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In Siberia

16 August 2019

In SiberiaIn Siberia by Colin Thubron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading The Lost Heart of Asia by the same author, I was looking forward to some new insights into Siberia, the eastern part of the Russian Federation, which is bigger than any country in the world apart from Russia itself. Thubron travelled across it from west to east, mainly by the Trans-Siberian Railway, and its northern branch, the Baikal-Amur Railway (BAM), with side trips to various other places by plane, bus and river boat.

In his travels he met and conversed with many different people, most of whom he had met by chance, and it is his reports of conversations with these people that helps to give one a sense of the place and what it is like, and what the people are like. In some places he invited himself to stay with such people, as he made no travel arrangements in advance. so the people he met and the places he stayed at were unpredictable. He visited Ykaterinburg, where the last Tsar and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks. The house where they were held immediately before their death, which he describes in some detail, had been demolished, lest it become a place of pilgrimage.

Colin Thubron wandered off the site into a nearby garden and down a track which led to a rubbish tip, where he shared supper and a sleeping place with a tramp who had camped there for the night. It is the comments and insights of such chance-met people that give the book its unique flavour. At another town not far away he searched for the home of Rasputin who had such an influence on the royal family. He met a man who looked like Rasputin and made the most of the resemblance. Was he related? Well, not certainly, but his great-grandmother was once a housemaid in the Rasputin household, and Rasputin was a notorious womaniser, so…

Thubron flies off to visit a remote mine inside the Arctic Circle, where most of the work was done by prisoners, political and criminal, and visits the ruins of the prison barracks where so many overworked and underfed prisoners died.

Further down the line he visited Novosibirsk, and the nearby town of Akademgorodok, which was built as the ultimate academic scientific research centre, with no expense spared, until the money ran out. It was literally fantastic. It was a bit like the home of the academics in Herman Hesse‘s The Glass Bead Game, But what it has become since the fall of Bolshevism is something that goes beyond the wildest fantasy dreamed up in Jonathan Swift‘s Laputa. Thubron interviews people who work there and somehow manages to keep a straight face as they tell him of their fanciful and crackpot theories.

Perhaps the most depressing part of the book is his description of a four-day boat trip down the polluted Yensei River. On the way back he persuades the captain of the boat to drop him off at a village where the only person in employment is the village doctor, and he, like many other civil servants, hasn’t been paid for months. In the economic collapse after the fall of Bolshevism the only thing left for the villagers to do was get drunk on their pensions, if they arrived.

One thing that I didn’t so much like about the book was the way that the author’s bias against Orthodox Christianity hardened into prejudice as the book went on. One of my reasons for reading the book was to get an idea of how the Orthodox Church was recovering from Bolshevik persecution, but though Thubron is is sympathetic towards Buddhists, and pagans, and even to some extent towards Old Believers and neopagans, he rarely has a good word to say about the Orthodox. In the Buddhist monastery they sang and prostrated themselves, but in the Orthodox one the singers were “crazed-looking youths” and the nuns were sobbing as though “something must be expurgated for ever”.

This bias nearly made me give it three stars on GoodReads rather than four, but this morning I heard Dr Gerhard Wolmarans of the University of Pretoria speaking about C.S. Lewis’s book on literary theory, An Experiment in Criticism, in which he writes about the difference between using a book and receiving a book. According to Wolmarans, Lewis maintained that when reading a book we need to take the author’s conceptions at least as seriously as we take out own, even if we disagree with them. So I thought about this a bit too. Yes, Colin Thubron seemed to have a pretty shallow conception of Orthodoxy, and to approach it with a lot of prejudice, but perhaps the Orthodox he encountered in his travels also had a fairly shallow conception, and did not communicate it to him very well.

I wondered if he had perhaps read the biography of St Innocent of Alaska and Moscow, who was a missionary among the Aleuts of Alaska and the Evenk people of Eastern Siberia, which might have given him a different picture of the relations between Orthodox and pagans in Alaska and Siberia — see St Innocent:Apostle to America, And to show the lasting effect of such things, a book like Nuvendaltin Quht’ana: the people of Nondalton, which shows how the influence of such Orthodox missions has lasted for two centuries or more.

In many ways In Siberia is a depressing book. The economic collapse, the pollution, the hopelessness of many, and the relics of Stalin’s Gulag and the mass murders that went with it don’t make for happy reading.

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Tales from Dystopia XXIV: White opposition to Apartheid

12 August 2019

Most of what I have written in this series has been about things I was personally involved in or knew about personally. This one is different, in that it happened when I was too young to participate, though i was aware of it. When I was about 8 years old just about every lamppost where we lived was plastered with posters showing an image of a flaming torch. I asked my mother what it was all about and she told me it was ex-soldiers who we protesting against something the government was doing. A web search failed to turn up a single image of one of those once-ubiquitous posters.

I may even have seen this newsreel at a cinema — it would be about events that happened 70 years ago now.

I recently shared a link to it on Facebook and several people said they knew little about it, and asked me to say more. But most of what I know comes from my study of history rather than from personal experience, because I was too young to participate,

When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 the four colonies that united had different voting systems. In three of them — Transvaal, Orange River Colony and Natal — only white males were allowed to vote. The Cape Colony had a non-racial franchise — any male could vote, provided they met certain income or property qualifications. When women got the vote, however, it was only white women. In 1936 the United Party removed black voters in the Cape Province from the common voters roll, and they were allowed to vote for special “Natives Representatives”. When the National Party came to power in 1948 with its policy of apartheid, they wanted to do the same thing with coloured voters, and the Torch Commando was formed, mainly by white soldiers who had fought in the Second World War, to protest against this,

Why white soldiers?

The ruling United Party had split over participation in the Second World War, and the reconstituted National Party, led by D.F. Malan, became the main opposition to the United Party government and to participation in the war itself. Many of the leaders of the National Party had fascist sympathies,. Those young men, mostly white, who did join the army to fight against Hitler and Mussolini may not have been fully aware of the political implications of Nazism and Fascism when they joined the army, but by the end of the war they did, and when the National Party, many of whose leaders had openly or covertly supported Hitler and Mussolini during the war, a lot of the ex-servicemen were asking why they had fought Nazism and Fascism overseas only to see it introduced back home. And the proposal by the National Party to remove coloured voters from the common roll had unpleasant overtones of Hitler’s Nuremburg Laws against the Jews,. So they protested.

One of the leaders of the Torch Commando was Adolph Gysbert “Sailor” Malan, who shared his surname and part of his ancestry with Prime Minister D.F. Malan. This tickled the fancy of the contemporary media, who liked to portray the issue as Malan versus Malan.

The Torch Commando was the first organised protest against the apartheid regime in South Africa, and was followed a couple of years later by the Defiance Campaign led by the ANC, and then by the Black Sash, a movement of white women.

The Black Sash was also formed to protest against the proposal to remove coloured voters from the common roll, and especially the unconstitutional means that the National Party resorted to to do so. According to the constitution, they needed a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament sitting together in order to make that change, and they had won the 1948 election by a quite narrow majority.

One scheme was to add members of parliament from the mandated territory of South West Africa. Another was to claim that they do longer needed to follow the constitution, and the Supreme Court threw that out. They then passed the High Court of Parliament Act, to say that Parliament was a court higher than the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court threw that out too. So there were all these shenanigans just to deprive a relatively small group of people of the right to vote and the removal of coloured voters was delayed by 10 years or more because of the opposition to it.

The Torch Commando, as a movement, did not last long, though while it lasted there were high hopes among some that it would nip apartheid in the bud and remove the National Party from power. The problem with it was that, like any protest movement, its members were united by what they were against, but could not agree about what they were for. They knew what the problem was, but could not agree about the solution. So after a couple of years it dissipated. Some of its members joined other political movements, like the Congress of Democrats, the Liberal Party (formed in 1953), or the United Party, which was the main parliamentary opposition. And quite a number went to station bars and drank away their sorrows.

For more about the Torch Commando itself see the Wikipedia article,.

This post is part of a series of posts of memories of the apartheid period in South Africa. See here for more Tales from Dystopia.

The lost heart of Asia

9 August 2019

The Lost Heart of AsiaThe Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A travel book with a slice of history.

Colin Thubron travelled through these newly-independent countries almost immediately after they had left the USSR, and so he captures them at a unique time transition in their history. He records that moment when they were neither one thing nor the other. Some people hankered for the stable past of full employment and economic security. Others looked forward to a future which, though it might be uncertain, with unemployment and rampant inflation, at least promised them freedom.

The dilemma was neatly summed up when Thubron visited the spacious headquarters of the Writers’ Union in Bishkek, the capital of Kirghiztan, “once a bureaucratic hub of mediocrity and obstruction”. There he met a writer named Kadyr, and asked what people did there now. They don’t do anything, said Kadyr. They had hundreds of writers, but no money and no paper. At last they had freedom to write, but the publishers could no longer afford the paper to print what they wrote. “Our spiritual situation is richer, far richer, but our material one is hopeless.”

Last month I read The Road to Miran, also about Central Asia, but a little further east, in the Xinjiang Region of China. It’s a part of the world that has always been rather vague in my mind — lots of countries with names ending in -stan, but I was never quite sure of where they were in relation to each other. And what I learned about their history from this and some of the other books I have been reading was mostly new to me and quite revealing.

The four countries that are the subject of this books were the creations of Stalin in the 1920s, which I had not known. Their convoluted borders were drawn in Moscow, regardless of geography, so that now major roads sometimes cross international borders several times within a short distance. In that, and in several other ways, they resembled Dr Verwoerd’s “Bantu Homelands”, and as I read I got a new insight into why the English-language newspapers in South Africa referred the “homelands” as “Bantustans”. Perhaps the analogy came from Dr Verwoerd himself, as he tried to explain his vision in the South African parliament, but at any rate the name, and the similarity, stuck.

One of Colin Thubron’s concerns, and one that was quite widespread in the West, was that these four countries, where the majority of the population was nominally Muslim, might embrace Islamic fuindamentalism. A lot of his conversations, especially in the earlier part of the book, reflect this concern. In many of the towns he visited he would visit a madrassa and talk to the students who were studying Islam, and try to get their views on this. Most of the mosques and madrassas had been closed under the Bolsheviks, but were rapidly reopening, though for many, particularly in the northern parts, their Islam was more cultural than religious.

The landscapes he describes are also interesting. It seems that much of the arable land was turned to cotton monoculture, the the diversion of rivers to irrigate it dried up the Aral Sea, so that in one case one of the main ports was 60 miles from water. Many other places were turned into industrial wastelands, with polluted air and water.

The book was published 25 years ago, and was written a couple of years before that, so it provides a snapshot of a unique moment in the history of those countries.

Perhaps the moment is summed up in the description of Lenin statues in Ashkhabaz, Turkmenistan:

Lenin stood on a ziggurat brilliant with Turcoman tilework, and lifted a declamatory arm towards Iran. Beneath, an inscription promised liberation to the peoples of the East.

‘There are fifty-six Lenin monuments in the city,’ Oraz said. ‘This one will stay and the rest will go.’ He was striding around the dried fountains which circled the monument, suave in his suit and tie, while above him the baggy-trousered Lenin crumpled his cloth cap in his hand. ‘Maybe in time this one will go too. But not now.’

I felt perversely glad that it would remain, a gesture of moderation, and a fragile acknowledgement of the past (Thubron 1994:11).

A group of farmers pose for a photo, but the photo shows only the plinth, not the statue. “We don’t include him any more,” says the photographer. “He’s out of fashion.”

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Studies show… Using racist instruments to determine racist attitudes

5 August 2019

On social media sites like Facebook I quite often see posts that begin with phrases like “Studies show…”

These are often contradictory — studies show that drinking any amount of alcohol will kill you, but drinking a glass of red wine a day will make you live longer. Studies show that children brought up without religion are more empathetic, but studies show that those with a religious upbringing are happier.

And so it goes…

Then last week on Facebook I got an invitation to participate in a study. It was The South African Implicit Bias and Attitudes Study and was said to be “a study investigating how empathy, intergroup anxiety and contact, affect bias in the racial attitudes of White and Black South Africans” done by an honours student in Australia.

I thought I would try to participate, but I began wondering how well the survey questions would measure what they said they were trying to measure, and one question in particular seemed to me to make appallingly racist assumptions:

If you were the only white person and you were interacting with Black people (e.g., talking with them, working on a project with them) how would you feel compared to occasions when you are interacting with other White people?

And you then had to indicate on a scale of 1-10 whether you felt “extremely” or “not at all:

  • Impatient
  • Awkward
  • Certain
  • Accepted
  • Careful
  • Self-conscious
  • Irritated
  • Defensive
  • Happy
  • Confident
  • Suspicious

I thought that question was based on racist assumptions.

If I were working on a project with other people my feelings would depend almost entirely on the nature of the project, and my relationship with the other people, and their attitude to the project. Whether they were black or white would hardly affect it at all. And it would vary very much from project to project. There were a huge number of variables that the survey simplistically collapsed into one, assuming that Blackness and Whiteness were the only important and significant characteristics of people, and that assumption is the foundation, the essence, and the defining characteristic of racism. How can you accurately measure racism with a racist instrument?

If I thought about it, I could probably think of several projects I had worked on where I was the only white person, and all the others were black, and my answers would be different for each one. But the first ones that sprang to mind has these results. The figures show, first, how I felt working on the project where all the others were black, and second, on another project where all the others were white, on a scale of 0-9:

  • Impatient (0-8)
  • Awkward (0-9)
  • Certain (9-2)
  • Accepted (9-0)
  • Careful (3-7)
  • Self-conscious (0-9)
  • Irritated (0-7)
  • Defensive (1-8)
  • Happy (8-1)
  • Confident (8-2)
  • Suspicious (0-7)

Now let me describe the projects I had in mind.

The one where I was the only white person and all the others were black was planning a Partners-in-Mission Consultation for the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. We held several planning meetings and the conference was successful. The other members of the planning group were Peter Biyela, Patrick Gumede and Meshack Vilakazi, all Anglican clergy with whom I got on well. We had differing views on various topics, and could have vigorous debates, but we worked together well and happily on this and other projects.

The second project, which was at roughly the same time, was the parish council of the Anglican parish of All Saints, Melmoth, which at that stage was all white. The project was the establishment of a pre-primary school which would use the parish hall. Those who had children under 6 were generally in favour of the project, and those who did not have children of that age were generally opposed. The meetings were far more stressful than those where all the other participants were black, and the difference had nothing to do with the blackness or whiteness of the people taking part, but rather their attitude to the project and to the others at the meeting.

These racist assumptions can also be seen in a question I recently saw on the Quora web site. You can click on it to see my answer, but how would you answer that question?

Is a black person’s personality different from a white person’s personality?

That relates also to another question in the study: To what extent did you see Black people with whom you had contact as “typical” Black people?

But what is a “typical” black person? Is there a typical “black” personality? The opportunity to answer is on a scale of “Not at all typical” to “Very much typical”, which begs the question of whether there is such a thing as a “typical” black person at all. Another racist assumption.

But let’s play along with it a little.

Back in the days of apartheid I worked as a bus conductor in Johannesburg, and because of apartheid, there were separate buses for “Europeans”, “Non-Europeans” and “Asiatics/Coloureds”. So I had a good opportunity to learn what was typical (or stereotypical) of the different races. The whites tended to be grumpy. The Indians tended to be icily polite. The coloureds tended to be obstreperous and badly behaved. The blacks tended to be more variable, some chattered, some given to singing, some quiet, some noisy. And passengers (we called them “clients”) of all groups would be different depending on whether they were drunk or sober. The Asiatic/Coloured buses had both the best-behaved and worst-behaved passengers; the Indians who were mostly Muslims, were never drunk. The coloureds often were. So yes, it was easy to form stereotypes.

But they were bus passengers. I didn’t know them personally. They were clients. They didn’t know me personally. I was just some functionary to whom they handed over their hard-earned cash in exchange for a bit of coloured paper. Some times there were regulars who would catch the bus at the same place at the same time of day, and I might get a smile from them.

Then one day Desmond Tutu caught my bus. Route 79A, Parktown North Non-Europeans Only. He was going to see the Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg by whom he was to be ordained the following Sunday — it was long before he became famous. So once I had collected the fares I chatted to him until he got off the bus at the stop nearest the bishop’s house. And suddenly half the passengers were talking to me, most animatedly. “Who was that guy? How do you know him? Where does he come from? Where do you come from?”

And I spent the rest of the trip chatting to the passengers, telling them a bit about Desmond Tutu and how I knew him, and for a brief moment the client/functionary relationship had been disturbed, and a bit of personal relationship had been allowed to appear on the buses. I also reflected that if it had been a “Europeans Only” bus, the “typical” (or stereotypical) response would probably have been very different.  The white madams of Parkview and Parktown North would have sniffed disapprovingly and perhaps one or two may have written letters of complaint to the manager of the municipal transport department registering their disapproval at a bus conductor being “familiar with a native”.

But thinking of people you know personally, rather than impersonally as “clients” on a bus, as being “not at all typical” or “very much typical” of black people or white people seems somehow repulsive to me.

I don’t think that all studies of people’s attitudes are bogus, but where a study has questions with racist presuppositions, as this one did, one must at least question the methods used.And it reminds me that when I read things on the Internet that say “Studies say…” I must be careful, and perhaps even suspicious at a level of 8 or 9 on the scale of 0-9.

A book to give you an identity crisis, whether you need one or not

27 July 2019

HexwoodHexwood by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very weird and rather disjointed book.

It’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz to begin with. Ann Stavely goes for a walk in the woods and finds she isn’t in Kansas Hexwood Farm Estate, any more. There’s a wizard and a tin man and a boy.

It then gets a bit like The Time Traveler’s Wife, which may seem odd, because this book was published before that one, but that doesn’t matter, because with time travel anything is possible, including books published later influencing ones published earlier.

Add a bit of Malory and King Arthur and his knights of the round table, a rogue machine that thinks it’s the Holy Grail and a bunch of paranoid control freaks at the heart of the galaxy who think that there is a problem because the earth tail is wagging the galactic dog, Finally a cast of characters who aren’t who they or anyone else thinks they are, and you have a plot that’s enough to give you an identity crisis, whether you need one or not.

I’d just finished reading The Zahir, (see my review here) where the author/protagonist recommends erasing your personal history and starting again, and the characters in this book do that several times over so that none of them lasts long enough for you to get to like them or hate them before they become someone (and in some cases something) else.

A week ago I listened to someone talking about identity politics. I’m still thinking about that and wondering if I should blog about it. But these two books perhaps add something to the mix, something more to think about.

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Reflections on Nelson Mandela Day

18 July 2019

Today is Nelson Mandela Day and I’m spending 67 minutes preparing and writing this blog post.

One of the things the self-styled “mainstream” media were doing 25 years ago, just after Nelson Mandela had become South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, was saying that the ANC must make the transition from being a liberation movement to being a regular political party.

And now, 25 years later, I think that we can safely say that the ANC has made that transition, though I do not think the ANC, or South Africa are any better off as a result.

One thing I am fairly certain of is that if Nelson Mandela were to stand for election as president of the ANC today he wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of being elected, because the ANC is no longer a liberation movement, but a regular political party. Nelson Mandela became leader of the ANC precisely because it was a liberation movement and not a political party.

Leading a liberation movement and leading a regular political party require completely different sets of skills.

To lead a liberation movement one needs, first of all a vision of and a commitment to liberation, and an ability to inspire other people to pursue and achieve that goal.

To lead a political party one needs the skills of building alliances and a personal support base, One needs to have something to offer people in return for political support. One needs skill in political wheeling and dealing. One needs the will and resources to reward supporters and punish detractors.

Nelson Mandela did not have the skills needed to lead a political party. He did have the skills needed for leading a liberation movement.

The leader of a political party needs the skills to put down the opposition, both personal and to the party.

Nelson Mandela’s leadership was inclusive. As the leader of a liberation movement he sought to include people in a government of national unity. This inclusiveness is not merely characteristic of a liberation movement, it is also part of the concept of ubuntu, the principle of valuing all human beings.

Back in 1994 the Democratic Party, led by Tony Leon, was the biggest opposition party, and it saw its job as to oppose anything, good or bad, done by the Government of National Unity (GNU). It was a regular political party, and not a liberation movement. In its whiteness, it did not understand or appreciate the inclusiveness of ubuntu. I wonder if the subsequent history of South Africa might have been different if the Democratic Party had embraced ubuntu and joined the GNU. Its failure to do so enabled outfits like Bell Pottinger to spread their narrative of White Monopoly Capital and to portray the crony capitalism of the Zuptas as “Radical Economic Transformation”.

And the “mainstream” media also helped this process along. In their reporting they emphasised personalities rather than policies. It was always a matter of who was being supported by whom rather than what they were supporting. And that kind of reporting encouraged the kind of wheeling and dealing rivalry that belonged to regular political parties rather than the inclusiveness and ubuntu of a liberation movement. At one point we got so sick of the personality cults in the Sunday Independent that we switched to City Press as our Sunday newspaper of choice, but it wasn’t long before they too were engaging in the same personality over policy reporting. Now we hardly buy Sunday newspapers at all.

Nelson Mandela, they say, showed the difference between a politician and a statesman. And that is perhaps also related to the difference between a political party and a liberation movement.


On reading unbelievably bad books

9 July 2019

Odtaa.Odtaa. by John Masefield
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I actually read this book twice, even though I thought it was one of the worst books I had ever read.

I read it the second time just to see if it was as bad as I thought it the first time, and it was. The blurb made it sound interesting, but it simply did not live up to the blurb. There are a few books i have read that have been unbelievably bad — so bad that i could not believe they were as bad as I thought they were, and I’ve read two of them twice because I didn’t think they could really be as bad as i thought they were, but they actually were, and I must resist the temptation to read them yet again to see if they were really that bad.

The other one I read twice was The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard. and another, which I’ve so far resisted the temptation to re-read, is Tehanu by Ursula le Guin. I had read the Earthsea Trilogy a couple of times and enjoyed it, so when I saw The Earthsea Quartet I bought it and re-read the first three books. Somehow on the third reading they didn’t seem quite as good as they had the first time I had read them. but the fourth book, Tehanu, was utterly boring. Like Odtaa it seemed to be just one damn thing after another.

Odtaa is about dictator in a Latin American country (fictitious) who proclaimed that he was God. It is strange that all British novels about dictatorship are extreme and far-fetched, like George Orwell’s 1984, or Huxley’s Brave new world, or the book I read just before reading Odtaa, Mandrake by Susan Cooper. Cooper’s book was actually OK, only I’ve never seen another copy of it since I first read it. It is a kind of fantasy/sf dystopian novel about apartheid in England, where the government tries to force everyone to go back to their “homelands”.

Perhaps these books exaggerate to make the point more strongly, or perhaps it is just that they have no real conception of living in a dictatorship at all. They miss completely the ordinariness of it, the complacency of the people, the acceptance of the situation as part of everyday life. They show the ordinary people as the unconditioned, who become aware of the dictatorship, while those who accept the status quo are presented as being in some way extraordinary.

I wrote the previous two paragraphs when I was in the UK, just after reading Odtaa for the first time. That was in 1966, when South Africa was still in the throes of apartheid and Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, had just been assassinated, with the prospect of Vorster, the man who turned South Africa into a police state, taking over as prime minister (which he did).

The Crystal World, like Odtaa, has no real plot, and the characters have no real motivation or goals. It too is just “one damn thing after another”.

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