fuels totalitarianism. Why is it particularly in thoughtlessness that enables totalitarianism? Because thoughtlessness is that which renders or allows evil to become banal, thus unrecognisable, perhaps even unstoppable. This is why Arendt describes the banality of evil literally as ‘thought-defying’…………By removing the ability to stop and think, totalitarianism camouflages its evil in such a way that it is performed in a banal, normalistic fashion and thus becomes less and less permeable, less and less interruptible, less and less recognisable as grotesque and abominable.”

The author concludes that the need for thinking especially empathy is an urgent one in South Africa today. Imagine friendships which are beyond the law!

WEAVE: STOP! THINK!

Critiques of colonial mentalities around bleaching and Black hair are two issues worth repeating because despite all the information available people, especially women, continue bleaching and weaving. Chinello – “The Wild Woman in the Cellar” [http://bit.ly/N7lvsh] recounts a conversation with a four-year-old – yes it can start that early!

“Sons/ Daughter: Mama, can you turn my hair into short spikes slicked straight up with gel or long straight hair hanging down like the other boys/girls in the class?

Me: That’s impossible. Your hair is different and beautiful with curls.

Sons/Daughter: Why not? Why can’t my hair be like that?

Me: Because you are of a mixed heritage and this means that you got certain parts of you from papa and certain parts like your great curly hair from mama and one cannot make spikes from curly hair.

Sons/Daughter: Oh really? That’s stupid! It’s all your fault then!”

She fast-forwards to the teenage years when fortunately the children realise the beauty of their hair which can be formed into an afro, braids, dreads, a mohawk – you name it. But where does the denial and rejection of our natural hair and skin colour come from? Using her own childhood growing up in South-Eastern Nigeria she explains:

“It is clear to me that my peers and I were spoon-fed a certain set of values from birth. We were consciously and unconsciously domesticated with the collective agreement that the path to human development lay in striving to be as patriarchally western as possible. This agreement has unwittingly influenced every aspect of our lives; from the adoption of eating processed foods to our taste in music and arts and finally our perceptions of (female) beauty.”

On a positive note, Q-Zine, “Queering Black Hair” by Taijhet Nyobi-Rockett [http://bit.ly/N7mOaH] uses poetry and images in praise of natural Black hair .

I didn’t cut my hair
Je n’ai pas coupé mes cheveux
it was never mine
Ils m’ont vraiment jamais appartenu
I shaved the perm
J’ai rasé la permanente
and rocked my mind
Et j’ai secoué mon esprit
My name no longer fit my head
Mon nom ne m’appartient plus
so I chose what I knew of Africa
instead.
Alors j’ai choisi ce que je connais le mieux d’Afrique.

Worth watching is the beautifully produced animated video “Yellow Fever” by Ng’endo Mukii on subject of skin bleaching. [http://bit.ly/LkMxit]

THE CAINE PRIZE AND ART OF WRITING

Congratulations to this year’s Caine Prize winner, Rotimi Babatunde, for his short story, ‘Bombay’s Republic’. Recently there was a furor on Nigerian social media as Babatunde was accused of plagiarizing the story. [See Pambazuka 586] I hope the award does not renew this ugly accusation which I believe to be wholly unfounded. Black Looks, contributor, aspiring writer and editor of Saraba Magazine, Emmanuel Iduma was interviewed by the Nigerian website “BluePrint” [http://bit.ly/N7oTU7] on his soon to be published first novel ‘Farad’. The questions are rather banal but Emmanuel’s answers are considerate and interspersed with wise observations and humorous reflections the moral of which is do not take yourself too seriously – you may end up looking foolish! On whether hard work or talent makes a good writer:

“But I think your question is whether someone, without what we think of as ‘natural talent’ can write something beautiful, or readable. Maybe I should say anyone can write something readable, but not everyone can write something beautiful. Because not all of us will dare sing in public. Not all of us play football. Not all of us can write something beautiful. It is talent, but never stops there. I even dare say that the non-talented would not even bother to write for more than, say, 5 attempts (and I’ve seen this happen). Talent implies joy in whatever it is that is being done. Not everyone has that kind of feeling.”

On what transformation would his novel will bring:

“Transformation? That sounds like a political word, as if I’m being asked to state my manifesto! Really I didn’t think of it that way, I scarcely had any point to prove. Perhaps I should say that when I was writing, I was thinking of essence. My younger brother, to whom I dedicated the novel, was born with Down’s Syndrome. And I always wondered, as we often do when we’re not literate to know better, how he could be of use to the world. So I was disturbed, wondering how ‘strange’ didn’t mean ‘purposeless.’ I’ve always been deeply interested in questions of essence, and maybe by reading Farad, people would get interested in that word, too. Would that be a transformation?”

Yes, I believe it would. Reading is as much a search for ourselves, a kind of mirror with which we can reflect on our own histories and purpose – without some transformation however small what would be the point?

THOUGHTLESSNESS AND FEAR OF BUILDINGS WHOSE LANGUAGE WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND

In February 2001, the Taliban began the systematic destruction of ancient Buddhas across Afghanistan which included the two known as the Bamiyan Buddhas. For the record only three countries recognised the Taliban government – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The ‘international’ community was outraged but nothing could be done to stop the destruction backed up by Taliban leader, Mullah Omar’s Islamic edict. I only recall this terrible destruction because this week a similar edict was declared by the Ansar Al-Din militants who now occupy Timbuktu. Sometimes I pity God. Ze is used to justify terrible acts against people and history, books and shrines. But then my pity turns to anger as Ze never responds at least not in this life and frankly anything that happens after death is of no importance.

For the past month western media has been full of sensational reports on Mali and the Ansar al-Din reflecting the wests view of Sharia as “barbaric, violent, and misogynist, and its application trivial and arbitrary” [Alex Thurston, Sahel Blog - ]http://bit.ly/LyZ0Pj] Thurston’s rejects the lack of context in these reports and attempts to present a the application of Sharia in a more considered light. It’s really about language thus Ansar al-Dine ‘mix punishment with charity” whilst European governments mix law with social services ie the function of any state.

I accept Thurston’s position that the actions of Ansar al-Dine and the people’s responses are full of contradictions and complexities. The same could be said of the Taliban, al Shabbah or Boko Haram – they use religious texts as justification to kill, destroy and terrorize people. Ansar al-Dine give out charity, mediate the law and restore hospitals to working condition. I accept that these are extremes even in fundamentalists terms but there are parts of me that honestly I want to totally reject these groups and everything they stand for. Many of us are trying to understand the mindset which decides to destroy ancient shrines. Nigerian writer, Teju Cole has written a brilliant piece to help us try to understand the awfulness of these acts.[ Breaking It Down - ]http://bit.ly/Lkd3bM] Cole beings his article by reminding us that destruction of religious shrines, texts and art is not a new phenomena. In the 16th century angry Calvinists destroyed a church and art work in the Flemish town of Steenvoorde. “The Dutch storm of statues” spread to Antwerp and Ghent. Cole also reminds us that destroying buildings is not an easy task. The Taliban had to bring in engineers to help destroy the Buddahas which took two weeks. Cole brilliantly points out the contradictions linked to the “iconoclast’s own psychology”…

“ The theological pretext for image destruction is that images are powerless, less than God, uneffective as a source of succour, and therefore disposable. But in reality, iconoclasm is motivated by the iconoclast’s profound belief in the power of the image being destroyed. The love iconoclasts have for icons is a love that dare not speak its name.”

But as Cole points out, iconoclasm is not just about theology but like other fundamentalists actions there are elements politics and of fear of the dead saints, spirits however one would describe the unknown. A pastor screaming at a young woman to remove ‘the devil’ is him/herself consumed with fear of their own inner contradictions [spirits].

“That which doesn’t speak dumbfounds. After all, who can tell what such objects are thinking? Best to destroy the inscrutable, the ancient, if one is to truly usher in a pure new world.”

Sokari Ekine blogs at www.blacklooks.org

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